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.

 

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.

Mistress Syndrome on Air and on Architects

written by AMANDA GROSS

Recently I was invited to speak at PechaKucha Night*, an event put on by AIA, AIGA, and GPAC** which involves putting on a presentation of 20 images at 20 seconds a pop. I titled my presentation Mistress Syndrome: An Uniquely American Story of Lies, Betrayal, & Denial, and used my 400 seconds of microphone and spotlight this way (The typed words are what I spoke while each image appeared on the big screen for a very brief 20 seconds.):

Domesticated #1: Real Value, by Amanda K Gross

Domesticated #1: Real Value, by Amanda K Gross

I learned to quilt on a quilt frame in the back of my church sanctuary while listening to sermons – mainly of white men and of one Black woman in particular, who the congregation eventually chose not to fully support in her ministry because her worship style was not “Mennonite enough”. I learned to quilt in a Mennonite Church in the neighborhood of East Atlanta, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Domesticated #2 & #3, by Amanda K Gross

Domesticated #2 & #3, by Amanda K Gross

For me quilting is a metaphor for transformation. It is the art of resourcefulness and comes out of a necessity for warmth. What do we do with that which is no longer serving its original intent and purpose? What do we do when it is no longer serving us?

This Hat Made in the USA: The Scope of Whiteness, by Amanda K Gross

This Hat Made in the USA: The Scope of Whiteness, by Amanda K Gross

This Hat Made in the USA: The Scope of Whiteness. For a long time as an artist I was trying to make the violence that I saw visible. One lie we tell ourselves as artists, architects, designers, and academics is that we can observe, describe, prototype, and design objectively. That we are and can be separate from it all.

Small Pox Blanket: How the West Was Won, by Amanda K Gross plus clip art images of smallpox and slave ships

Small Pox Blanket: How the West Was Won, by Amanda K Gross plus clip art images of smallpox and slave ships

Our visual vocabulary reflects this. Even if we are willing to name power and violence and oppression, we are rarely willing to look at our own position with honesty and courage.

Frame, by Amanda K Gross

Wooden Frame, by Amanda K Gross

Qui est la juge? Who am I in this arrangement? Who are you? I am a white woman with a graduate degree and a mortgage. I am a white woman who has been set up to professionally help, fix, and save others. I get paid to do this.

Qui est la Juge? by Amanda K Gross

Qui est la Juge? by Amanda K Gross

There are ways I learned how to be a status quo white woman. While I’ve found spaces to talk about how I learned to be a woman – in college, amongst friends – there are so few spaces to talk about how I learned to be white and about the specific intersection of race, class, and gender.

Dining Room Table, by Amanda K Gross

Dining Room Table, by Amanda K Gross

How has a history of stolen land, stolen labor, and stolen bodies constructed my white ladyness? How as white women have we been bought off? How have we betrayed ourselves, our bodies, and our children?

Bland, by Amanda K Gross

Bland, by Amanda K Gross

When my people left Switzerland in 1709, they were Swiss-German Mennonite. Soon after they landed in the colony of Pennsylvania, they became white.

Family Tree (detail), by Amanda K Gross

Family Tree (detail), by Amanda K Gross

They were given land by William Penn and due to their reputation as peaceful, skilled agrarians, they settled down and did what they did best – they farmed.

Maytyr's Mirror, Plough, Tractor, Adhesive Bandages, courtesy of the internets

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

As pacifists, Mennonites love the bible verse about turning swords into ploughshares. And that is exactly what my ancestors did – they turned down one weapon of warfare and picked up another.

by Amanda k Gross

Four Part Harmony, by Amanda k Gross

Whiteness robbed indigenous people of their lands, cultures, and health and Mennonite ploughs helped to sustain that privilege for generations to come. Do you know how your white ancestors assimilated into whiteness?

Cycles of Trauma, by Amanda K Gross

Cycles of Trauma, by Amanda K Gross

In her book, Post-Traumatice Slave Syndrome, Dr Joy DeGruy describes how the collective multi-generational trauma that people of African descent endured manifests in their descendants today. If there is a Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, she posits, then mustn’t there be a Post-Traumatice Master’s Syndrome as well?

This Land is White Land, by Amanda K Gross

This Land is White Land, by Amanda K Gross

Since my current social position most closely resembles that of the mistress of the plantation, Post-Traumatic Mistress Syndrome is what I’ve set out to explore.

by Amanda K Gross

The Pledge, by Amanda K Gross

There is a way that selling out to whiteness has harmed all white people. It harms working class and poor white folks in real material ways. It harms all white folks in emotional, spiritual, psychological, and spiritual ways. And it harms white women and white queer folks in very explicitly gendered ways.

Hear No Evil, by Amanda K Gross

Hear No Evil, by Amanda K Gross

As white women, we have so deeply internalized perfectionism, control, expectations of comfort*** that we are starving, eating, exercising, and working ourselves to death.

White Silence, by Amanda K Gross

White Silence, by Amanda K Gross

White women have gained access to academia and the corporate world and we pretty much run the nonprofit sector but we’re doing similar amounts of housework and child-raising unless we out-source it to Women of Color, who we underpay. Black and Brown women are still raising our kids and doing our laundry. Despite how hard we work, it is never enough.  The arrangement really has not changed much at all.

Whiteness, by Amanda K Gross

Whiteness, by Amanda K Gross

Our ancestors assimilated into whiteness at an enormous cost. It cost them our cultures, our languages, our identities, and our self-esteem. Race was constructed by European scientists as a hierarchy that put white firmly on top.

White Self, by Amanda K Gross

White Camo, by Amanda K Gross

Everyday white culture makes it about this competition and comparison. We have learned that our value and worth comes when we are and because we are better than and superior to others.

Menno Fabulous #1 & #2, by Amanda K Gross

Menno Fabulous #1 & #2, by Amanda K Gross

Undoing this cultural pathology means embarking on a life-long journey of understanding and peeling back the layers of whiteness in order to discover and love ourselves and recover our own humanity. It means discarding and transforming what is no longer serving us. And I would argue, it never did.

The Goddess of Self Love, by Amanda K Gross

The Goddess of Self Love, by Amanda K Gross

 

The host of the evening interviewed me before the event, which you can listen to here:

E023.1 PKN Pittsburgh vol. 25 – Amanda Gross

*PechaKucha is a Japanese word. Both the title for the event and the event are credited to two white people who lived in Japan, which has the unfortunate effect of white people who don’t know how to pronounce the word trying to teach other white people who don’t know how to pronounce the word then ultimately giving up on the pronunciation of the word and opting to call it PKN.

