What’s Wrong with Being Wrong (?)

It was a blog post I hadn’t thought twice about. My artistic abilities were proudly Mennonite Humbly on display. The info book-researched and personally connected. The white ladies had put the finishing touches on their assignments. The Victim, Villain, Heroine project was complete.

Or so I thought. Then mom came to town.

The Cousin Lydia I reported on in my last blog post is a figment of my imagination, or at least the way I recreated her story is. While the Cousin Lydia whose photo and date of birth and death I found in  Mast Family History lived, died, taught at a girl’s school as a missionary in India, and is indeed my distant cousin, she is not the family relative that inspired my grandfather’s medical career and set the trajectory of my family lineage into white professional assimilation – as I so eloquently blogged about in my original post. In my weaving of family lore, memories, and analysis, I had in fact conflated two other people merging their roles into late 19th Century Cousin Lydia’s convenient persona. I had not conflated family members intentionally, yet conflate I had.

VVH Cousin Lydia Heroine; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

So let me set the record correct. My grandfather was inspired to go abandon the family farm and go into medicine, not because of late 19th Century Cousin Lydia, but because of physician, Dr. CJ Esch, who worked in India and is most likely of no relation. Another Cousin Lydia, this one of the 20th Century variety, was a missionary in Red Lake, Canada who my mom and her siblings visited bringing back tales of pontoon planes, campfires, and moose liver.

More interesting to me (and perhaps to you) than the actual correction of these factoids is the amount of energy it took for me to work through my resistance to being wrong and making correction. Astute readers will note, it has been 90 days since my last confession blog post.

VVH Cousin Lydia Victim; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Right around the time of my mama’s visit I attended the Creative Nonfiction Writer’s Conference and sat through a workshop on fact checking. Ugh. Fact checking. The workshop, which was sophisticated and nuanced and seemed to have some understanding of the subjective biases carried by all humans, still touted the critical all importance of facts. As an anti-racist feminist whose life work has been built from a foundational assumption that facts bounce off frames* and that the ways we see the world are framed by our lived experience, power, and how the world sees us**, I spent the entirety of the workshop very resistant to the notion of facts. Rather than listening to the tips and arguments put forth by the fact checking team, I invested in a mental dialogue of poking holes in their presentation and getting quite huffy at the gigantic bother of facts. Just like Al Gore and our Alt Right cousins, I was saying facts are oh so inconvenient.

My life is fact, I thought.

Why would I need/want/look for anything more, I complained.

Objectivity is such a white male framework, I accused.

And it is.

But if I’m more honest with myself now than I was able to be then, my feelings of resistance are hands down emotionally lazy, and also shaped by a convenient one right way perfectionism that is attached to effortless rightness. You could substitute that phrase for an attachment to effortless whiteness.

VVH Cousin Lydia Villain; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Have I mentioned I’m writing a book? The yearlong process of which has been fraught with motivation and the fear of trying, confidence and insecurity, practicing naming my truth unapologetically and living in their consequences, exposing my vulnerabilities and acknowledging that in so doing I’m also exposing the vulnerabilities of others. The process of becoming brave enough to write my truth has meant a constant grappling with the insecurities I’ve been conditioned to believe while I fight the silent cloud of silence brought on by conflict avoidant white liberalism.

But my speaking of truth does not forego listening. In defending my heart and in order to tamper down the pain of how others receive my truth, I have been tempted to open my mouth and close my ears. When my mother challenged my version of Cousin Lydia, in that moment I really wasn’t that interested in challenging myself. I was annoyed, irritated, already done with that post and that project and ready to move on to new more exciting adventures. My resistance didn’t entirely surprise me, by my heightened awareness of it sure did.

In an effort to be more vulnerable and relational, I have offered up a space for dialogue and feedback on the book in progress to certain family members and friends. This move has been important and powerful and a painful knot untangling. Despite dialogue and truth tellings and listenings, the painful knot of relational exchange does not feel any more resolved. It perhaps never will. I am learning that in listening to others, with as much love as I can muster in the moment, this process might still lead to disappointment, to messy disconnection. For as much as getting solid on my truth doesn’t forego listening to others, it also doesn’t necessarily mean accepting and integrating others’ truths into my own. The powerful, terrifying thing is that at the end of the day I decide which facts and frames I let in and which ones I keep out, which ones I work with and compost and which ones I throw out. The powerful thing is that you do too.

*George Lakoff Don’t Think of An Elephant

**Every womanist/feminist ever

Victim, Villain, Heroine

WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross

While calling on our victim identity is a comfortable position for white women from the perspective of white feminism and while the popular white savior complex justifies our helping, fixing, and saving others, rarely do we honestly examine contemporary and historical white ladies’ contributions to upholding and dismantling intersectional oppression through the lens of racism. We all have the capacity to occupy aspects of all three – Victim, Villain, and Heroine – usually at the same time.

VVH Cousin Lydia Combined; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

In our anti-racist affinity space, White Women’s Group 3 asked these 3 questions about 3 white ladies: self, a family member, and a historical figure:

  • How are we victims of systems of oppression?
  • How do we perpetuate and uphold systems of oppression?
  • How do we resist systems of oppression?

And in challenging the myth of individualism in the archetypes of Victim, Villain, Heroine, we also investigated the historical and contemporary context of systemic oppression and social movements surrounding the white ladies in question.

