Habits and Slips: Paganism’s Recurring, Tiresome Problem with Racism

Habits and Slips: Paganism’s Recurring, Tiresome Problem with Racism September 27, 2019

Hello, beautiful creatures. Today, I’d like to talk some more about the problem of racism in Pagan, polytheist, and occult communities.

Got your attention, did I? Good.

To be fair, I’m speaking here to the portion of my readership who happen to be white… which, let’s be honest, is most of you. The people of color reading this are exempted from most of what I’m about to say.

In case you haven’t seen it, there’s a blog post on Medium which has been making the rounds on Pagan-ish social media, Ashley Nicole Hunter’s “11 Pagan Habits That Need to Die.” I found it an interesting explication of a lot of the things about neo-Paganism I find intensely annoying, many of which seem to stem from the persistent problem Pagans have with balancing their values. In short, some Pagans take themselves too seriously, and don’t take their spiritual practices and values seriously enough. It’s why there are so many p-words who are lackadaisical about things like other people’s time and work, the environment, history, or—and I phrase this as delicately as I know how—personal hygiene and grooming.

This isn’t to say it’s a perfect article, mind you. A couple of Hunter’s points are a little weak and detract from her overall message, which I feel is both timely and, sadly, timeless. As ever, I encourage you to read it yourself and make up your own minds about it. I was initially thinking of responding to Hunter’s post point-by-point, but a couple of days after I read it, I saw Sarah Anne Lawless’ post on the Bane Folk Facebook page announcing her withdrawal from the Black Flame Montreal occult conference. As before, I encourage you to read her post (available here in a non-FB format) for the details. It’s also worth reading Black Flame Montreal’s response, deleted but captured here, and their follow-up announcement, in which they cancel the conference altogether.

I read Lawless’ post, and I thought back to my own posts about racism and white supremacy in Paganism. More specifically, I mulled over the reactions those posts engendered from self-styled “ethno-nationalists,” “proud advocates” for ethnicity-based Paganisms and polytheisms, and outright goddamn Nazis. I received abuse, outrage, and vague personal threats, and I know Lawless has been targeted even more overtly, and more viciously. Gee, I wonder why that is? I know part of it is that Lawless is much better known, but might some part of it be that she’s… you know… a woman? But I digress.

I’m here to suggest that Ashley Nicole Hunter’s list of Pagan bad habits, while amusing and largely true, suffers from the glaring omission of our communities’ real, real bad habit of racism.

Sometimes that racism is as overt as shaven-headed, tatted-up buff dudes wearing white supremacist insignias, spouting fascist buzzwords and white-supremacist dog-whistles, sure. Most of the time, though it’s the casual racism of “nice” white folks providing cover for other, not-so-nice white folks. It’s the easy racism of giving white folks the benefit of the doubt because “they’re our friends,” because “they’re good people,” because we know they don’t actually mean all that fascist ethno-nationalist rhetoric, it’s just a t-shirt or a patch or a tattoo sleeve, why are you so sensitive, ugh, you leftists always take things so seriously, you’re just projecting the negativity in your own hearts…

Yeah. It’s like that.

This is on us, white folks. This is our fault. Our communities are anti-black, anti-brown, anti-indigenous, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim—you know, racist—and we are doing far too little to break that habit.

“What?” you cry. “How can you say that? I’m not a racist! I… but… I…”

I know, I know. I often feel the same way, but please believe me when I say there’s no time for that kind of squishy white-person handwringing. There never has been. We say things like this as a way of distancing ourselves from the word “racism,” because we know that “being a racist” is A Very Bad Thing. The trouble is, we’re patently unwilling to actually do the work it would take to make our communities actively anti-racist, just like we’re unwilling to make our communities anti-fascist, and largely for the same reasons: we’re afraid of offending and upsetting people. We’re afraid of being the bad guys calling people out for their racist, fascist douchebaggery. We’re afraid of how that makes us look.

And, underneath that, I think we’re afraid of confronting the racism that lives in our own hearts. We’re afraid of discovering that, yes, we really are the racists we deny being.

At the risk of being a consummate downer here, I don’t know what else to tell you, white folks. We can deal with the sickness in our spirits, or we can live in thrall to it. We can acknowledge that we live in a culture which values whiteness above all things, or we can deny it. We can work to dismantle the power structures that privilege us, or we can benefit from them, fingers jammed into our ears the whole time to block out the voices of the oppressed and disenfranchised.

We can indeed do that. What we cannot do is turn around afterwards and claim to be one of the oppressed. Whatever your flavor of magic, there is no room within it for deception, self-deception least of all.

I’ve had a couple of people ask when I’ll stop writing about the problems of whiteness in Paganism, when I’ll just spend my time writing funny things about D&D, sexy things about queer sex magic, and snarky reviews of witchy media. Believe me, I’m just as tired of it as you are, and I’d much rather write about those things… but here we are. Since I’m sure those folks are just concerned for my emotional well-being, and not at all attempting to concern-troll me or shut me up, I’ll give the simplest and truest answer I can:

When I stop seeing occult conferences self-destruct rather than simply uninvite neo-Nazi presenters.

When I stop seeing Pagan conventions literally drive away Pagans of color rather than acknowledge the harm the convention’s culture has done.

When I stop hearing white folks make excuses for each other’s racist bullshit.

WHEN PAGANS STOP LETTING RACISTS AND FASCISTS HAVE AIR TIME.

So, hey, let’s do us all a favor and get on that, shall we?

There’s more to say on this subject, of course. There always is. That’s quite enough for the moment, though.

