Victim, Villain, Heroine

WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross

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

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

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

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

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

Queen Elizabeth I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cousin Lydia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VVH Amanda Katherine; Acrylic on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Amanda Katherine Gross

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

VVH Victim AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

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

VVH Villain AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

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

VVH Heroine AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

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

White Lady Ego Part II – The Need to Be Liked

WRITTEN by Amanda Gross

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.

 

This post is a companion piece to this one on White Lady Ego.

How Whiteness Kills White Children, Our Duck and Cover Strategies Do Too and What We Can Do About It

written by AMANDA GROSS

With all the talk of gun control and gun rights, mental illness and toxic masculinity, (school) safety and (home-land) security, there is a glaring omission. Like the elephant in the room, whiteness is wreaking havoc and doing exactly what you would expect a six ton creature to do inside 400 enclosed square feet. While the debate centers on background checks and semi-automatics and access to firearms, White Supremacy is cleverly going about his business, systematically taking children’s lives and convincing us of our faultlessness and helplessness to do anything about it.

(I originally sat down to write this post on the privilege of white folks to run, hide, and dip out of this work when it gets difficult, emotional, personal, and “real”. But now in the wake of (more) children killing children, I am writing about both because everything is connected.)

His & Hers, by Amanda K Gross

Guns were some of whiteness’s earliest recruits. Having achieved marked success with over five millennia of weaponry development and a culture of power-over above all else, European Patriarchy consummated its deal with the (white) devil in colonial law by saying who could own and carry firearms (white people) and who could not (people of African descent and members of Native tribes). Around the same time colonial law was also weighing in on the bedroom and sexual assault, making marriages between white people and non-white people illegal – although really only enforcing this in the case of white women – placing the center of patriarchal power tightly in the hands of white men while giving them the ammunition to carry it out, no matter their social status or class.

The elephant in the room is doing precisely what it was designed to do (no offense to elephants or rooms).

Domesticated: Cupcakes; Hand Embroidered and Quilted Fabric and US Currency by Amanda K Gross

The (white) gunmen are doing exactly what they were raised to do. Or, more accurately exactly what we raised them to do. We are the mothers and aunts who bought them toy weapons as children, bought them violent video games, and took them to see action films. We are the parents and grandparents who told them to toughen up and take it like a man and be a competitor. We are the friends and siblings and bullies who beat them into a pulp for not being (strong, brave, smart, big, fearless) enough and made fun of them for their tears. Those are our babies with the guns and the gun wounds. Their state of mind is a reflection of our own state, the violence of white masculinity and white culture that proclaims value and worth and material reward and holiness and heaven for a select few at the cost of us all.

Bland, by Amanda K Gross

We are deceived if we think a few gun control policies will save us now. At best, it serves as a band-aid*. Believe me, because I know a thing about or two about band-aids. They are my current artistic medium of choice.

Of course whiteness is killing many children, not just the ones who have come to be called white. Nonwhite children – Black children, Native children, Latinx children, Asian and Pacific Islander children are on the front lines with casualties at higher rates in every category from infant mortality to health outcomes to education and housing.** But the irony is that whiteness and systemic white supremacy is toxic for white children, too. And not just the poor ones. White privileged children are increasingly brought up in ways that result …“in entitled, depressed, addicted and, most recently, narcissistic kids. Their despair manifests in a wide range of self-destructive behaviors: drugs; alcohol; food (stuffing or starving); self-mutilation (cutting, piercing); Internet addictions to gaming, chatting and pornography.” They are also shooting up schools and being shot in schools. I point this out not to center the victimization of white children as more important, more severe, or more significant than the oppression and victimization of other children – it’s clearly not, not on statistical nor moral grounds – but I do so to emphasize a point. If white supremacy (think: systematic racism) harms white children, then why are even the most overt racists among us in support?

For those of us white people not loudly proclaiming overt white supremacy (which I assume is most of you who read this blog), we have a lot of soul searching to do. Our white liberal duck and cover strategies have been upholding white supremacy too. We may say that we abhor racism, yet we send our white children to that better whiter school. We may vote for gun control, but we invest in home security systems just in case. We may praise integration and diversity, though our homes, neighborhoods, and congregations remain lily-white. We may say we’re anti-racist, but when the going gets tough, we peace out. We could write a book, and many of us have written many books, rationalizing these contradictions inherent to the systems we’ve created and daily maintain.

This Land is White Land, by Amanda K Gross

Sometimes the grocery store aisle is overwhelming. Also sitting in a chair and trying to come up with one silver bullet (pun intended) for solving gun violence. Sitting and thinking with the expectations of solving the world’s problems is a highly intellectualized and distanced saviory approach that I have often used, a result of my socialization into the class of educated whiteness. It is also incredibly demoralizing and overwhelming. No wonder so many of my peers have opted for comfortable self-aggrandizing distractions like armchair quarterbacking, social media, the non-profit industrial complex, and yummy food ( which reminds me, I think there’s chocolate in my fridge…), rather than the ugly, messy, scary unknown of struggling together.***

This week I was part of a sweaty conversation (we were all nervous) about struggling together. The elder in the room used a sports analogy which I appreciated because I was raised by a jock. There’s a difference between being on the court and in the stands. The privilege of whiteness affords white people the option of our distance and positioning in the struggle. The privilege of whiteness allows us to opt out in times of emotional distress or personal tragedy, to sit on the bench when we need a minute or retire and follow the team at home. But let’s be honest with ourselves. When we access that privilege, we are reinforcing white supremacy just the same as our overtly racist cousins and their flags of hate.

White Silence, by Amanda K Gross

As a white person who has opted out in the past and still has many moments, I understand the urge to duck and cover. As a manifestation of Post-Traumatic Mistress/Master Syndrome, running and hiding has served us well. It has preserved life and preserved privilege.****

As a white person who does this work from relative comfort, normalizing the intensity and hardness and challenging nature is a point of growth for me and so is developing a practice of resilience. In many ways this is a new type of fight for the white ladies – one that involves being fully present, showing up on my good hair days and my bad, getting nastily sweaty in public, and airing out all my dirty laundry. But in other ways it is a fight that is familiar. We have resistance traditions to draw from even as we re-narrate our own.

