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.

 

They Cut Down the Trees so There Would Be No Witnesses

written by AMANDA GROSS

They cut down the trees so there would be no witnesses.

Les Temoins 1; Pen and Ink by Amanda K Gross

Once there were two, some type of conifer and a maple that had merged with the power lines. The latest East Liberty residents to be displaced, cut down by an expert team of planners, developers, and arborists, who paid the working class to do the dirty work. One tall, the other wide, they were both deemed lacking in middle class values, taking up too much space, interrupting the flow of light, disrupting the aesthetic of the sidewall, interfering with progress. In winter I would shovel away its cones with the snow and in summer discard her tags so they wouldn’t become uninvited trees of their own. Tender, (in)Tending to keep the garden pure. In their wisdom they knew what was going down, probably long before their neighbors had a hunch. As autumn came, the real estate agents began changing color too. The ELDI crime report blemished the street as the holdout hotspot for danger in an area destined for a label of good . The well-intentioned white folks hid among the raspberries. That summer thirty children claimed the block and the mobile basketball hoop appeared and reappeared eventually blending into the empty lot in full morning glories. The ongoing rotation of siren – ambulance, firetruck, police – our tax dollars at work for whiteness. Were the limber witnesses grieved by the losses? Were they appalled at the city’s lack of care? Did their hearts swell with the children, lovers, families, friends? Were they soothed by the warm greetings and cookout smells? Did they feel a part of the community? A sense of be-long?

This morning the city came and turned the stump into a pile of mulch, our history composted inside her DNA.

Les Temoins 2; Pen and Ink by Amanda K Gross

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.”

The White Police Officer in my Upper Right Trapezius

written by AMANDA GROSS

A quick glance around my family shows a pattern of carrying stress in the upper shoulders and neck. My mother’s pain is particularly acute and I have a knot in my upper right shoulder that has been a part of me since I can remember.  There is an inherited generational aspect of how our bodies hold tension and trauma, where we store our sorrows to grieve later and where we preserve our anxieties, a constant reminder of the social norms and boundaries that we dare not cross, an in-body experience of violence as we police ourselves. We police our whiteness in our own bodies just like the police enforce whiteness on others’ bodies. Resulting in more dead bodies. We externalize the death of bodies as we internalize the enforcement of our souls.

Whiteness (Detail) by Amanda K Gross

Whiteness (Detail) by Amanda K Gross

I once gave a sermon at Pittsburgh Mennonite Church on how fear is just as much the opposite of love as hate. Fear keeps us from loving full-heartedly, keeps us from moving courageously towards others, towards knowing and loving ourselves, towards change. Anxiety, a grating manifestation of fear, is a constant and strategic product of our dominant culture and system. Because white supremacist capitalist patriarchy teaches us that our value and worth is based on the compared and competitive value and worth of others, there is the constant anxiety (often unconscious) of self-checking and self-regulating that goes on. All. The. Time.

Am I attractive/smart/competent/athletic/appropriate/friendly/nice/good/wealthy/humble ENOUGH?

We are taught that we are ENOUGH when others are not, precisely because others are not.

This constant anxiety of enlarged ego and ever-present fear grates at our souls. Like rushing water, it needs somewhere to go, so we externalize and project our fears onto others, the Other. We are afraid of ourselves and we don’t want to be so instead we are afraid of them, the person praying to Allah on our flight, the person asking for bus fare at our car window, the person selling DVDs or cigarettes. And our fear must be controlled, dominated, brought to its knees, so we destroy it by destroying.

The Pledge by Amanda K Gross

The Pledge by Amanda K Gross

The consumerism and materialism that stems from capitalism and its myths of limitlessness teach us that our value and worth and self-esteem come from owning and dominating material things, the earth, and other people. Status, happiness, and fulfillment all come from material gratification, which only some of us can attain at the cost and abuse of the earth and other people. While historical austerity in the Mennonite tradition meant that materialism was differently culturally enforced, I still internalized that my worth and value is deeply connected to image, appearance, comparison and competition, and especially what others think of me (or more accurately, how I perceive them to be perceiving me). Beauty standards for white women originate in part from the historical sex slave trade in Europe and have been shaped through the lens of patriarchy, bent on the objectification, sexualization, and control of women’s bodies. This coupled with Christianity’s limiting role for women as chaste (yet still perfectly attractive) mothers, wives, and daughters left me with the scars of a negative self-body image and unrealistic cookie cutter anatomical goals that pitted me against friends as I constantly compared my body to other bodies. Anxiety led me to starve, stuff, and purge my body (and soul), to self-police my white womaness. So much mental and emotional energy went into my addictive self-destruction. My body resisted. I am still learning resistance. Turns out these hips are here to stay.

