If You Have A Racist Friend

So you have a racist, sexist, homophobic, white supremacist friend. Your racist friend is perfectly affable to you, buys you beers, likes to chat about the football and whatever. But you are white and male and straight, so of course he is nice to you. And he doesn’t challenge your world-view, or your assumptions about how the world works, because both you and he are white, straight, and male.

But you know what they say: a person who is nice to you, but not nice to the waiter, is not a nice person. 

One of your acquaintances, on the other hand, points out (on a fairly regular basis) that Black Lives Matter, that there is racism and white supremacism rampant in your community. He (or she) makes you uncomfortable, because s/he challenges your assumptions, and makes you aware that you might have straight/white/male privilege. You are unable to separate out his calls for social justice from  other aspects of his personality that irritate you. Maybe he isn’t actually irritating by any general standard, you just find him irritating because he makes you think about topics you would rather not think about.

So what are you gonna do about it?

Apparently one answer is to do a public character assassination on the anti-racist acquaintance, claiming that he is abrasive and difficult.

In the feminist and anti-racist communities, this is called “tone policing“. It is the assertion that people who demand social justice (as opposed to asking for it politely) are automatically wrong for demanding equality and inclusion. In the anti-racist community, it’s also called “being an apologist for racism”. People who are on the receiving end of racism, sexism, and homophobia (and other forms of oppression) have a right to be angry:

Nobody was ever given rights by politely asking for them. Politeness is nothing but a set of behavioral expectations that is enforced upon marginalized people.

If you see someone who is angry and upset about something that was said or done to them, don’t tell them they should be nicer. Instead: Recognize their emotions as valid. Recognize that their emotional state is an indication that something extremely harmful was done to them, whether it was by you, or someone else. Work to understand why the action was oppressive. Take all that energy that you’re wasting being so concerned with how people are responding to their own oppression, and channel it into fighting oppression. 

Another answer is to say, well, y’know, I don’t like the anti-racist guy, but he is right about calling racism out in my community, so even though he gets up my nose, I will stand with him on this one issue. And the racism of racist guy is so extreme that I am going to have to dissociate myself from his white supremacist views, and call him out on them publicly.

Regardless of whether you find racist guy to be an affable dude to hang out with, and anti-racist guy to be a bit of a douche: racism is wrong, and white supremacism is even wronger. That means racist guy is not an affable dude; he’s an asshole.

And as The Specials so memorably put it, If you have a racist friend, now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end.

But apparently some people just want a quiet life.

Well, I don’t want to see racism, white supremacism, or apologies for racism on Patheos. And I don’t want to see character assassination of individuals on Patheos. So I agree with John Beckett: Racism cannot be tolerated, and Stephen Abell should no longer be welcome to post on Patheos Pagan.

By Frerieke from The Hague, The Netherlands - Flickr: Day 20.06 _ Diversity and Unity, CC BY 2.0

By Frerieke from The Hague, The Netherlands – Flickr: Day 20.06 _ Diversity and Unity, CC BY 2.0

Cultural appropriation is about power

Cultural appropriation is always a difficult topic to get across in a nuanced way – and no-one seems to agree on what is respectful borrowing and what is cultural appropriation. Some people even go so far as to claim it doesn’t exist.

Aaron Muszalski - “Cultural Appropriation Illustrated” on Flickr [CC-BY-2.0]

Aaron Muszalski –
“Cultural Appropriation Illustrated” on Flickr [CC-BY-2.0]

What many commentators miss, however, is the power differential in cultural appropriation. People forget that we are living in a postcolonial world, where non-European cultures are still routinely dismissed as “primitive”, “backward”, reactionary, and hidebound by tradition, and European culture is presented as the norm, and an ideal to live up to, despite its over-consumption, cycle of boom and bust, and exploitation of other parts of the world in order to maintain the expensive western lifestyle.

In countries with a majority white, western, Christian population, European cultural norms prevail. The rituals, clothing, and even hairstyles of other cultures are seen as outside the norm, “exotic”, and “primitive”.

Being regarded as exotic makes the products of other cultures ripe for commodification and packaging up as a consumer good. Consider the late 18th century and early 19th century craze for Chinoiserie. Lots of people made a lot of money out of that one. But it didn’t help actual Chinese people trying to survive in Western culture – they were labelled strange, weird, foreign, the “Yellow Peril”.

Being regarded as primitive makes the products of other cultures seem taboo. This means that countercultures within the European cultural sphere want to adopt them. However, whilst such countercultures have less economic and cultural leverage than the mainstream, they still have more leverage than the culture being borrowed from.

Either way, the economic power, social power, and cultural prestige of the European hegemony massively dominates the world in terms of what is seen as “normal”. In the religious sphere, Christianity is seen as the norm, and everything else (including Pagan religions) is seen as exotic and/or primitive. In the economic sphere, capitalism and commodification are seen as the norm, and other systems of exchange are seen as exotic and/or primitive.

This situation creates a massive imbalance where the products of other cultures are trivialised, fetishised, and repackaged as consumer goods for the amusement of Europeans.