Queen Elizabeth I

Victim – Born the daughter of the King of England, she endured a traumatic childhood based on the patriarchy and misogynistic culture of the time. When she was 2 ½ years of age her mother was murdered by her father, who repeatedly tried to disown her. As an adolescent, she was imprisoned by her half-sister. She had several step mothers and her half-siblings, cousins, and their families were in constant often violent competition with her for the throne. She began fending off suitors at the age of 13, which was considered a marriageable age for girls at the time. She spent a lot of her life ill, had almost total hair loss at a young age, and suffered from many harmful physical beauty standards put upon women including the toxicity of her make-up and girdles that reconfigured her vital organs.

VVH Queen Liz I Victim; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Villain – She was responsible for England’s initial colonizing endeavors and paved the way for centuries of colonization, imperialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and militaristic global violence. She granted stolen land of what is now called the Eastern U.S. to her favorite rich English merchants, never acknowledging the rights of Indigenous peoples to that land. Because of this patronage and legacy of displacement, Virginia is named for her. She established the groundwork for the equivalent of modern day corporations, the East India Company and the Virginia Company. She pursued scorched-earth tactics in Ireland, during which tens of thousands of people starved to death and many more people died of the violence. At home, she led land enclosures which forced peasants off of commonly held land resulting in skyrocketing homelessness and poverty at the advent of a capitalist economic system.

VVH Queen Liz I Villain; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Heroine – At a time when women were marginalized in religious institutions, she became head of the Church of England. She resisted patriarchal expectations by never marrying nor having children and exercising bodily autonomy, which was rare for women of the day. As an adult she had many suitors and intellectual, emotional, and most likely sexual affairs. Due to wealth and status, she was extremely well-educated unlike most of her contemporaries.

VVH Queen Liz I Heroine; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Historical Context – The 16th Century was the start of European colonization, global militarism, and capitalism. At the same time that Europe was violently suppressing peasant resistance movements, the heretic’s challenge to religious authority and power, and women for their role in nurturing common society, European monarchs were supporting wealthy merchants to explore, pillage, conquer, and claim other parts of the world and its people for their crowns. Under Elizabeth’s rule, England rose to prominence as a dominating dominator, leading the way in greed and violence. While not technically white (race was not yet invented), Britishness was used as a standard to define whiteness for generations to come.

VVH Cousin Lydia; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Cousin Lydia

Victim – Born into Mennonite Patriarchy in Pennsylvania, Cousin Lydia had few life options outside of getting married, having children, and nurturing a Christian household. Family power flowed through her father and her brothers, one of whom accompanied her to India.

VVH Cousin Lydia Victim; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Villain – She was born into Settler Colonizer society in Pennsylvania in the mid 1800s and continued that colonizer culture through perpetuating imperialistic norms as a missionary in East India where she taught at a girl’s school for East Indian students. In a photo of family genealogy she is seated above and surrounded by East Indian teachers of the school (who are not named), summoning a narrative of white savorism. The same family history book features photos of homestead after homestead built on the stolen land of Native people, the legacy into which Cousin Lydia was born.

VVH Cousin Lydia Villain; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Heroine – By living in India and pursuing a career in Education, she challenged expectations of white womanhood including the idea that white women were inherently frail and unfit to travel to certain parts of the world and also the idea that white women should marry and devote their lives to the reproductive labor of white families. She worked in the field of girls education which was not accessible for many girls at that time, not just in Pennsylvania or Indian but all over the world.

VVH Cousin Lydia Heroine; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Personal Note – Cousin Lydia’s example inspired my maternal grandfather to leave the Amish Mennonite farming community and pursue further education in medicine which he practiced in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Her example is also pointed to as reference for our family values of travel and education.

Historical ContextThe Post-Civil War era was a time of affirmative action for white women who had previously been confined to their homes. After the Civil War, careers opened for white women in missionary work, education, and nursing and white women began to be valorized for their role as cultural purveyors of the whiteness. Along with being given the duty of helping to assimilate poor white women and children and save recent Europeans immigrants from their slovenly ways, middle class white ladies were entrusted with the paternalistic responsibility of educating Native Americans, recently emancipated Black folks, and non-European people around the world whose cultures, languages, and religions were viewed as savage, backwards, and heathen. Cousin Lydia’s ancestors helped settle the colony of Pennsylvania a century before her birth, which meant several preceding generations had benefited off of the stolen land and attempted genocide of Native peoples who were forced to given up their homes to European farmers. This accumulated privilege granted Cousin Lydia access to education at a time when it was still forbidden (if not in law then in practice) for Black Americans to read and at a time when education was used as a tool of violence to strip Native Americans and other Colonized global communities of their indigenous cultures and ways of being.

VVH Amanda Katherine; Acrylic on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Amanda Katherine Gross

Victim – As a white woman in Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, I endured childhood spiritual trauma and ongoing sexism resulting in abuse, sexual assaults, self-harm, economic dependence on men, the spiritual void of materialism, isolation from authentic connection to other human beings, and the internalization of gendered inferiority, not-enoughness, self-doubt, and the repeated suppression of my intuitive and spiritual self.