**AIA Pgh – http://aiapgh.org The #DesignPgh2016 gif is an unfortunate visual of the original gentrification colonization of what is today known as Pittsburgh, demonstrating precisely the role architects have had in these systems of oppression. AIGI – https://www.aiga.org; GPAC – https://www.pittsburghartscouncil.org

***These are all manifestations of Internalized Racial Superiority as outlined through the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism Principles.

 

Mennonite Humble and Other Pathways to Hell

written by AMANDA GROSS

Around the turn of the 20th Century there was a Mennonite revival in which my ancestors enthusiastically dove into the furnace of fear-based fire and brimstone thinking, a dramatic evangelical retrofitting of our more level-headed past. After generational trauma and forced migration, after centuries of North American assimilation into whiteness, the silent suffering of stoicism, and a tight, interweaving of families to keep the community close, what prompted Mennonites to want to feel again?

Generational cycles repeat.

Autumn's Fall by Amanda K Gross

Autumn’s Fall by Amanda K Gross

In my generation of ever-evolving materialism – the disconnect of object from maker, of consumer from consumed, of producer from human, of owner from owned – the revival tent wooed our souls. By revival tent, I mean the Georgia Dome, convention centers, and mega churches whose Jesus-themed rock concerts, highly-produced light shows, and (always) attractive worship teams led us through a phenomenal circus of sensuous attraction, suspense, doubt, guilt, fear, altar call and response, release, and soothing lullaby of assured rightness. Whew. An emotional, spirit-full answer to the emptiness of white, middle-class (sub)urban life that plagued our souls. While many of my classmates looked to drugs, sex, and alcohol to combat the loneliness, I hid in church.

Church felt safer and was more convenient. It also offered something I did not readily encounter in the frenetic halls of high school or the fast-moving rivers of Atlanta highway. It offered belonging.

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Schoolhouse Quilt by Amanda K Gross

While it is easy to see more clearly in retrospect, my church experience is and was nuanced and full of contradictions. In church I found both the spaciousness of expression and the denial of self. I felt intense belonging and severe rejection. I knew freedom and oppression. It was in my small home congregation that I was encouraged to lead. I led at the piano. I led worship. I led singing. I performed. I read. I played. I knew everyone. I wore bright dresses (as I got older sometimes short and sometimes low-cut, though rarely both) and an array of fancy hats. My eccentricity was nurtured. My brightness loved. Growing up, I was as loud and assertive as I wanted to be.

And throughout those same years, I learned to repress and deny. I learned to intentionally and then later less intentionally, ignore the small voice of wisdom within. I learned to self-censor, to compartmentalize, and to hide. When I was around seven, we were learning the story of Esther in Sunday School. Finally a female biblical character with agency! Finally a protagonist with whom I could identify! In my loudly relational way, I let every adult in sight know how thrilled I was that there was a book in the bible written by a woman. Turns out not. An elder in the church, also my friend’s grandpa, was quick to correct my nonsense. The story of Esther was not written by a woman he said matter-of-factly, in fact, there are no books in the bible written by women. And also, why would I foolishly deign such a thing?

Devastation. Ultimate betrayal. Not all bible stories are created equal. How could a community that nurtured my gifts undermine me so severely? I know I am not the only one with this story.

Domesticated #2: Potholder by Amanda K Gross

Domesticated #2: Potholder by Amanda K Gross

My therapist and I (well, mainly just I) have been considering what makes me feel safe in relationships. The quick answer is that I feel safe when there is space in the relationship to be fully myself. At church I learned that this is always a compromise. At church I learned to settle.*

One of the shared agreements we use at Youth Undoing Institutional Racism is Take space. Make space. The older I got, the less taking space was encouraged. I learned the skill of making space for others, an obvious virtuous path for good little white girls and budding young women. Socially and politically this seemed the strategic option for a wide-array of friends, emotional safety, and inspiring the trust of all kinds of authority figures. Like other versions of sneaky White Lady Ego, Mennonite Humble is the art of appearing to make space for others while remaining firmly in control (of decisions, of looking good, of one’s own self-righteousness). This North American Mennonite cultural value is consistent with aspects of White Liberalism and various Protestant traits. In whiteness, Mennonite Humble maintains a facade of sharing and accommodation while keeping one’s power and privilege firmly intact. This is not all rainbows and puppy dogs (or shoofly pies and pfeffernusse) for the Humble one. The downside being that in making space so habitually for others you end up losing sight of your own self. I am here to testify.

We all have these journeys, if we choose to take them, to sort through the muck and recover our intuitive selves. Some people are more in touch with their mucks. I am trying to be very in touch with my muck. I would warn you not to go it alone, but it’s part of the deal. You can only go at it alone.

Martyr's Mirror Comes Home

Martyr’s Mirror Comes Home by Amanda K Gross

Everyday my Mennonite Humble muck seeps through. Most recently this has developed into a passive, reactionary way of being in the world. I have been letting circumstances direct my decisions. I have been hanging back to observe what is. I have been graciously allowing others to go first, to put themselves out there, to take the risk, to show themselves, to set the standard and the tone. I have been hesitant in my confidence. In an effort to right rigidity and extend relationship, I have neglected the development of my vision. I have forgotten to discern my preferences and to declare my desires. I have overlooked my strengths.

My Mennonite Humble stems from a deep fear of imposition, of colonization, of not wanting to do harm. But in all of this not, I am harming myself. It is an illusive haven of stagnation. I do not have to take risks. I do not have to give up the privilege of Mennonite Humble thus I do not have to change. My Mennonite Humble takes swords and turns them into ploughshares. Ploughs being the primary weapon of genocide used by my peaceful agrarian ancestors in the colony of Pennsylvania against the indigenous population. When Mennonite Humble no longer works and when Mennonite Humble never did, what’s a white girl to do?

It is time to call on my creativity, my passion, and my deft ability to brainstorm long lists. It is time to get in the kitchen and (vegetarian) stew. It is time to sit still and listen to my center. It is time to move some furniture out the way. It is time to make space for me.

Hibernation by Amanda K Gross

Hibernation by Amanda K Gross

*A shoutout to my housemates for identifying this pattern of settling in my life.

