An Honest Look at Being White

September 28, 2017

Cyd Holsclaw, Ecclesia Board Member and Life on the Vine Member (Chicago, Illinois), shares her reflection 

Let me start by saying how unqualified I feel to write anything at all about cultural identity and race… and yet, I’m also about as white as white comes. I was born and raised in western Michigan, attended schools where all of my classmates were white, went to college in Minnesota where whites of northern European heritage were the dominant culture on campus, got a masters in environmental education where I was surrounded by crunchy white folks, moved to Santa Cruz California where those crunchy folks were just the ‘normal’ folks, married a white guy, and now I live in the suburbs of Chicago in a solidly middle / upper class community where most of the minorities are doing their best to assimilate to the dominant white culture. Although I have never consciously bought into any racist ideologies, I confess I spent most of my life believing that colorblindness was the right approach, the Christ-like approach.

A few years ago, through listening to some powerful voices, I learned that colorblindness is, in reality, a blind spot. Since then, I’ve been trying to be honest about my lack of awareness of cultural identities – both my own and those of my brothers and sisters of color. I’ve been trying to educate myself about the histories I was never taught, listening to sermons / podcasts from people of color, watching documentaries, and reading fiction by non-white authors. But the feeling that I’m not doing enough has often frustrated me. I’ve been overwhelmed by the nagging question of “what am I supposed to do?” Maybe some of you can resonate with that question, with that tension.

So when I saw Daniel Hill’s book, White Awake, and the subtitle read, “An honest look at what it means to be white,” I knew I had to read this book. What I found was a graciously urgent call from a white brother to all his white sisters and brothers to “let go of preconceived notions of expertise or understanding that you feel you might be bringing to this… pray like the blind man: ‘Lord, help me to see.’” Throughout the book, Hill is honest and authentic about his own misshapen theology, his misguided motivations, his failed attempts, and his weariness. By his admissions of weakness, he invites all white people to journey with him through the stages of waking up to cultural identity. He urges us to ask the question “can I see?” before we ask what to do. We can only actively participate in the kingdom calling to considering all of humanity as image bearers when we learn to see and dismantle the ways our culture perpetuates broken ways of naming humanity.

If you are a white person, know any white people, pastor any white people, or live with any white people, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Language shapes our understanding of our experience, and Hill gives concrete language for white people to understand what’s happening when they are first coming to terms with privilege. He begins with the first ‘encounter’ with race and white supremacy, concisely unpacking American history in such a way that anyone who has not yet encountered white privilege will be faced with some new realities. He lends grace for the ‘denial’ that usually follows this encounter and urges us to face the trauma we feel in discovering our complicity. Helpful metaphors / parables help us explore the resulting ‘disorientation’ and lead us into unpacking our ‘shame’ reactions that push us into ‘self-righteousness’. Along the way, he lays out spiritual practices to move us out of each stage and into the next: confronting narratives, facing trauma, deepening theology, lamenting, repenting. He provides some markers of what it might look like to be more culturally ‘awake’ and offers suggestions for possible ways to move from contemplation to ‘active participation’ in change.

As a board, we have had conversations about building cultural awareness within our network. We want to be honest about the ways in which the evil behind systems of racism have influenced our structures, our communication, and our inclusion (or lack thereof) of our sisters and brothers of color. I’m asking my white family, will you join us in taking an honest look at what it means to be white? This book is a great first step, and I would love to talk more with anyone who reads it at our national gathering in the spring.

And to my brothers and sisters of color, thank you so much for your perseverance. We don’t even know all the ways we have unintentionally made you feel unwelcome. You have been patient with us, showed us grace in our blindness, spoken into our lives, shared your stories with us, and longed with us for a community where all will be seen, heard, understood, and celebrated. Thank you. Let’s continue, together, to imagine a network that more fully anticipates the Revelation vision of a great multitude of culturally diverse people worshiping Christ together.

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