Yesterday Pantheacon ended. Pantheacon is the largest Pagan conference and has almost 3,000 attendees and takes place in San Jose every year. I’m posting this a day late because I’ve been at the conference and wanted to write about activism within the Pagan community and specifically on activism-related issues that come up at Pantheacon.
Several years ago, Pantheacon was rocked by the exclusion of transgender women from one of the women’s rituals, and that controversy rippled out (and is still rippling) across the broader Pagan community.
This weekend I was proud to be part of a panel discussing racism within the community. Unfortunately, that panel began on a sour note as I learned that there had been something hurtful and racist written in one of the various newsletters distributed at Pantheacon.
Pantheacon runs from Friday through Monday, though I arrived on Thursday night so that I wasn’t a zombie on Friday for my workshop. The extra time gave me the opportunity to meet up with some folks that I hadn’t yet had the chance to connect with, so that’s a good thing. This is my third year attending Pantheacon, and I still feel like a bit of a newbie. While Pagans do fly in from all over, there aren’t a huge number of people from the Midwest, and it’s taken me a few years to get to know people.
I’m grateful beyond words for many of the folks I’ve met who are social justice activists, and this year I had the opportunity to get to know more people doing that work. Sadly, getting to know more of these activists came about because of incidents of racism here at the convention.
I was invited to be part of the panel discussion themed around the new anthology, Bringing Race to the Table. As I mentioned in my last post, I had been hesitant about writing for the anthology.
What could I, a white Pagan, offer to the anthology?
In fact, most of us on the panel were white. Many of the people of color who contributed to the anthology weren’t able to attend Pantheacon. I felt fairly awkward being there, but I committed to doing a lot of listening.
Earlier that day, it turns out that a newsletter had been circulated at Pantheacon. “Pantycon” is a satire newsletter that has cropped up over the years at Pantheacon. My understanding is that, at one time, it was a joke put out by the staff. This particular edition was not published by the staff, and contained a fake workshop description:
“Ignoring Racism: A Workshop for White Pagans
Large Umbrella Pagan Group
Isn’t all this talk of social justice and racism just tiring? Don’t you wish you could just ignore it and put out meaningless statements of pure pablum? We’ll discuss how to ignore requests for consideration by pagans of color, cover up racist actions of high-ranking members, and pretend that you don’t understand the resulting outrage. Remember, #AllLivesMatter, except when it’s uncomfortabe or inconvenient.
Large Umbrella Pagan Group has been around for long enough that they think they can get away with this stuff.”
Pantheacon has an anti-harassment policy (and I’ll link to that or post it once I’m not typing this on a tablet). In fact, many groups, including Coru Cathbodua, incorporated statements of safety into their work this year. Many of the hospitality suites incorporated #Blacklivesmatter into statements posted on their doors, or simply posted the statement on their door.
The head of Programming attended the Bringing Race to the Table panel and responded to the outrage against what was posted in the Pantycon newsletter, stating that the staff was actively investigating to find out who wrote it, and if/when they found out who wrote it, that person would be ejected from the conference for violating the harassment policy.
For clarity, the paragraph seems intended to poke at COG (Covenant of the Goddess) which has a large presence at Pantheacon but released a poorly-worded statement that was supposed to be in support of #BlackLivesMatter but included enough coded racism terms that several people left COG in protest.
Some of you are probably thinking, wow. People are being way oversensitive about this satirical newsletter.
Pagans, Racism, and Privilege
As a white person, I find more and more that I come to any of these discussions with this invisible blanket of privilege. I so frequently do not understand the hurt because it’s not a life experience I’ve ever faced. And that’s one of my continuing takeaways from this, that I have so much more to examine in my own behaviors and autopilot assumptions.
What I did know is that this statement caused harm. It triggered people of color, particularly in the wake of the Covenant of the Goddess’s poorly-written statement that I referenced above and in my last blog post for Pagan Activist.
The head of programming for Pantheacon said that a workshop had been canceled on Monday morning at 11 am, and opened up that space for people of color to host a followup session.
I would offer that it’s rare for an event to be able to (or willing to) switch programming like that, and I laud Pantheacon for being accommodating.
Over the course of the weekend, I had already planned to attend several other social justice related workshops and panels. I attended Rhyd Wildermuth and Alley Valkyrie’s workshop on anti-captitalism and also the panel discussion on cultural appropriation. I had originally intended to attend a different workshop on Monday at 11, but, as an ally and someone who is an activist for social justice, I felt it was important to be at the session.
Space was offered for anyone present to speak about their experience. There was a large open space and a double rung of chairs, and a microphone. I sat and listened for two hours. I cried. I felt nauseated, and I found myself asking over and over, “Is that real? Does that really happen?”
I heard that many people of color at the convention felt unsafe just walking from one workshop to another through the halls and had set up a buddy system of escorts. I heard that white people walked by the Pagans of Color hospitality suite and would hiss, “Racists!” implying that by making a safe space for Pagans of Color, those POC were somehow racist against white people.
