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.

 

Writing about the White Savior Complex on Christmas Morning

written by AMANDA GROSS

As I sit down to begin chapter three of Mistress Syndrome the Book* about the white savior complex it is Christmas morning and my body is being ravaged by category 5 menstrual cramps, an appropriate physiological state for this day of celebration of Jesus’s birth. I gave up painkillers two years before to get more in touch with my body. And lo and behold, it has been a reunion of intimate awareness, one that for 3-5 days includes intermittent mind-numbing pain with valleys of continuous ache. I wonder if the intensity even comes close to contractions in labor.

Snow on Christmas Morning; photo by Amanda K Gross

My sister-in-law recently gave birth to a baby, and this also being my brother’s child has put me genetically closer to the miracle of birth than ever before. It was awe-inspiring to be in tangential proximity to her pregnancy and birth experience as each seemingly minute physiological development grew a whole human. The baby’s uterine positioning as breech signaled a potentially dangerous labor and also a potential disappointment to the natural birth they had so carefully researched and planned for.

Mostly in the history of my conscious life, the miracle of birth has rung cliché. The overused phrase has numbed me to the Christmas story and, although I love babies and small children, the miracle of birth has largely been detached for me from their existence. My dad still talks about the story of my mother’s labor and my birth with tears in his eyes. And it is only through this recent experience of tangential proximity that I have begun to understand the power of pregnancy and birth that is at the core of the Christmas story. My tangential proximity helped me notice a combination of dependency, helplessness, distance, well-wishes, encouragement and support those around my sister-in-law were navigating, since, no matter our hopes and no matter our bedside presence, ultimately she alone would be the one to push this child outside of her body and into breathable air. In my tangential proximity, I was also powerless to do anything but wait for the news of birth.

Throughout her labor the C-section loomed as a threat of taking this powerful experience away. (This is not to say that there aren’t very appropriate life-threatening moments when a C-Section is necessary to guarantee the health of the parent and the baby, because there are. At the same time the historical development of the shift in birthing from the labor of the bedroom to the labor of the hospital along with the development of the male-dominated surgical theater, demonstrate a patriarchal shift in birthing that has served to usurp in many ways the agency and self-determination that those who have the capacity to give birth had historically held.) In the light of this possibility, she found agency in renaming the surgical procedure as belly birth, a recognition that there are multiple ways to give birth and that a C-Section doesn’t diminish the actuality that she is still giving birth.

Cold and Triumphant Statue at Highland Park Pittsburgh. Would Someone Please Knit her a Sweater?; photo by Amanda K Gross

Just as women and midwives were removed from the delivery room during the era of the witch hunts, so too has the miracle of birth been co-opted by patriarchy in the telling and retelling of the Christmas story. The main focal point of the narrative has become that of the birth of the savior, rather than that of the pregnancy and labor of the one who gave him life. While in some traditions Mary the mother of Jesus takes on a more prominent role, in the way I was raised, Mary had a  supportive role, sidelined to an occasional reference during advent season, a mention in a song that was written to her but not about her (As in Mary, Did You Know…), and a significant casting appearance in nativity scenes. She started off the advent season when the angel appeared to tell her – not ask her consent – that she was getting impregnated by God. But on the day that marks her labor it is not her work that we celebrate but its severed results, as if once out of the womb, baby Jesus was independently walking around performing miracles all by himself.

Distain at the News; Painting by a famous European; Photo by Amanda K Gross

I am still working through bitterness around the rape connotations of Mary’s reluctant impregnation and the way Jesus’s paternity relegates Mary to a vessel of male holiness, will, and power, but lately, I have been feeling more connected to the symbolism of birth as redemption for humanity. I am also even more keenly aware of the way the Christmas narrative has been misguided as an ideological foundation for the white savior complex so prevalent in our celebrity culture, politics, and theologies today.

Sky Window; photo by Amanda K Gross

Our children are our saviors. They are our chance at redemption. With each generational cycle, we get a chance at a do-over, a repeat, an opportunity to evolve in our parenting choices and child-rearing theories. Our children link us to the future, miraculously taking us beyond our lifespans. Their births signify that our DNA will live on even after we are composting in the earth (or more likely pumped with chemicals and not rotting inside of stone). Holding my nephew as a newborn was indeed a holy experience. It was a moment of perspective and prioritizing and re-centering and commitment and recommitment. The powerful labor of his mother, the commitment of his parents to bringing him into the world, and his birth story inspired in me feelings of connection to the Christmas narrative for the first time in a long while.

