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.

How Does Whiteness Separate Us From God? – Collaboration Conversation

This is the seventh of a series of guest posts and dialogues. In this post, the six of us engaged in an email dialogue around the question:  How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
AMANDA GROSS: Whiteness and God – both individually but especially in combination – are rare topics for public forums. My own Mennonite upbringing emphasized sharing faith through works rather than personal evangelism. Whiteness in general is a topic reserved for like-minded company. When I do engage with these ideas publicly, I am more comfortable drawing systemic conclusions rather than making it super personal, which challenged me in my writing of the initial post. I found myself wanting to pull out your vulnerable wisdom, but realized I didn’t fully model that in my post, which has caused me to reflect on how I’ve internalized messages around “setting an objective tone” and my comfort at asking others to go first.
What challenges did you face in writing your initial guest blog post and why? What came up for you? What barriers did you work with? How did you deal with it?

View from Hotel Rooftop: Photo by Amanda K Gross

R/B Mertz: Being vulnerable was definitely the thing I struggled with most, by which I mean involving anything about myself in the piece. Initially I wrote something with a lot less about myself, a lot more about numbers and examples to prove my points. Amanda and my girlfriend both pointed this out when they read my first draft, and I spent my editing time trying to make myself visible in the piece, to show my own vulnerabilities. Which I feel like I just got to the edge of. Definitely “setting an objective tone” has been hammered into me by writing teachers (wait–mostly white, male ones, now that I think about it), and the objective tone carries over to thinking, too.

Examples of what phrases repeat in my mind, when my mind tells me to have an “objective tone”: “That’s how life is,” “It happens on both sides,” “Black people are just as racist as white people,” “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” “There are two sides to every story,” “#Not All Men” “#Not all white people,” “#Not all Cops,” “Nobody’s perfect,” “Everybody makes mistakes,” “At least things are better than they used to be,” “People are just fucked up, white, black, brown…”

The hardest part about writing about whiteness or even processing information about white supremacy and Black life in America is letting my mind actually absorb and conceive fully of the information without putting the white gaze over it like a set of rose-colored glasses that blinds you to racism even when it’s right in front of your face. My mind seems built to Not Think About It Too Much. Writing about it is like holding several balls in the air at one time with my mind, which makes me feel a little crazy–which is especially maddening because anyone who points out racism, and women who make a stink about anything, have been told for centuries that we are crazy, reactionary, etc. I also *happen* to struggle with mental illness, so I am a crazy person, though I’m technically in recovery now. That being said, in my many years of experience as a crazy person, I have to say that as a group of racism deniers, white people take the cake on collective insanity. This is not to let anyone off the hook. As a crazy person, I have recognized that the only way to “cure” my mental illness is to take responsibility for it, to seek treatment, to control my symptoms as best I can, and to keep myself from harming others, and to take responsibility and make amends for that harm if I can.

“There’s Blood On Many Hands Tonight”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

Jeannie Lynn: The longer I considered Amanda’s question, the harder it became to answer.  How would I define whiteness?  How would I define God?  I mean, really, as working models? Solidifying the answer into an articulation was very very difficult for me.

What-it-is, 5 weeks old; Photo by Jeannie Lynn

VALERIE SHOWALTER:  In the multi-faceted identity of woman, pastor, student, aunt, etc., I found it difficult to not know who my audience was, and thus, knowing how to write in a way that met them where they were at.  Within all these identities listed (and others), I’m trained to boil down my thoughts and beliefs into ideas that will also be meaningful for you…on their own, in my words, they may not serve you.  Not knowing my audience was both terrifying and liberating.  I wanted to hold back, for fear of being misunderstood; I wanted to step forward, sharing unfettered.

by Valerie Showalter

Cole Parke: As Amanda can attest, I wrote two entirely different pieces for my contribution. The first was a deeply analytical review of history and theology with little-to-no acknowledgement of what’s real, which is that I’m a person with a LOT of feelings. Fortunately, Amanda has handed me enough tissues in the course of our friendship to see right through the protective cloak of heart-shielding theory, and she gently invited me to try again.

Friends can play a critical role in helping us push past the easy option of intellectualizing our collective heartbreak, but I’m curious about other tools that can draw us deeper into our hearts (and our bodies), as I understand that that’s where the truly transformational work happens. I’ve especially been thinking about this recent piece by Tada Hozumi about why white people can’t dance. He ultimately concludes that whiteness is traumatization embodied.
“The white body is in freeze: a state of disconnection between mind and body. It is ungrounded and cannot feel the earth. … This is why, when a white ally asks me about how they can best ally with POCs, my best advice is to come dance with us. I don’t mean this just in the literal sense (although its a lot of fun). What I mean is that white bodies need to actively experience the discomfort of their body not being dominant in a space to really understand how much pain they are in – to feel and heal the white-ness that has been fortified by living in a colonized world.”
I wonder if this is why the eucharist continues to feel like such a powerful ritual for me – it’s a reminder of the embodiment of god, made available to all people.
How else do people pursue embodiment? What do you do to “feel the earth”?

altar #3; featuring art by Molly Shea, photo by Cole Parke

Amanda: Thank you Cole! This has been on my mind. This has been on my body. I have been thinking a lot about how we as white people have the choice to notice the violence of racism on Black and Brown bodies as facilitated by our privilege, but we don’t typically consider the experience of racism on our bodies.

Two weeks ago I was at a training that was all about being in body. I love to dance, which is something I’ve cultivated more or less at different times in my life. The past year, I’ve been dabbling in and out of dancing – first in Urban Ballroom class, then at Line Dancing, and as yoga warm-up. Then I was at this training addressing trauma and healing and we were being taught samba steps and house steps and I was loving it and building confidence and fully participating. At the end we formed a circle and each person danced in the middle, something done in slightly different ways in many cultures. It was a freestyle moment – to share and celebrate each of our human individuality in the middle of the collective circle with everyone watching and cheering on. Needless to say, it was a very supportive environment. And when it was my turn, I froze. I refused to jump in the middle like a stubborn 4 year old. Panic set in. Then after everyone had had their turn, it came back to me. I reluctantly stood in the middle. Did whatever came to my body. There was instant release and I burst into tears and fled the space. It was uncomfortable in so many ways.
As I was outside in the courtyard bawling I reflected on dancing in my tradition, or the absence of it. The trainer shared about how the Black Panthers would celebrate together after an intense day of organizing by dancing. I was furious and incredibly sad that there was no such tradition of dancing for me to draw on. In fact Mennonites of Swiss German ancestry historically forbid dancing. So much of embodied celebration and pleasure is seen as evil – sex, play, really anything that is not productive. White Supremacist Patriarchy only values our bodies in terms of work – reproduction, physical labor, competitive sports, pragmatic nurture. It is only valuable and worthwhile and permissible if it has purpose.
The circle moment was both terrifying and liberating and there were many witnesses.

Trust Black Women (detail); Pen and Ink on Paper by Amanda K Gross

Valerie:  To your question, Cole, I have held tight to a phrase spoken to me years ago by a person I admired:  Solvitur ambulando, which means, “It is solved by walking.”  In the variety of places I’ve lived as an adult, walking is my way of grounding myself, of exploring and encountering neighbors I otherwise ignore as I drive by, and being present to God’s presence which is everywhere and in all things (as Jeannie suggested in her post.)  These walks are generally aimless and “non-productive,” but full of purpose.  They quiet my anxious mind and gut, and often bring alignment to my whole self.

The “solving” that gets done is my own centering, never a final resolution on the issue with which I’m wrestling.  Walking is a starting point to observe my recent actions and feelings, to acknowledge and name my mistakes and prejudices, to physically work through that, and then to try again.

Indiana, PA; photo by Leah Jo

Leah Jo:  As Cole mentioned a few comments above, I too have a LOT of feelings and this tends to hold me back from jumping in quickly. I’ve seen the email chain going, knowing it was conversation that deserved space/time/and full attention to be present, and honestly I hadn’t given myself that time or space until now! (I’m constantly trying to call myself out on this as i’m aware that busyness=numbness).

To answer Amanda’s original question about what came up for us in our original blog post, it’s incredible to read so many of you had similar barriers as I did, most notably was that many of us wrote a “first” blog post, then got called out on it, and challenged ourselves to write a more genuine blog post following. Well, I don’t know if anyone else felt “called out” but I sure did.
So my first post was very outward focused, talking about society at large, “people tend to…” “more facts” “things that I’ve learned about facts”, etc. After I wrote it, I felt like it was honest and safe. Amanda quickly pointed out that she couldn’t “see Leah” shining through. I immediately got defensive (helllllo whiteness) and re-read my post about 6 times. Additionally, I spent about an hour going through some of my other writings to see how those felt like Leah. After doing this, I was surprised at how easy it was for me to be vulnerable in other types of writing, particularly around grief, death, and dying but not with confronting my whiteness as it relates to my upbringing and religion.  So I sat down and just wrote without trying to think so much about what or how it came out, and at the end I sent it quickly to Amanda before thinking about what I just did.
To Cole’s question, “how do we feel the earth?”- The first thing that comes to mind is yoga. I’ve been practicing yoga for about five years now, the past 9 months of that have been within a teacher training format called YogaRoots On Location, a transformative study of Raja yoga taught within a social justice framework (particular attention on the construction and deconstruction of racism within the United States).  Through this practice I have wanted to better understand my body as it relates to its cultural inner-workings. What is my body besides “white”?  To begin to answer this more keenly, my husband and I took a genetics test, my results have provided me the opportunity to begin to accept my body, personality, history, and my family, much more fully. (side note: I thought I was mostly Italian, turns out I’m more Balkan than Italian…which is pretty awesome to me!). Yoga has always been a practice of better understanding myself, a very introspective physical practice that challenges me more mentally and emotionally than physically. Yoga has been a constant reminder of how much more I need to learn about what true Love and acceptance looks like, and for me that begins with me being able to love all parts of myself, of loving the God that exists within me.
Do other folks feel a sense of “God” or holiness within one’s self? What would life look like if we no longer felt the need to search for anything outside of ourselves?

Laurel Ridge State Park, Laurel Highlands; photo by Leah Jo

 Jeannie: I appreciated reading that piece by Tada Hozumi.  I have been in a kind of freeze for a long time, and have started, finally, to come to terms with it. I don’t know whether or not to call it “whiteness, but I think investigation into “every body” instead of just my own, changes the questions and their answers.

Four Part Harmony ; Mixed Media by Amanda k Gross

Amanda: One of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation was because I was genuinely curious about how all of you are thinking about and navigating whiteness and spirituality. Talk of my individual faith beliefs/questions – along with the topic of sex, not uncoincidentally – are topics I have kept close to my chest and have been taught to keep close to my chest. One very public and vulnerable way that I am challenging that silence is this blog. But even though aspects of blogging are very vulnerable, it can easily become a platform for monologue. It has been hard and awkward for me to share these ideas and thoughts in person and in dialogue with my parents, my extended family, my church family, people who have been a part of the stories I am publicly sharing – sometimes because the foundation of relationship is not really there or I fear it is not solid enough to withstand. I’m pushing myself to do this more and do it more intentionally, but I struggle with balance because part of what birthed the blog is the dense silence and shame of unspoken lines that are not to be crossed and also because I am human with limits to my energy and emotional capacity.

How do you all manage and balance this? What has this blog post meant for your family and faith community relationships? Has anything changed for you as a result of this process?

Hear No Evil, by Amanda K Gross

Valerie: I echo your struggle with knowing how one balances truth-telling with compassion, Amanda.  When I wrote my post, I wrestled with wondering, “Can the institution where I am a student ‘handle’ this criticism?”  In the end, my sense was that institutions are much easier to critique, but also are much slower to change.  Often, no one person feels particularly that a critique is directed at them, and thus no one takes responsibility.

So, the answer to my question was “yes” and I saw it as a way to practice offering public critique at all — my personality and socialization lend themselves to holding such things “close to my chest.”  Advocacy for self and for others is something I know from my experience that I have had to deliberately practice, and this was the step I could take for now.  Small critiques are also a way to test the relationship:  is there adequate trust to work through fundamental issues of racism?  Is the relationship resilient enough to support transformation, or will this conversation end in alienation?  What’s my threshold for being the instigator of alienation, in the name of truth-telling?

White Silence, by Amanda K Gross

Cole: One final mini-thought… For much of my life I struggled with what I was told was incongruous: that one cannot be both queer and christian. It took a lot of years to navigate around and through that lie, but I’ve more-or-less come out on the other side feeling assured that I am worthy and loved not despite of my queerness, but within in. My whiteness, however, is a different story. One of the key tenants of christianity (from my protestant upbringing) is that grace is a gift available, offered, and given to all with no strings attached, no matter what. This translates directly into my commitment to prison abolition, transformative justice, and collective liberation. But I haven’t yet figured out how to internalize the notion of redemption within my white body. I can’t actually believe that I can be both white and worthy of grace, but maybe someday I’ll dance myself into that truth.

altar #1; Photo by Cole Parke

R/B Mertz: I’ve been wanting to get involved in this conversation again, and am having a hard time figuring out where to start. One thing that I want to say comes from the identity category of white, and the lie of it.  At the same time, I want to talk about how significant whiteness is and how it influences my experience, AND I want to say that it doesn’t really exist. I don’t believe that white folks (raised with the identity of white, with “white”/passing skin) can eschew the privileges and protections of whiteness, but I do think that there is an option to mindfully disengage with the moral compromises that whiteness demands, and to disintegrate the conditioning of whiteness by understanding that it isn’t an actual biological category, but a lie, a false binary about what the full spectrum of skin color means.

Many of the labels we are born into are fluid and can change (gender, class, religion, nation) while others are fixed (race, ability, ethnicity). There are days when I wish there was a word for white people who are active against white supremacy, the same way I sometimes wish there was a word for Christians who are not patriarchal or phobic. The question always comes up, when trying to change a long-standing institution or group, about whether or not the thing you’re trying to change is intrinsic to the fabric of the group or not. Yet the existence of white people and whiteness serves no other purpose than to fundamentally separate and oppress people according to skin color. There is no other purpose to whiteness. While there might be many aspects to being French or German or Irish, whiteness is the thing that cuts off those particular roots and makes the thing-in-common not a whole body of history and cultural practices, but a surface level attribute.
In their essay, “White People Have No Place in Black Liberation,” Kevin Rigby Jr. and Hari Ziyad make an exception for John Brown, because he was a white man who literally gave his bodily existence for Abolition, releasing himself, in a sense, of those bodily privileges that his whiteness could have secured for him. This is a high call, and I see it as a challenge to put my whole body where my mouth is. This is not, in the Rachel Dolezal sense, a call to “convert” or transition into something besides whiteness, but a challenge to reject what the whiteness means, to de-center it from everything/everywhere, to use the full power of our bodies to challenge the system that has kept us safe at the expense of others. This reminds me of the meme that “if you object to the phrase “white people _____,” it’s aimed at you.” I don’t see this as a demand to accept about myself as true whatever is being said about white people, but a challenge to (A) note that the observation has been made and that I might be doing whatever is being called out about white people, and (B) to see the false nature of the category itself.

