Our history is absorbed into our whiteness

Nov 10, 2015 by

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In the beginning of his acclaimed book Between You and Me, written as a letter to his adolescent son, Ta-Nehisi Coates wonders how Mennonites came to be included within the “people who think of themselves as white.” He’s considered among the best American writers of my generation. His mention of the Mennonites came as a surprise.

Kriss

Kriss

Coates lists us along with Catholics and Corsicans (people of Mediterranean descent) as people who somehow became included into white culture.

Many Mennonites don’t understand ourselves as part of a dominant whiteness, which is about more than skin color. We don’t identify as part of the systems of power. We historically don’t bear arms, don’t run for office, sometimes don’t even vote. We see ourselves, most days, on the side of the oppressed or at least the marginalized. Our history includes running to this hemisphere to get away from other European oppressors. But now we are thought of, or even consider ourselves, as “one of them.”

My own story comes from a commingling of Catholic Eastern European roots, Appalachian family trees and an encounter with the Pennsylvania German Mennonites. My grandfather, who spoke Slovak and returned to the Catholicism of his youth in his dying days, likely never thought of himself as white but rather as “hunky.” This was a derogatory term for Eastern Europeans used in western Pennsylvania. In the Mennonite congregations that my parents joined, we occasionally sang “Gott Ist die Liebe.” The lingering language of the Old World may have been an act of futile resistance to acculturation.

When I walk down the street in my Philadelphia neighborhood these days, I’m perceived as a white dude. I’m not sure how it happened.

Somewhere in my bloodline is the blood of a great-great-grandmother whom the records call “Blackfoot.” We don’t know anything about her. The stories of the Blackfoot tribe are an interesting commingling of connection with the Portuguese, Africans and the native Saponi tribe from Virginia.

Part of becoming white is the elimination of Blackfoot’s story as part of my own — the subjugation of her reality into my whiteness. Truth is, my identity is many things: I’m a mestizo. But I know that on the street all of this is hidden behind my blue eyes, my just slightly olive-toned skin and my expectation to pursue life, liberty and happiness on the streets of this city where it was promised to an emerging nation.

For the sake of the American Dream, which Coates suggests is an oppressive lie, we’ve had to leave behind much of our identity and uniquenesses. We’ve begun to imagine ourselves as white. And we’ve had to recognize the privilege that comes from our European descent, even though at times we haven’t felt very privileged at all.

I do not miss those incidents with friends who made fun of my mom for wearing a head covering, who mocked my grandfather’s imperfect English, who wondered whether my own family tree was strong enough for me to be a minister of the gospel. Maybe I’m willing to pretend to be white to protect myself from those things even now.

All the while I’m trying to be in solidarity with those who have not been invited inside the illusory whiteness. I’m believing in the day the psalmist tells us will come when love and truth meet, when justice and peace embrace.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.


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