Shoelace Metaphor

written by Amanda Gross

Centuries before white ladies began selling our souls to whiteness we were fighting our living death in Patriarchy, in our own communities and in our own homes.

How did we get from Patriarchy to whiteness? That is a question we will examine by starting with that half-day Professional Development workshop your employer made you attend. Let’s call it Diversity & Inclusion 101.

Chances are if you’ve ever been to any such workshop/dialogue/conversation/seminar, at some point the trainer would frame the conversation in terms of social identity. Known to insiders as the “Big 8,” these main social identity markers include “race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion/spirituality, nationality, and socioeconomic status.” (Sometimes age makes the list.) The “social” part of “social identity” means that all of us — whether we want to or not — contend with all of these social identity markers as we navigate our lives.

I see these and other Diversity and Inclusion frameworks as limitedly helpful, like a mouse trap when you’re trying to catch a tornado.

The helpful part of this framework is that it supports us in claiming parts of our identities that society discourages us from seeing, as is typically the case when our social identity markers reflect dominant identities in our society. Like white people in an all-white space, generally we are not thinking about our race or talking about our own racism. At the very least, Diversity and Inclusion frameworks help us to acknowledge our differences based on our social identities.

But what is inadequate about these frameworks is that they aren’t functionally real. These markers compartmentalize our human experience into silos. In the real world, we can never isolate aspects of our identities. They are in relationship to each other and to power structures all the time. This interdependent point of relationships is known as “intersectionality.” A term first coined by Black feminist scholar, Dr. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989, “intersectionality” was further developed by Black, Indigenous, and other Women of Color as a way of naming the intersections of oppression. It was also offered as an important critique to white feminism and Black resistance movements, both of which historically marginalized Black women. Intersectionality makes visible the relationships between various aspects of our identities, which is how I’ve come to understand that my socialization into white middle class womanhood cannot be universalized as the experience of all women.

Likewise, bell hooks describes the dominant system in our society with a lengthy yet apt term: “Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.” Intersectionally speaking, Imperialism cannot be removed from Capitalism, nor White Supremacy extracted from Patriarchy.

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In January of 2018, Felicia Savage Friedman and I collaborated on a workshop for Pittsburgh’s Summit Against Racism (now called Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit). We called our workshop “The Wicked Webs of Racism, Patriarchy, and Capitalism” and were looking for a way to describe the historical roots and present-day fruits of these intersecting oppressions.

Some of the white women in the room were struggling to understand the relationship between their personal experiences of sexism and their complicity as white people in upholding racism. This was something I had been grappling with over the past few years, too. Neither dismissing our ability to uphold racism (because we have been victimized by sexism) nor totally erasing gendered experience from a racial analysis seemed satisfactory. These are intersectional Wicked Webs after all. As any fiber artist knows, it is the combination of entanglement and tension that transforms individual threads into yards of fabric.

I had been turning over fiber art metaphors in my mind for some time. Plus, the night before our first Wicked Webs workshop, I had had a dream. And so when a young white woman educator confessed to struggling with her relationship to both sexism and racism, I shared a concept I had been mulling over — one which would become known as the Shoelace Metaphor, a visual and experiential way to conceptualize the interlocking layers of the Wicked Webs of Racism, Patriarchy, and Capitalism over time (or more accurately, Patriarchy, Capitalism, and Racism).

Using the Shoelace Metaphor, the Wicked Webs appear less like the intersection at a four-way stop and more like the tied knots keeping your sneaker laces in place.

(If you have access and want to follow along at home, you will need something to write on, something to write with, and a shoe with untied laces.)

I learned how to tie a shoe in preschool (a shout out to my preschool teacher, Ms. Martha). I have vague memories of practicing on a shoe box, but more clearly remember trying to teach my little brother. “You cross one string over the other and then pull tight. But not too tight!” His fingers fumbled with the laces. His face affixed with concentration. Learning this first knot took time and many tries. Usually one lace would end up entangled in the other, but rarely would that knot be stable enough for the next step.

Like the tedious repetition of a preschooler learning to tie their shoes, it took Patriarchy thousands of years to get its foundational knot in place.

In our Wicked Webs workshops, we define Patriarchy as a historically-established process that takes all of humanity and divides us into two separate groups based on the biological categories of male and female, after which each biological category gets a gender.

(For those of you following along at home, it might be helpful to take out a paper and pen, draw a big circle. This circle represents all of humanity. Now draw a line down the middle, from top to bottom.)

Humans with the anatomical body parts of penis, testicles, scrotum, prostate, with relatively high levels of testosterone and low levels of estrogen, and XY chromosomes are given the biological sex “male.”

(Write “male” on the left side of your circle.)

Those humans with the anatomical body parts of vagina, vulva, uterus, ovaries, with relatively low levels of testosterone and high levels of estrogen, and XX chromosomes are given the biological sex “female.”

(Write “female” on the right.)

Biological sex may inform a human being’s reproductive capacity and what they are able to do anatomically with their body. But regardless, that human is assigned a corresponding gender, which is socially described and enforced and has to do with things like power, behavior, appearance, identity, norms, and weird associations like colors, deodorant scents, and toy genre. In the world of Patriarchy, as it has been defined by Europe, the sex categories of male/female neatly line up with the gender categories of man/woman or boy/girl and also with all sorts of other English words such as he/she, hero/heroine, god/goddess, priest/priestess, John/Jane, and blue/pink to name a few.

(Now fill in the left side of the circle with the words “man/boy/he” and any other random masculine gender associations you have learned. Write “woman/girl/she” and any other feminine gender associations under “female” on the right.)

Like zooming in on a low-resolution jpeg, the hard lines that establish and keep male=men and female=women get fuzzier the closer you look. As many as 1 out of every 60 children neither fall neatly into the male nor female categories; they are born intersex. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights:

“Intersex people are born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies. Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth while in others, they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal intersex variations may not be physically apparent at all.”

In Western society, it’s been common medical practice for doctors to alter a child’s anatomy at birth to fit more neatly into a clearly female or male sex category, often without the informed consent of the child’s parents. Which means you or I could have been born intersex without ever knowing. Beyond being born intersex, there are many other reasons why an individual’s anatomy might not neatly fit into sex box one or sex box two including a wide range of surgeries and medical procedures like hysterectomies or getting one’s tubes tied.

(Drat, now what are you going to do with that middle line? Did you write in ink?)

Gender, as I mentioned, is socially constructed and enforced. And while there are plenty of examples of societies throughout the world and throughout history who have multiple and overlapping gender categories outside of and beyond a man/woman gender binary, Patriarchy’s strict binary depends on the initial subjugation of people gendered men. Or as bell hooks states:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.” (bell hooks)

(At this point, I usually draw mad arrows surrounding the left side of the circle, but however else you want to represent the ritual of emotionally harming boys will work too.)

The ritual of emotionally harming boys prepares them as grown men to dominate women and girls, compete with and command weaker less masculine and younger men, and police that gender binary with violent aggression. The performance of violent homophobia is one example of gender binary policing that Patriarchy demands.

(Again, arrows work here to represent domination. Sometimes I illustrate this forced violence by compelling the circle to tilt 90 degrees to the right and then morphing into a pyramid.)

Originally brought to parts of Europe through nomadic warrior tribes from the Russian steppes, Patriarchy became established in Europe over several thousands of years. Its spread in Europe began in the 5,000–4,000 BCE time range and became more and more entrenched throughout history. Patriarchy’s violence marked the eras of Greek and Roman domination and was especially ingrained in the rise of Christianity in both eastern (Eastern Orthodox) and western (Holy Roman) traditions. By the time the Witch Hunts rolled around, Patriarchy was integrated into economic, political, religious, cultural, and social systems at every level. {For more on this early history of European Patriarchy see The Rule of Mars edited by Cristina Biaggi}

Shoelace Metaphor 1

(Now for that shoe I’ve asked you to find; make sure you have a shoe that is laced up, but not yet tied. Cross the two laces one over the other. Wrap one of the laces around and up under the other. Pull both of them tight in order to create the first foundational knot. This knot represents European Patriarchy.)

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Shoelace Metaphor 2: Foundational knot is European Patriarchy

The era of the Witch Hunts in Europe corresponded with an entire economic shift away from Feudalism and towards Mercantilism, the predecessor of Capitalism. To sum up hundreds of years of history and an entire book (Caliban and the Witch by historian Silvia Federici), the ruling wealthy class got greedy and kicked the peasants off the land. The peasants organized to resist. The ruling class clapped back using the Witch Hunts and persecution of Jewish people and Heretics to undermine peasant resistance. All this eventually resulted in a new economic system: Mercantilism, which focused on trade for profit and private ownership. Its accompanying philosophy, Mechanical Philosophy, began equating the human body to the machine, viewing the body as raw material, disposable for profit and the emerging nation-state.

At the same time as Europe was philosophically separating the physical body from the sacred soul, its religious leadership (Pope Alexander VI) was sanctifying violent conquest. Now any land not already inhabited by Christians was proclaimed God-ordained for the taking. According to the Pope’s Bull, it was now Christian obligation that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”

These religious proclamations had a disastrous impact on Indigenous people around the world. In the Western Hemisphere, some historians estimate that 56 million Indigenous people were murdered leading up to the 1600s — equaling 90 percent of the pre-Columbian Indigenous population. Neither this devastating history nor the ways my ancestors directly benefited from it, nor the ways Indigenous people resisted, exist, and still resist European Colonization were ever taught to me in school. Certainly it was not the “Pilgrim and Indian” story of annual preschool Thanksgiving Day theater productions.

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Speaking of preschool, we last left our historical preschooler with the triumph of their first knot, poised and ready to take on the next level of shoe-tying anatomy. When teaching little kids to tie shoes, I tend to stick to the Bunny Ears method, in which you create two loops, one in each hand, and then tie them together and pull tight. This seems to be the clearest way to demonstrate, conceptualize, and explain the next step. However, when left to my own devices, I prefer the more complex “Loop, Swoop, and Pull” method. It’s amazing how as an adult, I do this now without even thinking. I make that quick grab with one hand for a loop on the lace to my right and then use my left hand to wrap the left lace around. Then, in an expert move, I seamlessly switch which hand is on which lace by momentarily holding the arrangement in place with my right hand. My left hand reaches for my right lace loop at the same time that the fingers on my right hand make contact with the left lace, guiding it through the gap. In one motion, both hands pull the two symmetrical loops taut.

(Take your shoe and add the second knot using your preferred—Bunny Ears or Loop, Swoop, and Pull—method. This second knot with its pair of loops represent Mercantilism on one side and Colonization on the other.)

Shoelace Metaphor 3: Bunny ears of Mercantilism & Colonization

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I can say with confidence, that the white women asking questions about race and gender on that cold, January day at our first Wicked Webs workshop weren’t the upper echelon of society. They weren’t the One Percent of 2018’s America. But, neither were they barely surviving at the lowest rung of the U.S.’s economic ladder. One of them even had enough expendable income and leisure time to meet up a few weeks later for a lovely chat over coffee. We were both wearing winter boots; mine had laces, double-tied.

Something else happened between the tie that brought together Mercantilism and Colonization and the metaphorical shoes worn by today’s nice white lady. And that something was the invention of race.

I first learned about the distinct historic connection between race and class at a People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond Undoing Racism workshop, which was being facilitated by Dr. Michael Washington. Dr. Mike painted a captivating and grim picture of what poor indentured European servants, Africans who were enslaved, and members of Native tribes were going through as dehumanized laborers for the European elite.

In Birth of a White Nation, Jacqueline Battalora also describes this set up with  attention to the ways European Patriarchy carried over into new laws in the British Colonies of Virginia and Maryland, particularly in supporting the legal creation of a new category of people now called “white.” These brutal 17th Century laws established a drastically different set of consequences and outcomes depending on whether one was European or African/members of Native tribes and included (and I share an extremely abridged version of this history here—for more in depth information, investigate the resources listed in the bibliography at the end of this post):

  •        In 1640 in the colony of Virginia, John Punch, an enslaved African man ran away with two indentured Europeans. When caught he was sentenced to lifelong servitude, while the Europeans were given added years of indenture, but not the permanent loss of their freedom. This is one of the first legal distinctions made between Africans and Europeans and set a legal precedent for lifelong Chattel Slavery.
  •       In 1643, and further clarified in the decades that followed, the Virginia Assembly added a tax on African women that was consistent with the tax on English men ages 16–60 and on African men. With this new law, English women became the only category of women tax exempt and, rather than being taxed for their labor, they were instead classified as dependents (both servants and free). As historian Kathleen M. Brown puts it, “This created a legal fiction about the different capacities for performing agricultural labor between English and African women” (from Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs).
  •       Deviating from hundreds of years of British Common Law in which land, child custody, and inheritance all flowed paternally, a 1662 Virginia colonial law made the status of a child (whether enslaved or free) inheritable based on the status of the mother rather than based on that of the father. This law had the traumatic impact of incentivizing the systematic rape of women of African descent. It also delegitimized Black parenthood by simultaneously relocating parental authority of Black children to enslavers while erasing evidence of their white paternity.
  •       Anti-miscegenation laws in the colonies of Virginia and Maryland established the existence of white people in 1681, first established to control who “British and other free born” women could marry and later declaring that it was illegal for white men and women to marry people of African descent and members of Native tribes. Although illegal for white men to marry non-white people, this was primarily enforced in the case of white women, serving to make white women exclusively available to white men and subsequently all women more available to white men. At the same time, patriarchal privileges (carrying firearms for example) were stripped from men of African descent and members of Native tribes, centering patriarchal power in the hands of white men.

This gruesome history was justified with the development of pseudo-scientific classification and ranking systems (aka race), which consistently placed white at the top and Black at the bottom. {Read: The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.}

These legal and “scientific” categories of human beings once again sub-divided humans into fictional and unequal groups (this time based on race) and became cleverly integrated into all aspects of U.S. society. The European “natural hierarchy” for gender relations adapted for racialized colonization and enslavement as Black and Indigenous people were feminized and infantilized as requiring the supposed protection, guidance, and domination of the European/white race. I say cleverly because the invention of whiteness by the ruling colonial elite has served to successfully align a lower class majority (poor and middle class white people) with the elite wealthy minority rather than align with their class-based peers. Moreover, the invention of a racialized exploitated lower class was fundamental to the development of Capitalism, an economic system based off of the historic supply and demand of people as property, their labor, and the colonized ownership of the Earth and all that can be taken from her.