“Hate Doesn’t Come Overnight, Neither Does Love”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

Jeannie: I remember one time someone told me that the conscious decisions are the hardest ones.  During this process I was highly aware of what I was saying, and not saying.  And of who I told about it, and who I didn’t.  And also of the biochemical sensations which informed those decisions. I wonder what else could inform my decisions, if there is something else I could “move by” and how would that change..everything

 

Same Coin; Screen Print by Amanda K Gross

This is the seventh of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. You can read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth in the series here and here and here and here and here and here.

When in Rome

written by Amanda Gross

I am the guest whose invitation long ran out before the stars were crowded out with  the constant glow of dead dinosaurs. (We consume our dead dinos with a side of human debris spanning three continents, the destruction of descendents of some of earth’s oldest civilizations.)

An original invitation  (most likely reluctant, a mix of compassion and wise suspicion), which was subverted then co-opted, I was greeted at the threshold by another uninvited guest*. His gestures grand, his welcome sincere, his land was not his land to give. He welcomed me in the house on behalf of the host. Looking somewhat like me, I took him at his word.

Mennonite Church; Collage by Amanda K Gross

I am the guest who has suffered. I bring all my luggage. I dump it at the door. I embrace the host and cry on their shoulder and leave a trail of snotty tissues wherever I go. My white tears are vast, my trauma deep, and I demand to be consoled. When my home was never a sanctuary how could I respect my host’s as one? Never before has being a guest come with such lax responsibilities and so I take full advantage and self-indulge.

Trauma Container; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Trauma Container; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

I am the guest who overstayed both tentative and temporary hospitality. I moved my furniture into the spare room and hung my clothes in the closet. I put up a mirror and named it my room. I replaced the photos on the walls, redecorated with a more modern decor, and planted my perennials in the garden. And when my children and grandchildren and their children’s children outgrew the spare room and the halls and the common space with our clutter and our waste and our pets and our slaves, it was a shame, but I had to ask those who used to live here to leave the house and find a spot out back, reserved, I told them, just for them.

Many generations later, I am the guest who sits and listens to young person after young person share vulnerably individual human traumas, amassed a part of a community’s collective intergenerational trauma. I am told and I tell myself that I am a guest. And so I try and resist the urge to collect: stories, traumas, experiences, lessons. I resist the voyeuristic impulse I inherited from Blumenbach**, the “father of anthropology”, of looking in and categorizing, measuring, comparing, and weighing against what it is I think I know. I resist the myth of objectivity and the myth of knowing better than. I remind myself that an invitation is not a pass. I worry about contributing. Then I worry about worrying about contributing. I center my whiteness. Then I center my humanity. And then I just get confused.

I remember that general advice to act like the Romans when in Rome.  And then I remember that the Romans just took wherever they were and called it Rome. When performing conqueror, one is always at home.

I vow to be uncomfortable. And then I vow to love myself.

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

I take the bus to the light rail in the city in which I am a guest which is in an entire country that is also a guest. I am uncomfortable in the unseasonably cold rain and on the smelly train. I carefully step over something unidentifiably gross on the ground and stand too long at the intersection waiting awkwardly for cars to stop so I can safely cross. I congratulate myself on being uncomfortable earlier in the day and in staying engaged in the discomfort.

YROL Card Draft: Drawing by Amanda K Gross

And then I walk into the hotel lobby and a white man with a mustache (no lie) greets me at the door and offers me a freshly baked chocolate cookie. The other uninvited guests fill in all around me. They join me in the hotel hot tub, workout next to me on the exercise equipment, and politely hold the door for me up the stairwell to my room.

There is an illusion of human belonging as I settle into the peace and quiet afforded to me as the rest of the young humans I spent the day with go back to their many realities and take the night shift at the front desk of the hotel lobby while I lay my head on my pillow and drift off to sleep.

*William Penn invited Swiss German Mennonites who were fleeing persecution in Europe to join his colonial experiment in what is today Pennsylvania. European Mennonites have been invited to many countries in order to help make non-arable land arable, resulting in the displacement and destruction of many indigenous cultures, communities, and peoples in several locations around the world.

**Blumenbach is one of a slew of European scientists who over several generations developed “a false science to classify human beings with the explicit objective of placing white people as the height of humanity and white culture as the pinnacle of human achievement”. (This comes from the definition of “Race” by the People’s Instititute for Survival and Beyond)

Staying at the Lorraine Motel; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

How Does Whiteness Separate us from God – Take Six

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

Written by Jeannie Lynn

“If you want to get in touch with the reality of a thing, the first thing you must understand is that every idea distorts reality and is a barrier to seeing reality.”

-Anthony de Mello

“The day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again.”

-Krishnamurti

Nearly two years ago, I accidently saw God in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania.

On that particular day, I met a young woman who was waiting by the side of the road, with a cardboard box in her hands, and inside this box was God.

Its picture (after coming home) is below:

What-it-is, 5 weeks old; Photo by Jeannie Lynn

Earlier that same week, at a church down the street from my Pittsburgh apartment, I had learned the term “Panentheism” as defined by Original Blessing author Matthew Fox: “God is in everything and everything is in God.”  It seemed like a nice thought, that God could be closer than watching us from somewhere else.  But now after seeing this tiny part of God that we commonly refer to as a rabbit, the theology suddenly became a breathing thing. Standing in the July sun, I could find no words to describe the shocking transparency of this black and white thing-in-a box, which was so new to life, to its own neuromuscular system.  No description, that is, except God.

After that day, I gradually began to perceive that same startling what-it-isness more and more frequently, and I believe it is always here, in everything, although most of time I disregard it in favor of the dazzling cognitive busywork of categorization and comparison and preference and association.

One particular example of this kind of distraction, in the context of Amanda’s blog question, is whiteness. *

When I look in the mirror or down at my body and think or say “white,” the energy of my attention diverts from the actuality of my visual field, to that second screen that people often refer to as the “mind’s eye.” Somehow, I lose awareness of the textured patterns and shading, the contours, the movingness and heat of myself-as-I-am. Instead, maybe all I see are the meanings and ideas that are associated with the label “whiteness” in my mind, and which are dead outlines. **

It doesn’t seem to matter whether my associations with whiteness are positive or negative, whether I feel pleasure or pain when categorizing my self-image as “white.”  It still represents a kind of cheap thrill or sugar high which bears little resemblance to the dynamic actuality of this creature, myself. Identification with whiteness or any other label as projected onto that second screen of my mind’s eye absolutely lacks the power and potency connection to What-Is , to God.

I don’t believe that White or Rabbit or any other construct can separate what is already true from myself, itself. However, these constructs, way too often, result in a case of mistaken identity, of the thing-as-it-is.

 

 

*Because God is in everything and everything is in God, I believe that labels and categories are also a part of God, but I tend to mistakenly treat them as gods in themselves.

**I don’t actually believe that anything is dead.

Jeannie Lynn lives and works on the east side of Pittsburgh, as a nursing assistant and GED tutor. She prefers to spend most of her spare time in conversation with her rabbits.

This is the sixth of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. You can read the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth in the series here and here and here and here and here.

 

 

How Does Whiteness Separate us from God – Take Five

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

WRITTEN BY Cole Parke

I recently received some big and hard feedback from people in my life who have been frustrated and hurt by my behavior in a myriad of ways. There were some specific examples of racist microaggressions I’d committed, and then some more general feedback about ways that I’ve been self-centered, arrogant, inconsiderate, and unaccountable.

After taking it all in, I expressed my gratitude for their honesty and for taking the time to call out me out; I offered my sincere apologies for the harm I’d caused; and I asked if there were additional ways that I could repair and heal the damage done. Then I went and sat in my room — a space that I’ve carefully curated as a tiny sanctuary filled with reminders that I am loved — and wrapped myself in a blanket of self-hate and shame.

altar #1; Photo by Cole Parke

It was one of those earth-shattering, core-shaking moments that leaves you feeling like you can’t breathe/don’t deserve to breathe/never want to breathe again. There was now evidence that the perpetually haunting notion of my utter irredeemability was true — that my existence in the world was causing far more harm than good and that I am fundamentally a horrible monster of human and an absolute fraud of an anti-racist.

This conversation took place within 24 hours of a four-day silent meditation retreat that had been on my calendar for months.

 

Four days. Of total silence.

 

Four days of total silence inside a brain that was freshly convinced that the essence of my being is not only bad, but also dangerous. My Christian upbringing taught me that “god is love,” and in the depths of that silence, I was wholly convinced that there was no god for me.

And now I’m back in my room. The reminders that I’m loved are still here — art offerings from friends cover my walls, the flannel quilt that my mom made me for Christmas a few years ago is carefully folded at the foot of my bed, there’s a pile of letters from pen pals on my desk, a borrowed copy of Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance is on my bedside table… I’m surrounded by love (god?) in abundance, but a deep seeded sense of unworthiness still dominates.

So the question of how my whiteness separates me from god feels entirely appropriate, impossibly hard, and absolutely critical to my/our liberation.

altar #2; featuring needlework by Jillian Brandl (@brawnyb), photo by Cole Parke

In Amanda’s original post for this series, she observed that most white people she passes on the street don’t make eye contact with her. She theorizes that “we do not make eye contact with strangers because deep down we are afraid that in seeing the God in them, we will be forced to look at and change ourselves and ultimately, that might make us question the truth on which we have built our lives.”

I wonder if what we’re really afraid of is that seeing the god in others will make more evident the absence of god in ourselves.

Feminist scholar and activist Andrea Smith once outlined the “Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” which she categorizes as slavery/capitalism, genocide/colonialism, and orientalism/war. Reflecting on this framework, I understand that the United States of America emerged from (and is sustained by) a formula of stolen labor/lives, stolen land/resources/culture (necessary for the intended disappearance of indigenous people), and through a constant process of hierarchical othering — of labeling certain people or nations as “inferior and as posing a constant threat to the well-being of empire.” I think of this as stolen humanity.

My ancestors played a role in constructing and upholding each of these three building blocks. When I think about them, and about all the other European colonizers of that era, I have to wonder, What happened that enabled them to completely dehumanize those whose land, resources, culture, humanity, labor, and lives they stole?

In my mind, the only logical conclusion is that they had to have forfeited their souls, thereby rejecting god.

Today, this process continues. Slavery lives on in the form of the prison industrial complex; the erasure and genocide of indigenous people lives on in the form of the Trans Pacific Pipeline; the (il)logic of orientalism lives on the Muslim Ban; and white people (myself included) continue to forfeit our souls.

But even if whiteness has successfully compelled us to forfeit our souls, in order to keep getting out of bed every day, I have to believe that god/love is still stronger — that even if we forfeit our souls, witnessing the god/soul in others actually has the capacity to reveal and awaken the god/soul that forever desires to reside within us.

altar #3; featuring art by Molly Shea, photo by Cole Parke

Whiteness undeniably separates us from god, but the haunting grief resulting from that chasm suggests that there’s still a place for her within me.

That is the place that brought me into the depths of self-hatred last week, and it’s from that place that I keep fighting for a world that protects and celebrates the humanity and worth of all people (myself included).

 

Cole Parke is a rebellious descendent of Mayflower voyagers currently living in Boston, MA. They wake up every morning committed to demonstrating that love is more powerful, even when they aren’t entirely sure. When Cole isn’t spying on the right wing, you can usually find them hanging out at the post office, riding their bike, recruiting new Dandy Blend devotees, or fawning over some stranger’s dog.

This is the fifth of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. You can read the first, second, third, and fourth in the series here and here and here and here.

How Whiteness Kills God & Sprinkles Crack on the Body (How Whiteness Separates us from God – Take Four)

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

WRITTEN BY R/B Mertz*

How Whiteness Kills God & Sprinkles Crack on the Body

“Dr. King And All The Prophets Warned Against Not Loving”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently.

                                                                                                                        – Gwendolyn Brooks

They require of me a song,

less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own

– James Baldwin

  1. “WE ARE IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD”

I’m what you call a lapsed Catholic. In other words, I “left the Church,” which is less of a leaving and more of a constant not going. Two days ago, I found myself at Mass, not on purpose. I started panicking, wondering if I could stay for the high school graduation I was attending—I wanted to celebrate my nephew, but I also wanted to smoke a cigarette, to go get a drink, to get the hell out of there.

I was “in” the Church for about fifteen years, from age eight to twenty-three, during which I endured and mostly forgave constant micro-aggressions, gaslighting, and other psychological and emotional abuse. The final nail in the coffin was when one of my best friends “realized that she agreed with the Church about homosexuality,” and asked that I not associate with her or her children anymore. This broke my heart, but it also broke my heart that in this situation, I couldn’t go to the Church for consolation or guidance; in teachings and in practice, the Church taught that I was someone who you should not let your children hang out with, because I was gay. I realized that I couldn’t find more of my heart there anymore than they could understand the heart I wanted to share. That’s when, at 23, after twelve years of living in the conservative Catholic right wing, I stopped going to church. Like a paper doll, I was slowly punched out of the page of Catholicism.

While at Mass the other day, I remembered that I love Mass. For Catholics, church is basically a beautiful theater piece combining music, poetry, chant, and choreography (or at least blocking). Best of all, it’s enacted by real people, not actors or celebrities, just regular people, worshiping. Even the word worship is beautiful and mysterious.

It’s also ancient. Mass is an ancient ritual where people talk to God, and then eat God. When I got older, I learned that the Mass was the same in Edgewater, Maryland as it was in Indiana and California and Paris and Antioch and Jerusalem—fundamentally, too, it was the same as it had been for two thousand years. Everyone was somehow unified, saying the same prayers, kneeling at the same moments.

Mass is also magic. Eating God is a weird thing to do every Sunday before brunch. Yet eat God we did. The idea is that Jesus is God, and when he was about to die (for his friends, also beautiful) he said that the bread they were eating was his body, and he told them that eating it made them one with him, saved them, made them divine; then he said those beautiful words that Catholics say in Mass every day: “Do this in memory of me.” So, that’s the magic. The priest says the words, and the bread becomes Jesus’ body, and we eat it, and that makes us become Jesus.

