7 Stages of White Identity

How I evolved from being ignorant of my white identity to using it to extend the kingdom of God.

I have had the joy of pastoring a multiethnic, economically diverse church in Chicago for the past 10 years. The journey has been challenging, perplexing — even painful at times — yet the joy and transformation I have experienced far outweighs all of that.

I could fill up volumes with some of the important theological and life principles that I’ve learned along the way, but one that rises to the top is the importance for each of us as God’s children to understand and embrace our racial-cultural identity. I have come to believe that this is one of the most understated yet critical components to holistic, Christian discipleship.

My journey has been that of a white male, so much of what I’ve learned along the way is undoubtedly unique to my path. My hope in sharing is not that my exact stages would be used to describe another’s journey, but that instead, each person would gain clarity of where they are on this journey of understanding and embracing racial-cultural identity — and identify what terrain is still to be discovered.

Though I was semi-conscious of other people’s cultures growing up, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I began to have any sense of belonging to a culture myself. Because white culture and the dominant, overall culture of America overlap to such a high degree, it’s hard for many of us who are white to understand and embrace our own racial-cultural identity. It’s often compared to a fish trying to describe the water it lives in — he is unable to, even when he tries.

A funny anecdote from my early twenties gets to this point. One of my good friends was getting married, and he happened to be South Asian/Indian American. After his wedding rehearsal, his family threw a party for those participating in the wedding, and the atmosphere was rich with Indian culture. The highlight for me was the dandiya dance, where a group of people moved in two circles anti-clockwise holding two colorful sticks.

Once the dance was over I told my friend how jealous I was of him. When he asked why, I told him I admired how much culture he had, and I lamented that I didn’t have any culture myself. The groom-to-be placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “My friend, not only do you have a culture, but your culture wins almost every time it comes in contact with another culture. It would be a really good idea for you to learn about your culture.”

I never forgot those words, and they ignited within me a desire to begin a journey of understanding and embracing my own racial-cultural identity. I will describe some of the big stages involved with that journey, with the hopefully obvious disclaimer that each of these deserves a far more in-depth treatment:

Stage 1: Colorblind

Though I grew up in a neighborhood in Chicago that was fairly mixed between black and white, I didn’t have much capacity for processing or understanding what that meant. The primary reason was the colorblind approach to race I was taught early on. The colorblind method intentionally minimizes the racial-cultural heritage of a person and instead promotes a culturally neutral approach that sees people independent of their heritage.

I highly doubt that any of the adults in my life were consciously choosing this approach — my guess is that most of them grew up with the exact same mentality. Even as they promoted it, they were doing so with non-malicious intent. For many of them, it was based in their theology: there is only one “race” — the saying would go — the human race, created by God. We are all alike, we all matter to God, we are all sinners, we all have struggles, and we all have opportunities. Each individual should be viewed through this prism — not through his or her racial-cultural background.

The tricky thing is that there is some truth in this perspective — most of us can agree that it is indeed important to view each person as his or her own individual. If the journey towards cross-cultural ministry produces prejudgments about a person that shades our ability to see him as an individual, then it is doing as much harm as good.

However, even with its hints of truth, I think it is woefully limited. The colorblind approach strips a person of one of the most formative elements of his God-given identity — and to ignore our cultural heritage is akin to ignoring gender or family of origin. Just as importantly, it ignores the sin element of how society works.

Our American history is not unique in this regard — the human story is one of certain groups being in power, who then use that power to oppress other groups. When examined, we often discover that this power dynamic is inexorably linked to race and culture. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to address issues of justice/injustice when we come from a colorblind approach. I learned this the hard way.

Stage 2: Awakening

I began to see the limitations of the colorblind approach during my college years. I was dating a girl whose father was a rough-and-tough Irish cop, and one day he came home and openly bragged about racial profiling. I was abhorred and tried to ignore it. Unfortunately, this was not a standalone experience. He often told stories of intentionally targeting minorities (particularly African Americans), and would openly detail how he would antagonize them until they reacted, which then gave him some distorted rationalization for physically abusing them.

This was incredibly unsettling, and I desperately wanted to convince myself that this was the exception and not the rule. I had only one close friend who was African-American, and he was the first person I shared this with. We never talked about race (a result of my colorblind approach), so I was expecting him to assure me that this was not indicative of the broader world.

That’s not what happened, though. In fact, he mocked my naïvete in making it all the way to college before having any type of racial awareness. He told me that behavior like this was a common occurrence, and that as a black man he had resigned to dealing with various forms of racism on an almost-daily basis.

I was devastated to learn this was the truth of society. What about judging people by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin? What about every person mattering to God? I was slowly beginning to awaken to the magnitude of race, culture, power, and justice.