*I am writing a book called Mistress Syndrome. Stay tuned!

Would the Real White Nationalist Please Stand Up

Why do they allow us to have drivers licenses?

After the initial shock of Charlottesville cleared, after I quickly thought on all the people I knew in Virginia who might have been at the counter protest, after I waded through the many times I’ve attended protests and wondered if my parents understood that this could have been me, after I avoided media coverage, and then binged on it, after many murky and mixed emotions – I considered that white people are still allowed to drive.

Like the increased surveillance of Muslims at the airport and Latinos at the border, a parallel response requires a no-nonsense, cautionary, preemptive approach. Clearly white supremacists should not have access to vehicles and permits sanctioned by the state.*  Where are the calls for more stringent screenings at the DMV? Did your ancestors own slaves? Did your grandparents benefit from Jim Crow? Did your family acquire land via the Homestead Act? Or build its legacy off the backs of exploited immigrants? Have you amassed intergenerational wealth off of the GI Bill or from the implications of redlining? We hand white supremacists tools of violence and wrap it up in an American flag and add a bow called Liberty and then get dismayed when they shoot up schools and churches and plow into a crowd. And by we I mean me and you.

White Self, by Amanda K Gross

Recently I was listening to a This American Life podcast about magicians and it made me think about magic tricks and culture. We live lives of distraction. The distraction of whether or not to condemn hate or label an act as racist is easier to chew than the all-encompassing insidious multi-headed, multi-armed beast that has birthed such moments. I have often chosen the cookie over cooking, the pill over the pain, the car over the walk. Because it is convenient. I’m wondering in this moment how convenient is it for white folks to condemn hate, while writing off this violence as an exception to love. Naming love as the rule of the land is a best-intentioned sleight of hand.

And so I hold up a mirror and ask somewhat reluctantly: How am I choosing convenience in my life, in my relationships, in my work situation? How am I choosing the daily convenience of white supremacy? How are you?

The false science of racism was built on othering and hierarchy. In the hierarchy of white people this “White Nationalist” class allows us good white people to condemn their humanity while elevating ourselves, receiving moral crumbs in the doing. Ironically, this repeats the construction and institutionalization of race, which rather than propelling poor Europeans to the status of gentry, most immediately lowered the bottom for People of Color, winning us the promise of winning. Aren’t all white people who call ourselves Americans White Nationalists in some way or another?

I keep thinking about one piece from the People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism training when the facilitator asked, “If we put all the members of the KKK on a rocket ship and sent them to outer space, would we still have racism in this country?”** It’s a funny visual and a deep question.

What seems more useful than outright condemnation is condemnation + connection. So I’ve been thinking about the Many Arms of White Supremacy, set up intentionally so the left hand doesn’t know what the right one is doing. I’ve been thinking about what the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (which pays my bills) has to do with an allegiance to the Confederacy. It seems like America is getting a do-over of the Civil War.

The Many Arms of White Supremacy; Digital Collage by Amanda K Gross

Contrary to the myth of Abraham Lincoln as the great emancipator, the 16th president of the USA did not regard Black folks as equal to whites and was just fine with keeping slavery around, so long as the Union held strong. The dualistic history I learned in my Atlanta City school type-casted good guys (the Union)/bad guys (the Confederacy), which translated neatly to good guys (Democrats)/bad guys (Republicans) and then again to good people (white anti-racists)/bad people (all other white folks).

