Pagans & Politics: The Power of Pagan Activism

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Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race

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This is Part 2 of my three-part series on race in Paganism

[Apologies for the delay in this post; my dad went shining and then I spent a month in Europe and have been catching up and grieving ever since. Should be back on schedule now.]

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” - James Baldwin


A couple years ago, as I began my anti-racism work in earnest, I came across Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. This is required reading for any white person seeking to challenge their own inherited racism and prejudices against people of color (POC). Irving approaches the book as the anti-racism group Showing Up for Racial Justice does theirs: They operate under the assumption that for racism to end, it is incumbent upon white people to challenge themselves. As noted in my last column on this topic, Pagans will never include more POC until we see ourselves as we truly are and challenge our racist past.


First, a few concepts:

  • Tolerance: This is the absolute minimum any white person should develop in themselves: The “live and let live” philosophy. The downside is that it doesn’t challenge racism in any real way. It says, “Live over there and I’ll live over here and we’ll be civil to each other.” It requires the minimum amount of change on the part of white people.
  • Diversity: I used to be a big champion of this word but I’m growing somewhat disenchanted with it. We talk about “celebrating diversity,” but that too often means cultural appropriation by white Pagans. Yes, being stoked by the concept of having diverse groups of people come together is fantastic, but it doesn’t do much to challenge racism. White Pagans are still left largely ignorant of how they push POC away. “Diversity is about being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” - Verna Myers
  • Anti-racism: This is the real deal. This is where we walk away from the easy paths and start engaging in work to change ourselves in meaningful ways. Instead of having one conversation with a token black or brown Pagan and expecting them to represent their entire race, anti-racism work means to identify the causes of racism within ourselves and change it. That means getting outside our white bubble and read books, blogs, news, and watch documentaries by, for, and about POC. That’s where Waking Up White comes in. It is an excellent starting point.


Here are some myths about race and racism:

  • Race is all about biological differences. There are actually more biological differences among races than between races. For instance, I have less in common with my white relatives than I do with a random POC.
  • I can help POC by teaching them to be more like me. Danger! Danger! This is the “tolerance” end of the spectrum. Anti-racism work means meeting POC where they are and listening. It means giving up white normativity.
  • Racism is about bigots who commit intentionally cruel acts against POC. Wrong. The classic definition of racism is “Power + Privilege = Racism.” That’s why there’s no such thing as “reverse racism” — POC in general do not have power and privilege over white people.


Race and class are interconnected — one is not more important than the other. Both can trap people into second-class citizenship. And too many times POC are forced to choose between one or the other. Like in the first 100 years of the feminist movement when black women had to choose between being black and being a woman — obviously their experience encompasses both. 


Racism isn’t just about feelings — it’s about lack of access to jobs and education: “social mobility.” In the 1970s and ‘80s more blacks made their way into the middle and upper class but that has fallen off dramatically. Not all black people are poor. But they make up a disproportionate number of people living in poverty compared to their presence in the US population. In some cases, there are almost no opportunities for social mobility because schools don’t get the funding they need, leaving students unprepared for the work force. This forces them into lower-paying jobs or even illegal activity.


White skin can erroneously bring high expectations and the message “You belong”; dark skin can erroneously bring low expectations and the message “You don’t belong.” As I wrote in my last column on race and Paganism, Pagan POC who come to predominantly white Pagan gatherings often feel uncomfortable, either because there are so few people there who look like they, or because overenthusiastic white Pagans go out of their way to prove that they’re not racist.


I hope many Pagans are familiar with the history of slavery and Jim Crow in the United States (if not, see next month’s list of resources). Waking Up White talked about the GI Bill during the Jim Crow era. The GI Bill is legislation granting veterans funds for continuing education. My dad was a beneficiary and he, like so many others, got a head start on climbing the corporate ladder and eventually moving out of the lower middle class into the upper class. But there were so many racist rules in place in the 1940s that only 4% of eligible black GIs were granted funding. This means little or no higher education, which leads to low-paying jobs, which leads to poverty and the lack of inherited wealth to break that cycle of poverty.


