Ironic: Poem & Discussion of Privilege

For those of you who also follow my writing blog, A Writing Vice, this is technically a double post although I didn’t elaborate on what inspired the poem on that blog as it seemed more appropriate, considering the contents of the poem, to elaborate here.

Ironic is a poem inspired largely by the area where I live, as I live in the middle of a southern bible belt which means that the majority of the Christians around me are Baptists which is just as terrifying as it sounds. Even though the church and science have been reconciled on the theory of evolution for over 500 years, there are still Christians here who don’t think humans are part of the animal kingdom, and that fact kills my soul a little every time I hear it.

Because I live in this particular area, there are few other Pagans around (there are some, but they are scattered and hard to find), and part of the reason I walk a solitary path is because there are no groups nearby (although there are more reasons than that alone, as my previous posts have shown).

I’ve lived in the same general area for the majority of my life, and I “came out” as Pagan (ironic, that we have to ‘come out’ about our faith like there’s some sort of shame to be had for not being Christian) before I even hit high school. I’ve never felt that hiding my faith has helped me, although I also don’t go up to people and introduce myself as being Pagan like it’s the only thing that defines me.

I’ve always lived by the policy that if you ask me, I’ll tell you the truth, but I don’t feel the need to force my truths on others when they don’t care to know what those truths may be. I’ve had a lot of people over the years assume I’m Christian without even asking me if that was what I believed, and I’ve always had mixed reactions depending on how old I was as well as the sincerity of the person in question.

I once had a woman hand me a book called “Jesus Saves” through the window of a drive-thru that I kept but never read because she was so sincere and sweet in the way she went about things – I could tell by her demeanor that she had never even considered the possibility that other faiths might exist and she was happy within the bubble she’d created for herself. Because of that, I found no reason to disillusion her and let her keep believing what she wished. In the end, what other people think I believe doesn’t matter at all, although I never used to believe that back in high school.

I’ve always had an eclectic group of friends, and, in high school, we would gather at our lunch table and discuss religion, politics, and sex – all the things we’re taught is taboo to discuss. But those taboos defined the group of friends I held because an open mind is a requirement in the age that we live within. The most memorable conversation of that group was when a self-proclaimed Wiccan accused me of being a devil-worshipper because I was Pagan – that is how badly Paganism is misunderstood by those who don’t study it properly. While I was disgusted by her ignorance, I was more disquieted by the fact that there are Pagans out there who don’t understand what Paganism actually means or what faiths it encompasses.

Another instance when I was reading a book about the Vikings and I was 25, I had a 16-year old girl approach me and ask me why I was reading a book about the Vikings. I could have lied and told her that I was interested in history but truthfully I find history books dull and monotonous and boring, so I told her the truth – that I was reading the book in order to find out more about the culture of the people who had originally worshiped the gods that I follow, and to say she was shocked would be to minimize the reaction she showed me.

Upon learning that I was, in fact, not Christian, she immediately began to ask me whether I had heard of Jesus Christ and how he had died for my sins. She continued this tirade until I stopped her cold by asking her if she had read the bible the whole way through and her answer was that she hadn’t. Ironic, that I have read the entire bible that the Christians swear by when so few of them read more than the first few pages just to protect myself from their crusade to convert everyone into mindless drones, and I told her that she should come talk to me again after she had read the book from cover to cover. That she had no business trying to preach to me when she didn’t even have the dedication to read the book that is supposed to define her faith.

Later that day, I found out from a coworker that the girl was terrified of me because while she had heard of Christians, Jews, and Atheists, there was no room in her worldview for something like polytheism that fell completely out of sync with the idea of there being one god or no god, and the girl was so afraid of me for being honest that she was hiding. This lack of understanding and open-mindedness is what led to the Crusades and to the witch-hunts and to lynchings.

Our country was founded on the freedom of religion and yet we have witch-hunts and persecutions in our history. The constitution is supposed to protect us but it never really has; we’ve had to fight for every scrap of acknowledgment of our faith that we’ve managed to find, and our fears run as deeply as the fears of blacks and latinos who worry that they are going to be lynched by mobs for being born different.

Some would argue that a person can hid their religion but not the color of their skin and escape persecution by pretending, but what good is a world where we have to be pretend to be something we’re not? What good is a world where we have to deny our gods in order to be seen as decent human beings?

