In Fall 2017, Faithfully Magazine interviewed Daniel Hill about his book White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White. Now, after years engaging with White Christians to help them embark on their own racial and cultural awakening, Hill has published White Lies: Nine Ways to Expose and Resist the Racial Systems That Divide Us.
Hill, the founding pastor of River City Community Church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, gives his readers a sequel to White Awake with practical steps to confront white supremacy.
Faithfully Magazine spoke to Hill by phone, and the transcript below was edited for clarity.
Three years ago, you published your book White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White. Clearly, White Lies is meant to be a sequel of sorts to White Awake. How does White Lies build upon White Awake?
White Awake was really designed for White Christians who are at the beginning stages of racial awakening, where they’re starting to realize that race and white supremacy are real, that they are some kind of a threat to society, but don’t really know exactly what to do next and don’t know how to understand it. I think the assumption of White Awake is that the ideology of white supremacy is not difficult to understand. But, because White people are so profoundly conditioned to ignore it, dismiss it, and talk themselves around it, when a White person tries to grapple with white supremacy, there’s just all internal, self-sabotage things that happen even almost outside of our own control. They’re just a result of the conditioning process. White Awake is really designed to be a companion guide to the White Christian who’s wanting to push into the racial awakening journey and take that seriously.
White Awake is very identity heavy. It’s trying to build off of the orthodox assumption within Christian circles that for all Christians, our primary identity should be rooted in who we are in Christ. But it’s trying to make the case that the messaging around white supremacy is one of the primary distortions to who we’re created to be in Christ. White supremacy has uniquely distorting messages that say you’re better than or superior to others in a way that disrupts and distorts the identity process that we’re supposed to be finding within Christ.
So, it’s very heavy on identity language, as well as trying to frame a “white liberation journey,” so to speak. I’m not trying to say that White people are oppressed, but I mean “white liberation journey” in the sense that as long as we’re bound by the messaging of white supremacy, we’re not free to be who we’re meant to be in Christ. If I would say where I want somebody to be at the end of White Awake is that they would say that to love Jesus is to hate white supremacy. I can’t be a faithful follower of Christ without absolutely hating white supremacy and doing everything I know how to resist, confront, and uproot the ideology and system of white supremacy.
That’s what I imagined to be the starting point of White Lies then. If somebody got to that point where they can say that to love Jesus is to hate white supremacy, then what happens next after that for a White person? And that’s where the nine practices of White Lies are designed around in order to practice resistance against white supremacy on a daily basis, to help people keep going forward in the journey.
Usually challenges from the outside can hone or sharpen our convictions and ideas. Are there circumstances or arguments that you’ve encountered in the past three years that have evolved your thinking about white supremacy, racism, and white nationalism?
That’s a really insightful question. I intentionally stayed off the radar on this. I was not trying to be the White guy who talks about race. But at the behest of my mentors like the Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, they said, “Hey, we could really use your help to more clearly articulate your own journey on this so that we can have some tools to give White folks.” After that, I started getting asked a lot to come in to White institutions, schools, and stuff like that. I worked out a deal with our [church] elders where, once a month, I could take a trip, to a place, school, or church to work with them. That was a really unique opportunity.
Almost always I would get invited by a White school or White church, but usually they’d be just far enough along that they had hired their Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) person, almost always a person of color that didn’t have any institutional authority. Honestly, probably 95 percent of the time it was a Black woman doing this at these White Evangelical institutions. It was unusual that no matter whether it was down in Texas or over in California or over in the East Coast, the starting point would be very similar, where they basically would say, “I’m exasperated. I’m trying my best to move this thing. But I just keep hitting roadblock after roadblock. Can you come in and partner with me to help me figure out how to keep moving this thing?” So it was a real learning opportunity for me to be able to come into these different spaces and see what these very gifted leaders who had taken on ungodly kind of tasks trying to move these White-dominant organizations.
I did learn a lot, and the thing that’s the sharpest of all sounds so basic; I should have been able to say it already. But it didn’t become really clear until I started visiting all these places: there is no environment in the United States that’s more difficult to talk about white supremacy than in White Evangelical spaces! White Evangelical spaces are literally the most hostile environment in the entire country to try to have honest dialogue about the reality of white supremacy, the threat levels to Christianity, to society, and to our own individual identity.
I’ve been in multiple businesses and multiple nonprofits. There’s just no environment more difficult, more hostile to this. This college, this church, this whatever — they can have a “Tell the Truth Sunday” on sanctity of life, the dangers of pornography and sex trafficking, and just about any subject matter. But, as soon as it comes to having a “Tell the Truth Sunday” on white supremacy, you’re going to risk a church split, you’re going to risk a budget crisis, you’re going to risk torrents of angry letters. White Christians are willing to take on tough truth conversations in just about any other subject matter, but when it comes to white supremacy, you realize, as I mention in White Lies, that there’s a much stronger kind of supernatural component to it. The evil one is really behind all of this. When it comes to white supremacy, there’s just an instantaneous kind of meltdown that happens — a resistance, a defensiveness, and an unwillingness to have these basic conversations, even when they’re biblically based.
So that was the biggest “aha” to me. I feel in a lot of ways, the pinnacle of White Lies is the simplest but the most important chapter called “Tell the Truth.” Something basic as telling the truth about white supremacy will get most White leaders fired still in the United States at this point that we’re in now, if they have real honest dialogue about it. My experience gave me a new appreciation for what the difficulty level is in trying to move these White Christian spaces.
