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

written by AMANDA GROSS

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

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

His & Hers, by Amanda K Gross

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

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

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

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

Bland, by Amanda K Gross

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

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

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

This Land is White Land, by Amanda K Gross

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

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

White Silence, by Amanda K Gross

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

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

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

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

Whiteness, by Amanda K Gross

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

How Does Whiteness Separate Us From God? – Collaboration Conversation

This is the seventh of a series of guest posts and dialogues. In this post, the six of us engaged in an email dialogue around the question:  How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
AMANDA GROSS: Whiteness and God – both individually but especially in combination – are rare topics for public forums. My own Mennonite upbringing emphasized sharing faith through works rather than personal evangelism. Whiteness in general is a topic reserved for like-minded company. When I do engage with these ideas publicly, I am more comfortable drawing systemic conclusions rather than making it super personal, which challenged me in my writing of the initial post. I found myself wanting to pull out your vulnerable wisdom, but realized I didn’t fully model that in my post, which has caused me to reflect on how I’ve internalized messages around “setting an objective tone” and my comfort at asking others to go first.
What challenges did you face in writing your initial guest blog post and why? What came up for you? What barriers did you work with? How did you deal with it?

View from Hotel Rooftop: Photo by Amanda K Gross

R/B Mertz: Being vulnerable was definitely the thing I struggled with most, by which I mean involving anything about myself in the piece. Initially I wrote something with a lot less about myself, a lot more about numbers and examples to prove my points. Amanda and my girlfriend both pointed this out when they read my first draft, and I spent my editing time trying to make myself visible in the piece, to show my own vulnerabilities. Which I feel like I just got to the edge of. Definitely “setting an objective tone” has been hammered into me by writing teachers (wait–mostly white, male ones, now that I think about it), and the objective tone carries over to thinking, too.

Examples of what phrases repeat in my mind, when my mind tells me to have an “objective tone”: “That’s how life is,” “It happens on both sides,” “Black people are just as racist as white people,” “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” “There are two sides to every story,” “#Not All Men” “#Not all white people,” “#Not all Cops,” “Nobody’s perfect,” “Everybody makes mistakes,” “At least things are better than they used to be,” “People are just fucked up, white, black, brown…”

The hardest part about writing about whiteness or even processing information about white supremacy and Black life in America is letting my mind actually absorb and conceive fully of the information without putting the white gaze over it like a set of rose-colored glasses that blinds you to racism even when it’s right in front of your face. My mind seems built to Not Think About It Too Much. Writing about it is like holding several balls in the air at one time with my mind, which makes me feel a little crazy–which is especially maddening because anyone who points out racism, and women who make a stink about anything, have been told for centuries that we are crazy, reactionary, etc. I also *happen* to struggle with mental illness, so I am a crazy person, though I’m technically in recovery now. That being said, in my many years of experience as a crazy person, I have to say that as a group of racism deniers, white people take the cake on collective insanity. This is not to let anyone off the hook. As a crazy person, I have recognized that the only way to “cure” my mental illness is to take responsibility for it, to seek treatment, to control my symptoms as best I can, and to keep myself from harming others, and to take responsibility and make amends for that harm if I can.

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

Jeannie Lynn: The longer I considered Amanda’s question, the harder it became to answer.  How would I define whiteness?  How would I define God?  I mean, really, as working models? Solidifying the answer into an articulation was very very difficult for me.

What-it-is, 5 weeks old; Photo by Jeannie Lynn

VALERIE SHOWALTER:  In the multi-faceted identity of woman, pastor, student, aunt, etc., I found it difficult to not know who my audience was, and thus, knowing how to write in a way that met them where they were at.  Within all these identities listed (and others), I’m trained to boil down my thoughts and beliefs into ideas that will also be meaningful for you…on their own, in my words, they may not serve you.  Not knowing my audience was both terrifying and liberating.  I wanted to hold back, for fear of being misunderstood; I wanted to step forward, sharing unfettered.

by Valerie Showalter

Cole Parke: As Amanda can attest, I wrote two entirely different pieces for my contribution. The first was a deeply analytical review of history and theology with little-to-no acknowledgement of what’s real, which is that I’m a person with a LOT of feelings. Fortunately, Amanda has handed me enough tissues in the course of our friendship to see right through the protective cloak of heart-shielding theory, and she gently invited me to try again.

