I cried the day Obama was elected (but not for the reason I thought)

I cried the day Obama was elected (but not for the reason I thought) February 25, 2015

Barack ObamaI cried the day President Obama was elected in 2008.  I had voted for him.  And my tears were tears of joy.  But it has taken me over six years to really understand the meaning of my tears.  … More on that later.

I just returned from Pantheacon in San Jose.  I had a great time, but if you follow the Pagan blogosphere at all, then you will know that not everyone did.  The problem was a satirical newsletter/schedule called “PantyCon”, which is written and published each year by an anonymous and unofficial group at Pantheacon.  PantyCon is intended as a mock-up of the official Pantheacon schedule and pokes fun at different events.  This time, the PantyCon schedule included an event titled: “Ignoring Racism: A Workshop for White Pagans.”  The blurb read:

“Isn’t all this talk of social justice and racism just tiring? Don’t you wish you could just ignore it and put out meaningless statements of pure pablum? We’ll discuss how to ignore requests for consideration by pagans of color, cover up racist actions of high-ranking members, and pretend that you don’t understand the resulting outrage. Remember, #AllLivesMatter, except when it’s uncomfortabe or inconvenient.
Large Umbrella Pagan Group has been around for long enough that they think they can get away with this stuff.”

The statement was problematic because, while intended as an anti-racist satire of the Covenant of the Goddess and its recent inadequate response to #blacklivesmatter, many Pagans of color and allies found it to be offensive and triggering.

I have to admit that my first reaction to the PantyCon mock-up was to think it was funny.  And I don’t think I would have the courage to admit this now, if Cat Chapin-Bishop, in her post entitled, “Real Anti-racism Will Involve Mistakes”, had not already admitted that her initial reaction was the same: “I felt that the piece was a pretty reasonable send-up of an organization that had walked right into it–and probably represented plenty of other Pagan groups, too. As a white Pagan, I felt the critique was aimed at me and mine, and that it was both funny and deserved.”

My second reaction was frustration — frustration with the reaction to the mock-up.  Here was someone — who I presumed was not a person of color* — who was attempting to make an anti-racist statement, and was actually being treated as a racist.  I felt a sense of paralysis, afraid to even talk about the issue for fear of stepping on some kind of buried landmine.  I was especially wary of this topic after having recently been called out (deservedly) for co-opting the Civil Rights Movement in a blog post to make a point about something that had nothing to do with racism or systematic inequality.  Like Cat, I felt like the author of the PantyCon mock-up could have been me: “That could have been me making that joke,” wrote Cat, “What’s more, it will be me, making some other mistake tomorrow, almost certainly.”

So I had pretty much decided to stay silent, until I read Cat’s words: “Because the truth is, the only way I can be completely sure of not saying anything offensive about racism is not to say anything about racism. Which is not OK.”  It’s not OK to stay silent.  Those words felt right and they inspired me to speak.

But how to speak?  How should a white person like me speak in a situation like this?  Here’s what I’ve come up with.  It’s a work in progress.

Racism-300x2071.  I can begin by listening, but I shouldn’t stay silent.  Well, for one thing, I can listen before wading in.  I think the tendency to speak before listening may often be a symptom of white (and male) privilege.  So, for the past week, I’ve been reading the responses of Pagans of color and allies to this issue and trying to get a handle on what’s really involved here.

And for a while, I thought that would be enough.  I felt comfortable being the silent white guy in the room, just listening and learning from people of color.  “How gracious of me!” thought the self-congratulatory part of my brain, “How progressive-minded I am!”  I should have known better.  If I’m comfortable, then I’m probably not doing the work I need to be doing.

But then a POC acquaintance of mine suggested that it shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of people of color to respond to racism.  Listening is good.  Being silent for a time so as to allow space for people of color to have their reactions is good.  Trying to learn from people of color how to recognize white privilege and identify my “blind spots” isgood.  But staying silent doesn’t seem right.  If I stay silent, aren’t I leaving people of color alone with the burden of remedying racism?  How does that make sense?  Don’t I have a responsibility, as a white man, to work to dismantle structural inequalities which I benefit from?

So that’s why I’m writing this.

2.  I can avoid taking the easy way out: scapegoating and seeking catharsis.

One of the easy ways out in this case is jump on the scapegoat train.  I was tempted to pretend that I was immediately offended by the Panty-Con mock up and start “othering” and shaming those who published it.  But it felt hypocritical.  As Cat wrote:

“I am frankly skeptical that all of the many white Pagan voices I’m hearing crying out against the satirists saw immediately what I didn’t. I think it’s simply easier for us to select a villain from among our ranks and hold them up as if they were the problem. Here’s a racist! we cry. Who made a racist joke! And then we act utterly shocked.  … But I think there are an awful lot of us who are jumping on this guy because we want to distract anyone, including ourselves, from understanding that we could make a similar blunder ourselves. We are “buying indulgences” as one friend called it–by sacrificing one well-meaning, blundering white person, we hope never to become objects of shame ourselves.”

