An Interview with Justin Phillips

Justin Phillip’s recent Know Your Place is a telling, hilarious mash-up of memoir, cultural analysis, and religious criticism.[1] In each of the book’s three sections, Phillips reflects on the formative communities of his life—white, southern, evangelical—as he plays the role of a “connected critic” and tries to understand how to live faithfully and speak prophetically in the context of his upbringing. In this interview with his fellow editors at The Other Journal, Phillips discusses lament, the use of stories, an empathetic pedagogy, and the hope of transformation.

Zachary Thomas Settle (ZTS), editor-in-chief: You note in the acknowledgments to Know Your Place that you wrote this book during the pandemic, and to borrow a phrase from your subtitle, the pandemic has been its own kind of an end-of-the-world scenario. How did thinking about one kind of end—what you call the end of the white, southern evangelical world—while experiencing another help clarify the gravity of the problem you’re diagnosing in the book?

Justin Phillips (JP): The book is a long lament about fractured relationships and a reckoning with the histories and institutions that have shaped me. It’s the kind of lament that really gets unearthed during quiet time and solitude, which COVID provided. Everything was heavy in the early months of the pandemic, particularly given how little we knew about it. And I had hoped to enjoy the communal aspect that many people feel when writing a book, but it just didn’t feel right to ask colleagues to give me notes while everyone was trying to figure out homeschooling and every other disruption imaginable. So my circle was pretty tight, which at times contributed to even more loneliness. I was also seeing people posting on social media about losing loved ones, especially grandparents, and I was writing about my grandparents, who had died a few years before the pandemic, so lamentation really infused the book.

Plus, I had just completed a week of messages on the gospel and race at the high school where I formerly taught, and the reception of those messages was very mixed. This was in February 2020, so the critical race theory controversy wasn’t ginning up yet; it was just the general white, southern evangelical knee-jerk reactions against any kind of race talk that doesn’t end with showing a clip from Remember the Titans. A month after I presented those messages, schools were shut down, and just a few weeks later, the protests responding to George Floyd’s murder were filling the streets. I imagined that my students had a lot of time to watch what must have felt apocalyptic unfold before them, so I felt like I was trying to finish up the book for those students—good kids but ones who generally came from fairly insular environments. 

ZTS: You use Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory to define racism in your introduction.[2] The confounding response of the Southern Baptists to critical race theory was brewing below the surface while you were writing this, but, as you say, it seems to have blown up since the book was drafted. What do you make of the Southern Baptist Convention’s handling of critical race theory? And how does that track with or extend the connections you’re making in the book?

JP: I’m not a critical race theorist, so I try to refrain from commenting too much on an academic discipline I’m not well versed in. Of course, that doesn’t stop a lot of people these days. The response by many white Christians—not just Southern Baptists—has been disappointing but not at all surprising. This well-organized marketing campaign against critical race theory has gained a lot of white evangelical support despite the fact that some in the anti–critical race theory movement are pretty hostile to organized religion. Thus, their enthusiasm for the marketing campaign seems to prove the point that critical race theory would diagnose: whiteness may just be the primary identity that bonds them together, whether they would acknowledge it or not.

And it’s not at all coincidental that this movement came right as many white evangelicals were having to seriously deal with their own congregational questions about racism and white supremacy in light of Black Lives Matter. It’s like the critical race theory boogeyman gave an excuse to put that prior conversation to rest, or at least on hold, because they perceived the bigger threat of critical race theory looming. Some of that response, at least in the South, is a combination of a chronic inability to narrate history accurately and a consistent rejection of anything that’s believed to be an outside influence. My academic mentors, Glen Stassen and David Gushee, always taught us to listen well because people will often tell you exactly what they’re scared of, and that fearful thing shapes their ethic—a pretty clear line can be drawn between what people name as threatening and what they value. For white, southern Christians, the racial status quo—“our way of life”—is the supreme value.   