Friends can play a critical role in helping us push past the easy option of intellectualizing our collective heartbreak, but I’m curious about other tools that can draw us deeper into our hearts (and our bodies), as I understand that that’s where the truly transformational work happens. I’ve especially been thinking about this recent piece by Tada Hozumi about why white people can’t dance. He ultimately concludes that whiteness is traumatization embodied.
“The white body is in freeze: a state of disconnection between mind and body. It is ungrounded and cannot feel the earth. … This is why, when a white ally asks me about how they can best ally with POCs, my best advice is to come dance with us. I don’t mean this just in the literal sense (although its a lot of fun). What I mean is that white bodies need to actively experience the discomfort of their body not being dominant in a space to really understand how much pain they are in – to feel and heal the white-ness that has been fortified by living in a colonized world.”
I wonder if this is why the eucharist continues to feel like such a powerful ritual for me – it’s a reminder of the embodiment of god, made available to all people.
How else do people pursue embodiment? What do you do to “feel the earth”?

altar #3; featuring art by Molly Shea, photo by Cole Parke

Amanda: Thank you Cole! This has been on my mind. This has been on my body. I have been thinking a lot about how we as white people have the choice to notice the violence of racism on Black and Brown bodies as facilitated by our privilege, but we don’t typically consider the experience of racism on our bodies.

Two weeks ago I was at a training that was all about being in body. I love to dance, which is something I’ve cultivated more or less at different times in my life. The past year, I’ve been dabbling in and out of dancing – first in Urban Ballroom class, then at Line Dancing, and as yoga warm-up. Then I was at this training addressing trauma and healing and we were being taught samba steps and house steps and I was loving it and building confidence and fully participating. At the end we formed a circle and each person danced in the middle, something done in slightly different ways in many cultures. It was a freestyle moment – to share and celebrate each of our human individuality in the middle of the collective circle with everyone watching and cheering on. Needless to say, it was a very supportive environment. And when it was my turn, I froze. I refused to jump in the middle like a stubborn 4 year old. Panic set in. Then after everyone had had their turn, it came back to me. I reluctantly stood in the middle. Did whatever came to my body. There was instant release and I burst into tears and fled the space. It was uncomfortable in so many ways.
As I was outside in the courtyard bawling I reflected on dancing in my tradition, or the absence of it. The trainer shared about how the Black Panthers would celebrate together after an intense day of organizing by dancing. I was furious and incredibly sad that there was no such tradition of dancing for me to draw on. In fact Mennonites of Swiss German ancestry historically forbid dancing. So much of embodied celebration and pleasure is seen as evil – sex, play, really anything that is not productive. White Supremacist Patriarchy only values our bodies in terms of work – reproduction, physical labor, competitive sports, pragmatic nurture. It is only valuable and worthwhile and permissible if it has purpose.
The circle moment was both terrifying and liberating and there were many witnesses.

Trust Black Women (detail); Pen and Ink on Paper by Amanda K Gross

Valerie:  To your question, Cole, I have held tight to a phrase spoken to me years ago by a person I admired:  Solvitur ambulando, which means, “It is solved by walking.”  In the variety of places I’ve lived as an adult, walking is my way of grounding myself, of exploring and encountering neighbors I otherwise ignore as I drive by, and being present to God’s presence which is everywhere and in all things (as Jeannie suggested in her post.)  These walks are generally aimless and “non-productive,” but full of purpose.  They quiet my anxious mind and gut, and often bring alignment to my whole self.

The “solving” that gets done is my own centering, never a final resolution on the issue with which I’m wrestling.  Walking is a starting point to observe my recent actions and feelings, to acknowledge and name my mistakes and prejudices, to physically work through that, and then to try again.

Indiana, PA; photo by Leah Jo

Leah Jo:  As Cole mentioned a few comments above, I too have a LOT of feelings and this tends to hold me back from jumping in quickly. I’ve seen the email chain going, knowing it was conversation that deserved space/time/and full attention to be present, and honestly I hadn’t given myself that time or space until now! (I’m constantly trying to call myself out on this as i’m aware that busyness=numbness).

