Just who are the ‘Racial/Ethnic’ Mennonites?

Thanks to TimN for cajoling me to write my first post. I’ve been reading this for about a month, quite interesting stuff inside here, so here goes, my first post. As a multicultural Christian with my foot in a multicultural Mennonite church, I wanted to respond to just who are these ‘Racial/Ethnic’ Mennonites that Conrad Kanagy makes reference to in his recently published survey of diversity in the Mennonite church. You can read more of the survey results in one of February’s Mennonite Weekly Reviews.

Who are the Ethnic Mennonites? by Trini
So to get the conversation started around this, I wanted to ask, just who are the ethnic Mennonites? Using the definition for the word below, what do you think?

Ethnic: Of, relating to, or characteristic of a sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage.

Kanagy’s thesis suffers from the us-and-them problem that many in past generations have fallen prey too. Finding differences to distinguish one group of people from another. I have no problem with having an ethnicity, as we all have one, or a race, as we all have at least one, and some like me have about five of them. In the last few years knowing the Mennonites and the peculiar people that they were, I referred to Mennonites, who were born and bred, to be ethnic Mennonites. However it digress my main point, first of all, “racial/ethnic” as a term doesn’t even make any sense, but it’s continuing to appear in Mennonite publications to define people like me, approaching Anabaptists. This term is offensive to me, and I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I am offended. Although some people may not like that I use the term ethnic to describe what’s come to be known as ‘cradle-Mennonites’, I find that term more technically accurate than using it to describe disambiguate people groups who are coming to find a home in the Mennonite church.

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15 Responses to “Just who are the ‘Racial/Ethnic’ Mennonites?”

  1. Skylark Says:

    I don’t know how one distinguishes an “ethnic Mennonite” from any other white person in the US just by looking at them. I remember ST using that phrase to describe the people who showed up to the Bike Movement event in my area, and at the time I thought, “How would she be able to tell who comes from a line of Mennos and who doesn’t?” Ah, I just remembered she used that phrase when I talked to her afterwards, not in the group discussion.

    My parents got me into a Mennonite church when I was 13, but I stayed out of choice. While my ethnic ancestry includes German and Austrian, to my knowledge I am not related to any Mennonites other than my immediate family.

    Though since I’m a Scottish-German-Austrian-Swedish-Norwegian-Welsh-English mutt, I guess I could be related to just about anybody of European descent. For some reason the staff of Edinburgh Castle didn’t recognize me as a possible relation of their country’s first king, even though I’ve got the last name to make it plausible. ;-) Heck, they wouldn’t even charge me less than the £15 fee to get in.

  2. Skylark Says:

    I wish I knew if there were a way to edit my own comments to add more information.

    I just read over the Mennonite Weekly Review link, which yes, I should have read before commenting. The survey response rate was remarkable:

    “For the latest study, 3,080 MC USA members from 120 congregations received survey questionnaires. More than 76 percent of those who received questionnaires responded.”

    That’s a high percentage to respond to a survey. I vaguely recall social scientists in college telling me 20 percent is something to be celebrated. Is there something about Mennonites that makes us more likely to fill out surveys and send them in?

  3. Trini Says:

    I think with both of your responses you actually circle the issue. Is there ’something’ about Mennonites? Well there is, something peculiar, and that’s a fact to be celebrated, in fact that’s something 1 Peter 2:9 celebrates.

    But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light - 1 Peter 2:9 KJV

    or for the KJV adverse…

    But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. - 1 Peter 2:9 NIV

    My point, we’re all belong to precarious ethnic groups, whether like me, Trinidadian or North American or German, but the shared ethnicity we have is one of being radical Anabaptists. By singling out people who are non-white in the Mennonite church as being ethnic, it insults folks on both sides of the line, as the pressure is on the new entrants to bring their ‘diversity’ and the pressure on the old-timers to stifle what they thought was their unique culture.

    Mennos in particular have such a rich cultural heritage I think it can only be enriched by other cultures. Though to have such enrichment they must first stop denying that there is already a culture or ethnicity. Only when we include people of all races and cultures in such discussions would these survey results even be meaningful. Until then I’ll be afraid to partipate in events which are part of the existing Mennonite culture which have not yet made room for use new cross-cultural Mennonites, no matter what colour skin I might have. I think that brings me back to the problem, the existing once-thought-to-be-dominant-white-conversative Mennonite church doesn’t know how to relate to us as yet.