I can’t just shame the other unlucky white person every time race gets brought up, because part of me knows that it could be me next time.  In fact, it already is me.  It’s just that nobody has called me out yet.  Even if I never step on a PC “landmine”, I am part of a system which systematically discriminates against people of color every day in a hundred ways, a system which benefits me.  In that sense, I am a racist.  As much as it hurts my perception of myself as a proponent of racial equality, it’s the truth.  As Shauna Aura Knight recently explained, in some ways people who believe they are “color-blind” or live in a”post-racial” society are even more dangerous than the folks with the pointy white hats and hateful invective: “This kind of racism is systemic. It’s ambient. If you’re raised in it, you can’t see it any more than you can see the air you breathe. But just because you can’t see the air doesn’t mean you aren’t breathing it in.”

Which brings me back to the 2008 election.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but it has recently started to dawn on me that part of the reason why I was crying when Obama won the election was this: I felt absolved.  As ridiculous as it sounds now, part of me wanted to believe that the election of President Obama meant that racism was over and I could stop feeling guilty for being a white person.  My tears that day were tears of joy for all people of color in the country, but they were also tears of catharsis.  And they were a lie.  Because, as great as electing a black President is, it is the easy way out for white people like me.  It’s easy because all it required was pushing a button in a voting booth, and it didn’t require any real change on my part.

Obama is in the White House, and black children are still getting shot by police.  Obama is in the White House, and racism is still thriving.  It’s entirely conceivable that another future black President of the Unites States could today be the victim of violence by a trigger-happy police officer or hypervigilant neighborhood watchman.  The truth is that I am not absolved.  Not by voting democrat.  Not by expressing my dismay at police brutality against people of color.  Not by being Pagan.

af3e811c2d78a9610eb913a46bfd9c4f3.  I can dig deep and do the hard work of starting to identify how I participate in systematic racism.

Calling out other people’s racism is undoubtedly important.  But it’s easier than rooting out our own racism.  There are “landmines” in any discussion of race, but I am realizing that these landmines are inside, not outside of, me.  And they need to be dug up.

This took some work.  And it is still hard for me to admit it.  But I’m going to do it … While the satirical nature of the PantyCon write-up always seemed obvious to me, nevertheless, when I read it, part of me thought, “Yes, I am tired of all this talk of social justice and racism. And yes, I do sometimes wish I could just ignore it.”  It’s taken me a week to recognize it and admit it to myself, but I did feel that.  And the fact that I knew better than to actually show up for this fake workshop doesn’t mean that I didn’t, for a second, wish that it was a real event.  Just for a second, part of me wanted to be able gather together with other white people to complain about the “oversensitivity” of Pagans of color: “I’m a good intentioned person, aren’t I?  I’m not overtly racist.  I just want to go about my P-Con business without having to be reminded all the time that people of color are suffering.”  What this really means is: “I don’t want want to be made to look at uncomfortable realities.  I don’t want to see my complicity in those realities.  I don’t want to have to change.”

And that’s when I finally got it.  Or at least part of it.  The PantyCon mock-up wasn’t describing a real workshop at Pantheacon, but it was describing a real event!  One that happens all the time, everywhere.  In happens in the minds of white people.  And it bleeds out in myriad ways into the social spaces shared with people of color.  I have since heard that some people actually showed up for the fake workshop at Pantheacon!  But whether or not we showed up in person to the “Ignoring Racism” workshop, we show up in spirit every time we ignore racism.  Every time I refuse to listen, every time I refuse to look at my own privilege, every time I remain silent — I am not only allowing a racist system to continue, I am actively participating in it.

So … no, the PantyCon mock up wasn’t funny.  Not funny at all.  It was too real.

I see that now.

And I also see that I have a lot of work to do on myself.

* According to the anonymous spokesperson for the group that published the PantyCon mock-up, “It was a POC member who first raised the idea of writing up a piece taking on the actions of COG and other groups in the wake of the numerous incidents of police violence against Black men and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.” (See comments to Miniver Cheevy’s “Open Letter” to the PantyCon authors.)

What happened? This discussion panel was called Bringing Race to the Table and inspired by Immanion/Megalithica’s newly published book of the same name. However before the panel began, a PantheaCon volunteer informed the panelists and attendees about a problematic write-up in a satirical newsletter called PantyCon. This flyer, written and published each year by an anonymous group, is a mock-up of the convention schedule and pokes fun at the entire event and the community itself. Although originally created by PantheaCon, PantyCon was abandoned by the organizers years ago. It was, then, picked up by an anonymous group and has no affiliation, sponsorship or association with the organization.

The offending write-up in the satirical PantyCon schedule was titled: Ignoring Racism: A Workshop for White Pagans.

– See more at: http://wildhunt.org/2015/02/what-is-pantheacon.html#sthash.qhFwdNbh.dpuf

However before the panel began, a PantheaCon volunteer informed the panelists and attendees about a problematic write-up in a satirical newsletter called PantyCon. This flyer, written and published each year by an anonymous group, is a mock-up of the convention schedule and pokes fun at the entire event and the community itself. Although originally created by PantheaCon, PantyCon was abandoned by the organizers years ago. It was, then, picked up by an anonymous group and has no affiliation, sponsorship or association with the organization.

The offending write-up in the satirical PantyCon schedule was titled: Ignoring Racism: A Workshop for White Pagans.

– See more at: http://wildhunt.org/2015/02/what-is-pantheacon.html#sthash.qhFwdNbh.dpuf

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