As several people of color spoke into the microphone about their experiences and the pain they had suffered, white people sometimes interrupted them and spoke over them. I learned terms like “code switching” and heard a clarification on the concept of “white women tears.” (Google them.)
To get back to why the published paragraph was so problematic, here are a few things to consider:
- There is satire, and there is “horribly triggering,” and the writer has to be fluent enough to know the difference,
- Satire is only funny if it’s understood by everyone that it is satire (and in this case, some white Pagans thought that this was a real workshop and wanted to attend it),
- Satire fails when the people writing it don’t understand all the issues.
Many of the POC in the room articulated that, after all the work they had done to build a safe place for a marginalized minority within the Pagan community, particuarly at Pantheacon, that they feel they are having to start all over. That so many incidents of racism (the paragraph in Pantycon and other incidents) have shown them how racist the community is.
Even during the session, one white man stood up to speak and–even in what I believe was a genuine desire on his part to find out ways to make his organization less racist and discriminatory–spoke in a way that took up too much space and was triggering and derailing to the conversation at hand. He was asked to sit down and many people present offered him immediate and public feedback on his behavior.
Racism is Threaded Through Paganism
Too many of us utter the words, “Maybe you misinterpreted what you read,” or, “Maybe you got the wrong tone.” Heck, I did it. I still do it. I try to catch myself, but over and over I have to realize that I grew up in a very different America from a person of color.
I exist in a different Pagan community from a person of color.
Nobody has ever come over to me when I came to a Pagan event and said, “You shouldn’t be here, you should be working with the Egyptian Gods, not the Celtic ones.” Nobody has ever mistaken me for a maid or janitor when I attended a Pagan event. Nobody has ever appropriated my cultural traditions and told me, “Well, white Europeans lost our cultural traditions so I get to use yours without your permission.”
One woman spoke about how incensed she was that her white Pagan friends did not post about or speak up about what happened in Ferguson. Several people were visibly upset as they spoke out the names of the dead, of the young black men murdered by police. They asked the question that I can best sum up as, “White Pagans, why don’t you care about our dead children?”
That is a piece that has sat most heavily with me. Because when Ferguson happened, I didn’t write about it at first either. Granted, I don’t have a TV and I didn’t find out about it for a while, but once I did, I didn’t have the visceral connection to those dead men. Why not?
Why didn’t I care? Why wasn’t I outraged?
I’m not typically an emotional person, in fact, I often struggle with feeling emotion at all. But I thought, what would I do if a young Pagan was killed every 28 hours? If Pagans were pulled over by the police, incarcerated at the levels that Black people are? What would I do if I knew that Pagan parents had to caution their children to not wear a pentacle because they could be shot?
I would be livid. I would be out in the streets and screaming and begging for allies. I would be wondering, how can you not be angry about this?
And I realized the core of it. I didn’t see those young Black men as part of my community. They weren’t part of “my” bubble. Black children are “them,” not “us” in the way that Pagans would feel instinctively like “us” to me.
And that’s something I’m going to work to change within myself.
Bridging the Connections
Every time I start to think that a person of color is emotionally overreacting to something, I’m going to put myself in their shoes in the best way that I can. I’m going to imagine, what if someone said that about a Pagan?
Now that I know more what to look for, I see racism threaded throughout the Pagan community. Most of the time it’s aversive racism–ambient racism learned through culture–but sometimes it’s right in your face racism. The Pagan community is just like everyone else. We have our sexual predators, and we have people who discriminate against gay and lesbian community members, against transgender and genderfluid community members, and against our community members who are people of color.
So many of us came to Paganism because it was the safe refuge where we finally felt we found “home,” only to find that it was just as abusive and discriminatory as everywhere else.
If we want to change our communities, it’s going to take work. I’m going to lovingly call out the people that I work with who are racist, even if they aren’t intending to be racist. And I hope that my allies will lovingly call me out as well. I’m going to listen and learn and work to understand. I’m going to work to make my own workshops, rituals, and other events as a safe place for people of color just as I’ve worked to make them safe and inclusive for GLBTQ folks.
And what I ask of you, specifically of those of you reading this who are white, is to listen. To check your assumptions. To not brush off the concerns of people of color. To listen and learn. I don’t know all the answers here and this is a big, systemic problem, but I want to be part of making spaces safer for our more marginalized community members.
I’ll be posting more on this topic in the future, and probably a blog post just on the conversation from the cultural appropriation panel over on my main blog once I’m back home and at a real keyboard.
The session on Monday morning ended with a powerful emotional expression of pain from the people of color present. Those of us who are not people of color stood witness to this, and it shook me to my bones. There is pain in the world, my friends. There is so much pain.
And we can either work to make this world better through our words and actions, or we can support the current system through our silence.
Here are a few links that I collected that offer further resources and information on this topic.
https://heathenchinese.wordpress.com/2015/02/19/on-misinterpreted-satire/ For satire to work, the audience has to be able to get the joke. Here’s a great historical example of failed satire.
Podcast: Panel discussion, Bringing Race to the Table