The idea of this (for me, now) is that Jesus said he was bread, not puff pastry. He’s something ordinary, something everyday. When we digest something, science tells us, it literally becomes a part of us. So Jesus becomes a part of us. So we are Jesus, too, and so is our Mom and Dad and neighbor and whoever else. Which ultimately reminded me that the mystery of what things are is vast and profound. If a piece of bread can become God, what is not sacred?

At the high school graduation Mass, the priests and teachers kept pedantically reminding the crowd that we were in the presence of God. To which I wanted to call out, “Aren’t we always?!?!?!” If God is God, God is always everything, everywhere.

  1. WE NEED TO SAVE THE WORLD OR OURSELVES OR SAVING THE WORLD IS SAVING OURSELVES

While “leaving the Church,” I got an MFA in poetry, and a lot of tattoos. I shaved my head and started reading feminism, queer theory, anti-Capitalist and anti-racist texts, and now I’m that liberal college professor so many people are afraid will turn their kids into leftists. I let students research and write about whatever they want, as long as they do it thoughtfully and engage with other students about their ideas—the result is a lot of conversation about a lot of different things. Every semester, I give them the same basic final assignment: to articulate a problem they see in the world, and propose a solution. I tell them, there are no laws, no budgets, no Congress or Senate or voters to convince. Just consider what would work. What would actually help?

Most students propose fairly straightforward solutions to the problems they see. They figure out how we could have universal healthcare or free college in the U.S. They see trash and pollution everywhere, and rampant unemployment: create government jobs cleaning up everything? Why not solve our overcrowded prison problem by freeing marijuana prisoners where marijuana’s been legalized, and give them jobs in the new marijuana industry?

As a class, we try to name the main obstacles they’d face when trying to carry out their solutions.  Over and over again, the same biggest obstacle arises: the people who have the power to solve big problems don’t actually want to solve them. Problems like hunger, poverty, unemployment, access to education, displacement, oppression, even pollution, to an extent—the old, big money in the world seems impervious to these problems.  It’s difficult to maintain a sense that there is anything “we” will ever be able to do at all, even in the face of the facts, which say that there is enough of everything to go around.

“Deforested In Part To Satisfy Rising Demand”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. EARTH IS GREEN & BROWN, MONEY IS WHITE

“God is the color of water” – James Wright

For humans, money and access to money has more to do with who gave birth to them, and their access to money, than it ever will with “how hard they work.” Big, old money, the kind that elects politicians, creates jobs, legalizes or criminalizes substances, people, and ideas, is bound up in a genetic circle jerk of inheritance and venture capitalism hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old. Most, if not all, of this big, old money is directly connected to the stealing of lands and resources on this continent and the others, as well as the kidnapping, murder, rape, and enslavement of whole Peoples.

America’s biggest, oldest money is still directly traceable to the white/European looting of Africa—this ancient money, newly granted legal person-hood, elects Donald Trump to be president, and prevents anyone more radical than HRC from being on the ticket. This old money was explicitly and undeniably generated not from nothing, but from the crimes against humanity perpetrated especially upon anyone who did not qualify as white, and secondarily upon many who, as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “believe[d] themselves to be white.” Capitalism, and the American dollar itself, were founded on imperialism, domination, and slavery of Africans, as well as the enslavement of North and South American Native People. This conquering was seen by Europeans as blessed by God; in spite of Jesus’ warning that it was easier for a camel to pass through the head of a pin than for a rich man to get to heaven, Christians have long been equating monetary success with blessings from God.

European diseases ravaged the Indigenous population, killing millions. When later Europeans arrived, they found whole regions where the Native People had all died of disease. A majority of the first European settlements in New England were former Native villages, now filled with corpses. The first “white” people saw this as a sure sign that the Christian God had wiped out the Indigenous population so the Christians could have their lands, as if God didn’t want the Christians to have to interact with other humans peacefully, and he didn’t want Christians to work too hard. Likewise, Europeans and white Americans argued that the enslavement of Africans was ordained by God, too, because it gave Africans an “opportunity” to convert to Christianity. Whiteness has always been bound up with God and money and genocide.

While the rich in America and in Europe passed on wealth to white children, they condemned their Black children to the closest thing to Hell that most humans could imagine. Slave owner paternity was characterized by rape, violence and the objectification of people’s own children, rather than anything based on love or care or protection. Generations later, the fruit of this family tree is the New Jim Crow, an apathetic young white man shooting up a mall or a school or a church, a police officer murdering a child, or a serial rapist, racist buffoon as president.

Most whites have trouble seeing white killings as savage: As a kid, I was disgusted by the human sacrifice of the Maya, while never really questioning the generations of European youth offered up in war.  I didn’t even know about the murder of people on “American soil”. Generations of white Americans attended public lynchings, where families would gather to eat and watch the victim’s life slowly end at the hands of a nameless, faceless crowd, unrecognizable except for its whiteness, defined by whiteness. Imagine, in the weeks and years following the murder of one of your sons, brothers, or neighbors, living with the fact that any one of the white people in your community could have participated in his death. Public lynchings were one way to get across the clear message, that whiteness was to be feared—not individual whites, even, as much as whiteness itself.

“A Mental Civil War”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. GOD IS US & THEM

   “Dr. King and all the prophets warned against not loving.”                                                                                                                                   – Fred Rogers

 In the absence of a physical church to go to, I see God in nature, and God’s motion in the weather. The earth is the closest thing God has to a body, and the weather is like God’s body moving, or God writing a poem. The weather is beyond human control. Observing how the wind can blow my furniture from one side of the yard to another, I and I can’t negotiate with the wind. Under the right conditions, the wind could move me from one side of the yard to another.

Sometimes preachers conflate the weather with God, too. Conservative Christians (such as Franklin Graham, son of Billy) called Hurricane Katrina  a punishment from God. Similar claims have been made about other natural disasters, that God was punishing “them” for their wrongs, as he punished the unholy in the Flood, or destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Philistines. Whenever “they” come into it, “we” can be sure that “they” are not “us.”

But they are us. Every aspect of life on this planet is interconnected, nationally and internationally; every ripple is global. As an example, in the same sense that an event like 9-11 happened to America, so did it happen to the world: certainly the whole world has suffered the wrath of revenge the U.S. has claimed was in response to that one attack. In the same sense, public shootings and tragedies happen to whole communities and whole countries. The effects are not the same, just like ripples in a pond are different shapes. Yet if we insist on only empathizing with people in our “groups,” we will remain blind to what kills our own neighbors, and live in denial that it will ever come for us. Consider the famous Niemöller poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

“There’s Blood On Many Hands Tonight”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

If we are all God, as Jesus says, and the divine is in each of us, this means humans, and maybe even all of Creation, not just some “us”.  The Psalmist writes, “You are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.” Jesus refers to this later, when he’s accused of blasphemy: He says that if God says we’re all gods, what’s wrong with him saying explicitly that he’s the Son of God? A few hundred years later, St. Athanasius wrote, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” Hundreds of years after that, Thomas Aquinas wrote that, “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us share in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” The thing that’s inside us all that makes us God is the thing that connects us all, and whiteness kills that, as truly as the Roman soldiers killed Jesus, a man, they believed, to be of an inferior race.

Since God is every person of every conceivable identity, God has no identity and every identity, or God is unhampered by ways that human identity has to work because we have individual bodies and God’s body is plural. What’s important to me about saying “God” is that God is a Creator, and a unifying thing: maybe the anima, the soul of living things, or maybe just the fingerprint of time running through everything made of carbon. The idea of God being love is important, too, because love conquers all these differences that seem so otherwise unconquerable. Love is the great appeal, the miracle that opens seventy year old homophobic hearts to gay grandchildren and opens up white hearts to shake off the constraints of white supremacy. Dr. King said that Jesus was an extremist of love.

When I was a Christian, there was a way to appeal to other Christians about human rights and the environment by making these kinds of arguments. But my conservative students aren’t Christian anymore. In my classroom, I’m usually the only one talking about Jesus. Often, my students assume that because I’m a butch lesbian covered in tattoos, dropping the f-bomb and talking socialism, that I don’t know shit about Jesus. They didn’t see the first twenty-three years of my life. One time, a particularly aggressive Trump supporting student was sure that I was making up the idea of relics.

As an example of what kind of details to include in their essays, I had said, “Look, if you want to make Christianity or Catholicism sound reasonable, you’re not gonna start with relics. You’re not gonna say, yeah, our religion likes to collect teeth and bones and tongues. You’re gonna start with Jesus, and love, and stuff like that.”

Sometimes I forget that my intimacy with Catholicism is abnormal. While some of the older people in the room got what I was talking about, none of the twenty-something’s did. So the Trump kid, who was always trying to get me to argue with him, said smugly, “What? That’s not real.”

“Yes, relics are real,” I told him, “You can drive two miles from here and visit St. Anthony’s Church, a reliquary, which is full of bones encased in glass and gold.

“I’ve been Catholic my whole life,” he said, “and I’ve never heard of that.”

I wanted to tell him that I had been Catholic for two-thousand years. I also wanted to say, Look, God, this is what happens when you kick out gay people. You lose us. You could’ve had me on your team, Team Jesus, but instead I’m out here on queer island, and nobody thinks I know what I’m talking about. How I look, my tattoos, my weird hair, my clothes, my smoking, my general frankness, are all a product of not giving a fuck anymore because I already lost every kind of thing there is to lose—all of that looks to the world like someone who rejected a church, or all churches, when the truth of the matter is that the churches rejected me. This student can go on saying racist, sexist, xenophobic things, vote for Trump, and have his wedding in a Catholic church. He can get dressed up on Sundays and sit there with his mom or his grandparents, and feel perfectly at welcome, and send his kids to Sunday School. I wanted say all of this out loud, with a lot of fuckwords.

Instead, I told him what relics are. Jesus was God becoming human. Which redeems humanity, people are always saying. What does that mean? It means that God has been human, so humanity is now divine material, and sacred. Then he becomes bread, too, which makes bread sacred. Basically, everything is sacred. So the bones of holy people, their teeth, their bodies, their clothes, their hair, the things they touched, their books, their spaces – these are all relics, or reminders, of the people themselves, who are reminders, themselves, of the God who created them. So we don’t just throw them out, we keep them, we cherish them, we protect them from harm.

“The Embodiment Of A Country Transcending Its Past”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. WE CAN DO WHATEVER WE WANT, WE ARE GODS

When I was growing up, it was considered very liberal to recycle. I tell my students this, to give them a sense that people’s ideas can and do change. Now, even the conservative students see recycling as just the intelligent thing to do; it lost its connotation with liberalism because at some point the new generation heard the information and realized that not considering what human action does to the Earth is basically like peeing all over your living room and not considering the impact of the urine on the carpet and the furniture. Previous generations have been pissing all over the living room and expecting the grandchildren to inherit the house happily, even if it’s falling down around everyone, saturate with waste.

In my classroom, when we say “we” –as in, “We don’t have enough money to give everyone everything they need, to end poverty, to educate everyone, to clean up or renovate what we have polluted– the “we” is particular. We in that room don’t have enough to do those things, and maybe we as a state or a nation don’t have enough digits in exactly the right columns—but we as a species definitely do have enough. But we don’t think of ourselves as one species, or as one anything.

Yet our human brains are powerful enough to know that people are valuable whether or not we love them. If we wanted to, we could lend our collective strength to saving each other, to saving everyone, rather than defending what is “ours” from who we don’t think of as ours. We could share, not based on who “deserves” it, or who we like or who was born closer to us. We could stop killing each other. We could start feeding each other. We can’t stop all death, but as a species we’ve figured out how to prevent or cure most of what kills us. Most of us just lack access to it.

And what if everyone was safe, fed, healed, included? Why not?  Whiteness, the destroyer of worlds, did so by separating humanity from humanity, separating humanity into “races”. Whiteness shattered what was one into a multitude of broken pieces. Humanity’s heart is broken, and it seems like we can’t get off the couch.

“A Rough Hand Shakes Me Awake”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. “…BY THEIR FRUITS YOU SHALL KNOW THEM…”

One of my brightest students, a young Black woman, wrote her final paper on a solution unlike any I’d received before. To end racism, she proposed that Black people enslave white people. As the paper developed, she decided to send white people to Africa as slaves, and to give North America back to Native Americans. Black people could stay, or return to Africa to rebuild the home of their ancestors with all the free labor they needed.

“Well,” another student asked after some conversation, “Does that mean that in a few hundred years, there’s gonna be a white civil rights movement in Africa?”

As a class, we theorized about this for a while, and the student who was writing the paper decided that hundreds of years of owning slaves would corrupt Black people in the same ways white people seem, to her, very obviously corrupt: would Black police officers be murdering white children while they played in parks?

She decided that, even if her proposal would bring about justice and equality, it wasn’t worth it if it meant Black people might end up “like white people.”

“A Voice Says If You Want To”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. “WE CAN’T BREAHTE”

… everyone with lungs breathes the space between the hands and the space around the hands and the space of the room and the space of the building that surrounds the room and the space of the neighborhoods nearby and the space of the cities and the space of the regions and the space of the nations and the space of the continents and islands and the space of the oceans and the space of the troposphere and the space of the stratosphere and the space of the mesosphere in and out.

 Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs

 The negative things that have happened to me because I’m white are things like being excluded at a social gathering, getting my feelings hurt, maybe rarely some negative stereotyping about being over-privileged. Negative effects of not being white still include death, assault, unemployment, homelessness, addiction, imprisonment, and outright warfare. It is as unnatural, illogical, and crazy-making to deny how racism operates now as it was in 1850.

In America, a “bad neighborhood” can exist a few blocks away from a “good neighborhood,” even though both are in the same city, in the same country, where residents are far more likely to get shot than almost anywhere else in the world. Anyone who studies economics knows is that both neighborhoods are part of the same system, just as every country is part of the same continent or hemisphere or planet, and every people a part of the same species.

The lie of whiteness if you are told you are white is that what and who are not white are not you. If you are taught that you are not white, then you are taught that those who are white are not you. But the evidence of biology and psychadelics and religion alike is that they are you. Which also means that Donald Trump is you and ISIS is you and the KKK and Jesus and Buddha and the Black Panthers are you, and the Westboro Baptist Church is me and you, and we are Paris, we are Columbine and Orlando and Mosul, we are Mike Brown; we are all George Zimmerman and we are all Trayvon Martin: so why don’t we all act like it? Why aren’t white women tearing at their clothes and hair in public grief over Tamir Rice? Why aren’t the white police falling to their knees in heartache and repentance and shame?

I tell my students about the police in Iceland. When the first person ever was killed by Icelandic police the whole country mourned. The mourning was lead by the police, who, in essence, fell to their knees, weeping over their profound mistake. When I tell this to my students, they are shocked. Their mouths drop open. They had no idea that humans could be like that.

