Book Review: White Awake by Daniel Hill

White AwakeIn the past decade of working with college students, one of the most common resources I’ve scoured the internet trying to find is a simple guide for white students desiring to better understand their ethnic identity and their role in the work of justice. There are lots of great resources out there but many are either too dated to be relevant to the Trump era or too academic to be immediately actionable.

I’m happy to report that I have finally found a book to buy in bulk for intrepid students and friends for the next decade. Pastor Daniel Hill’s book, White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White (IVP), engages academia while remaining approachable, acknowledges deeper spiritual realities while remaining practical, and roots itself in the Gospel and in Scripture while pressing us beyond the walls of the church building. It is the whole package given to us in under 200 pages – exactly what I am looking for.

Following a few introductory chapters to lay some necessary groundwork, Hill’s book is structured around seven clearly defined stages of white identity. You might think of them as signposts along the way, letting you know the lay of the land at each stage and giving the necessary guidance to make it through the next leg of the journey. At each stop, he engages with Scripture, relevant social science theory, and compelling personal narratives to guide the reader into understanding. The book wraps with well-written discussion questions that make me itch to get a group of friends together to discuss it.

The Good & The Quotable:

Beyond the personal challenge that this book was for me (the chapter on Self-Righteousness is heavily underlined in my copy – ouch), one of my favorite things about this book is its pacing. That may sound strange but Hill manages to avoid several tropes of the “popular ministry handbook” genre that left me feeling pleasantly surprised at the end of each chapter by its clarity and sharpness.

Here is one brief example to illustrate my point: it’s common in books like these to introduce a theoretical framework or ministry model (“Seven Stages of White Identity”) and then brazenly attempt to overlay that concept onto a biblical narrative, suggesting that there is a character or story in the Bible that perfectly embodies the journey you desire your readers to take.

It would not have been hard to imagine Hill finding a character with cultural power (Peter in Acts 10, Moses in Exodus, Esther) and then attempting to mine these seven stages out of their story. Trust me – I have read dozens of books like this and the hermeneutical gymnastics eat up so much page space and attention capital that whatever point the authors gets easily lost in the shuffle for a critical reader.

Mercifully, Hill’s book engages with Scripture responsibly and appropriately for each stage. Instead of beating up a passage of the Bible to justify his eloquent theory, Hill saves some of his most poignant writing for his unpacking of the biblical narrative. I promise you will never read the stories of Matthew and Nicodemus, among others, in the same way again.

I could go on but let me just share from the author’s own voice a few of my favorite quotes:

“The theology passed on to us from white forefathers is considered to be the normal, default standard for theology. It is the assumed cultural norm. Everyone else’s theology is defined in relation to whiteness.” (33)

“We are traumatized, and we are therefore in denial. Acknowledging that all our land was stolen from Native people feels like too great a burden, so we create an alternative reality that allows us to disengage emotionally from the truth” (73)

“Why does God ask traumatized people to look at the trauma they initiated through their sin and rebellion? For the same reason God asks us to: it is the truth and we are free only when we lift up the truth” (77)

“A good way to think of it is that conversion gives us the ability to begin divesting ourselves from the grips of white superiority” (97)

“That’s why I’ve come to believe that a white person’s reaction to the term white supremacy is the most tangible sign to his or her being awake or not” (148)

“We come to terms with the fact that we were steered as young people toward ‘good’ school districts, ‘good’ neighborhoods, ‘good’ universities, and ‘good’ jobs. We didn’t have the eyes to see it then, and we now realize that ‘good’ was the politically safe way to say ‘white.’ This normalization of the goodness of whiteness has led to a lack of diverse experience and we realize it has shaped us as white people in a very specific and unique way.” (150)

“To be a white person in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of lament almost all the time.” (158)

“It may not seem like the most enticing work, but engaging with the white people in our extended community is one of the most concrete ways to make a difference” (175)

The Transferable:

There are a number of easily transferable tools for leaders and practitioners that Hill gives throughout the book. The seven stage framework itself is a goldmine for those of us in the business of discipling white people through their identity development. However, perhaps the most impactful tool for me, personally, was the first one mentioned.

Hill notes that he was challenged early on in his journey by a older leader of color to inventory four groups of voices in his life:

  1. His closest friends
  2. The mentors he looked to for guidance
  3. The preachers/teachers/theologians he relied on for spiritual guidance
  4. The authors of the books he was reading

The exercise was simply to list them and then take note of the cultural backgrounds they represented. I believe this exercise would be provocative and convicting enough for 90% of white folks to decide they need to take greater ownership over their journey toward awakening and active participation in God’s shalom in the world.

Who Should Read This:

I legitimately believe every white Christian should own, read, and discuss this book in 2018. In fact, for any of my local friends who are reading this, I will put my money where my mouth is. If you promise to read this book in 2018, I will buy and deliver a copy for the first five people to comment either here or on my Instagram feed. I hope this leads to some great conversations and real change for all of us.

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