Victim, Villain, Heroine

WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross

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

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

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

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

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

Queen Elizabeth I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cousin Lydia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VVH Amanda Katherine; Acrylic on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Amanda Katherine Gross

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

VVH Victim AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

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

VVH Villain AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

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

VVH Heroine AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

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

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.

 

How Whiteness Kills God & Sprinkles Crack on the Body (How Whiteness Separates us from God – Take Four)

This is the fourth of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?

WRITTEN BY R/B Mertz*

How Whiteness Kills God & Sprinkles Crack on the Body

“Dr. King And All The Prophets Warned Against Not Loving”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently.

                                                                                                                        – Gwendolyn Brooks

They require of me a song,

less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own

– James Baldwin

  1. “WE ARE IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD”

I’m what you call a lapsed Catholic. In other words, I “left the Church,” which is less of a leaving and more of a constant not going. Two days ago, I found myself at Mass, not on purpose. I started panicking, wondering if I could stay for the high school graduation I was attending—I wanted to celebrate my nephew, but I also wanted to smoke a cigarette, to go get a drink, to get the hell out of there.

I was “in” the Church for about fifteen years, from age eight to twenty-three, during which I endured and mostly forgave constant micro-aggressions, gaslighting, and other psychological and emotional abuse. The final nail in the coffin was when one of my best friends “realized that she agreed with the Church about homosexuality,” and asked that I not associate with her or her children anymore. This broke my heart, but it also broke my heart that in this situation, I couldn’t go to the Church for consolation or guidance; in teachings and in practice, the Church taught that I was someone who you should not let your children hang out with, because I was gay. I realized that I couldn’t find more of my heart there anymore than they could understand the heart I wanted to share. That’s when, at 23, after twelve years of living in the conservative Catholic right wing, I stopped going to church. Like a paper doll, I was slowly punched out of the page of Catholicism.

While at Mass the other day, I remembered that I love Mass. For Catholics, church is basically a beautiful theater piece combining music, poetry, chant, and choreography (or at least blocking). Best of all, it’s enacted by real people, not actors or celebrities, just regular people, worshiping. Even the word worship is beautiful and mysterious.

It’s also ancient. Mass is an ancient ritual where people talk to God, and then eat God. When I got older, I learned that the Mass was the same in Edgewater, Maryland as it was in Indiana and California and Paris and Antioch and Jerusalem—fundamentally, too, it was the same as it had been for two thousand years. Everyone was somehow unified, saying the same prayers, kneeling at the same moments.

Mass is also magic. Eating God is a weird thing to do every Sunday before brunch. Yet eat God we did. The idea is that Jesus is God, and when he was about to die (for his friends, also beautiful) he said that the bread they were eating was his body, and he told them that eating it made them one with him, saved them, made them divine; then he said those beautiful words that Catholics say in Mass every day: “Do this in memory of me.” So, that’s the magic. The priest says the words, and the bread becomes Jesus’ body, and we eat it, and that makes us become Jesus.

The idea of this (for me, now) is that Jesus said he was bread, not puff pastry. He’s something ordinary, something everyday. When we digest something, science tells us, it literally becomes a part of us. So Jesus becomes a part of us. So we are Jesus, too, and so is our Mom and Dad and neighbor and whoever else. Which ultimately reminded me that the mystery of what things are is vast and profound. If a piece of bread can become God, what is not sacred?

At the high school graduation Mass, the priests and teachers kept pedantically reminding the crowd that we were in the presence of God. To which I wanted to call out, “Aren’t we always?!?!?!” If God is God, God is always everything, everywhere.

  1. WE NEED TO SAVE THE WORLD OR OURSELVES OR SAVING THE WORLD IS SAVING OURSELVES

While “leaving the Church,” I got an MFA in poetry, and a lot of tattoos. I shaved my head and started reading feminism, queer theory, anti-Capitalist and anti-racist texts, and now I’m that liberal college professor so many people are afraid will turn their kids into leftists. I let students research and write about whatever they want, as long as they do it thoughtfully and engage with other students about their ideas—the result is a lot of conversation about a lot of different things. Every semester, I give them the same basic final assignment: to articulate a problem they see in the world, and propose a solution. I tell them, there are no laws, no budgets, no Congress or Senate or voters to convince. Just consider what would work. What would actually help?