To directly address the white educator’s question, racism depended and depends on the invention of white womanhood by carving out a specific pedestal for white women as the purest,  most beautiful, holiest model of civilized wife, mother, and daughter. The notion of white women as damsels in distress projects patriarchal white fears that white women will be coveted by Men of Color, which has incited horrific and ongoing racist violence. White women during the First Wave Feminist Movement repeatedly used racial superiority to reposition themselves as educators, missionaries, nurses, and cultural evangelists of white American culture by occupying prominent roles in Native boarding schools and southern schools for African American children, overseas missionary work, and women’s prison reform.

Which brings us full circle to the shoelace metaphor. If European Patriarchy is the first knot on your tennis shoe, proto-capitalist Mercantilism with its bottomless hunger for free and cheap (able-bodied) labor and Colonization with its hunger to dominate the Earth are the twin bunny loops that make up the second knot. And as any caregiver knows, a single knotted shoe tie often results in loose laces. Tie those sneakers twice. The double-knot of modern Capitalism and its co-conspirator Racism make up the historical third tie that reinforces these overlapping systems of oppression.

(Take the two loops and tie them one last and final time, making a double-knot. The loops of the double-knot represent Racism and Capitalism.)

Shoelace Metaphor 4 – Double-knot of Capitalism & Racism

As Felicia often points out, “In order to undo a knot, you must first go back through.” Which is why white feminism has failed us and will continue to fail us. It is impossible to untie a double knot by pulling at its base. In fact, pulling at its base only tightens the tie. From Suffragettes to the Women’s March, white women have been vocal about ending Patriarchy. And we should be: Patriarchy is indeed the foundational knot. But in order to undo that knot, as well as all the interconnected knots that keep this arrangement in place, our collective liberation journey depends on our ability to untie its most recent mutations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blogging with the Mennonites

written by Amanda Gross

Last month, I was honored to be invited to write for the Menno Snapshot Blog of Mennonite Church USA.

Having dreamt of being invited to address a vast audience of Mennonite white folks, I wanted to say so much. It took me several drafts to find words that resonated with how I was thinking and feeling at that July 2020 moment, especially about how I’m feeling about and grappling with my inner oppressor. The theme of befriending the parts of our selves we don’t love and which are also connected to oppression has also been present in our recent work in White Women’s Groups (you can read their blog here).

Ultimately, here’s  how I decided to approach the opportunity of examining my white Anabaptist identity in a society where racism is infused at every level, including inside of me.

Read the blog post!

Loving the Enemy Within: Grounding in the trauma-healing work of anti-racism

Border Walls

written by AMANDA GROSS

Sit.

Breathe.

Notice the life force streaming in through your nostrils. Watch it go out the same way it came in.

Do you notice your insides?

Can you feel your inner Mother Theresa? The selfless care? The love-practice lived?

How about your inner 45?

 

I was feeling rage and grief at my family’s willing ignorance and at the names and Black bodies that kept piling up on my twitter feed. Something mammal and hungry had devoured the mustard greens in my garden that I had grown from seed. Also, the carrot tops were missing.

(I guess my faith was small.)

 

I scraped the soft flesh of my forearm on a rebellious sheet of chicken wire. Wooden stakes. Staple gun. Wire cutters. Rocks and dirt filled in the gaps.

Satisfied, I stood back: At least the collards, tomatoes, basil, swiss chard, and cucumbers would stand a chance.

 

I stood back

And noticed that

I had built a border wall.

photo collage by Amanda K Gross

Yesterday, I walked in the sunshine to the farmer’s market and purchased the juiciest of strawberries. One fell out on its way to my fridge.

I tasted how it surpassed my expectations.

 

My dear friend asked for some.

Sure, I texted back, and also, I wish I had known or I would have bought more. I would leave half for her and her household on the top shelf of my fridge.

What I meant was, I wish I had planned to take more for myself. I remembered the taste of that one juicy berry. I anticipated my morning meal.

 

I remembered, too, the feeling of experiencing another’s pleasure—how deliciousness can be magnified by a chorus of “mmmmm’s.” I remembered how much I actually do like to share.

I boxed the berries up for her and stood at the sink to breathe.

The Milk and Honey of Our Denial

written by AMANDA GROSS

 

Dear Readers of the Mistress Syndrome Blog,

 

It’s been a while. It’s not you, it’s me.

If you hadn’t already heard, I’m working on a book, a long one. After several months of blogging here, I realized there was so much more I wanted to say. I wanted to connect the dots between blog posts and put my weaving skills to literary use and so I got the incredibly original idea to write a book.

At that point in my writing, the ideas and the stories were flowing freely, and I gave myself one year to complete this 100,000 word oeuvre. Now it’s going on three years. I have been learning so much.

I’m learning about myself through reflecting on childhood memories and through reading a lot of challenging books about racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. I’m learning too, what it means to write about real live people and to learn how they may have experienced a moment quite differently than I. I’m learning about how they might not be as excited as I am about the vulnerable glance into my (and subsequently their) life.

I’m learning about my own process, too, especially noticing what feels easiest to write (things further in the past) and what feels desperately difficult (things that I’m experiencing now and dynamics where I don’t feel clear).

I see my perfectionism getting in the way. It knocks things off of shelves just as I was grasping for them. It peers over my shoulder censoring my truth. It builds almost instantaneous walls of denial when I am afraid of not knowing what the “right” thing is.

VVH Cousin Lydia Victim

VVH Cousin Lydia Victim; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

I’m writing a (very long) book about Post-Traumatic Mistress Syndrome, about my Post-Traumatic Mistress Syndrome and as my accountability partner recently reminded me, there were some very big themes I had been leaving out. I’ve been afraid to touch upon them because of the painful emotions they bring up for me, even though I was justifying my avoidance to myself as things that might be hard for others to read. To be more specific, I’ve been trying to write a book about Post-Traumatic Mistress Syndrome without delving into white women’s relationships with Black men (well, specifically my own), without considering what it means for white women to raise Children of Color (because I don’t have my own), and without going deep into the complexities of intimate relationships with Women and Other People of Color (again, specifically my own experiences).

When I stop avoiding avoidance then I know exactly what it is: I’ve been avoiding feeling.

I’ve been avoiding feeling pain.

Today, I received a painful email. Someone my age in Atlanta — who I’ve only known tangentially — just passed away due to complications from Covid-19. Her death is tragic and, most likely preventable given the incompetence of our government and public health systems to contain the spread of the virus. She left many people who loved and depended on her and will be deeply missed.

This final email which announced her passing was the last in a long line of prayer requests sharing about the moments she had been on the edge and the moments she had begun to recover. The email was, subject line and all, framed as a celebration of her home-going. It is important to say that the email I received was not initiated from her family, instead from a white colleague. It is also important to note that her death, as someone who was racialized as Black, will go down as statistically consistent with how racism is causing Black people to die at highly disproportionate rates in this pandemic.

I am not privy to whether or not her family was using the hours immediately following her death as a celebration of her home-going, but it occurred to me as I began to feel enraged at the pollyannaish tone of the email and swift reply-alls, that heaven is a form of denial. (Please bear with me if you’ve already had this revelation.)

Several of the emails followed a similar format: First, acknowledge her passing and give condolences. Second, glorify God. Third, acknowledge that in her last breaths she may have found Jesus and/or that others might find him through her suffering. Fourth, glorify God again.

In my head I have composed and recomposed several drafts to metaphorically body check these anonymous and inconsiderate God-glorifiers on their ill-timed positivity. It seems an incredible offense to project one own’s beliefs onto a freshly grieving family. It seems a veritable disrespect to not offer them, their own space for grief, their own space to have their own experience with it, even if the imposition is coming from an email chain of tangential strangers which they might never read.

I realized then that the email chain said far more about the emailers than about this particular person’s life, death, or family.

I also realized then that denial is a form of heaven. The emails indicated how the people sending them were choosing (or not choosing) to grieve. Were these people not sad and enraged about the injustice of her death? Were they not destitute in the loss of a unique soul who could never be replaced? Were they not empathetic to what this might mean for her family’s emotional and economic well-being? The evolution of a white conservative Christianity has come into its glory. Pain does not have to be felt, struggle does not have to be gone through, vulnerability does not have to be opened up because God is good.

Also, feeling might mean having to make a change.

IMG_20170722_212837_722

The Chickens got away with Jesus: Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

I think too about the violence this attitude of required praise does to people navigating depression and what it meant for me when I was in the midst of a severe eating disorder. God was supposed to be good all the time. If I didn’t feel that goodness of God in the moment, that meant something must be wrong with me.

But what if God being good was not a cop-out for being in and with the hard things? Less of a “God is good” and more of a “God is”… Don’t quote me on this one, I learned the idea from the Buddhists and it’s probably in the Christian bible too, hidden beneath the layers of contemporary interpretations of atonement theory and the evils of sexual sin.

I am still resisting the urge to carve up the (probably white) emailers with the deft blade of my words in a Reply All response (they called me Dagger in college for a reason… which had nothing to do with writing or violence). But non-violence, etc., blah blah blah, and all that jazz. For the moment, I am dealing with my painful feelings by writing this blog post instead.

While I might not be able to change the behaviors of the emailers who come and in and out of my life, what I can work on is feeling my own pain in the moment. And I have been working on that, especially in delving into writing about some of the feelings I’d rather bury in the sand or pretend went to heaven. As I’m practicing this new feeling-in-the-moment tactic, I’m beginning to notice some interesting changes in my body. There is more ease and movement in my shoulders, which has served as my dumping ground for where I store pain and trauma for future moments of feeling and processing it.

Of course, the progress isn’t as linear or as shiny as those words may appear. There are also many days when my shoulders tense up as tightly as they used to.

Either way, God is.

 

How Does Whiteness Separate Us From God – Take Eight

This is part of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:  How does Whiteness Separate us from God?

WRITTEN BY Rachelle Regner

Decolonizing my mind, worldview and faith is an ongoing process that requires a lot of listening and relearning.  It has been both freeing and terrifying, healing and painful, beautiful and messy.  Just when I think I’m in a good, stable place, it takes me deeper into the suffering of all creation and deeper into myself.  Recently, it has brought me to a crossroads in my faith as I seek to discover my deepest self and relationship with the Creator and creation.

                                                        View of my childhood backyard

Growing up in rural western Pennsylvania as a pastor’s kid in conservative evangelical Christianity shaped my identity and worldview in a whiteness I didn’t even know existed.  The Bible I was taught to trust as God breathed and inerrant, as the “Truth”, was used to teach and defend this whiteness.  Now as I am learning to see and name the whiteness and the inconceivable harm it is causing, I am recognizing the “Truth” I was raised to believe has actually separated me from God.

Whiteness has separated me from creation. (Genesis 1:26) I was taught that humans are the superior creation and given the right to dominate the rest of creation for their own use and benefit.  This led to a lack of concern and hardness towards animals, plants, and the earth.  It taught me to support and participate in policies and practices of over consumption, greed, and exploitation that are killing our planet.  These actions were justified with a belief that the rest of creation did not possess the same inherent dignity as humans. Writers and speakers such as Kaitlin Curtis and Robin Wall Kimmerer both members of the Potawatomi Tribe and Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Priest, are teaching me to see not only the outer beauty of creation, but the intricate, complex design, interdependence and pattern of life, death, and resurrection in all things.

Whiteness has separated me from others.  Whiteness within my evangelical faith taught me that I am an individual and my faith is individual.  It taught me that my faith was the only way to God (John 14:6) and to focus more on evangelizing hearts than opposing the structures of oppression because people’s suffering was the result of their individual choices.  It trained me to ignore my complicity and participation in the structures of oppression through viewing myself only as an individual.  The individual approach to my faith focused on getting to heaven and ignored the suffering of the world.  Whiteness taught me dualistic thinking and to negate other faiths, spirituality and experiences.  It taught me to be blind to God in others and in all of Creation.  It trained me to judge and call out the “sin” in others and not see through eyes of compassion and grace.  Whiteness in my evangelical faith trained me to believe I had the truth that would save others and to separate from others until they believed in that same truth.   

 Some of my past memory verses

I have defined myself as stable and even keeled; someone who doesn’t cry a lot or experience many extreme highs and lows of emotions; an individual who is able to use my mind to make decisions rather than my heart, my intuition.  I have considered this a strength of mine, but this process of decolonization is revealing to me that this is one of the central ways I have been separated from God.  Whiteness has separated me from emotions and feelings, from my heart, my intuition. (The heart is deceitful above all things. Jeremiah 17:9)  Throughout my childhood, I was reminded regularly that the heart is deceitful and cannot be trusted and that emotions are misleading and even sinful as they come from our sin corrupted heart and not the truth.  I separated myself from experiencing and processing my emotions because I was taught that the way to listen to God was not listening to my heart, but instead only listening to the written word. So, now as I am trying to discover my deepest self and connect with my emotions/heart/intuition, I am finding it hard to go into the depth of my emotions.  I have been so trained to disconnect, connecting is unknown to me and even scary.

Whiteness has separated me from my body (2 Corinthians 5:1-10; Romans 7:18, Romans 8; Galatians 5).  My faith taught me that my body is temporary; I would receive my eternal body in heaven.  Even further, I was taught to separate my body from my soul and that there was nothing good in my body.  I was taught the desires of the flesh were “sin” and at war with my soul.  Therefore, I was not only taught to ignore my body, but to force it into submission to “holiness” often causing harm to my body.  I was taught to deny it pleasure; viewing pleasure as purely “sinful”.  I didn’t recognize how intricate my body is and how interdependent it is to the Creator and creation.  I didn’t know how to listen to my body and pushed it past its limits.  I couldn’t hear it screaming at me that it wasn’t well until it stopped functioning and my health declined.  A long healing journey for my body is teaching me its unity with all things and that I must not only recognize and live in that unity for the healing to continue, but learn to trust and listen to my body.

Whiteness has separated me from the very essence of who I am.  My evangelical faith was built upon the belief that I am a sinner and separated from God (Romans 3:23).  I was constantly reminded of that sinful nature within me and that I could never be “good” enough for God to accept me.  Being made in God’s image was proclaimed, but quickly overshadowed by “the fall” (Genesis 3) and our sinful nature (Romans 5:12).  Love and grace were preached, but drowned out by the wrath and judgement of a god who could not see past “the sin” within the people he created for relationship with himself (Romans 1:18; **use of male pronouns for god as taught in my evangelical upbringing).  These conflicting messages and the emphasize on sin and separation have separated me from understanding and recognizing God within me.  It has separated me from truly experiencing the love of God and my unbreakable connection with my Creator.

