On another blog, a commenter I respect and admire wrote the following:
As y’all may know, I am a public librarian (and thus a representative of the government).
I customarily wear a discreet cross necklace. I was talking with some online friends about the prohibition against wearing political buttons and other slogans at work, and I mentioned that I supported this, but “a cross is different, it isn’t a political message and doesn’t make me less accessible to the public.”
And one of my friends, a lesbian, responded “Well, in truth, if I saw a reference librarian wearing a cross, and I didn’t know her, I would assume for my own safety that she was of a conservative sect and be very hesitant to ask questions that might reveal my orientation.”
And several others chimed in with similar sentiments.
I immediately tucked my cross in behind my shirt and haven’t worn one to work since.
This is what checking your privilege looks like. It’s someone who thought she wasn’t doing any harm who listens to a different experience and then takes that experience into account and is even willing to change her actions to help others not be frightened or silenced. This person also later pointed out that wearing a cross isn’t a religious requirement for her, so her experience isn’t representative of what it might be like for a Sikh or a Muslim or a Jew to avoid overtly religious symbols or clothing. She’s not saying this is what should be legally required. She’s being a role model and an example to others of how to go about not hurting people, even unintentionally.
Revised to add: the person who told the above story gave me permission to retell this story, but asked that I “don’t cite it as an example of admirable behavior. The whole point of the anecdote is how even a person who considers herself progressive and enlightened can be utterly blind to the assumption that ‘MY privilege is DIFFERENT’.” She’s right – the first part of that story, all the way up to “I immediately…” is, in fact, a story about unexamined privilege. It’s the idea that crosses are “normal” and so they can’t be problematic. She found out differently.
This story touched my heart because I’ve been on both sides of this experience. When I was Christian, I wore cross jewelry frequently, and never thought it would, or maybe even could, do harm or come across negatively to others. Now that I am Wiccan, I notice cross jewelry much more, and it does make me a little cautious about what I might say or do around someone, especially if that person is in a position of power relative to me. And until you worry about things like this, you don’t realize how many people are in a position of power, even if it’s just the librarian with the power to give you a hard time, or make sure that someone else checks out your books so she doesn’t have to handle them, and you go home wondering if she might accidentally-on-purpose “lose” your reserved books on Wicca next week…and so on.
Similarly, I am cautious about what religious symbols I wear. There is a temptation to say, well, everyone else wears their crosses, so I can wear my pentacle, and if you don’t like it, screw you, I might not like you wearing your cross either. But that’s immature and counterproductive. Wearing my pentacle isn’t going to remove the small frission of concern I feel when I see someone else’s cross. And I do hope, eventually, that wearing a pentacle will be no more exceptional than wearing a cross. But right now, it isn’t, and I have to take that into account. So before I put my necklace on, I have to think: Who am I likely to encounter? Will that person be able to seriously derail my day if they object to my pentacle or what (they think) it represents? What long-term repercussions might that have for myself and my family? Do I want to deal with that today?
At a recent gathering with some of my Witch friends, we were talking about the symbols we wear, and about how we deal with questions about them. Since we were all female, we tend to favor the triple moon symbol of the goddess. One of the benefits is that it isn’t as recognizable as overtly Pagan, and that when asked, we often deflect the question with a statement about the moon and waxing and waning and natural cycles. Or we describe a pentacle as just a star, and practice the fine art of making true statements that let others hear what they want to, so that we don’t have to face overt discrimination, or spend the rest of the evening explaining what Wicca is and why I believe it, and no, I don’t ride a broomstick.
And that’s another thing I think about: Do I want to answer questions that might be asked? Like it or not, when I wear a pentacle, I have accepted the fact that someone might ask me what it means, and that my response might be the most powerful factor in that person’s lasting first impression of Wicca and Paganism. When I wear that symbol, I know that I could become a spokesperson for my religion. It’s ironic, in some ways, that I am less hesitant to wear religious symbols when I’m on a military base or in a military environment, because there is a heightened awareness of the responsibility for tolerance in many of those areas. At the same time, I’m helping get an open circle started on a local base, and as such, I can’t always elide the questions with the kind of weak-tea answers described above. I am a representative of my religion, and I don’t take that lightly.
The librarian who reexamined her privilege was also a representative of her religion, and in my opinion, even if her initial attitude was mistaken, in her willingness to be corrected, she exemplified the best of the care and concern for others that Christianity calls for. I applaud her, and I pray that we may we all be so ethical and humane, regardless of religion.