The Privilege of Being Stuck

WRITTEN BY AMANDA GROSS

Sometimes I wallow.

In the moment of discomfort my reflex is to repel, to flee, or to flee inside of me. But after the discomfort, I wallow in it.

Anxiety and angst are the powerful silent enforcers of stagnation. What went down? What did I do wrong?? How did I feel??? Why was I stuck???? What could I have done/said differently?????

In between my instant playbacks, I replay the situation for others. I let them tell me how to think and how to feel. I replay the situation in my head. Like a broken record. I begin to want the broken record. I reach for it again and again. I swim around in its moody waters and call it self-care.

Repeat. I could play this tune all day. The more I repeat, the more comfortable the discomfort becomes. Stuck becomes my privilege. Wanting to do, be, act better becomes my cocoon.

Oh. Lord.

I have traded my light for White Liberal Lite when Menno Fabulous is my birthright.

Menno Fabulous 1 by Amanda K Gross*

Menno Fabulous 1 by Amanda K Gross*

*This post and Menno Fabulous 1 were both inspired by the powerful work of literary artist, Dr. Tameka Cage Conley and her poem, “because they was purple”, a piece of art that I was honored to hear and discuss thanks to a recent reading and conversation at Yoga Roots on Location facilitated by Felicia Lane Savage.

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

 

 

A Resurrection Vision

written by Amanda Gross

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

The authors write:

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

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

Four Part Harmony - Mixed media painting by Amanda K Gross

Four Part Harmony – Mixed media painting by Amanda K Gross

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

Rigby and Ziyad speak to this too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Land is White Land - Adhesive Bandages on Fabric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whiteness - Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Whiteness – Adhesive Bandages on Lace by Amanda K Gross

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

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

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