Snow White Denial – On Being the Victim, Villain, and Heroine

written by AMANDA GROSS

My grandmother was recently moved to an assisted living facility. At 92 and 2/3rds, she now has a 250 square foot space (actually intended for double occupancy) all to herself, that has a view of the mountains and a bird feeder with it cheery seasonal flag. It was hard to visit her.

Driving south through West Virginia, the snow fall began. After an hour of hazardous conditions and a couple of tense moments, I arrived at her home in the mountains, the countryside blanketed in a fresh 12-inch coat of snow. The mid-March snow cover in its equanimity hid both the carcasses of last night’s roadkill and spring’s daffodil starts.

Snow White 2; Photo by Amanda K Gross

I was in denial too. My last visit had been in November and the one before that 11 months previous. My phone calls to her were becoming fewer and farther between as her memory and conversational skills began to disintegrate. Sure, I’ve had my reasons – busyness, work schedule, distance, unreliable transportation – there are always excellent reasons! But the impact remains: my not wanting to look at the painful truth of her aging has furthered her isolation.

Nannie with the Strawberries; Photo by Amanda K Gross

She was always the strong one, of the Pop & Nannie pair. Not overly warm, soft, or cuddly like my other grandma, Nannie was no-nonsense, get-to-work, and reliable in the way that shouted her love from the mountaintops. She was always so sturdy and stable – a rock and sometimes a hard place. Now her balance and mobility falter and her heart is cracking open, too.

Since I have been praying to be a truth-seeker, revelations are following me around everywhere I go.

The night of my arrival my mother somewhat matter-of-factly handed me an article during dinner. “I thought this might interest you,” she said, as I quickly skimmed the evidence that our Mast cousins who had “disappeared as Mennonite” after mid 1700 migration from Switzerland to Pennsylvania to North Carolina did indeed enslave humans and also raped them. “Kinship Concealed: Amish-Mennonite & African American Family Connections” co-written by my 12th-ish cousin, Dwight Roth who is white and by my also 12th-ish cousin, Sharon Cranford who is Black, challenges decades of Mennonite denial around our connection to and participation in slavery.*

“Sharon Cranford portrayal of the Charlie Mast legacy” article by Paul Kurtz

What an incredibly horrible and profoundly delicious fate. I chose the title Mistress Syndrome to align my white lady identity with the legacy of the mistress of the antebellum plantation because I reap the privileges (and the pain) of her legacy today whether my biological ancestors enslaved people or not. Turns out they did. In my delusion of control, I thought that I had cleverly chosen Mistress Syndrome, but clearly she chose me.

This feels like confession and I’m not even Catholic.**

WWG3 Family History Altar; Photo by Amanda K Gross

In other do-gooder narrative-shattering news, European Mennonites had an affinity for Nazism. I first learned a piece of this shushed history last year reading Ben Goossen’s article entitled “Mennonite Fascism“. But then, this week while gazing out across the snowy mountain view, I read a Facebook post from a former professor that there was enough of this history for an entire academic conference on it.  Her post shares her learnings from the conference which “feels like a betrayal of everything Mennonites are supposed to stand for…”:

“• German racial scientists used Mennonite church records and measured Mennonite noses and foreheads to prove Mennonites were “the purest Aryans”
• Some Mennonite theologians advocated for racial theology in which “morals pass through blood” and race mixing was forbidden
• Some Mennonites in Poland and Russia joined the Nazis in evicting Jews from their homes and some even participated in massacres
• Mennonite refugees sometimes were given land, homes, furniture, and clothing from Jews who had been forced into ghettos or killed
• Some Mennonites hid Jews and participated in challenging Nazi authority. At Yad Vashem in Israel, there are about 40 Dutch Mennonites who are listed as part of the Righteous of the Nations for taking risks to save Jews
• There are stories of Mennonite-Jewish mixed marriages as many Mennonites and Jews lived side by side in many European countries.
• In one case, a Mennonite woman decides to die with her Jewish husband and children rather than hiding with the Mennonite community
• Mennonite Central Committee purposefully portrayed Mennonite Nazi war criminals as refugees after the war, denying their German identity and asserting that Mennonites had their own nationality and deserved a state in Paraguay, just as Jews were creating Israel
• Some Mennonites brought these theories of racial superiority to Canada and the US. There were Mennonite Nazis in church leadership in Canada. And the white nationalist movement was started by Ben Klassen, who coined the term “racial holy war” after having grown up in a Mennonite colony in Ukraine and reading Mein Kampf there.”

