Alas, I still don’t have the time to do my final PantheaCon post…but, soon, with any luck…
However, what I’d like to write about today does pertain to two posts I’ve seen in the aftermath of PantheaCon, one of which is directly following on from an event at PantheaCon. The first of these is the post by T. Thorn Coyle at Patheos.com on Paganism and Privilege, and the second is also at Patheos.com, on the Daughters of Eve blog, by Nadirah Adeye on the difference between being an ally and being a “nice person.” While the first of these posts is really, extremely, supremely important–and is an issue that was also usefully addressed in Thorn’s latest book, which will have a review by me at Patheos.com soon as well–I also have to totally and unreservedly request that all of you read the second post as well. While the whole post is excellent, the thing that most impacted me in reading it was at the very end, where Nadirah defines the various labels in her life as “privileged” or “not-privileged.” It’s an important matter for self-inventory, I think, to look at what labels and identities in our life indicate that we are privileged or not-privileged, and what that means.
There are, of course, privileges and lack thereof that have to do with “visibility” and “invisibility” as well. People who are pagan and who look nearly like everyone else (for whatever reason) have a certain degree of invisibility because they may not identify as pagan at all times simply by looking at them, and thus there is a sense in which they can “pass” in the boundaries of the overculture for “just another person, nothing to see here, move along.” There are pagans who proudly wear a pentacle outside of their clothes, who have less of an ability to pass; and there are pagans and polytheists who have visible tatoos that demonstrate (to someone who knows what they’re looking at, which is not very many people) that they are pagan, and it’s very hard to pass in that situation. Some pagans and polytheists I know have certain dress or appearance requirements that have been imposed by their deities, and these allow less of a degree of invisibility than those pagans who don’t have that choice. This is one example among many, for one possible identity and the way that it is expressed in a variety of individual’s lives.
Taking a few examples from my own life–for those are always the most relevant in discussions like this where admitting of various privileges is necessary–I have white-skin privilege. I am of mixed European descent, and even though I was raised in such a way as to know “something” about my family’s heritage and history, I was essentially raised in the “No Culture White Person” fashion, i.e. lacking any distinctive family or ethnic traditions and trying to be as “normal” as possible. (About as much ethnic culture as I ever had when I was growing up was that one stands during the playing of “Scotland the Brave,” not because we are Scottish–we’re not!–but because it was the school anthem where my mom went to high school.) As some very appreciated individuals at the Pagans of Color Caucus at PantheaCon pointed out to me, the thought that this “default” culture is “No Culture” is a fallacy, because “mainstream white culture” in America is a culture, whether we like to think it is or not, which many People of Color do not have access to and from which they are excluded deliberately in many cases. While I have Jewish ancestry on both sides of my family, past generations did everything possible to cover up and make us forget that; so, even in Jewish circles, I can’t really “pass” as Jewish if anyone starts talkign to me, even though I feel a connection to that culture and would be recognized as Jewish by, for example, the Israeli Army as far as my descent is concerned. When I lived in Ireland, I was often mistaken for Irish by Irish people (even though I don’t look Irish) because I pick up accents easily; I was also mistaken for Canadian–many thought I couldn’t possibly be American because I was “quiet, polite, and intelligent”! All of these could get a full essay, of course…but, I think you see the point here. There is no way I’d attempt to “pass” as anything other than white, though, simply because to do so would be superlatively racist and wrong, and I don’t know who would benefit from it.
I also have “tall privilege/non-privilege.” No, it’s not a common thing, but it is a thing. The non-privilege side of it comes in the fact that the world, for the most part, is built for “average” height people. Doors are often not tall enough; light fixtures hang at dangerous heights for me; beds aren’t made with people of my size in mind quite often; and on buses, trains, and planes, the legroom is poor enough for average-height people, but is always uncomfortable and often painful for a person of my height (unless I get exit row, which I hardly ever do). Clothes that I might enjoy wearing and find appealing are often not available in my size, and shoes are even more difficult to find. All of these are matters of non-privilege, I think. The one outstanding fact of “tall privilege” that I think is an undoubted privilege is that most people will not pick a fight with a tall person–we are seen as naturally intimidating simply because of our size. This has certainly been an advantage, because even in areas where I’ve not felt safe and have feared altercations or a mugging or something of that nature, I never have been, because I cut a menacing figure as I stride across the sidewalks in my trenchcoat and hat. I think one of the reasons that I’ve never been beaten up as a fully-grown adult, even though I’ve done things publicly that have drawn attention and hostility (e.g. parades, demonstrations, etc. in which it is obvious that I’m queer and/or pagan and/or gender variant), is because everyone assumes (and in my case, wrongly!) that a tall person can do more damage and is tougher than a shorter person. This is a privilege that I have enjoyed having, and which has saved my life, I’m convinced, on more than one occasion.