VVH Victim AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

Villain – I have repeatedly accessed institutional privileges at the cost and impact of other human beings and especially People of Color and people living in poverty. Examples include receiving As when graded on a curve, receiving academic scholarship monies and other forms of affirmative action, moving into communities and neighborhoods without relationship or knowledge of local context and history while ultimately taking away jobs and housing from local residents, contributing to gentrification, contributing to environmental degradation and economic exploitation by participating in capitalism and consumerism, micro-aggressing strangers, colleagues, friends, and family, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from studying structural violence and poverty, and earning a salary off of the backs of poor people.

VVH Villain AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

Heroine – I have questioned and challenged the status quo in order to uproot systems of oppression by studying history and honing and re-honing my analysis. I have built authentic relationships and developed systems of accountability towards growth. I’ve leveraged my role as a gatekeeper to center perspectives of People of Color who share anti-racist analyses and practice an economic justice model of compensation for work and energy. I have organized other white ladies for mutual liberation and modeled vulnerability through creating art and writing to challenge the status quo and envision alternatives. I’ve worked to undo Internalized Racial Superiority within myself by reclaiming my spiritual intuition, by practicing the release of control and expectations, and by honoring my Self and needs in alignment with mutual liberation.

VVH Heroine AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

Historical Context – Dubbed a “Post-Racial Era” by some, the time period after the Civil Rights Movement saw its peak in racial equity outcomes in the 1970s followed by rapid increases in racial disparities in education, housing, wealth, health, employment, political representation, and incarceration. With the election of Trump in 2016, many white women in the U.S. began to realize that the narrative of American progress – especially related to gender – is far from realized. Consistent with previous movements by and for white women, most mainstream women’s movements continue to center and uphold white supremacy and operate within a capitalist framework. By 2018, Amanda Katherine’s ancestry had accumulated almost 400 years of white social and economic privileges especially impacted by access to land/home ownership and education – land which was explicitly stolen from indigenous peoples and education that was withheld from people of African descent and used as a weapon against people of Native communities.

Vulnerability Sucks Part Three: Taking Off My Clothes is Hard to Do

written by AMANDA GROSS

I’m not usually one to undress for an audience. But maybe that’s a lie, because at many points of my life I have and am increasingly practicing doing so. When I was a kid, I loved being naked like I loved being myself. Loud. Proud. In charge. Directing. Leading. Unapologetically Embodied. But at some point I developed a subtle way of toning my full fledged expression way down. A 13-year dose of the US education system is partially to blame. What with all the peer stigma that came from being a teacher’s pet or “too” smart, I remember being careful not to let my classmates see the frequent red A+s. I became understated in my achieving, quiet in my knowledgeable responses. Mennonite Humble can also be proud of this shift. A slow stew over time, the undercurrent of collective cultural values gendering more and more with age. Pride goeth before the Mennonite Humble Fall. Beware, it might even lead to dancing*.

Schoolhouse Quilt; Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

However, the strongest conditioner in hiding my truths has been silence. Silence around sex and the body and a feminized body in particular, has helped me build walls of inhibition to keep my vulnerability fully clothed. There are certain things we don’t talk about and then there are certain things that we really don’t talk about. Ever.

“Let’s not talk about sex” is the never spoken yet constantly implied mantra handed down from the staunchly puritanical fear of my maternal line while “Cake or Death” (Cake=Monogamous Lifelong Marriage) was “Let’s not talk about sex”‘s partner in child raising coming from my Biblical literalist father. Both sent clear messages to my Mennobaby ears. In their crossfire, my interpretation became “Cake or Death or Silence”. Clearly silence was the least messy – or at least easiest placeholder until the socially acceptable option of Cake came along. So silence I did.

I have always like boys. When I was trying to fall asleep at the age of 4, I would day-dream about my preschool crushes. In kindergarten during nap time instead of sleeping (I aged out of napping at age two) I would kiss boys behind their ears on the towels that we brought in from home. (This was most likely not consensual.) My towel was bright red, green, black, and yellow stripes. And Ms. Johnson once told me to stop, but I could sense the smile she was suppressing in her eyes, which told me it was mostly cute.

Fast forward to high school. After years of culminating threats (both in jest but also probably not) that I wouldn’t be allowed to date until I was thirty, I went to live in France as an exchange student and found a beau. This French affair (which actually didn’t begin to manifest until after I returned home and if I’m honest, never really manifested despite seven years of back and forths) was silence of the best kind, an ocean away. As my first real semblance of a relationship, it was both exciting and terrifying and something I absolutely needed guidance on. In fact, I now see the budding manipulation and subtle emotional abuse I fell into, how he played my insecurities like a fiddle and used a never redeemed promise to fuel emotional rollercoasters and keep me hanging on, for years. It is only now, at the age of thirty-three and seven-eighths, that I can see how almost each and every one of my romantic relationships has had similar fields of misogynist landmines: the prom date that was all in and then disappeared once I was all in too, the boyfriend who pushed my boundaries constantly for months until I was too exhausted to resist (we could call that date rape), the person I dated who lied about his other relationships, the other boyfriend who pushed my boundaries immediately (we would definitely call that date rape), and the many other exhausting relational dynamics that stem from hundreds of years of embedded White Supremacist Patriarchy. Also the confusing unwanted attention and childhood molestation from a peer at church, which helped establish the tone for all of the above. Silence bred those moments in the multiple choice world of Cake or Death. And since my life mostly hasn’t fit into any of the neatly aforementioned categories (except for that one time I chose Cake for several years), the Silence has been accompanied and held in place by shame and stigma and uncertainty and fear and isolation.