Until next time, dear ones. ♥

A different sort of habit, but also toxic, cancerous, and disgustingly romanticized. (Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay)
About Misha Magdalene
Misha Magdalene (Seattle) is the author Outside the Charmed Circle: Exploring Gender & Sexuality in Magical Practice, coming in January 2020 from Llewellyn, They're a multi-classed, multi-geek, multi-queer witch and sorcerer with a degree in gender studies and a slightly odd sense of humor. They're also an initiate of multiple lines of traditional witchcraft, including Anderson Feri and Gardnerian Wicca, and have also been known to dabble recklessly in both modern ceremonial magic and grimoiric goetia. They've been blogging since 2001, negotiating the online world since 1987, playing Dungeons & Dragons since 1981, and listening to weird music since birth. They live on occupied Duwamish territory in the Pacific Northwest with their polymath partner, their precocious daughter, far too much coffee-making apparatus, and two adorably destructive black kittens. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, and their very own website, or lurking somewhere around the Seattle area, usually hiding behind a cup of coffee. You can read more about the author here.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • thelettuceman

    What are your thoughts about excessive ethnonationalism and nationalistic gatekeeping along those lines?

    • In short? Inchoate. 😉 These topics haven’t been at the focus of my studies, except insofar as they impact the subjects that ARE in my wheelhouse—gender studies, feminist theory, religious studies, history, languages—but fundamentally, I’m opposed to any form of ethnonationalism. I’m opposed to nationalism full stop, in that I’m not convinced the Westphalian model of sovereign statehood has been a net positive for the cultural development of the human race, and ethnonationalism usually just reads like nationalism and racism had a baby together… an evil, horrible baby.

      • thelettuceman

        I am of the same mind, and yet we find that this very platform has people who peddle that rhetoric. We’ve got a lot of cleaning up to do, collectively speaking.

  • Brenda Keitt

    As an AA witch, I agree. I recall one HP asking why is it I did not practice Voudou instead of the European form of witchcraft.

    • Yikes. >_< I wonder sometimes if the people who say things like that ever stop to consider what their words sound like outside their own heads.

    • I. H. Hagar

      I was asked that by this skin head so called heathen kid. Why didn’t I practice ancient Aztec religion (I’m Mexican/American). Well, I said maybe I will do that but I need a living human sacrifice. I need to cut the sacrifice at the lower rib. Stick in my hand and pull out their still beating heart to offer it to the Sun God. Then I asked him if he would like to volunteer to be my first sacrifice. I even have an obsidian knife. Well, needless to say he didn’t ask me again.

      • Brenda Keitt

        LMAO! Yeah, I feel ya!

      • I’m sorry you had to deal with that, but your response was amazing. ^_^

  • Ashley Nicole Hunter

    An excellent article. Thank you for pointing out what I was missing. I confess to my glaring oversight and will have to expand quite a bit on that list. This past week has provided quite the education, just seeing the awful things that came bubbling to the surface after SAL’s group and her leaving the Montreal event.

    • Hello, Ashley. Thank you for your kind words! I truly enjoyed your article, which was the springboard for my own piece here, and I want to extend my apologies for the stark tone my article took. I’m afraid I’ve spent too much time looking at the problematic elements in our communities, both structurally and contemporaneously, and the voice in my article reflects that.

      • Ashley Nicole Hunter

        You don’t sound any different than my professors, and honestly, it’s good to have someone point out your flaws in a logical way (without malice, of course) rather than blow smoke up your ass. 😉 You are one of my new favorite writers.

        • Aw, thank you! Now I’m blushing. ^_^ We should talk at some point!

          • Y’all are doing the internet wrong. This was a wonderful exchange between two adults. Where’s the name calling? Where’s the vitriol!

  • Amorella Moon

    … … … I F*CKING LOVE THIS. YOU SAID THE THINGS! YAAAY!!!!!!

    !!!

  • MrFribbles

    A well-written, necessary article. Pagans as individuals, as groups, as a movement can never thrive until we yank out racism and fascism by the roots and toss those ideologies into the trash heap where they belong.

  • Morgan Elijah

    I’ve noticed something similar in many other communities (some that aren’t inherently religious) that have racist tendencies. I’ve seen people in the goth community honestly debate if a person of color could be goth! (Which is absolutely ridiculous! Of course POC can be goth!) I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see racism pop up everywhere anymore considering that it’s not just stuck in one subculture.

    • The notion that POC can’t be Goth is both ludicrous and, given the Goths I know, simply counterfactual. ‘-_-

      I wish I could claim Paganism was better than that, but… *waves vaguely upwards at the article I wrote*

      • Brenda Keitt

        Well. where people are involved………..

  • vegetarianwino

    Great article!

  • WildestSea

    Great article!!! Yes, we have to keep on focusing on racism in paganism and witchcraft and in ourselves that’s the only way to beat it! That may not be fun but it’s healthy. It will make us a better person and a better witch and it will make the world a better place

  • Candace Nadine Breen

    Thank you for writing this article. As a West African American artist/author/healer/mystic, I am often turned away from various pagan-witchy circles. In order for some people to feel they are not racist, they let me in and then cut me off. It’s annoying and discouraging. The white witches often promote themselves and don’t know what to do with me. Even as an artist, I add my cultural aspects and am set against the popular white artists and often are not given room. Sometimes I feel destined for failure because I am not given a chance.

    • Thank you so much for commenting here. I’m saddened, if unsurprised, to hear you’ve been made to feel unwelcome and unwanted in Pagan and witchy communities. That’s awful, and it’s a depressingly common example of the kind of racism I’m talking about here. White Pagans have to do better and BE better about making space for people of color in our shared communities, or our Paganism is just another kind of white supremacy.

  • Thank you! Sarah’s work in this area has absolutely been one of the inspirations for my own. <3

  • kyuss

    Why don’t you use your “magick” to conjure up a solution?