Shoelace Metaphor

written by Amanda Gross

Centuries before white ladies began selling our souls to whiteness we were fighting our living death in Patriarchy, in our own communities and in our own homes.

How did we get from Patriarchy to whiteness? That is a question we will examine by starting with that half-day Professional Development workshop your employer made you attend. Let’s call it Diversity & Inclusion 101.

Chances are if you’ve ever been to any such workshop/dialogue/conversation/seminar, at some point the trainer would frame the conversation in terms of social identity. Known to insiders as the “Big 8,” these main social identity markers include “race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion/spirituality, nationality, and socioeconomic status.” (Sometimes age makes the list.) The “social” part of “social identity” means that all of us — whether we want to or not — contend with all of these social identity markers as we navigate our lives.

I see these and other Diversity and Inclusion frameworks as limitedly helpful, like a mouse trap when you’re trying to catch a tornado.

The helpful part of this framework is that it supports us in claiming parts of our identities that society discourages us from seeing, as is typically the case when our social identity markers reflect dominant identities in our society. Like white people in an all-white space, generally we are not thinking about our race or talking about our own racism. At the very least, Diversity and Inclusion frameworks help us to acknowledge our differences based on our social identities.

But what is inadequate about these frameworks is that they aren’t functionally real. These markers compartmentalize our human experience into silos. In the real world, we can never isolate aspects of our identities. They are in relationship to each other and to power structures all the time. This interdependent point of relationships is known as “intersectionality.” A term first coined by Black feminist scholar, Dr. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989, “intersectionality” was further developed by Black, Indigenous, and other Women of Color as a way of naming the intersections of oppression. It was also offered as an important critique to white feminism and Black resistance movements, both of which historically marginalized Black women. Intersectionality makes visible the relationships between various aspects of our identities, which is how I’ve come to understand that my socialization into white middle class womanhood cannot be universalized as the experience of all women.

Likewise, bell hooks describes the dominant system in our society with a lengthy yet apt term: “Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.” Intersectionally speaking, Imperialism cannot be removed from Capitalism, nor White Supremacy extracted from Patriarchy.

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In January of 2018, Felicia Savage Friedman and I collaborated on a workshop for Pittsburgh’s Summit Against Racism (now called Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit). We called our workshop “The Wicked Webs of Racism, Patriarchy, and Capitalism” and were looking for a way to describe the historical roots and present-day fruits of these intersecting oppressions.

Some of the white women in the room were struggling to understand the relationship between their personal experiences of sexism and their complicity as white people in upholding racism. This was something I had been grappling with over the past few years, too. Neither dismissing our ability to uphold racism (because we have been victimized by sexism) nor totally erasing gendered experience from a racial analysis seemed satisfactory. These are intersectional Wicked Webs after all. As any fiber artist knows, it is the combination of entanglement and tension that transforms individual threads into yards of fabric.

I had been turning over fiber art metaphors in my mind for some time. Plus, the night before our first Wicked Webs workshop, I had had a dream. And so when a young white woman educator confessed to struggling with her relationship to both sexism and racism, I shared a concept I had been mulling over — one which would become known as the Shoelace Metaphor, a visual and experiential way to conceptualize the interlocking layers of the Wicked Webs of Racism, Patriarchy, and Capitalism over time (or more accurately, Patriarchy, Capitalism, and Racism).

Using the Shoelace Metaphor, the Wicked Webs appear less like the intersection at a four-way stop and more like the tied knots keeping your sneaker laces in place.

(If you have access and want to follow along at home, you will need something to write on, something to write with, and a shoe with untied laces.)

I learned how to tie a shoe in preschool (a shout out to my preschool teacher, Ms. Martha). I have vague memories of practicing on a shoe box, but more clearly remember trying to teach my little brother. “You cross one string over the other and then pull tight. But not too tight!” His fingers fumbled with the laces. His face affixed with concentration. Learning this first knot took time and many tries. Usually one lace would end up entangled in the other, but rarely would that knot be stable enough for the next step.

Like the tedious repetition of a preschooler learning to tie their shoes, it took Patriarchy thousands of years to get its foundational knot in place.

In our Wicked Webs workshops, we define Patriarchy as a historically-established process that takes all of humanity and divides us into two separate groups based on the biological categories of male and female, after which each biological category gets a gender.

(For those of you following along at home, it might be helpful to take out a paper and pen, draw a big circle. This circle represents all of humanity. Now draw a line down the middle, from top to bottom.)

Humans with the anatomical body parts of penis, testicles, scrotum, prostate, with relatively high levels of testosterone and low levels of estrogen, and XY chromosomes are given the biological sex “male.”

(Write “male” on the left side of your circle.)

Those humans with the anatomical body parts of vagina, vulva, uterus, ovaries, with relatively low levels of testosterone and high levels of estrogen, and XX chromosomes are given the biological sex “female.”

(Write “female” on the right.)

Biological sex may inform a human being’s reproductive capacity and what they are able to do anatomically with their body. But regardless, that human is assigned a corresponding gender, which is socially described and enforced and has to do with things like power, behavior, appearance, identity, norms, and weird associations like colors, deodorant scents, and toy genre. In the world of Patriarchy, as it has been defined by Europe, the sex categories of male/female neatly line up with the gender categories of man/woman or boy/girl and also with all sorts of other English words such as he/she, hero/heroine, god/goddess, priest/priestess, John/Jane, and blue/pink to name a few.

(Now fill in the left side of the circle with the words “man/boy/he” and any other random masculine gender associations you have learned. Write “woman/girl/she” and any other feminine gender associations under “female” on the right.)

Like zooming in on a low-resolution jpeg, the hard lines that establish and keep male=men and female=women get fuzzier the closer you look. As many as 1 out of every 60 children neither fall neatly into the male nor female categories; they are born intersex. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights:

“Intersex people are born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies. Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth while in others, they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal intersex variations may not be physically apparent at all.”

In Western society, it’s been common medical practice for doctors to alter a child’s anatomy at birth to fit more neatly into a clearly female or male sex category, often without the informed consent of the child’s parents. Which means you or I could have been born intersex without ever knowing. Beyond being born intersex, there are many other reasons why an individual’s anatomy might not neatly fit into sex box one or sex box two including a wide range of surgeries and medical procedures like hysterectomies or getting one’s tubes tied.

(Drat, now what are you going to do with that middle line? Did you write in ink?)

Gender, as I mentioned, is socially constructed and enforced. And while there are plenty of examples of societies throughout the world and throughout history who have multiple and overlapping gender categories outside of and beyond a man/woman gender binary, Patriarchy’s strict binary depends on the initial subjugation of people gendered men. Or as bell hooks states:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.” (bell hooks)

(At this point, I usually draw mad arrows surrounding the left side of the circle, but however else you want to represent the ritual of emotionally harming boys will work too.)