ZTS: Drawing on W. E. B. Du Bois, you diagnose whiteness as a problem and the dominant white group as “a problem people.” What do you mean with that phrase, “a problem people”?[3]

JP: I’m a problem when I do not—or cannot—know the histories that still influence me. I’m a problem if I think of my ways as normative or as the standard to judge everyone else. In the South, white evangelical power structures have dominated the region and set the norms throughout our history. When our curated lives are interrupted, we just want things to go back to normal. Instead, what’s really going on is like a living embodiment of the famous meme from I Think You Should Leave: white supremacy is like a hotdog car driven through the storefront, and we, in our hotdog costumes, are asking, “Who’s responsible for this mess?”[4]

My aim in the book is to define the problem of white supremacy in such a way that people without graduate degrees can understand it. If we claim that systemic racism and white supremacy are complex problems, we need to have an ethic and a patient pedagogy to match that complexity. You can’t simply yell academic jargon in someone’s direction and expect them to get it.

ZTS: You make some bold and very compelling claims in this book. For example, at the end of the first chapter, you write the following:

Here is the brutal truth about the people and places that I love: The dominant social imagination was, and is, a white-supremacist ideology, employed to enslave, terrorize, dehumanize, or restrict people of color, while at the same time absolving the offenders and their heirs from the guilt of any wrongdoing. These offenses were committed in order to keep people in their place and upon these shared values and stories American life was built, sustained, and defended.

I suspect there’s a subset of readers in the triangulated context you’re engaging—white, southern, evangelical—who would set the book down for good when they come across that paragraph simply because they do not find it to be an accurate description of their world. That said, you demonstrate your own growth through a willingness to have your mind changed, and you call readers to a similar transformation, challenging us to see ourselves and our histories differently, perhaps for the first time. Would you reflect on the connection between that willingness to see anew and the possibilities for transformation?

JP: We often need mentors and teachers to help us see things in new ways, and I firmly believe I’ve earned the privilege to say difficult things to family, friends, and institutions. I’ve lived in the South for most of my life. I’ve taught in evangelical institutions that are largely white, and because I do want to see transformation in my students, I’m careful about the way I present difficult-to-digest material. I try to teach confessionally: Here are my past errors. Here are the ways I still fail. Here’s how I’ve changed my mind. Here are the practices for a better way forward. I care for these folks because I’m one of them. Overall, I believe transformation is possible, so I do my best to never write off any individual as somehow irredeemable. That call is above my paygrade.

Plus, before readers get to the paragraph you cited, I’ve already confessed how difficult it is to recognize some things about yourself, your people, your place. I realize, too, that I’m not the most consistent person when it comes to giving people the opportunity to change. I write in the first pages how I avoided talking to my grandparents about my academic research—I just couldn’t fathom trying to translate it for them. Along those lines, Clint Smith offers this lovely tribute to his grandparents in his book How the Word is Passed that has stuck with me:

My grandparents’ stories are my inheritance; each one is an heirloom I carry. Each one is a monument to an era that still courses through my grandfather’s veins. Each story is a memorial that still sits in my grandmother’s bones. My grandparents’ voices are a museum I am still learning how to visit, each conversation with them a new exhibit worthy of my time.[5]

I can’t help but contrast Smith’s willingness to draw near and treasure the stories of his grandparents with my reluctance to deal with what would have been only a few moments of awkwardness, and because I ducked any conversation of consequence, I was never really able to hear their perspectives. I just assumed that I already knew what they would say about any subject, and I’m poorer for not having those conversations.

ZTS: You also spend a good deal of time talking about disembodiment, division, and disorientation. What do you mean by those terms, and how do you see them connecting to one another?

JP: A few years ago, I was writing an op-ed for a local newspaper, and I asked for a couple of pointers on writing for broad readership. I was told to write as if I were communicating to high school sophomores, a reading level that didn’t become all that clear to me until I was actually teaching high schoolers. I realized then that the advice I was receiving wasn’t about the intelligence level of the readers; it was a comment about attention span, patience, and critical thinking. As a result, I’ve learned to break things down into memorable hooks by using alliteration, simplified concepts, and other techniques. So this formula—disembodiment + division = disorientation—is a signpost I come back to throughout the course of the book; it’s a way for me to summarize why conversations about race are so intimidating to white people. I’m trying to explain why they reflexively reject conversations or interactions that could be healing for them. That little formula is a way to push readers toward reflection and away from reflexiveness, as much as we can be aware of our reflexiveness, anyway. I didn’t say all that there is to say about each facet of the formula, but it was a good way for me to focus my work for the lay reader.

