Blind But Now I See – A Review of Daniel Hill’s White Awake

Daniel Hill is part of a growing movement of evangelical pastors seeking to bring issues of race and justice to the forefront of evangelical consciousness. WhiteAwakeHis book White Awake is part personal narrative, part prescription for how white Christians can overcome their racial blindspots and work towards racial unity, both in society and in the church. While Hill’s sincerity, humility, and enthusiasm are palpable and while his goals are largely commendable, there are a number of underlying assumptions running through his work that should give readers pause. In particular, the ideology of critical theory surfaces at numerous points, in ways both obvious and subtle.

Strengths

The strongest aspect of White Awake is its author’s theological perspective. The sinfulness of racism is rooted in the equal value that all human beings possess as creatures made in the image of God (p. 59-61). Likewise, Christian identity is primarily found in Christ, not in our culture (p. 39-41). Hill understands that the core of the gospel is Jesus’ redemption of sinners and that all of us, whether male or female, black or white, need to be forgiven and transformed.

Hill’s desire for racial healing is also admirable. The church in the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world) has been undeniably fractured by racism, and many of us live day-to-day lives that are largely segregated by race. It is always appropriate for the church to ask how we can respond to these realities and work to display the unity that we have as Christians across lines of ethnicity, gender, wealth, and education.

Finally, Hill strikes me as a genuinely humble man who has learned a great deal and wants to share his experiences with others. He is transparent about his own struggles and strikes a pastoral rather than a polemical tone.

Weaknesses

The book’s fundamental problem is Hill’s view of ‘racial blindness.’ He writes: “The transformational metaphor of blindness-to-sight is used throughout the Bible… In this book, I’m going to rely heavily on this imagery to describe the cultural identity journey” (p. 23) and “The greatest problem of all [for whites is] our conditioned blindness… we are blind wanderers who need help to see a world that functions according to a different set of rules than what we’ve been raised with.” (p. 154). Whites refuse to accept the extent of racism and white supremacy because it is too painful: “it’s impossible to be complicit with centuries of traumatizing oppression without becoming traumatized oneself” (p. 72). Whites retreat from conversations about race because they have “little stamina for race-based stress.”(p. 90-91).

To overcome their blindness, whites are not in need of more evidence or a clearer argument. Instead, they need to be healed by Jesus: “It is particularly important for white Americans to approach this subject matter with the right goals in mind. Our goal must be sight. Our goal must be transformation. Our goal must be a renewed consciousness… we need a revelation from Jesus Christ in order to see what the kingdom of God is… Let’s pray like the blind man: ‘Lord, help me to see.'” (p. 23)

Four questions arise from this central thesis:

1. How do we handle disagreement?

First, Hill’s position seems to cut itself off from any critique. Imagine that a white person demurs at Hill’s claims about white psychology or the extent of white supremacy. What is the response? If Hill is correct about white racial blindness, then offering careful arguments to support his claims will be fruitless. The white person’s response is a defense mechanism deployed by a privileged person who is too fragile to face reality. They are still in Denial, the earliest stage of the racial awakening process for a white person who has encountered racism (p. 67-79). Not only does this stance become a “conversation stopper,” it also makes it difficult -if not impossible- for us to critically evaluate the views put forward by race scholars and activists. How do we know whether their arguments are unconvincing because they are objectively invalid or whether they have simply reached a higher plane of racial consciousness than we have?

2. Why only race?

Second, throughout his book, Hill cites the work of critical theorists and anti-racist educators like Robin DiAngelo and Beverly Tatum, who -like Hill- agree that systemic racism and white supremacy are deeply entrenched in the U.S. However, these authors don’t limit their critique to race, but also apply it to categories like gender and sexual orientation. If we accept their framework with regard to race, on what basis would we reject it when it comes to other social phenomena?

Hill reviews our country’s horrific racial past and cites modern racial disparities to conclude that white supremacy, racism, and slavery never really ended, but merely evolved. But wouldn’t it then be legitimate to review our country’s sordid history of female disenfranchisement, modern gender disparities, and rates of domestic abuse and conclude that our culture is still dominated by the Patriarchy? Hasn’t heteronormativity and transphobia always been a part of America’s heritage? Wouldn’t violence against the LGBTQ+ community be evidence of deeply entrenched and deeply oppressive sexual norms?

If anyone balks at this comparison and demands evidence that sexism or homophobia is really as rampant as we claim, isn’t it legitimate to see their denial as nothing more than a tacit admission of their own blindness? If the privilege of the dominant group leads to racial blindness, why wouldn’t it lead to gender blindness and sexual blindness as well?

3. How woke is woke enough?

Third, as I read this book, I was struck by its similarities to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion. Both Hill and Wilson-Hartgrove believe that our society is saturated with white supremacy. Both men believe that white evangelicals are blind to racial reality and need to look to the black-led freedom struggle to find theological insight. Both men even compare the predicament of whites to the story of Nicodemus and believe that whites need Jesus to heal them of their racial blindness.

Yet Wilson-Hartgrove goes significantly farther than Hill. Wilson-Hartgrove insists that, because of our country’s history, “There is nowhere you can go to find the pure, peaceable, and unadulterated Christianity of Christ” (Reconstructing the Gospel, p. 110). ” He believes that “white people suffer from a malady [called] ‘shriveled-heart syndrome'” (Reconstructing the Gospel, p. 161). As a result, he and his wife now practice “a ‘new monasticism’ with other recovering white people.” He writes: “We relocated to a historically black neighborhood and a historically black church to live a life of repentance because, more than anything, we wanted God’s love to heal our shriveled hearts” (Reconstructing the Gospel, p. 163).

Has Wilson-Hartgrove gone too far? Or has Hill not gone far enough? And how can we know? Hill concedes that because of the nature of our blindness, it can be hard to tell if we’re “moving towards authentic awakening” (p. 141), especially since we “always will be in the process of moving from blindness to sight” (p. 142). So how does Hill know that he’s on the right path? What if Hill is still asleep and Wilson-Hartgrove is awake? For that matter, what if Wilson-Hartgrove is also still asleep and true ‘wokeness’ is found in an even more radical position, like full-fledged liberation theology or the social gospel?

4. What has the ultimate authority?

All of these concerns point back to one basic question: what will have the final, ultimate authority in our lives? There’s no question in my mind that Hill is trying to find a solution to the church’s racial division. He is trying to offset years and years of people of color being treated as second-class citizens, both by our government and by far too many people in the church. His solution is to bewail his own racial blindness and seek out Christians of color and race scholars who can guide him along the path of healing and wholeness.

There is much in his approach that is commendable, yet it contains a fatal deficiency. White Christians, blacks Christians, race scholars, scientists, men and women, rich and poor – we’re all sinners. None of us is qualified to be infallible guides along the path of life. Scripture has to be our guide with respect to how we view race, class, gender, sexuality, morality, and theology. Not everything taught by critical theorists and antiracists educators is false; but much of it is false and -what’s more- is based on a deeply unbiblical worldview. If we cede to such scholars the authority to determine what constitutes “right thinking” about racial issues, then we’re setting ourselves up for disaster.

This is the mistake that I see too many evangelicals making. While every Christian should be humble, open to correction, and aware of their blindspots, we must ultimately let our theology rest on the firm foundation of Scripture. It’s here that we will find true unity because our unity will be grounded in the unchanging revelation of a God whose purpose is to unite people from every nation, tribe, and tongue in their love for Jesus Christ.


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