The ritual of emotionally harming boys prepares them as grown men to dominate women and girls, compete with and command weaker less masculine and younger men, and police that gender binary with violent aggression. The performance of violent homophobia is one example of gender binary policing that Patriarchy demands.

(Again, arrows work here to represent domination. Sometimes I illustrate this forced violence by compelling the circle to tilt 90 degrees to the right and then morphing into a pyramid.)

Originally brought to parts of Europe through nomadic warrior tribes from the Russian steppes, Patriarchy became established in Europe over several thousands of years. Its spread in Europe began in the 5,000–4,000 BCE time range and became more and more entrenched throughout history. Patriarchy’s violence marked the eras of Greek and Roman domination and was especially ingrained in the rise of Christianity in both eastern (Eastern Orthodox) and western (Holy Roman) traditions. By the time the Witch Hunts rolled around, Patriarchy was integrated into economic, political, religious, cultural, and social systems at every level. {For more on this early history of European Patriarchy see The Rule of Mars edited by Cristina Biaggi}

Shoelace Metaphor 1

(Now for that shoe I’ve asked you to find; make sure you have a shoe that is laced up, but not yet tied. Cross the two laces one over the other. Wrap one of the laces around and up under the other. Pull both of them tight in order to create the first foundational knot. This knot represents European Patriarchy.)

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Shoelace Metaphor 2: Foundational knot is European Patriarchy

The era of the Witch Hunts in Europe corresponded with an entire economic shift away from Feudalism and towards Mercantilism, the predecessor of Capitalism. To sum up hundreds of years of history and an entire book (Caliban and the Witch by historian Silvia Federici), the ruling wealthy class got greedy and kicked the peasants off the land. The peasants organized to resist. The ruling class clapped back using the Witch Hunts and persecution of Jewish people and Heretics to undermine peasant resistance. All this eventually resulted in a new economic system: Mercantilism, which focused on trade for profit and private ownership. Its accompanying philosophy, Mechanical Philosophy, began equating the human body to the machine, viewing the body as raw material, disposable for profit and the emerging nation-state.

At the same time as Europe was philosophically separating the physical body from the sacred soul, its religious leadership (Pope Alexander VI) was sanctifying violent conquest. Now any land not already inhabited by Christians was proclaimed God-ordained for the taking. According to the Pope’s Bull, it was now Christian obligation that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”

These religious proclamations had a disastrous impact on Indigenous people around the world. In the Western Hemisphere, some historians estimate that 56 million Indigenous people were murdered leading up to the 1600s — equaling 90 percent of the pre-Columbian Indigenous population. Neither this devastating history nor the ways my ancestors directly benefited from it, nor the ways Indigenous people resisted, exist, and still resist European Colonization were ever taught to me in school. Certainly it was not the “Pilgrim and Indian” story of annual preschool Thanksgiving Day theater productions.

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Speaking of preschool, we last left our historical preschooler with the triumph of their first knot, poised and ready to take on the next level of shoe-tying anatomy. When teaching little kids to tie shoes, I tend to stick to the Bunny Ears method, in which you create two loops, one in each hand, and then tie them together and pull tight. This seems to be the clearest way to demonstrate, conceptualize, and explain the next step. However, when left to my own devices, I prefer the more complex “Loop, Swoop, and Pull” method. It’s amazing how as an adult, I do this now without even thinking. I make that quick grab with one hand for a loop on the lace to my right and then use my left hand to wrap the left lace around. Then, in an expert move, I seamlessly switch which hand is on which lace by momentarily holding the arrangement in place with my right hand. My left hand reaches for my right lace loop at the same time that the fingers on my right hand make contact with the left lace, guiding it through the gap. In one motion, both hands pull the two symmetrical loops taut.

(Take your shoe and add the second knot using your preferred—Bunny Ears or Loop, Swoop, and Pull—method. This second knot with its pair of loops represent Mercantilism on one side and Colonization on the other.)

Shoelace Metaphor 3: Bunny ears of Mercantilism & Colonization

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I can say with confidence, that the white women asking questions about race and gender on that cold, January day at our first Wicked Webs workshop weren’t the upper echelon of society. They weren’t the One Percent of 2018’s America. But, neither were they barely surviving at the lowest rung of the U.S.’s economic ladder. One of them even had enough expendable income and leisure time to meet up a few weeks later for a lovely chat over coffee. We were both wearing winter boots; mine had laces, double-tied.

Something else happened between the tie that brought together Mercantilism and Colonization and the metaphorical shoes worn by today’s nice white lady. And that something was the invention of race.

I first learned about the distinct historic connection between race and class at a People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond Undoing Racism workshop, which was being facilitated by Dr. Michael Washington. Dr. Mike painted a captivating and grim picture of what poor indentured European servants, Africans who were enslaved, and members of Native tribes were going through as dehumanized laborers for the European elite.

In Birth of a White Nation, Jacqueline Battalora also describes this set up with  attention to the ways European Patriarchy carried over into new laws in the British Colonies of Virginia and Maryland, particularly in supporting the legal creation of a new category of people now called “white.” These brutal 17th Century laws established a drastically different set of consequences and outcomes depending on whether one was European or African/members of Native tribes and included (and I share an extremely abridged version of this history here—for more in depth information, investigate the resources listed in the bibliography at the end of this post):

  •        In 1640 in the colony of Virginia, John Punch, an enslaved African man ran away with two indentured Europeans. When caught he was sentenced to lifelong servitude, while the Europeans were given added years of indenture, but not the permanent loss of their freedom. This is one of the first legal distinctions made between Africans and Europeans and set a legal precedent for lifelong Chattel Slavery.
  •       In 1643, and further clarified in the decades that followed, the Virginia Assembly added a tax on African women that was consistent with the tax on English men ages 16–60 and on African men. With this new law, English women became the only category of women tax exempt and, rather than being taxed for their labor, they were instead classified as dependents (both servants and free). As historian Kathleen M. Brown puts it, “This created a legal fiction about the different capacities for performing agricultural labor between English and African women” (from Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs).
  •       Deviating from hundreds of years of British Common Law in which land, child custody, and inheritance all flowed paternally, a 1662 Virginia colonial law made the status of a child (whether enslaved or free) inheritable based on the status of the mother rather than based on that of the father. This law had the traumatic impact of incentivizing the systematic rape of women of African descent. It also delegitimized Black parenthood by simultaneously relocating parental authority of Black children to enslavers while erasing evidence of their white paternity.
  •       Anti-miscegenation laws in the colonies of Virginia and Maryland established the existence of white people in 1681, first established to control who “British and other free born” women could marry and later declaring that it was illegal for white men and women to marry people of African descent and members of Native tribes. Although illegal for white men to marry non-white people, this was primarily enforced in the case of white women, serving to make white women exclusively available to white men and subsequently all women more available to white men. At the same time, patriarchal privileges (carrying firearms for example) were stripped from men of African descent and members of Native tribes, centering patriarchal power in the hands of white men.