To answer Amanda’s original question about what came up for us in our original blog post, it’s incredible to read so many of you had similar barriers as I did, most notably was that many of us wrote a “first” blog post, then got called out on it, and challenged ourselves to write a more genuine blog post following. Well, I don’t know if anyone else felt “called out” but I sure did.
So my first post was very outward focused, talking about society at large, “people tend to…” “more facts” “things that I’ve learned about facts”, etc. After I wrote it, I felt like it was honest and safe. Amanda quickly pointed out that she couldn’t “see Leah” shining through. I immediately got defensive (helllllo whiteness) and re-read my post about 6 times. Additionally, I spent about an hour going through some of my other writings to see how those felt like Leah. After doing this, I was surprised at how easy it was for me to be vulnerable in other types of writing, particularly around grief, death, and dying but not with confronting my whiteness as it relates to my upbringing and religion.  So I sat down and just wrote without trying to think so much about what or how it came out, and at the end I sent it quickly to Amanda before thinking about what I just did.
To Cole’s question, “how do we feel the earth?”- The first thing that comes to mind is yoga. I’ve been practicing yoga for about five years now, the past 9 months of that have been within a teacher training format called YogaRoots On Location, a transformative study of Raja yoga taught within a social justice framework (particular attention on the construction and deconstruction of racism within the United States).  Through this practice I have wanted to better understand my body as it relates to its cultural inner-workings. What is my body besides “white”?  To begin to answer this more keenly, my husband and I took a genetics test, my results have provided me the opportunity to begin to accept my body, personality, history, and my family, much more fully. (side note: I thought I was mostly Italian, turns out I’m more Balkan than Italian…which is pretty awesome to me!). Yoga has always been a practice of better understanding myself, a very introspective physical practice that challenges me more mentally and emotionally than physically. Yoga has been a constant reminder of how much more I need to learn about what true Love and acceptance looks like, and for me that begins with me being able to love all parts of myself, of loving the God that exists within me.
Do other folks feel a sense of “God” or holiness within one’s self? What would life look like if we no longer felt the need to search for anything outside of ourselves?

Laurel Ridge State Park, Laurel Highlands; photo by Leah Jo

 Jeannie: I appreciated reading that piece by Tada Hozumi.  I have been in a kind of freeze for a long time, and have started, finally, to come to terms with it. I don’t know whether or not to call it “whiteness, but I think investigation into “every body” instead of just my own, changes the questions and their answers.

Four Part Harmony ; Mixed Media by Amanda k Gross

Amanda: One of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation was because I was genuinely curious about how all of you are thinking about and navigating whiteness and spirituality. Talk of my individual faith beliefs/questions – along with the topic of sex, not uncoincidentally – are topics I have kept close to my chest and have been taught to keep close to my chest. One very public and vulnerable way that I am challenging that silence is this blog. But even though aspects of blogging are very vulnerable, it can easily become a platform for monologue. It has been hard and awkward for me to share these ideas and thoughts in person and in dialogue with my parents, my extended family, my church family, people who have been a part of the stories I am publicly sharing – sometimes because the foundation of relationship is not really there or I fear it is not solid enough to withstand. I’m pushing myself to do this more and do it more intentionally, but I struggle with balance because part of what birthed the blog is the dense silence and shame of unspoken lines that are not to be crossed and also because I am human with limits to my energy and emotional capacity.

How do you all manage and balance this? What has this blog post meant for your family and faith community relationships? Has anything changed for you as a result of this process?

Hear No Evil, by Amanda K Gross

Valerie: I echo your struggle with knowing how one balances truth-telling with compassion, Amanda.  When I wrote my post, I wrestled with wondering, “Can the institution where I am a student ‘handle’ this criticism?”  In the end, my sense was that institutions are much easier to critique, but also are much slower to change.  Often, no one person feels particularly that a critique is directed at them, and thus no one takes responsibility.

So, the answer to my question was “yes” and I saw it as a way to practice offering public critique at all — my personality and socialization lend themselves to holding such things “close to my chest.”  Advocacy for self and for others is something I know from my experience that I have had to deliberately practice, and this was the step I could take for now.  Small critiques are also a way to test the relationship:  is there adequate trust to work through fundamental issues of racism?  Is the relationship resilient enough to support transformation, or will this conversation end in alienation?  What’s my threshold for being the instigator of alienation, in the name of truth-telling?