Stage 3: Defensive

The conversation with my friend could have been — should have been — an igniter to take race and culture seriously and to begin forming a new perspective on life.

But it wasn’t.

Unfortunately, I was too unsettled, and I couldn’t handle it, so I looked for some type of coping mechanism. Denial was the natural companion of the colorblind approach, but that was fading as an option. So I chose the next best option: defensiveness.

While I now had to acknowledge that racial injustice existed, I found a way to let myself off the hook from being personally involved with it. I convinced myself that A.) I had never committed a racist act, and B.) I had maintained friendships that weren’t white throughout the course of my life.

It wasn’t exactly the resume of a reconciler, but it was enough to feed my defensive posture. Embracing my inherent privilege, I turned away from this horrible reality I was experiencing and re-taught myself to stay numb. I stayed in this stage for longer than I’d like to admit.

Stage 4: Self-righteous

In the spirit of brevity, I have to skip a lot of big details under this stage. The quick summary: in my early twenties I ended up on staff at Willow Creek Community Church (a whole story in and of itself), and that played a very formative part in my spiritual development. I was part of the leadership team of Axis, the twenty-something ministry of Willow, and we began to have a collective awakening to the biblical mandate for reconciliation and justice.

There were a series of events that happened in my personal life, and I finally had what I call my “light bulb” moment (something I’ve seen many go through since). It’s similar to Acts 10 when God comes to Peter in a vision and reminds him that the Gospel is not just for Jews, but for all people. Peter had clearly heard this many times, but something dramatic had to happen to finally get this theological truth to take.

Though there had been several mini-awakenings that had happened to me along the way, they had never resulted in a second-conversion akin to what Peter experienced. Now, in my early twenties, it finally happened.

Light bulb moments/second conversions are integral to the journey of understanding and embracing our racial-cultural identity (particularly for those of us coming from privilege), but they should also come with a warning sign. The mistake I made — and a mistake I believe often gets made — is that we treat this light bulb moment as an arrival point instead of as a beginning point.

That is why I define this phase in my life as the “self-righteous” phase. Wikipedia defines self-righteous as “a feeling of smug moral superiority derived from a sense that one’s beliefs, actions, or affiliations are of greater virtue than those of the average person.” Yep, that was me.

When this light bulb turned on, I immediately became a crusader for racial reconciliation. I actually thought of myself as a church version of Neo, from the movie The Matrix. I had taken the red pill, seen reality, and now I had been chosen by God to fix it.

I eventually learned that there was a huge difference between moral superiority (the definition of self-righteous) and humble conviction (which is what I should have done). Instead of being driven by this light bulb moment to learn our collective history, to study culture, and to become a student of power dynamics, I instead jumped right into solution mode. I was annoying to everyone who was white, because I couldn’t/wouldn’t turn off my self-declared prophetic challenges. And I was dangerous to everyone else, because I was going after complex, historical problems with simplistic, naïve solutions.

Stage 5: Lost & confused

Armed with my light bulb moment and a growing moral superiority, I launched a ministry on the north side of Chicago focused on cultural diversity and social justice. It grew quickly . . . and it was all young white people like me. I was seriously confused, because I thought I was the enlightened one. I figured that anyone could grow a ministry like the one I was at the helm of — but what about the culturally diverse, justice-oriented group that I hungered to build?

I began searching for solutions to my problem and ended up in a meeting with four influential pastors from Chicago. They just happened to represent the four major racial-cultural umbrellas of Chicago. I shared with them my heart and vision for the ministry I was leading and hoped they would help me crack the code. I’m not sure what I was expecting — I had the fantasy that they would tell me how amazing this vision was — but what I actually got was far worse than what I ever expected. Here is a one-line summary for how each one of them responded to my passionate plea:

  • White pastor: “I’ve seen dozens of pastors like you come and go. You think you are going to change the world, and then you bail as soon as it gets tough. I’ll be shocked if you are still here in five years.”
  • Latino-American pastor: “Why are you coming to save us? We don’t need to be saved. Everything you say sounds paternalistic.”
  • African-American pastor: “Your vision is sweet, but naïve. Black people in Chicago will never go to a church with a white pastor. My own kids wouldn’t go to your church. You should be happy to reach white people. Use that passion you have to expand their view of the Gospel.”
  • Asian-American pastor: “Your view of reconciliation and diversity is too narrow. It’s not just about black/white anymore. I’m not sure you even know why you are doing this and why it’s important.”