Whiteness has shaped and polluted Christianity.  An individual approach to faith, truth, and redemption have ignored the connection between God, humans, and all of creation.  Whiteness has taken a story of love, peace, justice, and a message of opposing power and structures of evil and used it to defend greed, violence, and oppression.  Whiteness has distorted the Bible leading to individualism, meritocracy, and a focus on “getting to heaven” as fundamental belief systems within Christianity, which are tools to continue to ignore and feel the impact of being an oppressor.  Whiteness is separating us from God, from others, from creation, from our feelings, and from our truest selves.  Whiteness is killing us.  I am discovering to find my way to a life of connection and love, I first have to acknowledge the violence of whiteness towards me and through me (as an oppressor), especially through a faith that was taught to me as the salvation of the world (1 John 4:14).

How Does Whiteness Separate Us from God – Take Seven

This is part of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:  How does Whiteness Separate us from God?

WRITTEN BY Jennifer Arnold

In February I attended the Bartimaeus Kinler Institute in California which was focused on “Indigenous Justice and Christian Faith: Land, Law, Language”. While there I watched over and over as indigenous folks from around the country and the globe greeted each other. Bearing gifts they would introduce themselves and welcome the other. Their introductions were not like the ones to which I’m accustomed. They would name not only their tribe, but also the specific place their ancestors had called home. There were no white western colonized names, no “California” or “Indiana”. Instead, they would name the watershed, the valley, the native plants and insects. As I listened, watching precious natural gifts trade hands, I was struck by how much we who call ourselves white have lost, and how much we have stolen.

Just yesterday I was in a room and the speaker asked us to name where our families were from. To listen to a group of “white” folks name aloud: Scottish, German, Irish, English, and on and on is an unusual experience. It made people uncomfortable and voices quivered ever so slightly. Answers were inflected as if they were questions. We have forgotten these places and named ourselves white but to be white is to be from nowhere. To be white is to have ceded home for power, to have exchanged culture for advantage.

What would it look like if we flipped that question so commonly asked to folks of color on it’s head, “No, really? Where are you from?” Let’s try it on me first.

 

  • Where are you from? I grew up in Indiana, but I lived in North Carolina before I moved to Georgia.
  • That land was stolen. Where are you really from? Well, my ancestors moved from Germany and France to Pennsylvania in the 17th century. They came from the Alsace-Lorraine region which is right on the border of the two countries.
  • Yes, but where? Where are you from? Really? Ummm…that’s all I know.

 

See how quickly I get stuck? I can’t name anything specific because I don’t know the places of which I speak. I can’t tell you the trees that grow there or from where my people got their water. I can’t speak the native tongue. I cannot chose a gift to represent this place I only know in name. I cannot tell you about the local creation myth. My memory has been cut so short. Surely, if you go back far enough, there was a time my people were indigenous somewhere. Everyone comes from somewhere. It’s not as if Europe was devoid of people until they appeared and all at once decided they wanted to violently conquer the rest of the world. So when did we lose our traditions? How far back do I have to go to find my ancestor who would have been able to come to the Bartimaeus Institute, shake hands, bear a gift, sing a song, tell a story, and intimately name the landscape of their ancestors? Yes, surely we have lost something. Many things. Not just the tangibles – like the name of our watershed, but the intangibles too. We have lost our ways of relating to each other and to all of creation as siblings. How far back until we can reclaim ceremonies of hospitality towards strangers instead of domination and death?

“But this blog is supposed to be about separation from God,” you’re thinking. “Why are you going on about all of this stuff about ancestral land?” I say all of this because God is not a thing that exists out there beyond us and beyond our world. Although I believe that God is always bigger than anything we know, it is also true that we are human. As such we can only relate to God through our bodies and through the world around us. If God is the Creator of all, then we are related – siblings – to all. We are one. Imagine the world as a circle with God at the center. Every living thing is a straight line from the outside in towards the center (like the radius or spokes on a wagon wheel). Following your line, the closer you get to God, the closer you get to all of creation. And the closer you get to creation, the closer you get to God. The two cannot be separated. We are one. When we lose touch with our watersheds, the wisdom of our ancestors, and our practices of hospitality and welcome, we are losing touch with God. 

The more we give up in our quest to claim the invisibility of whiteness, the more our hearts ache with longing for what we have lost. I believe that deep in our hearts we folk who call ourselves white, like all humans, crave relationship and intimacy. But we have sacrificed deep connection for the cheap substitute of power and control. “Owning” land is not knowing it. Production is not partnership. Profit is not benefit.

A common definition of sin is “separation from God” and so it strikes me that the question “How does whiteness separate us from God?” is ultimately a question about sin. That’s big heavy theological language that many people want to run away from. I get it. When systems of power and privilege enter the mix, “sin” language has often been used to shame anyone who doesn’t conform to the status quo. That’s not what I’m talking about. Legality is not the same as morality. Instead, is it not sin to choose disconnection from the center of the circle, to move further away from God and from others? If God is the source of all being and love, then to be connected to God is to feel our being and the being of others. It is to be in loving relationships with that which God has made, all of creation. It is connection, not separation.

Yet, our whiteness has demanded separation, psychic and physical. When indigenous Americans first encountered European colonizers (there was no idea of “white” yet), they welcomed these strangers to their home. Ancient practices of hospitality, connection, oneness reigned. In many instances the Europeans would likely have not survived otherwise. What kind of mental gymnastics then must our forebearers have gone through to convince themselves that these folks who met and welcomed them, were less than human? Deserving of death? I think about the white folks centuries later who gathered in jubilance to watch black men swing from trees. How do you watch that horrific scene and not have your insides torn to shreds? How do you keep on living? I think of myself, who recently learned about another lynching just this month – 2019! – in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. About how I could read this and be upset certainly, but not filled with the utmost rage. How I turn on that intellectual part of my brain to “find out more” instead of sitting in terrifying pain. How I can justify my lack of feeling by choosing to believe the police who ruled it a suicide despite some super sketchy evidence. As if murder is just a misunderstanding we all need to really get over already. 

Like the chicken and the egg, I wonder which came first: the belief that we were superior or the refusal to see and feel others’ pain. Really though, show me an instance where either exists without the other. They don’t. They can’t. Both are symptoms of our disconnection from others and from ourselves. Separation is like a lie you tell that quickly spirals out of control. Whiteness demands that we keep lying and denying pain (not just others’ but also our own) in order to hide the truth that are all in fact one, created for connection with God and each other, without hierarchy or power over the other. There is no “natural order” of separations where whiteness is on top. That superiority is the lie we use, knowingly and unintentionally, explicitly and implicitly, to justify our sin. 

We like to pretend that when we sin and separate ourselves to the top of a false hierarchy it really only hurts those who we believe are less valuable than us. We somehow remain unscathed. Yet, there is no way to be separate and not be absolutely deformed. The problem is we’ve just lied further to believe such deformations are normal, good even. Yet, if we are honest we can feel the fragmentation of our sin inside ourselves, in our personal relationships, and in society at large. The circle where God is at the center has no hierarchy, no separation. If we want to be whole, connected to God and each other, we must stop lying. We must stop justifying. We must start feeling. Can we relearn the ways of welcome? Can we know our watersheds and native flowers? Can we allow ourselves to be filled with rage at the way whiteness has dehumanized not just others, but also ourselves? 

Nothing about this is easy. We who call ourselves white must pick up our cross of tortured mental gymnastics, of hiding from our sin, of superiority. We must carry it around and feel it’s weight on our shoulders. Let it burden us and make us uncomfortable. In carrying it may we learn where it hurts in our bodies. May we learn how to feel pain. May we learn how not to throw it off onto others expecting them to bear it for us. May we learn to not be overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable. May we learn to just keep going. As we stumble towards the center of the circle, , burdened under this cross, we do not move in vain. Our God is a God of resurrection and new life. Sin, death, and violence will not have the last word in this story. Still, if whiteness is to die we must bring our crosses with us. Then perhaps, eventually, when we get to the center of the circle, where all of God and creation are one, we will finally be able to partake in that ancient ceremony of welcome. We will tell God who we are and where we really come from. We will present the cross which we have labored under as our gift. We will lay it down without hurting others. No longer separate, no longer lying, no longer superior. And God will not scorn our faulty, painful, broken gift but return it with another, better gift. The gift of connection, of love, of wholeness. Redemption. With open arms God will be there, celebrating with all of our brothers and sisters, to welcome us home.

To Protect and Serve

written by AMANDA GROSS

Unlike 17-year-old Antwon Rose II, I have never been targeted by the police in a way that made me fear for my life. My three and a half decades of personal experience with the criminal justice system can be counted on one hand: jury duty + 4 traffic stops, only one of which resulted in a ticket.

Upon further examination, though, my involvement with the system goes deeper. My above list omits the times I have initiated contact with the system, like the one time I called the police when my neighbors were having a domestic dispute so loudly, I could hear chairs being broken through the thin apartment walls. I was afraid; terrified really, as my neighbor screamed for mercy. I felt both powerless and convicted that something must be done. And so I did what I had been taught to do: I called 9-1-1.

There are also the numerous other times that I have considered that option but not followed through, sitting on the front porch or peeking out through the blinds while clutching my cell phone as I struggled with the moral dilemma of whether or not to call the cops. I still struggle with the urge to call even though I am now aware that law enforcement disproportionately targets Black and brown communities and that police involvement can harm more than it helps. I still struggle internally even though I know that the police force as an institution was never intended to protect and serve my neighbors. I know now that the police force we have today began originally as slave patrols. In 1857, the Supreme Court declared that under the Constitution, a Black person “has no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” A 17th century Virginia law proclaimed that if an enslaved person was ever killed in an attempted arrest, the person who killed them “shall be free and acquit of all punishment and accusation for the same, as if such accident had never happened…,” as if Antwon Rose II’s murder had never had happened.

I know now too that enslavement is still legally sanctioned through incarceration, that we disproportionately incarcerate Black and Indigenous people, that Black students are disproportionately pushed out of education and into the criminal justice system, that in Allegheny County, Black students are suspended at 5.6 times that of white students, and that white women are the frontline offenders in upholding this dynamic termed the School-to-Prison Pipeline.

If you haven’t guessed already by my traffic-stop-to-ticket ratio, I am a cis white lady. And as one of many such white ladies who have been entrusted with the education of young people, it would be easy for me to obscure my relationship to the systemic violence of racism. It would be convenient for me to point to the violence of white men: the police officer who pulled the trigger, the attorney who represented him, the first and then second judge who presided over the trial, the majority of the jury responsible for Officer Rosfeld’s acquittal, the D.A. who failed to present a strong case. It is so much more comfortable for me to gloss over the long-lasting history of white ladies organizing for racism and my connection to it.

White Middle-Class Neighborhood; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

To Protect…

There have always been white women rallying for the cause of racism. Since the early 20th Century, Women of the Ku Klux Klan and its predecessor Ladies of the Invisible Empire have had reach beyond their base in southern states, spanning from Portland, Oregon, to Baltimore, Maryland.[1]White mothers were on the front lines against school desegregation both in the Jim Crow South and also against integrated busing practices in Boston.[2]Closer to home, white women took on leadership roles in organizing against the 1981 court order that merged the then-predominantly white school districts of Churchill, Edgewood, Swissvale, and Turtle Creek with the predominantly Black districts of Braddock, North Braddock, and Rankin to become the Woodland Hills school district, the district where Antwon would eventually attend.

Despite recent calls to “stand against hate”, our history of racist organizing at its root is more about fear than hate. This fear exploits a patriarchal narrative that presumes an innocent victim status for white women and white children in need of protection from the violent pathology that has been projected onto Black and brown people. The fear that has me gripping the telephone is not disconnected from the fear tactics used in crime reporting on the local news, in commercials for home security systems, on the NextDoor East Liberty listserv asking if anyone heard gunfire 20 minutes ago, or from the weekly Pittsburgh Police Zone 5 email blast, which lists names, ages, and descriptions of people who have been arrested and reminds us to stay vigilant. My persistent urge to call points to a very deeply instilled belief that for every time I feel helpless, there should be a hero ready and waiting to protect me from an outside danger or at least protect me from my own feelings of helplessness.

College Classroom; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

…and to Serve

I wholeheartedly believe that of Pennsylvania educators, 96% who are white women,[3]get into education because they want the best for their students. I believe that these same educators went to teacher school with vision, integrity, and the intention to nurture all young learners and to help prepare their students for brilliant futures. I have witnessed many of these white lady teachers put in countless, unpaid extra hours, spend their own salaries on classroom supplies, and advocate for their students within a system bent on pushing out students of color. I don’t believe that any teacher enters the field eager to disproportionately fail, discipline, and suspend their Black and brown students while disproportionately passing, promoting, and graduating their white ones. And in a system where teachers are so often stripped of institutional agency and scapegoated as the problem, I also don’t believe that any teacher joins the teacher’s union planning to organize for their own best interest to the detriment of their students’. Yet, these are the dynamics we have today. Pennsylvania teachers, 96% of whom are white ladies, are the ones making decisions in the classroom that lead to racial disproportionality while teachers unions frequently stand with the institutional status quo instead of with student of color-led organizing, such as in the case of siding with the administration during the recent student walkout and in opposing an extension of the moratorium on out-of-school suspension.

As a fellow white lady, I want to know how our good intentions have become so distanced from the collective negative impact we have on the young people we say we serve. As a student of history, I am seeking answers to how we have come so unaligned with organizing that would actually make life better for our students andfor us.

A brief history lesson shows that this is not the first time we have used whiteness to advance an agenda for white women at the expense of People of Color. The end of the Civil War opened up a whole field of work in education to white women who had previously been discouraged from working outside the home. Northern white women descended in droves upon the South to teach Black children to read. Around the same time, white women gained employment and status through government jobs working on Indian reservations, teaching at Native American boarding schools, and doing church work as missionaries in other countries.[4]White women assumed these roles under the guise of benevolent caretakers and cultural workers who would guide their young charges away from their home cultures and towards a “more civilized” white way of being. These teaching opportunities were steeped in a racism that promoted the superiority of white culture and was built on a false narrative that Black and Indigenous children needed white women to help, fix, and save them. It is so important that we know our history. This history helps explain how white women have come to dominate the field of education. It also helps explain how we as white women inflict violence when we don’t recognize our power as white people. Like the white mothers protecting their white children from going to school with children of color, like me clutching the phone, like teacher unions inadvertently organizing against their students, we are most effective at organizing for white supremacy when we carry our victim mentality with us into the halls of institutional power.