Consider the way in which Hallowe’en has been commercialised, commodified, and trivialised, and you can imagine how people from other cultures feel when their treasured traditions, clothing styles, and rituals are repackaged as consumer items.

“Oh but I don’t mind the commercialisation of Hallowe’en”, I hear you cry. Fine – now imagine that it is on top of your land being taken away, your ancestors being enslaved and murdered, your economic, employment, and housing chances being severely limited by systemic racism – are you angry yet? (Oh wait, our pagan ancestors were killed for their beliefs – albeit a long time ago.)

So, if a person from another culture adopts a European practice or personal adornment style, they may be doing so in an attempt to gain some of the economic and cultural leverage that they lack; whereas if a European-ancestry person adopts a non-European practice or cultural adornment style, they may well be doing so because they want the “exotic” or “primitive” glamour conferred by it, which is why it is often disrespectful and erasing of the other culture, because it contributes to the “othering” of that culture.

This unequal power dynamic is why a white person painting their face black is considered inflammatory, whereas a black person painting their face white is not. In vaudeville theatre, the black-and-white minstrel shows presented a caricature of Black people which was deeply offensive.

In Morris dancing, the origins of black face paint may be because Morris dancing was originally an imitation of Moorish people brought back from the crusades; or it may be because the dancers wished to disguise themselves, and using soot to ‘black up’ their faces was effective as a disguise; or it may have been an imitation of miners and/or chimney sweeps, whose faces were black because of coal dust; or it may have been copied from vaudeville blackface; or it may have been a combination of all of these. It does seem likely that the introduction of black-and-white minstrel shows to England gave fresh impetus to Morris blackface. Therefore, many Morris sides have modified their face-paint so that it does not resemble vaudeville blackface quite as much; or they explain the miners / chimney-sweeps / disguise theory before they begin their performance.

This unequal power dynamic does not mean that we can never do anything associated with another culture; it does mean that we should approach other cultures with sensitivity and tact, and if we are told to back off, we should back off.

I don’t think that worshipping a deity from another culture is wrong – deities have migrated from one culture to another for millennia. I do think that it is disrespectful to take someone else’s ritual to that deity, or any ritual, rip it out of its original cultural context, and plug it into your own cultural context without regard for the differences between the contexts. The same applies to clothing styles, hairstyles, and artefacts which may have specific meanings and be associated with specific identities, especially if those identities have been crafted in resistance to European cultural hegemony, or are expressions of the sacred in a particular context. When the artefact, clothing, or hairstyle is ripped out of its context, the original meaning can be lost, diluted, trivialised, or erased.

In two previous posts on cultural appropriation, I explored the difference between respectful borrowing and cultural appropriation, and how practices are not plug-and-play components that can be easily transferred from one cultural context to another.

Further reading

Walking While Black: A Song

Walking while Black

A song for Sandra, Tamir, Eric, Freddie, and many others

Protestors carrying placards at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York City 28 November 2014, 12:50:28 CC-BY-SA 2.0 Author: The All-Nite Images

Protestors carrying placards at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York City
28 November 2014, 12:50:28
CC-BY-SA 2.0
Author: The All-Nite Images

Eric was walking down the street
Walking while Black, held his head high
Just trying to breathe, trying to pray,
Trying to get through another day.

O mourners, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O mourners, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

Tamir was playing in the park,
Walking while Black, held his head high,
Sandra was just trying to drive,
Trying to survive, trying to thrive.

O sisters, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O sisters, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

As Bree was climbing that flagpole,
To bring down a symbol of hate,
And Martin was dreaming of a new world,
Even though the hour is late.

O brothers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O brothers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

Walking while Black should never be a crime,
In this or any other time.
And we must rise against Jim Crow,
O Lord, enough blood has flowed.

O mothers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O mothers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

The Charleston nine had met to pray,
Studying about that good old way,
And they shall wear the starry crown,
Resting in the heart of God.

O fathers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O fathers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

They that followed the drinking gourd,
They that survived the Jim Crow years,
They that rose up to get the vote,
This time, we’ll find a way.

O singers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O singers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

As we go down to the river to pray,
Black lives matter every day
We remember those who fell,
Speak their names, for ever more.

O mourners, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O mourners, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

As we walked over the Pettus Bridge
Let’s follow the river to freedom now
And we shall find the promised land
Heart to heart and hand in hand.

O dreamers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O dreamers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.


(Tune: Down in the river to pray)

As I went down in the valley to pray,
Studying about that good old way,
When you shall wear that starry crown,
Good Lord, show me the way.

O mourner, let’s go down,
let’s go down, let’s go down,
O mourner, let’s go down,
Down in the valley to pray.


I wrote this song in response to the murder of Sandra Bland, and all the other deaths at the hands of police and systemic racism.

Why is Hate More Newsworthy Than Love?

Recently, Icelandmag reported that Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and the members of the Ásatrúarfélag (Icelandic Pagan Association) had received hate mail from a few vocal homophobic and racist bigots for their intention to conduct same-sex marriages in their new Heathen temple, and their view that a person of any ethnicity can be a Heathen.