It would be hard to overstate how crushed I felt by this meeting. I went in searching for validation and solutions, but instead came away feeling lost and confused. How could I care about this so much and yet be so unwelcome to the table? How could I pour out my heart and soul into this endeavor and yet see so little fruit from my efforts?

Stage 6: Ashamed (of my culture)

As much as I hated that meeting at the time, it eventually became clear that it was an important landmark in my journey. The reality check I experienced with these four pastors put words to what I had already been sensing. My “call” to being a reconciler wasn’t really a call yet. It was a romanticized, naïve, feel-good vision that wanted to dodge all the hard work necessary to do authentic multiethnic ministry (the kind of good but hard stuff that Christena Cleveland so eloquently covers in her blog).

I was embarrassed, fatigued, and tempted to give up, yet for some reason I could not. My heart had been opened to a whole new arena of the kingdom of God, and it was a door I could not re-close. God continued to stir, to beckon, and to invite me into a broader experience of his very self. I was on a journey that would eventually take me into a Spirit-led, healthy, humble posture of moving into the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5.18)

But first I would need to become a learner, and then I would need to get past the stage that came with this new knowledge: shame.

Once the romanticism wore off and I realized how serious the ministry of reconciliation is, I began to inhale books, articles, and trainings on race, culture, and justice. I sat under so many mentors who were people of color. I visited churches and ministries and conferences that talked about and modeled reconciliation.

It was a time of great learning, but also of great struggle. I am extremely grateful to be a citizen of this country, but I also began to discover our checkered history which had so clearly involved race, power, and white superiority — the displacement of the Native community, the devastation of Transatlantic slavery, racism toward the Chinese during the late 1800s, the detention in interment camps of Japanese American citizens, continual race-based immigration policies, and on and on it went.

Naïveté was rapidly disappearing, but in its place came a new emotional experience. I felt ashamed to be white and ashamed to be male. I felt ashamed to have been on the wrong side of these injustices, and I felt ashamed to have inherited the privileges that I did.

I spent a lot of time trying to disassociate myself from being white (which would be a different post), and the results were not healthy for me or those I worked with.

It was clear God was going to need to continue to take me on a healing journey. I needed to learn the value of sorrow, lament, and repentance, but also how to get free of shame.

Stage 7: Empowered

Dr. John Perkins, founder of the Christian Community Development Association, was the really important mentor who helped me sort a lot of this out. He gave a series of Bible studies at a CCDA conference for a group of young leaders on the book of Esther, and it had a tremendous impact on my spiritual development.

He often refers to Esther as a “justice leader,” a phrase he uses to describe those who take the fullness of the mission of God seriously. He talked about how huge a role she played in God’s redemptive history and reminded us how many facets of her social location would have deterred a lesser person. She was a woman in a man’s world; an orphan raised by an uncle; and a Jew in a Persian culture.

Dr. Perkins points to Esther as his biblical prototype for a justice leader, but he then pointed out that she couldn’t have been who she was if she didn’t have Mordecai to disciple her. Mordecai is Dr. Perkins’ prototype for how to disciple people, and through him, Dr. Perkins introduced me to a facet of discipleship that I had never heard before (despite growing up in church all my life).

He said that one of the key areas of discipleship was Mordecai’s ability to train Esther to understand and embrace her racial-cultural identity. Earlier in the story he tells her to blend in, so she can learn the dominant culture. But now at this critical justice juncture, he tells her the opposite. He tells her not to forget who she is. Dr. Perkins paraphrased it: “These are your people. Remember their suffering. Don’t allow them to be destroyed. Feel the pain of your people.”

What Dr. Perkins said next became a beacon of hope for my life. In response to her story, he talked about his own journey of understanding and embracing his racial-cultural identity. He said it like this: “I am not Afro-centric, but I haven’t forgotten who I am. I use my blackness to extend the Kingdom of God. You need to live from who you are — you were created for a specific purpose. We must not err to ethnocentrism, but we must also not err to forgetting who we are.”

One phrase in particular caught my attention: “I use my blackness to extend the Kingdom of God.” That blew me away, and I wondered, “Can I use my whiteness to extend the kingdom of God?” That would sound strange and potentially dangerous if it didn’t come at this stage of my development, but after the previous six stages it seemed the most important question.

The short answer, for me, has been “yes.” I have humbly come to accept that I, too, am part of God’s “handiwork” (Ephesians 2:10), and that my racial-cultural heritage is part of God’s good design for me. It needs to be understood, embraced, and stewarded, just like the other facets of my identity. Like Dr. Perkins, like Esther, and like thousands who have gone before me, I want to use all that God has given me to extend the kingdom of God.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. 

This piece originally appeared on Christena Cleveland’s blog.

Daniel Hill
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