We are powerful in our ducking out, but we are also powerful in the practice of our opting in. The impact of our choices reverberate. We think we are small and insignificant. We have been socialized to think that our showing up  – not just physically, but consistently being emotionally present – doesn’t matter. We give away our power. Alone in our little corner of the world we begin to feel weak and overwhelmed. We let ourselves be carried away in the white supremacist river of apathy. Individualism has conditioned us to prefer the peaceful float of loneliness rather than to struggle against the tide as a group. And each time we choose to leave, we take our toys and our joys and our value and our networks with us. Even in knowing this, we often regret but don’t act, allowing the embarrassment, shame, and guilt of our egos to block ourselves from the possibility of redemption.

I am writing this post for those who run and I am writing this post for myself, because I want us to be clear and honest about the consequences on those we leave and where we land. We leave a hole that only we can fill and where we land there is also the impact of us. Like the boats that unloaded my ancestors to Philadelphia and its surrounding counties, our leaving impacts the humans where we choose to settle. When we flee, we may only be aware of what we are trying to get away from, never noticing who we are trampling in our flight.

Whiteness, by Amanda K Gross

Choice is an interesting concept especially paired with other words like free will, and self-determination, and independence, and interdependence, and liberty, and privilege, and DNA, and socialization, and God, and liberation, and colonization. The choice to decide. The privilege to choose. The option to stay in it or to flee. The discernment to know the difference. Today I am convinced that our power is in the (re)commitment to stay and struggle in the fire. That is how we will keep all of the children alive.

* I support gun control laws, but if not paired with undoing racism, these laws often reinforce white supremacy by further restricting access of firearms to People of Color without actually addressing how guns historically and still today uphold whiteness (military, police, imperialism, white supremacist militia).

** Here are some Pittsburgh stats, but overall the racial disparities are consistent across the U.S.

***I learned about the agreement to Struggle Together from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism Training. Please find out when one is coming to your area and attend!

**** My family has been running since the 1500s when Switzerland decided Anabaptism wasn’t its thing. And when running wasn’t an option, we practiced hiding, often in caves. This one-two combo is a natural trauma response which well-suited a people with a peace teaching. It also translated effortlessly (or so it seems) to the project of colonization underway on the global scene. And so our running and hiding which served us as forms of resistance in Europe underwent a baptism of whiteness on the shores of what is now called the United States and has been reinforcing our white privilege ever since.

 

Writing about the White Savior Complex on Christmas Morning

written by AMANDA GROSS

As I sit down to begin chapter three of Mistress Syndrome the Book* about the white savior complex it is Christmas morning and my body is being ravaged by category 5 menstrual cramps, an appropriate physiological state for this day of celebration of Jesus’s birth. I gave up painkillers two years before to get more in touch with my body. And lo and behold, it has been a reunion of intimate awareness, one that for 3-5 days includes intermittent mind-numbing pain with valleys of continuous ache. I wonder if the intensity even comes close to contractions in labor.

Snow on Christmas Morning; photo by Amanda K Gross

My sister-in-law recently gave birth to a baby, and this also being my brother’s child has put me genetically closer to the miracle of birth than ever before. It was awe-inspiring to be in tangential proximity to her pregnancy and birth experience as each seemingly minute physiological development grew a whole human. The baby’s uterine positioning as breech signaled a potentially dangerous labor and also a potential disappointment to the natural birth they had so carefully researched and planned for.

Mostly in the history of my conscious life, the miracle of birth has rung cliché. The overused phrase has numbed me to the Christmas story and, although I love babies and small children, the miracle of birth has largely been detached for me from their existence. My dad still talks about the story of my mother’s labor and my birth with tears in his eyes. And it is only through this recent experience of tangential proximity that I have begun to understand the power of pregnancy and birth that is at the core of the Christmas story. My tangential proximity helped me notice a combination of dependency, helplessness, distance, well-wishes, encouragement and support those around my sister-in-law were navigating, since, no matter our hopes and no matter our bedside presence, ultimately she alone would be the one to push this child outside of her body and into breathable air. In my tangential proximity, I was also powerless to do anything but wait for the news of birth.

Throughout her labor the C-section loomed as a threat of taking this powerful experience away. (This is not to say that there aren’t very appropriate life-threatening moments when a C-Section is necessary to guarantee the health of the parent and the baby, because there are. At the same time the historical development of the shift in birthing from the labor of the bedroom to the labor of the hospital along with the development of the male-dominated surgical theater, demonstrate a patriarchal shift in birthing that has served to usurp in many ways the agency and self-determination that those who have the capacity to give birth had historically held.) In the light of this possibility, she found agency in renaming the surgical procedure as belly birth, a recognition that there are multiple ways to give birth and that a C-Section doesn’t diminish the actuality that she is still giving birth.

Cold and Triumphant Statue at Highland Park Pittsburgh. Would Someone Please Knit her a Sweater?; photo by Amanda K Gross

Just as women and midwives were removed from the delivery room during the era of the witch hunts, so too has the miracle of birth been co-opted by patriarchy in the telling and retelling of the Christmas story. The main focal point of the narrative has become that of the birth of the savior, rather than that of the pregnancy and labor of the one who gave him life. While in some traditions Mary the mother of Jesus takes on a more prominent role, in the way I was raised, Mary had a  supportive role, sidelined to an occasional reference during advent season, a mention in a song that was written to her but not about her (As in Mary, Did You Know…), and a significant casting appearance in nativity scenes. She started off the advent season when the angel appeared to tell her – not ask her consent – that she was getting impregnated by God. But on the day that marks her labor it is not her work that we celebrate but its severed results, as if once out of the womb, baby Jesus was independently walking around performing miracles all by himself.

Distain at the News; Painting by a famous European; Photo by Amanda K Gross

I am still working through bitterness around the rape connotations of Mary’s reluctant impregnation and the way Jesus’s paternity relegates Mary to a vessel of male holiness, will, and power, but lately, I have been feeling more connected to the symbolism of birth as redemption for humanity. I am also even more keenly aware of the way the Christmas narrative has been misguided as an ideological foundation for the white savior complex so prevalent in our celebrity culture, politics, and theologies today.

Sky Window; photo by Amanda K Gross

Our children are our saviors. They are our chance at redemption. With each generational cycle, we get a chance at a do-over, a repeat, an opportunity to evolve in our parenting choices and child-rearing theories. Our children link us to the future, miraculously taking us beyond our lifespans. Their births signify that our DNA will live on even after we are composting in the earth (or more likely pumped with chemicals and not rotting inside of stone). Holding my nephew as a newborn was indeed a holy experience. It was a moment of perspective and prioritizing and re-centering and commitment and recommitment. The powerful labor of his mother, the commitment of his parents to bringing him into the world, and his birth story inspired in me feelings of connection to the Christmas narrative for the first time in a long while.

