Saturday, September 21, 2013

On Paganism's Diversity Problem I: Self-Describedly Colorblind Pagans

A while ago I went to a Pagan Pride Day event, and while like most Pagan events I certainly had a good time, there was also should I call it an "awkward" workshop.  Although I tried to speak up as much as I could, there are a lot of things preventing me from being articulate in an environment like that (empathy in an environment filled with anger and defensiveness makes me stutter incoherently) and so I'm supplementing it with some essays because it's an important subject.

Let me start by saying that, Pagans, we have a diversity problem.  And yes, at the risk of sounding antagonistic, I have some fucking problems with that problem.

This is something that almost immediately results in defensiveness whenever I bring it up, especially from the "Pagan-but-otherwise-super-privileged" (white, heterosexual Pagan men) who in true-to-privilege form believe that their maleness in a mostly-female and more-queer-people-than-usual environment makes them oppressed there.  I'll talk more about the numeric biases we have regarding this when I talk about gender and sexuality.  First I'm going to talk about race.

There were a lot of things said on Saturday that blow my mind more and more whenever I think about them.  I'm going to address a few of these statements before talking about a few things that can be done to begin remedying this situation.

"Pagans in general are of European descent and practicing European traditions, that's why there's mostly Europeans here."

It baffles me how few Pagans--at least Eclectic Pagans and Neo-Wiccans--in the United States really understand just how much the traditions of people of color have influenced our beliefs.  Black people here have had full-fledged magical traditions since long before Gerald Gardner came on the scene in Britain.  And if you look, there aren't that many major Pagan vendors that don't also stock supplies developed in predominantly black spiritual traditions... often without mentioning where they even came from.  A huge number of Pagans worship ancient Egyptian deities, especially Bast and Isis.  Belly dance--a Middle Eastern art form--is super-common.  And when it comes to Asian traditions?  Holy shit.  Unless you're attending the Supreme Rally of Hardcore Reconstructionists (fuck... even if you are) you're very likely to encounter some form of Asian spiritual influence, often presented as though it's totally universal and generic.  I had a woman during a workshop on ancient Egyptian religion ask me in all seriousness how chakras work into the Egyptian concept of the soul, and that's not to mention all the yoga, meditation types clearly inspired by Buddhism and Hinduism, auras, et. al.

In addition, there are practitioners of for example African Diasporic traditions that identify as Pagan.  Plenty don't, and that should certainly be validated, but when you come from a mashup of traditions like we do, why are there people who just assume that a practitioner of Vodou can't identify as Pagan?  Or an Aztec Reconstructionist?

The idea that Pagans are as a whole basically practicing European religions is laughable at this point.  You know what else is laughable?  That white Pagans can basically grab, grab, grab from whatever culture they want to while people largely say nothing about it (that's listened to), but Pagans of color are expected to stick with faiths developed by their own race.  Yes, there are Asian Celtic Reconstructionists.  Yes, there are black Norse Reconstructionists.  There are Middle Eastern Wiccans.  So even mentioning that most of us at least think we're practicing European traditions is a moot point... so are people of color.

(Going to mention on an aside that if you decide to say something like this and add your personal ancestry to the question as if it's totes the only reason you practice the way you do, get the fuck away from me because I don't want to talk to you.)

"The reason there are no people of color here is because we're in central Wisconsin which is like really white anyway."

Oh dear.  People really have it in their heads that a metropolitan area in Wisconsin is so super white that there couldn't possibly be Pagans of color there.  This is a pretty standard problem... white people tend to cloister ourselves with other white people through our residential choices as well as historical institutional racism affecting access to living spaces.  It's easy to think that any city is "super white" if you never venture out of predominantly white communities, which most white people never do.

I actually was a door-to-door canvasser in this very city.  There absolutely are plenty of people of color living there.

How many of them are Pagan-identified?  I don't know.  I have met black and Asian Pagans in this area.  So they exist, the problem is understanding why they don't show up.  The answer to that is often--although certainly not always--discomfort caused by the ignorant shit white people tend to say about the subject.

"I know a ____ who is OK with appropriation."

One of the issues we talked about was cultural appropriation.  Talking about this is a really difficult thing in the Pagan community because there is virtually no way to practice Paganism without appropriating something, and like all general population folk it's hard to get the idea of "white people appropriating and people of color appropriating are exactly equal and anyone who says otherwise is a meanie reverse racist" out of their heads... not to mention this variation on the "minority friend" argument actually does have something of value to it:  No.  Not all people of color have the same beliefs about cultural appropriation.  Some even wind up valuing depictions usually considered offensive (like team mascots based on Native Americans) because they're so underrepresented in mainstream society that they consider less-than-ideal depictions to be better than no representation at all.

If I were to give you My Own OpinionTM?  It's OK to validate feelings like that.  It's also OK to participate (by invitation) in things like this when they're put on by community members (for instance, a pow-wow that invites all attendees to participate in a dance).  What isn't OK is assuming that this means there's a consensus among members of that community, and what really isn't OK is assuming that the person of color who says what you want to hear is automatically the right one.

