I’ve been in and out of Mennonite spaces for several years, but earlier this year I had a chance to connect with the awesome leadership at Mennonite Women in Leadership and was honored to be invited to share my perspective in a guest blog post.
It was a little overwhelming to have to narrow down some thoughts to 800 words (Okay… it ended up closer to 1,200), but I was pleased by where the process took me. I got to share a little bit about how some of the ruptures from conflict in my early childhood church are being repaired and transformed. I also got to consider how toxic shame is a racialized trauma response for white Mennonites.
Some of my friends were surprised to hear this due to my lack of theological training and general skepticism of religious institutions. But perhaps a lesser known factoid about the Mennos (and Anabaptists more broadly) is that there is a solid lineage of any and all believers being legitimate vessels of spiritual messages. And, in the many cases when that profound lineage hasn’t been squashed by The Patriarchy, you and even I might get invited to give a sermon on a Sunday in August.
This was actually not my first time giving a sermon at a Mennonite church, but it was a very special invitation; the result of a lovely several-year ongoing anti-racist organizing relationship with Bethany Davey that started at the 2018 Mennonite Women Doing Theology Conference (okay, maybe I’m more invested in theology and church stuff than I originally let on). It was also very special, because it was the most integrated service I’ve ever participated in.
I’ve copied the sermon text below, but to really experience the full service, hop on over to Columbus Mennonite’s page and scroll down to August 15th. There you can watch a recording of the service which includes movement, breath, visuals, and words.
Why Mennonites Can’t Dance: Co-Creating Embodied Resilience for the Beloved Community
Scripture and I have a pretty complicated relationship.
Of course there’s the ways it has been used deliberately against me: justifying my father’s authority as the “spiritual head of the household” or condemning my sexuality. Those spiritual traumas have become obvious to me now after 37 and a half years on this earth in the body of a cis-white woman. Those abuses, at least at this point in my life, are easy frames for me to reject, the motivations seem obvious to me now: the desire to control feminized and queer bodies, a deep-seated fear that indigenous ways of knowing would threaten the structures of colonized power.
Over the years, I have developed several techniques to protect myself from the ways scripture gets used against me. Much of that came through surviving a childhood family unit in which one of my parents strongly adhered to theological sexism. (and still does.) Mainly, I have learned to remove my body from communities that would put her in danger and also to limit my engagement with my father, knowing that interacting with him will inevitably require me to do the emotional labor of constantly establishing and re-establishing boundaries and potentially be retraumatized.
I have a clarity in being victimized within these dynamics that while uncomfortable is somewhat comforting in its familiarity. It brings up in me what one of my mentors, Felicia Savage Friedman, would call “righteous rage.” This generational rage feels hot in my body and travels quickly and directly, like lightning. When skillfully directed, I can smite like one of the God of the Old Testament’s greatest hits.
But there are other times when my relationship to scripture is more complicated, when the energy running through my body gets stuck at that stubborn knot in my upper right trapezius or ends up churning around in my digestional track.
Like the one time when I was seven and had just learned about the story of Esther in Sunday School. I was excited, overjoyed even. Finally, a female biblical character with agency! Finally, a protagonist with whom I could identify!
In my loudly relational way, I left the Sunday School room and skipped through the church education building letting every adult in sight know how thrilled I was that there was a book in the bible written by a woman. Standing by the front door, on my way to the sanctuary, an elder in the church, also my friend’s grandpa, quickly corrected my nonsense. The story of Esther was not written by a woman, he said in a matter-of-fact tone, in fact, there are no books in the bible written by women. And also, why would you expect such a thing?
Disappointment. Devastation. Ultimate betrayal. My shoulders dropped and my pace slowed. How could a community that nurtured my gifts undermine me so severely?
In the Mennonite church of my upbringing in the heart of Atlanta, I learned that scripture is always a compromise. At church I learned there were things to be loud and things to be silent about. At church I learned to quiet my joy and contain myself because scripture did not have my back. At church I learned to repress the wisdom of my own body, to lower my shoulders when my joy wasn’t real.
At church I learned that the disappointment only comes when I open myself up to it. Since then, building up strong defenses has served me to reclaim my sense of Self. So why then in preparing to share a message with you, would I want to open myself up to the potential violence of 1 Kings 2:10–12, 1 Kings 3:3–14, and John 6:51–58 or whatever else my lectionary google search results turned up for Sunday August 15th?
Or, for that matter, why would I want to make myself vulnerable to challenging my own narrative of victimhood? What would be the benefit of digging into the places I carry my self-protective tension, like that knot, which is not-so-coincidentally located in the same place as where my mother stores her stress, also her mother before her? What would be the value of paying for a deep tissue massage or remembering to lift my arms and open my chest several times a day? Why would I care to reopen my heart?
Or to reach into the culture that helped shape who I have become: why would I want to mess with the self-soothing and long-held narrative of righteous persecution that led my Swiss German ancestors to this land? What would motivate me to skip loudly through the church education building proclaiming that scripture granted safe passage to my ancestors in 1709 at the direct expense of the Lenape and Susquehannock people? Why would I tell every adult in sight about how the governor of Virginia strategically invited Mennonites as “loyal foreign Protestants” to be the buffer between righteously enraged indigenous organizers and one of the first colonial assemblies to legalize whiteness?
Relatedly, this scriptural history happened on the very land where I now sit, on land that has educated me with more than one degree. (and also educated my parents, my aunt and uncle, my brother, several cousins, and one grandparent.) This land stolen from the Monacan people, was settled as much by pacifist ploughs as militia guns, and on which a 16-foot sculpture of a giant plough made from reclaimed handguns bursts through the land. The sculpture, located 4 blocks up the street on Eastern Mennonite University campus, is called “Guns into Ploughshares,” an artistic statement by Esther and Michael Augsburger against one type of violence, but in ignorance of another wholly interconnected form.
A part of me is curious what my friend’s grandpa would say to these particular responses to scripture’s use. What justification might be called on to muddle the clarity of a seven-year old’s righteous rage? What guilt or shame spirals might be invoked so that the church community would not have to feel the pain of being part oppressor? Which genre of silence might be practiced in order to pass the grieving process off onto the next generation? Which aspects of healing might be denied, instead choosing what so many past generations have, in the more familiar embodiment of fear?
I wonder where this fear and silence has lived in the bodies of my ancestors? Where has it lived in the bodies of their congregations? Where does it live in us now?
For me, usually the multigenerational silence cycles around in my chest cavity. Like a cyclone in a valley, its fast winds bump up against the edges of my ribcage. It too, wants out, but I have learned as yet another self-protective technique, to contain it close to my heart.
There is a tool I use in anti-racist organizing called the “4Ds.” If you have something to write on and write with, you can draw four D’s nested one inside the other.