MennoFabulous 2; Acrylic and Graphite on Board by Amanda K Gross

But the hardest, most isolating parts of the Silence for me have not been connected to those moments when I was taken advantage of, but instead in those moments of decision and agency.  I remember when I was in a relationship back in college and I was deciding whether or not I wanted to be sexually intimate with this person. I went back and forth in my head for months. I journaled. I made art. All I wanted was to talk to someone about it, to get their balanced and open perspective and to get some support. But not once did I feel comfortable enough to talk to anyone. My friend group at that point had bought into the celibacy before marriage thing and my mentors had already fully disclosed their positions by teaching Sunday School classes on why masturbation was a sin. On the surface, the Silence attempts to control our physical, sexual selves, but in the deeps it serves to control our emotional and mental landscapes. In the moment I needed support in making a wise decision about what I wanted to do with my body, but ultimately the Silence subverted an opportunity to support my emotional, mental, and spiritual growth of navigating human relationships.

We know the Silence keeps cultures and systems of oppression in place. Robin di’Angelo nudged me through her work on White Silence to begin examining how my connection to the dominant racial identity of whiteness helps to maintain white supremacy. But when it comes to Patriarchy, it has been much more comfortable to claim a victim’s territory and hunker down in selective silence in an attempt to maintain a vestige of control and self-protection for what has been perceived as loss. Except, the world is intersectional and we are interconnected and my selective silence around sex has mostly been more beneficial to White Supremacist Patriarchy and its heterosexual norms than to my Self. So vulnerability sucks because I really don’t want to tell you about my sex life and intimate relationships, but it is time that I begin.

Lilith and the Whale; Acrylic on Skateboard by Amanda K Gross

One of the most disgusting things I’ve witnessed in the Mennonite Church has been the way we continuously have put people deemed as sexual outsiders or deviants (queer folks, victims of sexual assault, divorcees, really anyone not appearing to play the part of Cake or Death) on trial. The Silence doesn’t apply if you’ve been typecast as sexual outsider or deviant** in which case, we feel very comfortable, no, entitled to strip you down in front of the congregation while we debate your bodies, your sex lives, your preferences, your decisions, your ethics, and your eternal future. Meanwhile, all of the Mennonite Church’s children and grandchildren are at Mennonite Educational Institutions navigating sex and power and relationships just like their non-Mennonite peers (even sometimes with their non-Mennonite peers). For some of those grown children and grandchildren, Cake becomes an option. I have watched countless hetero couple after couple get simultaneously engaged and welcomed into the Mennonite Church with one collective sigh of relief. Whew! They’re Cake now so we can safely celebrate! We can be comfortable again because we know what they are and they are Cake. The Silence gets to remain in their past and a linear logic model means only Cake and babies in their future.

Cake – Married Not Married photo series; photo by Amanda K Gross

Except not. Cake is filled with Silence. It’s the icing that dresses a Cake up in its Sunday best. As a very recent divorcee, I now fall into the sexual outsider/deviant category in many circles, which may or may not have you dismiss my words, but I will write them anyway. Cake – it turns out – is filled with the Silence. The room in the Cake for struggle and growth and creative solutions is still limited by its design. Unhealthy, icky things still happen inside the Cake but no one talks about it. There was approved room in the Cake of my marriage for three years of couples counseling, but not for opening up a marriage. There was room in the Cake for nasty arguments and passive aggression and the exhaustion of mental illness, but not separation and making healthy choices for the individual humans in the relationship if it threatened the structure of the Cake itself. What I learned is that Cake is served nicely with a side of Silence, but not with a side of truth, if the truth challenges the Cake, or more accurately the idea of the Cake. The Cake is also an illusion.

Cake – Married Not Married photo series; photo by Amanda K Gross

When I share with people that my former partner and I are now divorced, they are usually sad and express regret. I have found it difficult to share. I have hesitated to open up – not because I am sad (although I still work through the occasional shame and embarrassment that I’ve been socialized to internalize), but because I end up consoling them.*** They are grieving for my relationship, while I am sharing a positive, healthy, life-giving, growth-affirming change. I realized that in addition to them grieving a relationship which they have in the past perhaps celebrated and supported, they are also grieving their attachment to the Cake and the illusion of it. But in so doing, they miss out on seeing the present Me and in sharing in my good news.

I love cake. There is a chocolate cake recipe that I have been baking since the age of eight. I have the recipe memorized. 2 cups flour. 2 cups sugar. 1 tsp baking powder.1/2 tsp salt. 2 tsp baking soda. 2/3 cup cocoa powder. 1 tsp vanilla. 2/3 cup oil. 1 cup milk. 2 eggs. 1 tsp vanilla. 1 cup boiling hot coffee. Bake at 350 til done. (From Mennonite Country-Style Recipes & Kitchen Secrets) This is the only recipe I follow line by line. Usually, I use recipes for inspiration and even when I’m baking I prefer to estimate and experiment rather than follow a prescribed path. Maybe that experiential baking style is partially responsible for my marriage’s transition. But maybe, the problem isn’t cake itself or my ability to bake it, but the expectation that there’s only one kind and one acceptable way. Maybe the problem isn’t just the kind of cake, but the limited (false) options of Cake or Death or Silence. Recipes are only useful if we have the ingredients they’re built on and if we want the end results.