Most students propose fairly straightforward solutions to the problems they see. They figure out how we could have universal healthcare or free college in the U.S. They see trash and pollution everywhere, and rampant unemployment: create government jobs cleaning up everything? Why not solve our overcrowded prison problem by freeing marijuana prisoners where marijuana’s been legalized, and give them jobs in the new marijuana industry?

As a class, we try to name the main obstacles they’d face when trying to carry out their solutions.  Over and over again, the same biggest obstacle arises: the people who have the power to solve big problems don’t actually want to solve them. Problems like hunger, poverty, unemployment, access to education, displacement, oppression, even pollution, to an extent—the old, big money in the world seems impervious to these problems.  It’s difficult to maintain a sense that there is anything “we” will ever be able to do at all, even in the face of the facts, which say that there is enough of everything to go around.

“Deforested In Part To Satisfy Rising Demand”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. EARTH IS GREEN & BROWN, MONEY IS WHITE

“God is the color of water” – James Wright

For humans, money and access to money has more to do with who gave birth to them, and their access to money, than it ever will with “how hard they work.” Big, old money, the kind that elects politicians, creates jobs, legalizes or criminalizes substances, people, and ideas, is bound up in a genetic circle jerk of inheritance and venture capitalism hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old. Most, if not all, of this big, old money is directly connected to the stealing of lands and resources on this continent and the others, as well as the kidnapping, murder, rape, and enslavement of whole Peoples.

America’s biggest, oldest money is still directly traceable to the white/European looting of Africa—this ancient money, newly granted legal person-hood, elects Donald Trump to be president, and prevents anyone more radical than HRC from being on the ticket. This old money was explicitly and undeniably generated not from nothing, but from the crimes against humanity perpetrated especially upon anyone who did not qualify as white, and secondarily upon many who, as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “believe[d] themselves to be white.” Capitalism, and the American dollar itself, were founded on imperialism, domination, and slavery of Africans, as well as the enslavement of North and South American Native People. This conquering was seen by Europeans as blessed by God; in spite of Jesus’ warning that it was easier for a camel to pass through the head of a pin than for a rich man to get to heaven, Christians have long been equating monetary success with blessings from God.

European diseases ravaged the Indigenous population, killing millions. When later Europeans arrived, they found whole regions where the Native People had all died of disease. A majority of the first European settlements in New England were former Native villages, now filled with corpses. The first “white” people saw this as a sure sign that the Christian God had wiped out the Indigenous population so the Christians could have their lands, as if God didn’t want the Christians to have to interact with other humans peacefully, and he didn’t want Christians to work too hard. Likewise, Europeans and white Americans argued that the enslavement of Africans was ordained by God, too, because it gave Africans an “opportunity” to convert to Christianity. Whiteness has always been bound up with God and money and genocide.

While the rich in America and in Europe passed on wealth to white children, they condemned their Black children to the closest thing to Hell that most humans could imagine. Slave owner paternity was characterized by rape, violence and the objectification of people’s own children, rather than anything based on love or care or protection. Generations later, the fruit of this family tree is the New Jim Crow, an apathetic young white man shooting up a mall or a school or a church, a police officer murdering a child, or a serial rapist, racist buffoon as president.

Most whites have trouble seeing white killings as savage: As a kid, I was disgusted by the human sacrifice of the Maya, while never really questioning the generations of European youth offered up in war.  I didn’t even know about the murder of people on “American soil”. Generations of white Americans attended public lynchings, where families would gather to eat and watch the victim’s life slowly end at the hands of a nameless, faceless crowd, unrecognizable except for its whiteness, defined by whiteness. Imagine, in the weeks and years following the murder of one of your sons, brothers, or neighbors, living with the fact that any one of the white people in your community could have participated in his death. Public lynchings were one way to get across the clear message, that whiteness was to be feared—not individual whites, even, as much as whiteness itself.

