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 Does Whiteness Separate us from God – Take Five

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

WRITTEN BY Cole Parke

I recently received some big and hard feedback from people in my life who have been frustrated and hurt by my behavior in a myriad of ways. There were some specific examples of racist microaggressions I’d committed, and then some more general feedback about ways that I’ve been self-centered, arrogant, inconsiderate, and unaccountable.

After taking it all in, I expressed my gratitude for their honesty and for taking the time to call out me out; I offered my sincere apologies for the harm I’d caused; and I asked if there were additional ways that I could repair and heal the damage done. Then I went and sat in my room — a space that I’ve carefully curated as a tiny sanctuary filled with reminders that I am loved — and wrapped myself in a blanket of self-hate and shame.

altar #1; Photo by Cole Parke

It was one of those earth-shattering, core-shaking moments that leaves you feeling like you can’t breathe/don’t deserve to breathe/never want to breathe again. There was now evidence that the perpetually haunting notion of my utter irredeemability was true — that my existence in the world was causing far more harm than good and that I am fundamentally a horrible monster of human and an absolute fraud of an anti-racist.

This conversation took place within 24 hours of a four-day silent meditation retreat that had been on my calendar for months.

 

Four days. Of total silence.

 

Four days of total silence inside a brain that was freshly convinced that the essence of my being is not only bad, but also dangerous. My Christian upbringing taught me that “god is love,” and in the depths of that silence, I was wholly convinced that there was no god for me.

And now I’m back in my room. The reminders that I’m loved are still here — art offerings from friends cover my walls, the flannel quilt that my mom made me for Christmas a few years ago is carefully folded at the foot of my bed, there’s a pile of letters from pen pals on my desk, a borrowed copy of Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance is on my bedside table… I’m surrounded by love (god?) in abundance, but a deep seeded sense of unworthiness still dominates.

So the question of how my whiteness separates me from god feels entirely appropriate, impossibly hard, and absolutely critical to my/our liberation.

altar #2; featuring needlework by Jillian Brandl (@brawnyb), photo by Cole Parke

In Amanda’s original post for this series, she observed that most white people she passes on the street don’t make eye contact with her. She theorizes that “we do not make eye contact with strangers because deep down we are afraid that in seeing the God in them, we will be forced to look at and change ourselves and ultimately, that might make us question the truth on which we have built our lives.”

I wonder if what we’re really afraid of is that seeing the god in others will make more evident the absence of god in ourselves.

Feminist scholar and activist Andrea Smith once outlined the “Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” which she categorizes as slavery/capitalism, genocide/colonialism, and orientalism/war. Reflecting on this framework, I understand that the United States of America emerged from (and is sustained by) a formula of stolen labor/lives, stolen land/resources/culture (necessary for the intended disappearance of indigenous people), and through a constant process of hierarchical othering — of labeling certain people or nations as “inferior and as posing a constant threat to the well-being of empire.” I think of this as stolen humanity.

My ancestors played a role in constructing and upholding each of these three building blocks. When I think about them, and about all the other European colonizers of that era, I have to wonder, What happened that enabled them to completely dehumanize those whose land, resources, culture, humanity, labor, and lives they stole?

In my mind, the only logical conclusion is that they had to have forfeited their souls, thereby rejecting god.

Today, this process continues. Slavery lives on in the form of the prison industrial complex; the erasure and genocide of indigenous people lives on in the form of the Trans Pacific Pipeline; the (il)logic of orientalism lives on the Muslim Ban; and white people (myself included) continue to forfeit our souls.

But even if whiteness has successfully compelled us to forfeit our souls, in order to keep getting out of bed every day, I have to believe that god/love is still stronger — that even if we forfeit our souls, witnessing the god/soul in others actually has the capacity to reveal and awaken the god/soul that forever desires to reside within us.

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

Whiteness undeniably separates us from god, but the haunting grief resulting from that chasm suggests that there’s still a place for her within me.

That is the place that brought me into the depths of self-hatred last week, and it’s from that place that I keep fighting for a world that protects and celebrates the humanity and worth of all people (myself included).

 

Cole Parke is a rebellious descendent of Mayflower voyagers currently living in Boston, MA. They wake up every morning committed to demonstrating that love is more powerful, even when they aren’t entirely sure. When Cole isn’t spying on the right wing, you can usually find them hanging out at the post office, riding their bike, recruiting new Dandy Blend devotees, or fawning over some stranger’s dog.

This is the fifth 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, and fourth in the series here and here and here and here.

(Not) Your Grandma’s Footwashing

written by AMANDA GROSS

When I was little Easter meant getting all dressed up with bonnet to match, picking violets in the church yard for mama while dodging the poison ivy, and the smell of egg bake at Sunday morning church breakfast potluck. It also meant lots of exuberant hymn singing and the smell of slightly stinky perspiring church lady stocking feet as we prepared for Footwashing. The ladies and men went our separate binaried ways and, following Jesus’s example*, we took turns removing stockings and tights and washed each others’ piggies clean.

Easter!

