|White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White|
by Daniel Hill
What brought me to this book?
White Awake was one of the first books in my journey to be more educated on racial reconciliation in the United States. I first heard about it when the author, Daniel Hill, was invited to speak at my church by their Ministry of Racial Justice and Reconciliation. I had no clue what to expect, but I was intrigued by a book about race written by a white, Christian, male with the subtitle of "an honest look at what it means to be white." Although I trust my church, I don't blindly trust them and honestly, I was thinking the talk had the potential of going wrong. I'm not exactly sure how. Just wrong.
Other than Daniel speaking way too fast, it was a great night that helped light a fire in my heart to better educate myself on racism, especially as a white Christian in the US. I read White Awake twice (so far), and although I certainly haven't come close to mentally resolving all the issues around a multifaceted subject like racism, this book has helped begin an expedition that I believe I will continue for the rest of my life. It has led me to examine practically every thought I previously had on the subject, which, given my analytical mind, thoroughly exhausted me...seeing as concrete resolutions in my brain are hard to come by. But I owe it to my neighbor, myself, and my Christian beliefs to not shy away from such critical thinking just because it's hard on me. A little mental anguish is nothing compared to the inhumane racism that so many face every day.
Something I started during the second reading of this book, was a race journal. Somewhere that I could process my thoughts about racial topics, rather than have them ruminate in my brain day in and day out. Somewhere that I could safely work through concepts and questions without fear of saying the wrong thing or offending someone. After all, our society has become quick to demonize anyone who says anything remotely wrong. Although this can be understandable, the downside is that it can also create a fear in people's minds that keep them from engaging in genuine dialog with others...or themselves. People either remain stagnant in their thinking or blindly follow popular opinion without creating their own convictions, all because they're afraid of saying the wrong thing. But it was important for me to be able to look at my thoughts unabashedly and unfiltered; to make sure that I'm being honest with my feelings, my attitudes, and my beliefs. Unfortunately, so far, I haven't found many people I can have these candid conversations with and feel safe; not even with those I would have most expected to be able to. This journal, therefore, has been invaluable as I navigate through the rough terrain.
What did I think of the book (in a nutshell)?
As I said above, White Awake was my first thorough dive into race relations in the US and taught me a lot; much more than I could put in a quick book review. One of the most simple, yet interesting concepts presented is that race is a social construct - an idea created by humans, not God. Prior to slavery, white Europeans who settled in America were British, French, German, Irish, etc. Not white. But then slavery infected the US and Europeans began to identify as a collective, white - a group inherently superior to those of color. Like I said, such a simple and obvious concept (which is presented more thoroughly in the book), but one I had never thought about before, even though we talk about race every day in our society. I'll admit that I haven't fully worked out the ramifications of this idea in my mind yet, but I know that it's an important distinction for me.
Beyond educating me on the history of race, I appreciated how the author, as a white Christian doesn't shy away from pointing out the many theological and human errors white Christians made to justify and even promote slavery. How the more subtle roots of these egregious thoughts have followed us through the generations and helped create a normalization of white culture. As Hill describes it "white culture is the 'norm' by which all other cultural identities are evaluated [...] when we attempt to categorize culture internally, we almost always treat white culture as 'normal.' With white culture serving as the baseline, we then evaluate everyone else's culture based on the norms we associate with white culture." This plays a big role is the double-consciousness likely experienced by most people of color in America today. Hill calls this "two-ness" - "the experience of operating in one America that's white and one America that's black." These concepts need far more explanation than this to be fully understood and are better explained in the book, but I bring them up here as notions that I'm still contemplating and have opened my mind and eyes even further.
The concept that has had the most impact on me, though, is the author's definition of white privilege - simply, "the ability to walk away." As Hill writes, "When the journey begins to feel like any combination of scary, confusing, disorienting, or even painful, we have a privilege that people of color do not: we can walk away; we can go back to 'normal,' if we choose." I appreciated this definition quite a bit, because I've definitely felt each of these emotions - scared, confused, disoriented, and pained - in this racial journey of mine. And, honestly, I have very often felt like giving up. Like I won't be able to figure it all out. Like I won't be able to make a difference. If I can't figure it out and I can't make a difference, why bother. I have thought about walking away more than I'd like to admit. And I know...I know that I can walk away, unscathed. That my life would continue on, like normal. And as I write this...that pains me. That fact brings me to tears. And that makes me determined to never walk away. I know I will fail to do as much as I can do at times. But I am committed to always keep standing and walking towards education, walking towards guidance from the Holy Spirit, walking towards love, walking towards compassion, walking towards reconciliation, walking towards justice, walking towards equality.
White Awake went into so much more than what is written above. In fact, these concepts are all found within the first few chapters of the book and probably only take up a combined total of 3 pages. Maybe I'll write a Part Two to discuss the other 180 pages someday. But these ideas, and the rest of the book, have begun a journey in me. Maybe they will in you too.
Overall, I fully recommend this book. Read it with an open mind and seeking heart. If Hill says something that bothers you, stop and question it. It's possible that it's just an idea you don't agree with and you can articulate why. It's also possible that it's something you need to wrestle with, in a safe and honest environment. Start a journal and/or call me up. I'd love to be someone you can talk openly with and feel safe. To be a listening ear; to be a supportive heart; to be a friend. Only together, with love, compassion, and support for everyone and their journey, will we grow.