White Lies: Nine Ways to Expose and Resist the Racial Systems That Divide Us
Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
Three years ago Daniel Hill produced White Awake, an essential work for anyone (particularly anyone white) seeking insight into racial injustice, whiteness, and privilege. Hill didn’t simply theorize race; he walked readers through his own processes of discovery, humbly revealing his errors and misunderstandings along the way. A pastor, Hill tied his learning to scripture, finding the Biblical grounding for how we think about our identity and how we can move forward. By the end of the book, he’d promoted compelling ideas that did as much to ask important questions as they did to raise settled answers.
In 2017, it felt like the US might have hit some sort of floor in race relations. The disproportionate killing of black men by police provided steady headlines and our country felt more politically divided than it had been in decades. Since then, we’ve discovered that we still had a way to go before we reached the floor. As I write this review, the White House has directed federal agencies to not do any race-based training sessions (just the sort of thing that Hill does for churches and other institutions). The directive possibly misses the point of such programs, finding them to be divisive rather than being a positive step toward inclusion. Daniel Hill’s new book White Lies couldn’t have come at a better time.
To be clear, and Hill makes this point explicitly, the book works best for those who have already ready or largely agree with White Awake. This new book doesn’t introduce ideas of white privilege or white supremacy so much as it provides guidance in thinking about how to move forward as an ally or even to think more precisely. Hill explains that he builds on his former as he “move[s] much deeper into the conversation of how white Christians can position ourselves to actively participate in the resistance and confrontation of white supremacy” (8). If his previous book was an introductory course, this one is the next semester’s curriculum.
Hill builds his book on nine practices that we can implement in our lives that can enable better reconciliation. These practices typically connect to misconceptions that we have. Hill is able – largely through his appreciation of his own teachers – to explain how the false conclusions we’ve come to can inhibit true inclusion. He then moves to show how correcting these ideas can guide us toward healthier practices, whether in our individual lives, as part of church life, or in a given institution. Some of these practice sound obvious (but come with hidden depths); others are more surprising. Some have their source clearly in scripture while others work logically to implement a Biblical worldview. Hill’s intended audience seems to be, again, white people looking to become allies and needing productive, functional ways to do so.
Hill puts a foundational practice first, phrased in a way to cause a jolt of reality: “Stop Being Woke” (14). This idea immediately undermines some of our false suppositions. Hill points out that although white people can be well-read on race and have a solid understanding of the history of the topic, they won’t have the same lived experience as people of color, so there will exist a gap in the conversation. He writes, “I think most of us carry this fantasy that if we take the racial awakening journey seriously enough – if we read the right articles, study the right history books, listen to the right podcasts – we will eventually land at an arrival point where we can exhale and join the ranks of other woke white allies. It’s a fantastical place where all major lessons have already been learned” (26). In this magical place, we understand fully and our learning journey is over. The idea betrays a lack of humility and an unwillingness to recognize the racialized culture we’ve been raised in.
Getting ourselves out of our “woke” mindset and gearing up to learn and actually be an ally sets the foundation for the rest of the book. It opens our ears to what we need to hear, and our hearts to recognize that we need to hear it. From there Hill moves to address the question central to his writing: “Once a white person becomes convicted about the realities of racial injustice, what is the best way to become an active participant in confronting them?” (31). The other eight chapters, even when ostensibly standard fare like honesty and repentance, serve to disorient and then refocus. For example, Hill explains that we should be wary of diversity. The word makes for an easy tag for a company moving forward and a nice train for a one-hour training session, but it doesn’t address key problems. Hill points out, “Segregation was a symptom of a much larger issue,” and we need to treat the disease itself (34). “[A]ddressing diversity without confronting white supremacy does not achieve the desired result,” he writes (36). Indeed, simply shooting for basic objective standards can be a simple and superficially satisfying way to skip over the roots of the problem.
Hill likens this problem to a gardener who pulls weeds without getting the roots and then watches the weeds grow back. He wants us to get into the soil, as challenging as that might be, to do the real work that needs to be done. He asks us to address the central narrative, to consider how the history we’ve told links to the injustice we see today. He encourages us to interrogate power, including our own. He asks us to risk and, knowing the danger, to fear not.
The work doesn’t stray from its Christian grounding. When Hill considers the High Priestly Prayer in the book of John, he notes not only the presence of evil in the world, but also the call for the disciples to remain in it. “This prayer in John 17 was just one more reminder,” he writes. “For the disciples, following Jesus wasn’t going to take them out of the cosmic fight; it was going to send them deeper in” (234, italics in the original). The practices Daniel Hill presents in White Lies don’t simply serve a worldly justice. They remind us of who God is, how He sees us, and our call to take part in His mission on earth, in all its form. To participate in that mission, we need to turn to the truth – no matter how difficult the process – and reject lies, whether they’re big ones or white ones. Or both.
Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.