*I am writing a book called Mistress Syndrome. Stay tuned!

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

written by AMANDA GROSS

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

Schoolhouse Quilt; Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Not) Your Grandma’s Footwashing

written by AMANDA GROSS

When I was little Easter meant getting all dressed up with bonnet to match, picking violets in the church yard for mama while dodging the poison ivy, and the smell of egg bake at Sunday morning church breakfast potluck. It also meant lots of exuberant hymn singing and the smell of slightly stinky perspiring church lady stocking feet as we prepared for Footwashing. The ladies and men went our separate binaried ways and, following Jesus’s example*, we took turns removing stockings and tights and washed each others’ piggies clean.

Easter!

On Maunday Thursday, I got my feet washed by someone’s grandma at the nail salon. Granted it was a pedicure, but as she sat at my feet something felt wrong. I should have been washing hers. I should be siting at the feet of someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother, possibly someone’s great grandma, not her at mine. I contemplated what her age meant in terms of history, which Southeast Asian American-influenced war she had fled or endured (or both) in order to sit at the feet of a sea of mostly white women, prepping our feet for Easter Sunday – perhaps even prepping our feet for further foot washing, a preemptive cleansing of our God-given flaws.

On Good Friday, I went to Spa WOrld and got naked with a bunch of strangers in the separate binaried bade pool. (I highly recommend the Korean Spa experience for self-care, rest, and for growing one’s comfort zone. Despite how the naked part might sound, it is a very safe family friendly environment and the cafeteria – which you go to fully clothed – is incredible!)

Now don’t get me wrong, I have always loved being naked in the appropriate spaces. When I was two, that was in the dog’s water bucket in the backyard. When I was 6, that was going shirtless to play soccer with the boys. When I was 13, that was changing my clothes in the closed bathroom stall of the locker room. As an adult, that has mostly meant at home in my room with the shades drawn. But Spa WOrld doesn’t really care about my previously held notions of appropriate spaces, because they have certain areas that you can only go into without clothes. It’s like the reverse of a “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy. For me this took vulnerability to a whole new level. But then after the initial 10 minutes of discomfort and being careful to observe eye contact only, I felt surprisingly and entirely comfortable in my own skin. This took my human capacity to adapt to a whole new level. Feeling adaptably emboldened, I signed up for a body scrub and massage and pretty soon was being spun around on a vinyl table top by someone’s Korean grandma who scrubbed and rubbed and pounded my flesh into submission. It was a humbling and again nakedly vulnerable situation.

Doodle by Amanda K Gross

Over the past year, I have been thinking a lot about self care. This has come due to other people’s urging and guidance, some of my own curiosity, but also because I have realized just how much I have learned and accepted my own neglect. I have been listening, observing, and experimenting with other people’s self-care wisdom** and asking the question what does self-care look like? What might it look like for me? This has led to expanding my horizon and also reclaiming things that I had forgotten. Some of these experiences have included, the nail salon, yoga, eating healthier, a bikini wax, long walks on the beach, long walks in the park, sunshine, tea, Spa WOrld, massages, cooking, drawing, quiet, intentional nice clothing purchases, no more than 1 1/2 glasses of red wine, music, dancing, blueberries, essential oils, gardening, hula hoops, showers, candles, sitting still, rearranging furniture, cleaning, weeding, journaling, burning other things that smell good, house plants. Self-Care can look like all sorts of things. Some of these things are more culturally familiar and some are more or less accessible depending on place, weather, and budget, but at some point with intentionality, I have tried them all.

Doodle by Amanda K Gross

Which has led me to ask a slightly different question. What does self-care feel like?

I am crossing a threshold of the new and scary in my life, which can be ultimately summarized as living and being alone. This was never the plan. This was never my ancestor’s plan for me. They are probably pissed. Patriarchy is definitely pissed. Living and being alone is calling up all my deepest internalized white lady fears. It is challenging all my go-tos of what was “supposed to be.” A “supposed to be” which was influenced both by society’s expectations and my own internalized need for external (especially masculine) validation, but also influenced by my personal vision as an attempt at challenging those norms. My attempt at a marriage despite patriarchy, my attempt at helping to raise children despite not having kids, my attempt to return my home ownership to someone who more rightfully claims the zip code, my attempt to open my doors and space to anyone in radical hospitality, my attempt to fill all the garden beds and make righteous use of every space I’ve been privileged to access and “own”, my attempt to share the spaces in between in partnerships with others – all these attempts at my own alternative “supposed to be.” (A “supposed to be” that asks a question about internalized superiority and the perceived ability to control my circumstances… )

Like the Spa WOrld body scrub, this has been a lesson in surrender. Also like the body scrub, self-care can feel abrasive. Just like getting naked with strangers at Spa WOrld, self-care can feel vulnerable. And like my Maunday Thursday foot washing, self-care can feel uncomfortable, too. My experience at the nail salon can be enlightened with history, awareness, and a recognition of our mutual humanity, but it exists among and not separate from the day-to-day violence of our world. Likewise, self-care for white ladies can carry the privilege and illusion of separation, rather than the much more complex task of finding true restoration in the midst of chaos. Self-care can be an escape from the violent dynamics of our own cultures and religions, yet result in the appropriation of another’s. We can rush to the spa for relief from responsibility and to escape our own pain or we can approach it with awareness and intention and make the vulnerable space within for ourselves to shine through. Although it is worth noting that at the end of the day, neither of these self-care approaches are guaranteed to result in how it was “supposed to be.” Instead, maybe in the discomfort of self-care we will receive a much-needed experience of gratitude and humility,  which was exactly how it was supposed to be after all.

Invisibility Cloak (in progress) by Amanda K Gross

*Stockings were probably not a part of Jesus’s foot washing experience.

**A necessary shoutout to YogaRoots On Location Yoga Teacher Training. There will be another one coming up soon!

A Letter to My Eight Year Old Self

At the hotel pool in the partially shaded family section amidst the chaotic energy of children, there was one very pale brown-headed child, maybe age seven or soon to be arriving at the age of eight. She was wearing a bright indigo one-piece and drifted contentedly by herself in a plastic purple dinosaur. Her quiet solitude at odds with her peers, she was serene, knowingly content to float in her purple plastic tube, inside of her pale skin, brown hair, and big blue eyes.

