Mennonites, Black Women, #metoo & #whataboutus

Reading Time: 8 minutes
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. 

Self-Care and Healing

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Some women fear 
the fire
some women simply 
become it…
– r.h. sin
****trigger warning: content includes sexual assault discussion****

After, you go on: picking up bits of your soul from the ground, and dusting them off while your dignity bleeds across the ground and you stumble over your body only to find redemption… and hell in your skin. It still holds you together. Your bones have not disintegrated. You have not ebbed into salt and sand and dust. People will smile at you and pat you on the back. They will look at you like they understand. Like they know. They will tell you things will be okay. They will expect you to stitch yourself back together, close your eyes and sleep and to button your shirt without shaking hands, to zip your jeans without breaking down. They will cage you in sympathies for a month, or two. And then, they will tell you to move on. Get over it. Wear something pretty. Get out. Go on a date. They will have forgotten that your body is a burning tree, a tornado, a hurricane drowning you from the inside. They will tell you that your too pretty to be so sad. Your skin is soft. They know just the guy…They will not see your flames. They will not see your blaze and ruin. They will not see. 
What they don’t tell you is that people expect the details. As if whatever horrors have been committed require justification. They will want to know: Where did they touch? How did they touch? How old were you? Were you drinking? What did you do?  Did you fight back? Where are your marks? Did you scream? Did you tell him no? Did you…?
They will want to know why it wasn’t your fault. They will pretend to ask questions under the guise of sympathy. You will hear them asking in the underlying pause, in the raised eyebrow: convince me why you are the victim. And, you will begin to ask yourself the same question. Did I do something wrong? Did I lead them on? What part of me was saying “attack me?” You will begin to doubt yourself. You will begin to believe that it was your fault. And so, you will tell no one. Or, maybe you tell people and they don’t believe you. They tell you to keep your truth to yourself. They tell you to keep quiet. They know who hurt you and they are silent. And their silence confirms your belief that everything was entirely your fault. 
——-
I have wanted to write this post about self-healing for a long time, but have never felt quite capable of finding the words to write it. I used to think that good self-care required an end goal: healing. And healing, of course, meant that I would come to a place of complete zen where nothing could hurt me anymore. Hah. Needless to say, I’ve changed my mind about my definition of healing. However, I’ve amended it to the following practices: 
1. Be intentionally committed and present in, with and for the journey in its entirety
(show up for the process)

2. Notice my surroundings
3. Refute and name the lies
These practices probably sound easy, but being intentional with each step can be extremely exhausting, frustrating and overwhelming. 
The first step (although, lets be honest – all of them are hard) remains one of my hardest challenges. Staying committed to a journey that is often tumultuous, difficult, sometimes lonely, often painful and extremely intense often requires difficult truths. It means sticking with the highs and the lows; and naming my own questions and doubts while continually analyzing lies that I have believed about my own self-worth. This becomes particularly painful when these lies have only been compounded and reinforced by my community. 
I am a super Type-A type of woman, and I like to have control. For me, part of the process is letting go of control and just showing up; listening; affirming;  unlearning and being. 
Sometimes it is just saying something as simple as “today, I am going to __________ the process.” I usually use words like “listen to/be okay with/enjoy/feel, etc” And then, I step back. Self-care isn’t always about the destination (though, we all want to get there), but sometimes, I think that maybe process is the most important part. 

Sometimes the process takes me outdoors.
Image result for nature
Used from pexels.com, free photo stock. 
Sometimes the process feels a little rough
OBX 2014

But, try to find peace in the process. 

Life is always shifting, dynamic, intense and wildly unpredictable. But go your own speed.

Today, I affirm my own strength. 
Today, I am proud of who I am. 
Today, I made it. And, I will make it tomorrow. And the next day. 

I’m not sure that I think that healing is a end destination. Maybe instead it is something that we are all continually aspiring towards: becoming more whole, living more holistically. Perhaps, even healing doesn’t always require forgiveness. (Dangerous thought!) Or, maybe it doesn’t require forgiveness in the traditional sense. My journey has meant learning to forgive myself for not loving myself more kindly; for not being more gentle with myself; for not owning myself more completely. This journey has meant unlearning the lies about myself that I believed and it has meant unlearning the lies others want me to believe as well as learning to set and keep boundaries. 
This healing doesn’t mean that tomorrow, I won’t feel like I’m at square one. Sometimes, it does that. You feel like you have had all this progress and then something shitty happens and you feel like a basket case. I’m not convinced that healing doesn’t let that happen. But, I think that for me, knowing how I can not get stuck in some of the lie traps during those times feels like a damn good place to start.
 

