The What They Did, Not the What They Are Conversation

The What They Did, Not the What They Are Conversation September 30, 2015

Oh, my people, my people.

Joe Belmont. Summer Solstice Parade and Pageant, Seattle, 2009
Joe Belmont. Summer Solstice Parade and Pageant, 2009.

Clearly, discussions of cultural appropriation are the third rail of Pagan race discussions right now.

If you are one of the fifteen people in North America who has yet to read Tom Swiss’s frankly wrongheaded take on cultural appropriation, which has absolutely blown up into a flying shitstorm over at The Zen Pagan, I’ll give you the short version: he doesn’t believe we need the term at all, that the term is mere political correctness.

Of course, this idea is wildly popular with all of us white Pagans who want to stop taking on the annoying, stressful work of contemplating which of our own favorite practices might be cultural appropriation, and to changing them.  Tom has a lot of fans right now.

His idea is less popular with those who have been paying attention to how cultural appropriation causes actual harm to actual marginalized people, and can play right into reinforcing racist stereotypes that cast all but members of the dominant white race and culture as Other, exoticizing and stereotyping them, while framing whiteness as normative.

Enter Erick DuPree, whose essay Cultural Appropriation is Real; To Deny This Is Racism is a much better analysis of why Tom’s essay is messed up than I’ve given here.  Seriously, if you’re someone who thinks we should dismiss the whole concept of cultural appropriation, go read his essay–don’t bother to quarrel with mine.  He makes a helluva lot of sense, and he does it without a whole lot of extra verbiage.  So far, so good.

Unfortunately, in the course of calling out Tom’s ideas–which, as I think I’ve mentioned, I believe are lousy ideas–Erick winds up calling out Tom himself.  In his article, Erick writes, Tom Swiss “seemingly came out as a racist.”

This is a mistake.

Erick admits honestly that as a white ally, he’s found himself speaking and acting in ways that support racism.  I’ll tell you right up front, I’ve done this too, and I probably will again, though I’m trying to do it less.  There’s a reason for that: white people almost always start from a position of ignorance when we approach the subject of racism.  We have a steep learning curve ahead of us before most of us adults catch up to what a twelve year old black or brown child already understands about how our society marginalizes people of color.

So right away, we’re in trouble when we’ve got the pot–a white ally–calling the kettle–another white person–racist.

What’s more, white people tend to misunderstand racism.  To call someone “a racist” is to imply that the real problem with racism is a sort of species of evil, cave-dwelling white people who walk around hating people of color and deliberately wanting to do them harm.  And while such people exist, no doubt, and do a good deal of harm, most of the harm white people do to people of color today we do obliviously, through erasure, through unconscious stereotyping, and through accepting the fruits of an unequal social system as our individual due.  (The whole, “We worked hard for what we have, why don’t they?” delusion, that overlooks a centuries-long headstart and contemporary obstacles to the same degree of hard work actually paying off to the same degree of reward for a person of color.)

But call a white person out for being “a racist,” and we shut down.  We know we’re not conscious haters, we take being called a member of the species Homo bigotus as an insult, and we become defensive.  (Yes, Black Lives > White Tears.  But it’s hard to learn when you’re in tears, and white allies in the racial justice movement especially have more business calling one another in than calling one another out.)

In reality, the problem is not that we’re a separate species of bigots; the problem is that we commit acts of racism, bias, and erasure, often without any thought or awareness that we are doing so.  And we need to hear that, and to understand that, and to stop doing that.

Erick is right.  But I fear he may have been right in a way that shuts down the very discussion we Pagans desperately need to have.  As Jay Smooth would put it, the what we did conversation, not the what we are conversation.

If you haven’t watched Jay Smooth lay it out already, you owe it to yourself to do that now.

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