In White Lies, you spend a good deal of time talking about some buzz words like “woke” and how they can actually create more hurdles than less for White Christians. Can you talk more about that and why it’s important?
“It’s possible to] become the obnoxious White person who’s still as ignorant and still perpetuates white supremacy, but now does it with the sense of feeling like they have a badge that says, ‘I’m woke.'”
Once some White Christians begin the racial awakening journey, there’s a very pharisaical, self-righteous mantle that gets picked up almost instantly, with the notion being, if I used to be ignorant and behind, then what I need to do is be “woke” in the head. Because this is such a scary subject matter, there’s this kind of profound internal desire to be crowned as established as quickly as possible, to begin from the mantle of “I get it, I’m on the right side.” So the learning journey very quickly moves towards “What are the markers of wokeness that prove I’m one of the good White people who get it? How do I distance myself from all those ‘Trumpers’ who don’t get it?” All the precious energy gets applied to a question of how do I establish myself as “woke?” I see it over and over again. I think if we’re not deliberate upfront to recognize the trappings of that, I think we’ve just become the obnoxious White person who’s still as ignorant and still perpetuates white supremacy, but now does it with the sense of feeling like they have a badge that says, “I’m woke.” We have so many good Christian resources on that, on the dangers of self-righteousness, even though those who use the term “woke” aren’t thinking of it as being self-righteous.
But, there’s a redemptive part to “woke.” We want people to be socially conscious. We want people to understand what they don’t understand. That’s why I try to make a little bit of a delineation between an ongoing blindness as this journey versus trying to establish woke credentials and finding an internal security by figuring out how to prove that I’m the one who gets it and knowing what separates me from the ones who don’t get it. And I see that everywhere I go. Most White people who are awakened, that’s what they’re looking for, the credentials to say they get it and they’re on the right side of this thing.
“Diversity” is also a buzzword that White Evangelical Christians will offer as a solution for addressing the segregation issue. Why is it a problem to see diversity as the solution?
In the book, I tried to introduce the term “theory of change” for those who haven’t heard it. That’s a pretty common term in the nonprofit world. Not as much in the church world. When we started our nonprofit and had a consultant come, the first thing they said to us is, “You need to be clear on what’s the problem you’re trying to address.” And then, “What do you think you’re going to do that uniquely addresses it?”
Using that same thing, I think there’s this unspoken assumption of White spaces. It’s actually individual as much as institutional. When a White individual realizes that their whole friendship network is White, their solution statement, their theory of change, is, “I need to have Black friends” or “I need to have friends of color in my life.” Diversity is seen as the solution. It happens all the time in churches. There’s an Angela Davis quote where she says, “Why would we want Black people to go into spaces that are still dominated by white supremacy?” It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Diversity is like a death sentence if the space that they’re coming into hasn’t addressed the toxic reality of white supremacy.
That’s the bottom line. What we’re up against isn’t segregation. That’s a symptom of the disease. The disease is white supremacy, not segregation. So any space that are particularly serious about this won’t deal with the symptoms of segregation; we’ll deal with the disease of white supremacy.
In a perfect world, it’s actually easier to deal with the disease of white supremacy with a diverse leadership team. Certainly a diverse team of people is much better equipped to deal with the disease than an all-White team. But if you try to build diversity and don’t deal with the disease, I actually think you’ve done more damage than help to it, because now the disease just gets to live unchecked. We can think that we’re diverse enough that we don’t have to deal with the disease of white supremacy anymore.
I actually think that one of the most dangerous things you can find is not a White church that won’t talk about white supremacy. It’s a diverse church that won’t talk about white supremacy. At least within an all White church, once it gets started, the homogeneity becomes an advantage for a period of time because you can have really directed conversations within the White community. When you build a diverse church that refused to talk about white supremacy, that thing’s hard to move once it gets to form. So, diversity is powerful if it’s used for the purposes of attacking white supremacy. But if it becomes an end instead of a means to an end, it actually becomes just one more tool to advance white supremacy.
As a pastor in ministry, have you seen any significant generational shifts in terms of anti-racism? What do you think about these trends?
I think, to me, there would be no question that the awareness level is exponentially high with each generation. When you get the kids coming into college right now, that’s all they know is Black Lives Matter and #MeToo and LGBTQ+ equality. These are all just normalized. You’re totally out of it if you’re not supportive of all of those movements. So I would certainly recognize a monumental kind of shift from when I was in college and the conversation we had. I’d say that continues to trend in a positive direction, just in terms of the normalization of these topics and subject matters.
I think there’s risks that come with that, too. It’s a different derivative of the same kind of conversation about the dangers of being woke. The generational risk is that you’re almost born into this kind of wokeness and inoculated from the like real savage realities of white supremacy. Particularly for White folks and White-adjacent folks, it’s very rare that the folks who are born into that kind of wokeness environment do deep self-interrogation around the ongoing impact of white supremacy.
I have this conversation all the time: “Which group is harder to work with, the progressives or the conservatives?” The progressives think they know everything already. This kind of sense that they get it totally disables them from doing serious internal self-interrogation. It actually ends up being much more difficult to reveal the impact of white supremacy for self-anointed enlightened folks than it is for those who are just outright ignorant.
I still think there’s real significant challenges in terms of recognizing that the cure to white supremacy is not learning the lingo about it. That’s a starting point. That’s an important thing. I think we’ve seen this in all the activism circles, too. I think there’s a generational gap between the young ones who see a lot of this more clearly, but there’s kind of a deep division that’s happened between the old heads who lived this stuff and the young ones who have the lingo for it. We all need each other. There’s real value and beauty to multi-generational activism.