“Why should Witches and Pagans in particular get involved and step up in the current political climate?” I don’t know if anyone is asking this question, but I’m going to answer it anyway.
Here’s the thing: I grew up in Detroit and recognized myself as a Witch in Ann Arbor. From there, I moved to New York, where I worked in an occult bookstore in Manhattan. Then I lived two interminable years in Southern California and a few more in Boulder, Colorado, before moving to rural Colorado, where I now live. And one thing I’ve noticed along the way is Witches and Pagans are predominately white.
It’s what one would expect from systems that branched off systems that evolved from the Spiritualism practiced by the white upper classes of the United Kingdom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and I’m perfectly willing to believe things have changed. Since leaving New York, my personal milieu has become progressively whiter, and it’s been a long while since I had a lot of contact with Witches and Pagans outside my frame of reference. I do know of at least one Pagan blog run by a Woman of Color. But I know, and know of, many fewer Pagans of Color than I do white Pagans who are, for example, queer, or mentally ill on one level or another.
Now I’m going to tell you something that may be uncomfortable. Being the kind of Crone I am, that’s my job. It’s fine to be uncomfortable, but try not to shut me out.
As white people, we have more racial privilege in society. As Witches and Pagans, we have more religious privilege than other marginalized religions do. We are not persecuted to the extent that other religions are. We are not subjected to the torments people of other cultures and races who are accused of Witchcraft are. This may not be true for closeted Pagans in, for example, Christian Fundamentalist households. However, the bulk of white Witches and Pagans will not suffer for our religion. People in general may see us as flaky, eccentric, weird or even misguided. It is not the same as being whipped or subjected to exorcisms or set on fire.
Practitioners of Santeria, Vodoun, and other systems requiring animal sacrifice, most of whom are people of color, have faced not only misunderstanding and censure but also legal battles to ensure their right to fulfill their sacred duties. The religions of Indigenous Americans were prohibited until 1978, with the religious use of peyote not being exempted from legal consequences until 1994. Witches and Pagans have struggled to be taken seriously and fought to have our holidays recognized by employers and other institutions. Younger Pagans have been bullied and prohibited from wearing the symbols of our religion in schools. I don’t dismiss the validity of these struggles, and I have no truck with arguments about whose suffering is worse. In addition, intersectionality being what it is, Queer Pagans, or those with mental illnesses, can have a harder time of things. Though I can’t speak for everyone, I know in the latter circumstance mental health workers unfamiliar with Paganism might see having a nonstandard religion as a symptom rather than a valid belief. For the most part, however, the behavior we perceive as persecution is directed at those feared to be Pagan rather than actual Pagans–much the same way the Witch burnings of old targeted those seen as outsiders, like women living alone, older women, and the disabled. The sad fact is, that Pagans are far more likely to hurt and lash out at other Pagans than the rest of the world is to hurt and lash out at us.
The privilege inherent in whiteness means people are going to listen to us more readily than they are to People of Color, and they’re going to see us as more educated, more approachable, and more trustworthy. It’s our responsibility to use that advantage to support and boost the causes of those without it.
Got that? Okay, take a deep breath, because I have more.
White witches and Pagans are really, really prone to cultural appropriation. Many of us look outside our own heritage for voices to guide us. Any table of correspondences will inevitably list goddesses and gods from cultures all over the world without regard to whether those cultures are still extant. It isn’t enough to call a goddess into your circle because a chart told you she’s associated with the dark moon; you need to do your research into what her rituals were/are and whether they’re still bring practiced in a living tradition.
Now, I get that this is not without difficulties. To paraphrase a Witch friend, if some deity repeatedly tells you to honor her, him, or them, that’s not something you can argue with. But you need to be mindful regarding the way you go about it. Having a strong connection to a deity from a living culture does not automatically make you a spokesperson for that culture. A while back, a certain Orisha got in my face and demanded an altar and a tot of rum every once in a while; okay. This doesn’t make me a Santera and it never will.
A lot of us believe in some form of reincarnation, which throws another monkey wrench into the works. But the same rules apply. You may deeply believe you were a Lakota in a past life. You may have done work around this, had dreams and visions, whatever. The relevant factor is you are not Lakota now. You have no inherent right to those rituals. If you want to lead a sweat in that tradition, you need to earn that by listening to and learning from elders who may not want to talk to you. Frankly, I’d recommend against it. Lots of Northern European cultures had their own purification rituals and their own shamanic systems; maybe look to one in a more direct line to your current incarnation. Or make something up, though that becomes problematic when your inspiration is taken from marginalized cultures. Indigenous People and People of Color are not there to be your inspiration.
It gets muddy, I know. We all smudge with sage now. It’s ingrained; maybe our white ancestors did and maybe they didn’t. Maybe some spiritual and magical correspondences are universal. That doesn’t exempt us from ignoring the implications, such as the fact that white people get far more attention and earn more money (if they’re charging, which is its own ethical dilemma) for doing things that People of Color have been doing for ages and still do. This is something we need to own and make amends for, and a good way of making amends is stepping up.
If you want one more reason to get involved (which you probably don’t at this point) remember that as Witches and Pagans we allegedly honor the sacred is everyone and everyone: The Earth in all Her diversity. If the goddess is in everyone, how can we justify standing by when human women’s rights to bodily autonomy are threatened? If the god is in everyone, how can we turn aside when Black men are killed for no reason? A once-prominent voice in Paganism left the community because she viewed Witches and Pagans as hypocrites. I don’t agree with her reasoning (she declared it hypocrisy for a “fertility religion” to espouse a pro-choice position in the abortion debate which, I believe, says more about her lack of understanding than it does about Paganism as a whole), but I think that for Witches and Pagans to sit this one out would be hypocrisy.
So get up, get active, and get loud.