  4. Katie Says:

    Trini - I totally agree that “racial/ethnic” is a very strange descriptor. I’ve noticed church publications using it more and more in the last couple of years and it seems to be an official category used by the church. You are right that it doesn’t make sense and is offensive. I’ve wondered if I was alone in thinking it was an awkward label and I’m glad to see I’m not.

    Similar to the US Census Bureau, it seems the Mennonite Church and Conrad Kanagy have run into a problem of categories. These categories get messy because it is hard to put people in boxes because they don’t fit very well (if a part doesn’t fit right, we might have to cut it off). Then when we finally stuff someone in a box, we have to figure out how to label it. We can label it by what it is or what it is not. So “Mennonite” is the first label. But then it gets messy because we are still stuck in the assumption that Mennonite = someone born and bred Mennonite with some combination of German/Swiss/Dutch/Russian heritage. But we know in our gut that that is not what it should mean since we are supposed to value diversity and there are some people that don’t fit that category. So we could be honest about our racist/white-Menno-centric assumptions and label this other group “non”-white Mennonites. Well, that is offensive too because it’s not nice to label someone by what they aren’t, especially when what they aren’t is (consciously or unconsciously) thought to be “normal” (better). So, honesty seems to be problematic here but we still need a label for that box. We have a committee meeting about it and no one can think of anything that makes sense and isn’t offensive. Someone throws “racial/ethnic” on the table in exasperation. Everyone is tired of talking about it and it doesn’t seem too offensive to us. Suddenly it becomes an official label because we can’t think of anything better.

    Other than the question of what labels we use is the bigger question of why we use them. We want to figure out who we are (and who we are not). We’ve progressed far enough to know that we want diversity and to be anti-racist but we stumble as we figure out how to do that.

    That is all I have for now, I know I didn’t really finish my point. I’m not sure if I have much of a point to finish. I guess it is just that even though we may be trying, we are still stuck in an us/them(other) mentality (highlighted in the last few paragraphs) and don’t know our way out.

    (ps, I started writing this before I saw Trini’s comment to Skylark, so it maybe doesn’t make as much sense in relation to what you wrote in that but hopefully in relation to your post, it does)

  5. jdaniel Says:

    Trini,

    Perhaps I’ve missed something that is painfully obvious, but in the article from MWR that you linked to in the original post, there is no mention of “racial” or “ethnic” anything. Is this “racial/ethnic” term something that is found in Kanagy’s book? Can you show me how this term is “continuing to appear in Mennonite publications to define people like [you]?”

    When I think of “ethnic” Mennonites (or other “ethnic” Anabaptists for that matter) I think of people whose families have been Mennonite (or Anabaptist) for generations and whose culture has that distinctive Mennonite flavor whether it’s Swiss-German or Russian, or what have you. Obviously there are problems with this concept. Though it serves our pride well, it’s usefulness in the church is questionable (and is arguably harmful) given the growing diversity of Mennonites and Anabaptists as a whole and the idea that the church is to be about including people in God’s Kingdom, not excluding.

  6. Skylark Says:

    jdaniel, if you go to the MWR article, and then you go back to the MWR homepage, scroll down till you find the same article, there are also links to three other articles breaking down the survey results by ethnicity, age, location, etc. I think all three are listed as “LINK” “LINK” and “LINK,” though they are distinct articles.

  7. Trini Says:

    Maybe I should’ve give more links to the MWR.

    The article I initially quoted talked aboit Kanagy’s findings in general, but I should’ve actually linked to his findings in detail.

  8. Jenny Says:

    Hello, I’ve only just started reading this blog and wanted to say something.

    Reading the comments has cleared something up for me. I regard myself as Anabaptist… leaning? But am not Mennonite. I originally thought that the “ethnic” tag might have been given as a descriptor of ones lineage, i.e. for Mennonites, direct descent from the original Dutch Anabaptists who followed Menno Simons. It appears I was mistaken perhaps.

    Labels such as these make me uncomfortable to, as I don’t believe race to be either important or a scientifically valid descriptive. It also has onerous moral overtones, for me, given Europe’s recent (mid-20th century) history.

    I can’t understand the reasoning behind calling someone an ethnic this or that, after all as you point out Trini, we are all ethnic somehow (I’m Liverpool-Irish for example.) It would seem to me to be a leftover of “olde worlde Europeean imperial-colonial attitude. Not meaning to sound harsh, its just something we constantly have to deal with if we are not to sound patronising or insincere.

