Summary: The nature of what it means to be White in American, especially as a Christian, is not looked at nearly enough.
When I was thinking about graduate school I made a conscious decision that I wanted to be challenged in my faith and culture and that I did not want to go to an Evangelical seminary. That was helped by the fact that there were very few options for the type of program that I was looking for. The University of Chicago was one of about six schools in the country that had a program for a dual masters with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Social Work (officially it is a Masters in Social Service Administration, but it is an MSW equivalent).
That decision was made in large part because I had an undergrad degree from Wheaton College. I grew up in a solidly Evangelical wing of the Baptist world and I was comfortable in my theology. I didn’t need more Evangelical theology and experience, I needed to experience the church beyond the Evangelical world.
Going to University of Chicago was a very good decision. I know I could get more out of my education if I were more mature with more life experience. But at the time, being exposed to other sincere Christians that were Catholic, mainline, and even one classmate that was a non-theistic Unitarian expanded my view of the church.
I still clearly remember a class while I was in the School of Social Work on race and ethnicity. The professor talked about how we often do not understand our culture until we are separated from it. If you are from the South and move to the Northeast, you will understand parts of what it means to be Southern that you did not understand before. This similar to getting married. What you assumed was true of every family, becomes clear that it was unique about your family.
I did not at the time think of the lesson primarily through the lens of Whiteness, but through the lens of my Evangelical-ness. While at Wheaton I was not completely comfortable describing myself as Evangelical because of some of the nuances of what that meant in that location. But at University of Chicago I claimed Evangelical much more clearly because it was a unique category. I wanted to be Evangelical there because of the many misunderstandings of what Evangelical meant to my non-Evangelical classmates. All groups have nuance and often those outside the group only see the stereotype, not the nuance.
White Away: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White is a very helpful look at the category of whiteness as a Christian. Part of the reality of the United States is that most White people are mostly around White people. We may have one friend that is a person of color. But most of us do not have a wide network of non-white friends and business associates. Most White people live in communities that are predominately White and go to churches that are predominately White and work at jobs with predominately White co-workers.
That is much less likely to be true of non-White Americans because of simple demographics. Most non-White Americans have to interact with people of different cultures, races and ethnicities on a daily basis and therefore have a much better idea of other cultures and racial groups than what most White people have of non-White cultures and racial groups.
This is a very long introduction to White Awake, but I wrote it to say that I am not unacquainted with the concept of exploring my racial identity. I have spent a significant amount of time over the past year reading other books about racial conflict or history of that conflict in the United States. But still, White Awake is a very helpful book. There are a few ‘dumb White guy’ examples that I think might be off putting to some. But the larger context is that Daniel Hill has been attempting to come to terms with what it means to be a White Christian church leader in a multi-cultural world for a while. It is a task that is not ever completely finished because our culture and position in that culture is continually shifting.
I think White Awake is helpful in the context of two additional books. One is also by Intervarsity and was released last spring, The Myth of Equality by Ken Wytsma. Wytsma focuses on the concept of White Privilege and gives mini-history of how we came to be in this place with commentary about theology and church culture and how those can actually make the problems of White privilege worse.
The second complementary book is The End of White Christian America by Robert Jones. This is a book primarily about demographics. Jones is the head of a polling firm that focuses on religious polling. There are lots of numbers, but the short version is that White (Protestant) American used to be demographically and culturally dominant. It will remain culturally dominant for a while longer, but demographically, it is no longer dominant. In 2014, more non-White babies were born in the US than White babies. My suburban county is still predominately White, but the schools shifted to a slightly larger non-White population about 2 years ago. That shift is happening throughout the United States, even though many communities will continue to be predominately White for decades to come. Yesterday new polling from Jones’ company showed that White Christians are now 43% (down from 70% in the 1970s). I believe, and much of Jones’ book is about, the conflict that is generated because White Christians (particularly Protestants) are no longer as dominant.
What is important about White Awake is that Hill focuses on separating being White (who we were created to be) from normalizing White culture as dominant. Being White is not a sin or something to be repented from. But the culture of Whiteness as dominant and demeaning of other cultures is sinful. We can only come to understand the difference between the two as we come to understand White culture in relationship to other cultures in the US. We can learn a lot about this from books, movies, tv and other arts. But actually hearing it from people we are in relationship to is essentially to moving form a theoretical idea of understanding Whiteness to a repentant attitude of understanding how we are complicit (even when we do not want to be) in a culture that over values Whiteness and harms non-White people.
White Awake is a book I would like to go through with a small group. I have done a lot of background reading and processing prior to reading it, but it still challenged me significantly. I am sure a second reading and discussion would challenge me even more.