In preparing to be with y’all here today, my first D appeared in the form of denial. I have preached a couple times before, each time in spaces where scripture was more or less optional. So when I was asked to share a message, it didn’t even occur to me to start with scripture. Actually it was a non-religious friend who asked with some hesitation, if preaching meant that I’d be interpreting the bible.
Distancing showed up as a close second as I kept the possibility of scripture at a long arm’s length. I put off thinking about it. I half-heartedly poked around the Mennonite Matriarchy Facebook group to see what the groovy theologically-inclined grandmas were posting about.
Deference snuck in, sneaky as it usually does. Okay (I felt a sense of obligation). Maybe they won’t take me seriously if I don’t at least pretend to care about the bible. Then my inner good little white girl remembered the sticker charts from Sunday School. Ooooh how I love a gold star!
And when I ultimately did my google search and read the words, defensiveness showed up strong and mighty and with a glint of sarcasm. This 1st Kings author is totally sucking up to David, pretending that he was all righteous and Godly when we know he abused his power and was about that rape culture life. And then there’s the Gospel passage, the one that’s supposed to be subverting the old-world order, is just perpetuating a 2,000 year-old tired trope that co-opts the divine feminine in the role of creation. This is very unoriginal material here. People with uteruses have been bleeding to give life for as long as humans have existed, and those same humans have literally been feeding human children from their bodies for just as long. All of a sudden, we’re supposed to reorient life-giving to a distanced father figure and male savior? I think not!
But the years of yoga practice and following my body’s urges to take breaks, is beginning to soften something. Also heeding the advice of Black women has helped, like Alice Walker who reminds us “to take what you need and let the rest rot” along with indigenous frameworks uplifting the wisdom of the earth which is reminding me in this moment that composting transforms the stinkiest of rotting vegetables into nutrition for future generations.
I looped back through the scriptures another time and reminded myself that I’m the one who chose to engage with them. I released a big sigh and then realized that it’s not all a wash. I’m drawn to the themes of lineage and David resting with his ancestors. Hopefully an elder is giving him a talking to. I’m appreciating that Solomon did his own thing, following his dad’s path “except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places,” kind of like how I burn incense and my father gets suspicious. I’m nodding my head to the focus on discernment, a current and constant theme in my work and life, discerning when and what to name and how far to push anti-racist change. And I am absolutely all about the flesh and blood images, which feel like a direct connect to bodies and healing in the body, which is really where I intend this sermon to land.
At any rate, the Solomon asking for discernment passage is reminding me of a particular summer vacation bible school moment when we made stick figures out of felt. I loved all things crafty. I made him robed in felted finery with sequins and positioned him on a throne, as the “wise judge.” But that one story about the women with the baby never felt right to me. I can feel the deep disgust in the pit of my gut right now at the thought of a man in power suggesting that a baby get split in two.
It’s reminding me that the divine wisdom I’m interested in is relocated in the body, in my body, and comes out warped when administered as abstract justice from a distanced position of power and privilege, which is making me curious about the cost to Solomon and about our interconnectedness and responsibility in this co-creation of Beloved Community.
Dr. Joy DeGruy’s writings in Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome was one of the first places I learned about the interlocking traumas of victims and perpetrators, of both the oppressed and the oppressors.
Quoting Dr. Joy: “These crimes are perpetuated in a seemingly never-ending cycle… For who can be truly human under the weight of oppression that condemns them to a life of torment, robs them of a future, and saps their free will? Moreover, who can become truly human when they gain so much from the pain and suffering of those whom they oppress and/or take advantage of?…”
Her groundbreaking work describes Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome as “a condition that exists when a population has experienced multigenerational trauma resulting from centuries of slavery and continues to experience oppression and institutionalized racism today.”
Dr. Joy builds off of the more familiar concept of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to unpack a pattern of behaviors and beliefs impacting those who were enslaved, their communities, and their descendants. She later posits that white people have also been impacted by this traumatic legacy of multigenerational violence, racial superiority, and the justification of “500 years of trauma and dehumanization [that Europeans and their descendants] and their institutions produced.”
To paraphrase Dr. Joy, if there is a Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, then there must be a Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome.
Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome – the ways in which the multigenerational perpetration of physical and structural violence, the internalization of superiority based on race, and its corresponding belief system that afflicted and continues to afflict the racial descendants of slave masters, read: those of us who have come to be called white – is not entirely mine to unpack, but a very (inter)connected piece of it – Post-Traumatic Mistress Syndrome – most definitely is.
My work on Mistress Syndrome (for short) focuses on the multigenerational inherited trauma at the intersections of race, gender, and class for status quo and passing white ladies like myself and that historical legacy, yet to be undone is a collective struggle which is both specific to white women and also entirely connected to Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome in an interlocking and overlapping partnership that has kept violence unnamed, normalized, and securely in place both inside and outside our white houses.
As Dr. Joy writes: “Those who have been the perpetrators of these unspeakable crimes and those who continue to benefit from those crimes, have to honestly confront their deeds and heal from the psychic wounds that come with being the cause and beneficiaries of such great pain and suffering.”
This is why understanding racism through the lens of trauma healing is so helpful. Trauma is not just a thing that individual victims experience, but a collective dynamic that whole societies and communities are impacted by, including those communities responsible for the traumatic events. Trauma impacts us all because we are all connected.
Rachel MacNair’s work on Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), draws our attention to the impact on the perpetrator of violence. MacNair compiles studies revealing that a high percentage of soldiers in war either avoid shooting or intentionally shoot off target when in close physical contact with the assigned enemy, especially when eye contact is involved. In an effort to adjust for this, the U.S. Army altered training methods to desensitize and condition soldiers with denial and defense mechanisms (2 of those 4 Ds). While this adjustment resulted in more efficient shooting “in the short term,” according to MacNair, it “also contributed to greater psychological costs in the long run.”
Which may help explain why Mennonites can’t dance.
One of the problems with the racialization of white in this unhuman system of value is that being more than human is impossible. To be human is to be imperfect. So of course a system of racialization results in the constant fear of not being enough. As long as our value lies in the extrinsic measurement of an inhumane system, we can and we will never ever be enough.
Whiteness too, as it turns out, was founded on fear.
“…how bodies move, breathe, think, feel, and know themselves within a culture.”
I’ve begun to realize how my cultural somatic context has been shaped by whiteness through exposure to embodied spiritual practices that don’t come from my ancestry. Recently, I was at one such training that was all about being in body. I love to dance, which is something I’ve cultivated more or less at different times in my life. I was at this training addressing trauma and healing and we were being taught samba and house steps and I was loving it and building confidence and fully participating.
At the end we formed a circle and each person danced in the middle, something done in slightly different ways in many cultures. It was a freestyle moment—to share and celebrate each of our human individuality in the middle of the collective circle with everyone watching and cheering on. Needless to say, it was a very supportive environment.
