White Pagans and White Privilege: Four Ways We Could Do Better
Updated: Mar 22, 2019
Note: this post was originally published at A Witch's Path on September 13, 2017.
A month ago, in the wake of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Layla Saad of Wild Mystic Woman wrote a beautiful, impassioned post titled I Need to Talk to Spiritual White Women about White Supremacy. It was moving, and kind, and truthful.
The alt spirituality internet kind of exploded. And Layla, who wrote the article as an act of service, took a lot of flak from spiritual white women for speaking out about white privilege. Over and over again, white women accused her of being hateful and cried out about how they were NOT privileged. Many spiritual people told her she should be more peaceful and positive. (To be fair, many people also thanked her for her heartfelt honesty: that was beautiful. But the outcry from the white spiritual community really got to me.) And while the issue of white supremacy has troubled me since I was a child, seeing the response to this post on racism made me painfully aware of how much white supremacy has permeated our culture, and how those of us who benefit from white privilege are sometimes in denial about it.
White supremacy is a deep and pervasive problem that has infected our culture in more ways than we can possibly understand. But there are some kinds of white privilege specific to our spiritual and magical practices that I've been thinking about and trying to address in my own life. And I think we as a community need to talk about them.
Now before y'all get mad at me and think I'm calling you racist ... I don't know most of you and I don't know if you're racist or not. From what I've seen of the pagan community, most of us believe in equality. Most of us desperately want a more just, peaceful, safe world where people of every description can live happily and well. All of my pagan friends are horrified by the evils of white supremacy. Most of us really wish we knew what to do to make it better. Most of us are good people with good intentions. I believe that. If I didn't believe that, I might not be brave enough to post this. Honestly I'm a little worried about posting it, because I'm afraid I'll be misunderstood, or even worse, that I've got a lot of stuff wrong and I'll make the problem bigger rather than facilitating discussion that leads to understanding. But this has all been on my mind for weeks, and I don't feel like I can keep quiet about it any longer.
So I've made a little list of ways I think we might begin to address the intersection of white paganism and white privilege. My list is neither exhaustive nor authoritative. The items on the list are ranked in no particular order. I may have some things--or a lot of things--wrong. But I want to stop being part of the problem, and try to be part of the solution. I can't do that sitting in my living room scribbling about it in my journal. Examining our privilege isn't enough in and of itself. I know that. But we have to start somewhere, start with what we know ... so here goes: my thoughts on four things we as white pagans can do to acknowledge our privilege and try to do better.
1. We can stop judging people of color for the way they express their feelings about racism. I'll use the wonderful house on fire analogy from Chainsaw Suit to illustrate. If someone runs up to you, waving her arms and screaming "My house is on fire! My children are trapped inside!" maybe the best response isn't "Why can't you just focus on the positive?" or "Why can't you be more PEACEFUL?" Her house is on fire. The mode of her expression doesn't matter: that fire still needs to be put out. Her life and the lives of her loved ones are at stake. We can talk about peaceful self expression when the fire is out.
2. We can examine our language and recognize how much white privilege is embedded in it--especially, I'm afraid, in the language of spirituality. Consider how often the word "darkness" is used to refer to negative feelings or even evil, while "light," is equated with positivity and goodness. How white light is so often viewed as the supreme form of "good" energy. And how often well-intentioned spiritual people insist everyone focus on the light.
I understand this language isn't technically about race. But it IS part of a cultural pattern of either/or thinking, which easily leads to us/them attitudes. And white supremacy is the ultimate us/them ideology. So maybe there's another, more nuanced way to look at the spiritual world beyond light and dark--especially for us pagan folk. How often have we found healing in the dark, and transformation through facing--and even embracing--our shadows? Maybe we can learn to see "light" and "dark" simply as different, equally valuable aspects of existence. Maybe the spiritual community can emphasize less polarizing spiritual metaphors. I've talked before about the advantages of elemental thinking: that's one possibility available to us. I'm sure there are many others. It could be joyful work to seek them out.
3. We can check our practices for cultural appropriation. In my mind this is one of the biggest problems in the pagan community. And I get it: we're trying to piece together a spirituality from shards of our destroyed heritage. So we observe other cultures who have managed to preserve a little more of their spiritual heritage for clues about what a pagan practice looks like. And to a certain extent this is reasonable: many cultures borrow from each other. Open exchange can be healthy and mutually beneficial.
But there are a couple of problems with how the neopagan community sometimes goes about the process of engaging with other cultures' spiritual traditions.
First, sometimes there's a tendency among pagans to treat the spiritual traditions of the world like a closet full of outfits and accessories there for our amusement. "Oh today I think I'd like to wear smudge stick earrings, an African goddess for a hat, a stole of Hoodoo practices." We use sacred ceremonies and deities as tools for spells. We treat the gods as correspondences. To my mind this is disrespectful to both the deities and sacred practices AND to the cultures they come from. Does that mean we absolutely can't borrow practices from other cultures? To be honest I don't know. I think we might start by getting to know the cultures we intend to borrow from; try to understand the context of this practice or god we want to work with, and more importantly, find out from that culture how its members feel about our borrowing.
I want to be clear here that I'm not talking about embracing a spiritual tradition you are called to but might not have been born into. That's a more complicated issue and one I don't feel qualified to address. I'm addressing the specific habit some pagans have of drawing willy nilly from many spiritual traditions as if we're buying ingredients for a meal at an international grocery store.
Second--and even more importantly--many of the cultures we wish to borrow from are oppressed cultures. And those cultures were oppressed by OUR ancestors, and they are still being exploited by our government and our fellow white people. We've taken too much from these cultures already. We don't have a right to take more, especially without permission and approval from those cultures. White people have assumed for far too long that everything we see is ours for the taking--especially if it belongs to people of color. This is an ugly dynamic. I hate for us to perpetuate it in the name of spiritual growth. Does that mean the religious systems of all people of color are off limits to white people? I don't know. I think we should ask the people who belong to those religious systems. And then respect their answers.
I know many of us at this point are thinking "yeah but I'm not the government, I'm not the oppressor." Maybe that's true. But it doesn't matter. What matters now is making it right. What matters now is working to dismantle the system of privilege; and we can't dismantle it with one hand while defending it with the other. Which leads me to:
4. We can check our privilege. We as a community sometimes feel marginalized because we follow a spiritual path that is still viewed with suspicion, hostility or skepticism (or a combination of the three) by a large percentage of the population. And it's true there are some privileges we don't enjoy as fully as, say, our middle class protestant cousin. But a) If we are white, we have privilege. We need to acknowledge it if we're going to heal. We can't fix something we won't admit exists. And b) It's not a contest. When a person of color says something about her experience of oppression, it's not an invitation to white women or white pagans to point out how we aren't all that privileged. It's not a competition to see whose oppression is worse. Instead of responding with "but I'm oppressed too!", we could respond with empathy and offer support in whatever way we can. Acknowledging the struggles of people of color doesn't negate our own struggles.
I'm no expert on all of this. I'm not some shining example of how to be a good ally. Not yet. But I want to learn. I want to do better. Maybe we can do it together.
More resources on examining white privilege, and why it's important:
Ever Been Told to ‘Check Your Privilege?’ Here’s What That Really Means at Everyday Feminism
5 Ways to Check Your White Privilege at Bustle
On Racism and White Privilege at Tolerance.org
11 Things White People Can Do to Be Real Anti-Racist Allies at Alternet