Mennonites, Black Women, #metoo & #whataboutus

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This is the post that I’ve written and deleted. Cried through and snotted through and deleted. And then written and deleted again.

But, for one brave second, I’m writing down my imperfect truths: again. And maybe, if that bravery holds, I will hit “post,” instead of “delete.”

Someone asked me the other day to articulate the first time I “decided to be black rather than white.” As you may expect, I had to take a minute to take a deep breath and to collect myself (because, let’s be honest, there were all sorts of crazy going through my head and I wanted to reel it in. Okay, I didn’t want to reel it in…but I figured that the best transformative outcome would come only if I dialed it back…). As a black woman adopted into a white family, I have danced myself through and around all sorts of similar questions which, as you can again imagine, have been posited in every way imaginable: you’re not really black; you didn’t sound black when I first met you/I didn’t know you were black when you spoke on the phone; you are more white than black; what makes you think you can talk about black experiences when you aren’t black; nobody who meets you really thinks your black; your just really not black or white because you’re an Oreo…(maybe you get my drift?).

My inner desire to downplay, minimize and supply a “reasonable yet optimistic alternative” (stemmed from perhaps, a self-protective propensity) would argue that what this particular person was asking was: when did you decide that your life and experiences were intrinsically connected to all black lives, and what made you make the decision to align your life with causes usually attributed to minority’s living in poverty? This, while still problematic (black people are not monolithic, although there are undeniable discriminatory and racist practices which create a type of universal experiences for the westernized, black individual and a fictive kinship), allowed me to find space in which to answer. And no, I didn’t need to articulate an answer. I don’t feel as if I owe anyone an answer to this question, and yet this question perhaps highlights a reoccurring and equally disturbing micro-aggressive trend which smacks of underlying racist ideology.

See, “when did you decide to be black” problematically assumes the following conventions:
a.       Choosing one’s skin color is optional (yes, okay, you can change it through plastic surgery, but you understand my point), and with the ability to “choose” one’s skin color one can also choose how the world interacts with oneself.
b.      A person’s color is only authentic when others automatically link this color with certain stereotyped behaviors and ideologies
c.       A person adhering to behaviors and ideologies outside of stereotyped normative(s) is automatically incapable of being or sharing said minority experiences
d.      If a person adheres to behaviors and/or ideologies outside of a stereotyped normative, said person will no longer experience discrimination based on their minority status
e.       It is possible to “elevate” oneself out of racism and discriminatory practices if one adheres to certain behaviors and ideologies

So, when did I note that my skin color was a determinant for how others interacted with me? My aunt would tell you that I started to vocally notice it when I was 4 years old. However, my first memory of physically knowing my skin color was a determining factor of how others would treat me was in the third grade when my classmate called me the N word after I beat him in kickball. I was 9 years old, and to the best of my memory, I do not recall ever hearing that word before that age. And, at 9, I didn’t know what the word meant, but I innately knew that it was somehow linked to perceptions of my value and “enoughness.”  Some people have urged that I write about the experiences I have had in order to raise “awareness.” While a nice enough sentiment, I am not sure that writing about every experience would be feasible, appropriate, diplomatic, or (frankly) strategic in terms of moving towards a goal of transformational relationship and sustainable community in Christ.

My family would note that my particular “fixation/obsession/commitment/journey” with racial and social justice materialized only in the last two-four years. (And, it has been (pick your adjective) for me to also note that when I began to become vocal about racial and social justice, I also began to lose “friends,” but perhaps that is a subject for another time). I could tell you that I first began to understand and realize the importance of intersectionality and how my personal experiences intersected with a larger narrative after Barak Obama’s election.

I could tell you that when I attended college in Kansas and was often asked (by students, faculty and staff alike), if I was on the basketball team, came from the city and had an athletic scholarship, that I began to notice a pattern. But really, I had always noticed the micro aggressions – the clerk shadowing me in the store, the crazy looks when I entered a “white” salon and was declined after being told that they “couldn’t do thattype of hair.” …) I think that what changed for me in college was that I realized that if I wanted things to change, I would need to be my biggest champion. And, that would require learning to love myself in a world that projects the stereotype that being a black, female with 4c hair is the definition of invisibility; hyper sexuality, physical unattractiveness, intellectual inferiority and poverty.      

There is this very exhausted person inside of me that is (tired of/fed-up/done with) defending myself from those who constantly wish to tell me who I am and who I am not. So, I’m done with that. I am no longer here to justify myself or to argue my case of being “black or not black.”
My experience is what it is. My experience is myexperience. My experience is unique. Your right, I didn’t grow up in a black family. But, I did grow up with black skin. I didgrow up with racism. And, I grew up with a community support system that insisted on the mantra: but you’re not really black…”

This isn’t trying to be pointed. Though, maybe it should be. And this isn’t trying to point fingers. Though, maybe it should. I write this because these experiences create a pattern within my own individual lived experience that mirrors a larger narrative which centers certain experiences while systematically deemphasizing other ones.  

If you are still reading this, then chances are that you know me. You know that when I say that I grew up Mennonite, I didn’t grow up Amish. I love being a Mennonite because I believe the theology of non-violence intertwined with an emphasis as Jesus as center mirrors Christ’s call to love neighbor and self and God. And, I fully enjoy and anticipate sitting around a table of good food with my neighbors.

