03 March 2013

Pagans & Privilege at PantheaCon

I was at the “Pagans and Privilege” panel discussion at PantheaCon this year. Pagan Newswire Collective Minnesota has a good article on the event, panel moderator T. Thorn Coyle also wrote about it on her Patheos blog, and both Thorn and Crystal Blanton discussed it with Devin Hunter on his Modern Witch podcast.

I made several posts to Twitter during the discussion and had the good sense to capture the content of my tweets so that they would not vanish beneath the waves of time ... and then the Con Crud overcame me.

I'm afraid that my memory has gone a little stale, but having finally taken some time to catch up, I've done my best to annotate a collection of those tweets for anyone interested.

A lot of firepower on this panel. Xochiquetzal (Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir), Elena Vera, @BlantonHPs [aka Crystal Blanton], @ThornCoyle (T. Thorn Coyle), River Higgenbotham

Gasps as Elena Vera describes online harassment for writing about goddesses as a trans woman.

Elena Vera is a powerful speaker who has a great capacity for speaking about difficult subjects — including her own experiences — in a way that is both frank about the pain involved and thoughtful at the same time. When she described the horrifying harassment she received, the wave of shock through the room was palpable. As I alluded to in a later tweet, I was struck by the fact that so many people were obviously surprised by what she was describing, as cruel harassment is unhappily common if one is familiar with the experiences of trans people.

Xochiquetzal reminds us, “Don't apologize for other people who look like you.”
Xochiquetzal: The White Guilt response of defensiveness distracts from the discussions we need to have.

These tweets attempted to summarize Xochiquetzal talking about experiences she often has where White people approach her and talk about how heartbroken they are about the injustices done to Native Americans, offering an apology for that history. But this isn't a satisfying or productive White response, since it draws the focus to those White people's desire for her to accept the apology, rather than grounding a discussion of what can be done to bring greater justice today.

Taylor Ellwood asked @BlantonHPs to edit Shades of Faith to keep the culture from being edited out.

Crystal Blanton told this little anecdote, explaining how she had come to edit the essay collection. Ellwood had been bringing materials together for the collection, and saw that it needed editorial work ... but being White, Ellwood worried about being the wrong person for the job.

“I acknowledge my own privilege first. We all oppress and are oppressed.” @BlantonHPs

This was a recurring theme in the discussion: the intersectionality of different ways in which each of us both gain privileges and suffer oppressions within systems of power. Crystal Blanton was pointing to how she suffers disadvantages as a Black woman, but also possesses privileging advantages in being well-educated, cisgendered, and so forth.

“Having time and energy and money to do things in the community is a privilege.” River Higgenbotham

This was a reminder that with privilege comes a responsibility to act.

The richness of this discussion is, ultimately, impossible to communicate in 140 characters.

I was livetweeting in large part because I knew that people were watching the #PantheaCon hashtag on twitter and I wanted the panel to get more exposure. In that I was gratified, as many people forwarded tweets I made.

But it was also a frustrating exercise, in that the more complex ideas presented, dialogue between the panelists (and between panelists and attendees), and most of all the personal stories which the panelists shared were simply impossible to convey in tweets. I worry that this record compresses the panel too much into Social Justice Aphorisms, in consequence of the 140 character limit on the length of a tweet.

“I see people who wear their privilege like a top hat & tuxedo.” River Higgenbotham

This was in reference to some discussion of how one should conduct one's self in the privileged position. Denying one's owns privilege is both impossible and irresponsible to attempt, but River was pointing to how some people assert their privilege more obtrusively than others.

Being shocked by injustices is itself a manifestation of privilege.
Being unaware of the concept of privilege is itself a manifestation of privilege.
Ignorance and apathy are characteristics of privilege which contribute to injustices.
“We have to accept knowing that there are things we will not understand.” @BlantonHPs
“It's hard enough to understand my own stuff, much less other people's.” —@BlantonHPs

These were allusions to the observation that people in a privileged position tend not to see important things about the circumstances and experiences of the oppressed. The privileged need to be careful of their tendency to overestimate their own insight, and to respect that it will always have its limits.

“I am not the Magical Aztec!” Xochiquetzal tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MagicalNegro

Xochiquetzal was talking about occasions when White seekers not only hoped that she would deliver to them Special Aztec Wisdom, but also deliver it in some kind of easy-to-digest form.

