Pagans & Politics: The Power of Pagan Activism

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Race and Paganism

“Racism is a problem CREATED BY white people and BLAMED ON people of color.” 

- Waking Up White, Debby Irving

 

[Note: This blog is written primarily to get European Americans to think about racism in the Pagan movement and their role in it, but I’m very interested in hearing POC’s experiences. Please leave thoughts in the Comments section.]

 

I recently read Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community. A collection of essays edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood, and Brandy Williams, it explores how racism plays out mostly unconsciously in the Pagan movement. While not a deep book replete with critical thinking, it offers some useful ideas on how to wake ourselves up from the racist trance we European Americans find ourselves in. This is primarily a book aimed at a European American Pagan audience, with essays by people of color (POC) describing their experiences, many of them cringe-worthy. This is such an important topic that this blog post is the first of three I’m writing on the subject.

 

Let’s start with the definition of racism. The classic take is Dr Pat Bidel’s “power + prejudice = racism.” Prejudice can be found in all spaces but racism belongs to European Americans in this country. That’s because racism is embedded in the institutions of the dominant culture. So while POC may be racist, because they are generally marginalized and without much power-over in the dominant culture, there’s no such thing as “reverse racism.” Prejudice, yes. Reverse racism, no.

 

Racism is not just about not liking POC; it’s about the assumptions we make and pass along about those who are different from us.

 

“Euro-centric construction of the Pagan community leads to a structure that coincides with greater society, making Caucasian the default, the overculture,” says Crystal Blanton. “This structure automatically ‘others’ POC, and defines a system of privilege that makes Euro-centric thought the primary consideration.” 

 

This Euro-centric construction has its roots in the dominant American culture which sees the European American, straight, cis, able-bodied, (etc), male as the norm and everyone else as abnormal. Less than. This has deep roots in history, going back to the dawn of Greco-Roman patriarchy, and is certainly not limited to Western culture. But when talking about race in Paganism, we have to wake up to the fact that POC are usually automatically viewed as “exotic” and “different” and “other.”

 

Some European Americans say they don’t see color (which makes Trevor Noah of “They Daily Show” wonder how they deal with stoplights). Some Pagans say that Divinity sees no color. But the authors in Bringing Race to the Table argue that Divinity sees all, but without value judgments and hierarchies. Lilith Dorsey asks, “Can people who say they ‘don’t see color’ truly see heritage?” T Thorne Coyle says “colorblind” is code for “I am blind to the daily injustices this culture deals out to you and I don’t want to know, see, or hear.”

 

We’ll touch on some of the challenges Pagans face in navigating racial fault lines, but one of the things that struck me about the book is this book operates under the assumption that we choose our God/desses. But in many cases, our God/desses choose us. How do we reconcile that? Please leave your thoughts in the Comments section.

 

A big topic for the book is cultural appropriation. Dulce Sloan defines it as “taking something that defines a culture from it and profiting from it.” Cecily Joy Willowe defines it as “the power to steal, misrepresent, and/or corrupt cultural items from an oppressed cultural group.” 

 

Hopefully most Pagans are aware that cultural appropriation has been rampant among both us and New Agers. How many of us have dreamcatchers? The Indigenous people of this country are constantly recolonized as privileged European Americans follow in their ancestors’ footsteps and this time take Indigenous spiritual artifacts and claim them as their own. How many times have you heard the phrase “Native American spirituality”? As if there aren’t hundreds of tribes with their own spiritual beliefs and practices? (In my third installment of this series, I’ll be recommending a book exploring Indigenous spiritualities).

 

Reluctant Spider looks at cultural appropriation vs cultural exchange. Exchange requires us to step inside the culture and identity, shepherded by someone who is already on the inside to help. “Just like initiation, the Tribe has to welcome you as one of their own because they recognize you have become so like them and so trusted that it seems foolish not to recognize this part of themselves in you.” This welcome can be taken away if we don’t respect it and represent it well. Exploitation definitely happens and communities are well within their rights to decide who to share their traditions with. “But if you want to be a Santera there are certain things you should know, study with someone who is already an initiated Santera, surround yourself with the community until it leaks from your pores and they accept you as one of their own, Perhaps then, you’ll be offered and accept initiation and be recognized as a Santera. 

 

It’s time for us to respect that some of the religious traditions in the world such as Voudon are very old and require training and initiation. They are not something you just read about and initiate yourself into.

 

Rhiannon Theurer says, “Where people are implicitly and explicitly told they must give up their cultural practices to access what they need to live, that is a process of colonization.” This is what happened to European immigrants of the 1880s and beyond and what happens when brown people today are told to speak only English.

 

“If minorities were equal they wouldn’t worry about people taking their culture because that wouldn’t be all they had.” - Dulce Sloan

 

New Age and neo-Pagan practitioners who appropriate Indigenous spiritual practices take over the ability of Indigenous people to present their culture in an authentic way. Because the white people have greater access to resources to publishing, workshops, etc, and because they have no qualms about divorcing a practice from its culture, that version of the practice becomes the “authentic” one. Indigenous people are left mute once again.

 

So many Pagans don’t  have a historically based, documented religion. Especially as Americans, we are an eclectic bunch and practice accordingly. Because of this lack of structure and rootedness, we pick up black and brown traditions without examination. Like our privilege, our colonialism is invisible to us.