It is tempting to want to remember the heroic tidbits and throw the villainous ones away. We hold all of these identities – victim, villain, and heroine – within us, at the same time.

We are living in a time of uncomfortable revelation. If we listen and absorb, it might change our lives.

Snow White; Photo by Amanda K Gross

But denial runs deep. I see it in myself and I see it in the white ladies. Like the February story link “Virginia Missionary Pleads Guilty to Widespread Sexual Abuse in Haiti” that sat unopened on my browser for weeks because I suspected he was a Virginia Mennonite Missionary (he was), like the carcasses under the snow, like the slight stench of urine that permeates my grandma’s newfound assisted life, I don’t really want to know. It is easier or habitual or a privilege to ignore it and leave the clean up to the paid help. It is easier to recite the narrative of victim and heroine, to post our chosen trauma and chosen glories*** on social media and write letters of support in order to demonstrate our righteousness. It is easier to claim the territory of anti-racism rather than take responsibility for our actions. It is easier, but is it healthier?

Confrontation is not a Mennonite value or a white liberal one. I have internalized that being in open conflict is wrong (because violence is wrong) and bad (because everyone should like me) and that superficial harmony is preferred and also rewarded with the trinkets of white womanhood. So to be confronted so specifically with a personal inheritance of Slavery, Systematic Rape, the Holocaust, Colonization, Missionary Imperialism, Systematic Rape of Children, and my Grandmother’s Decay all in one month feels overwhelming.  It is painful to feel and also sometimes I feel numb. In response, I make art and write blog posts late at night.

Collage detail by Amanda K Gross

But what keeps me (on most days) from wallowing in the quick sand of self-pity, what keeps me from ten thousand excellent reasons to turn my head, what keeps me from luxuriating in the rabbit hole of rationalized self-care is ACCOUNTABILITY. A six syllable monster of a word that is not as scary as it sounds. Actually in my experience it has been a relief.

Right beside my feeling of overwhelm and grief is the recognition of the humans at the receiving end of my bloody inheritance, the impact of which is not so neatly in the past. Knowing this keeps me grounded. Being in relationship keeps me focused. Knowing that people suffer today because of my contributions – whether current or historical – gives me an opportunity at redemption. Every breath-filled moment I have on this earth is a chance for renewal. While much of it has been written, I get to add chapters to Mistress Syndrome’s legacy every single day.

Collage detail by Amanda K Gross

I have accountability to others and I have accountability to myself. I know from experience that denial is a form of self-harm, that repressing and ignoring trauma does not make their effects go away, that running only amasses more of whatever I was running from. I confront in order to save my Self.

Collage detail by Amanda K Gross

The confusing thing that we must learn as white ladies is that our contributions lie not in the heroism (heroinism?) of the helper’s cape, but in our ability to shovel away the snow where there will certainly be both carcasses and daffodils. We must go through it. There is so much snow to shovel that it is not an individual task, but one we must go through together. The shame, the pain, the misery, the excuses, the mental illness, the greener grass, the fear of vulnerability will seek to divide us and threaten our success (it already has). But my critical realism is ultimately optimistic. It has to be.