Only You Can Prevent Racism; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

When I see injustice or harm, I am moved by a loud voice in my head to JUST DO SOMETHING and so the idea of not doing something – of not calling the police, or of not discipling students, for example, seems contrary to the parts of me that want to spring towards action, to the parts of me that have learned that I too should protect and serve. And I am learning that there are so many ways towards action that challenge racism. It’s just that those actions are not as simple as a phone call. Those actions reject the historical claim for white women as righteous victim/saviors. Those actions take a whole lot of unlearning and learning anew. Those actions require creativity and are grounded in humility and relationship. Those actions call on a type of persistent collective courage we rarely see in heroic films. Those actions require self-study and a long term lifelong strategy that acknowledges the extensive power we currently hold through institutional positions, cultural access, and proximity to cis white men. There are so many ways for us to refuse to collude with white supremacy. Above all, those actions require us to center the humanity of Antwon Rose II and of his peers.

[1]Women of the Klan by Kathleen M. Blee

[2]Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae

[3]Public Source Reporting

[4]White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States, Louise Michele Newman

Lying While White, Again

written by AMANDA GROSS

Once you tell a lie, more lies are required to cover it up.

I have a vague recollection of a children’s picture book that had this lesson as a premise or maybe it was a cartoon or perhaps several iterations on the same theme. At some point in the beginning of the tale, the main character tells a lie about something seemingly insignificant (racism calls this a “white lie”) and then finds themselves weaving a web of lies to cover it up – first for their initial lie and then for a gaggle of proceeding lies until eventually it all falls apart until either the character is caught and/or feels so incredible guilty that the entirety of the truth spills out. At the end we learn never to tell the small lie in the first place because if you give a mouse a cookie…

My exposure to this moralistic tale happened first in preschool or maybe Kindergarten around the same time that most children are taught not to talk about race, especially in mixed (read: multiracial) company. This includes learned silence and sometimes shame around noticing, pointing out, and identifying racial difference. For most of us who have come to be called white, this vow of silence applies to mixed company as well as the all-white ones. We were shushed and taught to pretend that we are all the same, that we don’t notice difference because that would be impolite. We were taught to pretend that the differences in our relationships to power are rude to point out.

Whiteness Montage; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

It is an early lie, more accurately a white one. This lie has required lies upon lies to prop up its initial false claim, creating a (wicked) web* of tangled deception. And we are all caught up in it one way or another because the lie of race has shaped our perceptions, our thoughts, our realities, and our life expectancies. That white people exist as a biological, genetic, or phenotypical category are all lies. That this falsely constructed category of people is superior in any way to other falsely constructed categories of humans is also a white lie, though this time a rather significant one.

As I struggle to breathe amidst the toxic air of my surroundings, I think how these lies of racism show up in my body’s allergic reaction to Pittsburgh’s air (in)equality. My body is creating mucus in record quantities to expel that which is unnatural, that which does not belong, that which threatens the universe of my organism. The earth too is in the process of expelling us humans and our toxic racist lies. My childhood stories ring true, white lies – the small ones and the racial ones – are not so insignificant after all. They build up and create an unsustainable mess.

Truth-telling, like lying, is also a slippery slope. As you may have noticed, lying has been a recent theme of this blog, and by lying I don’t necessarily mean the Who-stole-the-cookies-from-the-cookie-jar?-Not-me!-Couldn’t-be!-Then-who?-ones. I mean the lies that we tell ourselves about our feelings and the one about the impact other people and things are having on us. Mainly, the lies we tell ourselves.

Initially, I wanted to write that truth-telling is complicated or complex or complexly complicated… But in writing that and in being honest with myself, I’m realizing it’s not the truth-telling that’s complicated, but the lying that complexifies my truth.

VVH Cousin Lydia Victim; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

I have recently set an intention for truth-telling and truth-seeking, which inevitably means the Universe has offered me more than ample practice. It also means more of my lies are being revealed to me. And because I am out of practice, I am noticing my dishonesty several lies in. Several lies behind, I am still not catching the white lie as it leaves my lips.

Like just this week as I observed my gut feelings and knew there was something I didn’t like about an email communication that was unfolding. I also told myself that an email chain was not the place to address this. So I waited. And I waited. And waited for the previously agreed upon moment of in-person dialog to appropriately share the feelings I’d been damming up for days. Then when that moment didn’t happen, the truth exploded – or sort of the truth, but definitely something exploded. Really what happened is that I ended up telling the truth about my feelings by lying about what incited them, leaving a whole lot more mess to clean up. (Tune in next week to see how it ends.)

This mini-white lady processing rant points out a pattern of mine on my journey towards truth-telling and reveals how much I am still attached to the lies of whiteness, how much I am willing to hold onto the toxins and swallow the mucus, how deeply committed I am to following the rules despite what my body communicates to me in the moment. I am still relying on an external playbook and not the inner truth of my being. In this case, I opted to follow the rules of anti-racist racist whiteness that cautioned me to communicate relationally, in person, and definitely not over email.

These moments have also cued me in on another lie I deeply believe: that truth-telling is seamless, easy, effortless, and ends in comfortable happy endings that celebrate the teller of that truth. As I begin a process of telling my family my truths from childhood, there are many (white) lies to untangle – some of which are being loosened, some of which are being pulled tighter because whiteness demands a pretense of invisibility. As I build up my emotional resiliency, sometimes I struggle to stay focused; truths can be so painful.

Clearly, the emperor is standing butt-naked in the snow storm, but our stubborn allegiance to the emperor’s imaginary cloak has become more important than finding him an adequate winter coat. (It would be a lie if we pretended the emperor doesn’t suffer, too.) He stands naked in the midst of the Polar Vortex as the earth seeks to expel both him and humanity’s white lies.

Snow on Christmas Morning photo by Amanda K Gross

*Wicked Web Workshops forthcoming in partnership with YROL. Please inquire for more details.

Lying While White

written by AMANDA GROSS

I have said it before and I will say it again, stoicism in my maternal line runs as deep as our varicose veins.

Now at the age of 35, I have been practicing the art of lying for decades. Perhaps this genre of art is not the one you’re thinking of where lying is a deliberate conscious effort to cover up one’s tracks. Although I would be lying to say I haven’t had moments like that.

This is not the type of lying that I would use after smacking my little brother across the face. He wailed like a fire siren. Amanda, did you hit your brother? My parents asked. Nope. I adamantly lied, shaking my head so hard it was bout to fall off. This is not the lying with which I covered up my anorexic tracks, its own menu of sorts: I’m not hungry… I already ate at soccer practice…  I gave that [insert food group] up for Lent…

Like a superficial understanding of racism, we’ve been taught to picture lying as intentional and overt, rather than woven into the very fibers of our social being. The concept of whiteness is based on a lie and so it is unsurprising that my white womanhood has been cultivated on a bed of lies that bestow qualities of purity, goodness, beauty, niceness, and victimhood to the white lady, just to name a few.

Hear No Evil, by Amanda K Gross

There is a lie steeped in stoicism grown from this falsely raised bed, a lie that has been part of my white lady practice since cultivating niceness became a personal goal. It was probably kindergarten, even preschool when I first learned the tools of the trade, that being hyper-nice, compliant and obedient to adults in authority gained me the advantage of Good Little White Girl. Sometimes modified with the adjectives Smart or Nice or Quiet, the benefit of the doubt was in the classroom before I arrived. All I had to do was play the part (or at least most of the time).

Each year I got better with practice. Being nice, quiet, and polite kept the adults happy and provided a safe emotional distance from my peers. Sometimes my classmates would ask for help with their assignments. Sometimes my teachers would assign me to do so. Either way, I was happy to oblige, my good little white girl purpose in life fulfilled.

One important tool in the box of lying while white has meant training myself not to express how I really feel. Frustration, irritation, annoyance, impatience, anger, and rage did not, could not belong to a good little white girl who was growing into a nice white lady. And so, those emotions, too could not belong to me.

As an adolescent, I recited the fruits of the spirit from a framed embroidery at my grandparent’s house. Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Goodness. Faithfulness. Gentleness. And Self-Control. Visually tattooed on my mind, patience and self-control were clearly the hard ones. I vowed to stuff down any feelings that would detract from this list. If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.* The dilemma is that I often have so much not nice to say.

White Silence, by Amanda K Gross

And so when recently, while in the middle of chopping vegetables, a feeling of irritation at a colleague welled up within me, it did not occur to me to bring this feeling to them. Instead, I sat with it for a moment, as my yoga practice has taught me. I acknowledged the emotion, as my therapist has taught me. Well hello there irritation, I said to the feeling. And then I lied to myself, as white supremacy has taught me. I diagnosed myself with impatience, surely stemming from my internalization of racial superiority. Impatience, by the way, was not listed on the framed embroidery of the fruits of the spirit. I quickly labeled this feeling bad and, renewing my vow to be patient, stuffed it down and continued cooking dinner.

Except the thing about lying, is that the truth is still there packed under the layers of cover up. The truth is still there and it wants to get out. It too wants to be free.

It took many days for me to realize my self-deception, and even then I only confronted it because of someone else’s emotional labor. It was several days more until I acknowledged my feelings to the colleague, and revealed that I had been lying to them. I created the harm that I feared. I shook the foundation of trust that I had convinced myself that my silence was trying to maintain.

I too have consumed the lie of whiteness with its false pretense that emotional distance (plus privilege) maintains a wall of security that will keep everything okay. The more honest I am with myself and others about my feelings, the harder nice white ladyness is to achieve. And so I am working on divesting from the wall. While obvious in theory, divestment proves elusive in the moment because I – more often than not – confuse the nice white lady for the real me.

*According to Thumper from Bambi

 

Only You

written by AMANDA GROSS

Meet Roger:

Only You Can Prevent Racism; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

I was first introduced to Duke University’s report, Fighting at Birth: Eradicating the Black-White Infant Mortality Gap at the Allegheny County Health Department Infant Mortality Collaboration. This study cuts to the quick in a very helpful way.

I, along with 99% of white liberals, have a closely held assumption that as someone’s income, education, and access to healthcare and career opportunities increase, so too will their health, wellness, and quality of life. This concept of increased access = better outcomes is why I support a move towards universal healthcare, more public and subsidized housing, as well as free higher education.

Not so fast. (this study says)

While that is the case for white people giving birth to children, as seen through the Infant Mortality Rate, it is not the case for their Black counterparts. The Infant Mortality Rate (or IMR) is one very important marker of health. The Duke study shows that IMR actually increases for Black women as their education increases (especially for those who hold Masters and Post-Doctorate degrees), rather than decreases. As access to higher levels of income, education, healthcare, and career opportunities improve, health markers decline. Come again?

The study controls for a lot of things (you can read it for yourself to get all the details), ultimately coming to the conclusion that the increase in IMR is because of Black women’s increased exposure to structural racism and microaggressions. Or another way to think of it is that Black women’s IMR increases as they interact with more white people (especially of the middle-class and affluent variety) and begin to live and work in spaces that are even more culturally white.

Well, of course this makes sense because racism. And though this is consistent with what Black women have been saying for years, we white people love a good study. And so it was this study that got me all inspired.

The study reminded me of a horrid billboard campaign, which – speaking of incredible Black-led organizations – New Voices for Reproductive Justice had first alerted me to. While Black mothers are often villainized in the media as bad promiscuous single moms, this anti-abortion ad campaign was particularly heinous stating: The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.

This textbook victim-blaming technique serves as a handy distraction. The ad campaign wants us to think that Black babies are dying because of the bad choices of their parents (translation: abortion) rather than see the circumstances around them, structural racism, stress, and increased interactions with white people as the main factor in those children’s deaths.

I was taught that meddling in Black peoples’ business was the sign of a good white person, but since that approach isn’t really saving anyone but my ego it’s time to move on and be more helpful.

Both fortunately and unfortunately white people are the real cause of racism, which means we have the opportunity to be both the harm and part of the solution.

Remember Roger?

He’s making public service announcements aimed at white people through this Public Ad Campaign. As he posts them, please download the images and share widely!

College Classroom; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

White Middle-Class Neighborhood; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

Corporate Boardroom; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

 

Godly Abuse is Nothing New to Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy

written by AMANDA GROSS

The news out of Pittsburgh over the past week has been grim. Also stomach churning.

Across PA, the Catholic Church has been outed for the decades-long institutionalized practice of child sexual abuse. The Grand Jury named 99 priests from Pittsburgh and 20 from the Greensburg diocese. I’m not going to get into the gory details, but you can find more info and an extensive list of the priests here. Since the Grand Jury Report was released, hundreds more people have come forward with allegations not previously reported. And nuns are breaking their vow of silence about their abuse at the hands of holy men.

Spilt Milk; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Our dominant child abuser narrative is that of the lone, sick, criminal abuser. Our crime and punishment approach assures us that locking up a few bad apples will solve the problem and keep our children safe. And so I am hopeful that despite the horrors, the discourse is shifting away from these lies. The Grand Jury report not only shows a clear, widespread pattern with 301 people involved (and 1000s abused), it also points to the institutionalization of abuse with cover up after cover up and a culture that punished whistleblowers and nurtured toxic discretion.

Of course the Catholic Church isn’t the only institution implicated in the recent exposure of sexual violence. Mennonite institutions are being exposed too. These patterns of abuse being made public have long been the norm in the film industry, in media, in U.S. Gymnastics, and in the U.S. Immigration System where thousands of migrants report sexual abuse including a 6-year-old girl.

In any of these institutions, abuse is horrific and unacceptable and has long-lasting life-altering impact on the survivors. But with this recent news out of Pittsburgh, I have been thinking about the spiritual violence present when experiencing abuse from your direct line to God. Abuse of power comes as no surprise. And these particular abuses – sexual abuse at the hands of priests, abuse of children in immigration detention and at the hands of the juvenile criminal justice system as well as their predecessors in Native American boarding schools and chattel slavery all have a common root in 15th-18th Century Europe where clergy, jailers, and local officials institutionalized the sexual abuse of adults and children in the name of God.

The witch hunts of 15th-18th Century Europe set the stage for the legacies of abuse we’ve inherited today. Across Western and Northern Europe there were targeted campaigns spanning hundreds of years built around a document known as the Malleus Maleficarum written by Catholic clergy in Speyer, Germany*. This bestseller lead the way in the oppressive theology of the time.

As I’ve blogged about before: in campaign after campaign to root out evil, the witch became the criminal of her day, a convenient scapegoat whose tortures, trials, and burnings fueled religious, political, and social institutions. At the time of the Protestant Reformation when Europe was being carved up along religious lines, priests and ministers on both sides were back in demand, called in desperation to exorcise the demons.