Along with killing more Americans than any other war in history, the US Civil War was a critical marker in the development of Mistress Syndrome, bringing white women…”into public view in record numbers – a breakdown at least in the rigid ideology of separate spheres. Increasing numbers of [white] women found employment in northern factories. Northern white women also got posts with the Union government and roughly three thousand women became army nurses. The most important women’s organization to come out of the war was the Sanitary Commission (later name the Red Cross), which raised millions of dollars to furnish supplies to soldiers, widows, and orphans, and helped train nurses for work in hospitals and on battlefields.” (Louise Michelle Newman, White Women’s Rights)***

The Suffragist movement gained momentum from white women’s newfound access to white spheres and catapulted itself forward through the appropriation and transformation of the ideology of Lincoln’s white male liberator “into the ideology of white female civilizer…” whether it be bringing civilized education to Native American children through forced boarding schools or successfully bringing “civilization to the Negro. ‘An army of [self]-sacrificing Northern missionaries, with Bible in one hand and spelling books in the other, scarcely waiting for the smoke [of] battle to scatter, followed in the march of the Union army, sought the freedmen, extended the help which they so much needed, but which the poverty and temper of the South at that time could not afford. Northern benevolence then and since has planted over $25,000,000 in this Southland, and has furnished an army of her best men and women to assist the negro in his dire necessity.’” (Louise Michelle Newman, White Women’s Rights)

Enter white ladies in civilized capes laying the cornerstone of Non-Profits, Charity, and Philanthropy. We wear capes (and hoods) too.

We Sent the Klan to Mars; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

The aesthetics of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan seek control through fear, but at the end of the day, so too does the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. An entire system established around the measurement and control of change, of planned outcomes and intended results, of indicators and measures of success, of budgeting and reporting. Like healthcare systems profit off of illness, I am paid to undo racism because… racism. Within these institutions there is fear of speaking up, fear of speaking differently, fear of alienating the donor base, fear of making mistakes, but especially there is fear of loss of control. Fear and control and fear of loss of control are detrimental to creativity.

Without salaried positions in bettering the world, would well-intentioned white ladies like me be waiving Confederate flags and bearing torches? Condemning the hatred serves us and we can do so safely from our computers and from our blogging platforms in denial of the White Nationalist within.

*Accidents (high majority vehicular) are the #1 cause of death for people in the US under the age of 44. White people make up the majority of drivers so taking away white people’s access to vehicles and drivers licenses (an idea shared here to prove a point) might actually be an extraordinary idea for reducing violence and death across the US. We know it would be helpful for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that are charting a path of death of the planet (and subsequently us too).

**A shout out to Martin Friedman, a core trainer with the People’s Institute who shared this story during the training. You can read more of his work here.

***Louise Michelle Newman is the author of White Women’s Rights, which is a fascinating and helpful examination of how white women used the tools of white supremacy to gain collective rights under the guise of feminism.

How Does Whiteness Separate Us from God – Take Two

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

WRITTEN BY Leah Jo

Hello, my name is Leah and I’m a recovering Christian. Today marks 6 years sober from a lifetime of believing that God was a gift that I was successfully able to box up and deliver to all those who needed him. After all, I’ve come to learn that  boxing up the Divine also allowed me to create my very own instructional pamphlet called, “How to Use God To Perpetuate Racism and Stay Comfortable While Doing So.” As you can imagine, my history of living a life that centered around the mantra of, “Serve God, Then Others, Then Yourself” set me up nicely in my later years to exhibit the following symptoms:

-White Savior Complex
-Co-dependency
-Internal guilt and shame
-Perfectionistic tendances
If you’re lost, that’s okay, I’ve been for years. What I’ve come to learn is that the Christianity I had fully embodied and lived from has been highly influenced by Western culture, which at it’s very foundation has been built on racism. I’m beginning to see how the Christianity I practiced and built my identity on has itself been white-washed. As I continued to live out my life as a good Christian I was living from a place of Internalized Racial Superiority (still do) which simultaneously upheld racism (unintentionally continuing to do). Still lost?

Indiana, PA; photo by Leah Jo

Let me start from the beginning:
I was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania, the youngest of four siblings, to parents that found God during the late 70s after a lifetime of drug use and traumatic adolescence. (I do actually “thank god” for this transformation as I am certain that I would not be here today if they hadn’t). My parents raised us in a conservative Christian way, attending church services and functions as frequently as I craved the sweet bread served at communion (which was often btw).