But (and you knew it was coming), here is my critique. What do you do when your neighbors stop looking so much like your neighbor but an echo chamber? While I am confident that the increasingly (distressing/disturbing) trend of churches turning into echo chambers is not only limited to the Mennonite church, I am also confident that as a Mennonite committed to my neighbors, I have a responsibility to trouble the waters by noticing alienation and polarization within the Mennonite community and the systems in place which perpetuate cyclical motion. As a racial justice advocate, one of my practices is to pay attention to the following questions: Who benefits? Who is marginalized? What voices are missing? Who/(m)/what can I partner with in order to learn more? Is there a (local or national) group already doing this specific work? I do not do this perfectly. I need help to work towards sustainable, loving relationship. And, this requires intrinsic as well as extrinsic forces.   

In the era of #metoo and Trump (though, really – I don’t believe that Trump is really the “cause” of racism…it’s been broiling under the surface for a very long time), Christians have a perfect opportunity to illustrate the power of Christ’s upside down kingdom. We have been formed for such a time as this in order to cultivate newness in a broken world. We have the power and authority to speak life into darkness, because our roots are firmly planted in the word of Jesus Christ and not in the sand. We have this power. But, we also have the power to choose how we will use our voices and our bodies. We have that choice. I am convinced that Christ enables us to speak truth to power, to clothe the refugee, to love radically and to find space for transformation over and over again.

In that spirit, I am rejoicing with the many women who have found bravely and courageously spoken out about sexual harassment/abuse in the #metoo movement. I must admit, I am still rather trepidatious about the movement’s impact…I believe it is critical that this movement proceeds carefully and judiciously rather than in insta-speed via the public court of opinions. In terms of longevity, I find myself asking: is there a sustainable commitment with a lasting strategy in place? What does the movement hope to accomplish? Can we realistically accomplish legal and ideological restructuring, and what do we need in order to begin the process? A movement this large requires visible figureheads; however, this can (and usually does, (#whataboutus)) cost valuable voices by displacing marginalized voices. It is important that this movement be intersectional and strategic.

As a #metoo voice, I have often oscillated between fear and anger at my community. I have been sexually assaulted eight different times and each one of these has been at a Mennonite institution. I have spoken up and expressed outrage, and only one of those times has the perpetrator been punished. I grew up in a Mennonite culture with terms like “bible belt” (a term alluding to geographical spaces with a majority of Christian conservatives), “purity culture,” “purity ring” and an emphasis on virginity. I grew up attending churches with books on the shelf like: And The Bride Wore White: Seven Secrets to Sexual Purity; I Kissed Dating Goodbye; Not Even a Hint. While these books emphasize an overwhelming focus on virginity and purity, little to none even mention rape culture, and the pervasiveness of sexual harassment. In eighth grade when I was consistently sexually harassed every day for weeks by male classmates with things from: putting pencils down my pants, lifting up my skirts, putting things in my hair to groping, I found it easier to chastise myself than them. Even when I consistently condemned and reported them to administration, their punishment (sitting in the front of the bus for 1 week…where I still had to “conveniently” pass them to get to my seat) solidified my inner conclusions: it was my fault, especially because I then had to “walk the plank” to get to my seat.

I have been groped, molested, harassed and abused at Mennonite Camps (after spraining my ankle, a male coworker carried me into a shed and assaulted me…later at a meeting to discuss what happened, he admitted in front of the camp director and summer camp director that he wasn’t sorry for his actions and yet he remained on staff until he assaulted a camper), at Mennonite Schools and in Mennonite Churches.

My sexual assault and harassment had little relatability with the formative faith literature in my church or with the Mennonite community in which I was consistently exposed. And, a culture of silence seemed overwhelmingly palpable in regard to sexual violations. In a community that emphasized sexual purity and was overwhelmingly white, my small black frame felt overwhelmingly dangerous, degraded and invisible. I remember writing in my journal: there is no space for my truth here because there is no space for my body.

It is not helpful for me to recount all the ways in which I have been assaulted. There is this anxious person inside of me that feels afraid even to admit that, but I am tired of sensationalism, I am tired of trying to prove my innocence (no one asks to be assaulted). In college, I remember finally confiding in a friend that I was anxious about dating because I was assaulted so many times. He looked at me and said: “well…knowing you, you probably deserved it.”

I wish I could tell you that I punched him in the face.

But I didn’t. 

At the time, his words hurt me more than I can dare to recall. Especially, because so many people were and are quick to label him as so “spiritually mature.” I wanted someone to hear my voice and my truth and to tell me that I was still valuable. Kind of silly, eh? I must admit, over the past few years, I finally came to a space where I don’t need others affirmation. It’s nice, but it is consistently on me to recognize my own value and my own worth despite all the other shit. (Yes, I did just say shit). I can and will be my best champion. I can and will be my best friend. I can and will be my own voice. And, that means challenging the institutions and systems in which I know. I challenge the Mennonite Church to do better. I challenge the Mennonite communities to do better. I challenge Camp Deerpark; Lancaster Mennonite Schools; Hesston College and James Street Mennonite Church to do better.And, I know that we can. Listen deeply. Believe survivors. Create safe spaces. Develop and/or buy new materials which provide intersectionality for those who are survivors of abuse and assault. Keep listening. Keep engaged. Love deeply. And who knows, maybe something radical may come. Something like Christ. 

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