When it was my turn, I froze. I refused to jump in the middle like a stubborn four-year-old. Panic set in. Then, after everyone had had their turn, it came back to me, again. I reluctantly schooched to the middle and did whatever came to my body. There was instant release and I burst into tears and fled the space. It was uncomfortable in so many ways.
As I was outside in the courtyard bawling white lady tears of humiliation and release, I reflected on dancing in my tradition, or rather the absence of it. The trainer shared about how the Black Panthers would celebrate together after an intense day of organizing by dancing. I was furious and incredibly sad that there was no such tradition of dancing for me to draw on. In fact, Mennonites of Swiss German ancestry historically forbade dancing.
For generations we have lost this profoundly human way of knowing… and healing. In my Mennonite subculture, so much of celebration and pleasure is seen as evil—sex, play, really anything that is not productive is either sinful or a waste of time (which is also sinful). Under the cultural somatic context of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy all of our bodies in one way or another have been reduced to being valued in terms of work—reproduction, physical labor, competitive sports, pragmatic nurture. Our bodies are forced to prove their worth.
The circle moment was both terrifying and liberating for me and there were many witnesses.
And some of us wonder why white Mennonites can’t dance.
This is not to say that individual white Mennonite can’t dance—there are many exceptions we could name. I, myself, although not a skilled dancer, have decent rhythm, am quick to pick up new dance moves, and generally enjoy dancing, even though my ancestors swore it off and there is no cultural tradition in my family.
I attribute my affinity to dance mainly to the multiculturalist and Afro-centric movements pervasive in Atlanta’s pre-K–12th grade during my childhood. And even with a childhood of multicultural exposure, the confidence and ability to freestyle (especially with witnesses) generates in me initial alarm and lingering dread. For the collective of white folks, there is a way that the inability to dance and dance without inhibition (yet still in rhythm with the music) is a direct product of embodied racism.
Tada Hozumi draws connections between trauma and anatomy and especially the role of the iliopsoas, which they describe as:
The deeper I dig, the more I am feeling how white womanhood, as a microcosm of whiteness, is trauma in the form of dissociation from the body. Uncomfortably for me, healing means getting out of the comfort zone of my intellect and into the awkwardness of my body. It means less reading and more public hip wriggling.
What I get most from Hozumi’s article is not the identification of embodied trauma (although this is certainly a helpful framework) but rather the invitation through their own experience to discomfort in our bodies as a means of healing.
This call to discomfort flips a white-centric understanding of healing on its head (like a breakdance move or a headstand). The vulnerability of appearing unskilled and out-of-control, the awkwardness of getting it wrong, the discomfort in not being dominant or centered in the ways we have been taught to expect, and the call to notice, feel, and be fully in the icky newness that comes with dancing while white Mennonite will not be found in a how to manual, or the diligence of hard work. The revolution is not in perfecting an anti-racist Beloved Community. It is in the embarrassing, unpleasant, uncoordinated movements of Mennonites, in community, learning to dance[MOU5] .
For me, this is directly connected to relocating discernment as integrated with the body, our individual bodies, and our collective ones. We can, like Solomon ask for discernment. But will we be able to feel it? Discernment towards Beloved Community is not just a cognitive exercise, it is the knowledge of our guts, the history of who and what brought our guts into being, the guts of others that all around us keep our guts fed and healthy, and the future of our guts when we are dead and gone.
Last month, I was honored to be invited to write for the Menno Snapshot Blog of Mennonite Church USA.
Having dreamt of being invited to address a vast audience of Mennonite white folks, I wanted to say so much. It took me several drafts to find words that resonated with how I was thinking and feeling at that July 2020 moment, especially about how I’m feeling about and grappling with my inner oppressor. The theme of befriending the parts of our selves we don’t love and which are also connected to oppression has also been present in our recent work in White Women’s Groups (you can read their blog here).
Ultimately, here’s how I decided to approach the opportunity of examining my white Anabaptist identity in a society where racism is infused at every level, including inside of me.
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.
The need to be liked is powerful in the white lady. It is an ego-driven urge that lies in wait covered up by dirty laundry and clean clothes, hidden from my consciousness until its rotting smell wafts up and out. It calls out to be reckoned with at the most inconvenient of moments.
I know where it comes from. Forged in the bowels of patriarchy, being liked is substitute currency that white ladies have developed over time. In my personal cultural and religious tradition, the opposite of being liked – in the form of shunning – is the equivalent of hell on earth. Exclusionary shunning has been called upon to exclude people from heaven, from community, from relationship, from justice, and from legitimacy. Its threat so powerful that the subconscious under toe of the possibility of not being liked drives our decisions and emotional responses. White ladies developed this manipulative tactic in the face of power disparities, but now its primary function is to manipulate ourselves.
cycles of trauma mirrors; digital collage and painting by Amanda K Gross
For much of my life, the fear of not being liked has helped direct my words and my actions. I was obsessed with this external compass as a teenager. I rationalized my self-talk as being as kind and nice as possible to everyone as a good Christian should be. I told myself that this was how I was showing love. After years of therapy and grappling with an eating disorder, I was able to recognize the patterns of cultivating smallness in myself, but they still have a powerful hold. Later as a young adult, wanting to be liked was my go-to in times of stress. Even as I increasingly exercised my voice and spoke my truth, there was still this nagging, grating sensation that in so doing I was forfeiting my safety or my power or both. Something was getting lost in this (ex)change. And something is getting lost in this (ex)change. My ego is struggling to survive.
As an adult, I have been trying to reclaim my intuition by diving through both the dirty laundry and the clean clothes to dust off the small voice of truth at my core. But even when I polish it up and place it shiny on the shelf for all to see, I still hear the fear of not being liked. It’s usually telling me to get defensive and blame others, because I am speaking my truth and that should be enough for you. (But is it enough for me?) It’s whispering to me that I’m the victim when others don’t receive my truth without resistance, when they don’t hear what I intended clearly, when they don’t step out the way for my truth’s glory, when they don’t celebrate my truth as I have been working so hard to do.
Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross
Recently this dynamic has happened especially when I am in direct conflict with others. Conflict with others is something I was taught to run from at all cost. Being in conflict is uncomfortable. All of my ancestors are screaming at me inside my head and inside my bones to flee the scene. But I have been pushing through because my intuition is valuable, because my life’s work is about conflict, because many of my ancestors were wrong, and because (reality check) conflict is a normal part of everyday existence. I can run, but conflict will find me again and again.
Even in the midst of these conflicts, after I have spoken my truth, clarified my perspective, and applied our collective agreements, something still stinks. In one recent example, my truth wasn’t received, instead it was warped and repackaged to fit the other person’s reality and spit back in my face. Or at least that’s the story I’m telling you because it’s the story I’m telling me, which is really a story of my wounded ego. I may think that I am over caring what people think, I may be more comfortable with interpersonal conflict than ever before, but deep down I still have attachment to how they will talk about me to others, to the injustices of my being shaped by rumor to strangers and not out of direct relationship to me.
