black witch: “the invisibility cloak: race and the pagan”
January 13, 2012
Awwww yeeeaaahh. A topic I’ve been meaning to get at for a long ol’ time. I was just reading a book I had recently gotten, The Magical Household: Spells & Rituals for the Home, penned by Scott Cunningham and David Harrington. I kinda wanna take it back to the store. I bought it because I just recently moved into a new apartment and I was so stoked about it that I pretty much bought practically any crap that was witchy and pertained to it. I would have purified my cat if there was some home warming spell asking for that if I didn’t check myself at least a little bit. I don’t have many books on the Craft or on Paganism itself and The Magical Household reminded me why: It’s “too White” (!).
Words by Black Witch
Yes, the book claims and actually does talk about spells from different cultures such as Chinese culture and Native American culture, even Raymond Buckland said that “[It is] a delightful compendium of bits and pieces of folklore gleaned from Europe, China, Hawaii, and other parts of the world.” That’s really nice of him and it’s a little true, I see references to Chinese goddesses and Native American rituals to keep your home clean and totally absent of astral nasties here and there. The book was made in 1983 so I guess I shouldn’t expect so much “inclusivity” but it still strikes me nonetheless. The mentions of different cultures are kind of glance-overs instead of in-depth looks at the spells and rituals from the culture, it is clear the book is very much western. When mentioning anything African, it relies on the go-to of Egypt as if A) It’s not a country in Africa and B) That can check Africa off the list of continents represented in the book. I’m sure part of this is ease for the reader because you can’t just post a Chinese house clearing ritual without needing something Chinese and potentially inaccessible. Plus, too much focus on any “exotic” culture and it would suck pretty fast.It is far too common that just about any book in Paganism (or simply mainstream anything) is written from the White perspective. White, middle class (or middle-upper class), but at least the gender reflection in modern Pagan writings is a little better than the mainstream given that women have strong voices in the movement. But that’s probably where the “diversity of Paganism” culture stops.
If you’re a minority in Paganism, it is very bright and clear that unless you’re a picture on the wall, you’re probably not going to get represented in any well-rounded way and shouldn’t expect it. The common face of Paganism is White and suburban and the current expressions of it are very well rooted in White culture and most of White hegemony. For many minority Pagans, that means dealing with being thrusted into White culture whether they like it or not – or just study alone and remember that the author doesn’t mean it but they probably assume you’re White.
Just because someone is part of a different religion doesn’t mean they’re potentially any less of a douche in the race and culture department. Thanks to the invisible knapsack of White privilege, it throws an invisibility cloak over minorities. To keep from going too broad, I’m going to focus primarily on the Black Pagan issues as different minorities have different issues depending on how White culture decided to shape them in the eyes of the public and mental landscape of society. You see, I’ve learned through experience and hearing the experiences of others that Pagans love rooting for the underdog – I mean, we are one so it makes sense right? So stories of things happening to minorities anywhere in the world is terrible and tear jerking, right? Even issues that happen in their own home country such as America or the UK, there is an “Oh, some people are awful” kind of reaction. Y’know, as if racism exists in a vacuum and only shows itself when a lynching occurs and stuff like that. As long as there’s no voice from the side of the minority, it’s a one-sided show that can sometimes turn into a near circle jerk of “Well, we’re Pagans! We’re better than that. Those Christians! How dare they! Another sordid testament to the religion itself. What meanies. We would never act like that, the Goddess says love all!”