This gruesome history was justified with the development of pseudo-scientific classification and ranking systems (aka race), which consistently placed white at the top and Black at the bottom. {Read: The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.}

These legal and “scientific” categories of human beings once again sub-divided humans into fictional and unequal groups (this time based on race) and became cleverly integrated into all aspects of U.S. society. The European “natural hierarchy” for gender relations adapted for racialized colonization and enslavement as Black and Indigenous people were feminized and infantilized as requiring the supposed protection, guidance, and domination of the European/white race. I say cleverly because the invention of whiteness by the ruling colonial elite has served to successfully align a lower class majority (poor and middle class white people) with the elite wealthy minority rather than align with their class-based peers. Moreover, the invention of a racialized exploitated lower class was fundamental to the development of Capitalism, an economic system based off of the historic supply and demand of people as property, their labor, and the colonized ownership of the Earth and all that can be taken from her.

To directly address the white educator’s question, racism depended and depends on the invention of white womanhood by carving out a specific pedestal for white women as the purest,  most beautiful, holiest model of civilized wife, mother, and daughter. The notion of white women as damsels in distress projects patriarchal white fears that white women will be coveted by Men of Color, which has incited horrific and ongoing racist violence. White women during the First Wave Feminist Movement repeatedly used racial superiority to reposition themselves as educators, missionaries, nurses, and cultural evangelists of white American culture by occupying prominent roles in Native boarding schools and southern schools for African American children, overseas missionary work, and women’s prison reform.

Which brings us full circle to the shoelace metaphor. If European Patriarchy is the first knot on your tennis shoe, proto-capitalist Mercantilism with its bottomless hunger for free and cheap (able-bodied) labor and Colonization with its hunger to dominate the Earth are the twin bunny loops that make up the second knot. And as any caregiver knows, a single knotted shoe tie often results in loose laces. Tie those sneakers twice. The double-knot of modern Capitalism and its co-conspirator Racism make up the historical third tie that reinforces these overlapping systems of oppression.

(Take the two loops and tie them one last and final time, making a double-knot. The loops of the double-knot represent Racism and Capitalism.)

Shoelace Metaphor 4 – Double-knot of Capitalism & Racism

As Felicia often points out, “In order to undo a knot, you must first go back through.” Which is why white feminism has failed us and will continue to fail us. It is impossible to untie a double knot by pulling at its base. In fact, pulling at its base only tightens the tie. From Suffragettes to the Women’s March, white women have been vocal about ending Patriarchy. And we should be: Patriarchy is indeed the foundational knot. But in order to undo that knot, as well as all the interconnected knots that keep this arrangement in place, our collective liberation journey depends on our ability to untie its most recent mutations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blogging with the Mennonites

written by Amanda Gross

Last month, I was honored to be invited to write for the Menno Snapshot Blog of Mennonite Church USA.

Having dreamt of being invited to address a vast audience of Mennonite white folks, I wanted to say so much. It took me several drafts to find words that resonated with how I was thinking and feeling at that July 2020 moment, especially about how I’m feeling about and grappling with my inner oppressor. The theme of befriending the parts of our selves we don’t love and which are also connected to oppression has also been present in our recent work in White Women’s Groups (you can read their blog here).

Ultimately, here’s  how I decided to approach the opportunity of examining my white Anabaptist identity in a society where racism is infused at every level, including inside of me.

Read the blog post!

Loving the Enemy Within: Grounding in the trauma-healing work of anti-racism

Border Walls

written by AMANDA GROSS

Sit.

Breathe.

Notice the life force streaming in through your nostrils. Watch it go out the same way it came in.

Do you notice your insides?

Can you feel your inner Mother Theresa? The selfless care? The love-practice lived?

How about your inner 45?

 

I was feeling rage and grief at my family’s willing ignorance and at the names and Black bodies that kept piling up on my twitter feed. Something mammal and hungry had devoured the mustard greens in my garden that I had grown from seed. Also, the carrot tops were missing.

(I guess my faith was small.)

 

I scraped the soft flesh of my forearm on a rebellious sheet of chicken wire. Wooden stakes. Staple gun. Wire cutters. Rocks and dirt filled in the gaps.

Satisfied, I stood back: At least the collards, tomatoes, basil, swiss chard, and cucumbers would stand a chance.

 

I stood back

And noticed that

I had built a border wall.

photo collage by Amanda K Gross

Yesterday, I walked in the sunshine to the farmer’s market and purchased the juiciest of strawberries. One fell out on its way to my fridge.

I tasted how it surpassed my expectations.

 

My dear friend asked for some.

Sure, I texted back, and also, I wish I had known or I would have bought more. I would leave half for her and her household on the top shelf of my fridge.

What I meant was, I wish I had planned to take more for myself. I remembered the taste of that one juicy berry. I anticipated my morning meal.

 

I remembered, too, the feeling of experiencing another’s pleasure—how deliciousness can be magnified by a chorus of “mmmmm’s.” I remembered how much I actually do like to share.

I boxed the berries up for her and stood at the sink to breathe.

The Milk and Honey of Our Denial

written by AMANDA GROSS

 

Dear Readers of the Mistress Syndrome Blog,

 

It’s been a while. It’s not you, it’s me.

If you hadn’t already heard, I’m working on a book, a long one. After several months of blogging here, I realized there was so much more I wanted to say. I wanted to connect the dots between blog posts and put my weaving skills to literary use and so I got the incredibly original idea to write a book.

At that point in my writing, the ideas and the stories were flowing freely, and I gave myself one year to complete this 100,000 word oeuvre. Now it’s going on three years. I have been learning so much.

I’m learning about myself through reflecting on childhood memories and through reading a lot of challenging books about racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. I’m learning too, what it means to write about real live people and to learn how they may have experienced a moment quite differently than I. I’m learning about how they might not be as excited as I am about the vulnerable glance into my (and subsequently their) life.

I’m learning about my own process, too, especially noticing what feels easiest to write (things further in the past) and what feels desperately difficult (things that I’m experiencing now and dynamics where I don’t feel clear).