Every time I hear a slam poem read by a black or latino person about the fear they face every day, my heart aches for them that they have to live with the fear that they will never be seen as equal and will always be persecuted for something they cannot change. And my heart also cries with them because while I may be white, I understand what it means to be ostracized for the things I cannot change about myself.

It is weird to be caught in the middle of two worlds because I have seen white privilege at work (and yes, it is a thing for those who cannot seem to understand that it exists) but I have also seen Christian privilege at work. Every time I go to apply to a job, I worry that my employer will ask me about church and I will have to tell them that I don’t go and then explain to them that I am Pagan and lose my chance at employment because of my faith. Every time I make a new friend or date a new person, I worry that they will ask me my faith and then decide that I am not worthy of their friendship because I am not Christian.

And Christian privilege transcends racial privilege because half of the world, regardless of their ethnicity or race, are Christian and the same prejudice against those who aren’t Christian I come up against again and again, no matter the color of the skin of the person who ascribes to Christianity. White privilege, while insidious, does not exist globally – there are countries where whites are the minorities and where whites do not exist. There is no country where it is a crime to be born with different colored skin- that is a genetic trait that no one can control.

But there are countries out there where it is illegal to be anything but Christian, where a person can be sentenced to death for defying the existence of the Abrahamic god. There are countries that I would love to visit but can’t because if my faith was ever found out, I wouldn’t make it out of those countries alive. In America, we talk about being faith-blind and color-blind, but we aren’t. I can admit that every time I see a black person, the first thing that I wonder is whether they will believe that I am treating them differently based on the color of their skin because even when I do my best to be myself around everyone I meet, I wonder if they will believe I am being sincere. Because I am aware of white privilege, and I have used it to help those born into a society that does not understand the value of being different.

I worked with the ESL group at my college for awhile, and I heard stories that made me cringe. One of my Arabic friends, Mohammad, told me one day that he had gone to a convenience store. While he was there, the clerk accused him of stealing and called him a “dirty Mexican.” Racism exists here, and it affects more than just blacks and latinos. Mohammad is Arabic, not Mexican, and while both races have darker skin tones, that does not make them the same race and doesn’t give anyone the right to confuse one with the other. Let alone accuse a person of stealing because of the color of their skin – that makes my blood boil because if you accuse someone enough of doing a certain thing, they will start to believe that is what they are supposed to do.

I’ve heard people ask time and time again why blacks are the ones who always end up in jails, and no one wants to accept that the reason is that white privilege is real. I’ve tried to explain to people that the reason we typically only see the black men that have been arrested on t.v. isn’t because only black men commit crimes. In fact, proportionally, white men commit more crimes than black men because the white population is much larger than the black population. But blacks are only shown to commit crimes because it is a type of propaganda. It is a type of insidious population control that, when discussed, sounds like a ridiculous conspiracy theory.

Think about it, though – if you show pictures of blacks committing crimes to white people, you teach white people to be afraid of blacks but you also teach black people that they are supposed to be criminals. And that perpetuates the cycle of violence we see of whites against blacks – white people become afraid that a black person will hurt them, so the whites that become police officers feel that they need to do something about the violence before it happens. It is population control at its finest. And it’s atrocious and despicable and oppressive.

A latina girl came to the ESL class once, and she was trying to get enrolled at college because she had graduated from high school. This was when I saw white privilege at work the most. She went to high school in Mexico, and she could speak some English but not much. I went to talk to the person responsible for enrolling people in classes, and it was difficult to get her to understand that the girl had a social security card. I had to retrieve the Spanish teacher to help me (as my Spanish is fairly limited), and he is an advocate for equal rights.Even with me and him both trying to explain to the faculty adviser that the girl did, indeed, have a social security card, and that she was, in fact, a native-born American citizen, it took us over an hour to convince the adviser that the latina in front of her was actually American.

I left school that day angry and confused because the adviser I was dealing with is generally a nice person, but her ignorance about other cultures was appalling. I can’t imagine how terrible an experience that was for the latina, but I can imagine it wasn’t pleasant.

White privilege exists, and I am highly conscious of it. Most whites deny it exists or are completely oblivious to it. But I also think that some blacks and latinos take it too far – there is only one meeting point where equality means equality and that is when equal rights are assured. If someone wants equal rights in the work-force, that’s a given and they should have them. If someone wants equal rights in pay, that’s also a given and those rights should be granted. When someone thinks that equal rights means segregation, that’s an issue because that’s a road that we don’t need to walk down again. When I read in papers that there are blacks out there who want areas where only blacks are allowed, that’s segregation all over again – we’ve already done that, and it didn’t turn out well.

