Justin R. Phillips
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2021
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The following review was originally published in Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. The author is Tell It Slant editor, Jeanne Torrence Finley
In Know Your Place Justin Phillips examines the formative communities of his life: his racial community, white; his geographic community, southern; and his religious community, evangelical. He writes about how they shaped his racial imagination and about how the blind spots in each overlap and reinforce each other. The subtitle names both his main audience and his purpose: “Helping White, Southern Evangelicals Cope with the End of The(ir) World.” He approaches his task as an insider who knows how to tell the truth in love to his fellow white, Southern evangelicals, and he does so with grace, eloquence, and vulnerability. As he wrote this book, he held in mind his childhood Sunday school teachers, the people he knew in the small northwest Tennessee community in which he grew up, the high school students he used to teach, and his grandparents, with whom he regrets not ever having a deep conversation about race. A consummate scholar and storyteller, Phillips is the executive editor of The Other Journal. He holds an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary, where his focus was on how white evangelicals in the South responded to the Civil Rights Movement. He has taught at the high school, college, and graduate levels.
Phillips structured Know Your Place around these communities—racial, southern, and evangelical. He starts with whiteness, then adds the layer of southernness, and finally turns to the evangelical layer. Bookending it all are stories about his grandparents. A common theme in all three communities is represented by this formula: “Disembodiment + Division = Disorientation.” Disembodiment names the idea that human beings are not bodies, nor do they have to pay attention to physical matters. If we don’t see a problem, then we have no responsibility to address it. Add to that a propensity toward division, and then we become so disoriented that we cannot “know our place.”
Phillips claims that being raised in whiteness promotes a sense of disembodiment through encouraging white people to be “colorblind” and therefore unaware that we do have a racial identity that works most of the time in our favor. When we experience whiteness as the norm, we tend to get defensive when our worldview is challenged by the history of slavery and by current conversations about white supremacy. In the last twenty years our nation has experienced an awakening about discrimination, both on personal and systemic levels, in ways that can disorient white, southern evangelicals and keep them from understanding their history.
For Phillips “racism is a problem of the imagination”(13). Having accumulated power and wealth, white men imagined that their skin color gave them the qualifications to rule and justification for their conquests, which then shaped the way they structured the world. According to their logic, race had nothing to do with being successful. They believed and perpetuated the lie that anyone who worked hard could be successful.
Being southern adds another layer of disembodiment and division. One reason is that we can’t agree on our boundaries. If our northern boundary is the Mason-Dixon line, then are D.C. and Maryland in the south? Is Texas? What about West Virginia and Missouri? Then within each state, there is diversity. Phillips says, “We are not, and never have been, one people” (55). Echoing Wendell Berry’s writings about the concept of “place,” Phillips says that loyalty to place is good for human flourishing, but places are also subject to self-deception—for example, the South’s justifying slavery through the myth of the Lost Cause after having lost the Civil War. It allowed southerners to maintain white supremacy during the Reconstruction period and to shape their future by reframing their past.
Additionally, there’s the southern problem of having the skill to talk out of both sides of our mouths. As a white southerner, I both smiled and winced when I read this sentence: “Only a people so steeped in deploying ‘bless their heart’ as a fleet of stealth drones could easily say so much by attempting to say so little.”(70). The phrase “heritage, not hate” (in reference to Civil War monuments and symbols) is not simply “a failure of language. It’s a deception that begins with the soul”(70).
Phillips also explores the “siege mentality” of the southern imagination. It began with fear of freed slaves, continued throughout the Jim Crow era, and still hangs around. He contends that we are born resisters who are adept at finding enemies, such as Yankees and government intervention. The southern talent for resistance grew to gigantic proportions in1954 when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that maintaining racially segregated schools was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Phillips writes, “The Brown ruling was a crushing indictment of the South’s way of life, reinforcing their rejection of northern influence as equated with federal power. One need not understand the legal minutia of the Brown decision to see how white Southerners’ response to a foundation-shaking federal imposition was little more than a continuation of the original narrative of victimhood”(84).
When Phillips turns to white evangelicalism, his critique is wide-ranging and incisive. After providing a brief history that culminates in the ties between evangelicals and the contemporary Republican party, he attends to how evangelical theology promotes disembodiment—heavenly mindedness and earthly neglect. Evangelicalism’s huge emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus inhibits its ability to understand how love of neighbor involves grappling with systemic evil and working for justice. In other words, white southern evangelicalism has become so disoriented that it cannot see racial injustice.
In Know Your Place, Phillips makes a convincing argument yet keeps the tone invitational. When he was a high school teacher, he learned the art of translating the material so that high school students could grasp it. That’s the approach he takes here. He knows that language matters, and he models how to engage in conversations about race that will make a difference. In an interview with Brian Allain, he said, “I wanted to begin to provide language that readers could translate for people they love and to begin to help them have tough conversations.” He has succeeded.
The phrase “know your place” has often been an admonishment to recognize one’s place in the social hierarchy and not to step out of it, but that’s not what Phillips means. He wants readers to know and claim the history of their region and to have the courage to talk about it in constructive ways. When Know Your Place was published a year ago, it addressed a pressing need in our society. That need is even more dire now as our country witnesses increased voter restrictions, book banning, and political pressure to keep teachers from telling the truth about white supremacy. Thank you, Justin Phillips, for this gift.