Victim, Villain, Heroine; Acrylic and Ink on Transparency by Amanda K Gross
While the need to be liked is not directing my words and my deeds like it once did, it still lingers. And like other aspects of our socialization into whiteness, it is most dangerous when I think I have arrived. It is a convenient nook to store anger, frustration, exhaustion, and sadness. It is convenient to let the stench seep through in societally approved tearful claims of victimhood. But it’s in the cleaning up and the sifting through that I am offered the lessons that were meant for me. It is in the letting go of control of wanting to be liked that I can undo and unlearn the habits that hold my Self back, to stay in the discomfort and not give into my ancestor’s urge to flee.
My grandmother was recently moved to an assisted living facility. At 92 and 2/3rds, she now has a 250 square foot space (actually intended for double occupancy) all to herself, that has a view of the mountains and a bird feeder with it cheery seasonal flag. It was hard to visit her.
Driving south through West Virginia, the snow fall began. After an hour of hazardous conditions and a couple of tense moments, I arrived at her home in the mountains, the countryside blanketed in a fresh 12-inch coat of snow. The mid-March snow cover in its equanimity hid both the carcasses of last night’s roadkill and spring’s daffodil starts.
Snow White 2; Photo by Amanda K Gross
I was in denial too. My last visit had been in November and the one before that 11 months previous. My phone calls to her were becoming fewer and farther between as her memory and conversational skills began to disintegrate. Sure, I’ve had my reasons – busyness, work schedule, distance, unreliable transportation – there are always excellent reasons! But the impact remains: my not wanting to look at the painful truth of her aging has furthered her isolation.
Nannie with the Strawberries; Photo by Amanda K Gross
She was always the strong one, of the Pop & Nannie pair. Not overly warm, soft, or cuddly like my other grandma, Nannie was no-nonsense, get-to-work, and reliable in the way that shouted her love from the mountaintops. She was always so sturdy and stable – a rock and sometimes a hard place. Now her balance and mobility falter and her heart is cracking open, too.
Since I have been praying to be a truth-seeker, revelations are following me around everywhere I go.
The night of my arrival my mother somewhat matter-of-factly handed me an article during dinner. “I thought this might interest you,” she said, as I quickly skimmed the evidence that our Mast cousins who had “disappeared as Mennonite” after mid 1700 migration from Switzerland to Pennsylvania to North Carolina did indeed enslave humans and also raped them. “Kinship Concealed: Amish-Mennonite & African American Family Connections” co-written by my 12th-ish cousin, Dwight Roth who is white and by my also 12th-ish cousin, Sharon Cranford who is Black, challenges decades of Mennonite denial around our connection to and participation in slavery.*
“Sharon Cranford portrayal of the Charlie Mast legacy” article by Paul Kurtz
What an incredibly horrible and profoundly delicious fate. I chose the title Mistress Syndrome to align my white lady identity with the legacy of the mistress of the antebellum plantation because I reap the privileges (and the pain) of her legacy today whether my biological ancestors enslaved people or not. Turns out they did. In my delusion of control, I thought that I had cleverly chosen Mistress Syndrome, but clearly she chose me.
This feels like confession and I’m not even Catholic.**
WWG3 Family History Altar; Photo by Amanda K Gross
In other do-gooder narrative-shattering news, European Mennonites had an affinity for Nazism. I first learned a piece of this shushed history last year reading Ben Goossen’s article entitled “Mennonite Fascism“. But then, this week while gazing out across the snowy mountain view, I read a Facebook post from a former professor that there was enough of this history for an entire academic conference on it. Her post shares her learnings from the conference which “feels like a betrayal of everything Mennonites are supposed to stand for…”:
“• German racial scientists used Mennonite church records and measured Mennonite noses and foreheads to prove Mennonites were “the purest Aryans”
• Some Mennonite theologians advocated for racial theology in which “morals pass through blood” and race mixing was forbidden
• Some Mennonites in Poland and Russia joined the Nazis in evicting Jews from their homes and some even participated in massacres
• Mennonite refugees sometimes were given land, homes, furniture, and clothing from Jews who had been forced into ghettos or killed
• Some Mennonites hid Jews and participated in challenging Nazi authority. At Yad Vashem in Israel, there are about 40 Dutch Mennonites who are listed as part of the Righteous of the Nations for taking risks to save Jews
• There are stories of Mennonite-Jewish mixed marriages as many Mennonites and Jews lived side by side in many European countries.
• In one case, a Mennonite woman decides to die with her Jewish husband and children rather than hiding with the Mennonite community
• Mennonite Central Committee purposefully portrayed Mennonite Nazi war criminals as refugees after the war, denying their German identity and asserting that Mennonites had their own nationality and deserved a state in Paraguay, just as Jews were creating Israel
• Some Mennonites brought these theories of racial superiority to Canada and the US. There were Mennonite Nazis in church leadership in Canada. And the white nationalist movement was started by Ben Klassen, who coined the term “racial holy war” after having grown up in a Mennonite colony in Ukraine and reading Mein Kampf there.”
It is tempting to want to remember the heroic tidbits and throw the villainous ones away. We hold all of these identities – victim, villain, and heroine – within us, at the same time.
We are living in a time of uncomfortable revelation. If we listen and absorb, it might change our lives.
Snow White; Photo by Amanda K Gross
But denial runs deep. I see it in myself and I see it in the white ladies. Like the February story link “Virginia Missionary Pleads Guilty to Widespread Sexual Abuse in Haiti” that sat unopened on my browser for weeks because I suspected he was a Virginia Mennonite Missionary (he was), like the carcasses under the snow, like the slight stench of urine that permeates my grandma’s newfound assisted life, I don’t really want to know. It is easier or habitual or a privilege to ignore it and leave the clean up to the paid help. It is easier to recite the narrative of victim and heroine, to post our chosen trauma and chosen glories*** on social media and write letters of support in order to demonstrate our righteousness. It is easier to claim the territory of anti-racism rather than take responsibility for our actions. It is easier, but is it healthier?
Confrontation is not a Mennonite value or a white liberal one. I have internalized that being in open conflict is wrong (because violence is wrong) and bad (because everyone should like me) and that superficial harmony is preferred and also rewarded with the trinkets of white womanhood. So to be confronted so specifically with a personal inheritance of Slavery, Systematic Rape, the Holocaust, Colonization, Missionary Imperialism, Systematic Rape of Children, and my Grandmother’s Decay all in one month feels overwhelming. It is painful to feel and also sometimes I feel numb. In response, I make art and write blog posts late at night.