White Silence, by Amanda K Gross

Cole: One final mini-thought… For much of my life I struggled with what I was told was incongruous: that one cannot be both queer and christian. It took a lot of years to navigate around and through that lie, but I’ve more-or-less come out on the other side feeling assured that I am worthy and loved not despite of my queerness, but within in. My whiteness, however, is a different story. One of the key tenants of christianity (from my protestant upbringing) is that grace is a gift available, offered, and given to all with no strings attached, no matter what. This translates directly into my commitment to prison abolition, transformative justice, and collective liberation. But I haven’t yet figured out how to internalize the notion of redemption within my white body. I can’t actually believe that I can be both white and worthy of grace, but maybe someday I’ll dance myself into that truth.

altar #1; Photo by Cole Parke

R/B Mertz: I’ve been wanting to get involved in this conversation again, and am having a hard time figuring out where to start. One thing that I want to say comes from the identity category of white, and the lie of it.  At the same time, I want to talk about how significant whiteness is and how it influences my experience, AND I want to say that it doesn’t really exist. I don’t believe that white folks (raised with the identity of white, with “white”/passing skin) can eschew the privileges and protections of whiteness, but I do think that there is an option to mindfully disengage with the moral compromises that whiteness demands, and to disintegrate the conditioning of whiteness by understanding that it isn’t an actual biological category, but a lie, a false binary about what the full spectrum of skin color means.

Many of the labels we are born into are fluid and can change (gender, class, religion, nation) while others are fixed (race, ability, ethnicity). There are days when I wish there was a word for white people who are active against white supremacy, the same way I sometimes wish there was a word for Christians who are not patriarchal or phobic. The question always comes up, when trying to change a long-standing institution or group, about whether or not the thing you’re trying to change is intrinsic to the fabric of the group or not. Yet the existence of white people and whiteness serves no other purpose than to fundamentally separate and oppress people according to skin color. There is no other purpose to whiteness. While there might be many aspects to being French or German or Irish, whiteness is the thing that cuts off those particular roots and makes the thing-in-common not a whole body of history and cultural practices, but a surface level attribute.
In their essay, “White People Have No Place in Black Liberation,” Kevin Rigby Jr. and Hari Ziyad make an exception for John Brown, because he was a white man who literally gave his bodily existence for Abolition, releasing himself, in a sense, of those bodily privileges that his whiteness could have secured for him. This is a high call, and I see it as a challenge to put my whole body where my mouth is. This is not, in the Rachel Dolezal sense, a call to “convert” or transition into something besides whiteness, but a challenge to reject what the whiteness means, to de-center it from everything/everywhere, to use the full power of our bodies to challenge the system that has kept us safe at the expense of others. This reminds me of the meme that “if you object to the phrase “white people _____,” it’s aimed at you.” I don’t see this as a demand to accept about myself as true whatever is being said about white people, but a challenge to (A) note that the observation has been made and that I might be doing whatever is being called out about white people, and (B) to see the false nature of the category itself.

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

Jeannie: I remember one time someone told me that the conscious decisions are the hardest ones.  During this process I was highly aware of what I was saying, and not saying.  And of who I told about it, and who I didn’t.  And also of the biochemical sensations which informed those decisions. I wonder what else could inform my decisions, if there is something else I could “move by” and how would that change..everything

 

Same Coin; Screen Print by Amanda K Gross

This is the seventh 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, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth in the series here and here and here and here and here and here.

How does Whiteness Separate us from God – Take Three

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

WRITTEN BY Valerie Showalter

The Mennonite seminary where I attend as a student has relatively few pieces of art depicting the person of Jesus.  In one of the prayer rooms, there is a reprint of an ancient icon of a brown-ish Jesus.  This is the only image of Jesus in the areas accessed regularly by the public.