Chickens and Krokbragd; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

*The article entitled “Sharon Cranford portrayal of the Charlie Mast legacy” was interesting in that its title left out the white co-author’s name (who is also portraying the Charlie Mast legacy) and that it was written by my great-uncle who has taken on the honored role of family historian since my great-grandfather – his father – passed.

**Catholic private confession grew in popularity at the same time as land privatization at time when the ruling class sought to undermine the social fabric and resistance of European peasants. It also made priests the middle men of community relationships and possible encouraged passive aggression and conflict avoidant behavior.

***I learned about chosen traumas and chosen glories from the Little Book of Trauma Healing and will be writing more on this theme in the upcoming book also entitled Mistress Syndrome.

 

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.

When in Rome

written by Amanda Gross

I am the guest whose invitation long ran out before the stars were crowded out with  the constant glow of dead dinosaurs. (We consume our dead dinos with a side of human debris spanning three continents, the destruction of descendents of some of earth’s oldest civilizations.)

An original invitation  (most likely reluctant, a mix of compassion and wise suspicion), which was subverted then co-opted, I was greeted at the threshold by another uninvited guest*. His gestures grand, his welcome sincere, his land was not his land to give. He welcomed me in the house on behalf of the host. Looking somewhat like me, I took him at his word.

Mennonite Church; Collage by Amanda K Gross

I am the guest who has suffered. I bring all my luggage. I dump it at the door. I embrace the host and cry on their shoulder and leave a trail of snotty tissues wherever I go. My white tears are vast, my trauma deep, and I demand to be consoled. When my home was never a sanctuary how could I respect my host’s as one? Never before has being a guest come with such lax responsibilities and so I take full advantage and self-indulge.

Trauma Container; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Trauma Container; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

I am the guest who overstayed both tentative and temporary hospitality. I moved my furniture into the spare room and hung my clothes in the closet. I put up a mirror and named it my room. I replaced the photos on the walls, redecorated with a more modern decor, and planted my perennials in the garden. And when my children and grandchildren and their children’s children outgrew the spare room and the halls and the common space with our clutter and our waste and our pets and our slaves, it was a shame, but I had to ask those who used to live here to leave the house and find a spot out back, reserved, I told them, just for them.

Many generations later, I am the guest who sits and listens to young person after young person share vulnerably individual human traumas, amassed a part of a community’s collective intergenerational trauma. I am told and I tell myself that I am a guest. And so I try and resist the urge to collect: stories, traumas, experiences, lessons. I resist the voyeuristic impulse I inherited from Blumenbach**, the “father of anthropology”, of looking in and categorizing, measuring, comparing, and weighing against what it is I think I know. I resist the myth of objectivity and the myth of knowing better than. I remind myself that an invitation is not a pass. I worry about contributing. Then I worry about worrying about contributing. I center my whiteness. Then I center my humanity. And then I just get confused.

I remember that general advice to act like the Romans when in Rome.  And then I remember that the Romans just took wherever they were and called it Rome. When performing conqueror, one is always at home.

I vow to be uncomfortable. And then I vow to love myself.

The Chickens got away with Jesus: Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

I take the bus to the light rail in the city in which I am a guest which is in an entire country that is also a guest. I am uncomfortable in the unseasonably cold rain and on the smelly train. I carefully step over something unidentifiably gross on the ground and stand too long at the intersection waiting awkwardly for cars to stop so I can safely cross. I congratulate myself on being uncomfortable earlier in the day and in staying engaged in the discomfort.

YROL Card Draft: Drawing by Amanda K Gross

And then I walk into the hotel lobby and a white man with a mustache (no lie) greets me at the door and offers me a freshly baked chocolate cookie. The other uninvited guests fill in all around me. They join me in the hotel hot tub, workout next to me on the exercise equipment, and politely hold the door for me up the stairwell to my room.

There is an illusion of human belonging as I settle into the peace and quiet afforded to me as the rest of the young humans I spent the day with go back to their many realities and take the night shift at the front desk of the hotel lobby while I lay my head on my pillow and drift off to sleep.