I see my perfectionism getting in the way. It knocks things off of shelves just as I was grasping for them. It peers over my shoulder censoring my truth. It builds almost instantaneous walls of denial when I am afraid of not knowing what the “right” thing is.

VVH Cousin Lydia Victim

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

I’m writing a (very long) book about Post-Traumatic Mistress Syndrome, about my Post-Traumatic Mistress Syndrome and as my accountability partner recently reminded me, there were some very big themes I had been leaving out. I’ve been afraid to touch upon them because of the painful emotions they bring up for me, even though I was justifying my avoidance to myself as things that might be hard for others to read. To be more specific, I’ve been trying to write a book about Post-Traumatic Mistress Syndrome without delving into white women’s relationships with Black men (well, specifically my own), without considering what it means for white women to raise Children of Color (because I don’t have my own), and without going deep into the complexities of intimate relationships with Women and Other People of Color (again, specifically my own experiences).

When I stop avoiding avoidance then I know exactly what it is: I’ve been avoiding feeling.

I’ve been avoiding feeling pain.

Today, I received a painful email. Someone my age in Atlanta — who I’ve only known tangentially — just passed away due to complications from Covid-19. Her death is tragic and, most likely preventable given the incompetence of our government and public health systems to contain the spread of the virus. She left many people who loved and depended on her and will be deeply missed.

This final email which announced her passing was the last in a long line of prayer requests sharing about the moments she had been on the edge and the moments she had begun to recover. The email was, subject line and all, framed as a celebration of her home-going. It is important to say that the email I received was not initiated from her family, instead from a white colleague. It is also important to note that her death, as someone who was racialized as Black, will go down as statistically consistent with how racism is causing Black people to die at highly disproportionate rates in this pandemic.

I am not privy to whether or not her family was using the hours immediately following her death as a celebration of her home-going, but it occurred to me as I began to feel enraged at the pollyannaish tone of the email and swift reply-alls, that heaven is a form of denial. (Please bear with me if you’ve already had this revelation.)

Several of the emails followed a similar format: First, acknowledge her passing and give condolences. Second, glorify God. Third, acknowledge that in her last breaths she may have found Jesus and/or that others might find him through her suffering. Fourth, glorify God again.

In my head I have composed and recomposed several drafts to metaphorically body check these anonymous and inconsiderate God-glorifiers on their ill-timed positivity. It seems an incredible offense to project one own’s beliefs onto a freshly grieving family. It seems a veritable disrespect to not offer them, their own space for grief, their own space to have their own experience with it, even if the imposition is coming from an email chain of tangential strangers which they might never read.

I realized then that the email chain said far more about the emailers than about this particular person’s life, death, or family.

I also realized then that denial is a form of heaven. The emails indicated how the people sending them were choosing (or not choosing) to grieve. Were these people not sad and enraged about the injustice of her death? Were they not destitute in the loss of a unique soul who could never be replaced? Were they not empathetic to what this might mean for her family’s emotional and economic well-being? The evolution of a white conservative Christianity has come into its glory. Pain does not have to be felt, struggle does not have to be gone through, vulnerability does not have to be opened up because God is good.

Also, feeling might mean having to make a change.

IMG_20170722_212837_722

The Chickens got away with Jesus: Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

I think too about the violence this attitude of required praise does to people navigating depression and what it meant for me when I was in the midst of a severe eating disorder. God was supposed to be good all the time. If I didn’t feel that goodness of God in the moment, that meant something must be wrong with me.

But what if God being good was not a cop-out for being in and with the hard things? Less of a “God is good” and more of a “God is”… Don’t quote me on this one, I learned the idea from the Buddhists and it’s probably in the Christian bible too, hidden beneath the layers of contemporary interpretations of atonement theory and the evils of sexual sin.

I am still resisting the urge to carve up the (probably white) emailers with the deft blade of my words in a Reply All response (they called me Dagger in college for a reason… which had nothing to do with writing or violence). But non-violence, etc., blah blah blah, and all that jazz. For the moment, I am dealing with my painful feelings by writing this blog post instead.

While I might not be able to change the behaviors of the emailers who come and in and out of my life, what I can work on is feeling my own pain in the moment. And I have been working on that, especially in delving into writing about some of the feelings I’d rather bury in the sand or pretend went to heaven. As I’m practicing this new feeling-in-the-moment tactic, I’m beginning to notice some interesting changes in my body. There is more ease and movement in my shoulders, which has served as my dumping ground for where I store pain and trauma for future moments of feeling and processing it.

Of course, the progress isn’t as linear or as shiny as those words may appear. There are also many days when my shoulders tense up as tightly as they used to.

Either way, God is.

 

How Does Whiteness Separate Us From God – Take Eight

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

WRITTEN BY Rachelle Regner

Decolonizing my mind, worldview and faith is an ongoing process that requires a lot of listening and relearning.  It has been both freeing and terrifying, healing and painful, beautiful and messy.  Just when I think I’m in a good, stable place, it takes me deeper into the suffering of all creation and deeper into myself.  Recently, it has brought me to a crossroads in my faith as I seek to discover my deepest self and relationship with the Creator and creation.

Growing up in rural western Pennsylvania within conservative evangelical Christianity shaped my identity and worldview in a whiteness I didn’t even know existed.  The Bible I was taught to trust as God breathed and inerrant, as the “Truth”, was used to teach and defend this whiteness.  Now as I am learning to see and name the whiteness and the inconceivable harm it is causing, I am recognizing the “Truth” I was taught to believe has actually separated me from God.

Whiteness has separated me from creation. (Genesis 1:26) I was taught that humans are the superior creation and given the right to dominate the rest of creation for their own use and benefit.  This led to a lack of concern and hardness towards animals, plants, and the earth.  It taught me to support and participate in policies and practices of over consumption, greed, and exploitation that are killing our planet.  These actions were justified with a belief that the rest of creation did not possess the same inherent dignity as humans. Writers and speakers such as Kaitlin Curtice and Robin Wall Kimmerer both members of the Potawatomi Tribe and Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Priest, are teaching me to see not only the outer beauty of creation, but the intricate, complex design, interdependence and pattern of life, death, and resurrection in all things.

Whiteness has separated me from others.  Whiteness within my evangelical faith taught me that I am an individual and my faith is individual.  It taught me that my faith was the only way to God (John 14:6) and to focus more on evangelizing hearts than opposing the structures of oppression because people’s suffering was the result of their individual choices.  It trained me to ignore my complicity and participation in the structures of oppression through viewing myself only as an individual.  The individual approach to my faith focused on getting to heaven and ignored the suffering of the world.  Whiteness taught me dualistic thinking and to negate other faiths, spirituality and experiences.  It taught me to be blind to God in others and in all of Creation.  It trained me to judge and call out the “sin” in others and not see through eyes of compassion and grace.  Whiteness in my evangelical faith trained me to believe I had the truth that would save others and to separate from others until they believed in that same truth.   