“Þingblót 2009” by Photograph by Lenka Kovářová. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. -

Þingblót 2009” by Photograph by Lenka Kovářová. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. –

So I decided to launch a page where people could sign to show their support. A petition site seemed wrong, as we were thanking them for being inclusive, rather than asking them to do anything, so initially I launched a page on 38 degrees – but quickly discovered that only people in the UK could sign it. So I launched a change.org page as well: Thank you for supporting same-sex marriage and inclusiveness. At the same time, Haimo Grebenstein created a Facebook event in solidarity: “Ásatrúarfélagið – we are at your side!” The event is sponsored by Asatru-EU, an informal group of people of Germanic Heathen background, most of them members of associations from many European countries. They have been active since 2006 and are hosting the International Asatru Summer Camp (IASC), which starts on 25 July in Sweden.

The Facebook event has 2400 people supporting it, from many different Pagan and polytheist religions; the change.org petition has 640 signatories, and the 38 degrees petition has 124 signatories.

Meanwhile, if you can see the Facebook social plugin on the Icelandmag article (I can’t see it on a PC or an iPhone, and only intermittently on my iPad, but I am getting notifications of who has replied to my comment on there), then you will see that the haters appear to be in a tiny minority compared to the people who support inclusivity towards both LGBT people and people of other ethnic backgrounds.

Icelandmag ran a follow-up story about the messages of support, but again focused on the original hate-mail rather than on the messages of support:

Over the weekend we will be publishing an exclusive interview with Hilmar Örn, about the honourable and respectful nature of Ásatrú as it is practiced in Iceland, his interaction with foreign pagans and the disturbing messages he has received from foreign pagans.

The Wild Hunt also did an article, Ásatrúarfélagið Threatened with Vandalism over LGBTQ Support– also focusing somewhat more on the hate-mail than the outpouring of support, though kindly linking to Haimo’s Facebook event and my petitions. I am glad that the issue has been covered, but concerned that what I believe to be a small minority of haters is getting more coverage than the overwhelming number of people who support inclusivity. Maybe it is because hate and bigotry (despite what you might think from reading the newspapers) are actually the exception rather than the norm? Or is it because the mainstream media wants to make us feel small and isolated and powerless in the face of all this bad news?

The same thing happens with Christian bigotry against LGBT people. Granted that there are some loud voices of hate, but there are also many Christians who support same-sex marriage and regard same-sex love as natural, and are welcoming towards LGBT people. In the UK, Stonewall, the LGBT pressure group, did a survey of attitudes of religious people, and found that 58% were in support of same-sex marriage (as compared to 68% of the general population). So the difference in support between the religious population and the general population is 10%. There could be a variety of reasons why this is, but given the focus on religious bigotry by the media, most people would probably be surprised by how small the difference is. It is also noticeable that church leadership (who are often the ones making the bigoted pronouncements) are seriously out of step with the laity on this. Not only that, but the list of religious groups where leaders and laity alike support LGBT equality is quite long and impressive, and some groups (Quakers, Unitarians, Liberal Jews, and Pagans) have supported and campaigned for LGBT equality for decades.

It is also noticeable that Heathens, Polytheists, Wiccans, Druids, Kemetics, and Pagans from all over the world have signed the change.org petition. There are so many awesome comments, I urge you to go and read all of them – it is very heart-warming.

So here are a few of the signatories of the thank you petition, and why they signed:

Kurt Hoogstraat ELK GROVE VILLAGE, IL

I’m gay and a heathen. My husband and I have been together 25 years, raised a daughter and have two grandchildren. Family is very important to us, and I live the practices of my religion every day with my family. Besides, the Gods communicate with me and protect my family every day — they don’t seem to mind I’m gay!

 

Dale Overman WEST VALLEY CITY, UT

Our ancestors were far more open minded than many modern heathen in some parts of the world. The world and its religions and deeply divided as it is. We modern heathen and Asatruar need a bit of common unity and respect. Inclusiveness and hospitality is part of a decent human community.

 

Wendell Christenson CLOVIS, CA

I know in the news reports when they said that “foreign practitioners” of Asatru are sending hate mail, that “foreign practitioners” really means “American Heathens.” It is embarrassing! Not all American Heathens are simply Protestant Christians who grew up to drink mead and “play Viking” on the weekends! Thank you, Ásatrúarfélagið, for building a modern-day temple and providing services to all.

 

Dieter Tussing GERMANY

Celtoi and Gaulish Polytheists say thanks. We are in complete agreement with you.

 

Carl Guldbrand LINDESBERG, SWEDEN

Bröder och Systar, jag står med er.

 

Reverend Janet Farrar CLOGHRAN, IRELAND

They truly represent the old Gods of their land.

 

Elma O’Callaghan BELFAST, UNITED KINGDOM

Basically, some people are so full of hate when they see others being happy. They need to know that Paganism is all encompassing and inclusive of equality and human rights. Well done Iceland and Hilmar for showing the true face of humanity.

 

Heather Demarest WANCHESE, NC

I honor these same deities and know that deep wisdom is its truth, that our souls are equal and even Odin supposedly dressed as a woman. Once you get past all the chest-thumping, Heathenry has deep and profound and beautiful wisdom that can empower all of us, regardless of gender, sexual preference or race.