Both white-skin privilege and tall privilege/non-privilege, though, are visible privileges (or non-privileges) that I cannot hide in most cases. Almost all other areas of privilege and non-privilege, though, are matters that can only be learned if I speak further on them. Education and intelligence privilege/non-privilege, for example, almost always emerges quickly if someone hears me speak–not five minutes into most covnersations with strangers, I get labeled as a “smart person,” and no matter how ill-informed I might seem after that, they still hold on to that image. (At PantheaCon, someone came up to me, who had been in several sessions I attended, and said “Wow, you really know a lot about everything, don’t you?” It was done in an attempt at admiration, but because there is an anti-intellectual streak that runs a mile wide in both American and in American Pagan culture, there was also a bit of derision behind it…I could almost hear this person perhaps telling someone else, “But I bet that person’s actual relationship with deities sucks because of all that book-reading…”) I hold a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D., which should therefore seem to add to my privilege in terms of educational privilege; but, I am debt for all of them to this day, and will continue to be for the next twenty years, at very least, if not longer. My advanced education has been a detriment to finding any “normal” job outside of teaching at a college; and even there, I’ve applied for a ton of jobs and never had an interview, because my Ph.D. subject/discipline/field is neither common, favored, nor well-regarded in most places–very often, my education has been a liability more than it has been an advantage. I never thought such would be the case, but it is, and I don’t know what the consciousness of this matter happens to be for many people in positions to get a higher educational degree.
There are also some non-privileges which, whether they are visible or invisible, are still going to impact me no matter what. This is the case with disabilities. While I might look “healthy” and “able-bodied” to most people (and that assumption also comes from the “tall privilege” matter mentioned earlier), in reality I’m quite debilitated at present due to ongoing chronic illnesses (one of which is not medicated at all, but in which I’m doing remarkably well in general; the other of which is only partially medicated due to lack of money and inadequate insurance). Whether people can see this aspect of me in daily life–and, unless they’re at the swimming pool with me and are scrutinizing my body the entire time, they probably can’t see it (and, I’m hardly at the pool any longer!)–it still impacts me on a daily basis, and can suddenly and without warning change the way my day is going if I suddenly have a low blood sugar and need food but don’t have any on me, or if I have to stop in the middle of what I’m doing due to an asthma attack, or if my insulin pump goes haywire and stops working, etc. There is nothing worse, while I’m on this particular soapbox, than for an able-bodied person (and especially one in the context of spiritual activities) to be giving advice about how those of us who are disabled should just “suck it up” or “become more spiritual” in order to “get over” whatever difficulties we might have…my body no longer makes insulin, and unless I get that very specific chemical compound in me through external means on a regular basis, I will have a lifespan of days rather than years ahead of me. (This is one of the reasons why I’ve always felt Buddhism and some other meditational religious practices are dead ends for me, since so much of those depend on the notion that one does not need to be dependent on external matters…I can only be non-dependent on external matters for about four hours before my bodily integrity begins to be seriously compromised.)
One of the reasons I’m writing this rumination now, though, is because a faculty member at my college died on Friday. I didn’t know her well, and only met her a handful of times (likely less than ten), but in truth, we shared an office. She often came here when I was right in the middle of something, and insisted on using the computer I usually use (the other one is in an uncomfortable desk, and sits much lower than this one; plus, if I’m at this desk, I can see what is occurring on both sides of me, whereas in the other one, I can’t see anything); when she did this, she did so in a friendly and apologetic manner, and I never had any difficulties relinquishing it to her (even though I often thought “great, NOW she shows up!”). Our exchanged were always brief and friendly, and while she seemed interesting in a variety of ways, something told me that she might not be the best person to open up and talk to at this college. I’m glad I had that instinct, because I learned as a result of reading her obituary today that she was not only from a very conservative Christian denomination and was educated at one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the U.S., but her husband was a minister and former administrator at that college. If she had known about my polytheism or my queerness, she wouldn’t have had a good opinion of me. She may have had inklings of the former, because I have some pictures up in my corner of the office that include Antinous, Panchamukha Hanuman, Columbia and Phyllis Wheatley’s poem about her, and now (after she had not been in this office for months), sigils relating to the Tetrad, a picture of the giant naked Mahavira, and also some diagrams of chakras. I put these into my office a week or so after I obtained its use, and then in December of last quarter, she put up a few flyers on the bulletin board behind her desk–which had nothing on it before–that advertised her creative writing class, and also that advertised a choir concert at her church. I suspect that the pictures in my corner might have annoyed her to some extent, and she wanted to put something else up to draw attention away from them…when they came today and took away her few belongings in this room, they said they didn’t want those posters, and I decided I’d leave them up in memory of her.