        But, as you descend into the lower level of the seminary, back in the corner of the building where there are no windows, there is a room set aside for the student study.  The room is full of little cubicles, musty biblical encyclopedias from the 1940s, and a few choice pieces of art.  On one wall, four portraits of white men are lined up next to each other – Felix Mantz, Conrad Grebel, and George Blaurock, representing “proper” Mennonite heritage.  And, finally, Charles Wesley is the fourth portrait, as a reminder that we’ve got a bunch of Methodist students around, too.  On another wall, three pastel-y pictures portray classic, mid-20th century Sunday School images of Jesus.   

Sallman – “Heart’s Door”

        The seminary provides a metaphor for how I see white Mennonites separating ourselves from God.  On the surface, in the public areas, we exude an openness to world expressions of the face of Christ.  We display our one Greek Orthodox icon because if we’re going to have an image of Christ (which we have long called idolatry) out in public, it needs to show that we are world-savvy about the multiple expressions of Christ.

        But when you enter the depths, the spaces where we form our identities, we tolerate a white Christianity because, at the core, we see Jesus as white.  And, as long as that stays hidden as we accommodate personal tolerance to that “Truth,” we are caught like a frog in the hot water that boils around us, the heat turned up while we weren’t paying attention.*  White Patriarchal Christianity subtly reinforces that we are dependent on it, not just through art, but through curriculum which is still dominated by western, white male academics.  Of the assigned reading in any semester that I’ve been a student at this seminary, a gross majority of the books have been authored by white men.  And so, white Christianity is reinforced, even when it is not intended.

        When Amanda asked me to be a guest blogger on this series, the question “How does whiteness separate you from God” showed a leniency in my own awareness of my complicity as a white seminarian in a white Mennonite Institution.  So the following observations – on Whiteness, Separation, and God — I name from my experience.

        Whiteness  Whiteness is my inescapable context.  I was born with white skin in a culture that historically has championed a particular skin tone, a particular definition of “civilization” and “religion” and “enlightenment,” ­a preference for a particular hierarchy, and a particular structure to reinforce all of this.  I take this socialization wherever I go, and in various situations, particularly where imperialist globalization has gone before me, it gives me particular power.  I wish I could relinquish my Whiteness, and parts of it I can, though to do so means I am necessarily deprived of privileges I once enjoyed.  This leads me to the next observation.

        Separate  First, I note the word “separate” in this question is used as a verb.  Whiteness works to physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially, etc. distance us from God.  Whiteness widens the gap, luring us away from God.  Thus, a response to the separation between God and myself is necessarily a reaction to my Whiteness.  The first thing I am invited to do is be aware that the water is heating up around me.  Before I can react, I need to acknowledge that Whiteness is the primary actor in the first place.  Where many white Mennonites get stuck is at this point:  we can acknowledge that structurally-enforced Whiteness separates us from God and from Neighbor.  Is that enough?   

        While this stance has long assuaged our guilt, now is the chance to react against our separation.  In the Christian world, we have this notion of metanoia, which can be translated a variety of ways from its ancient Greek origins.  It can mean a change of mind, repentance, or an inner change.  There are opportunities or turning points from which we are invited to pivot.  I can say over and over that I am sorry for the way Whiteness destroys people and the planet, but it means nothing if I do not change.  If awareness produces acknowledgment, apology produces change.

Hofmann – “The Boy Jesus in the Temple”

        God  Christianity has a history of claiming that we are set apart, “wheat” separated from the “chaff” for God’s purposes and God’s glory.  A chosen nation, a “city on a hill.”  Let me be clear here:  White Christianity is not Separate because God has chosen Us; it is separate because we have made for ourselves a white God in our image, who reinforces our supremacy. For me, this truth-telling and reaction is grounded in a belief in a God, who is Essence, Event, and Energy.**  It is also what I – and all other white people – are separated from.  If we have created a white god to worship, how does that inform our interpretation of the Two Greatest Commandments, which Jesus outlines as the basis for faithful living?

        Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul.  I don’t get to name God, what God prefers, or how God orders or disorders the cosmos.  God is “mine” because I have named the gulf I have created/inherited that separates me from God, which is my own investment in structures of patriarchy and oppression.  The process of faithful engagement is to continue naming the gulf between self or community and God, because the prevailing forces of whiteness are so strong.  If my experience of God is one that reinforces the privilege I have because I am white, I’ve missed the point.