 

Mike Stygal LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM

There should indeed be no room for racism or homophobia or transphobia in Heathenry, Druidry, Wicca, witchcraft, Paganism, polytheism, and kindred traditions.

 

Alexander ter Haar ZOETERMEER, NETHERLANDS

The Asatruarfelagid give an example of how heathenism can be: tolerant and open-minded, hospitable and respectful. It is saddening to hear that they receive hate-mails because of that. And at the same time it is wonderful to see how many people stand with them. I am proud to count myself amongst them.

 

Rev. Selena Fox BARNEVELD, WI

Appreciation, Well-Wishes, Support to You for your support of same sex marriage.

 

Jay Friedlander ANDOVER, ENGLAND

As British Heathen I support equal rights for same-sex marriage. Homophobia and transphobia has no place in modern heathenry or modern society either! I support inclusivity of all regardless of race, faith, sexual orientation, social class or any other ‘difference’ and believe tolerance of all is the only way forwards in a modern multi-cultural world.

 

Freya Aswynn CóMPETA

I am Asatru.

 

Wayne Sievers

The Icelandic Asatru Association conducted my marriage last year.

Paganism for Beginners: Controversies

Over recent years, there have been a number of controversies among Pagans which probably left a lot of newcomers to Paganism a bit baffled, especially when the terminology got a bit arcane. Sometimes different commentators on the issue also seemed to misunderstand and talk past each other on occasion.

I think these controversies are interesting and illuminating because they illustrate our concerns as a community, or as a network of communities, or a network of networks, or a patchwork of groups, or whatever metaphor you prefer to describe the contemporary Pagan movement.

So, in a spirit of inquiry and openness, not in a spirit of washing our dirty linen in public, and certainly not wanting to reignite these controversies, here is a summary of some of the most recent ones.

These controversies and discussions raise important questions of who we are, how we relate to each other as a community and individually, what we hold sacred, and how we relate to deities and the world around us.

The A to Z of Pagan controversies

I was not sure what order to present these in, as I think that ranking them by relative importance would be invidious, so I decided to list them in alphabetical order.

Atheist Pagans

Yes, there are Pagans who identify as atheists, and/or atheists who identify as Pagans. Humanistic Paganism is a large and growing community. Yet some people argue that the worship of deities is a key aspect of Paganism, and that therefore atheist Paganism is a contradiction in terms. However, there have been people who see deities as metaphors or archetypes for decades, and they have been welcome in Pagan rituals, especially in traditions that focus on practice rather than on belief.

The debate over whether Pagans can be atheists is important because it calls into question whether beliefs, practices, or values are at the core of religion, and which of them are more important for Pagans. It also relates to the idea that there are four centres of Paganism (Nature, Deities, the Self, and Community), and that different people and traditions will focus more on some than others. If you are not a deity-focused Pagan, then being an atheist and a Pagan works just fine.

Christo-Pagans

Pagans who also embrace Christianity in some form are pretty controversial because of Christianity’s historical persecution of Pagans, the claim of many Christian traditions to be the “one true way”, and their claim that its mythology is the only valid mythology. Several Pagan commentators have said that it is not possible to be a Christian and a Pagan, because of the exclusivist stance of Christianity and the extraordinary claims made about Jesus. However, there are so many variations within Christian belief about the nature and person of Jesus, that I can see how it is possible to be both Christian and Pagan in a variety of interesting ways. It would not be the path that I would choose to walk, but if people want to do it, then I wish them well (and I think it is rather exclusivist to claim that they can’t be Pagans).

Consent

Recently there have been several high-profile cases of Pagans abusing children, and incidents of sexual harassment at Pagan events. Many Pagans would like to think that such issues would not arise within Paganism, because we are so open about sex and sexuality. However, sex-positivity does not always equate with an acceptance that not everyone wants to have sex. There were many calls for Pagan events to have a safeguarding policy and a harassment policy. The issue also caused considerable self-examination by the Pagan community on what we should be doing about rape culture in our own communities and in wider society.

Pagans are very accepting of sex and nudity, but this enthusiasm is a problem when sex-positivity tips over into attitudes like ‘you’re a prude if you don’t want to have sex with me’. We need to have an ethical sex-positive culture.

Christine Hoff Kraemer and I are editing a collection of essays on Pagan consent culture, which we hope will become a valuable resource for people seeking to firmly establish consent culture in Pagan communities.

Apart from the very important issue of making Pagan communities and spaces safe for everyone, this issue has implications for how we view ourselves as a group, how we relate to each other individually and collectively, and how we cope with the fact of human fallibility.

Kinky Pagans

Z Budapest also caused controversy when she posted a comment that stated that she wanted to blow up Pantheacon because she saw a lot of kinky people walking around. Several people, myself included, found this remark to be deeply intolerant. I wrote a piece on why I believe that anti-kink attitudes have no place in Paganism.

There is a conversation to be had about the presentation of kink in a public space. Not everyone is comfortable with people wearing a collar and leash in a public space, for example (and that includes many kinksters who are uncomfortable with it). But the outright dismissal of the kink lifestyle is just plain ignorant.