 Some of my past memory verses

I have defined myself as stable and even keeled; someone who doesn’t cry a lot or experience many extreme highs and lows of emotions; an individual who is able to use my mind to make decisions rather than my heart, my intuition.  I have considered this a strength of mine, but this process of decolonization is revealing to me that this is one of the central ways I have been separated from God.  Whiteness has separated me from emotions and feelings, from my heart, my intuition. (The heart is deceitful above all things. Jeremiah 17:9)  Whiteness in my faith told me that the heart is deceitful and cannot be trusted and that emotions are misleading and even sinful as they come from our sin corrupted heart and not the truth.  I separated myself from experiencing and processing my emotions because I was taught that the way to listen to God was not listening to my heart, but instead only listening to the written word. So, now as I am trying to discover my deepest self and connect with my emotions/heart/intuition, I am finding it hard to go into the depth of my emotions.  I have been so trained to disconnect, connecting is unknown to me and even scary.

Whiteness has separated me from my body (2 Corinthians 5:1-10; Romans 7:18, Romans 8; Galatians 5).  My faith taught me that my body is temporary; I would receive my eternal body in heaven.  Even further, I was taught to separate my body from my soul and that there was nothing good in my body.  I was taught the desires of the flesh were “sin” and at war with my soul.  Therefore, I was not only taught to ignore my body, but to force it into submission to “holiness” often causing harm to my body.  I was taught to deny it pleasure; viewing pleasure as purely “sinful”.  I didn’t recognize how intricate my body is and how interdependent it is to the Creator and creation.  I didn’t know how to listen to my body and pushed it past its limits.  I couldn’t hear it screaming at me that it wasn’t well until it stopped functioning and my health declined.  A long healing journey for my body is teaching me its unity with all things and that I must not only recognize and live in that unity for the healing to continue, but learn to trust and listen to my body.

Whiteness has separated me from the very essence of who I am.  My evangelical faith was built upon the belief that I am a sinner and separated from God (Romans 3:23).  I was constantly reminded of that sinful nature within me and that I could never be “good” enough for God to accept me.  Being made in God’s image was proclaimed, but quickly overshadowed by “the fall” (Genesis 3) and our sinful nature (Romans 5:12).  Love and grace were preached, but drowned out by the wrath and judgement of a god who could not see past “the sin” within the people he created for relationship with himself (Romans 1:18; **use of male pronouns for god as taught in my evangelical upbringing).  These conflicting messages and the emphasize on sin and separation have separated me from understanding and recognizing God within me.  It has separated me from truly experiencing the love of God and my unbreakable connection with my Creator.

Whiteness has shaped and polluted Christianity.  An individual approach to faith, truth, and redemption have ignored the connection between God, humans, and all of creation.  Whiteness has taken a story of love, peace, justice, and a message of opposing power and structures of evil and used it to defend greed, violence, and oppression.  Whiteness has distorted the Bible leading to individualism, meritocracy, and a focus on “getting to heaven” as fundamental belief systems within Christianity, which are tools to continue to ignore and feel the impact of being an oppressor.  Whiteness is separating us from God, from others, from creation, from our feelings, and from our truest selves.  Whiteness is killing us.  I am discovering to find my way to a life of connection and love, I first have to acknowledge the violence of whiteness towards me and through me (as an oppressor), especially through a faith that was taught to me as the salvation of the world (1 John 4:14).

Lying While White, Again

written by AMANDA GROSS

Once you tell a lie, more lies are required to cover it up.

I have a vague recollection of a children’s picture book that had this lesson as a premise or maybe it was a cartoon or perhaps several iterations on the same theme. At some point in the beginning of the tale, the main character tells a lie about something seemingly insignificant (racism calls this a “white lie”) and then finds themselves weaving a web of lies to cover it up – first for their initial lie and then for a gaggle of proceeding lies until eventually it all falls apart until either the character is caught and/or feels so incredible guilty that the entirety of the truth spills out. At the end we learn never to tell the small lie in the first place because if you give a mouse a cookie…

My exposure to this moralistic tale happened first in preschool or maybe Kindergarten around the same time that most children are taught not to talk about race, especially in mixed (read: multiracial) company. This includes learned silence and sometimes shame around noticing, pointing out, and identifying racial difference. For most of us who have come to be called white, this vow of silence applies to mixed company as well as the all-white ones. We were shushed and taught to pretend that we are all the same, that we don’t notice difference because that would be impolite. We were taught to pretend that the differences in our relationships to power are rude to point out.

Whiteness Montage; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

It is an early lie, more accurately a white one. This lie has required lies upon lies to prop up its initial false claim, creating a (wicked) web* of tangled deception. And we are all caught up in it one way or another because the lie of race has shaped our perceptions, our thoughts, our realities, and our life expectancies. That white people exist as a biological, genetic, or phenotypical category are all lies. That this falsely constructed category of people is superior in any way to other falsely constructed categories of humans is also a white lie, though this time a rather significant one.

As I struggle to breathe amidst the toxic air of my surroundings, I think how these lies of racism show up in my body’s allergic reaction to Pittsburgh’s air (in)equality. My body is creating mucus in record quantities to expel that which is unnatural, that which does not belong, that which threatens the universe of my organism. The earth too is in the process of expelling us humans and our toxic racist lies. My childhood stories ring true, white lies – the small ones and the racial ones – are not so insignificant after all. They build up and create an unsustainable mess.

Truth-telling, like lying, is also a slippery slope. As you may have noticed, lying has been a recent theme of this blog, and by lying I don’t necessarily mean the Who-stole-the-cookies-from-the-cookie-jar?-Not-me!-Couldn’t-be!-Then-who?-ones. I mean the lies that we tell ourselves about our feelings and the one about the impact other people and things are having on us. Mainly, the lies we tell ourselves.

Initially, I wanted to write that truth-telling is complicated or complex or complexly complicated… But in writing that and in being honest with myself, I’m realizing it’s not the truth-telling that’s complicated, but the lying that complexifies my truth.

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

I have recently set an intention for truth-telling and truth-seeking, which inevitably means the Universe has offered me more than ample practice. It also means more of my lies are being revealed to me. And because I am out of practice, I am noticing my dishonesty several lies in. Several lies behind, I am still not catching the white lie as it leaves my lips.

