Who Calls Whom Racist, and What’s the Privilege With That?

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

Philipp Gollner

I would rather not smoke a pipe with Mr. Mast. He’ll compliment me on my German accent, and how tall and “sterling” I am. Privilege, for this outsider. But I would rather not chat it up with “Genealogists against Inequality” either. They’ll tell me that it’s really, really, really, ok that I don’t have Mennonite relatives. They’ll say “diversity” thirty-four times. And, oh no, we’re not a tribe. Only peace and justice, that’s what we’re tracking.

I cheer Goossen’s probing of the artifacts of Mennonite belonging. Mennonite material culture remains understudied, even as Mennonites’ merging of ethnic and religious cultures continues to yield plenty of sacred stuff.

On a larger scale, however, I wonder if there aren’t eerie similarities between early twentieth-century version of American Mennonite purity and contemporary highbrow Mennonite longings for the post-ethnic. And I suspect that any real investigation of privilege in Mennonite history in the United States is ill-served by the N-word (that is, Nazi)—because too often, the N-word hits bottom as a convenient, anachronistic catch-all; because most “Mennonite ethnicity” in North America is much older and more complex; and because Mennonite privilege, even purity, are now passed on through more than blood.

Might enlisting genealogy again in the cause of a more perfect church—a post-ethnic one, this time—continue, not disrupt, this puritan streak of Mennonite mapping?

Those with enough brains to write, and enough politics to pull in the church, mapped Mennonite racial purity in early twentieth-century America. They weren’t only keepers of memory—they also pruned the family tree, made it more presentable. They were activists for the church’s present relevance and its future purity. (Mast, by the way, represented a progressive group that soon dropped the term “Amish” altogether.)

Might enlisting genealogy again in the cause of a more perfect church—a post-ethnic one, this time—continue, not disrupt, this puritan streak of Mennonite mapping? Doesn’t it simply perpetuate the original Mennonite desire for a fresh break, a clean sheet? And could such an exculpation make authentic relationships with non-white Anabaptists, who often rely on the messy transmission of ancestry and culture for a vital faith community, even more awkward?

More importantly, the building blocks of Mennonite aristocracy have changed from Blut und Boden to subtler forms of privilege: educational opportunities, denominational connections, the right ideas. Mennonite parents of my and Goossen’s generation won’t tell their young ones what a “stern” race theirs is. They access other privilege: they will tell their children to be “world-changers,” before they ever show a photo of their great-grandmother. They will humblebrag that their child has never eaten at McDonald’s, but loves vegan curry. Doesn’t know football, but is the bestest peacemaker of them all in second grade. Swims in a pool of Mennonite social capital, but grows up with the assumption that the virtue of studying its history lies chiefly in uncovering its oppressive character.

Therein, too, is purity. Therein, too, is privilege—and its passing on. And to the extent that an openly worn revulsion against the unbearable Teutonism of many North American Mennonite bloodlines helps us white progressives mask this privilege while accumulating another (think: “world changers”), it is no way forward.

I have no Mennonite ancestors. Sometimes I wish I would. The one grandparent who was an National Socialist soldier was a socialist, and deserted in 1944. Sometimes I wish I had a Nazi Other to point at. My daughters are growing up binational, bilingual. Sometimes I wish their belonging was clearer. But my diverse non-Anabaptist students find us educated white Mennos most grating when we preach color-free virtue, not when we are a tribe, warts and all. And most times, I’m with them.

Whither genealogists? I don’t even know if it’s my business as a historian to tell them. Poking Mennonite privilege with the help of history, however, will take more than the obvious scrutiny of race science. Instead, it might make collateral damage out of many of us white progressives.


Philipp Gollner (Ph.D., University of Notre Dame) is an Assistant Professor of U.S. History at Goshen College. Most recently, he is the author of “How Mennonites Became White: Religious Activism and Cultural Power.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90 (April 2016). Catch up with him on twitter, or philippgollner.com


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5 thoughts on “Who Calls Whom Racist, and What’s the Privilege With That?

  1. Pingback: Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege | Anabaptist Historians

  2. I really liked this response. Last night, after I read Goossen’s original article about genealogy, I was left without words to describe my feelings. To me, German/Swiss/Dutch Mennonite genealogy IS exclusive, but so is any other ethnocentric way of understanding one’s identity. Mennonite theology abhors the fact that this type of identity exists, so we have this inherent inner struggle to live into this post-ethnicity American existence only to find that there is very little meaning in it, besides an over-emphasis on individualism (which is also something that our theology abhors). German/Swiss/Dutch Mennonite genealogy has been a way to define the otherness of ourselves (over some generations) in this melting pot we live in. It is, in some ways, an answer to the otherness, however misguided these ideas may be, that the Anabaptist theology calls us to live into. I’m not saying that Goossen was entirely wrong. I just think that he isn’t going quite deep enough into the realm of ethnic and religious identity.

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