    It is interesting reading this, with the anniversary, in the UK, of the beginning of the abolition of the slave trade here on Sunday. It would seem whilst we have indeed come a very long way in 200 years, we still can’t seem to shake the need to differentiate between peoples of colours. I do believe it to be part of our heritage, as descendants of imperialist-colonialists perhaps, to do this.

    And it sticks in the oddest of places, such as in the Mennonite church it seems. I have to say however, I didn’t come across this kind of labelling in the Quakers.

    It can be quite hard to look at another human being and not notice their skin colour. I watched a TV programme the other day, where Floella Benjamin, childrens TV presenter, talked about her childhood, and it was when about 8 years old that she first realised that she was black. Knowing all along the colour of her skin, it was the taunts she faced from white boys in England, that made her realise her difference, and thus her whole outlook towards being black changed. What a horrible thing to have to go through, especially at that age.

    The point being that, white Europeans (or people of European descent) tend towards unconscious racism. I spoke to a Muslim counsellor about this, and she told me about this happening to her, her family and her friends everyday of the week. As a white Anglo-Irish person, I never thought about skin colour like this before. But when one thinks about it, its actually not just common but endemic. Its also akin to the kind of labelling that goes on with faith?

    “She’s a Muslim.” “He’s a Jew.” “They’re Hindus.” I for one would prefer “She’s a human being.” This is why I don’t like those Equal Opportunity monitoring forms employers hand out. What does it matter what so-called ethnic origin is? Or my religion, my sexual orientation, or my gender for that matter? What is important is the person, not the bits that make that person a person.

    When God found me, hiding in Atheism ;) I was called as simply a being. God has never asked me what my ethnic origin is. He knows, and I would suppose that, in all its richness and diversity, the Church (being Christianity) would not care either (am I being too naive here?)

    The Quakers are often accused of being white and middle-class. They are worried about being perceived as this, and rightly so. Whilst other faith groups grow, the Quakers seem, in the UK at least, to have not grown. I assume that in the UK and possibly the States this is also true of the other peace churches. Is this symptomatic of again, the European, white attitudes that seem to separate us all out into divergent boxes, and thus more at home in divergent faiths/denominations?

    Again, it is possibly the unwitting historical responses that they give out to people from other cultures. That is, the labels used, such as Ethnic Mennonite. I wonder though, what constitutes an Ethnic Mennonite in Tanzania, or the Congo?

    I can see why Trini has a problem with this label, all too clearly, after all, the Irish have been the butt of many jokes for a long while and suffered terribly for hundreds of years. It leaves a certain bitter taste in the mouth when certain terms are used to describe one exclusively, as if they are being used in a context of apologetics, without apologising, if you know what I mean?

  9. TimN Says:

    Jdaniel, this is also the language that’s used in the February 6, 2007 issue of the Mennonite (in pdf format), which has a similar article to the MWR, but with snazzier graphs.

    I think the choice to use the term “racial/ethnic” is particularly sad given that Damascus Road Anti-Racism training, which is a program of Mennonite Central Committee, so carefully (and correctly) teaches that race is a social construction invented to maintain white privilege. Here’s the definition from page 19 of their Damascus & Beyond program from their 10th anniversary celebration in Atlanta, Georgia:

    A social construct with no basis in biology whose modern variant has been (and is being) designed by people of European descent to set up the white race as superior to all others on a hierarchy of races.

    Is that really a good basis for a new Mennonite buzzword?

  10. Skylark Says:

    Hi Jenny. :-) Welcome to YAR. Thank you for posting. I’m about to disagree with much of what you said, so please correct me if I misunderstood.

    I’m uncomfortable saying race/ethnicity doesn’t matter at all. It doesn’t matter in terms of God loving us, as you rightly pointed out, but I worry in an attempt to avoid racism, we may end up saying everyone is exactly the same.

    The same as what? Could that not also lead us into believing there is some default option that we all are, and if you don’t fit that, then “You must be wrong, because we are all the same here.” The default would probably be white, since that’s been the tradition, and we would effectively shut down any discussion of differences we have. I don’t think this would help the “unconscious racism” you mentioned.

    For example, a years ago at church, we had several Kenyan distance runners. I hit it off with them pretty well, though we only interacted at church. I showed up to a church event after a hard day at work and feeling less-than-pretty. Two of the Kenyans walked over to me and said, “Skylark! Wow beautiful, you look incredible!”

    This is where understanding people’s backgrounds comes in handy. When I was growing up, and in college, too, women gave each other compliments on how they look, but men of the same age keep their thoughts to themselves unless they’re trying to score a date. I grew up with lots of conservative homeschoolers in my life, and that inevitably leads to “dating=bad, courtship=good” and perpetual self-effacing.