Wooden Frame; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

New courts were established, expert judges and attorneys were required to legitimize fear and its antidote – law and order. According to historian Lyndal Roper, attorneys began to make “a fortune in legal consultations…” and established a lucrative system in “housing and feeding the children (awaiting trial) and paying guards to watch over them.” Men of God were ushered into the detention centers, torturing and sexually abusing both adults accused of witch craft (the high majority of whom were women) and children as young as seven with their Godly methods to test for witchery.

Outside of detention centers, mayors and other leaders vowed to purify their towns, platforming off of the fear, suspicion, and subsequent hatred. Using lessons of torture learned from the Inquisition, persecution of European Jewish populations, and failed religious crusades outside of Europe, entire societal structures and institutions were developed and called upon to root out this evil. And so we persecuted both our grandmothers and our grandchildren to the fullest extent of the law.

Sound familiar? The resurgence of the law and order candidate, being tough on crime, our U.S. juvenile justice system, detaining immigrant children, systematic child abuse in religious institutions, and misogynistic rape culture all have roots in these several hundred years of terror.

The Chickens got away with Jesus: Mixed Media by Amanda K gross

What I am saying is that religious child sexual abuse is not new and we know where it comes from. 500 years later the psychological consequences continue both for those doing the abusing and those being abused.

The European witch hunts broke the back of the Peasant Revolts and other class warfare that was threatening the European ruling class at the time by targeting poor older women, the keepers of their community’s historical memory, the weavers of communal networks, the advisors of resistance. The witch hunts taught our ancestors the psychological somersaults of cognitive dissonance and disassociation. What psychological toll would it take for you to turn on your grandmother, or your aunt, on your child? What psychological sickness might get passed down generation after generation?

Once you’ve accepted the abuse of your own mother, how much easier is it to accept the abuse of others’? The psyche of the witch hunts crossed the Atlantic in the minds and bodies of Europeans paving the way for racist colonization and for the racial category we know as white.

Of course the survivors of 20th Century Church child sexual abuse are not the only children of the witch hunts. As usual the ones who have come to be called white get a whole lot more press.

The torture and enslavement of children of African descent during American chattel slavery in which enslaved children were systematically raped, the children born from those rapes enslaved by their own fathers.

The torture and incarceration of Black and Brown youth disproportionately represented in the U.S Juvenile system and the School to Prison Pipeline is morally if not religiously sanctioned with droves of Christian voters supporting abusive “tough love” policies.

The torture and imprisonment of indigenous children at Native Boarding Schools, a forced religious education aimed at cultural genocide.

The torture and detention of immigrant children, separated from their families and left vulnerable to institutionalized abuse.

All of the above have been justified on Christian religious grounds at some time or another. What I am saying is that religious child sexual abuse is not new; it is old. It is old enough to know better.

We are old enough to know better. We are old enough to speak our truths. We are old enough to disrupt these cycles of abuse. We are old enough to share our own stories. We are old enough to equip our children with this knowledge. We are old enough to say “no!” and to teach our children to do the same. We are old enough to make consent an everyday practice. We are old enough to hold our friends, families, significant others, children, representatives, judges, and priests accountable.

We are old enough to uproot this invasive plant and to uproot it together.

Les Temoins 2; Pen and Ink by Amanda K Gross

*Anabaptists might note the importance of this location. Historian Silvia Federici makes the connection that witch hunts were most prevalent in places where heretics, such as the Anabaptists, had been previously persecuted.

What’s Wrong with Being Wrong (?)

It was a blog post I hadn’t thought twice about. My artistic abilities were proudly Mennonite Humbly on display. The info book-researched and personally connected. The white ladies had put the finishing touches on their assignments. The Victim, Villain, Heroine project was complete.

Or so I thought. Then mom came to town.

The Cousin Lydia I reported on in my last blog post is a figment of my imagination, or at least the way I recreated her story is. While the Cousin Lydia whose photo and date of birth and death I found in  Mast Family History lived, died, taught at a girl’s school as a missionary in India, and is indeed my distant cousin, she is not the family relative that inspired my grandfather’s medical career and set the trajectory of my family lineage into white professional assimilation – as I so eloquently blogged about in my original post. In my weaving of family lore, memories, and analysis, I had in fact conflated two other people merging their roles into late 19th Century Cousin Lydia’s convenient persona. I had not conflated family members intentionally, yet conflate I had.

VVH Cousin Lydia Heroine; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

So let me set the record correct. My grandfather was inspired to go abandon the family farm and go into medicine, not because of late 19th Century Cousin Lydia, but because of physician, Dr. CJ Esch, who worked in India and is most likely of no relation. Another Cousin Lydia, this one of the 20th Century variety, was a missionary in Red Lake, Canada who my mom and her siblings visited bringing back tales of pontoon planes, campfires, and moose liver.

More interesting to me (and perhaps to you) than the actual correction of these factoids is the amount of energy it took for me to work through my resistance to being wrong and making correction. Astute readers will note, it has been 90 days since my last confession blog post.

VVH Cousin Lydia Victim; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Right around the time of my mama’s visit I attended the Creative Nonfiction Writer’s Conference and sat through a workshop on fact checking. Ugh. Fact checking. The workshop, which was sophisticated and nuanced and seemed to have some understanding of the subjective biases carried by all humans, still touted the critical all importance of facts. As an anti-racist feminist whose life work has been built from a foundational assumption that facts bounce off frames* and that the ways we see the world are framed by our lived experience, power, and how the world sees us**, I spent the entirety of the workshop very resistant to the notion of facts. Rather than listening to the tips and arguments put forth by the fact checking team, I invested in a mental dialogue of poking holes in their presentation and getting quite huffy at the gigantic bother of facts. Just like Al Gore and our Alt Right cousins, I was saying facts are oh so inconvenient.

My life is fact, I thought.

Why would I need/want/look for anything more, I complained.

Objectivity is such a white male framework, I accused.

And it is.

But if I’m more honest with myself now than I was able to be then, my feelings of resistance are hands down emotionally lazy, and also shaped by a convenient one right way perfectionism that is attached to effortless rightness. You could substitute that phrase for an attachment to effortless whiteness.

VVH Cousin Lydia Villain; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Have I mentioned I’m writing a book? The yearlong process of which has been fraught with motivation and the fear of trying, confidence and insecurity, practicing naming my truth unapologetically and living in their consequences, exposing my vulnerabilities and acknowledging that in so doing I’m also exposing the vulnerabilities of others. The process of becoming brave enough to write my truth has meant a constant grappling with the insecurities I’ve been conditioned to believe while I fight the silent cloud of silence brought on by conflict avoidant white liberalism.

But my speaking of truth does not forego listening. In defending my heart and in order to tamper down the pain of how others receive my truth, I have been tempted to open my mouth and close my ears. When my mother challenged my version of Cousin Lydia, in that moment I really wasn’t that interested in challenging myself. I was annoyed, irritated, already done with that post and that project and ready to move on to new more exciting adventures. My resistance didn’t entirely surprise me, by my heightened awareness of it sure did.

In an effort to be more vulnerable and relational, I have offered up a space for dialogue and feedback on the book in progress to certain family members and friends. This move has been important and powerful and a painful knot untangling. Despite dialogue and truth tellings and listenings, the painful knot of relational exchange does not feel any more resolved. It perhaps never will. I am learning that in listening to others, with as much love as I can muster in the moment, this process might still lead to disappointment, to messy disconnection. For as much as getting solid on my truth doesn’t forego listening to others, it also doesn’t necessarily mean accepting and integrating others’ truths into my own. The powerful, terrifying thing is that at the end of the day I decide which facts and frames I let in and which ones I keep out, which ones I work with and compost and which ones I throw out. The powerful thing is that you do too.

*George Lakoff Don’t Think of An Elephant

**Every womanist/feminist ever

Victim, Villain, Heroine

WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross

While calling on our victim identity is a comfortable position for white women from the perspective of white feminism and while the popular white savior complex justifies our helping, fixing, and saving others, rarely do we honestly examine contemporary and historical white ladies’ contributions to upholding and dismantling intersectional oppression through the lens of racism. We all have the capacity to occupy aspects of all three – Victim, Villain, and Heroine – usually at the same time.

VVH Cousin Lydia Combined; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

In our anti-racist affinity space, White Women’s Group 3 asked these 3 questions about 3 white ladies: self, a family member, and a historical figure:

  • How are we victims of systems of oppression?
  • How do we perpetuate and uphold systems of oppression?
  • How do we resist systems of oppression?

And in challenging the myth of individualism in the archetypes of Victim, Villain, Heroine, we also investigated the historical and contemporary context of systemic oppression and social movements surrounding the white ladies in question.

Queen Elizabeth I

Victim – Born the daughter of the King of England, she endured a traumatic childhood based on the patriarchy and misogynistic culture of the time. When she was 2 ½ years of age her mother was murdered by her father, who repeatedly tried to disown her. As an adolescent, she was imprisoned by her half-sister. She had several step mothers and her half-siblings, cousins, and their families were in constant often violent competition with her for the throne. She began fending off suitors at the age of 13, which was considered a marriageable age for girls at the time. She spent a lot of her life ill, had almost total hair loss at a young age, and suffered from many harmful physical beauty standards put upon women including the toxicity of her make-up and girdles that reconfigured her vital organs.

VVH Queen Liz I Victim; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Villain – She was responsible for England’s initial colonizing endeavors and paved the way for centuries of colonization, imperialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and militaristic global violence. She granted stolen land of what is now called the Eastern U.S. to her favorite rich English merchants, never acknowledging the rights of Indigenous peoples to that land. Because of this patronage and legacy of displacement, Virginia is named for her. She established the groundwork for the equivalent of modern day corporations, the East India Company and the Virginia Company. She pursued scorched-earth tactics in Ireland, during which tens of thousands of people starved to death and many more people died of the violence. At home, she led land enclosures which forced peasants off of commonly held land resulting in skyrocketing homelessness and poverty at the advent of a capitalist economic system.

VVH Queen Liz I Villain; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Heroine – At a time when women were marginalized in religious institutions, she became head of the Church of England. She resisted patriarchal expectations by never marrying nor having children and exercising bodily autonomy, which was rare for women of the day. As an adult she had many suitors and intellectual, emotional, and most likely sexual affairs. Due to wealth and status, she was extremely well-educated unlike most of her contemporaries.

VVH Queen Liz I Heroine; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Historical Context – The 16th Century was the start of European colonization, global militarism, and capitalism. At the same time that Europe was violently suppressing peasant resistance movements, the heretic’s challenge to religious authority and power, and women for their role in nurturing common society, European monarchs were supporting wealthy merchants to explore, pillage, conquer, and claim other parts of the world and its people for their crowns. Under Elizabeth’s rule, England rose to prominence as a dominating dominator, leading the way in greed and violence. While not technically white (race was not yet invented), Britishness was used as a standard to define whiteness for generations to come.

VVH Cousin Lydia; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Cousin Lydia

Victim – Born into Mennonite Patriarchy in Pennsylvania, Cousin Lydia had few life options outside of getting married, having children, and nurturing a Christian household. Family power flowed through her father and her brothers, one of whom accompanied her to India.

VVH Cousin Lydia Victim; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Villain – She was born into Settler Colonizer society in Pennsylvania in the mid 1800s and continued that colonizer culture through perpetuating imperialistic norms as a missionary in East India where she taught at a girl’s school for East Indian students. In a photo of family genealogy she is seated above and surrounded by East Indian teachers of the school (who are not named), summoning a narrative of white savorism. The same family history book features photos of homestead after homestead built on the stolen land of Native people, the legacy into which Cousin Lydia was born.

VVH Cousin Lydia Villain; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Heroine – By living in India and pursuing a career in Education, she challenged expectations of white womanhood including the idea that white women were inherently frail and unfit to travel to certain parts of the world and also the idea that white women should marry and devote their lives to the reproductive labor of white families. She worked in the field of girls education which was not accessible for many girls at that time, not just in Pennsylvania or Indian but all over the world.

VVH Cousin Lydia Heroine; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Personal Note – Cousin Lydia’s example inspired my maternal grandfather to leave the Amish Mennonite farming community and pursue further education in medicine which he practiced in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Her example is also pointed to as reference for our family values of travel and education.

Historical ContextThe Post-Civil War era was a time of affirmative action for white women who had previously been confined to their homes. After the Civil War, careers opened for white women in missionary work, education, and nursing and white women began to be valorized for their role as cultural purveyors of the whiteness. Along with being given the duty of helping to assimilate poor white women and children and save recent Europeans immigrants from their slovenly ways, middle class white ladies were entrusted with the paternalistic responsibility of educating Native Americans, recently emancipated Black folks, and non-European people around the world whose cultures, languages, and religions were viewed as savage, backwards, and heathen. Cousin Lydia’s ancestors helped settle the colony of Pennsylvania a century before her birth, which meant several preceding generations had benefited off of the stolen land and attempted genocide of Native peoples who were forced to given up their homes to European farmers. This accumulated privilege granted Cousin Lydia access to education at a time when it was still forbidden (if not in law then in practice) for Black Americans to read and at a time when education was used as a tool of violence to strip Native Americans and other Colonized global communities of their indigenous cultures and ways of being.

VVH Amanda Katherine; Acrylic on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Amanda Katherine Gross

Victim – As a white woman in Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, I endured childhood spiritual trauma and ongoing sexism resulting in abuse, sexual assaults, self-harm, economic dependence on men, the spiritual void of materialism, isolation from authentic connection to other human beings, and the internalization of gendered inferiority, not-enoughness, self-doubt, and the repeated suppression of my intuitive and spiritual self.

VVH Victim AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

Villain – I have repeatedly accessed institutional privileges at the cost and impact of other human beings and especially People of Color and people living in poverty. Examples include receiving As when graded on a curve, receiving academic scholarship monies and other forms of affirmative action, moving into communities and neighborhoods without relationship or knowledge of local context and history while ultimately taking away jobs and housing from local residents, contributing to gentrification, contributing to environmental degradation and economic exploitation by participating in capitalism and consumerism, micro-aggressing strangers, colleagues, friends, and family, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from studying structural violence and poverty, and earning a salary off of the backs of poor people.

VVH Villain AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

Heroine – I have questioned and challenged the status quo in order to uproot systems of oppression by studying history and honing and re-honing my analysis. I have built authentic relationships and developed systems of accountability towards growth. I’ve leveraged my role as a gatekeeper to center perspectives of People of Color who share anti-racist analyses and practice an economic justice model of compensation for work and energy. I have organized other white ladies for mutual liberation and modeled vulnerability through creating art and writing to challenge the status quo and envision alternatives. I’ve worked to undo Internalized Racial Superiority within myself by reclaiming my spiritual intuition, by practicing the release of control and expectations, and by honoring my Self and needs in alignment with mutual liberation.