Status Quo Passing

WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross

What I learned from feminism is that my experience is a valid way of knowing. What I learned from womanism is that not all women have the same experiences. What I learned from queering these is that not all white women have the same experiences, that language matters, and that I need to be consciously deliberate when discerning when and how to name, when and how to include and exclude. I am learning the power of precision of language and also its limitations.*

We can use words to categorize and separate. We can use words to erase. We can use words to assert experience and we can use words to resist.

The Archer (Detail) by Amanda K Gross

The Archer (Detail) by Amanda K Gross

I believe that the naming of white womanhood as a shared identity and collective experience within the context of White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism is powerful because of the particular role white women have played in upholding these interlocking structures and because the existence of white womanhood reflects it. There is no white womanhood without White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism and there is no White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism without white womanhood.

Within the extensive humanity categorically imposed on by “white womanhood” is a range of diversity. Subsequently, resistance comes in many forms. Informed by the resistance struggles of People of Color and Women and Queer Folks of Color in particular who have embodied this wisdom for generations,  my resistance emerges from cycles of self-reflection, a never-ending journey of identifying with, rejecting, and reclaiming the words attributed to me. I move through this world as a white lady. And in my thirty-two-and-a-half years in this body I have always been able to pass as status quo.**

White Camo by Amanda K Gross

White Camo by Amanda K Gross

As a generally nondescript white woman, my external appearance easily blends into the standard of white hetero-normativity. In other words, when you see my small to medium 5 foot 7 inch frame walk down the grocery store aisle, when you see my straight naturally light brown hair pulled back in a pony tail, my bare face, peppy earth tone outfit, and sensible shoes, you don’t initially think, “Now, there goes someone rejecting White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism.” A more typical response is that I am not seen because I pass so seamlessly into the seas of whiteness. I am easily missed in the branding of good little white girl and well-intentioned white lady. In my ninth grade math class the (also white) teacher could not remember my name, naming me and the other white girl in the class the same all school year long.  My status quo white-womaness provided camouflage into the institutional (white) walls. Blending into whiteness offered far less scrutiny but came with the erasure of identity and self, a cancerous conformity that has infiltrated at the cellular level. There are still so many times that I mistake it for Me.

In addition to not being singled out for notice or scrutiny, I receive the general magnanimous benefit of the doubt, even when I am in the wrong. Like that one time in college I was speeding 50 in a 25 mph school zone, a police officer followed me the entire time. When he finally pulled me over, he glanced at my license and registration, looked me up and down and gave me a warning with stern politeness. I did not invoke white woman tears. I did not have to. The thing about being a status quo passing white woman is that there is choice.

Earlier this year I was summoned for jury duty. When my name was called and the attorneys asked me if I could be fair and impartial, my response, verbatim:”I don’t believe in impartiality.”  An hour later I was selected as a juror. Maybe it was the sweater or the ponytail, but despite my very clear testimony to the contrary, those attorneys knew that I was the status quo white lady they had been waiting for. They had already made up their minds based on my appearance and not on my words. So that also in status quo passing white womanhood, many choices have already been made.

Daisy, Framed by Amanda K Gross

Daisy, Framed by Amanda K Gross

Passing has its added unearned advantages. I get access to spaces and am privy to conversations for status quo white ears only. I can collect intel by the water cooler, glide through security, get hired for the job, and inspire the confidence of the oblivious, the boastful, and those most intent on preserving the status quo. The white privilege I have grants me access to systems and institutions, yet even within whiteness, passing for status quo allows me greater access than, for example, my white queer siblings. This ability to pass can be a strategic blessing but also a dangerous, self-inflating illusion – just like whiteness. Harnessing this level of institutional access for anti-racist change is a critical but tremendous responsibility and requires extensive and ongoing communication, self-reflection, and accountability to People of Color and other white folks who are engaging in the work of anti-racism. How do I know and name my power? How do I use it wisely?

Recently, in conversations with other anti-racist white organizers, my language and organizing around the shared experience of white womanhood has been challenged as linear in thought with the potential consequence of further dividing white people, rather than fostering unity around the shared experience of whiteness. While I understand and strongly adhere to using the lens of Undoing Racism – especially because of white folks’ tendencies to promote our experiences being in oppressed groups as an excuse to not confront our own internalized racism – championing unity without analyzing power within whiteness does us all a disservice. This promotes a false unity rather than acknowledging the lived and embodied disunity, an acknowledgement necessary to detangling the interlocking origins of oppression. Unpacking my whiteness means combing through status quo white ladyness for the explicit purpose of deepening our collective understanding of whiteness and the work of resistance. Unpacking my whiteness means courageously recovering the knowing of my body and the knowing of my experience in order to further collective liberation.

 

*I learned these ideas about language and when to include and exclude from the wisdom and teaching of Cavanaugh Quick, who is brilliant.

**“What do we mean by the term “white woman”? “When we say “white woman,” we are not necessarily referring to a personal identity. We are referring to a dominant or mainstream identity with certain images, messages and narratives that have been used to uphold systems of oppression. It is an identity that many who have experienced socialization as white and female often have to negotiate with, whether by resisting, conforming, imitating, subverting or distancing. It’s this negotiation and relationship to “white women” that we are investigating, whether it is our current identity, a past or new identity, or a personal or political connection to the effects of this identity. In our dialogues and workshops we honor every body’s unique relationship to the themes explored. Even if we have never had a Barbie, we know what she looks like, what she symbolizes and what oppressions are committed in her name.”

White Lady Ego

WRITTEN BY AMANDA GROSS

When I think of egotistical foolishness the first images that pop into my head are white business men in power suits, then secondly corporate lawyers and real estate developers, followed by televangelists,  ivy league frat boys, and last but not least, politicians, definitely politicians. One in particular comes to mind who kinda embodies all of the above. Ego in these archetypes gets built on ultra-macho hyper-masculinity, entitled white privilege, inherited wealth, and those dollar signs in the eyeballs. The ego is clear, bold, arrogant, assured. It is that inflated ego that allows an elite white athlete at an elite white school to commit sexual assault with the confidence of minimal repercussions, that same athlete’s father to plead for leniency positioning his son as real the victim, and a Superior Court judge to basically agree.