Then I woke up today and read “How to Know Everything About Everything: Laura Riding’s Extraordinary 1930 Letters to an 8-Year-Old Girl About Being Oneself“, which prompted some reflective letter writing to my 8-Year-Old self:

Dining Room Table; Mixed Media painting by Amanda K Gross

Dining Room Table; Mixed Media painting by Amanda K Gross

Dear 8-Year-Old Me,

You are stubborn, like your father. This is a trait that you will hate, but ultimately come to love because it is a part of you. Soon, in the very near future, you will start to distance yourself from your shared similarities with him. You will see his taurus nature and all-or-nothingness used to plow through nuance and dominate the feminine divine. You will understand eventually that this comes from his fear, his desperation to have the answers clear, clean, and complete from an all-knowing source separate and above him. You will understand that in fearing the subtleties, the nuance, the feminine, the cyclical, he is fearing a part of himself. You too will deeply feel this inadequacy and come to believe parts of it as true. You will learn to distrust your own inner wisdom. In pushing away your stubbornness, you will inevitably deny your other truths. If there is anything I would advise, it is to embrace your stubbornness. Know it. Love it. Cultivate humility alongside it. Learn when to let it go and when to hold on tight. Because in your stubbornness too, is your passion, your drive, your focus, your gut for righteousness, and it will get you to the goals meant for you.

Snapshots in the City by Amanda K Gross

Snapshots of Humans in the Big City by Amanda K Gross

You can be mean, and you are also incredibly considerate and compassionate. I see how you look at people with an inquisitive love. You want to know their stories. You are especially in awe of the stories of elders. You are curious. You want to know how things have come to be. You think there are gems hidden in old people’s words and keys to unlocking your challenges and puzzles. Soon you will be tempted to distance yourself from the heart that pulls you close to others, to analyze from a space of intellect. Feelings and (com)passions will not be valued in the same way that being smart, nice, and perceived as good and obedient will. You will sell out – slowly at first and then so frequently it will become habitual to deny yourself the depths of pain, joy, sorrow, and love. But your heart will lead you back to feeling when you give it the space it deserves. When it is tender, let it be tender, and when it is strong, let it jump in heart first.

Frau F; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Frau F; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

You will be duped into believing in a white male savior, that male attention and approval will fulfill your deepest longings and will satisfy what you lack. You will think you have managed to ride above the consumerism, religious patriarchy, and romantic

Self-Portrait from Shadow Silhouette; Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

Self-Portrait from Window Shadow Silhouette; Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

comedies that program these messages into your mind, but you will fall susceptible anyway without consciously knowing. But then too, you will start to notice these symptoms and you will be able to trace their threads back through the story of your life and society’s stories and begin to untangle them in publicly vulnerable ways because you are also by nature generous. In fact, every time you hoard and don’t share with your brother, you are going against something that gives you joy. You are choosing his misery (and subsequently yours) over your happiness. Don’t believe the Christian capitalists when they say that greed is human nature. You know better.

I love your resourcefulness. When you fall, you get back up. You will begin to think that the falls can be prescribed or managed. You will believe that you have learned the rules and know how to play the game and thus can soften the blows. And you will become very good at the game. But part of you will never be satisfied with the game. Part of you will hold true to knowing the game is a horrible experience for so many people. And eventually, there will come a time when you understand the fullness of how the game is harming you. Releasing yourself from it will be harder than first appears, in fact it will last a lifetime. You will quickly realize that in playing the game so well, you forgot how to play by your own rules. You will realize that your tolerance and resiliency have been compromised and learn that building those back up is a slow process. Don’t forget to treat yourself with compassion and generosity, too. Have patience with yourself as you relearn how to be.

Red Chair from Domesticated Installation by Amanda K Gross

Red Chair from Domesticated Installation by Amanda K Gross

You are an impatient child and you will become an impatient adult, although you will learn to manage it in healthier ways. This is a wonderful part of who you are and it will be tested forever, so I have no advice to offer in that department.

You are an artist. This is an identity that you must never neglect, for when you do, you will lose you. Use your art to leave hints for yourself about yourself along the way, for that is the path back to your soul.

The Archer by Amanda K Gross

The Archer by Amanda K Gross

written by AMANDA GROSS

Vulnerability Sucks Part One: No Gold Stars

WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross

Don’t believe what they tell you about vulnerability.

Vulnerability is not all rainbows and butterflies and puppy dogs and rain drops on roses. Vulnerability sucks. It is miserable. It is painful.

Recently (as in over the past 18 months) Brené Brown’s name keeps coming up. Have you seen her Ted Talk? they say. Have you read her books? Isn’t her work on courage and vulnerability amazing? Eye-opening? Brilliant?

Gratitude 2 by Amanda K Gross

Gratitude 2 by Amanda K Gross

I watch the Ted Talk. Why, yes it is all of those things. She honestly and with confidence and humor throws down like a white lady about how courage is whole-heartedness, running with open arms towards the unknown, embracing the life lessons and living to the fullest in ways that people who hold back won’t, can’t ever know. She shares that living in that way is where worthiness and resiliency come from. When I heard her Ted Talk for the first 3 times I left feeling positive, encouraged, inspired to live whole-heartedly, to run towards the love/pain/relationships/experiences with my arms wide open and my heart exposed. I interpreted it as both affirmation and confirmation that I was on the right path of choosing vulnerability. Life is hard, but hard is necessary to develop my self-worth. (Her fabulous talk is way more complex than this above paragraph. I highly recommend watching it for yourself.)

In my eagerness to embrace these challenges, I missed something in the fine print.

What my most recent life lessons have shown, is that vulnerability is less like running arms wide open towards the unknown, and more like running with arms wide open towards a meat grinder. You will be shredded to pieces and then reformed over and over again. And it is no picnic. Or maybe it is a picnic in the middle of a rain storm on a cold early April day in a very gray city with poor air quality.

As I strip off the layers of protective gear to expose it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and in relationship offer it all up to other human beings, the clincher is that the other human beings get to decide to accept or reject it all. It’s not even a one-off toe stub, it’s chronic pain in and out, a constant as long as the relationship lasts and the ripple effect even after it’s over. The deeper the relationship, the more ugly is exposed and the less I can deceive myself about how much of life is under my control. (An illusion I was fed daily in the forms of three square meals, gold stars, good grades, and board games.)

