Wayfaring Woman: Black Lives, White Shadows

The last week had been brutal and tragic. Between the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in Louisiana and Minnesota, and the police officers who lost their lives during a peaceful protest in Dallas, my heart is heavy and my mind is racing. Some have been working diligently to cast these fatal tragedies as sharp, jagged lines along which to divide the country rather than horrific events highlighting places where we all have to work together for resolution and necessary change. Fortunately, many Pagans manage to resist this bait because many Pagans acknowledge the interconnectedness of all beings. Many Pagans know that we are all in this together. We are all sailing through space on the same blue-green rock circling the same flaming orb of life-giving light. We know that we must coexist. Yet and still, there is disagreement among some, Pagan and non-Pagan alike. We the People are wrestling with the “Black”, “Blue” and “All” of it when it comes to these matters.

But why is it a struggle? Well, as I see it, we have a long and storied history of othering to contend with. This country was fashioned out of dominant groups and subordinate groups, in-groups and out-groups, us and them, persons and others. The other is the collective shadow, bearing the weight of sloughed off aspects of the dominant group’s consciousness. Others become beasts of burden carrying the projected negative elements of the dominant group’s psyche. The other is ugly, cruel, violent, uneducated, criminal, unpatriotic, disrespectful, and inarticulate. The list goes on. As a consequence of this false and dangerous perception, the other is solely responsible for his own tragic fall from humanity. The persons versus others mentality gave rise to a history that is divisive and bloody by design.

Now, in our present we see the remnants of that history and evidence of the work that remains to be done to overcome it. We see people insisting that when we shout “Black Lives Matter”, we must mean that White lives do not. Us versus them. There are those of us who are still struggling to understand that Black is not other, despite the propaganda of previous centuries. Black is we. Black is us. There is only we and us. The history of exclusion and marginalization that Black people have endured was the consequence of erased personhood by the dominant group and its institutions. Now there is a reclaiming of Black life and Black humanity. Black people are shouting to be heard and asking White people to listen carefully, because if all lives really mattered, Black lives would not be disproportionately negatively affected by institutional policies and procedures.

It is so hard to face that reality, to look it square in the eye and acknowledge that a whole society, culture, economy, and political system, a whole way of life was built on the dehumanization of Black people and many other “othered” groups. In Black faces and Black lives the dominant racial group is seeing its shadow–its demonized and rejected self–looking back at it, demanding acknowledgement, and insisting that the dominant racial group take its psychic refuse back and process it. From my perspective, many White Americans resist the Black Lives Matter movement and accuse those involved of violence and divisiveness because they are afraid of that shadow. Black Lives Matter upsets the delusion that the dominant racial group in particular and this country as a whole have come as far as they need to come and have done all that they need to do. Black Lives Matter is a mirror, one of many. All Lives Matter is a White hand trying to smash that mirror and insist that there is nothing here to see, implying that everything is fine.

street art depicting the phrase "Black Lives Matter"
bmartinseattle / pixabay

Things are not fine. The past several decades have seen many strides made toward racial equality but many, many more need to be made and narratives of progress sadly seem to beget complacency, especially within the dominant racial group. We can’t be complacent; there is too much more to do and Black Lives Matter is working to draw attention to the work that’s left to be done. There is no card being played, no anti-police sentiment being espoused, no unpatriotic claims being made. Only the truth being told that everything is not fine and we absolutely must do something about it, each and every one of us without exception must do something about it. The slow, steady glide into complacency has left many feeling that empathy is enough, but everyone, especially those with power and privilege, must move beyond empathy for people of color and into personal responsibility and accountability for co-creating lasting change.

To my thinking, true empathy relies upon a sense of connectedness and the more different we feel from a person at the level of humanity and worth the more other we think them to be and the hollower and more incomplete our so-called empathy really is. The insidious history of othering people of color can make it difficult for people within the dominant racial group to see and acknowledged the limits of their empathy and then push past that to take their care and concern a step further by doing something. There are guidelines and roadmaps emerging to help folks tackle issues related to racism but the people using them already acknowledge their own personal responsibility to do so. I would argue that those who do not yet feel responsible at a personal level have not yet done their shadow work. There is still some part of their psyche being propped up by othering, marginalizing, minimizing, and forgetting. This was caused in the past but is perpetuated in the present. Courage is called for, to begin the long and hard work of pushing past this. Many have begun the work but it is imperative that we continue forward in earnest.

As long as racial inequality persists, the need for individual and institutional shadow work will persist. As Pagans we have the spiritual tools to engage in the necessary shadow work, to dig deep into our subconscious and unconscious and ferret out the beliefs, fears, wants, elements of identity and ego that encourage us to minimize, invalidate, and discredit the legitimate social, cultural, political, economic, etc. needs and rights of othered groups. I encourage those of us who are struggling to acknowledge our role and responsibility in ending oppression to do the work, either within the systems available through our own spiritual tradition or within new systems and traditions that are co-created with people interested in similar work. I also encourage those of us who are struggling to pursue counseling if there are particularly entrenched bits that resist being rooted out in ritual and ceremony.

While the dominant racial group does the work of facing their individual and collective shadow, the temptation to blame the other for the fear and frustration that arise during the process will likely be strong. For example, people saying things like “He should have been dressed differently to signal that he was not a threat” and “He had priors, didn’t he?” are about fear as opposed to the fact that a citizen lost their life in a routine encounter with a person charged with serving and protecting them too, no matter how they are dressed or if they have priors. No doubt, along the way there may also be the urge to minimize and invalidate the needs of the other in order to protect the fragile psychological and social status quo. All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter are current examples of this. All Lives Matter is true in theory but aspirational in practice. The existence of Black Lives Matter demonstrates this. Black Lives Matter is All Lives Matter saying work harder, people are being left out. Blue Lives Matter sounds great and seems to be on par with Black Lives Matter but really is just highly problematic socially and politically. In reality, Blue Lives Matter makes the egregious error of equating a uniformed profession with a racial group showing an impoverished understanding of race in this country and just how it operates in addition to attempting to minimize and invalidate the needs of Black people in this country.

As a Black Pagan woman, I see the Black Lives Matter movement and its call for recognition of the challenges still facing this country as a clear, appropriate, healthy, non-violent challenge to people within the dominant racial group people, Pagan and non-Pagan alike, still struggling to hear the other and acknowledge the wrongs committed in the past and perpetuated today, right here and right now. Yes, facing these issues is uncomfortable because each person who faces them risks damaging their positive self-image, at least for a time. Those willing to face these uncomfortable truths also risk having to take personal and institutional responsibility, and be held accountable. But the rewards far out way the risks.

We as a whole society much come together, and an important stretch of that road necessitates exploring the shadow – the beliefs, wants, fears, identity aspects, and ego issues that demand loudly and softly that we minimize, invalidate, and discredit imaginary others. This post has focused on race but it is abundantly obvious that these issues extend into sexual orientation, gender, and myriad other aspects of identity. We all enjoy some kind of privilege and so we all must consider what shadow work we need to do, and do it. Then do something tangible in the world that decreases the burden of the other. As Pagans we are especially called to this work because many of us value interconnectedness. We know that there are no others, just us. Sadly, at this moment in our collective existence, we are bloodily at odds with ourselves. We have to repair the damage caused by history and the wounds we still bear. We Pagans know that we are all in this together. We are all sailing through space on the same blue-green rock circling the same flaming orb of life-giving light. With every day we get a clearer view of how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. Through it all, we know that we must coexist, and we must do it better than we ever have before.


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