Cake – Married Not Married photo series; photo by Amanda K Gross

I consider Alice Walker’s words often, “Take what you need and let the rest rot.” One of the things I appreciate the most about Mennonite culture is the emphasis on family and community relationships and extended interconnected networks. For many of European descent the process of assimilation into whiteness has meant forfeiting and devaluing relationships, community, and interconnectedness in exchange for material isolation, competition, and control. Like all things, with abuse of power, there’s a way this cultural dynamic can be toxic, but I am interested in the way it holds wisdom for undoing the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy that we have come to embody today. Ways of being that center healthy relationships, interdependency, loving humane community, and human connections can be cultural guides for uprooting oppression and constructing the versatile alternatives we so desperately need so that Cake or Death or Silence crumble as our only options. I have learned the most about relationships that are based on consent, mutual respect, and accountability from those humans historically most marginalized by the church. Turns out centering leadership of the oppressed, which also happens to be the crux of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, is not just a Biblical thing to do, but also an effective way forward through the messy violence and trauma we do to each other. Maybe that’s why it’s a Biblical thing to do…

Cake – Married Not Married photo series; photo by Amanda K Gross

In order to decenter Cake or Death or Silence, vulnerability is required from those in power. We have a violent history of forced vulnerability onto those most marginalized by institutional and cultural power. But shared vulnerability puts the onus back on those who have access to the power and positions of oppression calling us back into our humanity. It is the model of restorative justice that Mennonites have learned from indigenous peoples. Our statuses and relationships to these systems of oppression are not fixed, but overlapping, intersectional, and dynamic. And as a mistress, an interloper with access to the master’s ear, who is eating at the master’s tables, and sleeping in his bedrooms, there are a plethora of platforms at my disposal to aid in the demise of Cake or Death or Silence. Speaking (or writing) truthfully with vulnerability is one such power tool.

May we continue to hone our skills, our truths, and our tools.

“The sky is falling!” thought Henny Penny. “No, wait, it’s all in my mind.” #YogaTales; Acrylic on paper by Amanda K Gross

*Mennonites are terrified of dancing because of its slippery slope towards having sex. So there’s a joke: Beware of having sex, it could lead to dancing!

**Divorcees still fit this category in many Mennonite circles.

***Prescience by someone who had been through this experience decades ago. Thank you for the wisdom.

How Does Whiteness Separate us from God – Take Five

This is the fifth of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?

WRITTEN BY Cole Parke

I recently received some big and hard feedback from people in my life who have been frustrated and hurt by my behavior in a myriad of ways. There were some specific examples of racist microaggressions I’d committed, and then some more general feedback about ways that I’ve been self-centered, arrogant, inconsiderate, and unaccountable.

After taking it all in, I expressed my gratitude for their honesty and for taking the time to call out me out; I offered my sincere apologies for the harm I’d caused; and I asked if there were additional ways that I could repair and heal the damage done. Then I went and sat in my room — a space that I’ve carefully curated as a tiny sanctuary filled with reminders that I am loved — and wrapped myself in a blanket of self-hate and shame.

altar #1; Photo by Cole Parke

It was one of those earth-shattering, core-shaking moments that leaves you feeling like you can’t breathe/don’t deserve to breathe/never want to breathe again. There was now evidence that the perpetually haunting notion of my utter irredeemability was true — that my existence in the world was causing far more harm than good and that I am fundamentally a horrible monster of human and an absolute fraud of an anti-racist.

This conversation took place within 24 hours of a four-day silent meditation retreat that had been on my calendar for months.

 

Four days. Of total silence.

 

Four days of total silence inside a brain that was freshly convinced that the essence of my being is not only bad, but also dangerous. My Christian upbringing taught me that “god is love,” and in the depths of that silence, I was wholly convinced that there was no god for me.

And now I’m back in my room. The reminders that I’m loved are still here — art offerings from friends cover my walls, the flannel quilt that my mom made me for Christmas a few years ago is carefully folded at the foot of my bed, there’s a pile of letters from pen pals on my desk, a borrowed copy of Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance is on my bedside table… I’m surrounded by love (god?) in abundance, but a deep seeded sense of unworthiness still dominates.

So the question of how my whiteness separates me from god feels entirely appropriate, impossibly hard, and absolutely critical to my/our liberation.

altar #2; featuring needlework by Jillian Brandl (@brawnyb), photo by Cole Parke

In Amanda’s original post for this series, she observed that most white people she passes on the street don’t make eye contact with her. She theorizes that “we do not make eye contact with strangers because deep down we are afraid that in seeing the God in them, we will be forced to look at and change ourselves and ultimately, that might make us question the truth on which we have built our lives.”

I wonder if what we’re really afraid of is that seeing the god in others will make more evident the absence of god in ourselves.

Feminist scholar and activist Andrea Smith once outlined the “Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” which she categorizes as slavery/capitalism, genocide/colonialism, and orientalism/war. Reflecting on this framework, I understand that the United States of America emerged from (and is sustained by) a formula of stolen labor/lives, stolen land/resources/culture (necessary for the intended disappearance of indigenous people), and through a constant process of hierarchical othering — of labeling certain people or nations as “inferior and as posing a constant threat to the well-being of empire.” I think of this as stolen humanity.