We shouldn’t have to say the lungs matter or the heart matters: a disease of the lungs or the heart will effect every breath the whole body takes. Whiteness is a cigarette humanity has kept smoking, pretending that it doesn’t hurt us, offering it to our children in the womb and with their breakfast.

The islands of trash in the ocean, the holes in the ozone layer, the levels of carbon in the atmosphere, the extreme weather—none of these perceives race or gender or nation. If humans are going to adapt to climate change, we need to do so together, if only for the very simple fact that environmental devastation knows no bounds or boundaries. There is no “us” and “them” with regard to the air we breathe or the water we drink or the earth where we grow our food. If we want to continue to naturally breathe air, without gas masks, we have to solve the problem everywhere, for everyone and everything who breathes, and cannot breathe.

“Hate Doesn’t Come Overnight, Neither Does Love”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

R/B Mertz is a genderqueer dyke artist, poet & writing teacher. Raised a Catholic homeschooler, she’s working on a memoir currently titled Burning Butch. New poems are coming out in The Gay and Lesbian Review, Fence,and Pittsburgh Poetry Review; art can be found displayed in homes in at least seven states. Mertz is 32, which surpasses expectations. She has almost published several books, and once nearly won a prize.

*R/B Mertz would like to thank all the writers she quotes, as well as Tamika Sly, Vanessa German and Amanda Gross in particular for help with her ideas in this essay.

This is the fourth of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. You can read the first, second, and third in the series here and here and here.

 

How does Whiteness Separate us from God – Take Three

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

WRITTEN BY Valerie Showalter

The Mennonite seminary where I attend as a student has relatively few pieces of art depicting the person of Jesus.  In one of the prayer rooms, there is a reprint of an ancient icon of a brown-ish Jesus.  This is the only image of Jesus in the areas accessed regularly by the public.

        But, as you descend into the lower level of the seminary, back in the corner of the building where there are no windows, there is a room set aside for the student study.  The room is full of little cubicles, musty biblical encyclopedias from the 1940s, and a few choice pieces of art.  On one wall, four portraits of white men are lined up next to each other – Felix Mantz, Conrad Grebel, and George Blaurock, representing “proper” Mennonite heritage.  And, finally, Charles Wesley is the fourth portrait, as a reminder that we’ve got a bunch of Methodist students around, too.  On another wall, three pastel-y pictures portray classic, mid-20th century Sunday School images of Jesus.   

Sallman – “Heart’s Door”

        The seminary provides a metaphor for how I see white Mennonites separating ourselves from God.  On the surface, in the public areas, we exude an openness to world expressions of the face of Christ.  We display our one Greek Orthodox icon because if we’re going to have an image of Christ (which we have long called idolatry) out in public, it needs to show that we are world-savvy about the multiple expressions of Christ.

        But when you enter the depths, the spaces where we form our identities, we tolerate a white Christianity because, at the core, we see Jesus as white.  And, as long as that stays hidden as we accommodate personal tolerance to that “Truth,” we are caught like a frog in the hot water that boils around us, the heat turned up while we weren’t paying attention.*  White Patriarchal Christianity subtly reinforces that we are dependent on it, not just through art, but through curriculum which is still dominated by western, white male academics.  Of the assigned reading in any semester that I’ve been a student at this seminary, a gross majority of the books have been authored by white men.  And so, white Christianity is reinforced, even when it is not intended.

        When Amanda asked me to be a guest blogger on this series, the question “How does whiteness separate you from God” showed a leniency in my own awareness of my complicity as a white seminarian in a white Mennonite Institution.  So the following observations – on Whiteness, Separation, and God — I name from my experience.

        Whiteness  Whiteness is my inescapable context.  I was born with white skin in a culture that historically has championed a particular skin tone, a particular definition of “civilization” and “religion” and “enlightenment,” ­a preference for a particular hierarchy, and a particular structure to reinforce all of this.  I take this socialization wherever I go, and in various situations, particularly where imperialist globalization has gone before me, it gives me particular power.  I wish I could relinquish my Whiteness, and parts of it I can, though to do so means I am necessarily deprived of privileges I once enjoyed.  This leads me to the next observation.

        Separate  First, I note the word “separate” in this question is used as a verb.  Whiteness works to physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially, etc. distance us from God.  Whiteness widens the gap, luring us away from God.  Thus, a response to the separation between God and myself is necessarily a reaction to my Whiteness.  The first thing I am invited to do is be aware that the water is heating up around me.  Before I can react, I need to acknowledge that Whiteness is the primary actor in the first place.  Where many white Mennonites get stuck is at this point:  we can acknowledge that structurally-enforced Whiteness separates us from God and from Neighbor.  Is that enough?   

        While this stance has long assuaged our guilt, now is the chance to react against our separation.  In the Christian world, we have this notion of metanoia, which can be translated a variety of ways from its ancient Greek origins.  It can mean a change of mind, repentance, or an inner change.  There are opportunities or turning points from which we are invited to pivot.  I can say over and over that I am sorry for the way Whiteness destroys people and the planet, but it means nothing if I do not change.  If awareness produces acknowledgment, apology produces change.

Hofmann – “The Boy Jesus in the Temple”

        God  Christianity has a history of claiming that we are set apart, “wheat” separated from the “chaff” for God’s purposes and God’s glory.  A chosen nation, a “city on a hill.”  Let me be clear here:  White Christianity is not Separate because God has chosen Us; it is separate because we have made for ourselves a white God in our image, who reinforces our supremacy. For me, this truth-telling and reaction is grounded in a belief in a God, who is Essence, Event, and Energy.**  It is also what I – and all other white people – are separated from.  If we have created a white god to worship, how does that inform our interpretation of the Two Greatest Commandments, which Jesus outlines as the basis for faithful living?

        Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul.  I don’t get to name God, what God prefers, or how God orders or disorders the cosmos.  God is “mine” because I have named the gulf I have created/inherited that separates me from God, which is my own investment in structures of patriarchy and oppression.  The process of faithful engagement is to continue naming the gulf between self or community and God, because the prevailing forces of whiteness are so strong.  If my experience of God is one that reinforces the privilege I have because I am white, I’ve missed the point.

        Love your neighbor as yourself.  As Amanda mentioned in her post on this, we do not get to name which people, which creatures do or don’t have Essence, Event, Energy.  Whiteness prefers to craftily challenge that, creating a hierarchy in which white is the only true holder of the Divine, and those are the only neighbors we love.  But have you noticed that perfect love drives out Whiteness?  

        Love notices that our neighbor is not our clone.  (Things Jesus didn’t say: “Love your clone as yourself.”)  The more difficult thing to do as white people is to relinquish who one must be in order to be worthy of love.  I have a terrible history of picking and choosing who I think deserves my love, and in no small way does that reflect my complicit ownership of white privilege.  In this way, I turn love into a currency, and I have inherited the power to choose where to spend my love (for the best return on investment.)

        At the end of this all, who am I as a white lady seminarian in a white Mennonite institution?  There are some things I can name:  for too long, I’ve been uncritical of the books I let inform me within academia; for too long, I’ve supported patriarchal ethics that have not only ignored gender norms but racist norms as well; and for too long, I’ve not noticed how privilege itself has gotten me to this point, well on my way to a master’s degree.  Like the seminary, these are the public areas of my identity that “exude an openness” to reflect on how I’m complicit in Whiteness.

        But there is a host of things I struggle to name, particularly as I’ve moved back “home” to my white, Mennonite family in a largely white, Mennonite area.  Without even trying, I can easily settle into a rural, white idyll, seeing only white friends and family while rolling my eyes at the neighbors with confederate flags.  And spiritually, my whiteness here in the Shenandoah Valley means I don’t necessarily “need” God, because this is the location in which my white privilege is at its height and breadth.  I can become my own little god because my white social networks effortlessly reinforce my blindness to my ingrained racism.

by Valerie Showalter

        Yet, I sense that God is calling me out of my whiteness and into my utter humanity here at home.  And I find that call is beyond frightening.  The last thing I want is to be vulnerable, because “God forbid” I get uncomfortable (and discomfort is chaos for white Mennonites.)  I wonder if “home” is where I will do my best work, and if so, I have a lurking suspicion this is where the work will be the hardest.  I balk at the discomfort, the tireless work, and having to speak up.  I balk at my whiteness, and I’m frightened of what God will say to me when I finally turn back to close the gulf.

*I’m aware this frog-in-boiling-water thing has been scientifically debunked.  So, let’s embrace it as a literary metaphor.

**Essence, as in a similar concept to Amanda’s expression in her post, regarding Quaker and Christian Animism ideas that God’s Spirit is present in all things.  Event, as this intangible idea suggested by John D. Caputo, in which God is revealed yet still being revealed, and that process itself is what we call God.  Energy, as similar to Essence in that the Divine animates the universe.  All are esoteric and incomplete, yet deeply personal and communal.

Valerie is a Masters of Divinity candidate at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and a part-time pastor at Shalom Mennonite Congregation.  In her spare time, she gardens, drinks coffee, and is currently catching up on The Americans.

This is the third of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. You can read the first and second in the series here and here.

How Does Whiteness Separate Us from God – Take Two

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

WRITTEN BY Leah Jo

Hello, my name is Leah and I’m a recovering Christian. Today marks 6 years sober from a lifetime of believing that God was a gift that I was successfully able to box up and deliver to all those who needed him. After all, I’ve come to learn that  boxing up the Divine also allowed me to create my very own instructional pamphlet called, “How to Use God To Perpetuate Racism and Stay Comfortable While Doing So.” As you can imagine, my history of living a life that centered around the mantra of, “Serve God, Then Others, Then Yourself” set me up nicely in my later years to exhibit the following symptoms:

-White Savior Complex
-Co-dependency
-Internal guilt and shame
-Perfectionistic tendances
If you’re lost, that’s okay, I’ve been for years. What I’ve come to learn is that the Christianity I had fully embodied and lived from has been highly influenced by Western culture, which at it’s very foundation has been built on racism. I’m beginning to see how the Christianity I practiced and built my identity on has itself been white-washed. As I continued to live out my life as a good Christian I was living from a place of Internalized Racial Superiority (still do) which simultaneously upheld racism (unintentionally continuing to do). Still lost?

Indiana, PA; photo by Leah Jo

Let me start from the beginning:
I was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania, the youngest of four siblings, to parents that found God during the late 70s after a lifetime of drug use and traumatic adolescence. (I do actually “thank god” for this transformation as I am certain that I would not be here today if they hadn’t). My parents raised us in a conservative Christian way, attending church services and functions as frequently as I craved the sweet bread served at communion (which was often btw).

Smicksburgh, PA; Photo by Leah Jo

 We moved around a lot growing up, typically from one rural town to the next as my dad’s job as a manager at an AutoParts Store led us to different locations. Each place we moved, the communities felt the same, lower to middle class, white, blue-collar Pennsylvania workers. Each community held very similar values, which were “God, Family, and Hard Work”. So these values, in turn, were ones that we were taught as well. Our churches all felt the same as well, spaces that taught love/acceptance/sacrifice/and spreading the Gospel.
I loved every second of being at church. I loved the sense of community, the older ladies that pinched my chubby cheeks, the opportunity to be in plays, and of course the church picnics. The “church” quickly became  a second home, a place I found comfort and belonging.

“The Great Passion Play” Eureka Springs, Arkansas

 As I grew older, I began to admire and understand more the teachings of the Bible and OH BOY did I want to be the best Christian out there. I had always felt a very deep, personal connection to what I used to call God. Often times talking to God throughout the day, much like an imaginary friend. I wanted so badly to “do right” in the eyes of God, so that he may look down on me with a proud smile. I was simultaneously frightened by the consequences set aside for those who live a sinful life. Oh you know, just eternal damnation and endless pain and suffering – no biggie for a 6 year old to handle. So I came to understand that the sure-fire way to NOT end up going to hell was to make damn sure I was going to heaven. Tell me who I need to “save”, what rules I cant break, who not to sleep with, which words not to say and which drinks not to drink and I will pick up that cross and follow you (the rules) till I die.

Laurel Ridge State Park, Laurel Highlands; photo by Leah Jo

Enter Leah the White Savior.
I began to believe that my “pure” life morally elevated me above others. I was taught that the world needed to be saved, and that I needed to find those who needed the wisdom of God’s teachings coming directly from me, the holy one. My spiritual verbage was filled with linguistic racism, equating sin and death to darkness (blackness) and wholeness and purity to whiteness. Couple my desire to be perfect in God’s eyes with the communities I grew up in and what you have is a young, enthusiastic (fearful) Warrior for Christ on a quest to save people from the darkness (or from the “urban” environment really).
I made this my “purpose” in life and so I pursued the best path that would equip me with tools and skills to save more souls. As far as I knew, devoting a life to service was certainly going to make God proud, maybe even grant me a VIP pass to skip lines at the pearly gates
All of this self-righeousness continued until somewhere near the end of college. Being taken out of my rural Western Pennsylvanian bubble, I began to gain exposure to so much information, ideas, religions, and culture that I had never before knew, that I (finally) began questioning my beliefs and my own life. All of a sudden, my “purpose” didnt feel as certain to me anymore.

Highland Park Reservoir, Pittsburgh, PA; photo by Leah Jo

At that point, I had devoted my whole life to this pursuit and was not about to give it all up that easily. I also really wanted to stay comfortable in my certainties about life, about what was good and bad, and how I was definitely in the right (cognitive dissonance is a mind fuck). If there was no one to save, then I couldn’t be the white hero!
So I continued on in my studies (which actually only fueled my privilege as I rummaged like a squirrel in a trash can through all that I have been granted access to by being white) and began learning Social Work. It was here in this work that I can TRULY say that I was first challenged** to check my privilege, my righteousness, and my entire belief system.

Philadelphia, PA (dragon painting artist unknown); photo by Leah Jo

Since then I call what I have been experiencing, feeling, processing as the Great Unraveling. This “undoing” of myself has caused me to no longer look at my faith in the same way, and ultimately at God (formerly known as) in the same regard. I am in the process of re-examining my life in so many ways and confronting my demons. I do believe in the Divine, but not in a god that upholds racism. I’m learning to rebuild a bridge inside of myself over the void that is now ever so present. A truer, more vulnerable holiness that fosters Authentic love over fear and oppression. Afterall, if Western white culture taught me how to place God inside of a box, then I can learn how to break down those boxes and toss them in the trash for the rummaging squirrels.

Smicksburgh, PA (man and gator painting, artist unknown); photo by Leah Jo

*”Internalized Racial Superiority” – “The acceptance of and acting out of a superior definition is rooted in the historical designation of one’s race. Over many generations, this process of empowerment and access expresses itself as unearned privileges, access to institutional power and invisible advantages based upon race. ” – As defined and developed and used by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.
**my second breakdown challenge was in Felicia Lane Savage’s YROL Yoga Teacher Training.
-Leah Jo
This is the second of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. You can read the first in the series here.