        Love your neighbor as yourself.  As Amanda mentioned in her post on this, we do not get to name which people, which creatures do or don’t have Essence, Event, Energy.  Whiteness prefers to craftily challenge that, creating a hierarchy in which white is the only true holder of the Divine, and those are the only neighbors we love.  But have you noticed that perfect love drives out Whiteness?  

        Love notices that our neighbor is not our clone.  (Things Jesus didn’t say: “Love your clone as yourself.”)  The more difficult thing to do as white people is to relinquish who one must be in order to be worthy of love.  I have a terrible history of picking and choosing who I think deserves my love, and in no small way does that reflect my complicit ownership of white privilege.  In this way, I turn love into a currency, and I have inherited the power to choose where to spend my love (for the best return on investment.)

        At the end of this all, who am I as a white lady seminarian in a white Mennonite institution?  There are some things I can name:  for too long, I’ve been uncritical of the books I let inform me within academia; for too long, I’ve supported patriarchal ethics that have not only ignored gender norms but racist norms as well; and for too long, I’ve not noticed how privilege itself has gotten me to this point, well on my way to a master’s degree.  Like the seminary, these are the public areas of my identity that “exude an openness” to reflect on how I’m complicit in Whiteness.

        But there is a host of things I struggle to name, particularly as I’ve moved back “home” to my white, Mennonite family in a largely white, Mennonite area.  Without even trying, I can easily settle into a rural, white idyll, seeing only white friends and family while rolling my eyes at the neighbors with confederate flags.  And spiritually, my whiteness here in the Shenandoah Valley means I don’t necessarily “need” God, because this is the location in which my white privilege is at its height and breadth.  I can become my own little god because my white social networks effortlessly reinforce my blindness to my ingrained racism.

by Valerie Showalter

        Yet, I sense that God is calling me out of my whiteness and into my utter humanity here at home.  And I find that call is beyond frightening.  The last thing I want is to be vulnerable, because “God forbid” I get uncomfortable (and discomfort is chaos for white Mennonites.)  I wonder if “home” is where I will do my best work, and if so, I have a lurking suspicion this is where the work will be the hardest.  I balk at the discomfort, the tireless work, and having to speak up.  I balk at my whiteness, and I’m frightened of what God will say to me when I finally turn back to close the gulf.

*I’m aware this frog-in-boiling-water thing has been scientifically debunked.  So, let’s embrace it as a literary metaphor.

**Essence, as in a similar concept to Amanda’s expression in her post, regarding Quaker and Christian Animism ideas that God’s Spirit is present in all things.  Event, as this intangible idea suggested by John D. Caputo, in which God is revealed yet still being revealed, and that process itself is what we call God.  Energy, as similar to Essence in that the Divine animates the universe.  All are esoteric and incomplete, yet deeply personal and communal.

Valerie is a Masters of Divinity candidate at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and a part-time pastor at Shalom Mennonite Congregation.  In her spare time, she gardens, drinks coffee, and is currently catching up on The Americans.

This is the third 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 and second in the series here and here.

MJ was Killed Building Peace in Other People’s Business

Today I opened Facebook and read that they found MJ’s body in a grave in the Congo along with his Congolese and Swedish comrades. When I first heard he was missing, I feared for his life. I also held out hope because maybe as a white American he would be more valuable alive than dead, but at the end of the day white privilege and American citizenship didn’t save him.

We know that in a global context of international violence white lives matter more. Given our history of white supremacy, colonization, and European-centricity, we can easily trace the threads through time that explain how this has come to be. What we examine less is what would drive a young white Mennonite from Kansas – who could have lived a life of material comfort and physical safety- to risk all of that and place himself in the middle of some of the most dangerous conflicts in the world – to go directly to places where the locals are trying to leave.

Wars Abroad Wars at Home; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

My above words are slightly inaccurate. We do talk about it on some level. We glorify it. The Martyr. The Savior. The Hero who risks all to save others. MJ’s name will be written alongside of others who died in the name of peace – Dirk Willems, Gandhi, Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus. MJ’s name will be spoken in Mennonite pulpits on Sunday. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) Some who hear his name will grieve because they knew and loved him. Some will be proud because he was “one of ours”. Some will be proud because he has kept up our reputation. (Mennonites are known for our farming, peacemaking, and our righteous dying.) Some will revere his name and his work because his sacrifice means that others won’t have to, that their children won’t have to, that they won’t have to.