My ancestors played a role in constructing and upholding each of these three building blocks. When I think about them, and about all the other European colonizers of that era, I have to wonder, What happened that enabled them to completely dehumanize those whose land, resources, culture, humanity, labor, and lives they stole?

In my mind, the only logical conclusion is that they had to have forfeited their souls, thereby rejecting god.

Today, this process continues. Slavery lives on in the form of the prison industrial complex; the erasure and genocide of indigenous people lives on in the form of the Trans Pacific Pipeline; the (il)logic of orientalism lives on the Muslim Ban; and white people (myself included) continue to forfeit our souls.

But even if whiteness has successfully compelled us to forfeit our souls, in order to keep getting out of bed every day, I have to believe that god/love is still stronger — that even if we forfeit our souls, witnessing the god/soul in others actually has the capacity to reveal and awaken the god/soul that forever desires to reside within us.

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

Whiteness undeniably separates us from god, but the haunting grief resulting from that chasm suggests that there’s still a place for her within me.

That is the place that brought me into the depths of self-hatred last week, and it’s from that place that I keep fighting for a world that protects and celebrates the humanity and worth of all people (myself included).

 

Cole Parke is a rebellious descendent of Mayflower voyagers currently living in Boston, MA. They wake up every morning committed to demonstrating that love is more powerful, even when they aren’t entirely sure. When Cole isn’t spying on the right wing, you can usually find them hanging out at the post office, riding their bike, recruiting new Dandy Blend devotees, or fawning over some stranger’s dog.

This is the fifth 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, and fourth in the series here and here and here and here.

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.

 

Mennonite Humble and Other Pathways to Hell

written by AMANDA GROSS

Around the turn of the 20th Century there was a Mennonite revival in which my ancestors enthusiastically dove into the furnace of fear-based fire and brimstone thinking, a dramatic evangelical retrofitting of our more level-headed past. After generational trauma and forced migration, after centuries of North American assimilation into whiteness, the silent suffering of stoicism, and a tight, interweaving of families to keep the community close, what prompted Mennonites to want to feel again?

Generational cycles repeat.

Autumn's Fall by Amanda K Gross

Autumn’s Fall by Amanda K Gross

In my generation of ever-evolving materialism – the disconnect of object from maker, of consumer from consumed, of producer from human, of owner from owned – the revival tent wooed our souls. By revival tent, I mean the Georgia Dome, convention centers, and mega churches whose Jesus-themed rock concerts, highly-produced light shows, and (always) attractive worship teams led us through a phenomenal circus of sensuous attraction, suspense, doubt, guilt, fear, altar call and response, release, and soothing lullaby of assured rightness. Whew. An emotional, spirit-full answer to the emptiness of white, middle-class (sub)urban life that plagued our souls. While many of my classmates looked to drugs, sex, and alcohol to combat the loneliness, I hid in church.

Church felt safer and was more convenient. It also offered something I did not readily encounter in the frenetic halls of high school or the fast-moving rivers of Atlanta highway. It offered belonging.

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Schoolhouse Quilt by Amanda K Gross

While it is easy to see more clearly in retrospect, my church experience is and was nuanced and full of contradictions. In church I found both the spaciousness of expression and the denial of self. I felt intense belonging and severe rejection. I knew freedom and oppression. It was in my small home congregation that I was encouraged to lead. I led at the piano. I led worship. I led singing. I performed. I read. I played. I knew everyone. I wore bright dresses (as I got older sometimes short and sometimes low-cut, though rarely both) and an array of fancy hats. My eccentricity was nurtured. My brightness loved. Growing up, I was as loud and assertive as I wanted to be.

And throughout those same years, I learned to repress and deny. I learned to intentionally and then later less intentionally, ignore the small voice of wisdom within. I learned to self-censor, to compartmentalize, and to hide. When I was around seven, we were learning the story of Esther in Sunday School. Finally a female biblical character with agency! Finally a protagonist with whom I could identify! In my loudly relational way, I let every adult in sight know how thrilled I was that there was a book in the bible written by a woman. Turns out not. An elder in the church, also my friend’s grandpa, was quick to correct my nonsense. The story of Esther was not written by a woman he said matter-of-factly, in fact, there are no books in the bible written by women. And also, why would I foolishly deign such a thing?

Devastation. Ultimate betrayal. Not all bible stories are created equal. How could a community that nurtured my gifts undermine me so severely? I know I am not the only one with this story.

Domesticated #2: Potholder by Amanda K Gross

Domesticated #2: Potholder by Amanda K Gross

My therapist and I (well, mainly just I) have been considering what makes me feel safe in relationships. The quick answer is that I feel safe when there is space in the relationship to be fully myself. At church I learned that this is always a compromise. At church I learned to settle.*

One of the shared agreements we use at Youth Undoing Institutional Racism is Take space. Make space. The older I got, the less taking space was encouraged. I learned the skill of making space for others, an obvious virtuous path for good little white girls and budding young women. Socially and politically this seemed the strategic option for a wide-array of friends, emotional safety, and inspiring the trust of all kinds of authority figures. Like other versions of sneaky White Lady Ego, Mennonite Humble is the art of appearing to make space for others while remaining firmly in control (of decisions, of looking good, of one’s own self-righteousness). This North American Mennonite cultural value is consistent with aspects of White Liberalism and various Protestant traits. In whiteness, Mennonite Humble maintains a facade of sharing and accommodation while keeping one’s power and privilege firmly intact. This is not all rainbows and puppy dogs (or shoofly pies and pfeffernusse) for the Humble one. The downside being that in making space so habitually for others you end up losing sight of your own self. I am here to testify.

