Black Lives Matter – Pass It On

Black Lives Matter – Pass It On September 25, 2015

The Witch stands at the window, looking out at the night. Far below she sees a group of students walking back from class in the cool of the dark, now that sunset has grown earlier. They walk in distinct groups. Each group seems to have its own speed of walking, its own style of gait, even its own way of carrying backpacks.

Artwork by Maggie Beaumont.
Artwork by Maggie Beaumont.

The apartment building where I live is home to a lot of college students, as well as a significant population of senior citizens and young families. There’s a college a short walk across the highway from here, and another just five minutes away by car. Probably in September we have as much as 20% turnover, our new residents mostly younger than 25, mostly living in groups of 2-5 in apartments with 2-4 bedrooms.

I get to watch Black Lives Matter, mostly in the responses of the neighbors, as these young people settle in.

Most of the Black students I meet have extraordinarily good manners. Don’t misunderstand me, here: I don’t mean ‘extraordinary compared to what I expected.’ I mean ‘extraordinary compared to the adults I meet every day.’ Please and Thank You at every opportunity. Holding elevator doors and insisting that the old lady go first. Offering to help with packages or pushing a wheeled cart or dozens of things. Why is that?

Could it be that they – or their parents – are afraid that the adults in the building (maybe even ‘especially the White adults’) might mistake them for “thugs” unless they are very careful?

Some of the older White residents appreciate this politeness. A few of them remark on it, each time, as if it is amazing. Some take it as their just due, even as they fail to reply in kind.

It strikes me as significant that the White students I meet here are nowhere near as attentive, courteous, careful, or caring. They’re not even as basically polite. Why is that?

Some of the same older residents ignore or excuse this behavior as ‘after all, they’re just kids.’ Why is that?

In the city where I live, there’s plenty of racist history, some of it quite recent. Not long ago a local government voted to take Four Million Dollars out of the school budget … at the same time that it paid Four Million Dollars to build a prison. How does this make sense?

Most of the public commentary from the White community complained about how expensive the prison was going to be but supported the idea that we needed another prison. Most of the public commentary from the Black community pointed out that the schools whose funding was cut most deeply were in Black neighborhoods, and the local prison population is overwhelmingly Black. And most of the people in prison today are there for victimless crimes or for three-strikes-and-you’re-out. Which, if you didn’t know, can be used to send a man to jail for decades — for jaywalking.

This year I’ve been reading Frederick Douglas again, as he expresses his grief at the fact that ‘America, land of the free’ has never yet been that for Black people.

Black Lives Matter.

In the UU congregation where I’m one of the ten or so people who occasionally plan Earth-based Spiritual Celebrations for Sunday mornings or weekend evenings, there is a long history of anti-racism work. Our congregation has people of lots of different races, the largest numbers about evenly divided between Black and White. There is a White anti-racism group, a White Privilege discussion group, a mixed color anti-racism education group. I might be missing other efforts. Our celebration of Martin Luther King day gathers about 300 people and sends them into the community to do clean-up, paint-up, and fix-up projects with considerable planning and work, and excellent results. As a congregation, we try to make a difference.

Our Black Lives Matter banner has been hanging for a bit over a year now. But we still occasionally have to answer questions about whether it shouldn’t read ‘All Lives Matter.’

Meanwhile, Black people are still being shot in circumstances in which White people would be given a warning, or a citation without even an arrest.

As a UU, I feel that I’m at least on the right side of history, even though I haven’t done much direct-action work on this issue beyond trying my best to make sure the people I come in contact with are fairly treated regardless of whatever marginalized group they might belong to.

As a Pagan, I notice that while there are a few Black faces in my Pagan communities, we White Pagans are still not as welcoming as I would like to people we characterize as ‘looking different.’ But as Pagans, we don’t find outrageous clothing or amazing haircolor or remarkable tattoos the least bit odd. So how is it that we are continually, accidentally, thoughtlessly rude to People of Color who come to worship in nature with us?