On Maunday Thursday, I got my feet washed by someone’s grandma at the nail salon. Granted it was a pedicure, but as she sat at my feet something felt wrong. I should have been washing hers. I should be siting at the feet of someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother, possibly someone’s great grandma, not her at mine. I contemplated what her age meant in terms of history, which Southeast Asian American-influenced war she had fled or endured (or both) in order to sit at the feet of a sea of mostly white women, prepping our feet for Easter Sunday – perhaps even prepping our feet for further foot washing, a preemptive cleansing of our God-given flaws.

On Good Friday, I went to Spa WOrld and got naked with a bunch of strangers in the separate binaried bade pool. (I highly recommend the Korean Spa experience for self-care, rest, and for growing one’s comfort zone. Despite how the naked part might sound, it is a very safe family friendly environment and the cafeteria – which you go to fully clothed – is incredible!)

Now don’t get me wrong, I have always loved being naked in the appropriate spaces. When I was two, that was in the dog’s water bucket in the backyard. When I was 6, that was going shirtless to play soccer with the boys. When I was 13, that was changing my clothes in the closed bathroom stall of the locker room. As an adult, that has mostly meant at home in my room with the shades drawn. But Spa WOrld doesn’t really care about my previously held notions of appropriate spaces, because they have certain areas that you can only go into without clothes. It’s like the reverse of a “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy. For me this took vulnerability to a whole new level. But then after the initial 10 minutes of discomfort and being careful to observe eye contact only, I felt surprisingly and entirely comfortable in my own skin. This took my human capacity to adapt to a whole new level. Feeling adaptably emboldened, I signed up for a body scrub and massage and pretty soon was being spun around on a vinyl table top by someone’s Korean grandma who scrubbed and rubbed and pounded my flesh into submission. It was a humbling and again nakedly vulnerable situation.

Doodle by Amanda K Gross

Over the past year, I have been thinking a lot about self care. This has come due to other people’s urging and guidance, some of my own curiosity, but also because I have realized just how much I have learned and accepted my own neglect. I have been listening, observing, and experimenting with other people’s self-care wisdom** and asking the question what does self-care look like? What might it look like for me? This has led to expanding my horizon and also reclaiming things that I had forgotten. Some of these experiences have included, the nail salon, yoga, eating healthier, a bikini wax, long walks on the beach, long walks in the park, sunshine, tea, Spa WOrld, massages, cooking, drawing, quiet, intentional nice clothing purchases, no more than 1 1/2 glasses of red wine, music, dancing, blueberries, essential oils, gardening, hula hoops, showers, candles, sitting still, rearranging furniture, cleaning, weeding, journaling, burning other things that smell good, house plants. Self-Care can look like all sorts of things. Some of these things are more culturally familiar and some are more or less accessible depending on place, weather, and budget, but at some point with intentionality, I have tried them all.

Doodle by Amanda K Gross

Which has led me to ask a slightly different question. What does self-care feel like?

I am crossing a threshold of the new and scary in my life, which can be ultimately summarized as living and being alone. This was never the plan. This was never my ancestor’s plan for me. They are probably pissed. Patriarchy is definitely pissed. Living and being alone is calling up all my deepest internalized white lady fears. It is challenging all my go-tos of what was “supposed to be.” A “supposed to be” which was influenced both by society’s expectations and my own internalized need for external (especially masculine) validation, but also influenced by my personal vision as an attempt at challenging those norms. My attempt at a marriage despite patriarchy, my attempt at helping to raise children despite not having kids, my attempt to return my home ownership to someone who more rightfully claims the zip code, my attempt to open my doors and space to anyone in radical hospitality, my attempt to fill all the garden beds and make righteous use of every space I’ve been privileged to access and “own”, my attempt to share the spaces in between in partnerships with others – all these attempts at my own alternative “supposed to be.” (A “supposed to be” that asks a question about internalized superiority and the perceived ability to control my circumstances… )

Like the Spa WOrld body scrub, this has been a lesson in surrender. Also like the body scrub, self-care can feel abrasive. Just like getting naked with strangers at Spa WOrld, self-care can feel vulnerable. And like my Maunday Thursday foot washing, self-care can feel uncomfortable, too. My experience at the nail salon can be enlightened with history, awareness, and a recognition of our mutual humanity, but it exists among and not separate from the day-to-day violence of our world. Likewise, self-care for white ladies can carry the privilege and illusion of separation, rather than the much more complex task of finding true restoration in the midst of chaos. Self-care can be an escape from the violent dynamics of our own cultures and religions, yet result in the appropriation of another’s. We can rush to the spa for relief from responsibility and to escape our own pain or we can approach it with awareness and intention and make the vulnerable space within for ourselves to shine through. Although it is worth noting that at the end of the day, neither of these self-care approaches are guaranteed to result in how it was “supposed to be.” Instead, maybe in the discomfort of self-care we will receive a much-needed experience of gratitude and humility,  which was exactly how it was supposed to be after all.

Invisibility Cloak (in progress) by Amanda K Gross

*Stockings were probably not a part of Jesus’s foot washing experience.

**A necessary shoutout to YogaRoots On Location Yoga Teacher Training. There will be another one coming up soon!