We all have these journeys, if we choose to take them, to sort through the muck and recover our intuitive selves. Some people are more in touch with their mucks. I am trying to be very in touch with my muck. I would warn you not to go it alone, but it’s part of the deal. You can only go at it alone.

Martyr's Mirror Comes Home

Martyr’s Mirror Comes Home by Amanda K Gross

Everyday my Mennonite Humble muck seeps through. Most recently this has developed into a passive, reactionary way of being in the world. I have been letting circumstances direct my decisions. I have been hanging back to observe what is. I have been graciously allowing others to go first, to put themselves out there, to take the risk, to show themselves, to set the standard and the tone. I have been hesitant in my confidence. In an effort to right rigidity and extend relationship, I have neglected the development of my vision. I have forgotten to discern my preferences and to declare my desires. I have overlooked my strengths.

My Mennonite Humble stems from a deep fear of imposition, of colonization, of not wanting to do harm. But in all of this not, I am harming myself. It is an illusive haven of stagnation. I do not have to take risks. I do not have to give up the privilege of Mennonite Humble thus I do not have to change. My Mennonite Humble takes swords and turns them into ploughshares. Ploughs being the primary weapon of genocide used by my peaceful agrarian ancestors in the colony of Pennsylvania against the indigenous population. When Mennonite Humble no longer works and when Mennonite Humble never did, what’s a white girl to do?

It is time to call on my creativity, my passion, and my deft ability to brainstorm long lists. It is time to get in the kitchen and (vegetarian) stew. It is time to sit still and listen to my center. It is time to move some furniture out the way. It is time to make space for me.

Hibernation by Amanda K Gross

Hibernation by Amanda K Gross

*A shoutout to my housemates for identifying this pattern of settling in my life.

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.

A Resurrection Vision

written by Amanda Gross

This week I read an article entitled “White People Have No Place in Black Liberation.” by Kevin Rigby Jr. and Hari Ziyad. The period at the end of the title adds weight to the finality of white people’s place in Black Liberation and so as one of those White People, I approached reading the article with the appropriate trepidation. And it was a hard one to read.

The authors write:

We want whiteness banished to history—to an other-space of that which is unknown and impossible. There is no way in which whiteness can move that is freeing or liberating for Black people, so there is no way for white people to free or liberate. Whiteness is indivisible from white people. To identify as white is to claim the social structure of whiteness, is to always wade in the waters of anti-Blackness…. White people cannot exist as white and do anything to address racism, because whiteness in action is racism.” 

This I can follow intellectually, but to let myself feel what it means is painful truth. Race has never been neutral. It was constructed as a hierarchy in order to oppress. White people can’t be separated from whiteness. As a white person, I can’t be separated from whiteness. My existence as white is racism is the barrier to Black Liberation not part of the process.

Four Part Harmony - Mixed media painting by Amanda K Gross

Four Part Harmony – Mixed media painting by Amanda K Gross

Last night I was in conversation about cultural appropriation with a group of white ladies who are collectively working to undo racism. We sat around my dining room table and reflected on the ways we’ve been part of culture stealing and identity claiming in part to fill our own void of culture and identity. The typical white lady questions ensued as we unpacked this realization – What exactly did we do wrong? How could we do things differently and better? Is it possible to live in this world as us and not culturally appropriate? (No.) If not, then what can be done?

Rigby and Ziyad speak to this too.

“There is no answer to the question of what white people can do for Black liberation, but racism veils reality so easily and efficiently. It is anti-reality. It makes the impossible seem not only possible, but a worthwhile endeavor. It truly does keep you, as Toni Morrison said, “from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again.

The dilemma of what white people should do to address racism has the same exhausting function of racism, because this dilemma is racism. Because for white people “to do” anything means that whiteness must be centered in a way that would perpetuate its oppressive essentiality. There is nothing redeeming or redeemable about whiteness—by definition. Only the radical negation of it is helpful or freeing.”

This the deadly oxymoron of being one of the White People. That whiteness stands in direct contradiction to personhood, to being human. That doing anything centers whiteness and perpetuates oppression, while not doing anything means the same, because the agency of Whiteness is more of the same oppression, and so is the denial of that agency. What this really means is that all my good little white girl strategies are blowing up in my face. That all my white liberal good intentions are toxic. That my attempts to be better at anti-racism as a White Lady are a failure before they even begin.

And if this realization about the violence of my agency isn’t scary enough, the authors offer only one specific example of a white person being an effective vessel for Black Liberation:

“Even John Brown, the white abolitionist who was executed in 1859 after leading an insurrection against pro-slavery forces, furthered the legacy of the likes of Nat Turner and other Black folks who fought and died for their own freedom before him. We must be sure in recognizing that dying for freedom did not begin with Brown, was not his legacy to create. Though perhaps in death, in a significant sacrifice of self, he and those like him have shed light on what it could mean to give up whiteness for good. When whiteness is so seeped into your being, might giving it up necessitate a threat to one’s safety and existence?”