But white lady ego is usually less blatant on the surface, much more refined, couched, and stealthy. It sits quietly, in the corner, legs crossed looking perfect, but effortlessly so, as in I-woke-up-just-like-this-with-hair-and-makeup-and-a-cleanly-pressed-dress-and-matching-bag. White lady ego is meant to attract but give off the appearance of not wanting to, meant to impress but with a helpless humility, meant to dominate without you ever realizing that you are under its spell.

White Lady Ego is sneaky.*

Domesticated: Cupcakes by Amanda K Gross

Domesticated: Cupcakes by Amanda K Gross

Or maybe not as sneaky as we’d like to think. Nine times out of ten Black women pick up on it.** So do many other People of Color, all, the, time. Mostly though we are just fooling ourselves (and other white people).

Here are three big white lady ego themes. (There are so many more! Feel free to share your anecdotes of white lady ego by commenting on this post.) (Also, this white lady ego break down comes out of application of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s framework of Internalized Racial Superiority (IRS). The sneaky white lady ego manifestations are IRS for those of us who have been socialized as white girls and white women.

Helping and Saving Others – White ladies are known for our helping abilities. Those of us with younger siblings or who grew up in homes with well-defined gender roles learned from an early age that helping take care of others and the house earned us the praise of “mother’s little helper” along with bonus relational time and attention from adults. I started taking care of babies when I was still practically one at the church nursery. Not only was it fun to play with the younger kids and their toys and help my parents on nursery duty, but I also got to skip sitting through the sermon and lengthy prayers. By middle school, childcare had turned into a lucrative business, one that helped pay for my first car and college. And as an added bonus, the ego boost was amazing. It turned out (white) mothers all over the country needed me! And so did their kids. I was paid and praised to help.

Being privileged enough to go to college for the intellectual experience, I struggled to choose a major. I went to a small Mennonite school where the emphasis was Micah 6:8, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” and the culture leaned towards helping, fixing, and saving the world especially through the lens of service. As we learned about the evils of world hunger, environmental degradation, “third world” poverty, and the horrors of war we were uniquely positioned to offer our services.

Today, as an adult, this plays out in the white lady-dominated helping fields of education, social work, and healthcare. Most of the youth-led anti-racist organizing I am connected to organizes around disrupting the School to Prison Pipeline***. White ladies are the main offenders at the beginning of that pipeline as teachers, social workers, and nurses bent on helping, fixing, and saving innocent kids from distressed communities. White ladies funnel children of color and children living in poverty out of classrooms and homes and into the violence of education discipline procedures and the child welfare and criminal justice systems. We justify this dynamic with our inflated white lady helper ego. We are good. We are just trying to help. We want to help! All we want to do is help others (especially those who need it/us). We are needed (by those poor/black/hungry/needy children)! We are so well-intentioned, therefore we can’t be doing anything wrong)… Wrong. Often we do the most harm when we have the best intentions. And through it all – and especially when we are not open to criticism- we end up centering ourselves at a cost to many others.

We have been taught our whole lives that we are so good at helping and that helping is so good, and so we have convinced ourselves that we have the right to help whomever, whenever, and however we choose.

Cycles of Trauma (in progress part 2) by Amanda K Gross

Cycles of Trauma (in progress part 2) by Amanda K Gross

Martyr Complex + Apologizing – Due to a history of Anabaptist persecution in Europe and a commitment to nonviolence, my Mennonite subculture smells strongly of martyrdom. This was both how we survived while striving to be consistent with following Christ’s Way of peace. Today this martyr narrative helps maintain our sense of selves as innocent righteous victims. But you don’t have to be Mennonite to have a martyr complex. White ladies are also proficient at this. Connected to helping and saving, we are ready to sacrifice ourselves AT ALL COSTS. Which makes us look really good because if we are sacrificing ourselves then we can’t very well be making it about us. (Or can we?) We want so badly to not be selfish and also to not be perceived as being selfish, that we choose the polar opposite. We choose martyred selflessness.

Now I am a huge proponent of sharing and not being greedy and being considerate of others, but there is a way that we as white ladies are acting out selflessness that is often not of pure motivation and is often reinforced by other (mostly white) people in a way that centers our white lady martyr ego. To the Peace Corps/international development/youth missions trips/MCC person, It must have been so hard for you and your family living under those conditions. You are a better person than I. To the settler/pioneer/gentrifier, Are you scared living there? You are so brave. How fortunate the neighborhood is to have you. To the workaholic/overachieving mom/overachieving student, That’s important work you’re doing. I don’t know how you do it all. 

But the biggest problem with white lady martyr ego is that is DUMB and incredibly harmful to us. If we are sacrificing it all for others then we are not taking care of our selves. Taking care of ourselves is actually not selfish, as we’ve been taught to believe, but smart and necessary to not doing violence to others. If we can’t take care of our own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs, then how in the world are we supposed to take care of others with any sort of awareness? We do not need desperate, exhausted, stressed out white ladies with a strong desire to help, fix or save anyone but themselves.

Apologizing is similar to playing the martyr card in terms of deflecting responsibility. If white ladies are eager to sacrifice then we are also eager to apologize – for everything and often. Even when we weren’t responsible for any harm. This white woman sneakiness is similarly about being seen as well-intentioned and uses the benefit of the doubt that privilege buys us. We didn’t mean it. Because we have the best intentions of everyone else except ourselves at heart, then we couldn’t have intended harm. And if we couldn’t have intended harm, then we couldn’t have inflicted it. Similar to being the victim, it is impossible for us to be in the wrong. We love to say we’re sorry but when it comes time to make things right all we’re willing to give up are hollow words.

The Goddess of Self-Love by Amanda K Gross

The Goddess of Self-Love by Amanda K Gross

I first noticed the extent to which I used white lady apologizing ego when I was a high school exchange student in France. I had learned that “I’m sorry” in French was “je regrets” which I used when I bumped into someone on the train, when I forgot to take off my shoes in the house, and when I didn’t understand what people were saying. I noticed that when I said it I got strange looks. But also I didn’t really speak French so I brushed that off until my host mom pulled me aside and told me that “je regrets” was more accurately used for when someone dies and you’re consoling their family members at the funeral or for when you do something seriously wrong. Since “M’excuse” (“excuse me“) is much more appropriate for acknowledging accidental irritants, we can save our real apologies for when we need them (and we surely will).