    Meanwhile, these young Kenyan men had been taught to respond outwardly when they saw something they liked. They weren’t trying to butter me up. They just recognized that I fit the standard of beauty in their culture. I later found out if they’re interested in more than friendly compliments and conversation, they let the woman know most directly.

    Are we all the same? No. Do we approach life with the same set of assumptions and expectations? Hardly. Rather than ignore them, it makes sense to get them out in the open where we can talk about them and grow to understand each other.

  11. carl Says:

    I don’t think the term racial/ethnic makes sense, either. It perpetuates the false (and racist) normalization of whiteness, by implying that only non-white people have a race or ethnicity.

    My understanding is that this term was actually chosen to be the “official term” for Menno publications by an MCUSA caucus of people of color? Or something along those lines - I’m not clear about the exact group that made the selection. I think there was a little sidebar explaining where the term came from in an issue of The Mennonite about a year ago.

    This thread is getting into some key issues around race and ethnicity, though. From my perspective, I think we have to hold together two key understandings:

    1) Race is a myth. There are physical differences among people around the globe, but as you move around the globe those physical traits smoothly merge from one area to the next — there are no racial categories that have any biological basis. Every human being is a unique and complex mix of many different identities, and we’ll never fit neatly into boxes or categories.

    2) Racism is real. We live in a society where very real privileges are accorded to people based on the color of their skin. In this sense, “whiteness” is very real: being white or perceived as white makes it easier to find housing, get a loan, get a job, etc.

    In order to be able to work against racism, we have to be able to name it and talk about it. Damascus Road generally uses the terms “white” and “person/people of color” to refer to people who benefit from or are excluded from white privilege in our society. No terms are perfect, and no label should be understood to capture the essence of a human being — but we do need labels in order to understand what is happening around us and work to change it.

  12. Keith Says:

    On the term Racial/Ethnic:

    From what I have heard, racial/ethnic is what MCUSA has adopted as nomenclature at the behest of the constituency groups in MCUSA (AAMA, Iglesia Mennonita Hispana, Native Ministries, etc). I would love to think that race was irrelevant, and it should be. But in order to confront racism, we need to admit that race is relevant if only because either overt or covert racism remains in the pews. To try and ignore race in my opinion seems to ignore those racial/ethnic (using MCUSA’s term) groups that remain in a disadvantageous position in our church and in the world around us. That said, I am a white male and as such speak from a privileged position. So if I am way off base, I implore correction.

  13. Saim Says:

    Aren’t most Mennonites of German American ethnicity? Could they not be considered then a subgroup of German Americans, just as Irish Catholics are a subgroup of Irish Americans?

  14. Peter Warkentin Says:

    In reply to “Saim says” - No, most Mennonites are not of German-American ethnicty. We have many who came from Europe to Canada, so that deletes the “American” part. Then, most did not come here from Germany, so there goes that part. As far as I’ve been able to trace my ancestry, we had our beginning in Friesland/Holland/Belgium. Those who chose to be followers of Menno Symons, called themselves Mennonites, just as those elsewhere chose Martin Luther as leader, were referred to as Lutherans. So far we’ve simply touched on the religeous labels; what about the ethnicity of any religeous group? If you’re from Germany you are cosidered German; from Italy, Italian, etc. The religeous labels have little or nothing to do with ethnicity, particularly among people/groups who have left their countries of birth. What kind of bothers me, then, is the fact that Mennonites generally, use that term as a nationality which it is not. While my ancestry is of Dutch/Frisian background, I am a practicing Pentecostal church person, but I don’t use that label as an ethnic term. It would be incorrect. So, what am I, in the sense of nationality? Canadian, of course, since this is my country.

  15. Trini Says:

    Way to resurrect a thread Peter (j/k)!

    As more years have gone along, I’ve been able to find closer to the root of the issue for me. It’s not labels, rather it was about walls that have been erected to keep the “in” crowd in, and the “out” crowd out. The same applies with “African-Americans” and “Native Americans” and somehow a group of people are just called “American”. Looking at a world map, people enjoy categorizing and drawing lines in the sand - I think it makes them feel powerful.

    Today, my connection with people who self-identify as Mennonites remain some friendships with a small number of people who regard me as a human being, rather than someone who made their church more multicultural. Whatever the label I stand on the outside of the wall, and realizing once again that the church is much bigger and the world is much wider.

    I’m grateful for the YARs who choose to remain on the inside to break down those walls for themselves.

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