Crystal Blanton’s book Bringing Race to the Table gives important examples of the microaggressions that White people like me – and, full disclosure, actually me at times – have delivered to Black people who come to circle with us. We excuse ourselves on the grounds that we didn’t know better, that it was inadvertent, that it wasn’t personal …

But we should consider that people bleed when they are cut regardless of whether the paring knife meant to cut them or just slipped in someone’s hand. Racism cuts whether it comes from White cluelessness or White intent, or policies that are facially neutral but unevenly enforced.

Black Lives Matter. I want my communities of UUs, Pagans, and UU-Pagans to lift up Black voices and listen to what people are saying about their experiences of being ‘othered,’ and to address the behavior that we – as communities that have historically been heavily White – must change.

Black Lives Matter. Pass it On.


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  • Friday

    Kind of wondering how most of this article isn’t actually *describing* what’s going on in Pagan communities, only suggesting somehow it’s about ‘looking different.’

    In some ways I’m not seeing this issue really *unpacked* apart from somehow associating white Pagans with everything going on in the overculture, and general hand-wringing about that. Often overlooked is in just how much of America *we’re* the ones considering ourselves the tribe on the outside, often pretty guarded around anyone we don’t know poking around unless they *do* perhaps fit the type, (Maybe in ways a lot of Black Americans don’t feel they can get away with, for instance… I still remember a time when a priestess from the next town we’d known online came to visit one place and turned up in, well, nice nondescript late-model car, fairly nice ‘Sunday best’ type suits, and I could tell it was assumed to be about race when it was really about them looking just like *missionaries,* which I actually said when they introduced themselves. Not sure that was believed, but I think my occasional blazer was about the closest thing to a ‘suit’ you’d see around there. )

    Where I am now, well, people are largely courteous on the street, but Pagans don’t speak very openly about religion or who’s Pagan and from time to time new people really *are* just snooping, and on rare occasions when anyone black turned up it was very hard to even greet them with friendly questions, (pretty tight-lipped, actually, maybe they *were.* Likely they were disappointed about how everyone was too exhausted by working life to put on much of a production, that time.

    Anyway, amid this issue people tend to forget that it’s we *Pagans* who are often the demonized minority here, and *our* sense of safety often comes from being able to tell who is really part of the tribe, quite apart from how anyone’s ethnicity appears. Could well be that some of the very cues a lot of black folks throw around to appear acceptable to a racially-unjust world also overlap the ones that Pagans *associate* with a Christian-dominated public world.

    I mean, as diverse as we are, it’s not like our own forms of tribalism are simply some atavism, …some of this really does function in an often-hostile world, we’re just, as Pagans supposed to be aware and responsible about them, not to mention the other virtues we’re supposed to be all about, especially among each other when it comes to circling in love and trust and all. Trust’s a little more complicated than declaring, though, sometimes. I mean, a lot of Pagans in my own group still use usual Christian references for punctuation like the others around, which still tends to give me momentary pause about people I’ve known for years, for an extreme example. (Whereas I risk ‘outing’ myself thoughtlessly that way being not-from-here. Fortunately it usually just sounds kinda Catholic. 😉 )

    I still think we’re missing some parts about how minority groups, (And as Pagans we certainly are an often-scorned minority of ourselves. something we feel especially if not secure in our economic and housing and other situations. Right from the get-go. I mean, if a Pagan happened to come displaying hip-hop culture, or being a big Ted Nugent fan, we LGBT Pagans might not assume they’re queer-friendly, etc.

    The racial situation in America has been being stoked, but also the class issues against poorer folks, and certainly the Christian Right against everyone else, but everyone here is at least one oft-threatened minority, and there’s even more intersectionality than that… So my question is, what’s the Pagan way of dealing with this, as opposed to assuming that we become a ‘privileged majority of white people’ whenever race is involved. We may get a lot of white privilege out there, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own ingrained worries and habits of assessing our own safety/trust level from all over.

    I mean, maybe we need a bit more of a *Pagan-centered approach* to all this rather than handwringing about who gets it worst when in the overculture. How and how much that comes *in* is perhaps more subtle than going, ‘Racism racism racism racism.’