Like just this week as I observed my gut feelings and knew there was something I didn’t like about an email communication that was unfolding. I also told myself that an email chain was not the place to address this. So I waited. And I waited. And waited for the previously agreed upon moment of in-person dialog to appropriately share the feelings I’d been damming up for days. Then when that moment didn’t happen, the truth exploded – or sort of the truth, but definitely something exploded. Really what happened is that I ended up telling the truth about my feelings by lying about what incited them, leaving a whole lot more mess to clean up. (Tune in next week to see how it ends.)

This mini-white lady processing rant points out a pattern of mine on my journey towards truth-telling and reveals how much I am still attached to the lies of whiteness, how much I am willing to hold onto the toxins and swallow the mucus, how deeply committed I am to following the rules despite what my body communicates to me in the moment. I am still relying on an external playbook and not the inner truth of my being. In this case, I opted to follow the rules of anti-racist racist whiteness that cautioned me to communicate relationally, in person, and definitely not over email.

These moments have also cued me in on another lie I deeply believe: that truth-telling is seamless, easy, effortless, and ends in comfortable happy endings that celebrate the teller of that truth. As I begin a process of telling my family my truths from childhood, there are many (white) lies to untangle – some of which are being loosened, some of which are being pulled tighter because whiteness demands a pretense of invisibility. As I build up my emotional resiliency, sometimes I struggle to stay focused; truths can be so painful.

Clearly, the emperor is standing butt-naked in the snow storm, but our stubborn allegiance to the emperor’s imaginary cloak has become more important than finding him an adequate winter coat. (It would be a lie if we pretended the emperor doesn’t suffer, too.) He stands naked in the midst of the Polar Vortex as the earth seeks to expel both him and humanity’s white lies.

Snow on Christmas Morning photo by Amanda K Gross

*Wicked Web Workshops forthcoming in partnership with YROL. Please inquire for more details.

Lying While White

written by AMANDA GROSS

I have said it before and I will say it again, stoicism in my maternal line runs as deep as our varicose veins.

Now at the age of 35, I have been practicing the art of lying for decades. Perhaps this genre of art is not the one you’re thinking of where lying is a deliberate conscious effort to cover up one’s tracks. Although I would be lying to say I haven’t had moments like that.

This is not the type of lying that I would use after smacking my little brother across the face. He wailed like a fire siren. Amanda, did you hit your brother? My parents asked. Nope. I adamantly lied, shaking my head so hard it was bout to fall off. This is not the lying with which I covered up my anorexic tracks, its own menu of sorts: I’m not hungry… I already ate at soccer practice…  I gave that [insert food group] up for Lent…

Like a superficial understanding of racism, we’ve been taught to picture lying as intentional and overt, rather than woven into the very fibers of our social being. The concept of whiteness is based on a lie and so it is unsurprising that my white womanhood has been cultivated on a bed of lies that bestow qualities of purity, goodness, beauty, niceness, and victimhood to the white lady, just to name a few.

Hear No Evil, by Amanda K Gross

There is a lie steeped in stoicism grown from this falsely raised bed, a lie that has been part of my white lady practice since cultivating niceness became a personal goal. It was probably kindergarten, even preschool when I first learned the tools of the trade, that being hyper-nice, compliant and obedient to adults in authority gained me the advantage of Good Little White Girl. Sometimes modified with the adjectives Smart or Nice or Quiet, the benefit of the doubt was in the classroom before I arrived. All I had to do was play the part (or at least most of the time).

Each year I got better with practice. Being nice, quiet, and polite kept the adults happy and provided a safe emotional distance from my peers. Sometimes my classmates would ask for help with their assignments. Sometimes my teachers would assign me to do so. Either way, I was happy to oblige, my good little white girl purpose in life fulfilled.

One important tool in the box of lying while white has meant training myself not to express how I really feel. Frustration, irritation, annoyance, impatience, anger, and rage did not, could not belong to a good little white girl who was growing into a nice white lady. And so, those emotions, too could not belong to me.

As an adolescent, I recited the fruits of the spirit from a framed embroidery at my grandparent’s house. Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Goodness. Faithfulness. Gentleness. And Self-Control. Visually tattooed on my mind, patience and self-control were clearly the hard ones. I vowed to stuff down any feelings that would detract from this list. If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.* The dilemma is that I often have so much not nice to say.

White Silence, by Amanda K Gross

And so when recently, while in the middle of chopping vegetables, a feeling of irritation at a colleague welled up within me, it did not occur to me to bring this feeling to them. Instead, I sat with it for a moment, as my yoga practice has taught me. I acknowledged the emotion, as my therapist has taught me. Well hello there irritation, I said to the feeling. And then I lied to myself, as white supremacy has taught me. I diagnosed myself with impatience, surely stemming from my internalization of racial superiority. Impatience, by the way, was not listed on the framed embroidery of the fruits of the spirit. I quickly labeled this feeling bad and, renewing my vow to be patient, stuffed it down and continued cooking dinner.

Except the thing about lying, is that the truth is still there packed under the layers of cover up. The truth is still there and it wants to get out. It too wants to be free.

It took many days for me to realize my self-deception, and even then I only confronted it because of someone else’s emotional labor. It was several days more until I acknowledged my feelings to the colleague, and revealed that I had been lying to them. I created the harm that I feared. I shook the foundation of trust that I had convinced myself that my silence was trying to maintain.

I too have consumed the lie of whiteness with its false pretense that emotional distance (plus privilege) maintains a wall of security that will keep everything okay. The more honest I am with myself and others about my feelings, the harder nice white ladyness is to achieve. And so I am working on divesting from the wall. While obvious in theory, divestment proves elusive in the moment because I – more often than not – confuse the nice white lady for the real me.

*According to Thumper from Bambi

 

Only You

written by AMANDA GROSS

Meet Roger:

Only You Can Prevent Racism; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

I was first introduced to Duke University’s report, Fighting at Birth: Eradicating the Black-White Infant Mortality Gap at the Allegheny County Health Department Infant Mortality Collaboration. This study cuts to the quick in a very helpful way.

I, along with 99% of white liberals, have a closely held assumption that as someone’s income, education, and access to healthcare and career opportunities increase, so too will their health, wellness, and quality of life. This concept of increased access = better outcomes is why I support a move towards universal healthcare, more public and subsidized housing, as well as free higher education.

Not so fast. (this study says)

While that is the case for white people giving birth to children, as seen through the Infant Mortality Rate, it is not the case for their Black counterparts. The Infant Mortality Rate (or IMR) is one very important marker of health. The Duke study shows that IMR actually increases for Black women as their education increases (especially for those who hold Masters and Post-Doctorate degrees), rather than decreases. As access to higher levels of income, education, healthcare, and career opportunities improve, health markers decline. Come again?

