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A Feature Review of
An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White
Paperback: IVP Books, 2017
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Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
CNN showed the terror happening in the park where I used to eat my lunch. It showed a man being beaten in the garage where I used to park for church. It showed a car attack on the street where I used to go for Chinese food and used books. My town Charlottesville turned into a danger zone before my eyes, and – while I was safely away on vacation – I tried to account for my friends who were downtown.
The events that happened last summer connect to public arguments over Confederate statues, similar to the debates taking place across the US South. The conversations after the tragedy of August 12 (and before that, during the previous election cycle) became more urgent, whether in home groups, bars, or Girl Scout meetings, or on social media. The urgency hasn’t helped the clarity; the same miscommunication continues, and the weight of the same conversations and same experience of talking past each other still lies heavy.
Central to the problem of this conversations is understanding how to talk about race. And not just race as a broad concept, but issues like white privilege, systemic injustice, and cultural differences. It’s tricky when you or your conversation partner is white. When your race has become the default status in mainstream culture, everything else is other, and everything else is different. Seeing and seeing through the color white isn’t easy, and explaining it is even harder.
That’s what makes Daniel Hill’s White Awake such a needed part of the public discussion (and the private one – it’s up to you if this book makes a great topic for book-club debate or just a passive-aggressive gift for that one uncle). Hill, a white pastor who’s explored these issues for years, brings a clarity and humility to his writing that allows him to challenge common perceptions without antagonizing his readers. His straightforward approach withholds nothing, yet it disarms defensive responses.
Part of this delivery comes from Hill’s humble approach to biography. He tells just enough details of his own journey to understand his perspective without eating into the meat of his arguments. He comes from a white place, full of white mistakes, and a resulting modesty. White Awake has plenty of ideas and answers, but it still asks questions.
Hill begins the work proper by considering what “identity” is. Amid some smart sociocultural analysis, he makes clear that the foundation of his work is the gospel, saying that “the Bible provides us with a unique and powerful motivation for pursuing wholesale, identity transformation in Christ” (41). The Christian church in the US has been fractured over race-related conversations, but Christians have particular reasons to change and grow, working with an awareness of their identity in Christ as well as a gospel-based understanding of how cultural identities play out.
From there, Hill can explain that his “book is built on seven stages … that mark the cultural identity process of a white person seeking transformation from blindness to sight” (49). While the stages – encounter, denial, disorientation, shame, self-righteousness, awakening, and active participation – are not truly part of a sequence, Hill structures his book with a logical ordering in mind (and placing encounter at the start of the process and participation at the end does make the most sense).
The chapter on encounter – a moment you experience and recognize race-based issues at work – prepares the ground for what follows. The sections on the social construction of race and the history white supremacy are concise but sufficient before Hill gets to the kicker: “We could view the narrative of racial difference from many theological angles, but at the top of the list is the way it denies the biblical understanding of what it means to be human” (59). The idea feels obvious, yet it speaks to problems still prevalent in our culture. As Hill proceeds, he gets into one of the key ideas frequently misunderstood: the idea that an early sin of a racist culture can lead to societal injustices that aren’t definable as individual acts of racism. We can point out when and individual does something specifically racist (such as using an epithet) but we sometimes miss the social structures that have arisen because of racism and perpetuate injustices without discrete acts of personal bigotry. He writes that “if our vision is limited to individual acts of racism, we are unable to understand both the world and ourselves” (61).
While Hill’s explanations here are sharp, his work would benefit from more time and more examples given to this topic. This idea seems to be one that white people often have the hardest time addressing – white cultural experience doesn’t lend itself to first-hand awareness of personal systemic discrimination. Hill makes wise points in this section, but he could have developed this idea further as an integral part of the larger argument he makes even if, admittedly, that might push beyond the scope of this particular text.
He moves through the other stages of this identity process smoothly, revisiting fundamental ideas about racial narratives and cultural identities while taking his reader through the causes and effects of denial, shame, and more. The interplay between the stages becomes significant, even as Hill isolates problems and opportunities unique to each stage, whether it be our lack of lament, our intellectual escape from trauma, or our low stamina. As we gain clearer vision on race, we also gain theological awareness. Hill states, “To be theologically awake … is also to embrace the fact that a spiritual rebirth ushers in the salvation of our souls and our participation in the redemption of the world. It is also to hold together activism and evangelism; protest and prayer; personal piety and social justice; intimacy with Jesus and proximity to the poor” (144). As the Spirit works within us, we find not only personal but also social ramifications to a transformed life.
With that in mind, it’s welcome to find that Hill’s final section offers suggestions for practical action. He has throughout the book, with a light touch acknowledging the primacy of this idea, resisted the idea that white people need to do something in response to their growing awareness of racial concerns. At the same time, theory without praxis only goes so far. Some of this chapter still suggests ways that, in some sense, further education on these matters. Hill knows that the path forward involves more questions, more conversations, and more varied reading. He doesn’t stop with that; he discusses ideas about leadership and service. These ideas coalesce somewhat in his point that we should “get proximate to suffering” (165). That point connects to previous work by Bryan Stevenson and Shane Claiborne and fits alongside current writing, like that of, say, Michelle Ferrigno Warren.
Hill’s presentation in White Awake could hardly be more valuable. It’s an accessible and needed work in the midst of one of the US’s (if not the global West’s) most demanding conversations. Hill translates his experiences and thinking into new ways for us to consider race, to understand both who to talk to and how to talk to them, and to explore how to act (and when not to). It’s a book by a white guy primarily for white people, and while it feels counterintuitive to feel like that kind of material should be a priority, Hill’s created something that, in certain circles, should become essential reading.
Justin Cober-Lake holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing has focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music. He’s also the co-founder of One Focus Press.