VVH Heroine AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

Historical Context – Dubbed a “Post-Racial Era” by some, the time period after the Civil Rights Movement saw its peak in racial equity outcomes in the 1970s followed by rapid increases in racial disparities in education, housing, wealth, health, employment, political representation, and incarceration. With the election of Trump in 2016, many white women in the U.S. began to realize that the narrative of American progress – especially related to gender – is far from realized. Consistent with previous movements by and for white women, most mainstream women’s movements continue to center and uphold white supremacy and operate within a capitalist framework. By 2018, Amanda Katherine’s ancestry had accumulated almost 400 years of white social and economic privileges especially impacted by access to land/home ownership and education – land which was explicitly stolen from indigenous peoples and education that was withheld from people of African descent and used as a weapon against people of Native communities.

White Lady Ego Part II – The Need to Be Liked

WRITTEN by Amanda Gross

The need to be liked is powerful in the white lady. It is an ego-driven urge that lies in wait covered up by dirty laundry and clean clothes, hidden from my consciousness until its rotting smell wafts up and out. It calls out to be reckoned with at the most inconvenient of moments.

I know where it comes from. Forged in the bowels of patriarchy, being liked is substitute currency that white ladies have developed over time. In my personal cultural and religious tradition, the opposite of being liked – in the form of shunning – is the equivalent of hell on earth. Exclusionary shunning has been called upon to exclude people from heaven, from community, from relationship, from justice, and from legitimacy. Its threat so powerful that the subconscious under toe of the possibility of not being liked drives our decisions and emotional responses. White ladies developed this manipulative tactic in the face of power disparities, but now its primary function is to manipulate ourselves.

cycles of trauma mirrors; digital collage and painting by Amanda K Gross

For much of my life, the fear of not being liked has helped direct my words and my actions. I was obsessed with this external compass as a teenager. I rationalized my self-talk as being as kind and nice as possible to everyone as a good Christian should be. I told myself that this was how I was showing love. After years of therapy and grappling with an eating disorder, I was able to recognize the patterns of cultivating smallness in myself, but they still have a powerful hold. Later as a young adult, wanting to be liked was my go-to in times of stress. Even as I increasingly exercised my voice and spoke my truth, there was still this nagging, grating sensation that in so doing I was forfeiting my safety or my power or both. Something was getting lost in this (ex)change. And something is getting lost in this (ex)change. My ego is struggling to survive.

As an adult, I have been trying to reclaim my intuition by diving through both the dirty laundry and the clean clothes to dust off the small voice of truth at my core.  But even when I polish it up and place it shiny on the shelf for all to see, I still hear the fear of not being liked. It’s usually telling me to get defensive and blame others, because I am speaking my truth and that should be enough for you. (But is it enough for me?) It’s whispering to me that I’m the victim when others don’t receive my truth without resistance, when they don’t hear what I intended clearly, when they don’t step out the way for my truth’s glory, when they don’t celebrate my truth as I have been working so hard to do.

Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

Recently this dynamic has happened especially when I am in direct conflict with others. Conflict with others is something I was taught to run from at all cost. Being in conflict is uncomfortable. All of my ancestors are screaming at me inside my head and inside my bones to flee the scene. But I have been pushing through because my intuition is valuable, because my life’s work is about conflict, because many of my ancestors were wrong, and because (reality check) conflict is a normal part of everyday existence. I can run, but conflict will find me again and again.

Even in the midst of these conflicts, after I have spoken my truth, clarified my perspective, and applied our collective agreements, something still stinks. In one recent example, my truth wasn’t received, instead it was warped and repackaged to fit the other person’s reality and spit back in my face. Or at least that’s the story I’m telling you because it’s the story I’m telling me, which is really a story of my wounded ego. I may think that I am over caring what people think, I may be more comfortable with interpersonal conflict than ever before, but deep down I still have attachment to how they will talk about me to others, to the injustices of my being shaped by rumor to strangers and not out of direct relationship to me.

Victim, Villain, Heroine; Acrylic and Ink on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

While the need to be liked is not directing my words and my deeds like it once did, it still lingers. And like other aspects of our socialization into whiteness, it is most dangerous when I think I have arrived. It is a convenient nook to store anger, frustration, exhaustion, and sadness. It is convenient to let the stench seep through in societally approved tearful claims of victimhood. But it’s in the cleaning up and the sifting through that I am offered the lessons that were meant for me. It is in the letting go of control of wanting to be liked that I can undo and unlearn the habits that hold my Self back, to stay in the discomfort and not give into my ancestor’s urge to flee.

 

This post is a companion piece to this one on White Lady Ego.

Snow White Denial – On Being the Victim, Villain, and Heroine

written by AMANDA GROSS

My grandmother was recently moved to an assisted living facility. At 92 and 2/3rds, she now has a 250 square foot space (actually intended for double occupancy) all to herself, that has a view of the mountains and a bird feeder with it cheery seasonal flag. It was hard to visit her.

Driving south through West Virginia, the snow fall began. After an hour of hazardous conditions and a couple of tense moments, I arrived at her home in the mountains, the countryside blanketed in a fresh 12-inch coat of snow. The mid-March snow cover in its equanimity hid both the carcasses of last night’s roadkill and spring’s daffodil starts.

Snow White 2; Photo by Amanda K Gross

I was in denial too. My last visit had been in November and the one before that 11 months previous. My phone calls to her were becoming fewer and farther between as her memory and conversational skills began to disintegrate. Sure, I’ve had my reasons – busyness, work schedule, distance, unreliable transportation – there are always excellent reasons! But the impact remains: my not wanting to look at the painful truth of her aging has furthered her isolation.

Nannie with the Strawberries; Photo by Amanda K Gross

She was always the strong one, of the Pop & Nannie pair. Not overly warm, soft, or cuddly like my other grandma, Nannie was no-nonsense, get-to-work, and reliable in the way that shouted her love from the mountaintops. She was always so sturdy and stable – a rock and sometimes a hard place. Now her balance and mobility falter and her heart is cracking open, too.

Since I have been praying to be a truth-seeker, revelations are following me around everywhere I go.

The night of my arrival my mother somewhat matter-of-factly handed me an article during dinner. “I thought this might interest you,” she said, as I quickly skimmed the evidence that our Mast cousins who had “disappeared as Mennonite” after mid 1700 migration from Switzerland to Pennsylvania to North Carolina did indeed enslave humans and also raped them. “Kinship Concealed: Amish-Mennonite & African American Family Connections” co-written by my 12th-ish cousin, Dwight Roth who is white and by my also 12th-ish cousin, Sharon Cranford who is Black, challenges decades of Mennonite denial around our connection to and participation in slavery.*

“Sharon Cranford portrayal of the Charlie Mast legacy” article by Paul Kurtz

What an incredibly horrible and profoundly delicious fate. I chose the title Mistress Syndrome to align my white lady identity with the legacy of the mistress of the antebellum plantation because I reap the privileges (and the pain) of her legacy today whether my biological ancestors enslaved people or not. Turns out they did. In my delusion of control, I thought that I had cleverly chosen Mistress Syndrome, but clearly she chose me.

This feels like confession and I’m not even Catholic.**

WWG3 Family History Altar; Photo by Amanda K Gross

In other do-gooder narrative-shattering news, European Mennonites had an affinity for Nazism. I first learned a piece of this shushed history last year reading Ben Goossen’s article entitled “Mennonite Fascism“. But then, this week while gazing out across the snowy mountain view, I read a Facebook post from a former professor that there was enough of this history for an entire academic conference on it.  Her post shares her learnings from the conference which “feels like a betrayal of everything Mennonites are supposed to stand for…”:

“• German racial scientists used Mennonite church records and measured Mennonite noses and foreheads to prove Mennonites were “the purest Aryans”
• Some Mennonite theologians advocated for racial theology in which “morals pass through blood” and race mixing was forbidden
• Some Mennonites in Poland and Russia joined the Nazis in evicting Jews from their homes and some even participated in massacres
• Mennonite refugees sometimes were given land, homes, furniture, and clothing from Jews who had been forced into ghettos or killed
• Some Mennonites hid Jews and participated in challenging Nazi authority. At Yad Vashem in Israel, there are about 40 Dutch Mennonites who are listed as part of the Righteous of the Nations for taking risks to save Jews
• There are stories of Mennonite-Jewish mixed marriages as many Mennonites and Jews lived side by side in many European countries.
• In one case, a Mennonite woman decides to die with her Jewish husband and children rather than hiding with the Mennonite community
• Mennonite Central Committee purposefully portrayed Mennonite Nazi war criminals as refugees after the war, denying their German identity and asserting that Mennonites had their own nationality and deserved a state in Paraguay, just as Jews were creating Israel
• Some Mennonites brought these theories of racial superiority to Canada and the US. There were Mennonite Nazis in church leadership in Canada. And the white nationalist movement was started by Ben Klassen, who coined the term “racial holy war” after having grown up in a Mennonite colony in Ukraine and reading Mein Kampf there.”

It is tempting to want to remember the heroic tidbits and throw the villainous ones away. We hold all of these identities – victim, villain, and heroine – within us, at the same time.

We are living in a time of uncomfortable revelation. If we listen and absorb, it might change our lives.

Snow White; Photo by Amanda K Gross

But denial runs deep. I see it in myself and I see it in the white ladies. Like the February story link “Virginia Missionary Pleads Guilty to Widespread Sexual Abuse in Haiti” that sat unopened on my browser for weeks because I suspected he was a Virginia Mennonite Missionary (he was), like the carcasses under the snow, like the slight stench of urine that permeates my grandma’s newfound assisted life, I don’t really want to know. It is easier or habitual or a privilege to ignore it and leave the clean up to the paid help. It is easier to recite the narrative of victim and heroine, to post our chosen trauma and chosen glories*** on social media and write letters of support in order to demonstrate our righteousness. It is easier to claim the territory of anti-racism rather than take responsibility for our actions. It is easier, but is it healthier?

Confrontation is not a Mennonite value or a white liberal one. I have internalized that being in open conflict is wrong (because violence is wrong) and bad (because everyone should like me) and that superficial harmony is preferred and also rewarded with the trinkets of white womanhood. So to be confronted so specifically with a personal inheritance of Slavery, Systematic Rape, the Holocaust, Colonization, Missionary Imperialism, Systematic Rape of Children, and my Grandmother’s Decay all in one month feels overwhelming.  It is painful to feel and also sometimes I feel numb. In response, I make art and write blog posts late at night.

Collage detail by Amanda K Gross

But what keeps me (on most days) from wallowing in the quick sand of self-pity, what keeps me from ten thousand excellent reasons to turn my head, what keeps me from luxuriating in the rabbit hole of rationalized self-care is ACCOUNTABILITY. A six syllable monster of a word that is not as scary as it sounds. Actually in my experience it has been a relief.

Right beside my feeling of overwhelm and grief is the recognition of the humans at the receiving end of my bloody inheritance, the impact of which is not so neatly in the past. Knowing this keeps me grounded. Being in relationship keeps me focused. Knowing that people suffer today because of my contributions – whether current or historical – gives me an opportunity at redemption. Every breath-filled moment I have on this earth is a chance for renewal. While much of it has been written, I get to add chapters to Mistress Syndrome’s legacy every single day.

Collage detail by Amanda K Gross

I have accountability to others and I have accountability to myself. I know from experience that denial is a form of self-harm, that repressing and ignoring trauma does not make their effects go away, that running only amasses more of whatever I was running from. I confront in order to save my Self.

Collage detail by Amanda K Gross

The confusing thing that we must learn as white ladies is that our contributions lie not in the heroism (heroinism?) of the helper’s cape, but in our ability to shovel away the snow where there will certainly be both carcasses and daffodils. We must go through it. There is so much snow to shovel that it is not an individual task, but one we must go through together. The shame, the pain, the misery, the excuses, the mental illness, the greener grass, the fear of vulnerability will seek to divide us and threaten our success (it already has). But my critical realism is ultimately optimistic. It has to be.

Chickens and Krokbragd; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

*The article entitled “Sharon Cranford portrayal of the Charlie Mast legacy” was interesting in that its title left out the white co-author’s name (who is also portraying the Charlie Mast legacy) and that it was written by my great-uncle who has taken on the honored role of family historian since my great-grandfather – his father – passed.

**Catholic private confession grew in popularity at the same time as land privatization at time when the ruling class sought to undermine the social fabric and resistance of European peasants. It also made priests the middle men of community relationships and possible encouraged passive aggression and conflict avoidant behavior.

***I learned about chosen traumas and chosen glories from the Little Book of Trauma Healing and will be writing more on this theme in the upcoming book also entitled Mistress Syndrome.

 

How Whiteness Kills White Children, Our Duck and Cover Strategies Do Too and What We Can Do About It

written by AMANDA GROSS

With all the talk of gun control and gun rights, mental illness and toxic masculinity, (school) safety and (home-land) security, there is a glaring omission. Like the elephant in the room, whiteness is wreaking havoc and doing exactly what you would expect a six ton creature to do inside 400 enclosed square feet. While the debate centers on background checks and semi-automatics and access to firearms, White Supremacy is cleverly going about his business, systematically taking children’s lives and convincing us of our faultlessness and helplessness to do anything about it.

(I originally sat down to write this post on the privilege of white folks to run, hide, and dip out of this work when it gets difficult, emotional, personal, and “real”. But now in the wake of (more) children killing children, I am writing about both because everything is connected.)

His & Hers, by Amanda K Gross

Guns were some of whiteness’s earliest recruits. Having achieved marked success with over five millennia of weaponry development and a culture of power-over above all else, European Patriarchy consummated its deal with the (white) devil in colonial law by saying who could own and carry firearms (white people) and who could not (people of African descent and members of Native tribes). Around the same time colonial law was also weighing in on the bedroom and sexual assault, making marriages between white people and non-white people illegal – although really only enforcing this in the case of white women – placing the center of patriarchal power tightly in the hands of white men while giving them the ammunition to carry it out, no matter their social status or class.

The elephant in the room is doing precisely what it was designed to do (no offense to elephants or rooms).

Domesticated: Cupcakes; Hand Embroidered and Quilted Fabric and US Currency by Amanda K Gross

The (white) gunmen are doing exactly what they were raised to do. Or, more accurately exactly what we raised them to do. We are the mothers and aunts who bought them toy weapons as children, bought them violent video games, and took them to see action films. We are the parents and grandparents who told them to toughen up and take it like a man and be a competitor. We are the friends and siblings and bullies who beat them into a pulp for not being (strong, brave, smart, big, fearless) enough and made fun of them for their tears. Those are our babies with the guns and the gun wounds. Their state of mind is a reflection of our own state, the violence of white masculinity and white culture that proclaims value and worth and material reward and holiness and heaven for a select few at the cost of us all.