How does Whiteness Separate us from God?

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

For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. I (Amanda Gross) have written the first piece, with features from each guest blogger to follow, along with excerpts from a group dialogue and potentially a podcast. Happy reading and stay tuned for more! Read the second in the series by Leah Jo here.

written by AMANDA GROSS

Sin was a theme of my childhood. I was brought up in a small Mennonite church in the middle of a big city with a pretty clear definition of sin, meaning that which separates humans from God. This was most obviously applied on an individual level as things that were bad (unGodly and don’t do them) and things that were acceptable and good (Godly, definitely do them). Church and home and school mostly followed suit. Although I was aware of the little contradictions, especially that not everybody I encountered was on the same page about what exactly constituted sin and how important sin was in the equation of life and eternal damnation. Jesus was the bridge over the sin. But sin was still ever present, a threatening tsunami of danger to avoid.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

When I think back to my conversion experience inside of an emotional roller coaster of youth evangelical ministry, I remember both the surge and yearning, but also the fear. I was as much driven into the arms of Jesus by the invitation as the threat, a constant stream of compliance outlined in Christian fiction and nonfiction alike. If you do not comply, you will be left out of the Kingdom. And what teenager wants to be socially shunned? Though there are Christians who believe the number of spots in heaven are finite, I was taught that God’s love is readily available, a never-ending source for anyone to access. Why then in the face of such abundance does scarcity mentality take hold? A relationship to God has become a scarce commodity only available to Christians, just as truth has become equally scarce and only available to those same Christians. Scarcity mentality yields fear and so in turn that truth and those Christians are under the constant threat by the truths of others.

Enter dualism which explained everything*. A guest speaker and theologian introduced the concept of dualism in my college course on Environmental Justice. Dualism gave humans justification for God-sanctioned dominion over the earth, by first separating humans from God (due to sin) and then creating a hierarchical order. God over Humans. Humans over other Earthly things. Man over Woman. Civilized over Savage. Christian over Pagan. White over Black. The list goes on and history gives us evidence of the results.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

On a separate yet intricately interconnected day at college, someone shared the radical notion that everyone has God in them. I blame it on the Quakers. Growing up I had been taught that Quakers weren’t really Christians, but upon reflecting, this concept seemed pretty darn Christian-y and a sound concept at that.  It made me think of the phrase to accept Jesus into your heart. Isn’t that all about having God inside of us? The way I learned it, Jesus is available to all, an extension of God’s availability to all. It is the openness, the receiving, the acknowledgement that activates it, but ultimately God already is. There. In us all.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

In dualism, philosophically we separate ourselves from God and what follows is the sequential separation of ourselves from the earth, from the universe, from creatures, from each other, and ultimately from ourselves. So it is no surprise that when we fail to see God in other humans, we fail to recognize God in us. When we fail to know God in others, we fail to know God in us. When we fail to be in relationship to the God in others, we fail to be in relationship to the God in ourselves. And perhaps it is precisely because we fail to know the God in ourselves that we have become so capable of living in a society where not seeing the God in others is the norm. We collectively cope by dangerously, and deceptively hiding and thus take ourselves out of our own context. We learn to see ourselves as objectively and separately motivated individuals, separate from the water we drink, better than the air we breathe. We hide from ourselves by washing our hands of social responsibility, by denying our interconnectedness, and by cloaking ourselves in a blameless cape of knowing Jesus, individualism, and knowing the one right way. Rather than to Christ or to each other, we have become unequivocally devoted to dualism.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

Whiteness, too, demands unequivocal devotion. It functions to promote and insist upon a specious armor that separates and denies our interconnected social responsibility to humanity (big picture) and our own humanity (zooming in). The creation of whiteness as part of the creation and manifestations of racism is a multi-layered process of dehumanization that impacts us all.** When we are able to honor our interconnectedness to each other, we honor our interconnectedness to God. Our denial of this interconnectedness, our blindness to the ways we both perpetuate and are harmed by biased systems and cultures of domination is precisely what leads us to paths of violence – violence to ourselves, to others, to the earth, and to God. To live in these systems requires the suppression of our humanity – when we step over the person experiencing homelessness on the street, when we study for exams based on the texts of white (mostly male) heroes that erase the people who were here before European settlers arrived, when we surround ourselves by people who look and think like us, when we call the police to complain about our neighbors rather than engage them in conversation, when we stack our bank accounts out of fear of economic insecurity and hoard our resources, when we eat mindlessly and exercise abusively, when we assume, project, and suspect our self-hate, self-doubt, and self-loathing onto others.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

On an even more personal note, this historic dualism has separated me from the ability to see the God (or Goddess) in me. Many things can be true at once. My commitment to being a disciple of Jesus is precisely what has brought me down this path of rejecting the dualism of racism and of patriarchy and also how many describe the religious dogma of Christianity. My commitment to being a disciple of Jesus is precisely what has brought me to better see the God(dess) in me.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

Most white people I pass on the street do not make eye contact with me. I have a theory that we do not make eye contact with strangers because deep down we are afraid that in seeing the God in them, we will be forced to look at and change ourselves and ultimately, that might make us question the truth on which we have built our lives. Whiteness is the illusion of separation that results in very real, deep spiritual disconnects that have infected every aspect of our lives.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

*By everything, I mean many things but not actually everything.

**I learned this and more (and you can too!) from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.

Interested in exploring this topic further? You can read the second in the series on How Whiteness Separates us from God by Leah Jo here.

 

 

 

(Not) Your Grandma’s Footwashing

written by AMANDA GROSS

When I was little Easter meant getting all dressed up with bonnet to match, picking violets in the church yard for mama while dodging the poison ivy, and the smell of egg bake at Sunday morning church breakfast potluck. It also meant lots of exuberant hymn singing and the smell of slightly stinky perspiring church lady stocking feet as we prepared for Footwashing. The ladies and men went our separate binaried ways and, following Jesus’s example*, we took turns removing stockings and tights and washed each others’ piggies clean.

Easter!

On Maunday Thursday, I got my feet washed by someone’s grandma at the nail salon. Granted it was a pedicure, but as she sat at my feet something felt wrong. I should have been washing hers. I should be siting at the feet of someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother, possibly someone’s great grandma, not her at mine. I contemplated what her age meant in terms of history, which Southeast Asian American-influenced war she had fled or endured (or both) in order to sit at the feet of a sea of mostly white women, prepping our feet for Easter Sunday – perhaps even prepping our feet for further foot washing, a preemptive cleansing of our God-given flaws.

On Good Friday, I went to Spa WOrld and got naked with a bunch of strangers in the separate binaried bade pool. (I highly recommend the Korean Spa experience for self-care, rest, and for growing one’s comfort zone. Despite how the naked part might sound, it is a very safe family friendly environment and the cafeteria – which you go to fully clothed – is incredible!)

Now don’t get me wrong, I have always loved being naked in the appropriate spaces. When I was two, that was in the dog’s water bucket in the backyard. When I was 6, that was going shirtless to play soccer with the boys. When I was 13, that was changing my clothes in the closed bathroom stall of the locker room. As an adult, that has mostly meant at home in my room with the shades drawn. But Spa WOrld doesn’t really care about my previously held notions of appropriate spaces, because they have certain areas that you can only go into without clothes. It’s like the reverse of a “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy. For me this took vulnerability to a whole new level. But then after the initial 10 minutes of discomfort and being careful to observe eye contact only, I felt surprisingly and entirely comfortable in my own skin. This took my human capacity to adapt to a whole new level. Feeling adaptably emboldened, I signed up for a body scrub and massage and pretty soon was being spun around on a vinyl table top by someone’s Korean grandma who scrubbed and rubbed and pounded my flesh into submission. It was a humbling and again nakedly vulnerable situation.

Doodle by Amanda K Gross

Over the past year, I have been thinking a lot about self care. This has come due to other people’s urging and guidance, some of my own curiosity, but also because I have realized just how much I have learned and accepted my own neglect. I have been listening, observing, and experimenting with other people’s self-care wisdom** and asking the question what does self-care look like? What might it look like for me? This has led to expanding my horizon and also reclaiming things that I had forgotten. Some of these experiences have included, the nail salon, yoga, eating healthier, a bikini wax, long walks on the beach, long walks in the park, sunshine, tea, Spa WOrld, massages, cooking, drawing, quiet, intentional nice clothing purchases, no more than 1 1/2 glasses of red wine, music, dancing, blueberries, essential oils, gardening, hula hoops, showers, candles, sitting still, rearranging furniture, cleaning, weeding, journaling, burning other things that smell good, house plants. Self-Care can look like all sorts of things. Some of these things are more culturally familiar and some are more or less accessible depending on place, weather, and budget, but at some point with intentionality, I have tried them all.

Doodle by Amanda K Gross

Which has led me to ask a slightly different question. What does self-care feel like?

I am crossing a threshold of the new and scary in my life, which can be ultimately summarized as living and being alone. This was never the plan. This was never my ancestor’s plan for me. They are probably pissed. Patriarchy is definitely pissed. Living and being alone is calling up all my deepest internalized white lady fears. It is challenging all my go-tos of what was “supposed to be.” A “supposed to be” which was influenced both by society’s expectations and my own internalized need for external (especially masculine) validation, but also influenced by my personal vision as an attempt at challenging those norms. My attempt at a marriage despite patriarchy, my attempt at helping to raise children despite not having kids, my attempt to return my home ownership to someone who more rightfully claims the zip code, my attempt to open my doors and space to anyone in radical hospitality, my attempt to fill all the garden beds and make righteous use of every space I’ve been privileged to access and “own”, my attempt to share the spaces in between in partnerships with others – all these attempts at my own alternative “supposed to be.” (A “supposed to be” that asks a question about internalized superiority and the perceived ability to control my circumstances… )

Like the Spa WOrld body scrub, this has been a lesson in surrender. Also like the body scrub, self-care can feel abrasive. Just like getting naked with strangers at Spa WOrld, self-care can feel vulnerable. And like my Maunday Thursday foot washing, self-care can feel uncomfortable, too. My experience at the nail salon can be enlightened with history, awareness, and a recognition of our mutual humanity, but it exists among and not separate from the day-to-day violence of our world. Likewise, self-care for white ladies can carry the privilege and illusion of separation, rather than the much more complex task of finding true restoration in the midst of chaos. Self-care can be an escape from the violent dynamics of our own cultures and religions, yet result in the appropriation of another’s. We can rush to the spa for relief from responsibility and to escape our own pain or we can approach it with awareness and intention and make the vulnerable space within for ourselves to shine through. Although it is worth noting that at the end of the day, neither of these self-care approaches are guaranteed to result in how it was “supposed to be.” Instead, maybe in the discomfort of self-care we will receive a much-needed experience of gratitude and humility,  which was exactly how it was supposed to be after all.

Invisibility Cloak (in progress) by Amanda K Gross

*Stockings were probably not a part of Jesus’s foot washing experience.

**A necessary shoutout to YogaRoots On Location Yoga Teacher Training. There will be another one coming up soon!

MJ was Killed Building Peace in Other People’s Business

Today I opened Facebook and read that they found MJ’s body in a grave in the Congo along with his Congolese and Swedish comrades. When I first heard he was missing, I feared for his life. I also held out hope because maybe as a white American he would be more valuable alive than dead, but at the end of the day white privilege and American citizenship didn’t save him.

We know that in a global context of international violence white lives matter more. Given our history of white supremacy, colonization, and European-centricity, we can easily trace the threads through time that explain how this has come to be. What we examine less is what would drive a young white Mennonite from Kansas – who could have lived a life of material comfort and physical safety- to risk all of that and place himself in the middle of some of the most dangerous conflicts in the world – to go directly to places where the locals are trying to leave.

Wars Abroad Wars at Home; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

My above words are slightly inaccurate. We do talk about it on some level. We glorify it. The Martyr. The Savior. The Hero who risks all to save others. MJ’s name will be written alongside of others who died in the name of peace – Dirk Willems, Gandhi, Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus. MJ’s name will be spoken in Mennonite pulpits on Sunday. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) Some who hear his name will grieve because they knew and loved him. Some will be proud because he was “one of ours”. Some will be proud because he has kept up our reputation. (Mennonites are known for our farming, peacemaking, and our righteous dying.) Some will revere his name and his work because his sacrifice means that others won’t have to, that their children won’t have to, that they won’t have to.

But I believe that there is more to why young white expats* Mennonite and Other-than-Mennonite risk their lives in the name of peace. There’s more to it than the white savior complex, martyrdom syndrome and promise of humble glory. There’s more to it than a deeply embedded spiritual socialization of serving others and erasing motives of self.** While I think MJ and others (myself included) have definitely been influenced by these messages, there are other driving factors that we don’t talk about. There are other things at play that a lens of glorification would not have us see. And this is not to take away from the intrinsic value and awesomeness of MJ’s life and work. It is to complexify and complicate our one note melodies and turn them into narratives of harmonious dissonance.

Martyr’s Mirror, Plough, Tractor, Adhesive Bandages, courtesy of the internets

When I told my sister that my college classmate had been kidnapped in the Congo she said (and I paraphrase), “Well what do you expect getting involved in other people’s wars. That white man had no business over there.” And she’s right. And she’s wrong.

She’s wrong because the wars in the Congo do not purely belong to the people of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those wars belong to us all. And I don’t mean in an esoteric kum-ba-ya “All wars are our wars. All people are our people.” kind of way. But in the way that white people in what is now the United States of America are intricately connected to the geopolitical how and why conflict in the Congo exists. This includes the history of colonization, the occupation of political rule by Europeans alongside the continued economic, cultural, and religious colonization by Europeans and North Americans (including Mennonites and other religious entities), and also the international corporate extraction and exploitation of the Congo and it’s natural resources and the militarized political influence of white westerners and their market capitalism driven by consumerism (also that of Mennonites as participants in North American consumerism) – to name a few.

She’s right though, because that is what one gets for interfering in other people’s wars. Her comment made me reflect on why I would ever deign otherwise. Why would I even expect someone who consciously and willingly planted himself in the middle of violent conflict to survive – to have a right to survive – to have the right to survive while at the same time expect all those born and raised in the context of war to most likely not survive? What part of me could exceptionalize MJ’s survival?

There is something deeper than “a call” that drives white expats into peacebuilding in war zones, that takes white missionaries to Kenya, that propels white college students into the industry of international development, that gives hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of white folks employment doing “good work” in the inner cities via the NonProfit Industrial Complex (myself included).

This Land is White Land; quilted adhesive bandages and fabric by Amanda K Gross

We rush head first into other people’s wars because we are escaping our own.