Last week I went home to Atlanta* to reconcile with my past (as if reconciling is a one-off toe stub and not a life-long endeavor). I went home to avoid avoidance and find some sort of balance between the urge to run away from my father kicking and screaming rejecting his right-wing conservative Christian Trump-victorious fixedness and the other urge to fling myself whole-heartedly on the altar of martyred righteousness and exhaustion.

Gratitude 1 by Amanda K Gross

Gratitude 1 by Amanda K Gross

What transpired was both the same and different. In many ways we had the same conversation we’ve always had, the same stand-off with worldviews that won’t coexist, the same pain, the same heart-yearning for relationship and the same stubborn self-preservation. But this time I saw something new.

Honesty and integrity reappear as themes in my paternal lineage. My dad touted these virtues at his dad’s funeral. There are allowances for crudeness, being tactless, blunt, cold, and inconsiderate as long as you are honest. I even made the mistake of claiming this honesty trait for myself once and ever since the Universe has held up her piercing mirror so that I could see for myself if that is indeed the case.

And even though there is a level of dishonesty in the form of denial permeating my father’s cognitive dissonance, I heard his truth clearer than ever before. He was brutally honest in his allegiance to whiteness. He put the good, the bad, and the ugly unapolegetically on display. He did not mince words in saying what his worldview was and in saying that he isn’t (ever) willing to change or challenge it. The only relationship that matters to him and the one that subsumes every single other one – including the one with me – is his relationship with Jesus. He knows he is flawed, yet he will not be moved, not by his heart and certainly not by me.

In this unexpected plot twist, he is actually modeling for me the very vulnerability I say I’m striving for. He is honest in who he is. He knows it and he shows it and he is consistent with his desire to stay on top as a white man, to maintain this power and illusion of power at all costs. Take him or leave him. It made me think of the U.S. presidency. The beauty of Trump is the full exposure of ugliness so that it is also not separate from our own ugliness. It is our ugliness. It is my ugliness, exposed. What does the Trump inside of me look like? Many of the things that piss me off about my dad are personality traits that we have in common.**

Gratitude 3 by Amanda K Gross

Gratitude 3 by Amanda K Gross

Turns out there are no gold stars or A+s at the end of the rainbow. And – this is a lesson I haven’t fully learned yet – trying harder to do better does not necessarily result in doing better or even doing differently. (Again I attribute this to gold stars, good grades, and board games.) Baring one’s own vulnerability does not necessarily roll out the welcome mat of acceptance.

Except maybe of one’s Self.

 

 

*A shoutout to my sister for accompanying me and helping to balance out the hard conversations by teaching me how to enjoy life anyway.

 

**Whiteness has always been used to buy off the masses. Our denial flows even as the stark ugliness is revealed (over and over again). As long as Trump was a candidate, we could seek solace by being his opposition. We knew we were different and better because we weren’t him. But the hard truth is that Trump is and always has been within each of us who have come to be called white. Accepting that reality with courage and seeking is a powerful place to start to stand for your own and our own collective freedom. Accepting that reality is confronting fear and triumphing in a greater love.

A Season for Witch Hunts

written by AMANDA GROSS

Tis the season.

Centuries before White Ladies began selling our souls to Whiteness we were fighting our living death in Patriarchy, in our own communities and in our own homes.

Wooden Frame; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Wooden Frame; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

The witch hunts of Europe spanned 15th-18th Centuries and targeted at least tens of thousands of women* and men and even children (some estimates reach into the millions). While the Roman Catholic Church was defending its political and economic base in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, the social purging of those accused of witchcraft was something both Christian sects enthusiastically agreed on. Rooting out evil, the witch became the criminal of the day, a convenient scapegoat whose tortures, trials, and burnings fueled religious, political, and social institutions. Priests and ministers were back in demand, called in desperation to exorcise the demons. New courts were established, expert judges and attorneys were required to legitimize fear and its antidote – law and order.** Mayors and other leaders vowed to purify their towns, platforming off of the fear, suspicion, and subsequent hatred.

Sound familiar?

Neighbors testified against neighbors, against the very women who had served as midwives at their births.*** We told on each other. We took our unchecked personal vendettas straight to the ears of those who could do us harm. We whispered our dissatisfactions and accusations and they traveled. The negativity and rumors repeated and mutated, feeding into the hands of the men in power, who inflicted institutionalized terror in God’s name and then washed their hands of any responsibility. Some of the dead were buried. Others burned.

This is our history too.

In The Witch in the Western Imagination, Lyndal Roper describes how one common person accused of witchcraft made the mistake of marrying into royalty. Agnes, the wife of the Duke of Bavaria, was ultimately drowned by her father-in-law in order to keep a class structure in place. Her marriage dared to assert “that the honor of the citizen town dweller as equal to that of the nobel.” Gold digger! This violent enforcement of class divide an inspirational predecessor to anti-miscegynation laws soon to come in the colonies of North America?

His & Hers, by Amanda K Gross

His & Hers, by Amanda K Gross

And this projected envy appears thematically throughout this gruesome history. Roper writes, “The theme of envy emerges time and time again in witchcraft… [the symbol of the witch] could represent Envy, evoke the evils of feminine allure, horrify with her murderous violence against children and kin…”. Neighbors told on neighbors. Friends insinuated about former friends. Children outed parents. And while we know European society in general was not all about raising women up in equality, as a collective group we played right into their hands. It was the betrayal we did to each other and ultimately to ourselves that gave the enemy their proof. It is the betrayal to ourselves and to each other today that keeps the web of White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy strong.

We still do this all the time. We gravitate to the witch hunt, a toxic coping mechanism to purge ourselves of imperfection, wrongdoing, and responsibility. We project envy onto others and fuel our own fear. They must want what we have. As long as the enemy is The Other then it can’t be us. Except, this world is set up so that we are an other. White women have been bought off by whiteness so that we no longer think we are The Other. We have fooled ourselves into believing that our right to play the whiteness game protects us from misogyny, that the material benefits of a home security system in a “safe” neighborhood will protect us from the rape culture within, that the intellectual benefits of academic degrees and selling our minds for profit is superior to selling our bodies to survive.

