How Does Whiteness Separate Us From God? – Collaboration Conversation

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

View from Hotel Rooftop: Photo by Amanda K Gross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Valerie Showalter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indiana, PA; photo by Leah Jo

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

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

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

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

Four Part Harmony ; Mixed Media by Amanda k Gross

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

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

Hear No Evil, by Amanda K Gross

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

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

White Silence, by Amanda K Gross

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

altar #1; Photo by Cole Parke

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

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

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

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

 

Same Coin; Screen Print by Amanda K Gross

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

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