Posted by: aediculaantinoi | March 4, 2013

Paganism and Privilege: Visible and Invisible Privileges Discussed…

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….


Responses

  1. Passing privilege is also a trap, of course, because there is the implicit threat precipice. I wish I could remember where I’d seen posts about that in the past, back when I was more actively involved in circles where such things were regularly discussed.

    • Yes…thank you for mentioning that.

      I am a little angry at the implicit and explicit shaming that takes place for non-out pagans, non-out queer folks, and so forth. Living a lie and saying one is straight is one thing; just not revealing one’s sexual orientation to those for whom it isn’t a factor in the relationship (e.g. coworkers, etc.) is another animal altogether. I tend to think something similar with religion, but it’s a bit more shaky there in some respects, since religion tends to be something that is meant to be all-pervasive in one’s life, and thus it is harder to sequester and compartmentalize it away. Hmm…

      • I tend towards a sense of responsibility towards my various communities as follows: because I have a set of privileges that means that it is possible for me to be out reasonably safely, I choose to do so, in the hope that people coming to know People Like Me will change the world in such a way that more people will be able to have the sort of safety that I can gamble on. I have the resources to work to open a space for people who would suffer consequences for the same thing.

        At the same time, I tend to want to kick the asses of people who think that “out” means “constantly disclosing things even though they have no current relevance”, and as a cultural New Englander, I’m uncomfortable with a lot of overt displays of religiosity.

      • Yes–even though I’m a Washingtonian, I know what you mean. Religiosity out here is very different than many other parts of the country, but that “don’t ask, don’t tell” sort of approach is a kind of default one in this area a great deal of the time.

  2. I feel this post, especially as an anthropology major. When I mention a strong interest in non-Abrahamic religions, especially ancient Greek and the modern Pagan movement, no one bats an eyelash. But I’m terrified as to how different they’d react if I told them my interest stems from that fact that I’m a Greek polytheist. I fear I’d never been taken seriously ever again, and my grades could be possibly impacted if it bothered a professor enough. (Which affects GPA, and getting letters of recommendation, which effects my chances at a job or grad school…)

    And I also feel this post as someone who is not straight, but has a different gendered romantic partner. Being perceived as straight gives me a lot of anxiety, but no one I have encountered face-to-face has heard of or understands my orientation so every coming out devolves into a 101 presentation (and is usually very dehumanizing in the process, with people trying to chalk my orientation up to a sign of mental illness, prior trauma, or being “too young” to know what I REALLY am… I’m 21).

    I hate passing. But I don’t have the mental fortitude nor the security to wear my unnormality on my sleeve.

    • Yes…as an academic, I am completely on your side with this, and how annoying and upsetting it is. The disdain with which anthropology in particular looks upon people for “going native” in certain areas is kind of appalling, I think…

      I also hate the “well you’re still trying to figure yourself out” thing that occurs when one reveals these things. I’m almost 37, I’ve known about this aspect of my life since I was 3, and I’m neither unintelligent, uninformed, or lacking in self-reflection. Yeah, thanks, I do think I’ve got this pretty well figured out. Why do so many people default to the ‘splaining impulse when they encounter something unusual? I don’t know…

  3. About being tall …. it might also grant you sex appeal. Or being short is seen as detrimental to sex appeal. I have been with men of the same length as I am, or shorter (1.71m / 5 feet 7). And acquaintances come up to me and see, he is so nice, to bad he is such a short guy. And these were not just acquaintances now I think of it, but also friends and family members. I know quite a lot of people who are intelligent and otherwise not unfeeling people, who feel free to judge others on such small things. And why should it matter to me, if that person is not attracted to the person who I am attracted too? Why do people feel they have to tell their opinions on everything and everyone under the name of honesty?

    About being Pagan … I am only open with people I trust or with people who are sharing (a little too much) about there own religion. Somehow the rebel in me conquers the more careful suspicious side of me. Even if I Iive in a largely secular environment, and fervent Christians are usually met with some ridicule, being Pagan is definitely interpreted as being a weirdo. Christians complain to me they are not taken seriously, but my religion is often called ‘made-up’. Believing in something undefined (Ietsism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ietsism) is ok, but actually having a religion is quaint. And actually, some Pagans thought I wasn’t a Pagan because I was too normal, wearing normal clothes. Apparently you need wings, a pentacle or something.

    • That’s an interesting thought re: sex appeal, but I don’t think that tends to work out in practice as much as some might think. With people’s estimation of males, the thought that “tall” equals “huge cock” is something I’ve heard many people think, and it just isn’t the case almost any of the times that I’m familiar with. (The people I’ve met who have been the most well-endowed have always been on the short side.) Considering that I’m not in the male/man category anyway, the tall thing in that regard would therefore just confuse people even more…

      • Yes, it is not a universal thing. But I have noticed that a lot of people look down (literally en metaphorically) on shorter men. Perhaps because of associations of being tall with manliness or because a man should be taller than the woman he is in a relationship with. It is one of the characteristics that is often checked on dating websites, perhaps also because it is one of the few characteristics that can be measured.

        Last year I went to Ireland and I visited some street fair and I could see everything. I was a head taller than most other girls, while here in my own country I am a very average 5 foot 7. And this was Dublin, not China, who knew.

