Hi, I’m Shauna, and I’m a racist. No, not one of the ones clearly defined by the pointy hats and white robes. And not one of the racists clearly identified by hateful invective.
In fact, I’m in some ways the more dangerous kind of racist; or at least, I was. Once upon a time, I was the kind of racist who didn’t realize how bigoted I was. I still struggle with my own blind spots and how much this impacts my thoughts and actions on a daily basis.
How did I come to be this way? 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.
I used to believe I lived in a post-racial society, that I was “color blind.” And then…I used to believe that Pagans couldn’t be racist. Yet within the broader Pagan communities, we do unfortunately have problems with racism just like the dominant culture does.
But what do we do about it? Because #BlackLivesMatter .
Admitting There’s a Problem
It’s said in AA, and in a number of other places, that the first step is acknowledging that yes, we do have a problem. And with racism, if we want to actually dismantle it we have to acknowledge how much we each are a part of that system. The challenge here is that, for most of us, our egos don’t want to admit to something so heinous. “I’m not a racist,” we want to say.
If you were raised like I was, bigots were the bad guys.
Except, we get all this mixed messaging from the culture we grew up in. In the Immanion Press anthology Bringing Race to the Table, I have an article “Facilitating Inclusive Rituals and Events” where I discuss some of the mixed messaging I grew up with.
I was raised in an almost all-white town. I was taught that the N-word is impolite…and yet, I was also taught to lock my car door if a Black person was nearby. I was taught that it’s polite to try and be “color blind” and not make judgments about someone based on their skin color. And yet, there were jokes and phrases I heard at family events and at school that I only really later understood were offensive.
I recall hearing white people say “Yes, Mass’ah,” as a sarcastic way to indicate that they felt put upon by someone asking them to do a task. One older family member was fond of saying, “I’s a-shufflin,” as a sarcastic way of implying he was hurrying, but at the pace of a lazy slave. I also recall lots of jokes that were basically saying things the way a Black person might say them, or with a Mexican accent, to make them sound funnier—and people would laugh. And I would laugh. Because, if there’s one quick road to an easy joke, it’s making fun of someone for being or sounding different. I knew that overt discrimination was wrong, but a lot of it was stuff I literally couldn’t even “hear,” it was just stuff people said when I was growing up.
Let’s take it a little further. Recently a Black woman was looking at my paintings and she asked me if I ever painted Black people. I admit, I was a little stunned. The thought that crossed my mind was, why would I paint Black people? I’m white. And then I was further stunned by that thought. People have similar responses to things even as seemingly innocent as what child’s toy to buy. Barbie toys, for instance. The Black Barbie isn’t considered the “real” Barbie.
Taking this still further, I will hear someone speak a racial stereotype. “Black people are lazy,” or, “There are more criminals among Black people.” When challenged, they say, “Well, it’s not being racist if it’s true, right?”
Privilege and Racism
I know, you’re probably sick of the P-word. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen throw an absolute fit when they get privilege-checked. In fact, I was that person a few years ago. At that time, I thought, how could you possibly say I’ve been privileged? Do you know what I’ve been through in my life?
Remember: The concept of privilege isn’t to downplay anyone’s pain, or to say that just because you aren’t a minority you didn’t suffer. The concept of privilege is specifically that, because of skin color or gender or sexuality, some people will be automatically discriminated against and thus have less opportunities.
Here’s an example. My parents were pretty broke when I was growing up. I was the kid at school that was teased for being poor and for getting the free lunches. Many of my classmates got cars for their 16th birthday. However, I grew up in a safe area. I could play outside. And I got an excellent education at a high school that offered AP classes. Kids in my school were expected to go on to college.
There are infinite ways that privilege impacts our lives, and it’s not a binary. It’s not, yes you are privileged, no you are not. Though I had access to a good education, I was faced bullying because I was the fat kid with acne, and I still face discrimination for being fat. It’s not an either or.
But I’m Not Bad
The problem with privilege and racism is that, by definition, we don’t see it. It’s like warm bathwater. You can’t see it, so you have no idea you have it or you’re doing it. When someone points out that we’re coming at something from a place of privilege, or that our comments were racist, it can be a confusing and painful moment. Unfortunately, the way our brains are wired, often our first reaction is usually a defensive one. We feel attacked.
I often write about the challenges of personal growth work, in specific, any time we are working with ego and identity, we’re facing some big challenges. Ego has a big job, and Ego isn’t bad. But Ego sometimes also overdoes it. In specific, one of Ego’s jobs is to make sure we feel good about ourselves, which means maintaining a positive self identity. Usually, when someone tells us we did something “bad,” we hear it as, “You are bad.” Instead of apologizing and saying, “Sorry I did a thing that was bad/hurt your feelings,” Ego instead rejects the notion that we–who are “good,” could do anything “bad.”
Here’s an example. Person A: “You broke my favorite dish!” Person B: “Well, you shouldn’t have left it out on the counter!”
Person B probably went through the whole process of rejecting that they did anything bad, because that would mean they are bad, and instead launched a counterattack making the other person “wrong.”