Let’s talk about Safe Spaces

Reading Time: 3 minutes
“I’m a safe space.”
*wearing a safety pin*
“I attended the woman’s march.”
“You can trust me.”
          “My best friend is black/gay/lesbian/disabled”
                    “I work with refugees every day.”
In the increasingly tumultuous wake of the election, I have heard every one of these phrases, and have noticed a lot of people buy into the safety pin fad, and I can’t help but wonder if we are missing a critical underlying understanding of power and how a systemic culture of power works.
Lisa Delpit defines a Culture of Power (COP) as the following:  a system of societal norms and overt or subdued behavior that produces a class of individuals that maintain control and a degree of measured in success in the world in which we live.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m discussing this in conjunction with those who are obviously safe spaces. But, what if we are not safe spaces? Or, at least, not helpful safe spaces? What if my ability to project my undeniable, obvious, and complete safe space aura undermines any discussion regarding another’s choice to determine whether or not I am a safe space? If I ultimately believe that because I have or attended or advocate for ______, than I am a safe space, am I actually able to listen and respect critique regarding my ability to be a safe space? Or, am I too busy critiquing those who are obviously not safe spaces.

First, a few small vignettes to consider:
1. The day after the election, a white, male colleague stopped by my office to tell me that there was a young, female black student was upset about the election results and wanted to talk to him. He ended his anecdote by telling me that if I ever wanted to talk, I could talk to him because he is a safe, confidential space.

2. I recently attended a rally for immigrant and refugee rights. The march was composed of clear clusters: friends who knew one another, some immigrants, friends who knew one another. There wasn’t very much intermingling. Many people left in the same clusters.

3. A family member often approaches other minority members saying someone she is very close with is black as a way to begin conversations. This person often asks my opinions regarding racial conflict, dismantling systemic racism and oppression but only believes me when she can verify my feelings in scholarly articles or in a book. This person believes he/she is a safe space.

And, while there are plethora of stories to share, I chose these examples because I believe they pinpoint conflicting signals many persons with “good intentions” fall into, especially because they are often done so unconsciously.  

So, what does it mean to be a safe space? Does it mean never making mistakes? Does it mean never doing something even if you are doing it with good intentions? Absolutely not. However, continuing to perpetuate a culture of power that benefits ourselves and negates another’s opinion while simultaneously applauding ourselves for being a “safe space” is dangerous and hypocritical. 

I believe, that we must require ourselves to consider the following:

  • What does it mean to be a safe space?
  • Are there certain voices allowed to be heard over others in our safe space?
  • Who is allowed to speak truth into these safe spaces?
  • Are we able to consider ourselves as non-safe spaces from the very persons we are hoping to be a safe space for?
  • What does it mean if this is the case?
  • How committed are we towards becoming a better safe space?
  • Are we committed towards engaging in uncomfortable dialogue?
  • Are we committed towards hearing alternative opinions regarding whether or not we are a safe space?
  • Do we project onto others that we are a safe space without allowing them to decide?

I mentioned earlier that I attended a rally. And, I was one of those persons standing there staying in my little circle. I engaged in a few discussions with strangers about their signs and their anti-oppression work, but I continually felt this growing sick feeling in my stomach. I felt like a poser. How could I proclaim to be anti-oppression and pro-immigration when it was so hard to get to know my neighbors? It was uncomfortable making small talk. It was uncomfortable being at a rally that felt unorganized. It was uncomfortable being screamed at by strangers. Frankly, it was uncomfortable doing this hard thing. But, that’s the rub sometimes, right? It was for me. I like to do the easy things. I like to know that I am safe. I like to know that I am comfortable. But, I am continually challenged by the idea that this body is not meant to hide. This body isn’t meant to only do the easy things. This body is fully equipped to engage in peace-building and community building right here. And, maybe that isn’t your call. Maybe you have a different one. But, I’d invite you to start to listen to those little nudges, those moments when you feel uncomfortable, those moments when you are challenged to examine your own “safe space” mentality. 

Maybe we all can do better together. 

Shalom always.