    Actual racist attitudes are easier to confront… but the fact that we’re also ourselves a scorned minority doesn’t just go away when it’s one issue or another. All such groups have our own cues and shibboleths and things we associate with who may be one of us, or hostile to us, etc etc. (Gods, for instance sometimes I think the boys are a little worried they’ll scare people if they happen to be football fans. I mean, let’s face it, we don’t usually associate other Pagans with a lot of sports-related shirts and accessories, do we? 😉 There are all manner of little cues people assemble as to ‘who’s in our out-group’ Some of which may come to slights or microaggressions to each other, or, Hel, superficialities, well, they’re also about communication. Maybe what we need here is more like *literacy,* or yaknow, dancing better with each other, whatever our lives outside the community involve. )

    I mean, nearly all of us know we’re the weird ones *somewhere* out there, just in our own lives. Being tribal isn’t all bad, it’s just perhaps about getting it *right,* cause it’s not like we actually *are* some grand privileged Pagan majority doling out the bennies. Sometimes I think *white privilege* also involves forgetting just what the score is out there. For all of us, any color, any subculture.

  • I really appreciated this piece.

    I am grateful that at last, the faith communities I am involved with–Quaker as well as Pagan–are beginning to stir themselves around this deep moral challenge. In some ways, it feels like so little for those of us who are white, especially, to do: acknowledge with a sign or a button or a blog post that black lives are supposed to matter–yet often don’t. A small thing, simply posting that sign.

    But the fact that those signs are vandalized and stolen on a regular basis (mine has been, once, and other friends’ four, five, or more times) tells me that this very simple message is, in fact, simply needed. No, the words are not enough: but I’m grateful there are more of us saying them than there were not long ago, and that churches and Pagans are among those speaking up.

    As you say, “as Pagans, we don’t find outrageous clothing or amazing haircolor or remarkable tattoos the least bit odd. So how is it that we are continually, accidentally, thoughtlessly rude to People of Color who come to worship in nature with us?”

    Why is it that I still see examples of Pagans wearing blackface as costuming, Pagans expressing a beliefs that ancestry (and by implication, the biological fiction of race) is what qualifies one to be Pagan? Why is it that I still find white Pagans willing to dismiss the witness of black Pagans who have experienced racism both within and outside of our communities, or expressing the opinion that discussing racism is “divisive,” and somehow the source of our problems?

    Why is it that I still find examples of white Pagans who believe we, not Pagans of color, are the most likely to experience racial discrimination?

    I guess it is because the message is really needed. We’re not getting it yet.

    Hopefully, we will. I love my people; I love my Pagan community. I hunger for the day we are all of us hungry together for racial equality. (I gotta believe we can get there from here.)

  • I know that one reason I am rarely specific about the racism I see enacted within the Pagan community is that I understand that we are a sometimes-scorned minority, and that sadly often, we can become defensive and embattled even with friendly criticism from within our community.

    I find that when I publicly discuss racism among Pagans, I often stay in generalities, because we’re a small enough community that it’s very hard to give concrete examples without making an example out of identifiable individuals… and I’ve noticed that, while some of us seem to enjoy piling on to Pagans who have said or done something racist at some point, that sort of scapegoating doesn’t often lead us to deeper self-awareness of our own errors, and often shames the person whose racial missteps have been outed, into clinging to them all the harder.

    So I’ll talk privately with individuals when I see them doing or saying something they may not have thought about as racist, or behaving in a way they may never have understood as marginalizing someone else’s race or culture. I hope that others will do the same for me, when I slip into racist thoughts or ideas, too. A lot of the errors we white people make are just that: errors, and many of us are willing to fix them–if we’re given a chance.

    Of course, there are also outright, willful racists among us. But since so many of us white people seem to think that, as long as we’re not deliberately discriminating against people of color, or dropping the “n bomb,” nothing we do can be called racist, I think it makes the most sense to look, not at the extremes of behavior we can all agree are frankly hateful, but at the microaggressions and unconscious, unthinking ways we let down Pagans of color.

    I speak in generalities, in hopes of being heard by those who are most likely to change, and in hopes that we can get past the idea that racism is always a simple matter of outright hate and an intention to do harm. Most often, it’s subtler than that, at least to white eyes.