"If we just stop talking about this, racism is solved."

If I had to bring up one thing that appalled me most about this entire dreadful experience, it's the number of white people who went into broken-record mode to explain why talking about racism is making racism worse (and then proceeded to derail the conversation into something about news stations pointing out that the killer was black, I kind of hazed out at this point).

Alright, white people, seriously.  I know what you're trying to get at.  What passes for racial tolerance education among whites trains you into thinking pointing out race is inherently racist and everything would be solved if we just ignored everyone's race.

Here's the problem, though:  Refusing to acknowledge race altogether is also refusal to acknowledge racism.  White people love saying things like "Saying black people are more likely to be poor is racist stereotyping!"  We love saying such things because it releases us from the obligation of understanding reasons why black people may be more likely to be poor (spoiler alert: white people).  The activists of the Civil Rights Movement would have gotten absolutely nowhere if they hadn't talked about race.  Neither will we.  So seriously.  Stop saying this.  There's no validity to it.  None.

News flash: Racism already exists.  "Being the change you wish to see in the world" is a cute saying that works a lot of the time but not when "being the change you wish to see" means not talking about important issues.  If every anti-racist (or pretend anti-racist) just stopped talking about it, all that would happen is open racists would have the floor.

"I can't be held responsible for what my ancestors did!"

I already wrote about this.  You actually do benefit from what your ancestors did, so you do have a responsibility.

In addition I think it's important to understand that we aren't just talking about what our ancestors did... we're talking about common things said and done by current Pagans at Pagan gatherings that drive away Pagans of color.  If you read the articles I linked below (which you should) you'll find that Pagans of color experience everything from assumptions about what Pagan faith they practice to harassment by white nationalists and folkish "I'm racialist not racist but no I'm really quite racist" white-exclusive-practitioner types.

Speaking of which, there were more of those in attendance than there were people of color.  I'm not shitting you.  There were at least four people who I have personally experienced saying what are essentially white nationalist Pagan beliefs or posting it on the Internet.  We're excruciatingly tolerant of racism when it's not called racism.

So what do we do about that?  There are quite a few things.

First, it should be mentioned that actively recruiting Pagans of color isn't necessarily a good answer.  The reason is that people of color who don't go to such events often do so because they're really uncomfortable with the way they are treated.  If you recruit--especially without doing anything else--you wind up intentionally throwing people into oppressive and uncomfortable situations and calling that "diversity."  It's more important long-term to deal with the racism among white Pagans than it is to try encouraging people of color to attend.

One of the first things you can do as a white Pagan?  Educate yourself on the subject.  You don't need to be mining Pagans of color in your life for information (educating you is not their responsibility, although be receptive when they do bring up concerns!), but luckily for you this has been written about on several occasions by several different people.  Focus on things written by actual people of color and not things written by white people (for an example, you should put more stock in the links I have below than in this blog entry).  There is an anthology called "Shades of Faith" that's a good start.  A couple other articles I found that you don't need to buy to read:
Being Black and Pagan
Being An Ally Versus Being A Nice Person
Social Unrest and the Reflections of People of Color
Things I Wish White Pagans Realized
My Observations And Experiences as a Pagan Woman of Color

Daughters of Eve (which hosts some of those essays) has a lot of blog posts by Pagan women of color.
For one that lists things that can be (have been) done to support this, there's Ways that Pantheacon 2013 Supported Change for Pagans of Color

Have anti-harassment policies at your events and in your groups... and enforce them.  Realize that people of color practicing European traditions regularly get shit from white practitioners for not being white (one of the examples linked includes a person who was spit on for practicing Norse Recon).  Realize that people of color practicing traditions from their own ancestry also regularly get shit from white practitioners for making a big deal about race (race is a big deal) or preferring to practice out of the gaze of white people.  Don't tolerate it.  Don't act as though harassment is worthwhile free speech.  Boot harassers the hell out the door.  If it causes a bunch of racialists to leave in protest, consider it a win.

Pay attention to what your advertising is like.  Is it diverse?  Is your idea of "diversity" appropriative?  I mean, don't take this as an endorsement of the book, but the original cover of Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation by Silver Ravenwolf is edging closer to what a diverse advertisement for a Pagan something could look like (Not that it's perfect by any means.  Also I believe in later editions they decided to switch out the rambunctious multi-racial crew with a single white woman. Sigh.).  For instance, putting an image of a Native American in full pow-wow garb on an advertisement is just not the same thing as a picture of a Wiccan or other Pagan of color or a group of Pagans that includes Pagans of color.  Are you using white-washed pictures of Deities or only European deities?  Although it's a mistake to assume a person of color also worships Deities of color, it's important that Deities are represented as diverse, too.  Where are you advertising?  Not all publications reach people of color, so you may want to look into advertising in more than just mainstream local publications.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of an everpresent problem, and not all of the things-to-do I've pointed out will apply at all times.  What's really important though is to point out that this really is a problem... and yes, it really is a problem here.