But I believe that there is more to why young white expats* Mennonite and Other-than-Mennonite risk their lives in the name of peace. There’s more to it than the white savior complex, martyrdom syndrome and promise of humble glory. There’s more to it than a deeply embedded spiritual socialization of serving others and erasing motives of self.** While I think MJ and others (myself included) have definitely been influenced by these messages, there are other driving factors that we don’t talk about. There are other things at play that a lens of glorification would not have us see. And this is not to take away from the intrinsic value and awesomeness of MJ’s life and work. It is to complexify and complicate our one note melodies and turn them into narratives of harmonious dissonance.

Martyr’s Mirror, Plough, Tractor, Adhesive Bandages, courtesy of the internets

When I told my sister that my college classmate had been kidnapped in the Congo she said (and I paraphrase), “Well what do you expect getting involved in other people’s wars. That white man had no business over there.” And she’s right. And she’s wrong.

She’s wrong because the wars in the Congo do not purely belong to the people of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those wars belong to us all. And I don’t mean in an esoteric kum-ba-ya “All wars are our wars. All people are our people.” kind of way. But in the way that white people in what is now the United States of America are intricately connected to the geopolitical how and why conflict in the Congo exists. This includes the history of colonization, the occupation of political rule by Europeans alongside the continued economic, cultural, and religious colonization by Europeans and North Americans (including Mennonites and other religious entities), and also the international corporate extraction and exploitation of the Congo and it’s natural resources and the militarized political influence of white westerners and their market capitalism driven by consumerism (also that of Mennonites as participants in North American consumerism) – to name a few.

She’s right though, because that is what one gets for interfering in other people’s wars. Her comment made me reflect on why I would ever deign otherwise. Why would I even expect someone who consciously and willingly planted himself in the middle of violent conflict to survive – to have a right to survive – to have the right to survive while at the same time expect all those born and raised in the context of war to most likely not survive? What part of me could exceptionalize MJ’s survival?

There is something deeper than “a call” that drives white expats into peacebuilding in war zones, that takes white missionaries to Kenya, that propels white college students into the industry of international development, that gives hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of white folks employment doing “good work” in the inner cities via the NonProfit Industrial Complex (myself included).

This Land is White Land; quilted adhesive bandages and fabric by Amanda K Gross

We rush head first into other people’s wars because we are escaping our own.

It is easier to helicopter into a foreign conflict zone where we know no-one than to face the conflict zones of our homes. It is more alluring to negotiate the violent disputes of the Congo than to navigate the personal trauma of rural Kansas. It is better to run and deal with other people’s messes, no matter how dangerous they may be, than to hold up a mirror and confront and sit with the ugliness of our own. There is more hope in convincing Congolese rebels to put down their guns than to convince our conservative Republican fathers to give up their allegiance to whiteness.

I say this not to blame MJ, but to identify with him. The root causes of Congolese violence are intimately close to home, and staying engaged in either risks our emotional, spiritual, mental, and even physical health. Rather than see MJ’s journey as exceptional, as out there, as something that could only happen in the dangerous jungles of Africa – what if MJ’s journey was in fact parallel to our own? What if we approached engaging in our own context, with American whiteness, with being in relationship to our families, and dealing with the roots of this interconnected mess with the same purpose and courage that we will ascribe to MJ’s life?

And to take it one step further, what if we did so leaving the Martyrdom and Savior Complexes behind? What would that mean for those of us who are still in the land of the living?

MJ Sharp, you will be missed.

 

Fly Away Home (in progress): Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

*expats=North Americans and Europeans and Australians living/working in Asia, Africa, and Latin American

**Erasing motives of self is a dangerous egotistical illusion that sets us up for doing more harm to others and also to ourselves out of the myth that in totally suppressing our own wants and desires we are practicing a sort of holy selflessness, rather than recognizing our wants and desires and discerning what of it is in alignment with God’s justice, mercy, and love, and rather than learning and trusting our deepest truths to be in alignment with God’s Truth. I blame dualism.