Domesticated Installation, by Amanda K Gross

Domesticated Installation, by Amanda K Gross

But deep down, under the veil of whiteness, these systems are not for us either. They never were. A lineage that stems from the great Patriarch Abraham, we learned to hate ourselves even before in the Garden of Eden. Our creation story punishes our innate yearning for knowledge. The knowledge of ourselves. The knowledge of the feminine divine. When we know that we too are holy, that we are holy just because we are, then we will no longer consent to our own harm. When we have a sense of our own life-affirming power, we will no longer need to feed off of the power frenzy of the witch hunt. When we love and affirm ourselves, we will stop wasting our energy disorganizing against ourselves and begin organizing for our humanity and collective liberation.

Perhaps most powerful are Roper’s words on “the witch as a symbolic necessity.” In these European political systems built on Patriarchy, “women’s political action proved conclusive that order was overturned.” Which begs the question, what is the order that we are willing to overturn?

 

*Approximately 3/4ths of those accused of witchcraft were women and were largely accused of crimes against human and agriculture fertility.

**Roper writes that attorneys began to make “a fortune in legal consultations…” and established a lucrative system in “housing and feeding the children, and paying guards to watch over them.” The roots of our U.S. juvenile justice system are not so difficult to trace.

***As Roper writes, “…themes of witches causing miscarriages were ironic as witches [as midwives] were often responsible for the health of pregnancy and birth.”  The control of labor here takes on multiple layers of meaning.

Mennonite Humble and Other Pathways to Hell

written by AMANDA GROSS

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

Generational cycles repeat.

Autumn's Fall by Amanda K Gross

Autumn’s Fall by Amanda K Gross

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

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

6

Schoolhouse Quilt by Amanda K Gross

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

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

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

Domesticated #2: Potholder by Amanda K Gross

Domesticated #2: Potholder by Amanda K Gross

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

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

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

Martyr's Mirror Comes Home

Martyr’s Mirror Comes Home by Amanda K Gross

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

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

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

Hibernation by Amanda K Gross

Hibernation by Amanda K Gross

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

Status Quo Passing

WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross

What I learned from feminism is that my experience is a valid way of knowing. What I learned from womanism is that not all women have the same experiences. What I learned from queering these is that not all white women have the same experiences, that language matters, and that I need to be consciously deliberate when discerning when and how to name, when and how to include and exclude. I am learning the power of precision of language and also its limitations.*

We can use words to categorize and separate. We can use words to erase. We can use words to assert experience and we can use words to resist.

The Archer (Detail) by Amanda K Gross

The Archer (Detail) by Amanda K Gross

I believe that the naming of white womanhood as a shared identity and collective experience within the context of White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism is powerful because of the particular role white women have played in upholding these interlocking structures and because the existence of white womanhood reflects it. There is no white womanhood without White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism and there is no White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism without white womanhood.

Within the extensive humanity categorically imposed on by “white womanhood” is a range of diversity. Subsequently, resistance comes in many forms. Informed by the resistance struggles of People of Color and Women and Queer Folks of Color in particular who have embodied this wisdom for generations,  my resistance emerges from cycles of self-reflection, a never-ending journey of identifying with, rejecting, and reclaiming the words attributed to me. I move through this world as a white lady. And in my thirty-two-and-a-half years in this body I have always been able to pass as status quo.**

White Camo by Amanda K Gross

White Camo by Amanda K Gross

As a generally nondescript white woman, my external appearance easily blends into the standard of white hetero-normativity. In other words, when you see my small to medium 5 foot 7 inch frame walk down the grocery store aisle, when you see my straight naturally light brown hair pulled back in a pony tail, my bare face, peppy earth tone outfit, and sensible shoes, you don’t initially think, “Now, there goes someone rejecting White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism.” A more typical response is that I am not seen because I pass so seamlessly into the seas of whiteness. I am easily missed in the branding of good little white girl and well-intentioned white lady. In my ninth grade math class the (also white) teacher could not remember my name, naming me and the other white girl in the class the same all school year long.  My status quo white-womaness provided camouflage into the institutional (white) walls. Blending into whiteness offered far less scrutiny but came with the erasure of identity and self, a cancerous conformity that has infiltrated at the cellular level. There are still so many times that I mistake it for Me.

In addition to not being singled out for notice or scrutiny, I receive the general magnanimous benefit of the doubt, even when I am in the wrong. Like that one time in college I was speeding 50 in a 25 mph school zone, a police officer followed me the entire time. When he finally pulled me over, he glanced at my license and registration, looked me up and down and gave me a warning with stern politeness. I did not invoke white woman tears. I did not have to. The thing about being a status quo passing white woman is that there is choice.

Earlier this year I was summoned for jury duty. When my name was called and the attorneys asked me if I could be fair and impartial, my response, verbatim:”I don’t believe in impartiality.”  An hour later I was selected as a juror. Maybe it was the sweater or the ponytail, but despite my very clear testimony to the contrary, those attorneys knew that I was the status quo white lady they had been waiting for. They had already made up their minds based on my appearance and not on my words. So that also in status quo passing white womanhood, many choices have already been made.

Daisy, Framed by Amanda K Gross

Daisy, Framed by Amanda K Gross

Passing has its added unearned advantages. I get access to spaces and am privy to conversations for status quo white ears only. I can collect intel by the water cooler, glide through security, get hired for the job, and inspire the confidence of the oblivious, the boastful, and those most intent on preserving the status quo. The white privilege I have grants me access to systems and institutions, yet even within whiteness, passing for status quo allows me greater access than, for example, my white queer siblings. This ability to pass can be a strategic blessing but also a dangerous, self-inflating illusion – just like whiteness. Harnessing this level of institutional access for anti-racist change is a critical but tremendous responsibility and requires extensive and ongoing communication, self-reflection, and accountability to People of Color and other white folks who are engaging in the work of anti-racism. How do I know and name my power? How do I use it wisely?

Recently, in conversations with other anti-racist white organizers, my language and organizing around the shared experience of white womanhood has been challenged as linear in thought with the potential consequence of further dividing white people, rather than fostering unity around the shared experience of whiteness. While I understand and strongly adhere to using the lens of Undoing Racism – especially because of white folks’ tendencies to promote our experiences being in oppressed groups as an excuse to not confront our own internalized racism – championing unity without analyzing power within whiteness does us all a disservice. This promotes a false unity rather than acknowledging the lived and embodied disunity, an acknowledgement necessary to detangling the interlocking origins of oppression. Unpacking my whiteness means combing through status quo white ladyness for the explicit purpose of deepening our collective understanding of whiteness and the work of resistance. Unpacking my whiteness means courageously recovering the knowing of my body and the knowing of my experience in order to further collective liberation.