It gets even worse when someone calls someone else out on privilege, misogyny, racism, homophobia, or anything else in the big bucket of bigotry.
“What you said is racist” immediately generates a defensive response because, we don’t want to believe we’re racists. Racists are bad, right? Ego can’t handle being bad, so we reject it. It’s cognitive dissonance.
Complaining: The Shrieking Eels
As a strategic designer, I recognize that complaining is an important part of problem solving. If the first step is acknowledging we have a problem, the second step is outlining that problem–in other words, complaining. Without the ability to give voice to the problem, there is no way to successfully engage a strategy to resolve a solution.
Except when we’re talking about something like racism, the denial-engine is so huge that nobody wants to listen when Black people and other People of Color speak up and say, “We are being oppressed.” White people will keep holding to this strange idea that we live in an equal society. If you’re coming at the racist problems in society from the outside, from a place of privilege, there are a number of behaviors that are almost automatic.
Black people are seen as whiny, not as activists. When Black people talk about discrimination in the workplace, you’ll hear people say, “Well, if you weren’t so lazy and just worked harder.” I have family members who uttered things like this and yet who would never identify themselves as being racist.
You see this denial also with misogyny. It was rampant in GamerGate. People victim blame others. They say, “Oh, that hasn’t happened to me so it couldn’t have happened to you.” Men who haven’t experienced misogyny don’t see it, don’t understand it. They may not be engaging in it…or not intentionally engaging…but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
On a Facebook discussion thread, someone used the metaphor of the “shrieking eels” from the Princess Bride movie, and I find it apt. Whenever a minority begins speaking up about their experiences and demands equality–whether it’s a woman, people of color, a religious minority, or any other–the people who are in the position of privilege, in the position of the status quo, hear it as shrieking eels.
They just want the shrieking to stop. They just want people to stop talking about it so they can go back to their lives. You see it all the time when people say, “The only one making this about race is Black people.” I see so many white people who are sick of the race conversation, sick of the privilege conversation. They just want the shrieking to stop so things will be “ok” again.
But they never realized, it wasn’t ok to begin with. We cannot dismantle racism until we notice how complicit we have been in the system, and how our thoughts, words, and actions keep the status quo.
I think that some of the most important work any of us do around this is just that shift in perspective to get someone from “That’s not a problem, you’re overreacting” to acknowledging, “I didn’t see it before. I’m sorry that happened to you.”
Instead of shouting down the Black voices who have stood up to protest the Ferguson shooting and verdict, and instead of shaking our heads at the violence of the rioting, maybe instead we can ask, “What about their lives was so horrific that they would do that?”
“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr.
In general, I support a nonviolent approach to protest. However, I also fully recognize that there is a time when people have been oppressed, and there is no longer patience for diplomacy. For asking for a seat at the table. For waiting for things to change. Here is a great article by Cat Chapin-Bishop that articulates some of why “peace” can become a silencing word.
People of color have faced horrific injustice. And this injustice is built into the system.
I started out this blog post saying I was a racist, because acknowledging my own prejudices helped me to see the places I was keeping that system going, supporting it, feeding it, all while unaware.
Awareness and Change
If we can become aware of the thousand ways we each support that system, we can begin to change it. This change isn’t easy, but it must be done. #BlackLivesMatter is important, and #AllLivesMatter is a distraction. Saying that Black lives matter doesn’t mean that I believe anyone else matters less. It doesn’t mean I’m saying that I no longer support feminism or the rights of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, or trans and genderfluid people.
It means that I’m throwing my focus to an issue that has (and needs) attention right now.
Here’s a secret–solving one problem with discrimination actually inherently helps others, because any time we combat bigotry that helps all the oppressed. It’s not an either/or.
This article is an excellent overview of the many deflections and complaints of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. http://tcorganizer.com/2015/01/16/common-objections-to-the-black-lives-matter-movement/
Pagans and Racism
You might be asking what this has to do with Paganism. First–Pagans, too, face discrimination. What I’d ask is, how can we not have compassion for other minorities and what they go through?
The other is that the broader Pagan community is a lot more racist than you might think. I admit, I have been shocked a few times in the past months to read some of the comment threads out there. I’ll admit, when some of the Black Pagans I know would talk about racism they faced, I used to think, “Gosh, I bet they are just oversensitive.”
Nope. The Ferguson rulings, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the subsequent push for many Pagan organizations to put out statements in support of Black community members, all generated a lot of comment threads on Pagan groups and pages. And I realized how very wrong I was. My Black friends were not oversensitive. They were not overreacting. They were not being melodramatic.
This was real. I watched Pagan voices speaking racist, discriminatory, and bigoted rhetoric.
Here’s a series of events that illustrates the ambient racism within Paganism, if you want to see it in action. First, a number of Pagan organizations began issuing statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter
However, when Covenant of the Goddess released their statement, many Pagans pointed out how inadequate it was, and how it was even phrased in a way that was in fact offensive to Pagans of color. COG later released a revised draft statement and you can read both here.
If you have Facebook, however, a quick read through the comments thread on the original release of the statement reveals a horrific amount of racism.