Collage detail by Amanda K Gross
But what keeps me (on most days) from wallowing in the quick sand of self-pity, what keeps me from ten thousand excellent reasons to turn my head, what keeps me from luxuriating in the rabbit hole of rationalized self-care is ACCOUNTABILITY. A six syllable monster of a word that is not as scary as it sounds. Actually in my experience it has been a relief.
Right beside my feeling of overwhelm and grief is the recognition of the humans at the receiving end of my bloody inheritance, the impact of which is not so neatly in the past. Knowing this keeps me grounded. Being in relationship keeps me focused. Knowing that people suffer today because of my contributions – whether current or historical – gives me an opportunity at redemption. Every breath-filled moment I have on this earth is a chance for renewal. While much of it has been written, I get to add chapters to Mistress Syndrome’s legacy every single day.
Collage detail by Amanda K Gross
I have accountability to others and I have accountability to myself. I know from experience that denial is a form of self-harm, that repressing and ignoring trauma does not make their effects go away, that running only amasses more of whatever I was running from. I confront in order to save my Self.
Collage detail by Amanda K Gross
The confusing thing that we must learn as white ladies is that our contributions lie not in the heroism (heroinism?) of the helper’s cape, but in our ability to shovel away the snow where there will certainly be both carcasses and daffodils. We must go through it. There is so much snow to shovel that it is not an individual task, but one we must go through together. The shame, the pain, the misery, the excuses, the mental illness, the greener grass, the fear of vulnerability will seek to divide us and threaten our success (it already has). But my critical realism is ultimately optimistic. It has to be.
Chickens and Krokbragd; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross
*The article entitled “Sharon Cranford portrayal of the Charlie Mast legacy” was interesting in that its title left out the white co-author’s name (who is also portraying the Charlie Mast legacy) and that it was written by my great-uncle who has taken on the honored role of family historian since my great-grandfather – his father – passed.
**Catholic private confession grew in popularity at the same time as land privatization at time when the ruling class sought to undermine the social fabric and resistance of European peasants. It also made priests the middle men of community relationships and possible encouraged passive aggression and conflict avoidant behavior.
***I learned about chosen traumas and chosen glories from the Little Book of Trauma Healing and will be writing more on this theme in the upcoming book also entitled Mistress Syndrome.
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.
This is the third of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question: How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
WRITTEN BY Valerie Showalter
The Mennonite seminary where I attend as a student has relatively few pieces of art depicting the person of Jesus. In one of the prayer rooms, there is a reprint of an ancient icon of a brown-ish Jesus. This is the only image of Jesus in the areas accessed regularly by the public.
But, as you descend into the lower level of the seminary, back in the corner of the building where there are no windows, there is a room set aside for the student study. The room is full of little cubicles, musty biblical encyclopedias from the 1940s, and a few choice pieces of art. On one wall, four portraits of white men are lined up next to each other – Felix Mantz, Conrad Grebel, and George Blaurock, representing “proper” Mennonite heritage. And, finally, Charles Wesley is the fourth portrait, as a reminder that we’ve got a bunch of Methodist students around, too. On another wall, three pastel-y pictures portray classic, mid-20th century Sunday School images of Jesus.
Sallman – “Heart’s Door”
The seminary provides a metaphor for how I see white Mennonites separating ourselves from God. On the surface, in the public areas, we exude an openness to world expressions of the face of Christ. We display our one Greek Orthodox icon because if we’re going to have an image of Christ (which we have long called idolatry) out in public, it needs to show that we are world-savvy about the multiple expressions of Christ.
But when you enter the depths, the spaces where we form our identities, we tolerate a white Christianity because, at the core, we see Jesus as white. And, as long as that stays hidden as we accommodate personal tolerance to that “Truth,” we are caught like a frog in the hot water that boils around us, the heat turned up while we weren’t paying attention.* White Patriarchal Christianity subtly reinforces that we are dependent on it, not just through art, but through curriculum which is still dominated by western, white male academics. Of the assigned reading in any semester that I’ve been a student at this seminary, a gross majority of the books have been authored by white men. And so, white Christianity is reinforced, even when it is not intended.
When Amanda asked me to be a guest blogger on this series, the question “How does whiteness separate you from God” showed a leniency in my own awareness of my complicity as a white seminarian in a white Mennonite Institution. So the following observations – on Whiteness, Separation, and God — I name from my experience.
Whiteness Whiteness is my inescapable context. I was born with white skin in a culture that historically has championed a particular skin tone, a particular definition of “civilization” and “religion” and “enlightenment,” a preference for a particular hierarchy, and a particular structure to reinforce all of this. I take this socialization wherever I go, and in various situations, particularly where imperialist globalization has gone before me, it gives me particular power. I wish I could relinquish my Whiteness, and parts of it I can, though to do so means I am necessarily deprived of privileges I once enjoyed. This leads me to the next observation.
Separate First, I note the word “separate” in this question is used as a verb. Whiteness works to physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially, etc. distance us from God. Whiteness widens the gap, luring us away from God. Thus, a response to the separation between God and myself is necessarily a reaction to my Whiteness. The first thing I am invited to do is be aware that the water is heating up around me. Before I can react, I need to acknowledge that Whiteness is the primary actor in the first place. Where many white Mennonites get stuck is at this point: we can acknowledge that structurally-enforced Whiteness separates us from God and from Neighbor. Is that enough?
While this stance has long assuaged our guilt, now is the chance to react against our separation. In the Christian world, we have this notion of metanoia, which can be translated a variety of ways from its ancient Greek origins. It can mean a change of mind, repentance, or an inner change. There are opportunities or turning points from which we are invited to pivot. I can say over and over that I am sorry for the way Whiteness destroys people and the planet, but it means nothing if I do not change. If awareness produces acknowledgment, apology produces change.
Hofmann – “The Boy Jesus in the Temple”
God Christianity has a history of claiming that we are set apart, “wheat” separated from the “chaff” for God’s purposes and God’s glory. A chosen nation, a “city on a hill.” Let me be clear here: White Christianity is not Separate because God has chosen Us; it is separate because we have made for ourselves a white God in our image, who reinforces our supremacy. For me, this truth-telling and reaction is grounded in a belief in a God, who is Essence, Event, and Energy.** It is also what I – and all other white people – are separated from. If we have created a white god to worship, how does that inform our interpretation of the Two Greatest Commandments, which Jesus outlines as the basis for faithful living?
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul. I don’t get to name God, what God prefers, or how God orders or disorders the cosmos. God is “mine” because I have named the gulf I have created/inherited that separates me from God, which is my own investment in structures of patriarchy and oppression. The process of faithful engagement is to continue naming the gulf between self or community and God, because the prevailing forces of whiteness are so strong. If my experience of God is one that reinforces the privilege I have because I am white, I’ve missed the point.