“A Mental Civil War”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. GOD IS US & THEM

   “Dr. King and all the prophets warned against not loving.”                                                                                                                                   – Fred Rogers

 In the absence of a physical church to go to, I see God in nature, and God’s motion in the weather. The earth is the closest thing God has to a body, and the weather is like God’s body moving, or God writing a poem. The weather is beyond human control. Observing how the wind can blow my furniture from one side of the yard to another, I and I can’t negotiate with the wind. Under the right conditions, the wind could move me from one side of the yard to another.

Sometimes preachers conflate the weather with God, too. Conservative Christians (such as Franklin Graham, son of Billy) called Hurricane Katrina  a punishment from God. Similar claims have been made about other natural disasters, that God was punishing “them” for their wrongs, as he punished the unholy in the Flood, or destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Philistines. Whenever “they” come into it, “we” can be sure that “they” are not “us.”

But they are us. Every aspect of life on this planet is interconnected, nationally and internationally; every ripple is global. As an example, in the same sense that an event like 9-11 happened to America, so did it happen to the world: certainly the whole world has suffered the wrath of revenge the U.S. has claimed was in response to that one attack. In the same sense, public shootings and tragedies happen to whole communities and whole countries. The effects are not the same, just like ripples in a pond are different shapes. Yet if we insist on only empathizing with people in our “groups,” we will remain blind to what kills our own neighbors, and live in denial that it will ever come for us. Consider the famous Niemöller poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

“There’s Blood On Many Hands Tonight”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

If we are all God, as Jesus says, and the divine is in each of us, this means humans, and maybe even all of Creation, not just some “us”.  The Psalmist writes, “You are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.” Jesus refers to this later, when he’s accused of blasphemy: He says that if God says we’re all gods, what’s wrong with him saying explicitly that he’s the Son of God? A few hundred years later, St. Athanasius wrote, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” Hundreds of years after that, Thomas Aquinas wrote that, “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us share in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” The thing that’s inside us all that makes us God is the thing that connects us all, and whiteness kills that, as truly as the Roman soldiers killed Jesus, a man, they believed, to be of an inferior race.

Since God is every person of every conceivable identity, God has no identity and every identity, or God is unhampered by ways that human identity has to work because we have individual bodies and God’s body is plural. What’s important to me about saying “God” is that God is a Creator, and a unifying thing: maybe the anima, the soul of living things, or maybe just the fingerprint of time running through everything made of carbon. The idea of God being love is important, too, because love conquers all these differences that seem so otherwise unconquerable. Love is the great appeal, the miracle that opens seventy year old homophobic hearts to gay grandchildren and opens up white hearts to shake off the constraints of white supremacy. Dr. King said that Jesus was an extremist of love.

When I was a Christian, there was a way to appeal to other Christians about human rights and the environment by making these kinds of arguments. But my conservative students aren’t Christian anymore. In my classroom, I’m usually the only one talking about Jesus. Often, my students assume that because I’m a butch lesbian covered in tattoos, dropping the f-bomb and talking socialism, that I don’t know shit about Jesus. They didn’t see the first twenty-three years of my life. One time, a particularly aggressive Trump supporting student was sure that I was making up the idea of relics.

As an example of what kind of details to include in their essays, I had said, “Look, if you want to make Christianity or Catholicism sound reasonable, you’re not gonna start with relics. You’re not gonna say, yeah, our religion likes to collect teeth and bones and tongues. You’re gonna start with Jesus, and love, and stuff like that.”

Sometimes I forget that my intimacy with Catholicism is abnormal. While some of the older people in the room got what I was talking about, none of the twenty-something’s did. So the Trump kid, who was always trying to get me to argue with him, said smugly, “What? That’s not real.”

