Interview: Chicago Pastor Daniel Hill on Getting White Awake

How do you get people to understand that a critique of whiteness is not necessarily an attack on White people?

That’s sort of been my experience. For White folks trying to engage with this stuff that’s probably the single most important milestone they have to cross through or the jump they have to make, is to be able to differentiate the critique of the kind of system that promotes these messages versus the White individuals who are just as beloved by God as anybody else is. That seems like it should be an easy delineation to make but because the stuff comes across as big and scary oftentimes, that distinction is not even being made, so it does sound, unfortunately, to people like an attack on White individuals.

I think, to reference a biblical idea, the battle is never against flesh and blood. Ultimately, it’s against principalities and powers. The enemy is not White people. If the enemy is White people, I think we all lose. I think that just recreates all different kinds of problems. It’s one reason why I do appreciate Bryan Stevenson’s terminology of the narrative of racial difference. I think of the Zora Neale Hurston quote. She said the best way to make a common friend is to have a common enemy. I think if White people are the common enemy, we can’t have common friends. But if the system that says White is more valuable is a common enemy, then we can all align around saying that’s evil and destructive for all of us and we need to uproot (it) in every way we can.

I’ve certainly had many folks who are not able to make the distinction but the good news is I’ve found lots of people are able to and that feels like a real breakthrough moment, once someone goes, “Oh right, this isn’t an attack on me. This thing that is evil and wrong puts me at risk like it puts other people at risk. We’ve all got our own recovery and liberation process that is necessary. So my own liberation is not only bound to the liberation of others, but I’m literally oppressed in my own kind of way by this ideology and I, too need to get free of it.” I’m thankful for the many stories I have seen where people have been able to differentiate that. I think that’s probably the first big key move that has got to happen for a White individual if they’re gonna (make) any kind of significant contribution or (be an) ally in combating some of this stuff.

In the seven stages of the cultural identity process, you mention “encounter” as a starting point and “active participation” as the final stage. Why are these two parts of the process so important?

If it’s true that the narrative of racial difference is one of the primary ways that the evil of the race (concept) plays itself out—which I believe it is—if I can get somebody to agree with that, it would then hopefully make some logical sense that what’s evil about that is that it says whiteness is more valuable and everything else is less valuable. Most White people are not going to have ever been conscious of that system growing up because they were never hearing overt hateful messages saying “you’re less than because of your racial background.” Therefore, I think that’s one of the primary ways in which privilege manifests itself. It’s not in anything that somebody did wrong, but you’re almost incapable of seeing the world through the eyes of oppression… Certainly someone could experience it along another axis, it could be upon gender or socio-economics or human sexuality or something, but in terms of the racial system that says White is more valuable, everything else is less valuable, it’s just almost literally impossible for a White person to see that without them having some kind of an encounter.

I think at a spiritual level, it requires God to reveal that to us. But I think at a social level, we’ve got to begin to see (it). We’re all wired to defend and hope for the best and paint a rosier picture, so it’s kind of a natural inclination for people to assume that the world is a kinder or more equal place than it actually is. I think there have to be encounters where we see—oftentimes it’s a loved one, sometimes it can happen through news and media—but where we can see systems or structures that are operating off of this valuation of human delineation and want to begin to see that. That can kind of create a discomfort that leads to a quest to understand how we got to where we are.

So there must be some possible dangers in these seven stages of the process. For example, if someone gets stuck at “denial” or sinks too deep into “shame.”

Sometimes the pain is too great and we get stuck in denial. I think the shame one is huge. I think once we start to see things for what they are, it’s just really easy to fall into a sinkhole. I’ve heard so many White people say, “I don’t even want to be White anymore. I don’t want to associate with anything White. I don’t want to go to a White church.” There’s like, this monumental over-correction where they’re just so ashamed of their cultural heritage that they just want to disassociate from it and kind of make the pain a little bit easier. I don’t think that’s helpful at all.

I think the self-righteous stage is one I see often, too. I reference Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s work (in White Awake)—she’s the one who originally coined the term “white fragility.” She comes at it from a secular perspective, but I think it matches very closely the teaching of Jesus on the dangers of self-righteousness when she talks about how that for a lot of us who are White, the way we best make sense of things is we say there are good White people who are on the right side of this and there are bad White people who are on the wrong side of this. We end up investing enormous amounts of energy into proving that we’re part of the group that’s the good White people and we’re therefore seeking acceptance and validation, and then we demonize people that are the bad White people. She would say, and I would agree, that’s actually totally destructive because it doesn’t do anything to help things. It just makes it sound that the problem of race is found in a small number of people who do bad things, and if we could just get everybody to stand on the good side of it the world would be a better place.

In actuality, I don’t think that’s what the problem is at all. I think there’s this deeper system and this set of lies. The point isn’t to prove we’re good White people. I think the point is to acknowledge this deep sickness that’s in our veins and go on a journey to try and get free and liberated from it. I find the self-righteousness stage to be a real pitfall for people as well.

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    Written by Nicola A. Menzie

    Nicola A. Menzie is Managing Editor of Faithfully Magazine. Nicola is a religion reporter in NYC whose bylines have appeared on the websites of the Religion News Service, The Christian Post, CBS News and Vibe magazine. You can find her on Twitter @namenzie. Email: nicola.menzie (at) faithfullymagazine.com.

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