It is easier to helicopter into a foreign conflict zone where we know no-one than to face the conflict zones of our homes. It is more alluring to negotiate the violent disputes of the Congo than to navigate the personal trauma of rural Kansas. It is better to run and deal with other people’s messes, no matter how dangerous they may be, than to hold up a mirror and confront and sit with the ugliness of our own. There is more hope in convincing Congolese rebels to put down their guns than to convince our conservative Republican fathers to give up their allegiance to whiteness.

I say this not to blame MJ, but to identify with him. The root causes of Congolese violence are intimately close to home, and staying engaged in either risks our emotional, spiritual, mental, and even physical health. Rather than see MJ’s journey as exceptional, as out there, as something that could only happen in the dangerous jungles of Africa – what if MJ’s journey was in fact parallel to our own? What if we approached engaging in our own context, with American whiteness, with being in relationship to our families, and dealing with the roots of this interconnected mess with the same purpose and courage that we will ascribe to MJ’s life?

And to take it one step further, what if we did so leaving the Martyrdom and Savior Complexes behind? What would that mean for those of us who are still in the land of the living?

MJ Sharp, you will be missed.

 

Fly Away Home (in progress): Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

*expats=North Americans and Europeans and Australians living/working in Asia, Africa, and Latin American

**Erasing motives of self is a dangerous egotistical illusion that sets us up for doing more harm to others and also to ourselves out of the myth that in totally suppressing our own wants and desires we are practicing a sort of holy selflessness, rather than recognizing our wants and desires and discerning what of it is in alignment with God’s justice, mercy, and love, and rather than learning and trusting our deepest truths to be in alignment with God’s Truth. I blame dualism.

How the Blatant Segregation of The North Made Me Realize the Subtle Segregation of The South

written by AMANDA GROSS

There is a myth in white America that white southerners are responsible for the racism of this country.

Spilt Milk; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Despite being raised in the South, I grew up with some of this messaging too. After all, I wasn’t really from from Atlanta and neither were a lot of the white people around me. My mama grew up deep in the mountains of Appalachia, but she wasn’t really from from there either. One generation back her parents were solidly from Amish Mennonite Pennsylvania. My dad came directly from north of Philly, so there was no question on his side. And with both lines being from from Swiss German Anabaptist pacifist roots, we were in the clear when it came to being on the side of racism=bad and besides no slaveholding (whew!). So when Ms. Sylvia told me stories of mean white boys at the bus stop and taught me to be a different kind of white person, I knew there was some connection between them and me. I knew I was white. But I also knew I wasn’t Southern in that way.

Cue Scarlett O’Hara.

Despite “not being Southern in that way”, upon reflection a number of curious circumstances stand out. On one hand, I was given all sorts of concrete examples of how not to be like the mean, angry lynch mobs and slaveholders of Southern history. On the other, Gone with the Wind made a very short list of approved films for my childhood viewing. This encouragement included tours of the Margaret Mitchell home and a general sense of pride that she was from Atlanta – a white woman role model and artist/writer who succeeded in her field despite the sexism of the day. When I watched the film for the 3rd time (I loved the dresses), maybe Ms. Sylvia silently shook her head in disapproval while doing the dishes, but not one adult indicated that this was a problematic narrative. When I was confused that things didn’t match up – why were the white men all eager to go off to war when white men in my church said war was bad? why was Prissy screaming hysterically in the midst of crisis when Black women I knew were composed and knowledgeable? why did enslaved people stick around when in all the other stories I read they were trying to get the Hell out? – there wasn’t any critical discussion to help me process it. When my precocious second grade self read the book and then wanted a “Gone with the Wind”-themed birthday party (complete with hoop skirts), not only was this idea supported (by my parentals), but also people sent their children (mostly white) (also in hoop skirts). (Note: Of the birthday party goers, maybe one of my peers was from from the South.)

Squilt (detail); Hand pieced and quilted by Amanda K Gross

Cue 7 Scarletts (in hoop skirts) and 1 Rhett Butler.

Many other Southern cultural things slipped in un-complexified. Like Uncle Remus stories and field trips to Joel Chandler Harris’s house. Also visits to the Cyclorama (practically in my backyard), many picnics at the Stone Mountain (highly patriotic/Confederate leaning) laser show, and that one time, a trip to a plantation outside of Charleston.

Squilt (detail); Hand pieced and quilted by Amanda K Gross

Now I also was steeped in Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s legacy. Eighth Grade Georgia History was a semester on the evils of slavery and the wickedness of the Confederacy and then a semester on the Civil Rights Movement. Black History Month lasted the entire school year. However, somehow Southern white overt racist culture ended up kitschified by our Atlanta Yankee parents – not totally taken seriously yet not totally dismissed. Like your cute kid brother, on a good day. Harmlessly annoying, but you’re feeling generous and proud of yourself for your generosity.

Cue Pittsburgh, PA.

Upon my arrival to the North, I was totally unprepared for the level of scapegoating and denial of responsibility for things like racism. I was not prepared for how casually white folks in Pittsburgh dismissed the South as that racist place and used white southerners as a contrast to prop up their own home towns as very much not racist. The more I got to know Pittsburgh with its clear cut segregation, with its racist workplace hierarchies, with its appalling infant mortality rates for children of color, with its segregated neighborhoods, and severe lack of Black folks in positions of city and county power and authority, the more I got irritated about the Southern dissing. While Atlanta wasn’t perfect, never had I lived in a more clearly and overtly racially segregated place as Pittsburgh. I heard liberal white Pittsburghers talk about the ills of Southern racial segregation and continue on in their white bubbles without ever thinking anything of it.*

Poet’s Voice. Birds Song; Hand pieced and Quilted by Amanda K Gross

Cue self-reflective thought.

Once I moved through my irritation and initial defensiveness, this insight became a gift that has allowed me to reflect back on my growing up in Atlanta and reflect on my experiences with more honesty about how certain aspects reinforced my internalization of racism and other dynamics challenged and complexified those. Atlanta was no utopia, but the complexity of my narrative is that it gave me exposure to anti-racist ways of thinking and being in the world at the same time as giving me the potential to be just another ignorant white person.

Interestingly, growing up in inner city Atlanta, much like growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, offers the illusion of non-responsibility. In Atlanta, a white person can be literally surrounded by Black folks at work, at church, at the club, at school and yet have no – or at least very few -authentic relationships. Despite being surrounded by Black cultures, a white person can keep that bubble intact. In Pittsburgh, a white person can live their entire life without having to interact with a Person of Color in non-transactional ways, yet never connect their own history to the history of racism in this country. A white person can give the gift of full racist responsibility to our Southern cousins, giftwrap included. And so both ecologies offer the tempting deception of whew! At least it wasn’t us…

Grandmother’s Dream; Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

Let us not be swayed by a theism of whew! It takes courage and a practice of self-discipline to keep coming back to an honest mirror of our life histories. It takes attempt after attempt to delve deeper into the truths that have been covered up for us and covered up by us. It also takes a level of courage and maturity to not get stuck in a pool of self-pity and/or self-loathing and to use an honest look to inform how we change. Let us know our own pasts in order to move into the present and plan for a different future.** Let us talk acknowledge our Gone with the Wind birthday parties so that we might enter into hard, challenging, life-long dialogues with our children about racism and their connection to it. Let us ask ourselves, what are the repressed stories that need to come to light? What is the truth from our own histories that need to be resurrected and exhumed so that we can know, so that we can learn, and so that we can do different?

 

For more on the intentional Federal housing segregation policies that came out of the New Deal Era, listen to this interview on Fresh Air and read this article by Ta-Nehsi Coates.

**I just finished reading “The Present” by Spencer Johnson, which significantly influenced this blog post.

Artist Statement

written by Amanda Gross

When I was five I used to put on shows for anyone who’d take a seat. I’d grab some blankets, turn over the kitchen table, and raid my mama’s lingerie drawer. But it wasn’t just my debut. I rarely performed alone. Instead I persuaded my brother to sample his latest Ninja Turtle moves. I had the kids across the street stepping to a choreographed musical and I sweet-talked Ms. Sylvia into lettering the signs. Artmaking has always been more than an end result. Artmaking has been the collaboration, the process and the magic that gave my five year-old self life. Artmaking was exuberant expression, and artmaking became relationship.

Trust Black Women; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 29, I was stitching up a telephone poll downtown when a thought came across my mind. Soon after, I convinced 2,000 of my closest friends to help me knit the Andy Warhol Bridge. Between years 5 and 29 I had learned some things about creating nicely with others. I had learned how to motivate people with the ultimate trio of enthusiastic vision, resonance and steady confidence. I had learned how to intentionally create space for accessible participation. But, I had not yet learned my limitations. Knit the Bridge was like fiber meeting steel. As 3rd graders and grandmas knit their squares and word spread rapidly, Allegheny County, the keeper of the bridge, worried about risk, money and contracts. In our grassroots effort, we set out to reclaim and beautify public space all the while honoring our interconnectedness. The county’s legal team was not amused by our fluid way of outsourcing labor and materials. They wanted assurances of safety to know who would take responsibility if it failed. In the role of project manager I learned about the rigid structures that form our society, about my own weaknesses and need for support and also about the adaptable power and strength of communities when we come together. With Knit the Bridge artmaking began as co-creation, and then suddenly it became organizing.

A few years before, when I was 26, 27 and 28, and within a two-block radius of my home, four young Black men were shot and killed in separate incidents, one by Pittsburgh Police. Their deaths reminded me of a ninth grade classmate who shared their tragic story and I responded by organizing Quilting Bee Love, a listening project pairing quilters with those who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence. I intended this fiberart project to build relationship, humanize victims and their families, and find healing in the power of storytelling. A few beautiful quilt squares were made and some very personal stories were shared. Some of McKeesport’s most affluent quilters joined in, but the project halted when they couldn’t get past their own fears and internalized racism. In this juxtaposition of trauma, remembering, love and resilience, quilting revealed both destruction and beauty. And so, though limited in scope, through Quilting Bee Love artmaking became healing.

San Diego Doodle; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 15 I spent a year starving myself in France. Highly influenced by white feminine beauty standards, but also driven by an adolescent religious zeal to be perfect in the eyes of God, I was at the height of my over-achievement. Atlanta Public Schools sent me and 14 other awkward teens to represent as junior ambassador exchange students. Living outside the U.S. gave me perspective. I resisted the fat, ugly, dumb American stereotype by overcompensating with emaciation, extreme politesse and cultural and linguistic fluency. Upon my return home making art was the key that unlocked my pathology. In AP Art Studio I drew myself back to health, drawing image after image of my body until I realized my own beauty. I used the physical act of figurative drawing to emerge from the ugly distortions of my mind. In the midst of sickness, artmaking was the antidote. Artmaking was health. Through my practice, artmaking became self-reflection.

Reflecting back, I can see myself at age 8. One day afterschool, I dropped my backpack on the kitchen floor and declared myself vegetarian. All my friends were doing it. One week later, none of my friends were doing it. I still am. My mama gave me free range of the kitchen and I experimented with whatever was on hand. I learned to make do and make great. I learned to make vegetables sing. In the kitchen, artmaking was a way to eat. Artmaking proved resourceful. And in my identity formation, artmaking became a way towards self-determination.

Kitchen Doodle; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 24 I drove 12 consecutive hours from Pittsburgh to Maine to live with a couple of complete strangers – one of whom wove rugs and the other of whom threw pots. This sixty-something couple subsisted as craftspeople and always had. Over seven weeks time, I observed Susanne Grosjean’s work intimately and was an obedient apprentice. I painstakingly warped the loom and wound hundreds of spools of yarn. I wove pick after pick and then carefully unwove and rewove after each mistake. I mastered tension. I matched hue. I carded and spun and dyed wool. I worked exhaustively. During my apprenticeship, artmaking was not just craft and skill; it was a livelihood. Artmaking was a path to material survival. Through that path, artmaking became a rigorous self-discipline.

When I was 26 I went back to school and entered a graduate program in Conflict Transformation. I was steeped in the values of peace and justice via my pacifist Mennonite upbringing, and so this disciplinary study was consistent with my lifelong interest in understanding, undoing and rebuilding systems of oppression. I balanced my analytical inquiries with a solo interactive installation in the university’s gallery. In Domesticated I cut up money as a symbol of U.S. economic and military power in the world and sewed it back together as an offering of transformation. I embroidered war machines all around the uber-feminine 1950s kitchen, living room, and laundry to create the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Goodwill oblivious to the violent images all around them. Audience participants interacted with the Goodwills to practice their peacebuilding skills. How does one engage someone with an oppositional worldview? How do you talk about the tank on the lampshade when someone can’t or doesn’t want to see it? During my studies, artmaking was about making the unseen seen. Artmaking was a way to practice new. Artmaking as installation was immersion. Consequently, artmaking became subversion.

Philly Doodle; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 21 I marched with an angry mob on Washington. When the crowd ended up cornered between a chain link fence and riot police with teargas, a friend and I pushed our way to the front and knelt in prayerful protest. The police hesitated and there was a moment of stillness before the anger propelled the protest forward. In realizing the extent of injustice, my artmaking channeled anger. To feel powerful and useful, artmaking required putting my body on the line. Artmaking meant embodied danger. Thus, artmaking necessitates risk.

Similarly when I was 25 I took my body to yoga at the Kingsley Association. This began a new education and ongoing apprenticeship under the direction of Felicia Lane Savage to practice and teach yoga. I learned a different way to be in my body, an expansive form of artmaking. I learned to have grace for and to listen to my human form rather than push and exploit it. Here too, artmaking was embodied. Yet here artmaking can be flexible as well as strong. Artmaking risks without injury. In my body, artmaking is the practice of being.

D.C. Doodle; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 31 and 32 I spent two cold and snowy winters at an anti-racism organizing training in Minnesota. Whiteness was all around and it was inside me. This journey of understanding the layers of whiteness from historical, systemic and contemporary insidious racism has taught me another way to be in my body. I am learning to see what I’ve been raised to unsee. In unpacking this inherited legacy through Mistress Syndrome, I have stepped into my authentic voice as an artist. Dr. Joy DeGruy builds Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome off of the concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to describe a pattern of behaviors and beliefs impacting those who were enslaved, their communities and their descendants today. If there’s a Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, then there must be a Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome, or Mistress Syndrome as it more specifically befalls a white lady like myself.