This issue is important because, if Paganism is a sex-positive and tolerant community, we need to be tolerant of other people’s sexual preferences, provided that they are done by consenting adults. As the kinkster motto has it: “Your kink is not my kink, but that’s OK”.

Leaving Paganism

Thinking of leaving Paganism? Please close the door quietly on your way out. Lots of people have a crisis of faith, and leave Paganism either temporarily or permanently. However, there are good ways to do this, and bad ways to do it. A number of prominent Pagan bloggers have left Paganism, mostly to rejoin Christianity. Doubtless many of the things they were having issues with are real issues for the Pagan community to consider; some of the other things seem to be just a difference of perspective. Carl McColman is an example of someone who left Paganism gracefully, converted to Catholicism, but now works to build dialogue between Christians and Pagans, and promote mystical Christianity to other Christians.

It also behooves the Pagan community to react with grace and understanding to those leaving the Pagan community, and wish them well on their new path. Even if they are being a bit of a schmuck about it.

Some people reacted to these prominent changes of faith tradition with the notion that such people were never proper Pagans in the first place, and started to point the finger at other people who do not dismiss Christianity outright, or who embrace theological concepts that look superficially similar to Christianity. If anyone ever comes up with a definition of what a “proper” Pagan is, let me know – but so many hours have been spent on internet forums debating what Pagan actually means, that I very much doubt such a definition will ever be arrived at.

LGBT inclusion

Paganism is not generally homophobic, but it can be heterocentric (centred almost exclusively on heterosexual symbolism). Many Pagans, especially some Wiccans, focus their devotion on a God and a Goddess, and often view them as a heterosexual couple, and insist on heterocentric interpretations of magical concepts like polarity and fertility. This can feel very excluding for LGBT people. Calls for a more inclusive version of Wicca, mine included, have caused considerable controversy in some quarters. I have explored the development of views of gender and sexuality in Paganism (part 1 and part 2) and so has Christine Hoff Kraemer. I also produced a video on gender and sexuality in Wicca, seeking to expand and deepen our understanding of the concepts of polarity and fertility, what tradition is and how it works, what we bring into circle and what we leave outside, and how to make Wicca more LGBTQI-inclusive, with examples from rituals and from history. I further developed these ideas in my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca.

Monism versus polytheism

Monism is the view that there is a single underlying energy in the universe. Polytheism is the view that there are many deities. Quite often, monists want to claim that the single underlying energy gave rise to the individual deities, or that it encompasses them, or that they are merely facets of it. This feels wrong to a lot of polytheists who feel that the deities are distinct beings, and that monism reduces unique experiences to a generic viewpoint. It is possible to reconcile the two viewpoints and have polytheistic monism (or monistic polytheism). There have been quite a number of blogposts from both a monistic perspective and a polytheist perspective. This matters because it is about how we relate to other Pagans with a different theological perspective, how we relate to Hinduism (which includes both monists and polytheists – if it can even be categorised using Western labels), and how we relate to our deities. Or perhaps monism and polytheism are just a matter of temperament?

The Pagan umbrella / big tent

Many people use the word Paganism, or the phrase ‘the Pagan movement’, as an umbrella term for all the various traditions that exist (Druidry, Feri, Heathenry, Religio Romana, Wicca, etc etc), but the Pagan umbrella is leaking, and some people are standing at the edge getting rained on.

People sometimes say that we are all taking different paths up the same mountain – but your mountain may not be the same as my mountain. One person’s Pagan path may be so different that they are not climbing a mountain at all – but their path is still recognisably Pagan. A lush and varied Pagan landscape seems like a better metaphor than a single mountain.

Still others say that an umbrella is too small, and what we really need is a Big Tent.

Jason Pitzl-Waters writes:

All of the recent debate over community, terminology, and theology, is, I think, a sign of our collective success. When our religions were under constant threat, when we truly feared jail, or worse, because of our beliefs, we huddled together for safety and solidarity. We created advocacy groups to speak for us, and empowered authors and activists to be our public face(s).

The more closely we try to define or describe Paganism, the easier it is to find someone who feels excluded by that definition or description, and ceases to identify as a Pagan. That is why models like the four centres of Paganism are really useful, because they give a conceptual framework for diversity of Pagan belief and practice.  Many people feel that celebrating the diversity in the Pagan movement is important, and that we need to have a unified Pagan voice in order to communicate and negotiate with governments, other religions, and other world-views. I don’t think that unity and diversity are incompatible – but sometimes we need to emphasise our unity, and sometimes we need to emphasise our diversity.

Pagan veiling

Some Pagan women have experienced a call from their deities to cover their heads. As head-coverings for women are often associated with misogynistic attitudes and attempts to control women’s sexuality, the fact that some Pagan women chose to cover their heads was very controversial. Pagan women who chose to do this gave various reasons for doing so – because a deity had asked them to, because covering their head makes them feel protected, empowered, and blessed, as an outward sign that they are a priestess, as a sign of maturity, to increase confidence, and because it makes them feel sexy.