 

On the other hand! What do Pagans in smaller communities do, when they feel called to a particular path but have no access to traditional practitioners? Are they just out of luck? Do they study on their own and tiptoe along until their circumstances change? Do they try to find someone who will work with them remotely? Leave your ideas in the Comments.

 

Here are some things to think about:

 

  • Tokenism: inclusion of people who lack privilege and are then held up as examples of proving the apparent contrary of the stated accusations. This is exemplified by such inanities as “But I just initiated an African American last week!” or the classic “One of my best friends is black!”
  • Microaggressions: brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostility, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults towards POC. Black and brown people have to deal with this ALL THE TIME.
  • There is invisible, sometimes overt messaging to “keep the peace” — “don’t rock the boat” — silencing dissent, distress, demands. POC frequently feel shut down by European Americans. Rhiannon Theurer, a white person, notes, “My impulse to immediately contest experiences and to feel alienated by how the information was presented was itself a reflection of my privileges.” From How to Be an Effective Ally by Taylor Ellwood: “Listening, really listening, involves putting your own thoughts, feelings, and reactions on hold and actually making the effort to take in what the other person is saying.” 
  • From Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir: “Just as I hear people say that non-whites shouldn’t make such a big deal about racist comments because whites “didn’t mean anything by it,” I wish white people wouldn’t make such a big deal about being called on their racism.” 
  • Black writers describe situations where they either don’t feel welcome or whites are too friendly, hoping for a token and to assuage white guilt.

 

Some things to do:

 

  • Don’t assume the African American person next to you works with African deities. Don’t make any assumptions about anything.
  • Stop assuming that the person of color in front of you represents all POC. Several writers stress this, from African Americans to Native Americans.
  • Invite multiple POC to present at events. If you have a favorite event you attend every year, insist to the organizers that there be multiple black and brown presenters.
  • Show up at POC events to show support and learn instead of expecting them to seek you out.
  • Get outside your bubble: listen and read. The library is your friend. The Internet can be a quagmire but see the book for a wide variety of recommended sites. Read the Black Lives Matter site and pay attention to your reactions. Are you really listening? Are you able to grasp where the authors are coming from? If not, keep reading. Keep listening. Notice what motivates you to respond the way you do. [Note: the third post in this series will be a list of recommended readings.]
  • Become an ally: “Being an ally means you don’t speak for the people who are marginalized, but instead stand with them as they raise their voices to be heard.” (Ellwood)
  • Does the issue of racism or privilege make you feel defensive? See if you can flip that energy and become curious. The God/desses call on us to become better humans every day and we rejoice in it. This is just another Calling. How can we be better?
  • Use meditation to develop your ability to track thoughts, physical actions, and energy output so you can identify if you’re treating POC differently.

We have a long way to go on this, as Paganism has historically been a European American-dominated path, but I believe we can engage and improve. Pagans are curious and open to change. Start today towards a more inclusive and supportive worldview

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Cairril Adaire is a solitary Celtic Witch and lapsed Discordian. She is the founder of Our Freedom: A Coalition for Pagan Civil Rights. She is an entrepreneur and also a professional musician with the world music ensemble Kaia. She blogs at irishsparks.com.  

Comments

  • Felicia
    Felicia Thursday, 08 February 2018

    What if one is trying to reclaim a bit of their heritage but, because of mixing, doesn't obviously look like they have that heritage? See, so many folks have mixed ancestry and due to the politics and prejudices of those times their families lost those cultural ties.

  • Cairril Adaire
    Cairril Adaire Thursday, 08 February 2018

    I would like a brown or black person to respond to this, but off the top of my head I think we just need to be as honest as we can. If we're investigating our roots, we need to keep in mind that we're not going to know everything. And if we want to join an established tradition from an historically appropriated culture, we need to be upfront and say that we don't know everything. I'm not clear from your post if you present as European American or a POC, but the dynamics can change depending. The biggest thing is not to appropriate. Thanks for your comment -- feel free to leave another thought!

  • JudithAnn
    JudithAnn Friday, 09 February 2018

    I think I understand the question because I am in the same place. I am only two generations removed from my immigrant grandparents on both sides - one set European Slavic and one set French-Ojibwe from New Brunswick. All made great effort to assimilate and distance themselves from any ethnicity. There was no contact with any relatives in "the old country", no folk traditions shared. They practiced Christianity and did everything to "fit in" with their communities. I am trying to reconnect with spiritual heritage. Given my paternal grandfather's surname and our features, I beginning to believe there is middle eastern heritage with the slavic. I have connected with Ojibwe tribal members and elders in my community and am learning the cultural traditions and spiritual practices - but outside of there, if I smudge, for instance, it is assumed by many that I am appropriating, despite the fact that I was taught by a tribe member and gifted a abalone and eagle feather from an elder. I don't feel that I should have to announce to any group before I begin smudging, "It's okay for me to do this this way with these tools because it is my heritage and I work with and learn from a real tribal elder!" Assumptions are made on both sides. I'd like to hear opinions from POC on this too.

  • Cairril Adaire
    Cairril Adaire Friday, 09 February 2018

    I hear you. It doesn't seem comfortable to say beforehand, "I have studied with a tribal elder," but do we feel that way because of white privilege? I don't know the answer to that. Still hoping that some people of color will comment and give us their perspective. Thanks for your note!

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