As amazing and awesome and hopeful as my experience at the Parliament of World Religions was, the event wasn’t without its controversy. Most of the complaints can be attributed to communication issues. However, some of those communication issues seem to stem from a failure of the decision makers to examine their own systemic cultural bias. To tell this story I’ll go back and forth between the Macro and Micro viewpoints.
On the Micro side, I contributed to the Parliament by participating in one of the offerings presented by Macha Nightmare of Covenant of the Goddess. As a COG member myself, as well as knowing Macha, it was easy enough for me to shoot her a message offering help. She said yes, so I got to be a “grace” (tech crew) for her ritual theater piece: Goddesses Alive.
On Macha’s end she sent ahead lots of information about what she needed. She included a diagram of the set up and seating arrangements. She requested rehearsal time and space. She asked for a changing/staging area for the women wearing the masks of the Goddesses. All of this was confirmed in advance and the entire cast and crew (singers, readers, Goddesses, and tech) received copies of the schedule she was given.
When the Parliament opened, I told you about the wonderful welcome from the Native elders to the land. I may have mentioned that even before the Parliament started – for the first time ever – there was a Women’s Assembly. This pre-Parliment event was programing specifically targeted to women’s issues. After the elders concluded and the anthem (written by two women specifically for the Parliament) was presented, the rest of the opening program consisted of men in suits yelling at us about what we need to do and patting themselves on the back about how inclusive THIS Parliament was for women.
“Separate but equal” is never really equal. I heard several women that evening talking about how disingenuous the whole presentation felt. The word “tokenism” was bandied about. Many of these women had been present for the Assembly earlier in the day. They were hoping to take that energy forward into the Parliament itself. In fact, many of them felt they were shut down. The rumors were this lack of women presenting in the opening ceremonies was intentional. There was a reception afterward (which wasn’t on the schedule) where women were invited to present. There is no excuse for this. Thankfully the next morning was the Plenary: Focus on Women, which was fabulous and even though it didn’t address the problem did help shift the anger.
Macha’s group includes several “Grandmothers of Paganism”, and I would count Macha among them. There were women in wheelchairs, one with a broken leg, one with a serious chronic illness and Macha herself in recovery from a stroke she had this summer. When we gathered for our rehearsal we were told pointedly, “You can not be in this room.” Eventually a rehearsal space was found for us, in a much smaller room on the other end of the convention center. We lost almost an hour of our precious rehearsal time to mismanagement.
The other Glaring scheduling issue was in regards to Black Lives Matter. Initially several workshops specifically addressing this issue were scheduled opposite each other. The workshop presenters noted this and brought it up to the committee in advance. Changes were made and you would think that would alert them to be sensitive. Unfortunately the Plenary addressing that issue was scheduled directly opposite the evening’s entertainment at the Mormon Tabernacle. (Apparently “those people” aren’t interested in cultural enrichment?) To be fair scheduling this kind of event is a nightmare and some things will get short shrift. Still, just because you have black people on the board doesn’t excuse this kind of dismissal of a huge social justice issue in the country hosting the event.
The day came for us to perform the piece. We found a room (again not the one originally scheduled but at least just across the hall) and started setting up and getting our Goddesses dressed. Less than an hour before we were to open the doors we were confronted by an irate staff member. I’m not sure if this was convention center staff or Parliament staff (or both!). I do know we weren’t the only workshop to get this treatment. Apparently no chairs were to be moved over the entire course of the weekend.
I’m not sure if this is a union issue (only union members are allowed to move the chairs) or a fire-marshal issue (the fire-marshal approved the set-up and any changes will have to be re-approved) or something else entirely. There was a cost component, as Macha was told she would be responsible for a large fee (several hundred dollars) to “fix” it. What it felt like (and in all the cases I was aware of it was Pagans wanting circles rather than rows) was an insensitivity and disrespect of the practice of our religion.
There was another point, actually during the presentation, where a message came back to the tech crew that if we were to “Turn on the lights or I will shut you down.” We made it through (forgiveness is always easier than permission) and the presentation was very well received even if it wasn’t the vision Macha intended. Again, there was nothing done that hadn’t, in theory, been approved in advance.
I choose not to carry the anger of the larger organizational issue, but rather to focus my experience on the more intimate encounters I had over the course of the weekend. I do know several people struggled with the dichotomy of so much bad and so much good. I don’t want to believe any of this was willful disrespect. I think it just goes to show how deep systemic prejudice can be and how much work, even the best intentioned of us, still have to do to fix it.
I like to hang out with all different kinds of people. I have used the term queer to describe myself because I am comfortable with people who see themselves that way. I feel like I fit in with GLBT, Pagan, Multi-ethnic, counter culture fold. I am comfortable being myself in environments that tend to be inclusive and nonjudgmental.
I recognize what it feels like to be alone in a class and discriminated against because of it. I was bullied mercilessly in Jr. High School. I have experienced discrimination as a woman, because of my weight, and in relationship to my special needs child. I have had nasty and rude comments directed at me because of all of those things. I have also traveled enough to have experienced being the only white, only tall, only large female person in a culture where I didn’t have either the language or the cultural background to really get by. And I have been treated in such cultures as “not quite civilized.” I’ve been excluded from groups I could have contributed to simply because I didn’t have the appropriate credentials, regardless of my experience.
I also know privilege. I take advantage of doors held open and offers to carry my bags. I have been moved to the front of the line to accommodate the wheelchair. I have been accepted into business establishments because of the color of my skin and the way I carry myself, rather than being watched like a criminal. It is not infrequent for me to have extra space, because people are reluctant to squeeze in past me or next to me. I know I have an easier time with social services for my son simply because of my class and education.
I have an advantage because of my broad travels, reading, education and olive toned skin. I can pass in places many white urban Americans would be less than welcomed. People often assume that I am “one of them” and if they are not explicit in asking I do not correct them. This holds true not just in ethnicity, but also with “shop talk” in specialty careers. I have been mistaken for a nurse, a teacher, a social worker, a psychologist, an artist, a musician and before I had kids a parent. I fit in, and if I really don’t I’ll often bow out. I’m not trying to fool anyone. I just “get it.”
I appreciate being with people who “get it.” I know talking parenting is different with other parents of special needs kids. I know talking about medicine or life and death issues is different with other cancer survivors. I know that being with other women is different than being in a mixed group. Even being with a group of women “of a certain age” is different than being in a multigenerational group. Talking spirituality with other Pagans is different than talking spirituality with Christians or Jews or Muslims. Shared experience does count.
So how do we graciously allow ourselves exclusive space? When is exclusion appropriate and when is it objectionable? How do we determine exactly how exclusive we need to be?
I expect I’ll write more on this, but I’d really like to encourage you to leave comments, and to pass the word to anyone you might know who would like to get in on the discussion.