        I don’t know about the notion that tall people are supposedly well hung. But most of my female friends are more worried about a guy being too well-endowed, than too little. If men only knew. ;)

      • Yes, Irish women in general tend to be shorter than I’m used to (with “what I’m used to” being the U.S.). The same is true of the males as well, but not all of them.

        I don’t know why this notion of “tall” = “well-hung” exists, other than the stupid thing about “big feet, big hands,” etc. Those definitely correlate to height, and usually, the bigger the height, the bigger the hands and feet. Penis size? Not so much; and, unfortunately, since most males are pretty average in that area, it’s worse for taller ones because overall an average size “looks smaller” on them as opposed to their shorter colleagues.

        Ancient Greek ideals of beauty had it right, I think, and would agree with the views of many women that you mention, I suspect. But, because some of the circles I’m associated with have lots of gay men in them, they’re all about the size, alas, and there’s no convincing them otherwise–bigger/more is always better and preferable. :(

  4. I appreciate the attention to that difficult problem of privilege and passing. Many people read me as heterosexual, along with the other implicit assumptions of fitting a normative White culture in America. I acknowledge this as privilege that many don’t have, and I also acknowledge the tension and fear that still (no matter how much practice I get) occurs before I come out as whatever. For me, I try to be upfront with being gay and pagan whenever it feels relevant or appropriate. I talk about it with coworkers or classmates, for example, but I don’t discuss it with clients unless I think it’s relevant to their process.

    I have privileges that make being “out” in those ways easier, and I see it as a deliberate sacrifice of unwanted “passing” privilege for the sake of increasing visibility and justice in the world. I used to think of it as helping to shift others’ stereotypes and preconceptions, and to some extent that’s true, but I’ve come to realize I also want to be an ally for those who don’t have passing privilege. I’ve been “out” as a person whose best friend is genderqueer — I don’t “out” my friend, but if I happen to be discussing something about them, I will discuss them using their preferred pronouns and will educate people about these preferences.

    • Yes…thank you for your thoughts on this!

      You’ve also highlighted something that would be useful for further thought, I think. There is an assumption by some people in the queer and pagan communities that, in the words of Harry Hay, “we are a separate people whose time has come.” There has been a consistent effort on the part of non-heteronormative individuals since the later 1800s to identify as different, special, or–to use the modern parlance–queer. I am affirming of that, certainly…

      But, there’s also this assumption that if one doesn’t fit within certain standards of what is (or should be) “queer,” then one isn’t really queer. Because I don’t have a certain haircut, wear too-small t-shirts (though many other things I wear come from the International Male catalogue!), and get drunk and will fuck anything that moves, I have never been very at-home in the gay community–and, rightly so, since I’m not gay strictly speaking…and yet, there has often been an attitude that I’ve encountered that if I were to just “get over myself” or my “hang-ups,” I could be a perfectly good gay boy just like everyone else should be, and that I should want that, in any case. I’ve actually found a lot more understanding in other sections of the queer community for much of my life, as well as with many well-informed and open-minded (but, most importantly, allied and non-exploitative or appropriative) straight individuals and such as well, rather than in the actual gay male community. Which is too bad, because I tend to be attracted to a lot of gay men…

  5. [...] P. Sufenas discusses a different sort of mask: [...]

  6. Reblogged this on bloodteethandflame and commented:
    I have to say that this post hits me with food for thought on so many levels, that I am still untangling exactly on which level it inspires me first. Why did I re-blog this? Because it is an amazing post on privilege, passing, and thoughtful discussion on how interactions with others can require that an individual make decision — sometimes daily — to either wear or *not* wear various ‘masks’ that denote ‘normalcy’ in our culture.
    Very thought-provoking stuff for me today, as I consider the changes that are manifesting in my own life.

  7. I’ve reblogged this…as it gives me lots to relate to, and think about as I face some changes that have been manifesting in my own life lately, concerning the ‘masks’ that I wear concerning my family, my job, and society at large.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

    • In the future, please get permission before re-blogging (and I’m happy to grant permission when one actually extends the courtesy of asking!), as is outlined in the “Blog Policies” page up above.

      • I apologize for not asking your permission first, as outlined in your Blog Policies.

        I guess that I was excited, and not so thoughtful, in my hasty efforts to share/link to your thoughts. I promise that I will be more careful and considerate of re-blogging in the future.

        You are correct in that I should have asked permission first.

        I’ve taken the post down, as a result.

        Thank you for your correction.

      • Thank you for your understanding and courtesy!

        If you do want to re-blog it, I’ll allow you to do it: you’re clearly a thoughtful and considerate individual, and you’ve got something to add to the conversation, so if you’d like to, please be my guest!

        (Too many people stomp off and say “You’re an asshole” about these matters when they’ve occurred before, so I truly do appreciate that you are courteous in this regard. Mistakes get made, but apologies go a very long way toward mending them. Again, thank you for reading and participating!)

  8. Thank you for understanding.

    I’ve re-posted, adding my own thoughts under the re-blog…but I must admit that other ideas are still percolating in my brain (regarding the masks that I’ve worn/am still wearing), and work concerning them has been an ongoing process for me.

    Thank you for your kind permission and thoughts on this very timely subject.

  9. [...] http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/paganism-and-privilege-visible-and-invisible-privile… [...]

  10. [...] few weeks ago, I posted on visible and invisible privileges, in the wider context of a variety of discussions of privilege within modern paganism. One of the [...]


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