“Yes, relics are real,” I told him, “You can drive two miles from here and visit St. Anthony’s Church, a reliquary, which is full of bones encased in glass and gold.

“I’ve been Catholic my whole life,” he said, “and I’ve never heard of that.”

I wanted to tell him that I had been Catholic for two-thousand years. I also wanted to say, Look, God, this is what happens when you kick out gay people. You lose us. You could’ve had me on your team, Team Jesus, but instead I’m out here on queer island, and nobody thinks I know what I’m talking about. How I look, my tattoos, my weird hair, my clothes, my smoking, my general frankness, are all a product of not giving a fuck anymore because I already lost every kind of thing there is to lose—all of that looks to the world like someone who rejected a church, or all churches, when the truth of the matter is that the churches rejected me. This student can go on saying racist, sexist, xenophobic things, vote for Trump, and have his wedding in a Catholic church. He can get dressed up on Sundays and sit there with his mom or his grandparents, and feel perfectly at welcome, and send his kids to Sunday School. I wanted say all of this out loud, with a lot of fuckwords.

Instead, I told him what relics are. Jesus was God becoming human. Which redeems humanity, people are always saying. What does that mean? It means that God has been human, so humanity is now divine material, and sacred. Then he becomes bread, too, which makes bread sacred. Basically, everything is sacred. So the bones of holy people, their teeth, their bodies, their clothes, their hair, the things they touched, their books, their spaces – these are all relics, or reminders, of the people themselves, who are reminders, themselves, of the God who created them. So we don’t just throw them out, we keep them, we cherish them, we protect them from harm.

“The Embodiment Of A Country Transcending Its Past”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. WE CAN DO WHATEVER WE WANT, WE ARE GODS

When I was growing up, it was considered very liberal to recycle. I tell my students this, to give them a sense that people’s ideas can and do change. Now, even the conservative students see recycling as just the intelligent thing to do; it lost its connotation with liberalism because at some point the new generation heard the information and realized that not considering what human action does to the Earth is basically like peeing all over your living room and not considering the impact of the urine on the carpet and the furniture. Previous generations have been pissing all over the living room and expecting the grandchildren to inherit the house happily, even if it’s falling down around everyone, saturate with waste.

In my classroom, when we say “we” –as in, “We don’t have enough money to give everyone everything they need, to end poverty, to educate everyone, to clean up or renovate what we have polluted– the “we” is particular. We in that room don’t have enough to do those things, and maybe we as a state or a nation don’t have enough digits in exactly the right columns—but we as a species definitely do have enough. But we don’t think of ourselves as one species, or as one anything.

Yet our human brains are powerful enough to know that people are valuable whether or not we love them. If we wanted to, we could lend our collective strength to saving each other, to saving everyone, rather than defending what is “ours” from who we don’t think of as ours. We could share, not based on who “deserves” it, or who we like or who was born closer to us. We could stop killing each other. We could start feeding each other. We can’t stop all death, but as a species we’ve figured out how to prevent or cure most of what kills us. Most of us just lack access to it.

And what if everyone was safe, fed, healed, included? Why not?  Whiteness, the destroyer of worlds, did so by separating humanity from humanity, separating humanity into “races”. Whiteness shattered what was one into a multitude of broken pieces. Humanity’s heart is broken, and it seems like we can’t get off the couch.

“A Rough Hand Shakes Me Awake”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. “…BY THEIR FRUITS YOU SHALL KNOW THEM…”

One of my brightest students, a young Black woman, wrote her final paper on a solution unlike any I’d received before. To end racism, she proposed that Black people enslave white people. As the paper developed, she decided to send white people to Africa as slaves, and to give North America back to Native Americans. Black people could stay, or return to Africa to rebuild the home of their ancestors with all the free labor they needed.

“Well,” another student asked after some conversation, “Does that mean that in a few hundred years, there’s gonna be a white civil rights movement in Africa?”