Let the minority open its mouth, even criticize Pagans and their shortcomings in the culture department and watch that cooing and sympathy drop quick. All of a sudden, it’s “We’re being attacked” and rationalizing ahoy. Talk about some of the humanitarian issues in this nation and how it disproportionally affects minorities and the working class, they’ll claim it’s from not doing enough hard work – this is America, after all. (Yeah, how that occupying working out for you?) Mention words like “institutional racism”, “tokenization” and “privilege” and up come the defenses. I’ve dealt with a stunning variety of Pagan women or Pagan men who thought they don’t benefit at allfrom any form of institutional anything and definitely not privilege because they’re Pagan, bigotry only benefits you if you’re Christian and Christian only. That, as Pagans, they’ve dealt with all sorts of historical bigotry that my race could not fathom such as the Burning Times, the Salem Witch Trials and the loss of some useful occult texts. Yup. I totes wouldn’t know – or maybe I would since I am Pagan. Though, I have never gotten a Walking While Pagan so maybe the jury is out on that one.
Yep. The colonization of Africa, which is still reeling from the effects to this very day, unlike Europe; the clear problems in race and police politics which are usually brutal and baseless against a minority with a bad rep that have always existed and has existed to this very day; a nearly whole cultural wipeout via systematic psychological, mental, physical and emotional destruction of a whole race that still exists to this very day cannot at all sum up to the prejudice that was incurred in Europe and the New World by those of European descent. Not trying to make this a Suffering Olympics but to be honest, it is pretty unfair to assume that what Pagans are enduring in America is worse than what other minorities have endured and not only but guess what? That assumption ignores the intersection of minorities who are Pagan. It ignores what Black Pagans have to deal with since they have a combo of two separate cultures that has to endure harsh prejudices (Black, Pagan) and how it will intersect within the cultures they reside in, the Black Pagan can easily become an outcast twice over: Blacks won’t get along with them because they “turned their back on Christ” and Pagans aren’t sure how to take them because as most Pagans are White, so will be their perceptions on the Black Pagan’s race. Oh joy.
This leaves a lot of Black Pagans in limbo about their faith. I’ve gotten letters from several readers where they said they thought they were the only ones who were Black and Pagan or said that since they found a Black Pagan publication, they are going to be a little more open-minded about the religion instead of brushing it off as “weird things White people do”. If you don’t see it, you can’t be it – this is the foundation of a lot of Black Pagans who are on the fence about their beliefs because no one wants to give up their culture for a religion – something, at face value, it appears to be when it comes to Paganism. No one wants to be the cultural ambassador, no one wants to willingly deal with racial tension, no one wants to meet subvert racism face first and be forced to deal with it. They probably do that already, why add to the pile? Here comes the assumptions of reclaiming African faith (because if you’re Black, why ever would you experience another culture?), that you’ve just hopped down from their television set and everything the tv told them about you is taken as fact (but in the same breath will bristle if you assume the same for Pagans), to be patronized about your culture (“I love Black people!”, “You’re not like other Black people”, “I wish more Bla – I mean African-Americans – were like you.”) and other thoroughly annoying nonsense, all for wanting to practice your faith as you see fit.
Then there’s the cultural swagger jacking that is very prevalent in Paganism. So many White people thinking that they can relate to Egyptians, Native Americans, Africans, Asians (preferably Chinese or Japanese) – or that if they try reeeeeeally hard enough, they’ll be one. Its official name is cultural misappropriation (it’s also “cultural appropriation” but “misappropriation” sounds more accurate to me) but you can call it being a culture vulture or cultural swagger jackers. These people love Isis like there’s no tomorrow, but can’t seem to get her skin color right. And they think all Egyptians have been the same since the pyramids. Ask them about Egyptian politics, culture and history and you’re either going to get a downpour of whitewashed bullsh*t or just naïve chatter. They feel Isis in their heart, though! No need to pay attention to what the humans (who are directly related to the culture the White, Western Pagan is trying to jack for their own needs) are doing. They may instead feel close to the earth and practice Native American rituals (*koff*incorrectly*koff*) but call