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!

  • Nana T. A. D. Adedufira
    Nana T. A. D. Adedufira Tuesday, 27 March 2018

    My, my, my, the angst. Okay I think it best to begin with an introduction. I am an African American of Anglo, Ewe, and Twi descent. I am also a duly initiated priest, a hounnan, of West African Vodou and the whole reason I am here is to bridge some understanding between pagans and vodoushie. We have a lot more in common than most know, but not what most think.
    While most indigenous spiritualities operate on a similar premise it is by no means universal, vodou is not something one can choose. Inclusion requires divination which reveals what vodous (Spirits or Gods) a person is born with. A person's heritage is of little to no import and one's ethnicity is informative but not determinative. Only caprice of the Gods and a person's blood lineage is of material import when discussing ATRs (African Traditional Religions). That said you will find plenty of people who will challenge that assertion. Keep in mind, they likely have neither themselves.
    So what's the difference between race, heritage, ethnicity, and bloodline? Well for those in the back row I need you to listen closely. The next time I have to say it you're getting gopher dusted.
    Race is a 16th Century European biological fiction with an undeniable socio-economic reality with zero spiritual substance. Any conversation concerning race as a prerequisite for vodou doesn't deserve a response and won't get one. Just gofer dust. Heritage is one's genetic background. It's where you come from and the genetic story of which you are the latest chapter as artfully articulated by Felicia and Judith Ann. Clearly, this is a real concern but like all other genetic information, it is more concerned with potential over capacity. We'll come back to that shortly. Ethnicity is about identity. This carries so much weight because ethnicity is historical investment into a culture and the ways of life prescribed by the Gods Themselves. It is a lifelong effort to be a productive member of community and we all know that the greatest sacrifice is a life. While heritage suggests who could be included, ethnicity determines who is entitled to membership. This is the push back that Judith Ann experiences because she has no obvious entitlement she must be validated by someone who does. Trust me as a black man in America I know the feeling. And it never goes away. Consider it a blessing from a trickster God and suffer in good humor. Finally, there is bloodline. Now this is my favorite one, but only because I possess it. For indigenous and ancestral faiths like Vodou our relationships with the Gods were forged 10's of thousands of years ago conferring gifts, restrictions and obligations the likes of which myths are made of. Walking on water. Swimming through fire. You get the drift. Only those with bloodline can be a priest of any kind. Can you imagine the ire raised in members of an ethnic faith that come across a person from outside the 'tribe' that has bloodline because of mixed heritage? And given the ubiquitous nature of African heritage (Cheddar Man anyone?) bloodline can present in the most unexpected places.
    So now we qualify to be a join an indigenous faith. Now we can get some books and jump right in right? Not so fast. White folks have a bad reputation for stealing the souls of the people they come in contact with so no one ever puts anything in a book. In writing at all really. The only way you'll get into these spiritual paths is to go through an initiatory process. You must be accepted by an entire community (but luckily not a nation) to be accepted and it is here that you learn the faith and you learn it because it's bound into the language and culture. The final guardian to being a member of an indigenous faith is not whether someone else accepts you but whether you've chosen to embrace the ethnicity that entitles you to the Gods attention. Why, because for us our faith isn't something that's put on Sunday morning and taken off Sunday night. They aren't conveniently suspended because of social convention or current trends.
    Now I've talked a lot about how one could belong and what all that entails but what I haven't done was explained the one crucial part to determine if one does belong. I can only speak for the continent of Africa but that's because the answer is the same no matter where on the continent you look. Authentic divination from the community that you seek to be a member of. If the Gods don't accept you no one will regardless of your qualifications and They neither need or want the worship of an unsuitable supplicant.
    I hope my long soliloquy addressed some of the concerns expressed here. This post is arguably the only reason I joined this blog. In the past I was not warmly received in the pagan community. I was even once informed that Wicca (before I found my way I was looking everywhere for something like it) was expressly European and another guy chided that black people had already taken Christianity and we should leave 'their' paganism alone. I was more than happy to and shortly there after attended my first vossa at a mami kponou. This sentiment is not new and has led to something of a schism between ATRs and the Pagan community that I hope to help mend. Why? Because of the ubiquity of African heritage of course. Every indigenous tradition is essentially that ethnicity's Vodou. Their ancestors, their spirits of nature and human enterprise, their geology and the descendants of my ancestors just as surely as I am the descendant of theirs. If you go back far enough.

  • Cairril Adaire
    Cairril Adaire Thursday, 29 March 2018

    Thanks very much for all this insight! I think the distinctions you make between race, ethnicity, etc are all very helpful. I also resonate with the concept of being chosen by the Gods -- so many young Pagans I know just scan the Web or read a book and find a Goddess that sounds interesting and start working with Her, rather than *listening* to hear who is calling their name. It's nice if they overlap, but you've got to pay attention to know.

    I'm so sorry you've had experiences of being rejected by Pagans -- that sort of treatment makes me practically apoplectic. I thank you for your words of wisdom and hope others will pay attention and learn.

  • Aryós Héngwis
    Aryós Héngwis Thursday, 29 March 2018

    Yes, thank you for sharing. A thing that often happens a lot in these conversations (on both sides) is that white folks end up speaking about what's right or wrong for PoC. I appreciate very much the insight you add and I'm sorry you've been rejected by the Pagan community in the past.

  • Felicia
    Felicia Friday, 30 March 2018

    Thank you, Nana.

    May I try to see if I understand you? It seems one must be accepted by the group or culture as well as by the Entities. As far as bloodlines, it makes sense that they'd be mixed because we humans have been mixing and mingling for as long as we've known we could. Cheddar Man was a shocking (and to me welcome) revelation this year. The further back we dig, the more we realize we're kin. Heck, even president Jefferson was shown to have Middle Eastern DNA!

    Thank you for the breakdown of race (an artificial construct), heritage (what your ancestors called themselves), and ethnicity (what you call yourself + the community you're part of).

    Sadly, many of the folks that would know about some of my ancestral cultures got shipped out of the area by Andrew Jackson (only a group or two got to stay). Piecing together what info I can about my ancestors has been a lifelong project...trust me. But, it's helped me appreciate history and other cultures. And I love speaking to folks from other cultures and backgrounds.

    I can't help my complexion or how folks perceive me because of it. I can help what's in my heart and mind.

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