I was born into white ladydom. Given a race and a gender in an Atlanta hospital in the early 80s. Along with my name, pink dresses (which I still love) and Cabbage Patch dolls, there were immediate references to dating, jokes that boys better stay away and hypothesizing about how my future white feminine sexuality would be fortified. I grew up a good little white girl, groomed to play by the rules and win, or at least maintain the flawless effortless appearance that I was. And when occasionally I wasn’t winning, my white lady mama would go remind the system that I was supposed to. At the same time that I was being conditioned to win at the perfect grade, body, attitude, I was also conditioned to help, support, defend and ultimately defer my self-interest to God (the Father), men (almost always white including my actual father) and the (church) Family (most definitely white). Through Mistress Syndrome, I claim myself the artist in the work. The Mistress Syndrome blog, visual artwork and anti-racist organizing are the start of this exploration. In this emerging and expanding body of work, artmaking is life and is my life. Artmaking is uncovering truth and pealing back of pathological layers. In this journey, it renders me vulnerable and holds me accountable. But, art also makes the alternatives. Art makes the vision and holds space for renewal. Artmaking is liberation. And as the thread that flows throughout my life’s work, artmaking is the transformation.

Puerto Rico Doodle; by Amanda K Gross

A Letter to My Eight Year Old Self

At the hotel pool in the partially shaded family section amidst the chaotic energy of children, there was one very pale brown-headed child, maybe age seven or soon to be arriving at the age of eight. She was wearing a bright indigo one-piece and drifted contentedly by herself in a plastic purple dinosaur. Her quiet solitude at odds with her peers, she was serene, knowingly content to float in her purple plastic tube, inside of her pale skin, brown hair, and big blue eyes.

Then I woke up today and read “How to Know Everything About Everything: Laura Riding’s Extraordinary 1930 Letters to an 8-Year-Old Girl About Being Oneself“, which prompted some reflective letter writing to my 8-Year-Old self:

Dining Room Table; Mixed Media painting by Amanda K Gross

Dining Room Table; Mixed Media painting by Amanda K Gross

Dear 8-Year-Old Me,

You are stubborn, like your father. This is a trait that you will hate, but ultimately come to love because it is a part of you. Soon, in the very near future, you will start to distance yourself from your shared similarities with him. You will see his taurus nature and all-or-nothingness used to plow through nuance and dominate the feminine divine. You will understand eventually that this comes from his fear, his desperation to have the answers clear, clean, and complete from an all-knowing source separate and above him. You will understand that in fearing the subtleties, the nuance, the feminine, the cyclical, he is fearing a part of himself. You too will deeply feel this inadequacy and come to believe parts of it as true. You will learn to distrust your own inner wisdom. In pushing away your stubbornness, you will inevitably deny your other truths. If there is anything I would advise, it is to embrace your stubbornness. Know it. Love it. Cultivate humility alongside it. Learn when to let it go and when to hold on tight. Because in your stubbornness too, is your passion, your drive, your focus, your gut for righteousness, and it will get you to the goals meant for you.

Snapshots in the City by Amanda K Gross

Snapshots of Humans in the Big City by Amanda K Gross

You can be mean, and you are also incredibly considerate and compassionate. I see how you look at people with an inquisitive love. You want to know their stories. You are especially in awe of the stories of elders. You are curious. You want to know how things have come to be. You think there are gems hidden in old people’s words and keys to unlocking your challenges and puzzles. Soon you will be tempted to distance yourself from the heart that pulls you close to others, to analyze from a space of intellect. Feelings and (com)passions will not be valued in the same way that being smart, nice, and perceived as good and obedient will. You will sell out – slowly at first and then so frequently it will become habitual to deny yourself the depths of pain, joy, sorrow, and love. But your heart will lead you back to feeling when you give it the space it deserves. When it is tender, let it be tender, and when it is strong, let it jump in heart first.

Frau F; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Frau F; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

You will be duped into believing in a white male savior, that male attention and approval will fulfill your deepest longings and will satisfy what you lack. You will think you have managed to ride above the consumerism, religious patriarchy, and romantic

Self-Portrait from Shadow Silhouette; Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

Self-Portrait from Window Shadow Silhouette; Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

comedies that program these messages into your mind, but you will fall susceptible anyway without consciously knowing. But then too, you will start to notice these symptoms and you will be able to trace their threads back through the story of your life and society’s stories and begin to untangle them in publicly vulnerable ways because you are also by nature generous. In fact, every time you hoard and don’t share with your brother, you are going against something that gives you joy. You are choosing his misery (and subsequently yours) over your happiness. Don’t believe the Christian capitalists when they say that greed is human nature. You know better.

I love your resourcefulness. When you fall, you get back up. You will begin to think that the falls can be prescribed or managed. You will believe that you have learned the rules and know how to play the game and thus can soften the blows. And you will become very good at the game. But part of you will never be satisfied with the game. Part of you will hold true to knowing the game is a horrible experience for so many people. And eventually, there will come a time when you understand the fullness of how the game is harming you. Releasing yourself from it will be harder than first appears, in fact it will last a lifetime. You will quickly realize that in playing the game so well, you forgot how to play by your own rules. You will realize that your tolerance and resiliency have been compromised and learn that building those back up is a slow process. Don’t forget to treat yourself with compassion and generosity, too. Have patience with yourself as you relearn how to be.

Red Chair from Domesticated Installation by Amanda K Gross

Red Chair from Domesticated Installation by Amanda K Gross

You are an impatient child and you will become an impatient adult, although you will learn to manage it in healthier ways. This is a wonderful part of who you are and it will be tested forever, so I have no advice to offer in that department.

You are an artist. This is an identity that you must never neglect, for when you do, you will lose you. Use your art to leave hints for yourself about yourself along the way, for that is the path back to your soul.

The Archer by Amanda K Gross

The Archer by Amanda K Gross

written by AMANDA GROSS

You Must Know: The Danger of White Supremacist Liberalism

WRITTEN by Amanda Gross

“You must know” is the mantra of my mother’s family. They are my grandma’s words to live by. Struggling in your marriage? You must know. Considering a change in career? You must know. Not sure who to vote for? You must know. Do I take the red pill or the blue one? You must know.

My kindergarten brain stumbled over its meaning. I heard my adult aunts and uncles mention it both as sincere advice and in knowing jest. You must know. But, you must know… what exactly? As a child I was perplexed. Her words gave me neither comfort nor clarity. Must I know? But what if I don’t? Isn’t that why I asked in the first place? I knew it was a riddle, but I did not know what it meant.

Almost two decades later, those same words inspired awe in me. I swam through undergrad increasingly wide awake to the murky waters of patriarchy. I intentionally spoke and thought all references to the Divine in feminine terms. I sang “she” loudly when “he” was written in the hymnal. As I realized how cultural and spiritual sexism had corrupted my psyche, the phrase You must know took on a power of her own. In my twenty plus years of instruction and indoctrination never had I been encouraged to look to my own wisdom and my own truth. Sin and life’s rules were clearly defined by external authorities and institutions – be they religious or political, private or public, state-sanctioned or in community. Salvation had long been outwardly defined, the tickets legibly printed, the ink left no room for doubt or error. The syllabus had been distributed and the rubric clear. The subjective fluidity of You must know, was effortlessly dismissed, especially coming from a young woman written off as naive (lacking in theological credentials and Christian maleness), pointless (as in we-tried-that-last-generation-and-she-is-wasting-her-breath), and dangerous (stern shaming look of disapproval laced with fear and subtle shunning).

Mortal Walls by Amanda K Gross

Mortal Walls by Amanda K Gross

Now in my Jesus yearYou must know takes on a whole new meaning. My grandma is slowly losing her mind, which has prompted the family to listen more and listen more deeply. I was doing this listening when she shared an illuminating story from her childhood. My grandma grew up still (somewhat) unassimilated into white Americanness, as the head covering, cape dresses, and conservative Mennonite community and religious observances set Mennonites apart from mainstream whiteness. In the 1930s and 40s she very much belonged to the community of Mennonites in Berks County, PA, but was markedly (to the trained Menno eye) different because her family went to a city church plant in Reading.* This made her different. And different, in the context of an insular historically traumatized religious minority, was undesirable, a potential threat to the unity of community and thus rendered her vulnerable to the most horrifying thing possible to any teenage brain – social exclusion by ones peers.

At the youth group gathering out in the country, where she was supposed to find kinship and like-mindedness and belonging and a life mate and family, she found thinly veiled mean girl rejection and slanted mockery dressed up in Plain Clothes. She did not find camaraderie or warmth in the belly of her home community. Instead, she found distain. Out of self-preservation, You must know was her affirmation of self and survival. You must know was an affirmation of (her) difference. You must know was what she had yearned for from them. And so, You must know became her way and her family’s way to create space for difference, dissent, and individuation.

Cycles of Trauma Mirrors by Amanda K Gross

Cycles of Trauma Mirrors by Amanda K Gross

Now having read this, maybe you’re considering adopting a You must know stratagem. Maybe you’re adding it to a mental list of rules to live by and things to share with young impressionable minds at just the right moment… Proceed with extreme caution! In its unexamined form, You must know is a dangerous weapon of white supremacist liberalism and you might not know why.

In my maternal line, You must know prevents conflict but it also stunts relationship because in its spaciousness You must know isolates, ironically going against the very thing it sets out to do. It chooses superficial harmony over authenticity and accountability. It preempts the legitimacy of you taking issue with me and my decisions. When a cousin shares about their life choices, You must know means I can’t ask critical questions, I can’t challenge their choices, and above all, I can’t share my perspective and how that choice might impact me. You must know can and has shut down space for deep discussion and getting to know each other through the exploration of disagreement. Often I leave family gatherings feeling a strong sense of belonging but, with a few relational exceptions, a weakened sense of interpersonal connections.

In the white subculture of Anabaptism, this has something to do with inherited trauma, the benefits and conformity demanded via superficial unity when belonging signaled survival. If we weren’t singing in harmony, we might never have survived our persecution in Europe and migration to North America. In white culture, this has something to do with inherited trauma as well: our reunification as white people after killing each other during the Civil War, the religious wars in Europe and the in-group out-grouping of who lives and who gets to go to heaven, and the violent othering so many of our ethnic groups had to overcome in order to reap the privileges of being called white in America, just to name a few.

In its false sense of harmony, You must know is a mask that every thing is great! That every thing should be affirmed and celebrated! It creates an expectation of life always being good. Where is the space to share hard things, especially those that go against the family story and norms? This summer at the beach as close to 20 of us were assembled around an extended table for dinner, I shared that my partner of nine years and I would be separating. Silence. I heard a pin drop** while my family internally processed the expected affirmative response while also holding in cognitive dissonance emotional feelings of surprise, sadness, disappointment,  blatant disapproval (although no one has said this to my face), and fear at their own blatant disapproval. In that initial silence, You must know proved to be a family lie.

Domesticated Installation by Amanda K Gross

Domesticated Installation by Amanda K Gross

In its unchecked, uncontextualized state, You must know flourishes as a self-perpetuating mantra of (sneaky white lady) ego. If we all must know, then where is our power to hold each other accountable? If You must know, but I actually know that you don’t, based on my life experience and expertise or whatever the reason, it is rude at a minimum, forbidden at the max to even call into question your knowing. And since You must know is the way we’ve always done things, if I challenge you, you will probably get defensive. This makes it very hard to learn from one another and especially to learn from those leaders among us who know more. (And I get it, in the past our leaders have been widely imposed on us and ethically compromised. I am highly suspicious of authority figures too.)

For those of us in social justice movements, we know how fragile the harmony is. This past year I realized how deep seated You must know keeps our movements firmly grounded in white supremacist liberalism by having us think that we all come to the table equally. You must know glorifies the ideal that we should all come to the table equally. A quick reality check confirms that we don’t. Many of our progressive peace and justice tools are steeped in white supremacist liberalism even though their origins fool us to think otherwise.

Hear No Evil, by Amanda K Gross

Hear No Evil, by Amanda K Gross

I learned how to facilitate restorative circles from a white woman who learned it from indigenous people and had been sent out with their explicit blessing to teach non-indigenous people these processes. Likewise, the principles for restorative justice come directly out of many indigenous cultures and communities but are increasingly distanced from that origin as they are taught, practiced, and professionalized by white folks who have now made a field out of this “new” alternative to punishment, discipline, and classroom management. In appropriating this way of being without giving credit and without accountable relationships, it becomes another tool of white supremacist liberalism.  A restorative circle in its very structure gives every human an equal seat and an equal voice. But can an hour of circle process restore 500 years of racial oppression? Does an hour of equal seating restore balance when the conflict at hand involves older white peace activists refusing to compensate a Black woman for her time, expertise, and emotional labor and then refusing to acknowledge the harm in their refusing? You must know validates their refusal and makes them the victim if the person they’ve harmed isn’t willing to restore relationships on these “restorative” terms. You must know ignores power and it ignores history.

You must know can also serve as a dangerous ego inflation device. In our journey to level power, we silence wisdom and experience. It seems a legitimate response to our banking model of education where one expert stands at the front of the classroom and fills the empty minds of the pupils. Popular Education is a direct response to this model and can be an especially powerful tool for anti-racism since who gets to be the “expert” has been built off of systems of oppression. But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially if we don’t have honest self-reflective discernment about the extent of our own understanding and expertise. In anarchism, circle processes, and consensus group processes we act out of our own trauma around authority figures and hierarchy and in turn become more sophisticated racists***. All of a sudden we feel qualified to advise or mediate. When we feel uncomfortable or inadequate, You must know becomes a way to overcompensate. Cause damn it, what if we actually don’t know? What if we actually don’t know what we don’t know, but think we do? We have learned that there is shame in not knowing and that not knowing is something to cover up and hide. But learning what we don’t know is a crucial step in unlearning and learning new.

In my immediate family I see this play out just as it has in national politics. You must know gives equal credence to different perspectives. It puts hate on the same level as love as legitimate options for society. In my family, it attempts to give equal weight to the views of conservative Christian fundamentalism coming from a father and radical systemic abolitionism of a daughter. Giving those views equal weight without addressing power doesn’t actually balance the scales, it validates oppression. And a critical moment with white supremacist liberalism begs the question, why is balancing the scales with wickedness a celebrated end goal?

Domesticated: Tea Cosy by Amanda K Gross

Domesticated: Tea Cosy by Amanda K Gross

We validate wickedness because we are afraid of changing ourselves. Our mantra of You must know so often results in white supremacist liberalism attempting to hold and contain the movement, to control the outcomes so that change (and its consequences) won’t be so severe, to micromanage, to confine, to program plan and then measure and monitor and evaluate in order to predict and manage the outcomes. Just as the nonprofit industrial complex sneaks the whiteness in to maintain itself, we too want assurances that external change won’t mean a change for us internally.

You must know has us fooled to thinking that we can and should be in the driver’s seat, but we are driving someone else’s bus and are refusing to listen to their directions. Which is a real shame because we have our own buses to drive and our own buses to ride in as passengers. And while we were too busy figuring out how to get paid driving other people’s buses, our bus just sped 90 miles down the highway towards a disaster called Trump.