This issue is important and interesting for all sorts of reasons. Do you do something you might not feel like doing because a deity requests it of you? If you do something that means something very different in another culture, are you endorsing what it means in that other culture? Should we revive every practice that existed in the ancient pagan world? What is the meaning of covering your head?

Racism in the Pagan movement

To my mind, one of the most important issues in recent years has been the inclusion of people of colour in the Pagan movement, and how we relate to other indigenous religions.

Shortly after the protests in Ferguson over the killing of Mike Brown last year, Crystal Blanton asked for expressions of solidarity from Pagan individuals and organisations, which resulted in an outpouring of support. I feel that she should not have had to ask, but it was great that the support was forthcoming. One of the responses, from Covenant of the Goddess, was a bit vague and hand-wavy, and was strongly criticised by several bloggers. They have since revised their statement. Many of the writers on the Patheos Pagan channel responded to the call, and some were already writing about the topic. I collected together some of the responses from the Patheos Pagan channel on my own Black Lives Matter post.

Controversy erupted at Pantheacon 2015 when a satirical newsletter (PantyCon) appeared, sending up the tendency of white Pagans to fail to take notice of the experience of Pagans of colour, and specifically the original vague and woolly statement by Covenant of the Goddess. Several white Pagans thought that the workshop advertised in the satirical piece was a real workshop, and actually showed up for it. The satire was rather too close to the bone, and – together with several racist comments made by both attendees and presenters – made many Pagans of colour feel unsafe and unwelcome at Pantheacon. Jonathan Korman called publicly for an apology from the authors of the newsletter, and they did apologise. The founder, organiser, and sponsor of Pantheacon also issued a statement.

One of the positive outcomes of these events was a workshop called “Creating Brave Spaces for People of Color” which sought to begin a process of truth and reconciliation.

An excellent resource for understanding issues of racism and Paganism is the book, Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Taylor Ellwood, Brandy Williams, and Crystal Blanton. It has essays by a number of prominent Pagans, Black and white, and reflects on racism, the rise of the New Right, cultural appropriation, and related issues. I recommend it very highly.

Crystal Blanton is currently producing a great series of posts, the 30-day Real Black History Challenge, which is another great resource for understanding the reality of systemic racism, and how to start rooting it out.

Transphobia

The anti-transgender rhetoric emanating from certain Goddess-oriented traditions has caused considerable controversy. When CAYA coven organised a women’s ritual at Pantheacon 2011, where trans women were turned away at the door, Z Budapest defended this in very excluding and inflammatory language. Traditions which take an essentialist approach to gender tend to have difficulty coping with transgender people. There is an excellent post from 2011 by Star Foster explaining the issue. The British transgender activist, Roz Kaveney, even weighed in on the issue – and note that she appears to be under the impression that all Pagans are transphobic, which is not the case, but shows how damaging these kind of incidents can be. It is a shame that she did not do a bit more research, as a Google search on the subject will reveal dozens of blogposts protesting about the incident, and some defending it too. Neil Gaiman wrote about these issues in 1993 in a graphic novel, A Game of You, and the issues it raises are explored and explained by Lady Geek Girl. [1]

Wiccanate privilege

There was a discussion on Wiccanate privilege at Pantheacon 2014, but the debate had started in the Pagan blogosphere some time before that. John Halstead neatly summarises what “Wiccanate” means:

“Wiccanate” is a term coined by Johnny Rapture, and it refers to American Neo-Pagan theological ideas and liturgical forms common to large public Pagan gatherings and rituals, which are derived from Wicca, but are perceived to be “generic” or “universal” to Paganism. “Wiccan-Centric” is a related term. “Wiccanate privilege” is a phrase that has been going round in polytheist circles recently. It refers to the ways in which Wicca-inspired ritual and theology are assumed to be normative for Paganism as a whole.

The Wiccanate privilege controversy was a debate on how  public and eclectic Pagan ritual is structured, how Paganism is represented to newcomers and outsiders, and how we define or describe Paganism. It was argued that, because most of the books and websites are about Wicca, and many public Pagan rituals are based on a vaguely Wiccan style of ritual, many outsiders and newcomers to Paganism think that Wicca is the only form of Paganism. Furthermore, the widespread assumption that everyone celebrates the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year, or that everyone is a duotheist, or that everyone creates sacred space in a vaguely Wiccan manner (i.e. Wiccanate), means that other Pagan and polytheist traditions and ideas are marginalised within the Pagan community. I also feel that the widespread notion that Wicca is exclusively duotheist is harmful to Wiccans who embrace other theological viewpoints such as polytheism.

Where do these controversies start?

I am rather worried that this post makes it look as if nearly all Pagan controversies happen at Pantheacon. This is not actually the case, but because Pantheacon is a huge annual gathering, many controversies do get aired there. Controversies start in face to face interactions, get aired and discussed on the internet, and chewed over at conferences and pub moots and gatherings.

If you feel that I have missed out any controversies, or missed out any good links to articles on the ones described above, let me know in the comments. Links to good overview/introductory articles are especially welcome. I have mainly tried to focus on ones that might be especially baffling to newcomers and outsiders, and ones that have something to say about how we interact as a community, or as a linked group of communities.