Love your neighbor as yourself. As Amanda mentioned in her post on this, we do not get to name which people, which creatures do or don’t have Essence, Event, Energy. Whiteness prefers to craftily challenge that, creating a hierarchy in which white is the only true holder of the Divine, and those are the only neighbors we love. But have you noticed that perfect love drives out Whiteness?
Love notices that our neighbor is not our clone. (Things Jesus didn’t say: “Love your clone as yourself.”) The more difficult thing to do as white people is to relinquish who one must be in order to be worthy of love. I have a terrible history of picking and choosing who I think deserves my love, and in no small way does that reflect my complicit ownership of white privilege. In this way, I turn love into a currency, and I have inherited the power to choose where to spend my love (for the best return on investment.)
At the end of this all, who am I as a white lady seminarian in a white Mennonite institution? There are some things I can name: for too long, I’ve been uncritical of the books I let inform me within academia; for too long, I’ve supported patriarchal ethics that have not only ignored gender norms but racist norms as well; and for too long, I’ve not noticed how privilege itself has gotten me to this point, well on my way to a master’s degree. Like the seminary, these are the public areas of my identity that “exude an openness” to reflect on how I’m complicit in Whiteness.
But there is a host of things I struggle to name, particularly as I’ve moved back “home” to my white, Mennonite family in a largely white, Mennonite area. Without even trying, I can easily settle into a rural, white idyll, seeing only white friends and family while rolling my eyes at the neighbors with confederate flags. And spiritually, my whiteness here in the Shenandoah Valley means I don’t necessarily “need” God, because this is the location in which my white privilege is at its height and breadth. I can become my own little god because my white social networks effortlessly reinforce my blindness to my ingrained racism.
by Valerie Showalter
Yet, I sense that God is calling me out of my whiteness and into my utter humanity here at home. And I find that call is beyond frightening. The last thing I want is to be vulnerable, because “God forbid” I get uncomfortable (and discomfort is chaos for white Mennonites.) I wonder if “home” is where I will do my best work, and if so, I have a lurking suspicion this is where the work will be the hardest. I balk at the discomfort, the tireless work, and having to speak up. I balk at my whiteness, and I’m frightened of what God will say to me when I finally turn back to close the gulf.
*I’m aware this frog-in-boiling-water thing has been scientifically debunked. So, let’s embrace it as a literary metaphor.
**Essence, as in a similar concept to Amanda’s expression in her post, regarding Quaker and Christian Animism ideas that God’s Spirit is present in all things. Event, as this intangible idea suggested by John D. Caputo, in which God is revealed yet still being revealed, and that process itself is what we call God. Energy, as similar to Essence in that the Divine animates the universe. All are esoteric and incomplete, yet deeply personal and communal.
Valerie is a Masters of Divinity candidate at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and a part-time pastor at Shalom Mennonite Congregation. In her spare time, she gardens, drinks coffee, and is currently catching up on The Americans.
This is the third 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 and second in the series here and here.
This is the first 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. I (Amanda Gross) have written the first piece, with features from each guest blogger to follow, along with excerpts from a group dialogue and potentially a podcast. Happy reading and stay tuned for more! Read the second in the series by Leah Jo here.
written by AMANDA GROSS
Sin was a theme of my childhood. I was brought up in a small Mennonite church in the middle of a big city with a pretty clear definition of sin, meaning that which separates humans from God. This was most obviously applied on an individual level as things that were bad (unGodly and don’t do them) and things that were acceptable and good (Godly, definitely do them). Church and home and school mostly followed suit. Although I was aware of the little contradictions, especially that not everybody I encountered was on the same page about what exactly constituted sin and how important sin was in the equation of life and eternal damnation. Jesus was the bridge over the sin. But sin was still ever present, a threatening tsunami of danger to avoid.
Weaving by Amanda K Gross
When I think back to my conversion experience inside of an emotional roller coaster of youth evangelical ministry, I remember both the surge and yearning, but also the fear. I was as much driven into the arms of Jesus by the invitation as the threat, a constant stream of compliance outlined in Christian fiction and nonfiction alike. If you do not comply, you will be left out of the Kingdom. And what teenager wants to be socially shunned? Though there are Christians who believe the number of spots in heaven are finite, I was taught that God’s love is readily available, a never-ending source for anyone to access. Why then in the face of such abundance does scarcity mentality take hold? A relationship to God has become a scarce commodity only available to Christians, just as truth has become equally scarce and only available to those same Christians. Scarcity mentality yields fear and so in turn that truth and those Christians are under the constant threat by the truths of others.
Enter dualism which explained everything*. A guest speaker and theologian introduced the concept of dualism in my college course on Environmental Justice. Dualism gave humans justification for God-sanctioned dominion over the earth, by first separating humans from God (due to sin) and then creating a hierarchical order. God over Humans. Humans over other Earthly things. Man over Woman. Civilized over Savage. Christian over Pagan. White over Black. The list goes on and history gives us evidence of the results.
Weaving by Amanda K Gross
On a separate yet intricately interconnected day at college, someone shared the radical notion that everyone has God in them. I blame it on the Quakers. Growing up I had been taught that Quakers weren’t really Christians, but upon reflecting, this concept seemed pretty darn Christian-y and a sound concept at that. It made me think of the phrase to accept Jesus into your heart. Isn’t that all about having God inside of us? The way I learned it, Jesus is available to all, an extension of God’s availability to all. It is the openness, the receiving, the acknowledgement that activates it, but ultimately God already is. There. In us all.
Weaving by Amanda K Gross
In dualism, philosophically we separate ourselves from God and what follows is the sequential separation of ourselves from the earth, from the universe, from creatures, from each other, and ultimately from ourselves. So it is no surprise that when we fail to see God in other humans, we fail to recognize God in us. When we fail to know God in others, we fail to know God in us. When we fail to be in relationship to the God in others, we fail to be in relationship to the God in ourselves. And perhaps it is precisely because we fail to know the God in ourselves that we have become so capable of living in a society where not seeing the God in others is the norm. We collectively cope by dangerously, and deceptively hiding and thus take ourselves out of our own context. We learn to see ourselves as objectively and separately motivated individuals, separate from the water we drink, better than the air we breathe. We hide from ourselves by washing our hands of social responsibility, by denying our interconnectedness, and by cloaking ourselves in a blameless cape of knowing Jesus, individualism, and knowing the one right way. Rather than to Christ or to each other, we have become unequivocally devoted to dualism.