The study controls for a lot of things (you can read it for yourself to get all the details), ultimately coming to the conclusion that the increase in IMR is because of Black women’s increased exposure to structural racism and microaggressions. Or another way to think of it is that Black women’s IMR increases as they interact with more white people (especially of the middle-class and affluent variety) and begin to live and work in spaces that are even more culturally white.

Well, of course this makes sense because racism. And though this is consistent with what Black women have been saying for years, we white people love a good study. And so it was this study that got me all inspired.

The study reminded me of a horrid billboard campaign, which – speaking of incredible Black-led organizations – New Voices for Reproductive Justice had first alerted me to. While Black mothers are often villainized in the media as bad promiscuous single moms, this anti-abortion ad campaign was particularly heinous stating: The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.

This textbook victim-blaming technique serves as a handy distraction. The ad campaign wants us to think that Black babies are dying because of the bad choices of their parents (translation: abortion) rather than see the circumstances around them, structural racism, stress, and increased interactions with white people as the main factor in those children’s deaths.

I was taught that meddling in Black peoples’ business was the sign of a good white person, but since that approach isn’t really saving anyone but my ego it’s time to move on and be more helpful.

Both fortunately and unfortunately white people are the real cause of racism, which means we have the opportunity to be both the harm and part of the solution.

Remember Roger?

He’s making public service announcements aimed at white people through this Public Ad Campaign. As he posts them, please download the images and share widely!

College Classroom; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

White Middle-Class Neighborhood; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

Corporate Boardroom; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

 

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.

White Lady Ego Part II – The Need to Be Liked

WRITTEN by Amanda Gross

The need to be liked is powerful in the white lady. It is an ego-driven urge that lies in wait covered up by dirty laundry and clean clothes, hidden from my consciousness until its rotting smell wafts up and out. It calls out to be reckoned with at the most inconvenient of moments.

I know where it comes from. Forged in the bowels of patriarchy, being liked is substitute currency that white ladies have developed over time. In my personal cultural and religious tradition, the opposite of being liked – in the form of shunning – is the equivalent of hell on earth. Exclusionary shunning has been called upon to exclude people from heaven, from community, from relationship, from justice, and from legitimacy. Its threat so powerful that the subconscious under toe of the possibility of not being liked drives our decisions and emotional responses. White ladies developed this manipulative tactic in the face of power disparities, but now its primary function is to manipulate ourselves.

cycles of trauma mirrors; digital collage and painting by Amanda K Gross

For much of my life, the fear of not being liked has helped direct my words and my actions. I was obsessed with this external compass as a teenager. I rationalized my self-talk as being as kind and nice as possible to everyone as a good Christian should be. I told myself that this was how I was showing love. After years of therapy and grappling with an eating disorder, I was able to recognize the patterns of cultivating smallness in myself, but they still have a powerful hold. Later as a young adult, wanting to be liked was my go-to in times of stress. Even as I increasingly exercised my voice and spoke my truth, there was still this nagging, grating sensation that in so doing I was forfeiting my safety or my power or both. Something was getting lost in this (ex)change. And something is getting lost in this (ex)change. My ego is struggling to survive.

As an adult, I have been trying to reclaim my intuition by diving through both the dirty laundry and the clean clothes to dust off the small voice of truth at my core.  But even when I polish it up and place it shiny on the shelf for all to see, I still hear the fear of not being liked. It’s usually telling me to get defensive and blame others, because I am speaking my truth and that should be enough for you. (But is it enough for me?) It’s whispering to me that I’m the victim when others don’t receive my truth without resistance, when they don’t hear what I intended clearly, when they don’t step out the way for my truth’s glory, when they don’t celebrate my truth as I have been working so hard to do.

Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

Recently this dynamic has happened especially when I am in direct conflict with others. Conflict with others is something I was taught to run from at all cost. Being in conflict is uncomfortable. All of my ancestors are screaming at me inside my head and inside my bones to flee the scene. But I have been pushing through because my intuition is valuable, because my life’s work is about conflict, because many of my ancestors were wrong, and because (reality check) conflict is a normal part of everyday existence. I can run, but conflict will find me again and again.

Even in the midst of these conflicts, after I have spoken my truth, clarified my perspective, and applied our collective agreements, something still stinks. In one recent example, my truth wasn’t received, instead it was warped and repackaged to fit the other person’s reality and spit back in my face. Or at least that’s the story I’m telling you because it’s the story I’m telling me, which is really a story of my wounded ego. I may think that I am over caring what people think, I may be more comfortable with interpersonal conflict than ever before, but deep down I still have attachment to how they will talk about me to others, to the injustices of my being shaped by rumor to strangers and not out of direct relationship to me.

Victim, Villain, Heroine; Acrylic and Ink on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

While the need to be liked is not directing my words and my deeds like it once did, it still lingers. And like other aspects of our socialization into whiteness, it is most dangerous when I think I have arrived. It is a convenient nook to store anger, frustration, exhaustion, and sadness. It is convenient to let the stench seep through in societally approved tearful claims of victimhood. But it’s in the cleaning up and the sifting through that I am offered the lessons that were meant for me. It is in the letting go of control of wanting to be liked that I can undo and unlearn the habits that hold my Self back, to stay in the discomfort and not give into my ancestor’s urge to flee.

 

This post is a companion piece to this one on White Lady Ego.

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.

They Cut Down the Trees so There Would Be No Witnesses

written by AMANDA GROSS

They cut down the trees so there would be no witnesses.

Les Temoins 1; Pen and Ink by Amanda K Gross

Once there were two, some type of conifer and a maple that had merged with the power lines. The latest East Liberty residents to be displaced, cut down by an expert team of planners, developers, and arborists, who paid the working class to do the dirty work. One tall, the other wide, they were both deemed lacking in middle class values, taking up too much space, interrupting the flow of light, disrupting the aesthetic of the sidewall, interfering with progress. In winter I would shovel away its cones with the snow and in summer discard her tags so they wouldn’t become uninvited trees of their own. Tender, (in)Tending to keep the garden pure. In their wisdom they knew what was going down, probably long before their neighbors had a hunch. As autumn came, the real estate agents began changing color too. The ELDI crime report blemished the street as the holdout hotspot for danger in an area destined for a label of good . The well-intentioned white folks hid among the raspberries. That summer thirty children claimed the block and the mobile basketball hoop appeared and reappeared eventually blending into the empty lot in full morning glories. The ongoing rotation of siren – ambulance, firetruck, police – our tax dollars at work for whiteness. Were the limber witnesses grieved by the losses? Were they appalled at the city’s lack of care? Did their hearts swell with the children, lovers, families, friends? Were they soothed by the warm greetings and cookout smells? Did they feel a part of the community? A sense of be-long?