Smicksburgh, PA; Photo by Leah Jo

 We moved around a lot growing up, typically from one rural town to the next as my dad’s job as a manager at an AutoParts Store led us to different locations. Each place we moved, the communities felt the same, lower to middle class, white, blue-collar Pennsylvania workers. Each community held very similar values, which were “God, Family, and Hard Work”. So these values, in turn, were ones that we were taught as well. Our churches all felt the same as well, spaces that taught love/acceptance/sacrifice/and spreading the Gospel.
I loved every second of being at church. I loved the sense of community, the older ladies that pinched my chubby cheeks, the opportunity to be in plays, and of course the church picnics. The “church” quickly became  a second home, a place I found comfort and belonging.

“The Great Passion Play” Eureka Springs, Arkansas

 As I grew older, I began to admire and understand more the teachings of the Bible and OH BOY did I want to be the best Christian out there. I had always felt a very deep, personal connection to what I used to call God. Often times talking to God throughout the day, much like an imaginary friend. I wanted so badly to “do right” in the eyes of God, so that he may look down on me with a proud smile. I was simultaneously frightened by the consequences set aside for those who live a sinful life. Oh you know, just eternal damnation and endless pain and suffering – no biggie for a 6 year old to handle. So I came to understand that the sure-fire way to NOT end up going to hell was to make damn sure I was going to heaven. Tell me who I need to “save”, what rules I cant break, who not to sleep with, which words not to say and which drinks not to drink and I will pick up that cross and follow you (the rules) till I die.

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

Enter Leah the White Savior.
I began to believe that my “pure” life morally elevated me above others. I was taught that the world needed to be saved, and that I needed to find those who needed the wisdom of God’s teachings coming directly from me, the holy one. My spiritual verbage was filled with linguistic racism, equating sin and death to darkness (blackness) and wholeness and purity to whiteness. Couple my desire to be perfect in God’s eyes with the communities I grew up in and what you have is a young, enthusiastic (fearful) Warrior for Christ on a quest to save people from the darkness (or from the “urban” environment really).
I made this my “purpose” in life and so I pursued the best path that would equip me with tools and skills to save more souls. As far as I knew, devoting a life to service was certainly going to make God proud, maybe even grant me a VIP pass to skip lines at the pearly gates
All of this self-righeousness continued until somewhere near the end of college. Being taken out of my rural Western Pennsylvanian bubble, I began to gain exposure to so much information, ideas, religions, and culture that I had never before knew, that I (finally) began questioning my beliefs and my own life. All of a sudden, my “purpose” didnt feel as certain to me anymore.

Highland Park Reservoir, Pittsburgh, PA; photo by Leah Jo

At that point, I had devoted my whole life to this pursuit and was not about to give it all up that easily. I also really wanted to stay comfortable in my certainties about life, about what was good and bad, and how I was definitely in the right (cognitive dissonance is a mind fuck). If there was no one to save, then I couldn’t be the white hero!
So I continued on in my studies (which actually only fueled my privilege as I rummaged like a squirrel in a trash can through all that I have been granted access to by being white) and began learning Social Work. It was here in this work that I can TRULY say that I was first challenged** to check my privilege, my righteousness, and my entire belief system.

Philadelphia, PA (dragon painting artist unknown); photo by Leah Jo

Since then I call what I have been experiencing, feeling, processing as the Great Unraveling. This “undoing” of myself has caused me to no longer look at my faith in the same way, and ultimately at God (formerly known as) in the same regard. I am in the process of re-examining my life in so many ways and confronting my demons. I do believe in the Divine, but not in a god that upholds racism. I’m learning to rebuild a bridge inside of myself over the void that is now ever so present. A truer, more vulnerable holiness that fosters Authentic love over fear and oppression. Afterall, if Western white culture taught me how to place God inside of a box, then I can learn how to break down those boxes and toss them in the trash for the rummaging squirrels.

Smicksburgh, PA (man and gator painting, artist unknown); photo by Leah Jo

*”Internalized Racial Superiority” – “The acceptance of and acting out of a superior definition is rooted in the historical designation of one’s race. Over many generations, this process of empowerment and access expresses itself as unearned privileges, access to institutional power and invisible advantages based upon race. ” – As defined and developed and used by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.
**my second breakdown challenge was in Felicia Lane Savage’s YROL Yoga Teacher Training.
-Leah Jo
This is the second 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 in the series 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.