 

*I learned these ideas about language and when to include and exclude from the wisdom and teaching of Cavanaugh Quick, who is brilliant.

**“What do we mean by the term “white woman”? “When we say “white woman,” we are not necessarily referring to a personal identity. We are referring to a dominant or mainstream identity with certain images, messages and narratives that have been used to uphold systems of oppression. It is an identity that many who have experienced socialization as white and female often have to negotiate with, whether by resisting, conforming, imitating, subverting or distancing. It’s this negotiation and relationship to “white women” that we are investigating, whether it is our current identity, a past or new identity, or a personal or political connection to the effects of this identity. In our dialogues and workshops we honor every body’s unique relationship to the themes explored. Even if we have never had a Barbie, we know what she looks like, what she symbolizes and what oppressions are committed in her name.”

White Lady Ego

WRITTEN BY AMANDA GROSS

When I think of egotistical foolishness the first images that pop into my head are white business men in power suits, then secondly corporate lawyers and real estate developers, followed by televangelists,  ivy league frat boys, and last but not least, politicians, definitely politicians. One in particular comes to mind who kinda embodies all of the above. Ego in these archetypes gets built on ultra-macho hyper-masculinity, entitled white privilege, inherited wealth, and those dollar signs in the eyeballs. The ego is clear, bold, arrogant, assured. It is that inflated ego that allows an elite white athlete at an elite white school to commit sexual assault with the confidence of minimal repercussions, that same athlete’s father to plead for leniency positioning his son as real the victim, and a Superior Court judge to basically agree.

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

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).

Here are three big white lady ego themes. (There are so many more! Feel free to share your anecdotes of white lady ego by commenting on this post.) (Also, this white lady ego break down comes out of application of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s framework of Internalized Racial Superiority (IRS). The sneaky white lady ego manifestations are IRS for those of us who have been socialized as white girls and white women.

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

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

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

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 . 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

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.

 

Church of One

written by Amanda Gross

It is no secret that Mennonite culture subsists on conflict avoidance.

In the white North American Mennonite culture that I’ve known, it is considered closer to God to keep the peace rather than transform the tension. When voices get loud or heated, there is a large quiet majority championing the status quo of silence. They are caring, worried, good Mennonite women who worship relationship. They are the offended, concerned church leaders who offer their unsolicited advice. They are the whisperers and grumblers whose conversations may never leave their living rooms. The Mennonite identity as pacifist, the church’s position on peace, along with a lasting martyr-complex of turning the other cheek has clouded generational understanding of how to healthily engage in conflict. The pendulum swings quickly from suppression to division with a sharpened blade reducing the speaking of multiple truths and isolating an analysis of power.

Nannie & Pop Mixed media by Amanda K Gross

Nannie & Pop Mixed media by Amanda K Gross

I have this vivid memory from when I was 6 or 7 of my mother and her sister coming out of the church Sunday school building in tears. It must have been late spring or early fall, the last of a series of after-church meetings in which the adults locked themselves in the brick and cinderblock air-conditioned building and the children played happily in the honeysuckle and poison ivy outside. When I asked what was going on, I was told they were very sad because many people, including my aunt, were leaving our church. And so our church of a committed 75 (out of the Atlanta metro area’s 5 million) was whittled down to 40ish and a second Atlanta Mennonite church was formed.

If you don’t live in Pennsylvania or Ohio or Ontario and aren’t one, then Mennonite probably doesn’t mean much to you. Which makes sense, there are less than 400,000 of us in the U.S. You could move all the Mennonites in the U.S. into the city limits of Cleveland, Ohio and still have room for 10,000 OTMs (Other Than Mennonites*). Also you would have total and silent war. While Mennonites can usually live symbiotically alongside of OTMs, the insider/outsider norms** are much harder to maintain when everyone is claiming insider status. Mennonites have been self-dividing since the start of Anabaptism and the Protestant Reformation back in Europe back in the day and this pattern of behavior shows no sign of stopping. It’s a voluntary, passive form of divide and conquer under the guise of peace that helps preserve structural violence both within and outside of the Mennonite Church(es).

*Other Than Mennonite was a demographic option at my Mennonite college.

Yet this self-division is not unique to the Mennonites. Christianity, Catholicism, Anabaptism, Protestantism – sect after sect in a Euro-centric history of groups dividing and othering in search of the One Right Way, claiming it as something they own and possess, creating others and OTMs and cutting them off from the One Right Way  – dividing and dividing and dividing every time there is a conflict until our churches are churches of one. We are churches of one.

Two incredible resources have helped shape my understanding of white culture and its U.S. Mennonite subsidiary – the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s framework on Internalized Racial Oppression (Internalized Racial Superiority for white folks) and a document via WHAT’S UP?! on White Supremacy Culture (from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun). The pendulum of conflict avoidance gives insight into how we’ve internalized superiority and how white culture is maintained: Distancing. Denial. Individualism. Competition and Comparison. Either/Or Thinking. Fear of Open Conflict. Power Hoarding. Compartmentalization. These aspects are not exceptions. They are the norms that flow down the aisles and through the doors of our churches, in and out of our do-good non-profits, and up and down the stairs of our homes. Like the wild strawberries growing beside the much more nutritious and yummier ones I planted, these aspects are complexly intertwined and difficult to extricate.

Limbs of a Family Tree Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Limbs of a Family Tree Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

And so good white ladies keep the peace, keep the norms, are the keepers of status quo structural violence. The pendulum of conflict avoidance is full of imagined and real life consequences. When white ladies prioritize relationships and keeping the peace, it calls on a history of excommunication and shunning with its social, emotional, and material penalties for severing relationship. There are and historically have been real material consequences to not maintaining the status quo in ways that can and have jeopardized the survival of oneself and one’s children. This emotional and psychological threat looms over our heads. Our social and familial belonging is so fragile, so conditional, that one wrong move could leave one socially and communally banished, shamed, disconnected, and very possibly condemned to hell.