*William Penn invited Swiss German Mennonites who were fleeing persecution in Europe to join his colonial experiment in what is today Pennsylvania. European Mennonites have been invited to many countries in order to help make non-arable land arable, resulting in the displacement and destruction of many indigenous cultures, communities, and peoples in several locations around the world.

**Blumenbach is one of a slew of European scientists who over several generations developed “a false science to classify human beings with the explicit objective of placing white people as the height of humanity and white culture as the pinnacle of human achievement”. (This comes from the definition of “Race” by the People’s Instititute for Survival and Beyond)

Staying at the Lorraine Motel; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

How the Blatant Segregation of The North Made Me Realize the Subtle Segregation of The South

written by AMANDA GROSS

There is a myth in white America that white southerners are responsible for the racism of this country.

Spilt Milk; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Despite being raised in the South, I grew up with some of this messaging too. After all, I wasn’t really from from Atlanta and neither were a lot of the white people around me. My mama grew up deep in the mountains of Appalachia, but she wasn’t really from from there either. One generation back her parents were solidly from Amish Mennonite Pennsylvania. My dad came directly from north of Philly, so there was no question on his side. And with both lines being from from Swiss German Anabaptist pacifist roots, we were in the clear when it came to being on the side of racism=bad and besides no slaveholding (whew!). So when Ms. Sylvia told me stories of mean white boys at the bus stop and taught me to be a different kind of white person, I knew there was some connection between them and me. I knew I was white. But I also knew I wasn’t Southern in that way.

Cue Scarlett O’Hara.

Despite “not being Southern in that way”, upon reflection a number of curious circumstances stand out. On one hand, I was given all sorts of concrete examples of how not to be like the mean, angry lynch mobs and slaveholders of Southern history. On the other, Gone with the Wind made a very short list of approved films for my childhood viewing. This encouragement included tours of the Margaret Mitchell home and a general sense of pride that she was from Atlanta – a white woman role model and artist/writer who succeeded in her field despite the sexism of the day. When I watched the film for the 3rd time (I loved the dresses), maybe Ms. Sylvia silently shook her head in disapproval while doing the dishes, but not one adult indicated that this was a problematic narrative. When I was confused that things didn’t match up – why were the white men all eager to go off to war when white men in my church said war was bad? why was Prissy screaming hysterically in the midst of crisis when Black women I knew were composed and knowledgeable? why did enslaved people stick around when in all the other stories I read they were trying to get the Hell out? – there wasn’t any critical discussion to help me process it. When my precocious second grade self read the book and then wanted a “Gone with the Wind”-themed birthday party (complete with hoop skirts), not only was this idea supported (by my parentals), but also people sent their children (mostly white) (also in hoop skirts). (Note: Of the birthday party goers, maybe one of my peers was from from the South.)

Squilt (detail); Hand pieced and quilted by Amanda K Gross

Cue 7 Scarletts (in hoop skirts) and 1 Rhett Butler.

Many other Southern cultural things slipped in un-complexified. Like Uncle Remus stories and field trips to Joel Chandler Harris’s house. Also visits to the Cyclorama (practically in my backyard), many picnics at the Stone Mountain (highly patriotic/Confederate leaning) laser show, and that one time, a trip to a plantation outside of Charleston.

Squilt (detail); Hand pieced and quilted by Amanda K Gross

Now I also was steeped in Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s legacy. Eighth Grade Georgia History was a semester on the evils of slavery and the wickedness of the Confederacy and then a semester on the Civil Rights Movement. Black History Month lasted the entire school year. However, somehow Southern white overt racist culture ended up kitschified by our Atlanta Yankee parents – not totally taken seriously yet not totally dismissed. Like your cute kid brother, on a good day. Harmlessly annoying, but you’re feeling generous and proud of yourself for your generosity.

Cue Pittsburgh, PA.

