(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

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.

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.

 

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.

The Mask I Wore to My Grandpa’s Funeral

WRITTEN BY AMANDA GROSS

Last month I went to my grandpa’s funeral and got erased.

This erasure was not a surprise, was not new, and has been a part of my life that I have repeatedly tried to erase. But since erasing erasure does not equal visibility, I’m trying something new.

I grew up in a southern city, far away from the bucolic small Eastern Pennsylvania town of my father’s nostalgia. Instead of a family farm and tight-knit Pennsylvania Mennonite community, I was raised in the urban legacy of colonization as my parents and maternal grandparents fled their home towns to make the world a better place. (Growing up I heard about what they were fleeing towards but rarely what they were fleeing from.) I have always more closely identified with my mother’s well-educated family and was nurtured by the Christian liberal middle-class values of good intention, service, inclusion, and acceptance of diversity. In the arms of my mom’s family there was more space to grow into an independent, well-educated, white woman. At home, my dad professed that men were biblically instilled heads of the household and lauded the Christian mother/wife role for women. The toxicity of that ideal made much of my adolescence and adulthood an effort to escape and distance myself from my rural paternal Christian working class roots.

Cycles of Trauma (in progress) by Amanda K Gross

Cycles of Trauma (in progress) by Amanda K Gross

The mask of White Christian Patriarchy has always confused me. The human man-gods speak from the pulpit, hand out the frames, and read from the scriptures while the women clean, care for, bear the children, and do the earthly work. At home I could never understand how the ideal matched with the reality. At my grandpa’s funeral, I watched my aunts who had done the diligent, committed dirty work of caring for aging parents daily be sidelined by their brothers’ decisions and speeches. The sons and grandsons were listed first in order of birth with the daughters and granddaughters and their babies following after. And after my first name was my partner’s last. Which is not nor has ever been my name. Most of my life I have sought blame in white men for this dynamic. And although the system and culture places them in that role, I am beginning to identify how white women have been just as complicit in upholding this arrangement and how this arrangement is keeping the larger one of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in place on the daily.

I experimented with White Christian Patriarchy in my youth and it almost killed me.

In the zealous phase of my preteen years I hid in Christian book stores and the rigid walls of the Church in order to protect myself from the pain and loneliness of my family and the journey from a celebrated girl childhood to the confines of adolescence. Trying to be the perfect Christian teen stifled my voice. I traded my intuition for fear, anxiety, and inhumane over-achievement to the detriment of my physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I starved myself of pain and pleasure. I starved my body. I suppressed my gut feelings and stuffed myself into an ideal body and an ideal persona. White Christian Patriarchy taught me how to lie to myself and it taught me how to front.

Dining Room Table by Amanda K Gross

Dining Room Table by Amanda K Gross

Going back into that funeral was like going back in time to that place of early erasure. Even with the armor of adulthood and all the words and analysis, self-care practice and self-awareness I have developed, it still felt like walking into the lion’s den. The air told me I had failed. The questions about my work and the vast chasm between my life and my cousins’ lives with their prolific families and church involvement spewed shame. No one talked about their struggles, their depression, their materialism, their isolation, the difficulty of raising kids and spending every waking hour with them, their addictions, the things that they do to ease the pain. No one talked about their whiteness. In the minutes leading up to the funeral in which the cousins were gathered around, we small talked and smiled at old photos, but we did not share our pain. Even the few challenges that were shared – to homeschool or not, living in town or out – were acceptable white Christian ones. Whew! Everyone’s marriages were great! Everyone’s children were thriving! Everyone loved what they did (enough)! Everyone was committed to God! The mask stayed firmly in place. We put on a great show for the church family.

See No, Hear No, Speak No Evil by Amanda K Gross

See No, Hear No, Speak No Evil by Amanda K Gross

Yet, my life work life does not allow for the mask to stay firmly in place and so I am trying the peel and scratch it off. (It does not come off so easily). I feel now even more so and yet have also always felt disconnected. I am shunned. I am excluded from my community. I am in the wrong. I am the jezebel, the crone, the barren auntie. I wear the scarlet letter. As I sat in the pew and heard what a great Christian example my grandparent’s marriage was and very little about the emotional distance, sexism, and violence of my grandfather, I could feel the mask straps tighten. The false gift of age and death is nostalgic idealism. I could feel the potential for anger and collective and institutional rage at my truth rise. I don’t have to do a strip tease in the middle of the sanctuary, or try to marry women, or refer to the Goddess to feel this collective threat of merciless rage. I don’t have to name whiteness or share my politics or talk about the partnership principles my marriage was built on to know that caustic bubbling lies just underneath the surface, to know of the consequences for stepping too far out of line. Of course I know how I am expected to be, I have been conditioned all my life for this role and this box.

And so I understand why liberal good intention is a place of refuge for so many white women and how easy it is to make conservative America the one true villain. To blame our sisters and mothers who stay and stay in denial of its harm. We are running from incredible pain. We flee from the prison of White Christian Patriarchy into the arms of a (seemingly) less volatile lover. But the box of White Liberalism whispers manipulative lies to us too keeping our self-doubt firmly in place and clouding our clarity. We run from one box of white womanhood into another. Ultimately, the expectations of our role are still very much the same. While we were in relationship with White Christian Patriarchy we were given clear marching orders upfront. The lines were boldly drawn and overstepping meant excommunication. Now that we are in bed with White Liberalism, the lines are more obscure, but the consequences just as severe. We have lied to ourselves about choice because all the moves (beauty,  schooling, career, housing, relationships, marriage, motherhood, perfection, helping, goodness) are still the same. We think we have chosen. When opting between one mask for another, the option of choice is also a lie.

White Void by Amanda K Gross

White Void by Amanda K Gross

In bed with White Liberalism, we don’t want to know where we come from. Let us eat cake! The crumbs of whiteness have distanced me from my Self and my family and the community that has more to lose in this current arrangement of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. And so instead of really dealing with the roots of White Christian Patriarchy, another form of divide and conquer sets in.

What propels me from one box into another? Why am I so tempted to distance myself from my working class roots? What makes me think I can individually throw off the corset of patriarchy without ridding myself of its accessories, white supremacy and capitalism? The aversion I feel towards White Christian Patriarchy and my working class roots, along with the distance my privilege encourages me to place between them and me is really just another layer of denial that maintains a sub-human existence and ultimately restricts and damages me.

There is a specific role for white women to play in upholding white supremacy. My erasure within the confines of White Christian Patriarchy keeps the illusion in place. But my false sense of agency in independent, well-educated, white womanhood does more of the same.

The search for any other option means first examining my own mask. Is it any surprise that I don’t want to be vulnerable? Yet vulnerability is where my truth lies and without vulnerability there are only lies. Not everyone gets the luxury of a mask. And if wearing the mask means suffocation, means affixation, then what makes us think of the mask as a luxurious privilege anyway? In my own best interest, the comfort of hiding is over.

White Silence by Amanda K Gross

White Silence by Amanda K Gross