The hard part about social media is that tragedies greet us in the morning and at night. The blessing is that what some have experienced all along is now in the rest of our faces. The lie is that we can be separate from these horror stories. Who are you when state sanctioned law enforcement takes the life of another Black and Brown person? Who am I? I am the wife that cop goes home to at night who watches the local news and teaches my kids to be afraid of strangers. I am the woman who locks the door the second I’m in the car, clutches my purse, crosses the street, and avoids eye contact. I am the family member who lets a subtly (or not so subtly) racist comment slide for fear of creating conflict because I want to keep the peace (just as police keep the peace). I am not a helpless bystander, but make choices everyday that uphold the whiteness that these police officers are enforcing.

This Hat Made in the USA: The Scope of Whiteness

This Hat Made in the USA: The Scope of Whiteness

White supremacy has allowed white people to “do” racial justice work from an intellectual standpoint, to study racism as a phenomenon outside of us, to pathologize the racial others, but not ourselves. Feminism taught me that the personal is political and that means bringing my full self and my family and my history and putting it all on the table along with public school policy, gentrification, and our growing economic reliance on the enslavement of people (again) we have labeled criminals.

And even though I acknowledge the interconnectedness of it all and just wrote the above paragraphs, I still try to root out the white police officer inside of me – as if I can live in this world and not be impacted every moment. I have been trying to know it in order to surgically remove its badness and make myself apart from it. I have been trying to make myself better than I was, better than it. Better is still a hierarchy of value, if even only pertaining to me. And because I am still thinking I can be separate, I am so easily devastated when someone points out that I am not.

Bland by Amanda K Gross

Bland by Amanda K Gross

I am learning to hold the complexities, or at least hold an awareness that the complexities exist and build resilience. The white police officer in my shoulder exists alongside of my creativity, my intuition, my power. The problem is that the strength of the knot has been built over many years (centuries really) and is reinforced daily by almost everything. Its overdevelopment has meant the atrophy of my creativity, intuition, and power. When I do the smallest things to subvert whiteness and patriarchy the system holds me fast. And that makes me pissed and also motivated. It’s a discipline. I must learn to understand and identify these parts of me as a way to know and love myself, as a way to make different choices driven by consciousness, intent, and accountability. I must not ignore and dismiss it. I must deal with it. We must deal with it together.

If this journey is indeed a resurrection story then this is a fight for me and my humanity. If this struggle is about doing less harm to others, then it is also about doing less harm to myself. If this struggle is about loving others, then it is also about loving me. We need white folks who can lend their creative selves to this movement, not out of the insecurity and low self-esteem, and not out of guilt (as a wise white teen said to me matter-of-factly, “Guilt is just another form of self-hate.”) and martyrdom that seeks to lay oneself low so that others may rise above, but out of the honest tensions that holding these complexities bring, out of openly loving life and the growing and learning that is living into our imperfect, interconnected humanity.

And when we white folks wake up and begin to see the slightest bit of how we are also policed and are self-policing, when we begin to feel the slightest frustration of confinement, when we feel the tip of anger, we have important choices to make.

Same Coin by Amanda K Gross

Same Coin by Amanda K Gross

Will we cower in fear of ourselves and pull the  quilt of #notallwhitepeople up over our heads and continue to go about our lives as usual? Will we blame our white siblings and separate ourselves from the bad apple cops and the KKK, washing our hands of any responsibility? Will we push and shove and shout angrily at the protest march, an adrenaline of activism with the potential to further jeopardize the safety of the Black and Brown bodies who we march beside? Will we subvert whiteness on the daily? Will we look at ourselves with courage and take the work of transformation seriously, as if our own lives depend on it? Will we change our habits and decisions at work, at home, at school, at the store even if it means risking our jobs, our houses, our degrees, our possessions? Will we change in order to risk our jobs, our houses, our degrees, and our possessions?

The illusion is that these were ever ours to begin with. The illusion is that there is even an ours to begin with.