Thanks to this article and the work of countless writers, artists, organizers, educators,  and mentors of color who have contributed to my evolving understanding, I am just beginning to peek at what this might mean. And more importantly, I am beginning to feel it. To sit with the painful reality of whiteness being seeped in my being, and to resist the urge to throw myself a big, giant, life-long pity party, with cake and all my best white lady friends and tissues and balloons. But instead of pity parties, I am stepping into a journey that might lead me to John Brown’s shoes. In working to give up my whiteness, I am choosing a threat to my own safety and existence in a physical and existential way.

This Land is White Land - Adhesive Bandages on Fabric

This Land is White Land – Adhesive Bandages on Fabric by Amanda K Gross

Who am I? That is the question that I am grappling with on this journey. The more I learn about the ways I’ve internalized white supremacy, the more I identify how I’ve been shaped by it and the ways it has informed my personality, my actions, my decisions, my preferences, my sense of self, the more I struggle to separate myself from whiteness, because I quite literally embody it. The carefulness and perfectionism I have learned through growing up the good little white girl in the corner of a predominantly Black classroom is one external layer that both makes me who I am and keeps me from being me. The self-righteousness of Mennonite Humble that I learned weekly at church and daily at home is another layer of collective identity that gives me a culture beyond white, but is also where my deepest lessons about faith-based, do-gooder colonization and the superiority status of knowing The Truth come from. Some say Mennonites can’t dance, but every day I dance the white American Mennonite legacy of intentional self-effacing and humble self-righteousness lacking the confidence to shirk off both and act from my intuition. The ruthless winner and unique artist are inside me too and make up layers of my internal tissue built on individualism and competition that distort my own humanity as I act them out through distorting the humanity of others. Inside me, whiteness is already a threat to my spiritual safety and existence. It threatens my humanity, my spirit, and my soul inside of me everyday.

But it’s also not possible to just do this work on the inside. The temptation of me trying is where middle-class whiteness takes the lead. Whiteness was a trade with the devil for material benefits (often very little), or in the case of poor whites, for the illusion of the potential of material benefits, in exchange for our souls.

In Noel Ignatiev’s book How the Irish Became White, Ignatiev describes Philadelphia County in the 1830s in which “black people, Irish, and native poor could literally live on top of one another.” In painting a picture of this point in history, Ignatiev tells a story of two families living side by side, one Black and one Irish where “the women wash clothes together at the well they share in the courtyard, and exchange news, complaints, and household advice. In emergencies, they care for each other’s children. Both families are desperately poor…”

“A riot breaks out and a mob sweeps through the miserable street like some natural force. The word reaches the Irish woman; if she puts a burning candle in the window, her house will be spared. She does, and it is. The next morning she comes out to discover her next door neighbor weeping at the pile of rubble in front of her door that was once her bed, table, and dishes. What can the Irishwoman say to her neighbor? That she is sorry? When the black woman looks at her reproachfully because her home was spared, will she feel guilty? And if so, how long will it take for her guilt to be replaced by resentment and rationalization?”

The Irishwoman’s choice is clear. She chooses the physical safety of her home and family over collective struggle, simultaneously separating herself from and elevating herself above her neighbors. In lighting the candle, she activates her privilege and suppresses her human empathy. At the end of the back in the day and often in the course of one generation, people who could choose to become white to protect their physical safety, and existence did so actively. And while most of today’s white people didn’t make that explicit choice, we have inherited its legacy and it is ours to undo. Giving up whiteness means giving up material privilege that whiteness has afforded us.  And for many poor white folks, those material goods were the promise of whiteness yet to appear.

I know not all white people were brought up on Jesus, but many of us were, including me. After reading Rigby and Ziyad’s writing, it occurred to me that this is a resurrection story. My Mennonite faith tradition cannot be dissected from the evils of whiteness that 300 years of being of European descent on this colonized land brings. As my awareness of structural violence within my historic peace church has grown, I have distanced myself from my own faith tradition, but now I am slowly starting to reach for what inside of that mess might help restore my humanity.

Whiteness - Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Whiteness – Adhesive Bandages on Lace by Amanda K Gross

Part of the mystery and the beauty of the resurrection story that I was brought up on is that death didn’t happen with the assurance of resurrection. The resurrection story is flinging yourself off of the cliff without knowing if there’s water beneath because flinging yourself off of the cliff is the only thing to do.

In destroying our whiteness, we must destroy a part of our selves, but we are destroying a part of ourselves so that we can have life. This is for me a very important and necessary reclaiming of the resurrection story – a story that has been used to justify individualism, self-righteousness, and corporate greed. One that has been used to justify colonization and the non-profit industrial complex, and white teachers in urban public schools, and international adoption. This for me is a reclaiming of a tradition and faith that is my cultural legacy. It is part of my history. The resurrection story is not an excuse so that someone else can do our work for us, or there so that in self-sacrifice for others we center ourselves in the glory of martyrdom. Understanding the resurrection story as an American White Lady in 2016, this way gives the resurrection story real meaning for my own salvation.

There is no resurrection without crucifixion. There is no whiteness without white people.