Upon my arrival to the North, I was totally unprepared for the level of scapegoating and denial of responsibility for things like racism. I was not prepared for how casually white folks in Pittsburgh dismissed the South as that racist place and used white southerners as a contrast to prop up their own home towns as very much not racist. The more I got to know Pittsburgh with its clear cut segregation, with its racist workplace hierarchies, with its appalling infant mortality rates for children of color, with its segregated neighborhoods, and severe lack of Black folks in positions of city and county power and authority, the more I got irritated about the Southern dissing. While Atlanta wasn’t perfect, never had I lived in a more clearly and overtly racially segregated place as Pittsburgh. I heard liberal white Pittsburghers talk about the ills of Southern racial segregation and continue on in their white bubbles without ever thinking anything of it.*

Poet’s Voice. Birds Song; Hand pieced and Quilted by Amanda K Gross

Cue self-reflective thought.

Once I moved through my irritation and initial defensiveness, this insight became a gift that has allowed me to reflect back on my growing up in Atlanta and reflect on my experiences with more honesty about how certain aspects reinforced my internalization of racism and other dynamics challenged and complexified those. Atlanta was no utopia, but the complexity of my narrative is that it gave me exposure to anti-racist ways of thinking and being in the world at the same time as giving me the potential to be just another ignorant white person.

Interestingly, growing up in inner city Atlanta, much like growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, offers the illusion of non-responsibility. In Atlanta, a white person can be literally surrounded by Black folks at work, at church, at the club, at school and yet have no – or at least very few -authentic relationships. Despite being surrounded by Black cultures, a white person can keep that bubble intact. In Pittsburgh, a white person can live their entire life without having to interact with a Person of Color in non-transactional ways, yet never connect their own history to the history of racism in this country. A white person can give the gift of full racist responsibility to our Southern cousins, giftwrap included. And so both ecologies offer the tempting deception of whew! At least it wasn’t us…

Grandmother’s Dream; Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

Let us not be swayed by a theism of whew! It takes courage and a practice of self-discipline to keep coming back to an honest mirror of our life histories. It takes attempt after attempt to delve deeper into the truths that have been covered up for us and covered up by us. It also takes a level of courage and maturity to not get stuck in a pool of self-pity and/or self-loathing and to use an honest look to inform how we change. Let us know our own pasts in order to move into the present and plan for a different future.** Let us talk acknowledge our Gone with the Wind birthday parties so that we might enter into hard, challenging, life-long dialogues with our children about racism and their connection to it. Let us ask ourselves, what are the repressed stories that need to come to light? What is the truth from our own histories that need to be resurrected and exhumed so that we can know, so that we can learn, and so that we can do different?

 

For more on the intentional Federal housing segregation policies that came out of the New Deal Era, listen to this interview on Fresh Air and read this article by Ta-Nehsi Coates.

**I just finished reading “The Present” by Spencer Johnson, which significantly influenced this blog post.

Vulnerability Sucks Part Two: The Big House

WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross

What does it mean to be a white lady who co-owns a home with a white man and have tenants of color as housemates? Is it even possible not to play out the historic roles that are our legacies? When Black women pay me to live in the Big House can there be reciprocity? Justice? Accountability? Love? Is it possible for the place to be a Home and not on some level the Big House? The tone of our relationships that have been predetermined deep within our DNA, our beliefs, our perceptions, our actions, our choices made without our consent before and yet we make the choices still now and in our day to day we choose for the future. Time is not as linear as whiteness has us believe.

As a walking micro aggression, it is inevitable that in this dynamic I will do harm. I know this. I wrote this. And still my accepting it is half the battle. The patterns that come up for me internally (and often squirm their way out externally, much to my chagrin) are bent on maintaining my denial and my own self image of good, of sweet, of not intending to and not doing harm.