White women have internalized these messages and ways so deeply – that we are only as valuable as our relationships, that our self-worth comes from and is defined by our relationship to others, especially in relationship to our parents, spouses, and children, especially in upholding the white family structure. I have learned that my social power and subsequent validity comes from what others think of me. Others not liking me threatens my sense of self. I have internalized that I must not come across as mean, rude, harsh, aggressive, assertive, loud, angry, or intense. Above all, I must not offend. Polite silence is demanded (but in a nice, quiet, non confrontational sort of way – until it isn’t).

In addition to several emails and phone calls from family members, I received two public comments about a recent blog post, The Mask I Wore to My Grandpa’s Funeral. The  first was supportive. The second, from the pastor who officiated my grandpa’s funeral. He said:

It would seem more loving to check out your perceptions with others before declaring such judgments for all to hear.
Randy

More Loving.  Along with inspiring an internal firestorm, this comment brought up some thoughts and is an opportunity to share my processing with all of you. It brought up questions like, when did agape love become quantifiable? When did love become separated from truth-telling and honesty and naming injustice in order to have accountability and the hope of transformation? Is that not a part of love? If I compromised my truth to better suit your ears, would it make a difference? How would polite lies increase the love in between these words? Would it actually incite change? Or fall without response like countless voices for generations much more marginalized than mine? To have a representative of institutional, cultural, religious, and spiritual authority question the degrees of love behind my words triggers centuries of dismissal and control by those in power. More Loving calls on the stereotype of the good white selfless non-confrontational Christian woman I am supposed to be with an added element of shaming from a white patriarchal authority. A stand in for my father. A stand in for God. Whoever gets to define love gets to measure it.

Checking out My Perceptions.  My perceptions are my perceptions and no one else’s. There is a myth rooted deep in our dominant culture around objective truth. This myth tells us that there is one right perception and one objective truth. That an objective truth is even possible. While my perceptions have been built and formed from my life experience with input from many others (see Acknowledgements), Pastor Randy’s concerns seem to indicate that my perceptions are not consistent with the menu of perceptions served weekly at his church. This is not to single out his pulpit, which I would guess is consistent with many other pulpits throughout Mennoland and white western Christendom with vast theological silence on the structural violence that we as American Mennonites/Christians perpetuate. It is also incorrect to assume that I have not checked out my perceptions with others. I have been in conversation with the Mennonite pulpit, in one way or another, my whole life.

qui est la Juge? (who is the Judge?)

qui est la Juge? (who is the Judge?) Mixed media by Amanda K Gross

Declaring Judgements.  Similar to More Loving, Declaring Such Judgements is an attempted dismissal. Among the things that good Christian women are not supposed to be is judgmental, but also harsh, critical, mean, and intense. As white women, we are supposed to put others’ feelings first, but especially the feelings of white men. We are supposed to prioritize the judgements of those in institutional authority over our own. Thank you, Felicia Lane Savage, for reminding me that having good judgement is a positive thing – actually one that my Mennonite upbringing taught me – and for reminding me that we need to cultivate discernment along with continued self-reflection in our lives.

For All to Hear.  **Gloria Rhodes, one of my professors at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, used to say, “Mennonites have a guest/host culture”. That means if you are a guest or an outsider you will be given full, unconditional hospitality, grace, acceptance, and love, but you will not be given decision-making power or the right to claim collective identity and belonging. There is a clear line drawn between who belongs and who doesn’t, who gets to make decisions and who doesn’t, and who gets to claim identity as an insider. The host and guest forever remain distinct and apart. And it is implied (although Mennonite Humble would never let you admit it) that the host is really the one in the know. Another way to think of this is internalized superiority, but we really shouldn’t be talking about this because in doing so I am exposing the dirty laundry of my community. And now you know that Mennonites aren’t just compassionate, peaceful agrarians with perfectly pitched vocals. While drawing attention to our community’s faults may have meant torture and death in the 16th Century, doing so now is not a threat to our physical safety. However, it does call in to question two things our nondisclosure and self-division keeps in place – the myth of One Right Way and our internalized specialness.

The problem with Pastor Randy’s comment, similar to the pendulum of conflict avoidance, is that it distracts us from focusing on the issues and the root causes at the heart of the matter including our complicity in it all. This dismissal and distraction is a watered down version of the angry black woman stereotype. It is a far much less life threatening version of white people dismissing and admonishing Black folks for damaging the brick and mortar of white capitalist business in response to the continued destruction of Black bodies, the irreparable ending of human life.

What I am hoping you’ll consider are the very real and deep connections between our white cultures of conflict avoidance and the perpetuation of structural violence. The pendulum of conflict avoidance, Mennonite Humble, white silence, do not make us more peaceful; they actively do harm. They violate.

My loom

My loom

I am a mixed media artist and a weaver. And through the discipline of envisioning and creating beauty, I have learned many lessons. In fiber art – knitting, crochet, sewing, embroidery, spinning, quilting, and especially in weaving – tension is critical to creation. Tension is what transforms wool into thread and thread into fabric. Without tension, the structure will not hold with integrity. When warping a loom, the tension needs to be consistent on all threads. If one thread or a section of thread is disproportionately holding the tension, the fabric will be misshapen and there is greater risk of a tear or hole. Just as in weaving, tension, conflict, and discomfort are necessary for learning, growth, and transformation. Critical feedback is important for change. Yet fear of tension, conflict, discomfort, and critical feedback paralyzes us.

Last week, I reconnected with a friend and colleague who escaped from his home country two days before a political coup. Had he not left, he might have faced life-threatening consequences, and many people he knew have. Having been surrounded by such a violent reality, his North American friends asked him if he was afraid. “Why would I be afraid?” he asked with sincerity, “I am safe. We are no longer in physical danger.”

We have learned to cultivate lives of misplaced fear and constant anxiety. Yet we are perhaps the safest of them all.

Go in peace.

The Mask I Wore to My Grandpa’s Funeral

WRITTEN BY AMANDA GROSS

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

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

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

Cycles of Trauma (in progress) by Amanda K Gross

Cycles of Trauma (in progress) by Amanda K Gross

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

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

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

Dining Room Table by Amanda K Gross

Dining Room Table by Amanda K Gross

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

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

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

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

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

White Void by Amanda K Gross

White Void by Amanda K Gross

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

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

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

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

White Silence by Amanda K Gross

White Silence by Amanda K Gross