But, what I most realized out of this whole situation is that I made a conscious choice to not say more about my life with this woman–and with many other people that I encounter on a daily basis–due to fear of being an object of upset or contention or disagreement with others. I “passed” on communicating a non-normative identity, which means I “passed” for “being ‘normal’.” While little old ladies would rarely threaten to beat me up, nonetheless I didn’t want to be in a position with her or with others where they were judging me, looking down on me, or in any situation where they might feel they can argue with me about my various identities. I do this all the damn time; and, one of the things I like so much about PantheaCon is that when I’m there, and with my friends and co-religionists from it before and after, I don’t have to do that. Yes, I could try and “not do it” more in my general life, and risk getting thrown off the bus (the only mode of transportation I have), losing my job, or getting accosted on the streets of these small rural communities where I live. My ability to go outside of my home without fear of being harassed is a privilege, and one that involves passing…
And yet, one of the biggest difficulties I’m running into in my own integration process at present is that I don’t want to pass any more–I want people to take my gender identity seriously, and they won’t know that they should do that unless I reveal it to them. I want people to take my sexual orientation seriously, and they won’t know that they should do that unless I tell them. (Though, I’m freer with this information than I tend to be with my gender identity or the item to follow.) I want people to take my religious obligations and commitments as seriously as I take them, and yet they cannot do that unless I tell them about them. And, in the last week, I only partially disclosed some of my pagan activities as a result of mentioning PantheaCon to someone who asked about it, and even though I didn’t identify as pagan in the process, I was told that paganism isn’t a real religion (all in service of an attempt, I think, to suggest that I shouldn’t have been taking time off work for such a thing as PantheaCon). The person telling me this was a person in authority over me, who could have a stake in whether or not I get further employment at this institution. I knew that I couldn’t simply tell her off or be in any way argumentative (other than to establish that she didn’t know what she was talking about and was incorrect in her assumptions from a “religious studies” viewpoint), but I also wanted to tell her that she might benefit from a sensitivity training course on religious issues…which I don’t think they have in this part of the country or at this institution, alas.
I know that at least one college where I used to teach, I have been denied further employment to teach religious studies, very likely because of my polytheist commitments. They have the ability at the jobs I’m currently working at (and have worked at since 2007) to simply “no longer renew” my adjunct contracts in future terms or years, with no reason given, and no recourse available since I am not a part of a teacher’s union. If I reveal too much more to too many more people about my religious life, it could end up being very costly for my further employment; and yet, it could also be costly for them, because in my current state, if I were no longer allowed to teach religion due to my religious identity, I might have grounds to be able to prosecute a discrimination charge…if I had the money to hire a lawyer. (Do I need to mention that I don’t?)
I note that in all of the things I’ve written above where someone else might be referring to me, I’ve written “this person” and other such generalizing statements, which I prefer when someone refers to my gender. But, in reality, every person I mentioned above probably just used “he.” I’m getting to the point where I am no longer comfortable with other people gendering me the way they might choose or prefer, because in doing so, I am no longer allowed to be what I actually am…but, unfortunately, where metagender matters are concerned, hardly anyone even knows what that means in the first place.
And, within the context of the present discussion, of privilege and of visible and invisible privileges, I’m certainly concluding that being able to “pass” in any fashion for any part of one’s identity is a privilege, and one I’m increasingly uncomfortable having. My ability to no longer pass would put me squarely in the realm of non-privilege on several fronts, and almost everyone in my life at present upon whom I rely for some necessities like food and a place to stay would be squarely in the category of “but it’s a choice, so choose not to do that” where all of these matters are concerned. Until I have a greater degree of financial independence and a more secure employment position, it will be difficult to negotiate these matters any further in my favor than I have been able to at present…and, that’s an upsetting and difficult position to be in.
But, because I do have a choice in all of these matters, it’s still a question of privilege…Gods fucking damn it all to the nine Hels….