Preston Hill (PH), Assistant Theology Editor: Speaking, then, of disembodiment, how do you see the themes of your book intersecting with the importance of embodiment for trauma healing and recovery? Do you see important connections between traumatization and the disembodiment that comes with racial injustice?

JP: Oh, for sure. One of my favorite quotes that I encountered while researching this book was from Edward Queen II, who wrote, “History has happened to the South,” and then he continues by saying the South is a defeated nation.[6] We southerners are the only Americans to have been defeated on our home soil. That simple quote—history happening to the South—has crystallized so much for me. Rather than deal with that defeat, southerners rewrote history through textbooks or by populating the public square with monuments. And to a degree, the maneuver has worked. Too many people still think the South has more to do with Nathan Bedford Forrest than it does with Fannie Lou Hamer. We can’t ever really heal, because so much energy is spent relitigating the past or protecting our psyches from deep loss.

PH: There is an undercurrent of empathy running through your book that makes it so winsome and disarming. Do you think white fragility today could be eased into curiosity toward Black suffering by taking a posture of empathy? Do you see empathy as important to the work of racial reconciliation?

JP: I completely get the spirit of your question, and we have plenty of people working on racial reconciliation, but I’m less interested here in reconciliation, as I am explaining systems and histories of ideas for white folks who have never really considered them. Where empathy comes into play is in my method of teaching. I think my role is to acknowledge that fragility is my readers’ baseline and then gently explain how white supremacy still has a hold on them—and a hold on me, for that matter, even after years of study and practice to combat it. It’s in my bones and blood and imagination.

I think this is where your point about empathy is important. I’m convinced that our conversations about race need to be much more contextual. There are so many books that are just trying to download as much information into readers’ minds as they can; they present history, theory, theology, and more, and they intermingle these concepts with descriptions of white atrocities and ask white readers to process this information while also doing the necessary reflective work. But even if these books don’t help readers consider the formation they already bring to the texts, it’s possible for well-meaning readers to think that their work is done or that they can become antiracists just by reading a new book.

However, if we have the patience to walk readers or inquisitive white people through the parallel tracks of how these histories, theories, and theologies have shaped specific places—and by extension, the people in those places—then I think it becomes easier to foster transformation.   

Claire McKeever-Burgett (CM-B), Assistant Theology Editor: Why is it important to foster this transformation? Or to put the question in the language of your book—why is it important to help white, southern evangelicals cope with their world ending? 

JP: I wouldn’t say it’s important for everyone to help them; it’s not everyone’s burden. It’s only important to walk alongside white, southern evangelicals who struggle with concepts of white supremacy and racial injustice if you have people in those communities that you care for. If you don’t, then I’m not sure it’s your fight. Of course, this is the reason why I wrote the book for a specific people.

CM-B: What practices do you hope people engage in after reading your book? 

Justin Phillips: Lament. I follow Soong-Chan Rah and Mark Charles on this point.[7] Reconciliation hints at a relationship that was once whole that is now ruptured. That’s not our reality in this country. There’s no reconciliation without lament, confession, repentance, and repair.

Lynn Domina (LD), Creative Writing Editor: Toward the end of the first section of your book, you state that “We white folks do not think of our physical existence, because we are rarely required to do so. We don’t think about whiteness because our world is designed for us to not have to think about it in the same way lungs are designed for breathing.”[8] I agree with the second quoted sentence here, but I paused over the first. Although it is true that white people seldom, if ever, need to think about whiteness, whiteness is different from physical existence. Women and queer people need to think about their physical existence frequently, because our physical existence keeps us unsafe. So although I am white, I’m not sure I’m included in your “we” that begins the first sentence.

I’m wondering, then, how gender interacts with your triad of whiteness, southerness, and evangelicalism. Clearly it does, as southern women often perform gender very differently than other women, and the practice of lynching, as you point out, is unequivocally a response to gender as well as to race.

JP: You’re raising a good point, Lynn. The we in that quote could have been extended to mean white, southern evangelical men, but I didn’t write that specifically for two reasons: First, there are published books and, at the time, soon-to-be-published books that would address gender issues in white evangelicalism, all by thinkers more qualified than I to write those works—Kristin Kobes DuMez, Beth Allison Barr, Aimee Byrd.[9] And, second, after talking to a couple of historian friends about focusing my attention on men, they encouraged me to not do that, simply because in the South, white women have been both victims and beneficiaries of white supremacy.