As a class, we theorized about this for a while, and the student who was writing the paper decided that hundreds of years of owning slaves would corrupt Black people in the same ways white people seem, to her, very obviously corrupt: would Black police officers be murdering white children while they played in parks?

She decided that, even if her proposal would bring about justice and equality, it wasn’t worth it if it meant Black people might end up “like white people.”

“A Voice Says If You Want To”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. “WE CAN’T BREAHTE”

… everyone with lungs breathes the space between the hands and the space around the hands and the space of the room and the space of the building that surrounds the room and the space of the neighborhoods nearby and the space of the cities and the space of the regions and the space of the nations and the space of the continents and islands and the space of the oceans and the space of the troposphere and the space of the stratosphere and the space of the mesosphere in and out.

 Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs

 The negative things that have happened to me because I’m white are things like being excluded at a social gathering, getting my feelings hurt, maybe rarely some negative stereotyping about being over-privileged. Negative effects of not being white still include death, assault, unemployment, homelessness, addiction, imprisonment, and outright warfare. It is as unnatural, illogical, and crazy-making to deny how racism operates now as it was in 1850.

In America, a “bad neighborhood” can exist a few blocks away from a “good neighborhood,” even though both are in the same city, in the same country, where residents are far more likely to get shot than almost anywhere else in the world. Anyone who studies economics knows is that both neighborhoods are part of the same system, just as every country is part of the same continent or hemisphere or planet, and every people a part of the same species.

The lie of whiteness if you are told you are white is that what and who are not white are not you. If you are taught that you are not white, then you are taught that those who are white are not you. But the evidence of biology and psychadelics and religion alike is that they are you. Which also means that Donald Trump is you and ISIS is you and the KKK and Jesus and Buddha and the Black Panthers are you, and the Westboro Baptist Church is me and you, and we are Paris, we are Columbine and Orlando and Mosul, we are Mike Brown; we are all George Zimmerman and we are all Trayvon Martin: so why don’t we all act like it? Why aren’t white women tearing at their clothes and hair in public grief over Tamir Rice? Why aren’t the white police falling to their knees in heartache and repentance and shame?

I tell my students about the police in Iceland. When the first person ever was killed by Icelandic police the whole country mourned. The mourning was lead by the police, who, in essence, fell to their knees, weeping over their profound mistake. When I tell this to my students, they are shocked. Their mouths drop open. They had no idea that humans could be like that.

We shouldn’t have to say the lungs matter or the heart matters: a disease of the lungs or the heart will effect every breath the whole body takes. Whiteness is a cigarette humanity has kept smoking, pretending that it doesn’t hurt us, offering it to our children in the womb and with their breakfast.

The islands of trash in the ocean, the holes in the ozone layer, the levels of carbon in the atmosphere, the extreme weather—none of these perceives race or gender or nation. If humans are going to adapt to climate change, we need to do so together, if only for the very simple fact that environmental devastation knows no bounds or boundaries. There is no “us” and “them” with regard to the air we breathe or the water we drink or the earth where we grow our food. If we want to continue to naturally breathe air, without gas masks, we have to solve the problem everywhere, for everyone and everything who breathes, and cannot breathe.

“Hate Doesn’t Come Overnight, Neither Does Love”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

R/B Mertz is a genderqueer dyke artist, poet & writing teacher. Raised a Catholic homeschooler, she’s working on a memoir currently titled Burning Butch. New poems are coming out in The Gay and Lesbian Review, Fence,and Pittsburgh Poetry Review; art can be found displayed in homes in at least seven states. Mertz is 32, which surpasses expectations. She has almost published several books, and once nearly won a prize.

*R/B Mertz would like to thank all the writers she quotes, as well as Tamika Sly, Vanessa German and Amanda Gross in particular for help with her ideas in this essay.

This is the fourth of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. You can read the first, second, and third in the series here and here and here.

