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.):
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
When my people left Switzerland in 1709, they were Swiss-German Mennonite. Soon after they landed in the colony of Pennsylvania, they became white.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 host of the evening interviewed me before the event, which you can listen to here:
*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.