Damsel In Distress – Like all of the above white lady ego bits, there are histories of systems behind these themes that white ladies often did not choose. Many of these developed as responses to the violence of White Christian Patriarchy, inventing agency for white women even as our systems and culture disempowered us. The white lady damsel in distress ego is constructed on the idea that white ladies are in danger – often sexualized danger – and we don’t have agency to do anything about it. We are beautiful, weak, delicate, pure, good, helpless, and in need of a strong, capable white man/savior/father/police officer to deal with our problems. Again when we call on this narrative we, the blameless victims, center ourselves with dramatic flair.

And while a little damsel in distress may seem harmless, it has had deadly consequences. In Sexual Relations Between Elite White Women and Enslaved Men in the Antebellum South: A Socio-Historical Analysis, J.M Allain describes the role of plantation mistresses in the Antebellum South, “The Southern way of life, and the institutions that defined it—white supremacy, slavery, and the planter aristocracy—were inextricably linked with the sexual regulation of women, especially upper class women; the purity of white women, when contrasted with the sexually lascivious black Jezebel archetype, served to highlight the alleged superiority of white womanhood, and by extension, whiteness (Brooks Higginbotham, 1992, p. 263). As historian Catherine Clinton (1982) observes, “If plantation mistresses could live above reproach, their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers could boast of the superiority of their civilization… The sullying influence of slavery must not touch the women of the upper class lest the entire structure crumble.” Coupled with the notion of elite white female sexual virtue was that of white female vulnerability—the idea that plantation wives and daughters needed to be protected, defended, and sheltered. Framing women in this way served as a means of patriarchal control. As political scientist Iris Young (2003) explains, “the role of the masculine protector puts those protected, paradigmatically women and children, in a subordinate position of dependence and obedience.””

Allain goes on to explain how plantation mistresses used this notion of white female virtue to protect themselves of accusations of wrongdoing: ” Additionally, an upper-class woman under suspicion of an affair with a slave could “readily invoke images of chastity in order to allay trouble for herself”—or in other words, accuse the slave of rape (Hodes, p. 135). Because black men (like black women) were seen as inherently lustful and prone to sexual vice, for an elite woman to have illicit sex with a black rather than a white man might have been a slightly safer bet; it was easier to blame a black man of rape than a white man.”

Crucified by Amanda K Gross

Crucified by Amanda K Gross

And it has been so much easier for us, the collective of white women, to align ourselves with the narrative of being victims rather than to take responsibility for the very real pain, trauma, and death our position and actions have caused Black people and then to subsequently alter our behavior accordingly. Allain points out how white women used the tools of their own repression to abuse people who were enslaved: “Another way in which white women were able to exercise sexual control over slaves was by threatening to accuse them of rape or attempted rape if they did not agree to sex (Hodes, pp. 39, 40, 43, 46, 135).4 In doing this, elite white women used one of the primary instruments of patriarchal repression—the idea that that they were weak and in need of white male protection, and by extension, in need of control and domination by white men—to exercise racial control over slaves. Instead of attempting to dismantle the white patriarchal hegemony that oppressed both slaves and (to a lesser extent) white women, predatory white women who coerced slaves into sex through threat of rape opted to perpetuate both white supremacy and patriarchy, by reinforcing paternalistic notions of female . Why these women chose to sexually abuse slaves probably varied by situation. Perhaps some of them were simply bored or sexually frustrated. But perhaps, at least on a subconscious level, sexually exploiting slaves was a means of compensating for their lack of power in other aspects of their lives. Again, planter-class women were considered the property of their husbands and lacked considerable sexual agency relative to men. It is possible the sexual exploitation of slaves by women who had little power in relation to white men was a source of enjoyment that created a feeling of power (Bourke, p. 237).”

And lest you think us white ladies have risen above this gruesome past, the white lady damsel in distress ego is still alive and well today as we post on Next Door neighborhood social networks and call the police on our neighbors. Evoking the white lady damsel in distress ego still has serious and deadly consequences.

Domesticated: Apron by Amanda K Gross

Domesticated: Apron by Amanda K Gross

And as Damon Young hilariously and adeptly outlines in Very Smart Brothas (best read frequently and often), there’s always Taylor Swift. From How Taylor Swift Is The Most Dangerous Type Of White Woman Explained, (also applicable to many a white lady),No one is better at this type of specifically White female performative faux melodrama — where status is cultivated and maintained through a state of perpetual exaggerated victimhood (which everyone laps up because “sad White woman” = “Let’s find our fucking capes and save her!”) — than she is.”

“You know that co-worker (let’s call her “Susan”) who somehow managed to use her offense at a minor breach in email etiquette (someone forgot to put an exclamation point on a sentence, which made Susan “interpret” it as a “threat”) as fuel for a raise and a promotion? ”

“Taylor Swift is Darth Susan.”

Come on white ladies, let’s not be Susans. There are so many other ways for us to be.

 

* Thanks to Sydney Olberg and the white ladies of WWG and debriefs with Felicia Lane Savage for input around white lady ego sneakiness and white ladies’ roles in the School to Prison Pipeline.

** This very scientific statistic is based on how frequently I’ve had Black women point out white lady ego to me with a 10% margin of error for the times they didn’t feel like wasting their breath, were trying to enjoy life without the affront of whiteness, and/or had better things to do than educate me about racism.

*** The School to Prison Pipeline describes how young people of color are disproportionately funneled through the education system into the criminal justice system due to factors like zero tolerance policies, suspension and expulsion, teacher bias, police in schools, academic tracking, the misdiagnosis of disabilities/giftedness, etc. all of which point to institutional racism.

 

The White Police Officer in my Upper Right Trapezius

written by AMANDA GROSS

A quick glance around my family shows a pattern of carrying stress in the upper shoulders and neck. My mother’s pain is particularly acute and I have a knot in my upper right shoulder that has been a part of me since I can remember.  There is an inherited generational aspect of how our bodies hold tension and trauma, where we store our sorrows to grieve later and where we preserve our anxieties, a constant reminder of the social norms and boundaries that we dare not cross, an in-body experience of violence as we police ourselves. We police our whiteness in our own bodies just like the police enforce whiteness on others’ bodies. Resulting in more dead bodies. We externalize the death of bodies as we internalize the enforcement of our souls.