 

Artist Statement

written by Amanda Gross

When I was five I used to put on shows for anyone who’d take a seat. I’d grab some blankets, turn over the kitchen table, and raid my mama’s lingerie drawer. But it wasn’t just my debut. I rarely performed alone. Instead I persuaded my brother to sample his latest Ninja Turtle moves. I had the kids across the street stepping to a choreographed musical and I sweet-talked Ms. Sylvia into lettering the signs. Artmaking has always been more than an end result. Artmaking has been the collaboration, the process and the magic that gave my five year-old self life. Artmaking was exuberant expression, and artmaking became relationship.

Trust Black Women; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 29, I was stitching up a telephone poll downtown when a thought came across my mind. Soon after, I convinced 2,000 of my closest friends to help me knit the Andy Warhol Bridge. Between years 5 and 29 I had learned some things about creating nicely with others. I had learned how to motivate people with the ultimate trio of enthusiastic vision, resonance and steady confidence. I had learned how to intentionally create space for accessible participation. But, I had not yet learned my limitations. Knit the Bridge was like fiber meeting steel. As 3rd graders and grandmas knit their squares and word spread rapidly, Allegheny County, the keeper of the bridge, worried about risk, money and contracts. In our grassroots effort, we set out to reclaim and beautify public space all the while honoring our interconnectedness. The county’s legal team was not amused by our fluid way of outsourcing labor and materials. They wanted assurances of safety to know who would take responsibility if it failed. In the role of project manager I learned about the rigid structures that form our society, about my own weaknesses and need for support and also about the adaptable power and strength of communities when we come together. With Knit the Bridge artmaking began as co-creation, and then suddenly it became organizing.

A few years before, when I was 26, 27 and 28, and within a two-block radius of my home, four young Black men were shot and killed in separate incidents, one by Pittsburgh Police. Their deaths reminded me of a ninth grade classmate who shared their tragic story and I responded by organizing Quilting Bee Love, a listening project pairing quilters with those who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence. I intended this fiberart project to build relationship, humanize victims and their families, and find healing in the power of storytelling. A few beautiful quilt squares were made and some very personal stories were shared. Some of McKeesport’s most affluent quilters joined in, but the project halted when they couldn’t get past their own fears and internalized racism. In this juxtaposition of trauma, remembering, love and resilience, quilting revealed both destruction and beauty. And so, though limited in scope, through Quilting Bee Love artmaking became healing.

San Diego Doodle; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 15 I spent a year starving myself in France. Highly influenced by white feminine beauty standards, but also driven by an adolescent religious zeal to be perfect in the eyes of God, I was at the height of my over-achievement. Atlanta Public Schools sent me and 14 other awkward teens to represent as junior ambassador exchange students. Living outside the U.S. gave me perspective. I resisted the fat, ugly, dumb American stereotype by overcompensating with emaciation, extreme politesse and cultural and linguistic fluency. Upon my return home making art was the key that unlocked my pathology. In AP Art Studio I drew myself back to health, drawing image after image of my body until I realized my own beauty. I used the physical act of figurative drawing to emerge from the ugly distortions of my mind. In the midst of sickness, artmaking was the antidote. Artmaking was health. Through my practice, artmaking became self-reflection.

Reflecting back, I can see myself at age 8. One day afterschool, I dropped my backpack on the kitchen floor and declared myself vegetarian. All my friends were doing it. One week later, none of my friends were doing it. I still am. My mama gave me free range of the kitchen and I experimented with whatever was on hand. I learned to make do and make great. I learned to make vegetables sing. In the kitchen, artmaking was a way to eat. Artmaking proved resourceful. And in my identity formation, artmaking became a way towards self-determination.

Kitchen Doodle; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 24 I drove 12 consecutive hours from Pittsburgh to Maine to live with a couple of complete strangers – one of whom wove rugs and the other of whom threw pots. This sixty-something couple subsisted as craftspeople and always had. Over seven weeks time, I observed Susanne Grosjean’s work intimately and was an obedient apprentice. I painstakingly warped the loom and wound hundreds of spools of yarn. I wove pick after pick and then carefully unwove and rewove after each mistake. I mastered tension. I matched hue. I carded and spun and dyed wool. I worked exhaustively. During my apprenticeship, artmaking was not just craft and skill; it was a livelihood. Artmaking was a path to material survival. Through that path, artmaking became a rigorous self-discipline.