    Which doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem for those of us who are not white, or that it’s a minor thing we white Pagans should ignore, just because we’re “scorned minorities” in other ways ourselves..

  • Friday

    I think one of the problems of just trying to pin things *outside* the Pagan community on non-black Pagans when discussing some ‘racism in the Pagan community’ means… We’re not *dealing* with what may actually be *about* us, cause we’re not the police, we’re not the government, we’re not the churches, we’re *not the majority and we don’t see things the same way *as* the Christian dominated culture.

    I mean, in one sense, from your other post, I don’t know if when you say you saw ‘Pagans in blackface’ if they were somehow doing a minstrel show or just painting in one of the many colors we’re known to paint ourselves, yaknow? I mean, was that some racial lampoon or someone rocking the yogini look or something? (I mean was it actual color black or just one of the browns people called black come in? I mean, a lot of people’s totem *birds* are black.

    This is why I’m saying general hand-wringing isn’t the same thing here. And I mean, there’s occasional overt racism, usually not from someone who knows much yet, (That I may not be according to Quaker standards confronting,) there’s misinformation, like, yeah, a lot of working class people think affirmative action costs them jobs… Sometimes it does, in fact, but Pagans and other groups don’t often *get* the same consideration (if it isn’t still commonly legal or accptable to discriminate against us anyway) so we get it coming and going that way, too often. Still racist to assume a black person with a given job is less qualified than anyone else, of course. And that’s a matter for reason and talking about systemic problems and bigger pictures, really.

    How much of that is within Pagan community? Or how much do we bring with us, and in what ways. What’s *our* way of dealing with *that,* among ourselves. I really do tend to resent getting all this stuff about a culture that treats *me* as a pariah, pinned on me, and …*us,* when barely surviving, and frankly a lot of people doing the activism on this look a lot better off than I do.

    What’s *really* our row to hoe here, in other words. Talking about the racism of *the system* as if Pagan community *is* the system or should be indicted as such anyway…. Both rankles somewhat and *isn’t dealing with the real problems I’m assured exist, apparently even back in the Happy Valley.*

    Frankly, it so often comes down to things like black people going, “If Pagans aren’t racist, why don’t you recruit in black neighborhoods? ” “We’re Pagans, we don’t recruit in any neighborhoods.” (Might add, specifically on race issue, I’ve had people who literally don’t know the first thing about us come along and follow that with, “Well, you should.” “No, we shouldn’t. It’s not our way.” That’s for reasons. We aren’t looking for ‘converts’ or ‘followers’ and we sure don’t want to be tempting targets for co-opting by those who *are.* That’s how we got this far and that’s how we do things: the basis of race in that regard is *no* different. We’re busy enough just telling people we aren’t worshipping some Devil, never mind putting together some sales package. )

    Part of my concern here is that just *maybe* some are only exacerbating the problem by making a mountain out of self-flagellating our own community over… what, not actually controlling the world or being made up of people immune to it?

    I mean, just on our demographics, which we *don’t care about actually* …why aren’t we doing this by greeting people, working, and dancing? We aren’t that *bad* at diversity issues, either. But the way we go about that isn’t by pronouncing ourselves unwelcoming and then beating ourselves up about it. I mean, a lot of other cultures might find us strange and idiosyncratic, too, but we *find a way if everyone shows up.* There’s politeness, and then there’s putting ‘White’-face on all this.

    There are few among us who haven’t gone through much the same process wondering what Pagan people are about, how they might or might not fit in…. Especially those of us who are used to being treated as undesireables by the overculture. We’ve dealt with a lot of things like that in our own way pretty well before, including regarding LGBT people like myself, etc: colonialism worries aside, why should we do this one any differently?