Whiteness (Detail) by Amanda K Gross

Whiteness (Detail) by Amanda K Gross

I once gave a sermon at Pittsburgh Mennonite Church on how fear is just as much the opposite of love as hate. Fear keeps us from loving full-heartedly, keeps us from moving courageously towards others, towards knowing and loving ourselves, towards change. Anxiety, a grating manifestation of fear, is a constant and strategic product of our dominant culture and system. Because white supremacist capitalist patriarchy teaches us that our value and worth is based on the compared and competitive value and worth of others, there is the constant anxiety (often unconscious) of self-checking and self-regulating that goes on. All. The. Time.

Am I attractive/smart/competent/athletic/appropriate/friendly/nice/good/wealthy/humble ENOUGH?

We are taught that we are ENOUGH when others are not, precisely because others are not.

This constant anxiety of enlarged ego and ever-present fear grates at our souls. Like rushing water, it needs somewhere to go, so we externalize and project our fears onto others, the Other. We are afraid of ourselves and we don’t want to be so instead we are afraid of them, the person praying to Allah on our flight, the person asking for bus fare at our car window, the person selling DVDs or cigarettes. And our fear must be controlled, dominated, brought to its knees, so we destroy it by destroying.

The Pledge by Amanda K Gross

The Pledge by Amanda K Gross

The consumerism and materialism that stems from capitalism and its myths of limitlessness teach us that our value and worth and self-esteem come from owning and dominating material things, the earth, and other people. Status, happiness, and fulfillment all come from material gratification, which only some of us can attain at the cost and abuse of the earth and other people. While historical austerity in the Mennonite tradition meant that materialism was differently culturally enforced, I still internalized that my worth and value is deeply connected to image, appearance, comparison and competition, and especially what others think of me (or more accurately, how I perceive them to be perceiving me). Beauty standards for white women originate in part from the historical sex slave trade in Europe and have been shaped through the lens of patriarchy, bent on the objectification, sexualization, and control of women’s bodies. This coupled with Christianity’s limiting role for women as chaste (yet still perfectly attractive) mothers, wives, and daughters left me with the scars of a negative self-body image and unrealistic cookie cutter anatomical goals that pitted me against friends as I constantly compared my body to other bodies. Anxiety led me to starve, stuff, and purge my body (and soul), to self-police my white womaness. So much mental and emotional energy went into my addictive self-destruction. My body resisted. I am still learning resistance. Turns out these hips are here to stay.

The hard part about social media is that tragedies greet us in the morning and at night. The blessing is that what some have experienced all along is now in the rest of our faces. The lie is that we can be separate from these horror stories. Who are you when state sanctioned law enforcement takes the life of another Black and Brown person? Who am I? I am the wife that cop goes home to at night who watches the local news and teaches my kids to be afraid of strangers. I am the woman who locks the door the second I’m in the car, clutches my purse, crosses the street, and avoids eye contact. I am the family member who lets a subtly (or not so subtly) racist comment slide for fear of creating conflict because I want to keep the peace (just as police keep the peace). I am not a helpless bystander, but make choices everyday that uphold the whiteness that these police officers are enforcing.

This Hat Made in the USA: The Scope of Whiteness

This Hat Made in the USA: The Scope of Whiteness

White supremacy has allowed white people to “do” racial justice work from an intellectual standpoint, to study racism as a phenomenon outside of us, to pathologize the racial others, but not ourselves. Feminism taught me that the personal is political and that means bringing my full self and my family and my history and putting it all on the table along with public school policy, gentrification, and our growing economic reliance on the enslavement of people (again) we have labeled criminals.

And even though I acknowledge the interconnectedness of it all and just wrote the above paragraphs, I still try to root out the white police officer inside of me – as if I can live in this world and not be impacted every moment. I have been trying to know it in order to surgically remove its badness and make myself apart from it. I have been trying to make myself better than I was, better than it. Better is still a hierarchy of value, if even only pertaining to me. And because I am still thinking I can be separate, I am so easily devastated when someone points out that I am not.

Bland by Amanda K Gross

Bland by Amanda K Gross

I am learning to hold the complexities, or at least hold an awareness that the complexities exist and build resilience. The white police officer in my shoulder exists alongside of my creativity, my intuition, my power. The problem is that the strength of the knot has been built over many years (centuries really) and is reinforced daily by almost everything. Its overdevelopment has meant the atrophy of my creativity, intuition, and power. When I do the smallest things to subvert whiteness and patriarchy the system holds me fast. And that makes me pissed and also motivated. It’s a discipline. I must learn to understand and identify these parts of me as a way to know and love myself, as a way to make different choices driven by consciousness, intent, and accountability. I must not ignore and dismiss it. I must deal with it. We must deal with it together.

If this journey is indeed a resurrection story then this is a fight for me and my humanity. If this struggle is about doing less harm to others, then it is also about doing less harm to myself. If this struggle is about loving others, then it is also about loving me. We need white folks who can lend their creative selves to this movement, not out of the insecurity and low self-esteem, and not out of guilt (as a wise white teen said to me matter-of-factly, “Guilt is just another form of self-hate.”) and martyrdom that seeks to lay oneself low so that others may rise above, but out of the honest tensions that holding these complexities bring, out of openly loving life and the growing and learning that is living into our imperfect, interconnected humanity.

And when we white folks wake up and begin to see the slightest bit of how we are also policed and are self-policing, when we begin to feel the slightest frustration of confinement, when we feel the tip of anger, we have important choices to make.

Same Coin by Amanda K Gross

Same Coin by Amanda K Gross

Will we cower in fear of ourselves and pull the  quilt of #notallwhitepeople up over our heads and continue to go about our lives as usual? Will we blame our white siblings and separate ourselves from the bad apple cops and the KKK, washing our hands of any responsibility? Will we push and shove and shout angrily at the protest march, an adrenaline of activism with the potential to further jeopardize the safety of the Black and Brown bodies who we march beside? Will we subvert whiteness on the daily? Will we look at ourselves with courage and take the work of transformation seriously, as if our own lives depend on it? Will we change our habits and decisions at work, at home, at school, at the store even if it means risking our jobs, our houses, our degrees, our possessions? Will we change in order to risk our jobs, our houses, our degrees, and our possessions?

The illusion is that these were ever ours to begin with. The illusion is that there is even an ours to begin with.

 

 

The Caterpillar Meditation (for Maya)

written by Amanda Gross

The other sunny Saturday I went for a hike, by myself, in the woods.