Weaving by Amanda K Gross
Whiteness, too, demands unequivocal devotion. It functions to promote and insist upon a specious armor that separates and denies our interconnected social responsibility to humanity (big picture) and our own humanity (zooming in). The creation of whiteness as part of the creation and manifestations of racism is a multi-layered process of dehumanization that impacts us all.** When we are able to honor our interconnectedness to each other, we honor our interconnectedness to God. Our denial of this interconnectedness, our blindness to the ways we both perpetuate and are harmed by biased systems and cultures of domination is precisely what leads us to paths of violence – violence to ourselves, to others, to the earth, and to God. To live in these systems requires the suppression of our humanity – when we step over the person experiencing homelessness on the street, when we study for exams based on the texts of white (mostly male) heroes that erase the people who were here before European settlers arrived, when we surround ourselves by people who look and think like us, when we call the police to complain about our neighbors rather than engage them in conversation, when we stack our bank accounts out of fear of economic insecurity and hoard our resources, when we eat mindlessly and exercise abusively, when we assume, project, and suspect our self-hate, self-doubt, and self-loathing onto others.
Weaving by Amanda K Gross
On an even more personal note, this historic dualism has separated me from the ability to see the God (or Goddess) in me. Many things can be true at once. My commitment to being a disciple of Jesus is precisely what has brought me down this path of rejecting the dualism of racism and of patriarchy and also how many describe the religious dogma of Christianity. My commitment to being a disciple of Jesus is precisely what has brought me to better see the God(dess) in me.
Weaving by Amanda K Gross
Most white people I pass on the street do not make eye contact with me. I have a theory 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. Whiteness is the illusion of separation that results in very real, deep spiritual disconnects that have infected every aspect of our lives.
Weaving by Amanda K Gross
*By everything, I mean many things but not actually everything.
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.
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.
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 the midwest—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 roommate 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 the rural U.S. 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.
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
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
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. 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 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
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 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
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 host of the evening interviewed me before the event, which you can listen to here:
*PechaKucha is a Japanese word. Both the title for the event and the event are credited to two white people who lived in Japan, which has the unfortunate effect of white people who don’t know how to pronounce the word trying to teach other white people who don’t know how to pronounce the word then ultimately giving up on the pronunciation of the word and opting to call it PKN.
**AIA Pgh – http://aiapgh.org The #DesignPgh2016 gif is an unfortunate visual of the original gentrification colonization of what is today known as Pittsburgh, demonstrating precisely the role architects have had in these systems of oppression. AIGI – https://www.aiga.org; GPAC – https://www.pittsburghartscouncil.org
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
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.
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
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 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
*A shoutout to my housemates for identifying this pattern of settling in my life.
But white lady ego is usually less blatant on the surface, much more refined, couched, and stealthy. It sits quietly, in the corner, legs crossed looking perfect, but effortlessly so, as in I-woke-up-just-like-this-with-hair-and-makeup-and-a-cleanly-pressed-dress-and-matching-bag. White lady ego is meant to attract but give off the appearance of not wanting to, meant to impress but with a helpless humility, meant to dominate without you ever realizing that you are under its spell.
White Lady Ego is sneaky.*
Domesticated: Cupcakes by Amanda K Gross
Or maybe not as sneaky as we’d like to think. Nine times out of ten Black women pick up on it.** So do many other People of Color, all, the, time. Mostly though we are just fooling ourselves (and other white people).
Helping and Saving Others – White ladies are known for our helping abilities. Those of us with younger siblings or who grew up in homes with well-defined gender roles learned from an early age that helping take care of others and the house earned us the praise of “mother’s little helper” along with bonus relational time and attention from adults. I started taking care of babies when I was still practically one at the church nursery. Not only was it fun to play with the younger kids and their toys and help my parents on nursery duty, but I also got to skip sitting through the sermon and lengthy prayers. By middle school, childcare had turned into a lucrative business, one that helped pay for my first car and college. And as an added bonus, the ego boost was amazing. It turned out (white) mothers all over the country needed me! And so did their kids. I was paid and praised to help.
Being privileged enough to go to college for the intellectual experience, I struggled to choose a major. I went to a small Mennonite school where the emphasis was Micah 6:8, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” and the culture leaned towards helping, fixing, and saving the world especially through the lens of service. As we learned about the evils of world hunger, environmental degradation, “third world” poverty, and the horrors of war we were uniquely positioned to offer our services.
Today, as an adult, this plays out in the white lady-dominated helping fields of education, social work, and healthcare. Most of the youth-led anti-racist organizing I am connected to organizes around disrupting the School to Prison Pipeline***. White ladies are the main offenders at the beginning of that pipeline as teachers, social workers, and nurses bent on helping, fixing, and saving innocent kids from distressed communities. White ladies funnel children of color and children living in poverty out of classrooms and homes and into the violence of education discipline procedures and the child welfare and criminal justice systems. We justify this dynamic with our inflated white lady helper ego. We are good. We are just trying to help. We want to help! All we want to do is help others (especially those who need it/us). We are needed (by those poor/black/hungry/needy children)! We are so well-intentioned, therefore we can’t be doing anything wrong)… Wrong. Often we do the most harm when we have the best intentions. And through it all – and especially when we are not open to criticism- we end up centering ourselves at a cost to many others.
We have been taught our whole lives that we are so good at helping and that helping is so good, and so we have convinced ourselves that we have the right to help whomever, whenever, and however we choose.
Cycles of Trauma (in progress part 2) by Amanda K Gross
Martyr Complex + Apologizing – Due to a history of Anabaptist persecution in Europe and a commitment to nonviolence, my Mennonite subculture smells strongly of martyrdom. This was both how we survived while striving to be consistent with following Christ’s Way of peace. Today this martyr narrative helps maintain our sense of selves as innocent righteous victims. But you don’t have to be Mennonite to have a martyr complex. White ladies are also proficient at this. Connected to helping and saving, we are ready to sacrifice ourselves AT ALL COSTS. Which makes us look really good because if we are sacrificing ourselves then we can’t very well be making it about us. (Or can we?) We want so badly to not be selfish and also to not be perceived as being selfish, that we choose the polar opposite. We choose martyred selflessness.
Now I am a huge proponent of sharing and not being greedy and being considerate of others, but there is a way that we as white ladies are acting out selflessness that is often not of pure motivation and is often reinforced by other (mostly white) people in a way that centers our white lady martyr ego. To the Peace Corps/international development/youth missions trips/MCC person, It must have been so hard for you and your family living under those conditions. You are a better person than I. To the settler/pioneer/gentrifier, Are you scared living there? You are so brave. How fortunate the neighborhood is to have you. To the workaholic/overachieving mom/overachieving student, That’s important work you’re doing. I don’t know how you do it all.
But the biggest problem with white lady martyr ego is that is DUMB and incredibly harmful to us. If we are sacrificing it all for others then we are not taking care of our selves. Taking care of ourselves is actually not selfish, as we’ve been taught to believe, but smart and necessary to not doing violence to others. If we can’t take care of our own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs, then how in the world are we supposed to take care of others with any sort of awareness? We do not need desperate, exhausted, stressed out white ladies with a strong desire to help, fix or save anyone but themselves.
