Why Racism is Paganism’s Business

Why Racism is Paganism’s Business September 28, 2015

Over the past year, I’ve heard a lot of variations on the theme of white Pagans saying they are tired of talking about racism, or don’t see how talking about racism is our business.

Leaving aside the notion that dismantling racism should be the business of people of color, because it affects them most (as opposed to the business of white people, who benefit most, and who hold the most power within our current, systemically racist social structure), I am bothered by the idea that racism is a social ill that’s somehow outside of the legitimate concerns of Pagans–of white Pagans, anyway. We don’t get to be a religion of immanent spirit without caring very much about what happens in the world.

Paganism is, in almost all of its branches, an embodied spirituality; we don’t hold that the world is maya, illusion, and that what happens here doesn’t matter.  We see omens in the wind, altars in one another’s bodies.  To my way of thinking, nothing that is in the world is outside of our concern.

There’s a discussion over at Nature’s Path.  Maggie Beaumont has written an essay on how the Black Lives Matter movement impacts Paganism.  I wrote the following in response to a commenter over there–not to Maggie!–and, while I may not have done her position justice–she has not yet responded, and I may well have misunderstood her–I did want to share the ideas she stirred up in me a little more widely.

I wrote:

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.

Egyptian goddess Nut.
Egyptian goddess Nut.

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.

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