A few days ago T. Thorn Coyle wrote about her experience hosting a panel
on Pagans and Privilege at PantheaCon this year. Crystal Blanton, the editor of Shades of Faith: Minority Voices in Paganism, sat on the panel. These women are my heros! In print and in public they have started the conversation we have to have about racism in the magical communities.
Yesterday Nadireh Adeye posted an article titled “Being an Ally Versus Being a Nice Person”. It’s an expansion of a thought in her article “Shedding in Creation” in Shades of Faith, where she said, “I strongly believe it is every person’s responsibility to educate themselves and share what they know with those around them.”
Reading Shades of Faith is a good start on that education. At the Esoteric Book Conference in 2011 I sat at the booth where I was holding the launch party for The Woman Magician and read the anthology end to end. I had the dual experience of being triumphantly proud of having confronted sexism in the magical communities, and being deeply ashamed that I had not yet confronted racism in the magical communities or in myself.
Adeye says, “Being an ally means willing to be uncomfortable, being willing to be wrong…” I’ve been publically confronted about my lack of sensitivity around my own privilege as a European American. It’s hard not to react defensively in the heat of the moment, and I wish I had done better, but it’s important to stay with the conversation and not hide from those revelations. I found that there were people who rushed to my defense and that made me even more uncomfortable. It is important to confront privilege and people who have spoken up to me were brave, and right.
Adeye showed me the way to improving my responses: to educate myself and work to educate other people of privilege. This is exactly what woman feminists ask our male allies to do. So after EBC 2011 I spent two weeks on retreat reading a stack of books about “race”. Here are a few thing I took away from that study.
What is race?
Here is a pop quiz: how many races are there? Four – white, black, red, and yellow, right? Well, the “racial” sub-categories came from the cataloger Carl Linnaeus, who divided humans into Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, Europaeus. Today this system is called “Scientific Racism” and is discredited science. Here is what the NIH: says today: “…research reveals that Homo sapiens is one continuously variable, inter-breeding species. Ongoing investigation of human genetic variation has even led biologists and physical anthropologists to rethink traditional notions of human racial groups. The amount of genetic variation between these traditional classifications actually falls below the level that taxonomists use to designate subspecies, the taxonomic category for other species that corresponds to the designation of race in Homo sapiens.” Translation: there is only one human race, homo sapiens sapiens.
Why categorize humans into races?
Slavery isn’t new, but, says the United Nations, “The racial nature of this triangular trade between Africa, Europe and the Americas also sets it apart. The trade was supported by a racist ideology that saw white people as being the most perfectly developed and blacks as being at the bottom of the ladder.” Scientific racism was used to justify American slavery. It’s ugly, and it persists for the same reason, to perpetuate privilege.
What does slavery buy a country?
Economic dominance. Sven Beckert & Seth Rockman lay this out in How Slavery Led to Modern Capitalism: “The U.S. won its independence from Britain just as it was becoming possible to imagine a liberal alternative to the mercantilist policies of the colonial era. Those best situated to take advantage of these new opportunities — those who would soon be called “capitalists” — rarely started from scratch, but instead drew on wealth generated earlier in the robust Atlantic economy of slaves, sugar and tobacco.” The cotton gin arguably established America’s industrial dominance, an industry resting on free labor.
Slavery is in the past, right? We’re over it.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 overturned the Jim Crow “separate but equal” rules that perpetuated the black underclass, didn’t it? “The clock has been turned back on racial progress in America, though scarcely anyone seems to notice,” says civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander. In The New Jim Crow she points to the mass incarceration of poor people of color as the latest incarnation of the cultural rules which continue to enforce the skin color caste system.
This was all before my time, I don’t see color.
Race exists as a social construct and impacts us all every day. It has a great influence on my life. When I walk into a room I may not be seen as a person, but instead as a woman. However, I am seen as a woman, not a woman of color. I have never thought that I wasn’t beautiful because of my skin or hair. I’ve never heard myself described as a member of an unwelcome group. Also, watching television, looking at pictures in the media, I notice that the new face of diversity is a black man and a white woman. This is great for me, less great for women whose relatives came here from Africa instead of Europe.
One retreat, one article, one moment spent in learning and reflection is a good start but not a place to rest. I have the privilege of putting down these thoughts and stepping back into a world where I can ignore the impact of race. If I choose to stick with the conversation and work toward being an ally, what can I do?
Talk about it.
Stand up, point to racism, don’t let it go by without confronting it. We’re going to get it wrong, make mistakes, and get called out for them. As Adeye says, we have to be willing to be uncomfortable. I’ve learned to sit with the discomfort instead of shying away; it’s a great teacher, it pushes me to be a better writer and a better person.
Listen with respect.
I learned this as a feminist, and it’s at least as important as an ally. When someone speaks about their experience it is never wrong. It is never about you. The experience I relate to most in Adeye’s work and the other people who contributed to Blanton’s anthology is the experience of being dismissed. As allies we can at least hear what is being said. Sometimes it is said with anger or pain. It’s hard not to respond defensively, but that is the ally’s task.
I’m glad to see this conversation surfacing in the magical communities. I hope it continues with gentleness and respect to create a space in which we are all seen and heard as we wish to be and can do the work we are called to do.