You’re naming the tension that comes in trying to explain many threads for people at the same time and using we. Ultimately, I settled on imagining my reader to be the person who conceived of whiteness first as a physical marker without already understanding all of the sociopolitical meanings that I would attempt to explain.

LD: In your discussion of the work of James Cone, you refer to some of the problems that emerge when theology is so dependent on “Western philosophies that denigrated physical matter.”[10] The close relationship between the disciplines of theology and philosophy is evidenced by their frequent existence within one academic department at many colleges and universities. For example, theology might have developed differently if, instead, we had departments of literature and theology or biology and theology. That is, while the discipline of philosophy has permitted many theological insights, it has also limited the kinds of questions theology can ask. Your book seems to skirt this philosophical rigidity by embracing storytelling—about your grandfather, about Joe DiMaggio, about your experience with cancer and your missionary trip to Uruguay. Could you talk about the congeniality or fruitfulness of this approach?  

JP: The best—and simplest—advice I’ve ever received about teaching is to “go for their hearts, first.” So I’m constantly looking for the stories, pieces of art, film, music, et cetera that will evoke a response from students and serve the purpose of the lesson. We’re story-formed people, right? And the stories of being a white, southern evangelical are fairly intertwined—each designation has an origin story of how it came to be, and they all reinforce one another. Whiteness tells a story about who white people are—and who people of color are. The South is a place that prioritized whiteness and founded a new nation upon racial principles, and the South serves as the connective tissue—the ligaments—between the bones of whiteness and the muscle of evangelicalism, which has been largely white and has dominated the South. Pretty soon, though, the origin stories begin to all sound similar and rarely disrupt one another.  

Alternative stories seem to be the best way to disrupt or, at minimum, to complicate the dominant narratives. My essay on Colin Kaepernick is a good example because a lot of white men viewed kneeling at the national anthem to be an apocalyptic sign, so I connect that story to the New York Yankees great Joe DiMaggio, who is this hero to the boomers, along with Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and all the guys who followed DiMaggio. DiMaggio endured a good bit of abuse due to his Italian American heritage, but at the same time he became the quintessential Yankee, and by extension, the quintessential American. The logic was that Italian Americans, like many immigrants, had to earn their whiteness, so to speak. They had to prove that they were going to assimilate. In the buildup to World War II, Italian Americans were viewed as having suspect loyalty to the United States—Would they side with Benito Mussolini? Could they be trusted? And Bay Area Italians in DiMaggio’s hometown were being profiled by the feds, and if they had businesses near the coast, as DiMaggio’s father did, they were being watched. So I wonder aloud what would have happened if DiMaggio had publicly stood up for his community? Would anything have changed for Italian Americans? I have no idea. I do know, however, that he played ball and went about his business even though the abuse angered him and affected his father’s business.

A story like this one provides an entry point for not only boomers who grew up loving the Yankees, but also for younger students who’ve witnessed a renewal of the athlete-activist, to talk about what we’re witnessing today.

Joel Mayward (JM), Theology Editor: As your book title suggests, history and context matter a great deal in understanding the social imaginary of one’s culture. Reading this book in my home culture of the secular or liberal Pacific Northwest, which has its own unique history of racism, I often found that your descriptions of white southern evangelicalism were like descriptions of another country or another planet! Indeed, so much of what you shared was unfamiliar to my experiences. Do you feel that your work’s applicability is limited to its primary audience? Or can this book be adapted or translated into other American cultural contexts? And if so, what theological resources could be helpful for making such translations?

JP: I think the tone and posture can be adopted for other audiences; showing that you’re connected to your people and place is key. This book is a crash course for southern, white evangelicals who know next to nothing about the current conversations on race and racism, and I know how to communicate with those readers on this different planet, like you say, because it’s my home, too. I guess I decided that when I came to a crossroads in writing that I would write for the people I know, that I would be highly contextual and trust that whoever finds this book could find reiterative experiences. There’s an incarnational principle to writing and creating: Jesus existed in a particular body, time, place, and cultural context, but his way has found followers across time and human boundaries.  