Crystal Blanton, a Pagan who is a tireless activist for justice for people of color, resigned from Covenant of the Goddess (as did several others) in response to COG’s release of their statement, and explained some of why she did so.
Without going too far into the details, what I have heard from several sources is that people of color in COG offered feedback on the offensiveness of the original statement, and that feedback was ignored. Later, after the statement was released, the main COG discussion list had heated debate on the topic of #BlackLivesMatter and then all discussion of said topics was banned from their list and the conversation was silenced.
I’m not a member of COG, and I respect a lot of what COG has done for the Pagan community over the years, however, I find this to be quite disturbing.
What was, perhaps, more disturbing for me was just in realizing how many Pagans are also racists, and probably don’t even know it. For me, this was a real wake up call, just as it was shocking to me when I realized how often I have acted or spoke in a discriminatory way.
There are plenty of examples of racism in the Pagan community, but you probably won’t see them unless you realize how immersed in racism you already are. So how do we change that? How do we begin to eliminate this systemic racism so that we can each be better allies?
What Can We Do?
First, we can educate ourselves. I am by no means an expert here, I’m still learning. I still find myself horrified at how often I realize I’m coming at things from a racist perspective.
I found that articles on microaggressions were a good resource to begin to understand some of my prejudices as well as harmful behaviors, and to understand that I’ve had a lot of bigoted things come out of my mouth out of ignorance and assumption. Here are a few of them, but just do a Google search on the term.
You might also watch the vidoe of the Pagans of Color panel from the Pagan Activism Conference Online.
Here are a few other articles on things allies can do, or what is offensive to people of color that you may not be aware of, but this is just a brief sampling. The internet is a wide world of resources.
And here are some articles on a Pagan perspective of Ferguson and militarized police:
Our community is starting to gain more resources for Black voices. Crystal Blanton and Immanion Press have released several anthologies, Shades of Faith, Shades of Ritual, and the just-released Bringing Race to the Table, all of which are resources worth exploring.
Why It Matters
Some Pagans say, “This is a Black issue, not a Pagan issue.” What does a Black person hear from that? “You don’t have a place in our community.”
“Press Releases won’t fix anything.” That’s true. But, if Pagan organizations put out big press releases for a marginalized group for something like gay marriage, yet when the Ferguson decisions came in they didn’t speak up in support of Black people, that also says, “You don’t have a place in our community.”
“I don’t have any Black people in my group, why should I bother?” See above.
The below blog post covers a lot of ground. It’s specifically in reaction to the Covenant of the Goddess statement referenced above, but I believe that it’s a great overview of the issue of why this should matter to Pagans.
“denying, dismissing, or ignoring the racial bias in our society, and especially our justice system, is unconscionable. I believe that it is our sacred duty to stand up to and speak out against injustice wherever we may find it, and even more so when that injustice actively harms other people.
Also, here’s an excellent (and concise) example of a statement in support of #BlackLivesMatter on the Bay Area Reclaiming web site http://www.bayareareclaiming.org/solidarity/statement-from-racial-and-gender-justice-circle
Change the System
Black people are threatened by our system. Physically, emotionally, financially threatened. If you’re white, you probably aren’t feeling that threat. But, just because you aren’t feeling it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. When you see a person of color who is angry at the injustice in the system, instead of telling them to calm down, ask yourself, “Why am I not pissed off at the system and fighting too?”
Question your own assumptions. If you’re getting upset that Black protesters stopped traffic or set fire to stores, put yourself in their place. What would you do if Pagans were oppressed in that way? If women were oppressed in that way? Would you want someone telling you, “Now is not the time for anger, now is not the time for violence,” when yet another member of your community was shot and killed unjustly?
I’m not the best person to write about many of the topics that I bring up here. And I’ve made mistakes and said offensive things while trying to be an ally, and I’ll probably do it again. I’m not a perfect ally and I have more to learn. However, as a white person, I can at least offer the perspective of my own slow awakening to realize how much I came at things from a place of privilege, a place of prejudice and bigotry.
It wasn’t a happy awakening.
But, having seen what I cannot now unsee, I can begin to slowly shift my assumptions, my behaviors. I can see how racism plays out in society and within the confines of the Pagan subculture. I can speak out about it and at least bring awareness to it. We can’t change it if we can’t acknowledge our own problems.
Racism is part of our problem. It’s not a Black people problem, it’s a human problem. It’s a Pagan problem too. Will you keep your head buried in denial, or will you work to confront it and dismantle the system one brick at a time?
I want to take a moment to offer a special acknowledgement to Crystal Blanton. She has offered me a lot of perspective and education that helped me to understand what Black people face in general, but in specific, what Black people face in the Pagan community. Many of the thoughts I’ve offered here in this blog post come from things she has posted on her Facebook wall or the ensuing comment threads.
Shauna Aura Knight writes on the topics of community leadership, spiritual transformation, and activism. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path, and Spiritual Scents, as well as a contributor to many magazines and anthologies, as well as a fiction author and fantasy artist. Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, facilitation, leadership, and personal growth.