I grew up around concrete and asphalt and pigeons and people on all sides. And once I get through my recurring fear of being chased by bears and mountain lions (they sometime haunt me in my dreams*) (the park map assured me that this particular state park is not home to bears and mountain lions), navigating a muddy path, parting spider webs, and breathing in the rich exhale of a wise forest deeply nurtures my soul.

The Goddess of Feeling Deeply by Amanda K Gross

The Goddess of Feeling Deeply by Amanda K Gross

Sometimes “doing my work” means swimming in wells of sadness, disappointment, and pain. It’s easier for me to get stuck there than just go on a hike, by myself, in the woods. I’m still trying to figure out how negative self talk, self-punishment, and self-deprivation became so ingrained… As if when I make a mistake I can regain control by being the best, most critical punisher of me. My preemption guards against your criticism somehow ensuring that I am less wrong, if just a little.

The more I learn, the clearer the learning curve becomes as does my realization around its steepness. Maybe I make progress or maybe I just get better at just being. Present. Like when I was walking through the woods, careful not to twist an ankle and I saw a bright green caterpillar the size of half my thumb. I paused, slowing down my self to witness its crossing. And it was magnificently happy just being and moving, slowly, and changing its mind about its direction (several times).

I didn’t stay to witness its crossing of the path. Maybe it didn’t need that type of completion and in that moment, neither did I.

Tree Belly (detail) by Amanda K Gross

Tree Belly (detail) by Amanda K Gross

*Interestingly, this dream interpretation website connects lions to feelings of control/being out of control and bears to wanting to do things alone.

 

Church of One

written by Amanda Gross

It is no secret that Mennonite culture subsists on conflict avoidance.

In the white North American Mennonite culture that I’ve known, it is considered closer to God to keep the peace rather than transform the tension. When voices get loud or heated, there is a large quiet majority championing the status quo of silence. They are caring, worried, good Mennonite women who worship relationship. They are the offended, concerned church leaders who offer their unsolicited advice. They are the whisperers and grumblers whose conversations may never leave their living rooms. The Mennonite identity as pacifist, the church’s position on peace, along with a lasting martyr-complex of turning the other cheek has clouded generational understanding of how to healthily engage in conflict. The pendulum swings quickly from suppression to division with a sharpened blade reducing the speaking of multiple truths and isolating an analysis of power.

Nannie & Pop Mixed media by Amanda K Gross

Nannie & Pop Mixed media by Amanda K Gross

I have this vivid memory from when I was 6 or 7 of my mother and her sister coming out of the church Sunday school building in tears. It must have been late spring or early fall, the last of a series of after-church meetings in which the adults locked themselves in the brick and cinderblock air-conditioned building and the children played happily in the honeysuckle and poison ivy outside. When I asked what was going on, I was told they were very sad because many people, including my aunt, were leaving our church. And so our church of a committed 75 (out of the Atlanta metro area’s 5 million) was whittled down to 40ish and a second Atlanta Mennonite church was formed.

If you don’t live in Pennsylvania or Ohio or Ontario and aren’t one, then Mennonite probably doesn’t mean much to you. Which makes sense, there are less than 400,000 of us in the U.S. You could move all the Mennonites in the U.S. into the city limits of Cleveland, Ohio and still have room for 10,000 OTMs (Other Than Mennonites*). Also you would have total and silent war. While Mennonites can usually live symbiotically alongside of OTMs, the insider/outsider norms** are much harder to maintain when everyone is claiming insider status. Mennonites have been self-dividing since the start of Anabaptism and the Protestant Reformation back in Europe back in the day and this pattern of behavior shows no sign of stopping. It’s a voluntary, passive form of divide and conquer under the guise of peace that helps preserve structural violence both within and outside of the Mennonite Church(es).

*Other Than Mennonite was a demographic option at my Mennonite college.

Yet this self-division is not unique to the Mennonites. Christianity, Catholicism, Anabaptism, Protestantism – sect after sect in a Euro-centric history of groups dividing and othering in search of the One Right Way, claiming it as something they own and possess, creating others and OTMs and cutting them off from the One Right Way  – dividing and dividing and dividing every time there is a conflict until our churches are churches of one. We are churches of one.

Two incredible resources have helped shape my understanding of white culture and its U.S. Mennonite subsidiary – the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s framework on Internalized Racial Oppression (Internalized Racial Superiority for white folks) and a document via WHAT’S UP?! on White Supremacy Culture (from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun). The pendulum of conflict avoidance gives insight into how we’ve internalized superiority and how white culture is maintained: Distancing. Denial. Individualism. Competition and Comparison. Either/Or Thinking. Fear of Open Conflict. Power Hoarding. Compartmentalization. These aspects are not exceptions. They are the norms that flow down the aisles and through the doors of our churches, in and out of our do-good non-profits, and up and down the stairs of our homes. Like the wild strawberries growing beside the much more nutritious and yummier ones I planted, these aspects are complexly intertwined and difficult to extricate.

Limbs of a Family Tree Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Limbs of a Family Tree Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

And so good white ladies keep the peace, keep the norms, are the keepers of status quo structural violence. The pendulum of conflict avoidance is full of imagined and real life consequences. When white ladies prioritize relationships and keeping the peace, it calls on a history of excommunication and shunning with its social, emotional, and material penalties for severing relationship. There are and historically have been real material consequences to not maintaining the status quo in ways that can and have jeopardized the survival of oneself and one’s children. This emotional and psychological threat looms over our heads. Our social and familial belonging is so fragile, so conditional, that one wrong move could leave one socially and communally banished, shamed, disconnected, and very possibly condemned to hell.

White women have internalized these messages and ways so deeply – that we are only as valuable as our relationships, that our self-worth comes from and is defined by our relationship to others, especially in relationship to our parents, spouses, and children, especially in upholding the white family structure. I have learned that my social power and subsequent validity comes from what others think of me. Others not liking me threatens my sense of self. I have internalized that I must not come across as mean, rude, harsh, aggressive, assertive, loud, angry, or intense. Above all, I must not offend. Polite silence is demanded (but in a nice, quiet, non confrontational sort of way – until it isn’t).