Apologizing is similar to playing the martyr card in terms of deflecting responsibility. If white ladies are eager to sacrifice then we are also eager to apologize – for everything and often. Even when we weren’t responsible for any harm. This white woman sneakiness is similarly about being seen as well-intentioned and uses the benefit of the doubt that privilege buys us. We didn’t mean it. Because we have the best intentions of everyone else except ourselves at heart, then we couldn’t have intended harm. And if we couldn’t have intended harm, then we couldn’t have inflicted it. Similar to being the victim, it is impossible for us to be in the wrong. We love to say we’re sorry but when it comes time to make things right all we’re willing to give up are hollow words.
The Goddess of Self-Love by Amanda K Gross
I first noticed the extent to which I used white lady apologizing ego when I was a high school exchange student in France. I had learned that “I’m sorry” in French was “je regrets” which I used when I bumped into someone on the train, when I forgot to take off my shoes in the house, and when I didn’t understand what people were saying. I noticed that when I said it I got strange looks. But also I didn’t really speak French so I brushed that off until my host mom pulled me aside and told me that “je regrets” was more accurately used for when someone dies and you’re consoling their family members at the funeral or for when you do something seriously wrong. Since “M’excuse” (“excuse me“) is much more appropriate for acknowledging accidental irritants, we can save our real apologies for when we need them (and we surely will).
Damsel In Distress – Like all of the above white lady ego bits, there are histories of systems behind these themes that white ladies often did not choose. Many of these developed as responses to the violence of White Christian Patriarchy, inventing agency for white women even as our systems and culture disempowered us. The white lady damsel in distress ego is constructed on the idea that white ladies are in danger – often sexualized danger – and we don’t have agency to do anything about it. We are beautiful, weak, delicate, pure, good, helpless, and in need of a strong, capable white man/savior/father/police officer to deal with our problems. Again when we call on this narrative we, the blameless victims, center ourselves with dramatic flair.
And while a little damsel in distress may seem harmless, it has had deadly consequences. In Sexual Relations Between Elite White Women and Enslaved Men in the Antebellum South: A Socio-Historical Analysis, J.M Allain describes the role of plantation mistresses in the Antebellum South, “The Southern way of life, and the institutions that defined it—white supremacy, slavery, and the planter aristocracy—were inextricably linked with the sexual regulation of women, especially upper class women; the purity of white women, when contrasted with the sexually lascivious black Jezebel archetype, served to highlight the alleged superiority of white womanhood, and by extension, whiteness (Brooks Higginbotham, 1992, p. 263). As historian Catherine Clinton (1982) observes, “If plantation mistresses could live above reproach, their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers could boast of the superiority of their civilization… The sullying influence of slavery must not touch the women of the upper class lest the entire structure crumble.” Coupled with the notion of elite white female sexual virtue was that of white female vulnerability—the idea that plantation wives and daughters needed to be protected, defended, and sheltered. Framing women in this way served as a means of patriarchal control. As political scientist Iris Young (2003) explains, “the role of the masculine protector puts those protected, paradigmatically women and children, in a subordinate position of dependence and obedience.””
Allain goes on to explain how plantation mistresses used this notion of white female virtue to protect themselves of accusations of wrongdoing: ” Additionally, an upper-class woman under suspicion of an affair with a slave could “readily invoke images of chastity in order to allay trouble for herself”—or in other words, accuse the slave of rape (Hodes, p. 135). Because black men (like black women) were seen as inherently lustful and prone to sexual vice, for an elite woman to have illicit sex with a black rather than a white man might have been a slightly safer bet; it was easier to blame a black man of rape than a white man.”
Crucified by Amanda K Gross
And it has been so much easier for us, the collective of white women, to align ourselves with the narrative of being victims rather than to take responsibility for the very real pain, trauma, and death our position and actions have caused Black people and then to subsequently alter our behavior accordingly. Allain points out how white women used the tools of their own repression to abuse people who were enslaved: “Another way in which white women were able to exercise sexual control over slaves was by threatening to accuse them of rape or attempted rape if they did not agree to sex (Hodes, pp. 39, 40, 43, 46, 135).4 In doing this, elite white women used one of the primary instruments of patriarchal repression—the idea that that they were weak and in need of white male protection, and by extension, in need of control and domination by white men—to exercise racial control over slaves. Instead of attempting to dismantle the white patriarchal hegemony that oppressed both slaves and (to a lesser extent) white women, predatory white women who coerced slaves into sex through threat of rape opted to perpetuate both white supremacy and patriarchy, by reinforcing paternalistic notions of female sexuality. Why these women chose to sexually abuse slaves probably varied by situation. Perhaps some of them were simply bored or sexually frustrated. But perhaps, at least on a subconscious level, sexually exploiting slaves was a means of compensating for their lack of power in other aspects of their lives. Again, planter-class women were considered the property of their husbands and lacked considerable sexual agency relative to men. It is possible the sexual exploitation of slaves by women who had little power in relation to white men was a source of enjoyment that created a feeling of power (Bourke, p. 237).”
And lest you think us white ladies have risen above this gruesome past, the white lady damsel in distress ego is still alive and well today as we post on Next Door neighborhood social networks and call the police on our neighbors. Evoking the white lady damsel in distress ego still has serious and deadly consequences.
Domesticated: Apron by Amanda K Gross
And as Damon Young hilariously and adeptly outlines in Very Smart Brothas (best read frequently and often), there’s always Taylor Swift. From How Taylor Swift Is The Most Dangerous Type Of White Woman Explained, (also applicable to many a white lady), “No one is better at this type of specifically White female performative faux melodrama — where status is cultivated and maintained through a state of perpetual exaggerated victimhood (which everyone laps up because “sad White woman” = “Let’s find our fucking capes and save her!”) — than she is.”
“You know that co-worker (let’s call her “Susan”) who somehow managed to use her offense at a minor breach in email etiquette (someone forgot to put an exclamation point on a sentence, which made Susan “interpret” it as a “threat”) as fuel for a raise and a promotion? ”
“Taylor Swift is Darth Susan.”
Come on white ladies, let’s not be Susans. There are so many other ways for us to be.
* Thanks to Sydney Olberg and the white ladies of WWG and debriefs with Felicia Lane Savage for input around white lady ego sneakiness and white ladies’ roles in the School to Prison Pipeline.
** This very scientific statistic is based on how frequently I’ve had Black women point out white lady ego to me with a 10% margin of error for the times they didn’t feel like wasting their breath, were trying to enjoy life without the affront of whiteness, and/or had better things to do than educate me about racism.
*** The School to Prison Pipeline describes how young people of color are disproportionately funneled through the education system into the criminal justice system due to factors like zero tolerance policies, suspension and expulsion, teacher bias, police in schools, academic tracking, the misdiagnosis of disabilities/giftedness, etc. all of which point to institutional racism.
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
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
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?) 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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.