In the pursuit of equality, you have to take the hits. You can’t hide from them. You can’t shy away from them. You can’t shut yourself in a room that says “my kind only” in order to get a world to accept that you belong amongst the rest of it. Why do you think Pagans “come out?” Why do you think gays and lesbians “come out?” We don’t do it because we think we shouldn’t hide (although that’s part of it) – we “come out” because the only way to make the world acknowledge that they should treat us as equals is to insist on inserting ourselves into a world that keeps trying to refute us. Gay marriage shouldn’t be a historical landmark – it should just be allowed without having to fight for it. But we all fight for it, every time we walk outside and hold hands with our lovers in front of the world. We say, “We’re here, this is right, accept us or else.”

There’s white privilege, there’s straight privilege, and there’s Christian privilege. I’ve been told that because I’m white, I can’t understand what it’s like to live in fear, but yes, yes I can. I’m not straight, and I’m not Christian, so I don’t have two of those three privileges, and every time someone asks me my sexual orientation, I have flashbacks to all the hate crimes committed against the gay community even as I open my mouth and tell them the truth. Every time someone asks me what faith I follow, I have flashbacks to the Crusades and the witch-hunts in Salem. I know what it is like to be afraid, and I hate it every time a black or latino tells me that I can’t possibly understand their pain because I’m white.

What I don’t understand is why blacks and latinos insist on grouping all white people into one category like we’re some faceless mob out to lynch them. Some of us are decent human beings that can accept that the color of the skin a person is born with is only one aspect of that person’s identity, not the whole of it. The way that the gay community can embrace their straight allies, the way that the Pagan community can accept that there are liberal Christians.

Why do we keep fighting each other over our differences when we should be finding the common grounds that exist between those differences?

In a lot of slam poetry, I hear blacks discuss how annoying it is to have white people want to touch their hair, but what I hear is a lack of understanding because of course we want to touch your hair – it’s different. It’s novel. It’s exciting. And we would love it if you want to touch our hair too because it’s different. The more curious people are the more accepting ones because we want to celebrate those differences. I used to wonder as a kid if a black person could get sunburned but I was always too afraid to ask because I was told it was impolite to make a black person feel like they weren’t human by pointing out how different they were from white people.

As kids, we are fascinated by differences, and we want to explore them. I became Pagan because I found differences captivating, and I followed the breadcrumbs of different until I found a path that embraced diversity. I’ve always found it fascinating that the palms of a black person’s hands are always just a little bit lighter than the rest of their skin, and I’ve always thought it must be awesome to have two shades of skin.

I don’t think of race as being non-existent when I say that I view everyone as human. I’m not color-blind; I see the differences in the color of our skins. But I love those differences. I love that there are so many kinds of people in the world. I find difference beautiful and amazing and wonderful. But when I am told that I am not allowed to explore those differences, that I must keep to my own race except when it is convenient to have a white friend – that is what stirs resentment. I am more than just the color of my skin, and I resent being treated as if the only thing that matters is that I’m white. Blacks talk of whites having token black friends, but the same can be said of blacks having token white friends to use for the convenience of the white privilege we come with. Friendship should never be a token to be traded for novelty or privilege, and to do either is to pervert what friendship should be – a meeting of two minds with common dreams and aspirations that transcends gender, race, sexuality, and religion. If the friendships you have don’t transcend these things, then the friendships you possess aren’t real.

When you start accusing whites of cultural appropriation, you are, in effect, saying “you’re not allowed,” and “you’re too different.” You exclude diversity when you say that teaching a certain class is a type of cultural appropriation. Pagans accuse people of cultural appropriation sometimes, too, and I hate that. We define ourselves by our inclusiveness, yet there are Pagans out there who would prefer we keep to our own kind. But that is the type of mindset that leads to things like the Crusades.

If there is anything wrong with humanity, it’s that we’re too obsessed with defining ourselves by the groups to which we belong. We’re too obsessed with having an “us” vs. “them” mentality. If it’s not blacks against whites, whites against blacks, gays against straights, straights against gays, Pagans against Christians, Christians against Pagans, then it’s American citizens against corporate greed, democrats against republicans, rich against poor… etc. Why do we fight so hard to define ourselves by those things that we don’t believe rather than trying to find the common ground that allows us all to be more human overall?

(Note: Sorry this is so long… I may have gone off on a bit of a rant here…)

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