When I was 26 I went back to school and entered a graduate program in Conflict Transformation. I was steeped in the values of peace and justice via my pacifist Mennonite upbringing, and so this disciplinary study was consistent with my lifelong interest in understanding, undoing and rebuilding systems of oppression. I balanced my analytical inquiries with a solo interactive installation in the university’s gallery. In Domesticated I cut up money as a symbol of U.S. economic and military power in the world and sewed it back together as an offering of transformation. I embroidered war machines all around the uber-feminine 1950s kitchen, living room, and laundry to create the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Goodwill oblivious to the violent images all around them. Audience participants interacted with the Goodwills to practice their peacebuilding skills. How does one engage someone with an oppositional worldview? How do you talk about the tank on the lampshade when someone can’t or doesn’t want to see it? During my studies, artmaking was about making the unseen seen. Artmaking was a way to practice new. Artmaking as installation was immersion. Consequently, artmaking became subversion.

Philly Doodle; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 21 I marched with an angry mob on Washington. When the crowd ended up cornered between a chain link fence and riot police with teargas, a friend and I pushed our way to the front and knelt in prayerful protest. The police hesitated and there was a moment of stillness before the anger propelled the protest forward. In realizing the extent of injustice, my artmaking channeled anger. To feel powerful and useful, artmaking required putting my body on the line. Artmaking meant embodied danger. Thus, artmaking necessitates risk.

Similarly when I was 25 I took my body to yoga at the Kingsley Association. This began a new education and ongoing apprenticeship under the direction of Felicia Lane Savage to practice and teach yoga. I learned a different way to be in my body, an expansive form of artmaking. I learned to have grace for and to listen to my human form rather than push and exploit it. Here too, artmaking was embodied. Yet here artmaking can be flexible as well as strong. Artmaking risks without injury. In my body, artmaking is the practice of being.

D.C. Doodle; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 31 and 32 I spent two cold and snowy winters at an anti-racism organizing training in Minnesota. Whiteness was all around and it was inside me. This journey of understanding the layers of whiteness from historical, systemic and contemporary insidious racism has taught me another way to be in my body. I am learning to see what I’ve been raised to unsee. In unpacking this inherited legacy through Mistress Syndrome, I have stepped into my authentic voice as an artist. Dr. Joy DeGruy builds Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome off of the concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to describe a pattern of behaviors and beliefs impacting those who were enslaved, their communities and their descendants today. If there’s a Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, then there must be a Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome, or Mistress Syndrome as it more specifically befalls a white lady like myself.

I was born into white ladydom. Given a race and a gender in an Atlanta hospital in the early 80s. Along with my name, pink dresses (which I still love) and Cabbage Patch dolls, there were immediate references to dating, jokes that boys better stay away and hypothesizing about how my future white feminine sexuality would be fortified. I grew up a good little white girl, groomed to play by the rules and win, or at least maintain the flawless effortless appearance that I was. And when occasionally I wasn’t winning, my white lady mama would go remind the system that I was supposed to. At the same time that I was being conditioned to win at the perfect grade, body, attitude, I was also conditioned to help, support, defend and ultimately defer my self-interest to God (the Father), men (almost always white including my actual father) and the (church) Family (most definitely white). Through Mistress Syndrome, I claim myself the artist in the work. The Mistress Syndrome blog, visual artwork and anti-racist organizing are the start of this exploration. In this emerging and expanding body of work, artmaking is life and is my life. Artmaking is uncovering truth and pealing back of pathological layers. In this journey, it renders me vulnerable and holds me accountable. But, art also makes the alternatives. Art makes the vision and holds space for renewal. Artmaking is liberation. And as the thread that flows throughout my life’s work, artmaking is the transformation.

Puerto Rico Doodle; by Amanda K Gross