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).
Now in my Jesus year, You 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.
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.
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.
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?
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!