Elena Vera “Intent is not magic. The harm remains real.”
Elena Rose Vera said this in allusion to the social justice language of magical intent: that when people in a privileged position say or do something harmful, they tend to say that they didn't intend to do something harmful and then to proceed as if that corrected the harm.
Elena Vera “The ability to call the police is privilege. For me, the police represent danger.”

This was an allusion to how in many situation people of color, trans women, and others cannot reasonably expect that police will be helpful to them ... indeed, they often have good cause to worry that the police will actually present a threat to them.

Elena Vera “Privilege is a loaded gun on the table. Even if the privileged person knows they won't use it.”
“Diversity and tolerance are easy to talk about. Power is harder.” Elena Vera
Continuing the panel out on the patio, because so many people want to continue the conversation.

As the articles linked above have noted, many more people showed up for the panel than there was room for in the room where the panel was presented. And when the allotted hour ran out, there was a general feeling that the discussion had only gotten warmed up and both attendees and panelists were hungry for more. I didn't count, but it seemed that the majority of attendees stayed through the transition.

“One has to show up and say, ‘how I can I use my privilege to help?’ ” @ThornCoyle

This was part of a discussion how people in positions of privilege can work effectively as allies to people who are oppressed on the axes on which they are privileged. There's a tendency for people in privileged positions to end up driving the process and deciding on their own terms what they will do to help when they need to be more deferential to the needs that the oppressed themselves express.

“White privilege travels internationally.”

This was a snippet from a story one of the attendees told about being a couple traveling abroad, one Black and one White. The strange ways that they were treated in other countries showed that White privilege has distinctive manifestations even outside the United States.

“We need to think systematically, not about individual incidents. Society has a structure. “ @BlantonHPs
“I am a part of an oppressive system; I have to be aware of it while I work against it.” @BlantonHPs

Can we have a Pagan liberation theology?
Elena Vera: I love the Christian & Muslim liberation theologians, who remind us to identify with the poor.

This was the short twitter version of a discussion that ran for a few minutes with the panel alluding to the liberation theology movement. There was some discussion of whether a Pagan equivalent might prove viable.

Xochiquetzal: Chip Smith's book The Enculturation of Whiteness describes the economic origins of racism.

Either I mistranscribed this or Xochiquetzal misspoke, as I cannot find this book. I have not been able to find a book entitled The Enculturation of Whiteness by any author. I was able to find Smith's book The Cost of Privilege: Taking on the System of White Supremacy and Racism (plus a couple of videos of him talking about it at Beyond Whiteness).

Xochiquetzal: slippery boundaries of identity create situations where people have no safe way to behave.
Elena Vera: conditional Whiteness prevents alliances between the oppressed.

This was an allusion to how many people may or may not be read as “White”, and therefore face dilemmas in which challenging injustices can cost them their White privilege, making them more vulnerable.

Read and listen to Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary's work says @BlantonHPs

Xochiquetzal: Privilege means the ability to disengage from combatting injustice when you're tired.
Planning a Pagans & Privilege resource page at www.SolarCrossTemple.org

Thorn Coyle and Crystal Blanton and I all serve on the board of Solar Cross. Seeing the enthusiasm for the discussion and the hunger of many attendees for resources, we discussed following up with a set of resources for interested Pagans.

I have one other more personal note about the panel, tweeting it, and creating this followup post.

Most aspects of my identity put me in a privileged position: I'm White, male, cisgendered, educated, bourgeois, et cetera. I make an effort to be aware of that and to stay attentive to social justice questions. I don't claim to be an activist, but I do my homework, try to act responsibly, and on occasion I have spoken out about social justice both within the Pagan community and in other domains.

The rhetoric of “privilege” and many of the other things I tweeted reflect a style of social justice rhetoric one might call the “identity politics school”. It's an approach to discussing social justice that offers a number of powerful tools, but also has some limitations which I find can be frustrating, even counterproductive in some cases. I felt a little awkward using it so heavily.

But the discussion at the event was a helpful reminder to me of how valuable that toolkit can be. Attendees came with great enthusiasm for talking about social justice, but not always a lot of sophistication. It was obvious that many of them were hungry for better tools for thinking and talking about it, and in that environment the language of identity politics was helpful and powerful for all of us.

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