*A church plant is not the Christmas cactus at the front of the sanctuary. A church plant is a not-so-subtle form of colonial evangelism that is still alive and healthy today.

**A shoutout to my cousin for breaking the silence with a joke. There is hope for the next generation!

***For more on honest self-reflective discernment contact Felicia Lane Savage. For more on how white liberalism contributes to becoming more sophisticated racists attend a PISAB training.

 

 

Vulnerability Sucks Part Two: The Big House

WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross

What does it mean to be a white lady who co-owns a home with a white man and have tenants of color as housemates? Is it even possible not to play out the historic roles that are our legacies? When Black women pay me to live in the Big House can there be reciprocity? Justice? Accountability? Love? Is it possible for the place to be a Home and not on some level the Big House? The tone of our relationships that have been predetermined deep within our DNA, our beliefs, our perceptions, our actions, our choices made without our consent before and yet we make the choices still now and in our day to day we choose for the future. Time is not as linear as whiteness has us believe.

As a walking micro aggression, it is inevitable that in this dynamic I will do harm. I know this. I wrote this. And still my accepting it is half the battle. The patterns that come up for me internally (and often squirm their way out externally, much to my chagrin) are bent on maintaining my denial and my own self image of good, of sweet, of not intending to and not doing harm.

Good White Lady Number One

Good White Lady Number One

There are layers, which makes it seem complicated, but it’s really not. The layers appear and reappear, some take priority in certain moments and then in my laziness or exhaustion or wanting to get it right I leave one unattended and BAM! it demands my attention (again). This is where I am.

Trying to live in anti-racist ways in a mixed race household is in many ways a set up. Material resources are, have been, and continue to be unevenly distributed. And any giving or generosity on my part is still very much on my terms. The decision-making power, the resources, the options lie with me. Even to get to a point where this would not be the case, the privilege the power to give and to take away lies with me. I can be accountable (and I am trying). I can be committed (and I am). But at the end of the day the contradiction lives on in the porous walls of the basement. It is in the foundation even though we have set up rain barrels to keep the toxic mold at bay.

Denial Sleeps Beauty

Denial Sleeps Beauty by Amanda K Gross

And then there is the matter of clarity. Who has the clarity, the wisdom, the experience to lead us out of this racist mind-fuckery? The exponential double burden of saving our collective souls falls again on the backs of those most impacted. In admiration I hesitate to put this superhuman undertaking, this beyond human feat on anyone and so I try to keep my dependency in check. I try to stand strong on my own. I try to push back the voices of doubt and worthlessness that creep in through my blondish brown ponytail and into the back of my mind. My grandmother’s voice argues with the self-doubt. “You must know,” she says pragmatically. And I do and I don’t. I know enough to know that I don’t know. I really don’t know.

For a long time my go-to strategy for not knowing has been hiding. This strategy has some merit. I approach new places, people, cultures with a listening regard. I enter as a guest. I tread lightly. I observe and watch to learn. But there always comes a point, when something does not fit quite right, something inside of me needs to express herself, something is happening and it’s making me uncomfortable. For a long time my strategy has been to push that down and accommodate the difference, to subsume myself out of respect, to be the best guest possible (Side note, there are no gold stars for this either). The goal for me is to emerge from the binary of host or guest. To no longer be a guest in my own life means vulnerability, as does no longer being the host. I have been positioned to host, a guest in host’s clothing. This land does not belong to me.

No Words Detail 2 by Amanda K Gross

No Words Detail 2 by Amanda K Gross

Now I am trying to let more of myself through. Enter Vulnerability in all its sucking glory. Before I didn’t let the bad and ugly out (or at least I thought I didn’t). I pretty successfully kept the bad and ugly in until I was in a “safe” zone, where I could unleash the bad and ugly, usually on myself, but sometimes on my little brother or other conveniently located white men. Because then, at least I wouldn’t be harming someone who already gets it from every angle of the system. (See what a good white lady I have been!) Of course my safe zones as a white lady are much more extensive in this world than for People of Color, which is why I have had to learn and am still learning that Home is sanctuary.

Now that I am letting more of the bad and ugly through, waiting for me on the other side are all sorts of juicy lessons about the incredible extent of my impact on those living in closest proximity. I don’t know what I don’t know until I really do. Ultimately, I am grateful for the education, for the courage and energy it takes to tell me how I was harmful. The education is priceless and yet it has a cost. I am trying not to be dependent, and we are so interdependent, both the inhuman arrangement and our connected humanity were designed this way.

And then occasionally I do actually know, because my deep down Self has been trying to teach me too, if only I would listen, give heed, and surrender to Her. Like just this week, when I refused to have compassion for myself after some very difficult and intense conversations. Instead of honoring the voice inside that kept urging me to cancel my next conversations and give myself alone time to process a storm of emotions, I pushed through. I have so internalized a sense of superiority that I refuse even to yield to me, to my own fragile humanity. And what came out the other end jeopardized relationship and did real harm. There are consequences for my not making the slightest change in that moment just as there are consequences to not choosing vulnerability and consequences to choosing vulnerability .

We are trying not to repeat the pattern of slave and mistress when Mistress Syndrome is in the House. Stay tuned.

No Words by Amanda K Gross

No Words by Amanda K Gross

Vulnerability Sucks Part One: No Gold Stars

WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross

Don’t believe what they tell you about vulnerability.

Vulnerability is not all rainbows and butterflies and puppy dogs and rain drops on roses. Vulnerability sucks. It is miserable. It is painful.

Recently (as in over the past 18 months) Brené Brown’s name keeps coming up. Have you seen her Ted Talk? they say. Have you read her books? Isn’t her work on courage and vulnerability amazing? Eye-opening? Brilliant?

Gratitude 2 by Amanda K Gross

Gratitude 2 by Amanda K Gross

I watch the Ted Talk. Why, yes it is all of those things. She honestly and with confidence and humor throws down like a white lady about how courage is whole-heartedness, running with open arms towards the unknown, embracing the life lessons and living to the fullest in ways that people who hold back won’t, can’t ever know. She shares that living in that way is where worthiness and resiliency come from. When I heard her Ted Talk for the first 3 times I left feeling positive, encouraged, inspired to live whole-heartedly, to run towards the love/pain/relationships/experiences with my arms wide open and my heart exposed. I interpreted it as both affirmation and confirmation that I was on the right path of choosing vulnerability. Life is hard, but hard is necessary to develop my self-worth. (Her fabulous talk is way more complex than this above paragraph. I highly recommend watching it for yourself.)

In my eagerness to embrace these challenges, I missed something in the fine print.

What my most recent life lessons have shown, is that vulnerability is less like running arms wide open towards the unknown, and more like running with arms wide open towards a meat grinder. You will be shredded to pieces and then reformed over and over again. And it is no picnic. Or maybe it is a picnic in the middle of a rain storm on a cold early April day in a very gray city with poor air quality.

As I strip off the layers of protective gear to expose it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and in relationship offer it all up to other human beings, the clincher is that the other human beings get to decide to accept or reject it all. It’s not even a one-off toe stub, it’s chronic pain in and out, a constant as long as the relationship lasts and the ripple effect even after it’s over. The deeper the relationship, the more ugly is exposed and the less I can deceive myself about how much of life is under my control. (An illusion I was fed daily in the forms of three square meals, gold stars, good grades, and board games.)

Last week I went home to Atlanta* to reconcile with my past (as if reconciling is a one-off toe stub and not a life-long endeavor). I went home to avoid avoidance and find some sort of balance between the urge to run away from my father kicking and screaming rejecting his right-wing conservative Christian Trump-victorious fixedness and the other urge to fling myself whole-heartedly on the altar of martyred righteousness and exhaustion.

Gratitude 1 by Amanda K Gross

Gratitude 1 by Amanda K Gross

What transpired was both the same and different. In many ways we had the same conversation we’ve always had, the same stand-off with worldviews that won’t coexist, the same pain, the same heart-yearning for relationship and the same stubborn self-preservation. But this time I saw something new.

Honesty and integrity reappear as themes in my paternal lineage. My dad touted these virtues at his dad’s funeral. There are allowances for crudeness, being tactless, blunt, cold, and inconsiderate as long as you are honest. I even made the mistake of claiming this honesty trait for myself once and ever since the Universe has held up her piercing mirror so that I could see for myself if that is indeed the case.

And even though there is a level of dishonesty in the form of denial permeating my father’s cognitive dissonance, I heard his truth clearer than ever before. He was brutally honest in his allegiance to whiteness. He put the good, the bad, and the ugly unapolegetically on display. He did not mince words in saying what his worldview was and in saying that he isn’t (ever) willing to change or challenge it. The only relationship that matters to him and the one that subsumes every single other one – including the one with me – is his relationship with Jesus. He knows he is flawed, yet he will not be moved, not by his heart and certainly not by me.

In this unexpected plot twist, he is actually modeling for me the very vulnerability I say I’m striving for. He is honest in who he is. He knows it and he shows it and he is consistent with his desire to stay on top as a white man, to maintain this power and illusion of power at all costs. Take him or leave him. It made me think of the U.S. presidency. The beauty of Trump is the full exposure of ugliness so that it is also not separate from our own ugliness. It is our ugliness. It is my ugliness, exposed. What does the Trump inside of me look like? Many of the things that piss me off about my dad are personality traits that we have in common.**

Gratitude 3 by Amanda K Gross

Gratitude 3 by Amanda K Gross

Turns out there are no gold stars or A+s at the end of the rainbow. And – this is a lesson I haven’t fully learned yet – trying harder to do better does not necessarily result in doing better or even doing differently. (Again I attribute this to gold stars, good grades, and board games.) Baring one’s own vulnerability does not necessarily roll out the welcome mat of acceptance.

Except maybe of one’s Self.

 

 

*A shoutout to my sister for accompanying me and helping to balance out the hard conversations by teaching me how to enjoy life anyway.

 

**Whiteness has always been used to buy off the masses. Our denial flows even as the stark ugliness is revealed (over and over again). As long as Trump was a candidate, we could seek solace by being his opposition. We knew we were different and better because we weren’t him. But the hard truth is that Trump is and always has been within each of us who have come to be called white. Accepting that reality with courage and seeking is a powerful place to start to stand for your own and our own collective freedom. Accepting that reality is confronting fear and triumphing in a greater love.

A Season for Witch Hunts

written by AMANDA GROSS

Tis the season.

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.

Wooden Frame; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Wooden Frame; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

The witch hunts of Europe spanned 15th-18th Centuries and targeted at least tens of thousands of women* and men and even children (some estimates reach into the millions). While the Roman Catholic Church was defending its political and economic base in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, the social purging of those accused of witchcraft was something both Christian sects enthusiastically agreed on. Rooting out evil, the witch became the criminal of the day, a convenient scapegoat whose tortures, trials, and burnings fueled religious, political, and social institutions. Priests and ministers were back in demand, called in desperation to exorcise the demons. New courts were established, expert judges and attorneys were required to legitimize fear and its antidote – law and order.** Mayors and other leaders vowed to purify their towns, platforming off of the fear, suspicion, and subsequent hatred.

Sound familiar?

Neighbors testified against neighbors, against the very women who had served as midwives at their births.*** We told on each other. We took our unchecked personal vendettas straight to the ears of those who could do us harm. We whispered our dissatisfactions and accusations and they traveled. The negativity and rumors repeated and mutated, feeding into the hands of the men in power, who inflicted institutionalized terror in God’s name and then washed their hands of any responsibility. Some of the dead were buried. Others burned.

This is our history too.

In The Witch in the Western Imagination, Lyndal Roper describes how one common person accused of witchcraft made the mistake of marrying into royalty. Agnes, the wife of the Duke of Bavaria, was ultimately drowned by her father-in-law in order to keep a class structure in place. Her marriage dared to assert “that the honor of the citizen town dweller as equal to that of the nobel.” Gold digger! This violent enforcement of class divide an inspirational predecessor to anti-miscegynation laws soon to come in the colonies of North America?

His & Hers, by Amanda K Gross

His & Hers, by Amanda K Gross

And this projected envy appears thematically throughout this gruesome history. Roper writes, “The theme of envy emerges time and time again in witchcraft… [the symbol of the witch] could represent Envy, evoke the evils of feminine allure, horrify with her murderous violence against children and kin…”. Neighbors told on neighbors. Friends insinuated about former friends. Children outed parents. And while we know European society in general was not all about raising women up in equality, as a collective group we played right into their hands. It was the betrayal we did to each other and ultimately to ourselves that gave the enemy their proof. It is the betrayal to ourselves and to each other today that keeps the web of White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy strong.

We still do this all the time. We gravitate to the witch hunt, a toxic coping mechanism to purge ourselves of imperfection, wrongdoing, and responsibility. We project envy onto others and fuel our own fear. They must want what we have. As long as the enemy is The Other then it can’t be us. Except, this world is set up so that we are an other. White women have been bought off by whiteness so that we no longer think we are The Other. We have fooled ourselves into believing that our right to play the whiteness game protects us from misogyny, that the material benefits of a home security system in a “safe” neighborhood will protect us from the rape culture within, that the intellectual benefits of academic degrees and selling our minds for profit is superior to selling our bodies to survive.

Domesticated Installation, by Amanda K Gross

Domesticated Installation, by Amanda K Gross

But deep down, under the veil of whiteness, these systems are not for us either. They never were. A lineage that stems from the great Patriarch Abraham, we learned to hate ourselves even before in the Garden of Eden. Our creation story punishes our innate yearning for knowledge. The knowledge of ourselves. The knowledge of the feminine divine. When we know that we too are holy, that we are holy just because we are, then we will no longer consent to our own harm. When we have a sense of our own life-affirming power, we will no longer need to feed off of the power frenzy of the witch hunt. When we love and affirm ourselves, we will stop wasting our energy disorganizing against ourselves and begin organizing for our humanity and collective liberation.

Perhaps most powerful are Roper’s words on “the witch as a symbolic necessity.” In these European political systems built on Patriarchy, “women’s political action proved conclusive that order was overturned.” Which begs the question, what is the order that we are willing to overturn?

 

*Approximately 3/4ths of those accused of witchcraft were women and were largely accused of crimes against human and agriculture fertility.

**Roper writes that attorneys began to make “a fortune in legal consultations…” and established a lucrative system in “housing and feeding the children, and paying guards to watch over them.” The roots of our U.S. juvenile justice system are not so difficult to trace.

***As Roper writes, “…themes of witches causing miscarriages were ironic as witches [as midwives] were often responsible for the health of pregnancy and birth.”  The control of labor here takes on multiple layers of meaning.