Good White Lady Number One

Good White Lady Number One

There are layers, which makes it seem complicated, but it’s really not. The layers appear and reappear, some take priority in certain moments and then in my laziness or exhaustion or wanting to get it right I leave one unattended and BAM! it demands my attention (again). This is where I am.

Trying to live in anti-racist ways in a mixed race household is in many ways a set up. Material resources are, have been, and continue to be unevenly distributed. And any giving or generosity on my part is still very much on my terms. The decision-making power, the resources, the options lie with me. Even to get to a point where this would not be the case, the privilege the power to give and to take away lies with me. I can be accountable (and I am trying). I can be committed (and I am). But at the end of the day the contradiction lives on in the porous walls of the basement. It is in the foundation even though we have set up rain barrels to keep the toxic mold at bay.

Denial Sleeps Beauty

Denial Sleeps Beauty by Amanda K Gross

And then there is the matter of clarity. Who has the clarity, the wisdom, the experience to lead us out of this racist mind-fuckery? The exponential double burden of saving our collective souls falls again on the backs of those most impacted. In admiration I hesitate to put this superhuman undertaking, this beyond human feat on anyone and so I try to keep my dependency in check. I try to stand strong on my own. I try to push back the voices of doubt and worthlessness that creep in through my blondish brown ponytail and into the back of my mind. My grandmother’s voice argues with the self-doubt. “You must know,” she says pragmatically. And I do and I don’t. I know enough to know that I don’t know. I really don’t know.

For a long time my go-to strategy for not knowing has been hiding. This strategy has some merit. I approach new places, people, cultures with a listening regard. I enter as a guest. I tread lightly. I observe and watch to learn. But there always comes a point, when something does not fit quite right, something inside of me needs to express herself, something is happening and it’s making me uncomfortable. For a long time my strategy has been to push that down and accommodate the difference, to subsume myself out of respect, to be the best guest possible (Side note, there are no gold stars for this either). The goal for me is to emerge from the binary of host or guest. To no longer be a guest in my own life means vulnerability, as does no longer being the host. I have been positioned to host, a guest in host’s clothing. This land does not belong to me.

No Words Detail 2 by Amanda K Gross

No Words Detail 2 by Amanda K Gross

Now I am trying to let more of myself through. Enter Vulnerability in all its sucking glory. Before I didn’t let the bad and ugly out (or at least I thought I didn’t). I pretty successfully kept the bad and ugly in until I was in a “safe” zone, where I could unleash the bad and ugly, usually on myself, but sometimes on my little brother or other conveniently located white men. Because then, at least I wouldn’t be harming someone who already gets it from every angle of the system. (See what a good white lady I have been!) Of course my safe zones as a white lady are much more extensive in this world than for People of Color, which is why I have had to learn and am still learning that Home is sanctuary.

Now that I am letting more of the bad and ugly through, waiting for me on the other side are all sorts of juicy lessons about the incredible extent of my impact on those living in closest proximity. I don’t know what I don’t know until I really do. Ultimately, I am grateful for the education, for the courage and energy it takes to tell me how I was harmful. The education is priceless and yet it has a cost. I am trying not to be dependent, and we are so interdependent, both the inhuman arrangement and our connected humanity were designed this way.

And then occasionally I do actually know, because my deep down Self has been trying to teach me too, if only I would listen, give heed, and surrender to Her. Like just this week, when I refused to have compassion for myself after some very difficult and intense conversations. Instead of honoring the voice inside that kept urging me to cancel my next conversations and give myself alone time to process a storm of emotions, I pushed through. I have so internalized a sense of superiority that I refuse even to yield to me, to my own fragile humanity. And what came out the other end jeopardized relationship and did real harm. There are consequences for my not making the slightest change in that moment just as there are consequences to not choosing vulnerability and consequences to choosing vulnerability .

We are trying not to repeat the pattern of slave and mistress when Mistress Syndrome is in the House. Stay tuned.

No Words by Amanda K Gross

No Words by Amanda K Gross