Occupy Wall St “Decolonize Wall St” and prepare to be pegged a rabble rouser and told “We’re all Americans. It’s really sad what happened to them but they have casinos now! And they’re so beautiful!” Yah, maybe their spirit guide should point them to some official stats on life on a reservation and the grandest form of jacking anyone of anything ever done in American history – if not world history. What happened to Native Americans wasn’t simply swagger jacking, that was an outright, government-sanctioned heist. Then you have most Asian acknowledgement in Paganism is rife with Orientalism. Asians are supposed to have this mysterious culture that science just can’t get a hold of. Asia is this place of exotic mystery and mystique. As long as Asians don’t speak, they’re pretty and have such a calm around them. White Pagans will eat this up in a heartbeat – think of how many Pagans you have met that talk about yin and yang, Buddhism (but they only know about Buddha/Siddhartha, Kwan Yin and whatever kung fu movies mention), Chinese dragons (but suck at the different Asian lores – yep, not all Asian dragons, and lores, look and act alike), and other forms of Orientalism – but ask them about the Monkey King or even what China was going through during the 18thcentury and how do they feel about Japan constantly crapping on Korea throughout history, expect to be met with stares. Then there are the African adaptations (and severe Whitewashing) in mainstream Paganism. Talk about the beautiful rituals in the sub-Sahara but couldn’t tell me anything about kente cloth and doesn’t understand that African thinking, almost regardless of what diaspora it is, is going to be a little hard to grasp if you’re a cultural outsider because Africa developed differently than Europe (and had all the cool stuff before Europe pillaged it). They look at African gods and goddesses but are entirely disrespectful of the history and culture that sits behind them from the native spirits in Africa to the Orishas in the Americas to even the cultural conducts in even African-American culture. Snatch and grab of culture, pretty much.
When faced with such disdainful perspectives that on the surface are very kind and open but based on having the ability and privilege of looking at history from the colonizer’s side they’re not noticing what they’re doing and no, the White Pagan of today doesn’t own slaves, force Asians to build them railways and pay them in opium, perform a mass genocide of a native race or were the people who destroyed the nose of the Sphinx via cannon fire but blindly walking around in the privilege that every culture is – and should be – an open book for them to study and take what they want while leaving nothing behind except a pretty pissed off race is no better. Nothing is wrong with exchanging information and learning something new, but something is definitely wrong with trying to get info from another culture for one’s personal gain and then force said culture to assimilate the parts that aren’t so well liked. Asia, Africa and the Americas are treated like specimens to be examined. Isis should be Black or at least Middle Eastern, not White. (Heck, Jesus Christshould look Middle Eastern. Kinda hard to be White and living pretty much a stone’s throw away from Iraq rather than a stone’s throw from France. As in, if Rick Perry saw Him, he’d scream for Homeland Security to take away the terrorist.) Buddha isn’t a funky trinket, he’s not even a god and wouldn’t even want to be, he’s a prince that learned the truth of the world and “made right” the errors of his actions the hard way. The gods of Voudun do pick those who want to work on them but I don’t think they would pick so many people who look (and sometimes subconsciously think) like the very people who oppressed them and persecuted their followers if they didn’t pick the awfully White-looking Middle Eastern guy.
Being Pagan, it’s a lot like being an American. Anyone can be an American, regardless of race, creed, gender, sexuality or background – but there is one face of America that is often touted and if your skin is darker than your newspaper, you’re not it. Same with Paganism. Behind the “Come one, come all” lip service that is often touted, it’s got an undercurrent mentality that any minority isn’t aware of, it will take them in a riptide away from a really decent faith. In other words: Being Pagan doesn’t mean you’re infallible of making the same cultural slipies that the mainstream society makes so often. Just ask Occupy. Simply be mindful and well-researched of other beliefs and keep respectful to them – and the people around you. Not everyone likes being invisible. Or occupied.
And must I say “Not All White Pagans Are Like That?” Lol, just read NALT.
Black Witch is monthly on Afro-Punk but a weekly stint on Black Witch WordPress site. Other ways to stay in touch with the latest columns such as The Arts features and Ask Black Witch:
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