JM: The use of David Bebbington’s quadrilateral to name the malformation of white American evangelicals regarding race is really helpful, yet I’m left wondering what do we do now?[11] Much of Know Your Place is looking back at what has been missed or distorted in evangelicalism’s past, its unhealthy history. What are the ways to look forward, the possible practices that may need to be put in place, the ideals that need to be embraced, the utopian visions? What gives you hope, Justin?

JP: I felt a little bad about ending the book in such a minor key. Most of the books I’ve seen on the topic—and certainly books for this demographic—conclude with a call to action. There’s often a “go be the change you want to see in the world” ethos, and I just wasn’t feeling that particular ending. I told my wife, “I can’t possibly write a happy ending for this.” I just couldn’t fake my way through it, and she said, “Don’t!” And that launched us into a longer conversation about how the white impulse can be to leap into action—to fix things, because we’re often used to being in control—rather than sitting in our discomfort. So I resolved to not conclude with a tidy, happy ending with discussion questions and study guides and all that.

I couldn’t sleep one night; I got up and wrote the conclusion at two or three in the morning—pretty much one shot, first draft—and that was it. I came back to my love for my grandparents, what I wished that I had said to them years ago, and the Frederick Buechner quote that bookends the work:

The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart . . . . But it is also the news that he is loved anyways, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for.[12]

With that sense of the gospel in mind, hope for me comes in some combination of taking the Bible’s witness seriously that people can and do change. Transformation is possible, but it’s often a long, slow process.

Ryan Kelley, Associate Editor: How will you know when the truth laid out in this book is no longer welcome among your people? And are there parts of white, southern evangelical identity that you would want to retain?

JP: I’ve found that most days I’ve stopped worrying about how I’m perceived—whether I’m in or out. I just accept that I have been shaped by white, southern evangelicalism; it’s in me, and I will always be in conversation with it. But, I understand, too, that I’m neither one thing nor the sum-total of my formative communities. I understand that my racial formation will forever have cultural meaning. I’m extremely proud of my regional identity, warts and all. I love being a southerner, but I’m not terribly concerned about the longevity of evangelicalism as a brand of religious identity.

I think there’s some cynicism among evangelical powerbrokers that deconstruction is a fad or dangerous, whereas I see deconstructive movements as hopeful expressions, particularly when they lead to people having the courage to leave unhealthy or abusive situations. Gregory Alan Thornbury has created this helpful phrase that he lifted from professional wrestling called “critical kayfabe theory,” which describes how lots of folks in evangelical institutions play their appointed role—they know their place, if you forgive the self-reference—so they can keep their jobs and health insurance.[13] But they live in perpetual fear of transgressing the white evangelical boundaries, so I’m actually heartened by people who realize they can’t stomach the situation any longer and then leave. It’s also fine to attempt reforms from within, but I’ve found deep faith, contentment, and peace by leaving and at the same time not burning down the house on the way out. I guess that’s where my ethic—imperfectly practiced—is to love people.

I really want to remain in fellowship with the people who first taught me about Jesus in Sunday school or the college roommates who love me. There may be people in my circle who are through with me, but it’s not mutual. They’re kind of stuck with me.

[1] See Phillips, Know Your Place: Helping White, Southern Evangelicals Cope with the End of The(ir) World (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2021).

[2] Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2017), 171.

[3] See Phillps, Know Your Place, 6–10; and Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[4] See “Hot Dog Car Sketch,” I Think You Should Leave, Netflix Is a Joke, October 18, 2020, YouTube video,

[5] Smith, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery across America (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2021), 288.

[6] Queen II, In the South the Baptists Are the Center of Gravity: Southern Baptists and Social Change, 1930–1980 (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1991), 50.       

[7] See Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity, 2015); and Charles and Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity, 2019).

[8] Phillips, Know Your Place, 48–49.

[9] See, for example, DuMez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York, NY: Liveright, 2020); Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2021); and Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

[10] Phillips, Know Your Place, 144.

[11] Phillips, Know Your Place, 112; also, see Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington, George M. Marsden, Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).

[12] Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 7; quote in Phillips, Know Your Place, 166.

[13] Thornbury, “On Metaphor and Kayfabe,” Dark Matter (Substack), May 3, 2021.