Bland, by Amanda K Gross

We are deceived if we think a few gun control policies will save us now. At best, it serves as a band-aid*. Believe me, because I know a thing about or two about band-aids. They are my current artistic medium of choice.

Of course whiteness is killing many children, not just the ones who have come to be called white. Nonwhite children – Black children, Native children, Latinx children, Asian and Pacific Islander children are on the front lines with casualties at higher rates in every category from infant mortality to health outcomes to education and housing.** But the irony is that whiteness and systemic white supremacy is toxic for white children, too. And not just the poor ones. White privileged children are increasingly brought up in ways that result …“in entitled, depressed, addicted and, most recently, narcissistic kids. Their despair manifests in a wide range of self-destructive behaviors: drugs; alcohol; food (stuffing or starving); self-mutilation (cutting, piercing); Internet addictions to gaming, chatting and pornography.” They are also shooting up schools and being shot in schools. I point this out not to center the victimization of white children as more important, more severe, or more significant than the oppression and victimization of other children – it’s clearly not, not on statistical nor moral grounds – but I do so to emphasize a point. If white supremacy (think: systematic racism) harms white children, then why are even the most overt racists among us in support?

For those of us white people not loudly proclaiming overt white supremacy (which I assume is most of you who read this blog), we have a lot of soul searching to do. Our white liberal duck and cover strategies have been upholding white supremacy too. We may say that we abhor racism, yet we send our white children to that better whiter school. We may vote for gun control, but we invest in home security systems just in case. We may praise integration and diversity, though our homes, neighborhoods, and congregations remain lily-white. We may say we’re anti-racist, but when the going gets tough, we peace out. We could write a book, and many of us have written many books, rationalizing these contradictions inherent to the systems we’ve created and daily maintain.

This Land is White Land, by Amanda K Gross

Sometimes the grocery store aisle is overwhelming. Also sitting in a chair and trying to come up with one silver bullet (pun intended) for solving gun violence. Sitting and thinking with the expectations of solving the world’s problems is a highly intellectualized and distanced saviory approach that I have often used, a result of my socialization into the class of educated whiteness. It is also incredibly demoralizing and overwhelming. No wonder so many of my peers have opted for comfortable self-aggrandizing distractions like armchair quarterbacking, social media, the non-profit industrial complex, and yummy food ( which reminds me, I think there’s chocolate in my fridge…), rather than the ugly, messy, scary unknown of struggling together.***

This week I was part of a sweaty conversation (we were all nervous) about struggling together. The elder in the room used a sports analogy which I appreciated because I was raised by a jock. There’s a difference between being on the court and in the stands. The privilege of whiteness affords white people the option of our distance and positioning in the struggle. The privilege of whiteness allows us to opt out in times of emotional distress or personal tragedy, to sit on the bench when we need a minute or retire and follow the team at home. But let’s be honest with ourselves. When we access that privilege, we are reinforcing white supremacy just the same as our overtly racist cousins and their flags of hate.

White Silence, by Amanda K Gross

As a white person who has opted out in the past and still has many moments, I understand the urge to duck and cover. As a manifestation of Post-Traumatic Mistress/Master Syndrome, running and hiding has served us well. It has preserved life and preserved privilege.****

As a white person who does this work from relative comfort, normalizing the intensity and hardness and challenging nature is a point of growth for me and so is developing a practice of resilience. In many ways this is a new type of fight for the white ladies – one that involves being fully present, showing up on my good hair days and my bad, getting nastily sweaty in public, and airing out all my dirty laundry. But in other ways it is a fight that is familiar. We have resistance traditions to draw from even as we re-narrate our own.

We are powerful in our ducking out, but we are also powerful in the practice of our opting in. The impact of our choices reverberate. We think we are small and insignificant. We have been socialized to think that our showing up  – not just physically, but consistently being emotionally present – doesn’t matter. We give away our power. Alone in our little corner of the world we begin to feel weak and overwhelmed. We let ourselves be carried away in the white supremacist river of apathy. Individualism has conditioned us to prefer the peaceful float of loneliness rather than to struggle against the tide as a group. And each time we choose to leave, we take our toys and our joys and our value and our networks with us. Even in knowing this, we often regret but don’t act, allowing the embarrassment, shame, and guilt of our egos to block ourselves from the possibility of redemption.

I am writing this post for those who run and I am writing this post for myself, because I want us to be clear and honest about the consequences on those we leave and where we land. We leave a hole that only we can fill and where we land there is also the impact of us. Like the boats that unloaded my ancestors to Philadelphia and its surrounding counties, our leaving impacts the humans where we choose to settle. When we flee, we may only be aware of what we are trying to get away from, never noticing who we are trampling in our flight.

Whiteness, by Amanda K Gross

Choice is an interesting concept especially paired with other words like free will, and self-determination, and independence, and interdependence, and liberty, and privilege, and DNA, and socialization, and God, and liberation, and colonization. The choice to decide. The privilege to choose. The option to stay in it or to flee. The discernment to know the difference. Today I am convinced that our power is in the (re)commitment to stay and struggle in the fire. That is how we will keep all of the children alive.

* I support gun control laws, but if not paired with undoing racism, these laws often reinforce white supremacy by further restricting access of firearms to People of Color without actually addressing how guns historically and still today uphold whiteness (military, police, imperialism, white supremacist militia).

** Here are some Pittsburgh stats, but overall the racial disparities are consistent across the U.S.

***I learned about the agreement to Struggle Together from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism Training. Please find out when one is coming to your area and attend!

**** My family has been running since the 1500s when Switzerland decided Anabaptism wasn’t its thing. And when running wasn’t an option, we practiced hiding, often in caves. This one-two combo is a natural trauma response which well-suited a people with a peace teaching. It also translated effortlessly (or so it seems) to the project of colonization underway on the global scene. And so our running and hiding which served us as forms of resistance in Europe underwent a baptism of whiteness on the shores of what is now called the United States and has been reinforcing our white privilege ever since.

 

Writing about the White Savior Complex on Christmas Morning

written by AMANDA GROSS

As I sit down to begin chapter three of Mistress Syndrome the Book* about the white savior complex it is Christmas morning and my body is being ravaged by category 5 menstrual cramps, an appropriate physiological state for this day of celebration of Jesus’s birth. I gave up painkillers two years before to get more in touch with my body. And lo and behold, it has been a reunion of intimate awareness, one that for 3-5 days includes intermittent mind-numbing pain with valleys of continuous ache. I wonder if the intensity even comes close to contractions in labor.

Snow on Christmas Morning; photo by Amanda K Gross

My sister-in-law recently gave birth to a baby, and this also being my brother’s child has put me genetically closer to the miracle of birth than ever before. It was awe-inspiring to be in tangential proximity to her pregnancy and birth experience as each seemingly minute physiological development grew a whole human. The baby’s uterine positioning as breech signaled a potentially dangerous labor and also a potential disappointment to the natural birth they had so carefully researched and planned for.

Mostly in the history of my conscious life, the miracle of birth has rung cliché. The overused phrase has numbed me to the Christmas story and, although I love babies and small children, the miracle of birth has largely been detached for me from their existence. My dad still talks about the story of my mother’s labor and my birth with tears in his eyes. And it is only through this recent experience of tangential proximity that I have begun to understand the power of pregnancy and birth that is at the core of the Christmas story. My tangential proximity helped me notice a combination of dependency, helplessness, distance, well-wishes, encouragement and support those around my sister-in-law were navigating, since, no matter our hopes and no matter our bedside presence, ultimately she alone would be the one to push this child outside of her body and into breathable air. In my tangential proximity, I was also powerless to do anything but wait for the news of birth.

Throughout her labor the C-section loomed as a threat of taking this powerful experience away. (This is not to say that there aren’t very appropriate life-threatening moments when a C-Section is necessary to guarantee the health of the parent and the baby, because there are. At the same time the historical development of the shift in birthing from the labor of the bedroom to the labor of the hospital along with the development of the male-dominated surgical theater, demonstrate a patriarchal shift in birthing that has served to usurp in many ways the agency and self-determination that those who have the capacity to give birth had historically held.) In the light of this possibility, she found agency in renaming the surgical procedure as belly birth, a recognition that there are multiple ways to give birth and that a C-Section doesn’t diminish the actuality that she is still giving birth.

Cold and Triumphant Statue at Highland Park Pittsburgh. Would Someone Please Knit her a Sweater?; photo by Amanda K Gross

Just as women and midwives were removed from the delivery room during the era of the witch hunts, so too has the miracle of birth been co-opted by patriarchy in the telling and retelling of the Christmas story. The main focal point of the narrative has become that of the birth of the savior, rather than that of the pregnancy and labor of the one who gave him life. While in some traditions Mary the mother of Jesus takes on a more prominent role, in the way I was raised, Mary had a  supportive role, sidelined to an occasional reference during advent season, a mention in a song that was written to her but not about her (As in Mary, Did You Know…), and a significant casting appearance in nativity scenes. She started off the advent season when the angel appeared to tell her – not ask her consent – that she was getting impregnated by God. But on the day that marks her labor it is not her work that we celebrate but its severed results, as if once out of the womb, baby Jesus was independently walking around performing miracles all by himself.

Distain at the News; Painting by a famous European; Photo by Amanda K Gross

I am still working through bitterness around the rape connotations of Mary’s reluctant impregnation and the way Jesus’s paternity relegates Mary to a vessel of male holiness, will, and power, but lately, I have been feeling more connected to the symbolism of birth as redemption for humanity. I am also even more keenly aware of the way the Christmas narrative has been misguided as an ideological foundation for the white savior complex so prevalent in our celebrity culture, politics, and theologies today.

Sky Window; photo by Amanda K Gross

Our children are our saviors. They are our chance at redemption. With each generational cycle, we get a chance at a do-over, a repeat, an opportunity to evolve in our parenting choices and child-rearing theories. Our children link us to the future, miraculously taking us beyond our lifespans. Their births signify that our DNA will live on even after we are composting in the earth (or more likely pumped with chemicals and not rotting inside of stone). Holding my nephew as a newborn was indeed a holy experience. It was a moment of perspective and prioritizing and re-centering and commitment and recommitment. The powerful labor of his mother, the commitment of his parents to bringing him into the world, and his birth story inspired in me feelings of connection to the Christmas narrative for the first time in a long while.

*I am writing a book called Mistress Syndrome. Stay tuned!

Vulnerability Sucks Part Three: Taking Off My Clothes is Hard to Do

written by AMANDA GROSS

I’m not usually one to undress for an audience. But maybe that’s a lie, because at many points of my life I have and am increasingly practicing doing so. When I was a kid, I loved being naked like I loved being myself. Loud. Proud. In charge. Directing. Leading. Unapologetically Embodied. But at some point I developed a subtle way of toning my full fledged expression way down. A 13-year dose of the US education system is partially to blame. What with all the peer stigma that came from being a teacher’s pet or “too” smart, I remember being careful not to let my classmates see the frequent red A+s. I became understated in my achieving, quiet in my knowledgeable responses. Mennonite Humble can also be proud of this shift. A slow stew over time, the undercurrent of collective cultural values gendering more and more with age. Pride goeth before the Mennonite Humble Fall. Beware, it might even lead to dancing*.

Schoolhouse Quilt; Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

However, the strongest conditioner in hiding my truths has been silence. Silence around sex and the body and a feminized body in particular, has helped me build walls of inhibition to keep my vulnerability fully clothed. There are certain things we don’t talk about and then there are certain things that we really don’t talk about. Ever.

“Let’s not talk about sex” is the never spoken yet constantly implied mantra handed down from the staunchly puritanical fear of my maternal line while “Cake or Death” (Cake=Monogamous Lifelong Marriage) was “Let’s not talk about sex”‘s partner in child raising coming from my Biblical literalist father. Both sent clear messages to my Mennobaby ears. In their crossfire, my interpretation became “Cake or Death or Silence”. Clearly silence was the least messy – or at least easiest placeholder until the socially acceptable option of Cake came along. So silence I did.

I have always like boys. When I was trying to fall asleep at the age of 4, I would day-dream about my preschool crushes. In kindergarten during nap time instead of sleeping (I aged out of napping at age two) I would kiss boys behind their ears on the towels that we brought in from home. (This was most likely not consensual.) My towel was bright red, green, black, and yellow stripes. And Ms. Johnson once told me to stop, but I could sense the smile she was suppressing in her eyes, which told me it was mostly cute.

Fast forward to high school. After years of culminating threats (both in jest but also probably not) that I wouldn’t be allowed to date until I was thirty, I went to live in France as an exchange student and found a beau. This French affair (which actually didn’t begin to manifest until after I returned home and if I’m honest, never really manifested despite seven years of back and forths) was silence of the best kind, an ocean away. As my first real semblance of a relationship, it was both exciting and terrifying and something I absolutely needed guidance on. In fact, I now see the budding manipulation and subtle emotional abuse I fell into, how he played my insecurities like a fiddle and used a never redeemed promise to fuel emotional rollercoasters and keep me hanging on, for years. It is only now, at the age of thirty-three and seven-eighths, that I can see how almost each and every one of my romantic relationships has had similar fields of misogynist landmines: the prom date that was all in and then disappeared once I was all in too, the boyfriend who pushed my boundaries constantly for months until I was too exhausted to resist (we could call that date rape), the person I dated who lied about his other relationships, the other boyfriend who pushed my boundaries immediately (we would definitely call that date rape), and the many other exhausting relational dynamics that stem from hundreds of years of embedded White Supremacist Patriarchy. Also the confusing unwanted attention and childhood molestation from a peer at church, which helped establish the tone for all of the above. Silence bred those moments in the multiple choice world of Cake or Death. And since my life mostly hasn’t fit into any of the neatly aforementioned categories (except for that one time I chose Cake for several years), the Silence has been accompanied and held in place by shame and stigma and uncertainty and fear and isolation.