In addition to educational barriers, blacks faced “redlining” in housing. These were areas on a map literally outlined in red where blacks were shepherded into by real estate agents with low property values which meant mortgage loans had high interest rates. Redlining still pops up periodically, even though it’s illegal. High interest mortgages mean people are less likely to be able to hold onto their homes. Realtors, with the collusion of banks and other institutions, created ghettos where POC were ground into dust by poverty. To add insult to injury, the Urban Renewal Program of 1949 wiped out black homeowning communities in place of interstate highways, leaving African Americans to live in rentals, which leaves them without any equity. The Community Reinvestment Act overturned redlining laws but then banks changed their lending policies to make it impossible for POC to pay their mortgages and keep their homes. This is not just some isolated cases here and there. This is institutionalized racism designed to “keep blacks in their place”: poverty.


I grew up in a white world — I was surrounded by second- and third-generation Latinx but perceived them as white (which just goes to show you how ingrained whiteness was in me). There was no “Hispanic Heritage Month” at my school to show me they had their own culture that was just as valid as my white culture. As Irving points out in many useful examples, white privilege says, “I have knowledge so I can give advice and my advice will be valued.” We see this happen in Pagan circles where whites make assumptions about POC’s practices and even tell POC what gods they are supposed to work with! The most famous examples of white privilege: Peggy McIntosh, author of the 1989 article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Here’s another.  White privilege makes you question the validity of POC’s experiences — you discount them automatically. Waking up requires listening and noticing. For us, it means really hearing each other and making safer spaces for POC to share their own experiences without being discounted or talked over. Whites need to *listen.* And when we converse with POC, we need to think about “impact” vs. “intent.” White people tend to privilege the intent over the impact when we hurt POC — we dismiss their pain. If a person of color makes any indication of discomfort with us, it’s time to back off and ask how we can create safer space for them. And then shut up and listen.


Pagans sometimes think that, since we are discriminated against, we have an inside scoop on the discrimination and racism experienced by POC. But we experience discrimination by choice — we choose to come out. POC can’t change their skin color so they experience discrimination all the time. That is a huge difference and one we should not overlook. Discrimination is not equal across the board. If you want to understand black and brown people’s experiences better, we must move beyond our comfort zone and learn. Part of this is showing up to events hosted by POC. This is not to “crash the party” with white arrogance. It means to stop waiting for black and brown Pagans to show up to your predominantly white event and instead meet them where they are and offer support, even if that’s just an entry fee. And then listen, listen, listen. It’s okay to ask questions but don’t expect POC to give you “Racism 101” courses or speak for their entire race. It’s our job to educate ourselves. Likewise, if we’re organizing an event, reach out to as many POC as possible to come present. Don’t always pick the same one that everyone else does. Ask for referrals to other POC. If you’re an attendee, pay attention to how many POC are at the event and especially in positions of authority. Notice and talk to white organizers and tell them how important it is to you to have black and brown people fairly represented.


Lest you’re still living in the Obama bubble of this being a “post-racial” country, note that Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson wants to triple rent on low-income housing. This is the death-knell for many poor families, particularly those of color, who are disproportionately represented among the poor. Homelessness will skyrocket. And while the length of this blog prevents me from really going into the prison-industrial complex, let’s note that Attorney-General Jeff Sessions wants to lengthen federal prison terms. This means even longer prison terms for people who have low-level drug offenses, a crime that is prosecuted on a racist basis. This is a complex topic but you can educate yourself with next month’s list of resources.



Pagans in general are an open-minded lot who enjoy learning. We are also interested in personal growth. Take some time to look at the racism you breathe and work to change it. It is one of the most significant ways we can change as individuals and as a nation. Call on your deities to give you courage to face things that may bring you embarrassment or shame. And get excited about expanding your multiverse!

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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  


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