This morning the city came and turned the stump into a pile of mulch, our history composted inside her DNA.

Les Temoins 2; Pen and Ink by Amanda K Gross

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.

When in Rome

written by Amanda Gross

I am the guest whose invitation long ran out before the stars were crowded out with  the constant glow of dead dinosaurs. (We consume our dead dinos with a side of human debris spanning three continents, the destruction of descendents of some of earth’s oldest civilizations.)

An original invitation  (most likely reluctant, a mix of compassion and wise suspicion), which was subverted then co-opted, I was greeted at the threshold by another uninvited guest*. His gestures grand, his welcome sincere, his land was not his land to give. He welcomed me in the house on behalf of the host. Looking somewhat like me, I took him at his word.

Mennonite Church; Collage by Amanda K Gross

I am the guest who has suffered. I bring all my luggage. I dump it at the door. I embrace the host and cry on their shoulder and leave a trail of snotty tissues wherever I go. My white tears are vast, my trauma deep, and I demand to be consoled. When my home was never a sanctuary how could I respect my host’s as one? Never before has being a guest come with such lax responsibilities and so I take full advantage and self-indulge.

Trauma Container; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Trauma Container; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

I am the guest who overstayed both tentative and temporary hospitality. I moved my furniture into the spare room and hung my clothes in the closet. I put up a mirror and named it my room. I replaced the photos on the walls, redecorated with a more modern decor, and planted my perennials in the garden. And when my children and grandchildren and their children’s children outgrew the spare room and the halls and the common space with our clutter and our waste and our pets and our slaves, it was a shame, but I had to ask those who used to live here to leave the house and find a spot out back, reserved, I told them, just for them.

Many generations later, I am the guest who sits and listens to young person after young person share vulnerably individual human traumas, amassed a part of a community’s collective intergenerational trauma. I am told and I tell myself that I am a guest. And so I try and resist the urge to collect: stories, traumas, experiences, lessons. I resist the voyeuristic impulse I inherited from Blumenbach**, the “father of anthropology”, of looking in and categorizing, measuring, comparing, and weighing against what it is I think I know. I resist the myth of objectivity and the myth of knowing better than. I remind myself that an invitation is not a pass. I worry about contributing. Then I worry about worrying about contributing. I center my whiteness. Then I center my humanity. And then I just get confused.

I remember that general advice to act like the Romans when in Rome.  And then I remember that the Romans just took wherever they were and called it Rome. When performing conqueror, one is always at home.

I vow to be uncomfortable. And then I vow to love myself.

The Chickens got away with Jesus: Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

I take the bus to the light rail in the city in which I am a guest which is in an entire country that is also a guest. I am uncomfortable in the unseasonably cold rain and on the smelly train. I carefully step over something unidentifiably gross on the ground and stand too long at the intersection waiting awkwardly for cars to stop so I can safely cross. I congratulate myself on being uncomfortable earlier in the day and in staying engaged in the discomfort.

YROL Card Draft: Drawing by Amanda K Gross

And then I walk into the hotel lobby and a white man with a mustache (no lie) greets me at the door and offers me a freshly baked chocolate cookie. The other uninvited guests fill in all around me. They join me in the hotel hot tub, workout next to me on the exercise equipment, and politely hold the door for me up the stairwell to my room.

There is an illusion of human belonging as I settle into the peace and quiet afforded to me as the rest of the young humans I spent the day with go back to their many realities and take the night shift at the front desk of the hotel lobby while I lay my head on my pillow and drift off to sleep.

*William Penn invited Swiss German Mennonites who were fleeing persecution in Europe to join his colonial experiment in what is today Pennsylvania. European Mennonites have been invited to many countries in order to help make non-arable land arable, resulting in the displacement and destruction of many indigenous cultures, communities, and peoples in several locations around the world.

**Blumenbach is one of a slew of European scientists who over several generations developed “a false science to classify human beings with the explicit objective of placing white people as the height of humanity and white culture as the pinnacle of human achievement”. (This comes from the definition of “Race” by the People’s Instititute for Survival and Beyond)

Staying at the Lorraine Motel; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

How Does Whiteness Separate us from God – Take Six

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

Written by jeannie

“the day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again.”

-Krishnamurti

nearly two years ago i accidently saw God in burgettstown pennsylvania.  on that day i met a young woman who was waiting by the side of the road with a cardboard box in her hands and inside this box was God.

its picture (after coming home) is below:

What-it-is, 5 weeks old; photo by jeannie

earlier that week at a church down the street from my apartment i had learned the term “panentheism” as defined by the author Matthew Fox: “God is in everything and everything is in God.”  it seemed like a nice thought that God could be closer than watching us from somewhere else, but now after seeing this tiny part of God that we call a rabbit the theology started to breathe. i had no words to describe the shocking transparency of this black and white thing-in-a box which was so new to its own neuromuscular system.

no description, that is, except God.

after that day i began to perceive that same startling what-it-isness more and more frequently and i believe it is always here in everything although most of time i disregard it in favor of separating and comparing and associating and preferring.

one example of this kind of dream, in the context of Amanda’s blog question, is whiteness. *

when i look in the mirror or down at my body and think or say “white,” my attention shifts from the actuality of my sight to that second screen that people call the “mind’s eye.”  i lose awareness of the patterns and contours and movingness and heat of myself-as-i-am. instead all i see are the meanings of whiteness in my mind and which are dead outlines. **

it doesn’t seem to matter whether i feel pleasure or pain when calling my self-image white.  it is still a cheap thrill compared to the moving heat of this myself. misidentifying with whiteness or any other label that shows up on that second screen of my mind absolutely lacks the power of What-It-Is, to God.

i don’t believe that White or Rabbit or any other dream can separate what is already true from myself, itself. however these dreams too often result in a case of mistaken identity and i believe that i am what i’m not.

 

*because God is in everything and everything is in God, i believe that labels and associations are also a part of God but i often mistakenly treat them as gods in themselves.

**i don’t actually believe that anything is dead.

jeannie lives and works on the east side of Pittsburgh as a nursing assistant and GED tutor. She prefers to spend most of her spare time in conversation with her rabbits.

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

 

 

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.

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

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

WRITTEN BY R/B Mertz*

How Whiteness Kills God & Sprinkles Crack on the Body

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

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

                                                                                                                        – Gwendolyn Brooks

They require of me a song,

less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own

– James Baldwin

  1. “WE ARE IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. EARTH IS GREEN & BROWN, MONEY IS WHITE

“God is the color of water” – James Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. GOD IS US & THEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. “WE CAN’T BREAHTE”

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

 Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.