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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.