 

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost.

[1] Thanks to P Sufenas Virius Lupus for pointing out that A Game of You was written way before the transphobia controversy, and hence does not directly address it, though it is relevant.

The Need for Story, Witness, Truth

Today, the same day that Dane County’s District Attorney failed to indict Officer Matt Kenny in the shooting death of Tony Terrell Robinson, I came across a face from my past, posted on Facebook. He hasn’t changed.

“I’m sure he’s a nice guy, overall,” I said to myself. “He was just too young to know better.”

“And I didn’t say no very loudly,” I said to myself. “I probably wasn’t forceful enough. It would have been easy not to hear me.”

“He was too drunk to know what he was doing, or hear what I was saying,” I said to myself. “He was—wait, what?!”

I’m one of the most pro-woman, pro-femme and pro-feminist people I know. And I had just repeated how many all-too-familiar, all-too-common excuses. And I’ve been repeating those lines to myself for almost twenty five years.

I never realized until today that the scripts I’ve called out as bullshit so many times were scripts I had internalized myself in my own history.

I curled up on the bed and sobbed for an hour as I never did when I was eighteen, not one iota less humiliated, confused, guilty-feeling than I was then, but finally allowing myself to give expression to those feelings and admit what happened to me.

I was in a situation one night that felt pressured, threatening, unsafe, and unwinnable. The next day he smiled at me. So did his friend.

That guy was not a bad guy, you know? That’s why I didn’t realize what had just happened to me. 

I hear Officer Matt Kenny is a nice guy too. Our justice models fail us by focusing on individuals rather than systems. I’m no criminal justice expert. But today it was brought home to me, twice over, that something isn’t working here. How do we define justice, when (in the words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo) We have met the enemy, and he is us?

(This famous quote was originally used for Earth Day. Although it’s not within the scope of my small reflection here, I think a compelling case could be made that moving to a restorative justice model could revolutionize environmental movements as well.)

It’s hopelessly complicated. It’s hopelessly tangled and ambiguous. I rely on voices from the Young Gifted and Black Coaltion and Justified Anger to help me learn. Some other day I’ll figure how all this fits with environmentalism and spirituality and whatever this thing called Paganism is…but I feel pretty strongly this: the voices and stories in any situation need to be heard—and heard by all of us. Safe space needs to be created for speaking truth and deep listening on all sides. And stories, witnessing, need to be a bigger part of the justice equation. What if we focused on healing the harm on every side, rather than punishing (or failing to punish) the perpetrators of violence? By focusing on individuals, we too easily and often miss the larger, deeply entrenched and internalized systemic injustices which form and inform us, day in and out.

self portrait in five lines

 

Blue Beltane

Blue Beltane

I love Beltane, it is a beautiful festival. The festival of spring, of lovers, of reawakening. The festival of unabashed sexuality, where people dance round a giant flower-bedecked phallic symbol, and leap naked over the Beltane fire, hand in hand with their beloved, or their lover of the moment. Lingering caresses in the woods, under the blossom and the boughs. The firelight playing on ecstatic dancing bodies, lost in the ecstasy of sexual abandon. The contemporary celebration of Beltane seems to have acquired quite a lot of its character from the Roman festival of Floralia (27/28 April), which also celebrated sexual pleasure, as well as flowers.

But spare a thought for those who don’t quite fit into this idyllic picture. What about people who are single? Being single at Beltane is such a downer… hanging around the Beltane fire, hoping that romance will be kindled by the energies of Beltane. Yep, been there, got the T-shirt. What about the widowed?  Those who have loved long and well, and have lost the ones they love? What about the divorced, the abused, and the traumatised? What about asexuals – what are they supposed to do with a festival that harps on and on about sex? And if the focus is mainly or exclusively on cisgender heterosexual lovers, spare a thought for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and genderqueer people too, and enlarge the focus of the celebration to include same-sex love. What about the frequent portrayal of the God and Goddess of Beltane as white? How about some lovers of colour?   And what about people with disabilities? Other than physical or communication issues, they are no different from the rest of us in their sexual, emotional, and romantic desires.  Beltane, with its themes of excess and wild abandon, can also be difficult for people in recovery, who may feel the need to set boundaries.

Molly Khan, over at the Pagan Families blog, points out that the theme of sexual love is not understandable to children, and suggests other ways of celebrating Beltane if you have kids, and includes themes of creativity, being passionate about an activity or a cause, and talking about other kinds of love, not just the erotic or romantic variety. All excellent suggestions.

This year, I am alone at Beltane. My beloved is 3650 miles away, due to the bureaucratic nightmare of the visa application process. Luckily for us, we can afford flights and administration fees and all the rest of it, and we hope that the situation will be resolved soon. I hope we will be reunited soon, and then it will definitely be Beltane, even if a rather belated one.

However, with about ten days to go before Beltane, I find my thoughts turning wistful and sad, because my darling will not be here to celebrate with me. I love Beltane and its energy and joy, I think it is very fitting to have a festival of sexual love and erotic joy at this time of year, but this year (not for the first time), I find myself outside looking in at the bubble of happiness.