  • Friday

    Anyway. A lot of words to spill here, but are we really addressing the problem just by, it sounds like in some cases …accusing our communities, at least those that even *can* have conferences and speak aloud without losing our jobs and/or homes of somehow being ‘The man’ for lack of actually examining the (reported, at this point to me) problems isn’t *functioning.*

    I mean. Funny enough, being a revival of European and Mediterranean native religious and cultural traditions, there’s a lot of people that look like that among us. For well-known historical reasons even black people with plenty of that ancestry don’t tend to know of or think much of it. (Again coming down to… We’re Pagans. We don’t proselytize. We don’t have much *control* over who turns up cause we don’t think it works that way. I mean, go looking for ‘converts’ anywhere, and Lady help you, you might get some. 😉 ) And if they are looking for a way to deal with magic and Spirit and the Gods, there are quite frankly African/Carribean etc traditions who at least appear to have more of their *stuff* together a lot more accessibly than we do as Western Pagans.

    Not only that, if we talk too much about connections or ceremonies from further afield, we run near being called ‘appropriating,’ …if we’re not being told ‘Why aren’t you honoring African Gods,’ (Well, cause that calls for a whole different mode of operating, is why, some of which isn’t how we do things or consider right-relationship here.) I mean, people do that dance as well, but that takes *a lot* of literacy.

    I mean, believe it or not, there are a lot of traditionals out there who assume they must know better than any given person or group they see with *white* skin, too, even about how we should do Pagan. Obviously we love to learn from others, but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to have *our* context for things. I mean, no, if someone paints themselves red in honor of the Morrigan that doesn’t mean they’re there to mock Native Americans. I mean, a *lot* of people wouldn’t get that… But we’re allowed to be *us,* too.

    I mean, we aren’t here either to be gatekeepers or hustlers on what kind of demographics we have on race or so many other categories. Most of us on the ground just don’t have the time, never mind the inclination. I don’t myself fear these things, nor think we’re here to ‘convert the world.’ Frankly, what I fear is one day the nations of the world showing up and finding we ain’t *built* anything. To that end, we’re the team we’ve *got,* us and who keeps turning up that it’s up to us to teach. And in turn kick us in the arses in due time, I like to think. 😉

  • Friday

    (Ok, actually, this is one point where people go wrong. The *fiction of race* clearly has nothing to do with who one’s actual ancestors are, *particularly* in the Western world. Particularly* America. Yes, you have to point that out to a lot of Pagans, but Barack Obama’s apparently as closely-related to Brian Boru as I am. 🙂 Some people’s ideas of ‘racial purity’ do not define our reverence for our *actual ancestors.* And *should* not, either way. Not our damn Bible to claim people were cursed by color over.)

    Actually, just excoriating Pagans for revering our ancestors *doesn’t* mean someone can come along and demand we *don’t* because other religions and sometimes, yes, some Pagans have connected that to the ‘race’ things of the overculture. (Most black people in America actually do identify with Africa in the first place, rather than their German grandfather or Scots-Irish whoever.) As Pagans, our ancestry is a *thing* to us. Much-discussed. It’s just not the *only* thing. And those who try to make it the ‘only thing’ do hear about it from the rest of us.

    ‘Discussing racism’ or calling other people in the community out on something is one thing. Acting like white skin means white Pagans are somehow part of the overculture *as* Pagans in our own communities is a different matter. I think much of the problem here is assuming ‘The Pagan community’ is *interchangeable* with someone’s idea of ‘white people.’ We’re neither the overculture nor off on some Summerisle with all members immune to it.

    I mean, yeah, any intersection of scorned minorities encounters this, us more than others cause we don’t *claim* to be like ‘The Lithuanian lodge’ or the Korean Anglican Church’ or something like that. We’re more like a Native American pow-wow only some centuries further removed.

    Again, my point’s not to be reactionary here, never mind ‘lament Pagans don’t yearn for racial equality….’ –Are you kidding?

    Frankly, when in our community, *all* sincere people of the Gods are supposed to *get* to not give a crap how the rest of the world treats us a while. Also *supposed* to come from different places and different experiences, and yes, complain a blue-streak about them among friends too.

    *No,* it’s not always ‘familiar racism’ when newcomers get felt-out …cause believe it or not some people don’t like us, (or are nosing around for the wrong reasons for reasons quite apart from America’s rightwing mania problems.) or something Pagan happens that they don’t understand… No, it’s not always a ‘Pagan thing’ when someone’s heard the wrong employment statistics about affirmative action..actually got passed over in favor of someone else that doesn’t know what they’re doing, (Frankly the biggest employment handicap I ever found as a Pagan was not *lying,* so whatever, ) …or it offends their Libertarian theories.

