Saturday is a bit of a blur. I got to the hotel later than I intended, and rushed to catch up with Nan, Maia, and Lisa who I found sitting in the front row during the setup for the Pagans and Privilege panel. Since it was one of several panels I was interested in attending I opted to join them. My friend Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir, and T. Thorn Coyle, who I much admire, were panelists.
As we sat there, chatting and watching the tech crew set up the sound system, the speakers let out a feedback SQUEAL that set my nerves on fire. Of course my hands went straight to my ears, but that was pointless since the sound was gone just as quickly. I sat for a moment, breathing carefully, trying to calm my nerves, when I realized that I was actually shaking. Not just my hands, either, but my whole body. Dammit, I was having a panic attack right in the front row, with an important, socially sensitive panel getting ready to begin.
I had to get out of there.
I rushed away shaking and trying not to cry, looking for somewhere quiet, preferably a bit darker, where I could sit to calm down. My ex-boyfriend Hobbit was there, and stayed with me until I was sure I was going to be okay, before returning to his obligations for Programming staff. I calmed down the panic spike pretty quickly, but remained exhausted and upset. I know I’m hypersensitive, and sharp sounds like that have always been painful, but if they ever used to trigger panic attacks, I don’t remember it as such. This is not a development I’m at all pleased with.
Lacking much ability to think about my alternatives, and wanting to spend more time with those of my friends who I knew were in the room, I returned to the Pagans and Privilege panel just as it was about to begin. The room had filled up and my old seat was taken. I was about to sit on the floor in front of Nan and Maia when Xochi gestured for me to come talk with her. I rushed over to see what she needed – aside from wanting to take care of my loved friend, I still carry certain staff habits with me when I’m at PantheaCon.
She gestured to an older fellow in the back and asked me if he was a particular conservative, somewhat reactive folkish Heathen she knew of but had yet to meet. I looked, and didn’t see the person she was concerned about, and then assured her that if he, or any other folkish Heathens showed up and acted out, we liberal Heathens grouped in the front row would respond firmly to stop the disruption coming from within our tradition group. We weren’t going to keep anybody out who was well-behaved, of course, we just weren’t willing to put up with racist bullshit from fellow Heathens. Blessedly, nothing of the kind came up at all during the panel.
The panel was of course moderated by T. Thorn Coyle. In addition to Xochi, the panelists were Elena Rose, who I had the pleasure of meeting last year, Crystal Blanton, who I had heard of but never met, and Charlie Glickman, whose blog on sexuality I have been very pleased to read.
It went very well. The panel itself I don’t think I could describe any better than you getting to listen to it yourself. It should be posted this month to Thorn’s podcast page.
The overall presentation carried, for me, a feeling that we’re all in this together, and any problems we have we ALL have. We may not all share the same experience of those problems, but none of us are going to face those problems alone. I can only hope others felt similarly by the time the panel was over.
One thing I did enjoy was the opportunity to watch several different ways of handling the topic. Crystal’s approach was gentle, offering explanation to people who may not really understand the need to address their own privilege, and their effect on the world. Elena carried a great deal of humor and charisma, presenting what she had to say in a very matter of fact way that let the audience laugh with her instead of feeling a need to take sides. Charlie was primarily apologetic for his privilege, and sympathetic to those who were trying to learn to gracefully tackle the topic within themselves. Xochi carried a restrained anger, which she carefully let show in a way clearly intended to be educational rather than antagonistic. I felt that having each of these different, interwoven approaches on the panel must have helped a much wider a variety of people to understand how privilege affects our community. If one approach went over my head, another delivered. If this approach made me feel defensive and balk, that one helped me relax and reconsider.
I was surprised at how not uncomfortable I was, listening to what the panelists had to say, especially right after a panic attack. Often when discussions of privilege are raised, my social anxiety gets the better of me as I over-think everything. Obviously treating people well is very important to me. The question in these situations is never, to my mind, “Should I treat people with respect?” much less, “Do these people deserve my respect?” (If that’s your question, you’re not looking for “Dealing With Privilege 101”, you’re looking for “Basic Human Decency 1A“.) No, my question is inevitably, “HOW do I show respect towards diverse people, all of whom deserve my respect, such that they actually feel respected?”
This panel gave me several tools for understanding how to handle these kinds of social situations more effectively, and I deeply appreciate that.
Perhaps my best take-away was this: When a person brings to me their experience of oppression or abuse, asking me to address my own mistakes, my first response could be defensive anger. The next layer down, where I generally live, is a guilt-fueled explanation that the harm was not intended. Both of these draw the focus away from the person’s experience and onto myself, which is inappropriate in this context. It may seem from there that the healthiest response is simply a sincere apology for having had a negative effect on another person. But Charlie suggested that even that is not the best place to begin. He suggested that focusing on gratitude that the person in front of me trusts me enough to bring their hurt to me, that they are brave enough to risk my potential anger or self-involved guilt, is a better way to establish a truly supportive, compassionate dialogue.
The first two words out of my mouth in that situation should be, “Thank you.”
I have known for some time that I need to improve my ability to hold space for others when these topics arise and I am not the aggrieved party. I am grateful to this panel of presenters for giving me better tools to allow me to learn that skill.
Afterwards many of us gathered in the Pagans of Color suite to continue the conversation. I had the opportunity to ask a few of the many questions crowding my mind, trying to focus on how to be a better community leader and clergy member, and otherwise see if my questions might be answered by others if I just listened a while longer.
I admit, I am concerned: It was pointed out very soundly that it is never a coincidence if a group lacks diversity. Granted that it’s not a coincidence that the Vanic Conspiracy lacks diversity if most of Heathenry is white folks. But that’s clearly a problem if most of Heathenry is white folks primarily because we have a lot of folkish assholes driving everyone else away.
So how, without delving into proselytization, can I go about not only saying that diversity is welcomed with open arms in the Vanic Conspiracy, (and, when the time comes, in my RedWood Vanatru Kindred), but actively making it a place where people of all bodies and backgrounds know they are welcome to come and honor the Vanir?
It’s a topic I need to keep exploring. Any suggestions?