MennoFabulous 2; Acrylic and Graphite on Board by Amanda K Gross

But the hardest, most isolating parts of the Silence for me have not been connected to those moments when I was taken advantage of, but instead in those moments of decision and agency.  I remember when I was in a relationship back in college and I was deciding whether or not I wanted to be sexually intimate with this person. I went back and forth in my head for months. I journaled. I made art. All I wanted was to talk to someone about it, to get their balanced and open perspective and to get some support. But not once did I feel comfortable enough to talk to anyone. My friend group at that point had bought into the celibacy before marriage thing and my mentors had already fully disclosed their positions by teaching Sunday School classes on why masturbation was a sin. On the surface, the Silence attempts to control our physical, sexual selves, but in the deeps it serves to control our emotional and mental landscapes. In the moment I needed support in making a wise decision about what I wanted to do with my body, but ultimately the Silence subverted an opportunity to support my emotional, mental, and spiritual growth of navigating human relationships.

We know the Silence keeps cultures and systems of oppression in place. Robin di’Angelo nudged me through her work on White Silence to begin examining how my connection to the dominant racial identity of whiteness helps to maintain white supremacy. But when it comes to Patriarchy, it has been much more comfortable to claim a victim’s territory and hunker down in selective silence in an attempt to maintain a vestige of control and self-protection for what has been perceived as loss. Except, the world is intersectional and we are interconnected and my selective silence around sex has mostly been more beneficial to White Supremacist Patriarchy and its heterosexual norms than to my Self. So vulnerability sucks because I really don’t want to tell you about my sex life and intimate relationships, but it is time that I begin.

Lilith and the Whale; Acrylic on Skateboard by Amanda K Gross

One of the most disgusting things I’ve witnessed in the Mennonite Church has been the way we continuously have put people deemed as sexual outsiders or deviants (queer folks, victims of sexual assault, divorcees, really anyone not appearing to play the part of Cake or Death) on trial. The Silence doesn’t apply if you’ve been typecast as sexual outsider or deviant** in which case, we feel very comfortable, no, entitled to strip you down in front of the congregation while we debate your bodies, your sex lives, your preferences, your decisions, your ethics, and your eternal future. Meanwhile, all of the Mennonite Church’s children and grandchildren are at Mennonite Educational Institutions navigating sex and power and relationships just like their non-Mennonite peers (even sometimes with their non-Mennonite peers). For some of those grown children and grandchildren, Cake becomes an option. I have watched countless hetero couple after couple get simultaneously engaged and welcomed into the Mennonite Church with one collective sigh of relief. Whew! They’re Cake now so we can safely celebrate! We can be comfortable again because we know what they are and they are Cake. The Silence gets to remain in their past and a linear logic model means only Cake and babies in their future.

Cake – Married Not Married photo series; photo by Amanda K Gross

Except not. Cake is filled with Silence. It’s the icing that dresses a Cake up in its Sunday best. As a very recent divorcee, I now fall into the sexual outsider/deviant category in many circles, which may or may not have you dismiss my words, but I will write them anyway. Cake – it turns out – is filled with the Silence. The room in the Cake for struggle and growth and creative solutions is still limited by its design. Unhealthy, icky things still happen inside the Cake but no one talks about it. There was approved room in the Cake of my marriage for three years of couples counseling, but not for opening up a marriage. There was room in the Cake for nasty arguments and passive aggression and the exhaustion of mental illness, but not separation and making healthy choices for the individual humans in the relationship if it threatened the structure of the Cake itself. What I learned is that Cake is served nicely with a side of Silence, but not with a side of truth, if the truth challenges the Cake, or more accurately the idea of the Cake. The Cake is also an illusion.

Cake – Married Not Married photo series; photo by Amanda K Gross

When I share with people that my former partner and I are now divorced, they are usually sad and express regret. I have found it difficult to share. I have hesitated to open up – not because I am sad (although I still work through the occasional shame and embarrassment that I’ve been socialized to internalize), but because I end up consoling them.*** They are grieving for my relationship, while I am sharing a positive, healthy, life-giving, growth-affirming change. I realized that in addition to them grieving a relationship which they have in the past perhaps celebrated and supported, they are also grieving their attachment to the Cake and the illusion of it. But in so doing, they miss out on seeing the present Me and in sharing in my good news.

I love cake. There is a chocolate cake recipe that I have been baking since the age of eight. I have the recipe memorized. 2 cups flour. 2 cups sugar. 1 tsp baking powder.1/2 tsp salt. 2 tsp baking soda. 2/3 cup cocoa powder. 1 tsp vanilla. 2/3 cup oil. 1 cup milk. 2 eggs. 1 tsp vanilla. 1 cup boiling hot coffee. Bake at 350 til done. (From Mennonite Country-Style Recipes & Kitchen Secrets) This is the only recipe I follow line by line. Usually, I use recipes for inspiration and even when I’m baking I prefer to estimate and experiment rather than follow a prescribed path. Maybe that experiential baking style is partially responsible for my marriage’s transition. But maybe, the problem isn’t cake itself or my ability to bake it, but the expectation that there’s only one kind and one acceptable way. Maybe the problem isn’t just the kind of cake, but the limited (false) options of Cake or Death or Silence. Recipes are only useful if we have the ingredients they’re built on and if we want the end results.

Cake – Married Not Married photo series; photo by Amanda K Gross

I consider Alice Walker’s words often, “Take what you need and let the rest rot.” One of the things I appreciate the most about Mennonite culture is the emphasis on family and community relationships and extended interconnected networks. For many of European descent the process of assimilation into whiteness has meant forfeiting and devaluing relationships, community, and interconnectedness in exchange for material isolation, competition, and control. Like all things, with abuse of power, there’s a way this cultural dynamic can be toxic, but I am interested in the way it holds wisdom for undoing the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy that we have come to embody today. Ways of being that center healthy relationships, interdependency, loving humane community, and human connections can be cultural guides for uprooting oppression and constructing the versatile alternatives we so desperately need so that Cake or Death or Silence crumble as our only options. I have learned the most about relationships that are based on consent, mutual respect, and accountability from those humans historically most marginalized by the church. Turns out centering leadership of the oppressed, which also happens to be the crux of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, is not just a Biblical thing to do, but also an effective way forward through the messy violence and trauma we do to each other. Maybe that’s why it’s a Biblical thing to do…

Cake – Married Not Married photo series; photo by Amanda K Gross

In order to decenter Cake or Death or Silence, vulnerability is required from those in power. We have a violent history of forced vulnerability onto those most marginalized by institutional and cultural power. But shared vulnerability puts the onus back on those who have access to the power and positions of oppression calling us back into our humanity. It is the model of restorative justice that Mennonites have learned from indigenous peoples. Our statuses and relationships to these systems of oppression are not fixed, but overlapping, intersectional, and dynamic. And as a mistress, an interloper with access to the master’s ear, who is eating at the master’s tables, and sleeping in his bedrooms, there are a plethora of platforms at my disposal to aid in the demise of Cake or Death or Silence. Speaking (or writing) truthfully with vulnerability is one such power tool.

May we continue to hone our skills, our truths, and our tools.

“The sky is falling!” thought Henny Penny. “No, wait, it’s all in my mind.” #YogaTales; Acrylic on paper by Amanda K Gross

*Mennonites are terrified of dancing because of its slippery slope towards having sex. So there’s a joke: Beware of having sex, it could lead to dancing!

**Divorcees still fit this category in many Mennonite circles.

***Prescience by someone who had been through this experience decades ago. Thank you for the wisdom.

They Cut Down the Trees so There Would Be No Witnesses

written by AMANDA GROSS

They cut down the trees so there would be no witnesses.

Les Temoins 1; Pen and Ink by Amanda K Gross

Once there were two, some type of conifer and a maple that had merged with the power lines. The latest East Liberty residents to be displaced, cut down by an expert team of planners, developers, and arborists, who paid the working class to do the dirty work. One tall, the other wide, they were both deemed lacking in middle class values, taking up too much space, interrupting the flow of light, disrupting the aesthetic of the sidewall, interfering with progress. In winter I would shovel away its cones with the snow and in summer discard her tags so they wouldn’t become uninvited trees of their own. Tender, (in)Tending to keep the garden pure. In their wisdom they knew what was going down, probably long before their neighbors had a hunch. As autumn came, the real estate agents began changing color too. The ELDI crime report blemished the street as the holdout hotspot for danger in an area destined for a label of good . The well-intentioned white folks hid among the raspberries. That summer thirty children claimed the block and the mobile basketball hoop appeared and reappeared eventually blending into the empty lot in full morning glories. The ongoing rotation of siren – ambulance, firetruck, police – our tax dollars at work for whiteness. Were the limber witnesses grieved by the losses? Were they appalled at the city’s lack of care? Did their hearts swell with the children, lovers, families, friends? Were they soothed by the warm greetings and cookout smells? Did they feel a part of the community? A sense of be-long?

This morning the city came and turned the stump into a pile of mulch, our history composted inside her DNA.

Les Temoins 2; Pen and Ink by Amanda K Gross

Would the Real White Nationalist Please Stand Up

Why do they allow us to have drivers licenses?

After the initial shock of Charlottesville cleared, after I quickly thought on all the people I knew in Virginia who might have been at the counter protest, after I waded through the many times I’ve attended protests and wondered if my parents understood that this could have been me, after I avoided media coverage, and then binged on it, after many murky and mixed emotions – I considered that white people are still allowed to drive.

Like the increased surveillance of Muslims at the airport and Latinos at the border, a parallel response requires a no-nonsense, cautionary, preemptive approach. Clearly white supremacists should not have access to vehicles and permits sanctioned by the state.*  Where are the calls for more stringent screenings at the DMV? Did your ancestors own slaves? Did your grandparents benefit from Jim Crow? Did your family acquire land via the Homestead Act? Or build its legacy off the backs of exploited immigrants? Have you amassed intergenerational wealth off of the GI Bill or from the implications of redlining? We hand white supremacists tools of violence and wrap it up in an American flag and add a bow called Liberty and then get dismayed when they shoot up schools and churches and plow into a crowd. And by we I mean me and you.

White Self, by Amanda K Gross

Recently I was listening to a This American Life podcast about magicians and it made me think about magic tricks and culture. We live lives of distraction. The distraction of whether or not to condemn hate or label an act as racist is easier to chew than the all-encompassing insidious multi-headed, multi-armed beast that has birthed such moments. I have often chosen the cookie over cooking, the pill over the pain, the car over the walk. Because it is convenient. I’m wondering in this moment how convenient is it for white folks to condemn hate, while writing off this violence as an exception to love. Naming love as the rule of the land is a best-intentioned sleight of hand.

And so I hold up a mirror and ask somewhat reluctantly: How am I choosing convenience in my life, in my relationships, in my work situation? How am I choosing the daily convenience of white supremacy? How are you?

The false science of racism was built on othering and hierarchy. In the hierarchy of white people this “White Nationalist” class allows us good white people to condemn their humanity while elevating ourselves, receiving moral crumbs in the doing. Ironically, this repeats the construction and institutionalization of race, which rather than propelling poor Europeans to the status of gentry, most immediately lowered the bottom for People of Color, winning us the promise of winning. Aren’t all white people who call ourselves Americans White Nationalists in some way or another?

I keep thinking about one piece from the People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism training when the facilitator asked, “If we put all the members of the KKK on a rocket ship and sent them to outer space, would we still have racism in this country?”** It’s a funny visual and a deep question.

What seems more useful than outright condemnation is condemnation + connection. So I’ve been thinking about the Many Arms of White Supremacy, set up intentionally so the left hand doesn’t know what the right one is doing. I’ve been thinking about what the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (which pays my bills) has to do with an allegiance to the Confederacy. It seems like America is getting a do-over of the Civil War.

The Many Arms of White Supremacy; Digital Collage by Amanda K Gross

Contrary to the myth of Abraham Lincoln as the great emancipator, the 16th president of the USA did not regard Black folks as equal to whites and was just fine with keeping slavery around, so long as the Union held strong. The dualistic history I learned in my Atlanta City school type-casted good guys (the Union)/bad guys (the Confederacy), which translated neatly to good guys (Democrats)/bad guys (Republicans) and then again to good people (white anti-racists)/bad people (all other white folks).

Along with killing more Americans than any other war in history, the US Civil War was a critical marker in the development of Mistress Syndrome, bringing white women…”into public view in record numbers – a breakdown at least in the rigid ideology of separate spheres. Increasing numbers of [white] women found employment in northern factories. Northern white women also got posts with the Union government and roughly three thousand women became army nurses. The most important women’s organization to come out of the war was the Sanitary Commission (later name the Red Cross), which raised millions of dollars to furnish supplies to soldiers, widows, and orphans, and helped train nurses for work in hospitals and on battlefields.” (Louise Michelle Newman, White Women’s Rights)***

The Suffragist movement gained momentum from white women’s newfound access to white spheres and catapulted itself forward through the appropriation and transformation of the ideology of Lincoln’s white male liberator “into the ideology of white female civilizer…” whether it be bringing civilized education to Native American children through forced boarding schools or successfully bringing “civilization to the Negro. ‘An army of [self]-sacrificing Northern missionaries, with Bible in one hand and spelling books in the other, scarcely waiting for the smoke [of] battle to scatter, followed in the march of the Union army, sought the freedmen, extended the help which they so much needed, but which the poverty and temper of the South at that time could not afford. Northern benevolence then and since has planted over $25,000,000 in this Southland, and has furnished an army of her best men and women to assist the negro in his dire necessity.’” (Louise Michelle Newman, White Women’s Rights)

Enter white ladies in civilized capes laying the cornerstone of Non-Profits, Charity, and Philanthropy. We wear capes (and hoods) too.

We Sent the Klan to Mars; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

The aesthetics of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan seek control through fear, but at the end of the day, so too does the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. An entire system established around the measurement and control of change, of planned outcomes and intended results, of indicators and measures of success, of budgeting and reporting. Like healthcare systems profit off of illness, I am paid to undo racism because… racism. Within these institutions there is fear of speaking up, fear of speaking differently, fear of alienating the donor base, fear of making mistakes, but especially there is fear of loss of control. Fear and control and fear of loss of control are detrimental to creativity.

Without salaried positions in bettering the world, would well-intentioned white ladies like me be waiving Confederate flags and bearing torches? Condemning the hatred serves us and we can do so safely from our computers and from our blogging platforms in denial of the White Nationalist within.

*Accidents (high majority vehicular) are the #1 cause of death for people in the US under the age of 44. White people make up the majority of drivers so taking away white people’s access to vehicles and drivers licenses (an idea shared here to prove a point) might actually be an extraordinary idea for reducing violence and death across the US. We know it would be helpful for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that are charting a path of death of the planet (and subsequently us too).

**A shout out to Martin Friedman, a core trainer with the People’s Institute who shared this story during the training. You can read more of his work here.

***Louise Michelle Newman is the author of White Women’s Rights, which is a fascinating and helpful examination of how white women used the tools of white supremacy to gain collective rights under the guise of feminism.