    And *yes* I’ve heard a lot of people chalking up to ‘Pagan racism’ things which ….actually aren’t. Like… “We shouldn’t discuss this subject so loudly here” has nothing to do with racial stereotypes, …it has to do with the subject being us as Pagans. Kind of like how queer people don’t really appreciate having honest discussions repeated for the whole room by enthusiastic allies etc. And you’d have to be *us* to know that certain reactions or defaults aren’t actually based on what color someone is. Just as reflexive as, “What church do you go to? ” I didn’t say.”

    I guess this is why I find this whole recurring take on the discussion, as if we suddenly become the al-white system when race is involved, when we, as Pagans, are *neither.* (And frankly, neither is the system when it comes to being ‘judeo-Christian or ‘anyone else.’ )

    We’re the other guys. Let’s *be* the other guys. If we need to do it better, we need to look at *that,* not act like those of us who are white actually *are* in charge of the whole damn mess.

  • You seem to be saying that, since there are few Pagans who make a religion out of racism, and since we don’t proselytize, racism isn’t something we’re responsible for dealing with. It’s something that happens “out there,” and not in our cozy little communities.

    But it isn’t something that happens “out there”–and when Pagans of color draw it to our attention, if we white Pagans respond by minimizing what they’re saying, by calling it hand wringing or accusing Pagans of color of making too much of a fuss, we’re actually supporting the overculture’s lie that talking about racism is “divisive” or somehow the problem–that being “race blind” (which usually means white people being willfully blind to racism) is the way to support justice.

    It’s not.

    Just because a white person puts on blackface without a racist intent–for instance, to evoke a mythological being, as I have seen done–doesn’t mean it doesn’t have racist connotations that are frankly hurtful. When this gets pointed out to us, the correct response is never going to be, “Well, I didn’t mean it that way, so just be quiet, you black Pagans.” It’s going to be, “Damn, I hadn’t thought of that; I won’t do it again, and I’ll pass it on.”

    Likewise, groups that insist that only “white people” should be worshipping Pagan gods from the European past may not mean to be racist–but they’re making their racial ignorance very clear. (First, that they actually believe in a biological thing called race, and second, that they either subscribe to the “one drop” rule of what makes someone black or another race than white, or that they are completely historically illiterate regarding the shared European ancestry of most black Americans.) Calling it “ancestor reverence” and not reflecting on how it fails to welcome people of color is not good enough.

    No one is saying white Pagan groups should proselytize people of color. But if we stopped greeting them at the door with ignorant comments–like defending the “all lives matter” backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement–that’d be great. If we stopped suggesting to people of color that they should really be studying Vodoun rather than Wicca–or stop setting ourselves up as experts in living traditions that are not our own, in which we are not trained or initiates (like various Native American religions and practices, or Afro-diasporic religions like Vodoun) that’d be even better.

    That’s regarding racism that is enacted within our communities. But I put it to you that confronting racism beyond Pagan communities is very much our business as well, just as GLBT freedom is. There’s a reason that, as a straight High Priestess, I’ve been active in the gay rights movement for decades now: one of the implications of an embodied spirituality is that I see that each of us is sacred, and all of the forms in which we move through the world are holy and deserving of respect.

    To my mind, that applies equally to differences in language, culture, and skin pigmentation. How could I look my goddess in the eye if I did not stand up for every one of her children? It is not only the non-human biosphere that is sacred. Human beings–whether or not they are Pagan–are, too.

    To turn my back on racial justice would make me every bit as much a hypocrite as turning my back on environmentalism. I love the Pagan community; I want us to be grown-ups who live up to the implications of our ideals… not a club that protects only our own narrow interests.

    I think that’s what’s called for when your gods fill all the world.

  • Friday

    Actually, I mean that we can’t approach how these things affect us *inside* our communities if we simply conflate that with the injustices of the outside world. I mean it’s not really approaching our own problems if we don’t unpack them. (just a quick post in passing, have to read more carefully in a little bit. )