In addition to several emails and phone calls from family members, I received two public comments about a recent blog post, The Mask I Wore to My Grandpa’s Funeral. The  first was supportive. The second, from the pastor who officiated my grandpa’s funeral. He said:

It would seem more loving to check out your perceptions with others before declaring such judgments for all to hear.
Randy

More Loving.  Along with inspiring an internal firestorm, this comment brought up some thoughts and is an opportunity to share my processing with all of you. It brought up questions like, when did agape love become quantifiable? When did love become separated from truth-telling and honesty and naming injustice in order to have accountability and the hope of transformation? Is that not a part of love? If I compromised my truth to better suit your ears, would it make a difference? How would polite lies increase the love in between these words? Would it actually incite change? Or fall without response like countless voices for generations much more marginalized than mine? To have a representative of institutional, cultural, religious, and spiritual authority question the degrees of love behind my words triggers centuries of dismissal and control by those in power. More Loving calls on the stereotype of the good white selfless non-confrontational Christian woman I am supposed to be with an added element of shaming from a white patriarchal authority. A stand in for my father. A stand in for God. Whoever gets to define love gets to measure it.

Checking out My Perceptions.  My perceptions are my perceptions and no one else’s. There is a myth rooted deep in our dominant culture around objective truth. This myth tells us that there is one right perception and one objective truth. That an objective truth is even possible. While my perceptions have been built and formed from my life experience with input from many others (see Acknowledgements), Pastor Randy’s concerns seem to indicate that my perceptions are not consistent with the menu of perceptions served weekly at his church. This is not to single out his pulpit, which I would guess is consistent with many other pulpits throughout Mennoland and white western Christendom with vast theological silence on the structural violence that we as American Mennonites/Christians perpetuate. It is also incorrect to assume that I have not checked out my perceptions with others. I have been in conversation with the Mennonite pulpit, in one way or another, my whole life.

qui est la Juge? (who is the Judge?)

qui est la Juge? (who is the Judge?) Mixed media by Amanda K Gross

Declaring Judgements.  Similar to More Loving, Declaring Such Judgements is an attempted dismissal. Among the things that good Christian women are not supposed to be is judgmental, but also harsh, critical, mean, and intense. As white women, we are supposed to put others’ feelings first, but especially the feelings of white men. We are supposed to prioritize the judgements of those in institutional authority over our own. Thank you, Felicia Lane Savage, for reminding me that having good judgement is a positive thing – actually one that my Mennonite upbringing taught me – and for reminding me that we need to cultivate discernment along with continued self-reflection in our lives.

For All to Hear.  **Gloria Rhodes, one of my professors at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, used to say, “Mennonites have a guest/host culture”. That means if you are a guest or an outsider you will be given full, unconditional hospitality, grace, acceptance, and love, but you will not be given decision-making power or the right to claim collective identity and belonging. There is a clear line drawn between who belongs and who doesn’t, who gets to make decisions and who doesn’t, and who gets to claim identity as an insider. The host and guest forever remain distinct and apart. And it is implied (although Mennonite Humble would never let you admit it) that the host is really the one in the know. Another way to think of this is internalized superiority, but we really shouldn’t be talking about this because in doing so I am exposing the dirty laundry of my community. And now you know that Mennonites aren’t just compassionate, peaceful agrarians with perfectly pitched vocals. While drawing attention to our community’s faults may have meant torture and death in the 16th Century, doing so now is not a threat to our physical safety. However, it does call in to question two things our nondisclosure and self-division keeps in place – the myth of One Right Way and our internalized specialness.

The problem with Pastor Randy’s comment, similar to the pendulum of conflict avoidance, is that it distracts us from focusing on the issues and the root causes at the heart of the matter including our complicity in it all. This dismissal and distraction is a watered down version of the angry black woman stereotype. It is a far much less life threatening version of white people dismissing and admonishing Black folks for damaging the brick and mortar of white capitalist business in response to the continued destruction of Black bodies, the irreparable ending of human life.

What I am hoping you’ll consider are the very real and deep connections between our white cultures of conflict avoidance and the perpetuation of structural violence. The pendulum of conflict avoidance, Mennonite Humble, white silence, do not make us more peaceful; they actively do harm. They violate.

My loom

My loom

I am a mixed media artist and a weaver. And through the discipline of envisioning and creating beauty, I have learned many lessons. In fiber art – knitting, crochet, sewing, embroidery, spinning, quilting, and especially in weaving – tension is critical to creation. Tension is what transforms wool into thread and thread into fabric. Without tension, the structure will not hold with integrity. When warping a loom, the tension needs to be consistent on all threads. If one thread or a section of thread is disproportionately holding the tension, the fabric will be misshapen and there is greater risk of a tear or hole. Just as in weaving, tension, conflict, and discomfort are necessary for learning, growth, and transformation. Critical feedback is important for change. Yet fear of tension, conflict, discomfort, and critical feedback paralyzes us.

Last week, I reconnected with a friend and colleague who escaped from his home country two days before a political coup. Had he not left, he might have faced life-threatening consequences, and many people he knew have. Having been surrounded by such a violent reality, his North American friends asked him if he was afraid. “Why would I be afraid?” he asked with sincerity, “I am safe. We are no longer in physical danger.”

We have learned to cultivate lives of misplaced fear and constant anxiety. Yet we are perhaps the safest of them all.

Go in peace.

The Privilege of Being Stuck

WRITTEN BY AMANDA GROSS

Sometimes I wallow.

In the moment of discomfort my reflex is to repel, to flee, or to flee inside of me. But after the discomfort, I wallow in it.

Anxiety and angst are the powerful silent enforcers of stagnation. What went down? What did I do wrong?? How did I feel??? Why was I stuck???? What could I have done/said differently?????

In between my instant playbacks, I replay the situation for others. I let them tell me how to think and how to feel. I replay the situation in my head. Like a broken record. I begin to want the broken record. I reach for it again and again. I swim around in its moody waters and call it self-care.

Repeat. I could play this tune all day. The more I repeat, the more comfortable the discomfort becomes. Stuck becomes my privilege. Wanting to do, be, act better becomes my cocoon.

Oh. Lord.

I have traded my light for White Liberal Lite when Menno Fabulous is my birthright.

Menno Fabulous 1 by Amanda K Gross*

Menno Fabulous 1 by Amanda K Gross*

*This post and Menno Fabulous 1 were both inspired by the powerful work of literary artist, Dr. Tameka Cage Conley and her poem, “because they was purple”, a piece of art that I was honored to hear and discuss thanks to a recent reading and conversation at Yoga Roots on Location facilitated by Felicia Lane Savage.