John Beckett has a suggested Beltane ritual for solitary practitioners, exploring the theme of passing between two fires for purification, and passing from winter into summer. In lands where people pastured animals, they would drive them between two fires for blessing and purification at Beltane, so this ritual is based on actual folklore.

I am also very sad because of the number of people who have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to cross from Africa, and angry because their displacement was caused by wars fomented by governments propped up by the West, and angry because so little is being done or planned to save them from drowning. I am gutted because Pinakin Patel, a 33 year old man – a husband – collapsed and died in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre on Monday. He was detained there because he and his wife came to England on holiday and the immigration authorities did not believe that they were here on holiday, and carted them off to the detention centre from the airport.

With all this on my mind, it is hard to be all jolly and frolicksome about Beltane. I just can’t manage it. And I don’t suppose for a minute that I am the only one who feels this way. So I give you… Blue Beltane.

I don’t know who it was that came up with the idea of Blue Christmas – an excellent idea, where people who have lost loved ones at Christmas, or who feel excluded in some way from the general jollity of Christmas, can go and sit in a church and quietly share their sorrows.

Well, I feel there needs to be a similar thing at Beltane. Blue Beltane, for people who feel excluded by the general atmosphere of sexual exuberance, for whatever reason they may feel excluded. It might focus on the purificatory aspects of the Beltane fire, as suggested by John Beckett. It might focus on telling each other the stories of why we feel blue at Beltane. It might consist of a ritual to honour the sadness and grief, but gently open us to the possibility of joy – perhaps the walk between two fires suggested by John Beckett would fit this rather well.

One possibility might be building an altar to love, or to the goddesses Flora, Pomona, and/or Maia, or whichever goddesses represent Spring in your tradition. You may want to incorporate a photo of your beloved, or if you are looking for love, something to symbolise your openness to the possibility. (N.B. Love spells directed at a specific person are unethical, because they constrain the will of an individual.)

Another possibility would be to focus on purification and the transition from summer to winter, and moving into a new phase of life. Letting go of attachment to past hurts, and changing perspective. Working through the issues raised by painful experiences, not burying them or denying their importance.

If you are grieving, the grief never entirely diminishes. I read a really helpful thing somewhere, which was the idea that the grief for a lost loved one doesn’t get smaller; rather your soul enlarges to accommodate it.  So I am certainly not suggesting letting go of grief. It is also worth saying that everyone grieves differently. So don’t let anyone else tell you how to grieve, or how long you should grieve.

Of course, Samhain is usually the festival for honouring and connecting with loved ones who have died, so the focus of Beltane should be different, but I think it is no accident that the two festivals are directly opposite each other on the wheel of the year. In a way, they are mirror images of each other. Beltane represents the life force at its strongest, rising to a peak; Samhain represents death. But we cannot have life without death, so in the midst of celebrating the life force, we could also remember that there is a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Perhaps Samhain is for lingering lovingly with ancestors and the beloved dead, and Beltane is for welcoming new life – but we can still keep the memories of loved ones fresh in our hearts, and remember the happy times we shared with them.

I for one will be lighting a candle for all those whose lives were snuffed out untimely by war, drowning, racism, and injustice, and doing all I can to raise awareness and campaign for a compassionate approach to migration – the movement of people just like you and me, who just want a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

However you celebrate Beltane – as a festival of erotic exuberance, as a season of purification, or as a season of wistful longing – I wish you renewed joy and a bountiful summer.

Je ne suis pas Charlie, because it is more complicated than that

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was absolutely appalling, and no-one should ever be murdered for the opinions they express, the cartoons they draw, or anything else. As one commentator put it, the only excuse for killing someone else is if they are about to kill a large number of people – and even then, it is the least worst option. The murder of 17 people in cold blood is a horrible atrocity.

Demonstrators gather at the Place de la République in Paris on the night of the attack.

Demonstrators gather at the Place de la République in Paris on the night of the attack. Photo by Godefroy Troude. Source: Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

I am also horrified by all the killing of Palestinians, the murder of black people by cops in the US…. And a lot of the people who posted “je suis Charlie” have not been posting about that.

 Condemning the murderers does not mean you have to endorse everything that the victims did. Criticising the actions of the victims does not mean you endorse the actions of the murderers.

I am disgusted that there have already been reprisals against ordinary Muslims, who have already expressed their condolences and repudiated the extremists. The behaviour of the extremists is NOT the norm for Islam. But why do so many people claim that Islam is a religion of violence, when there are many instances of violence, murder, and torture committed in the name of secular democracy (Fallujah, Abu Ghreib, extraordinary rendition, torture by the CIA), and in the name of Christianity (trying to force children not to be gay, the Lord’s Resistance Army, the bombing of abortion clinics, Anders Breivik) but hardly anyone claims that all Christians, or all supporters of secular democracy, are somehow responsible for these crimes. Thousands of Muslims joined the demonstrations of mourning for the murdered cartoonists. Despite this, many people are still claiming that “not enough” Muslims have repudiated the attacks, and that all Muslims should apologise. As James O’Brien put it, that is a bit like claiming that all Richards should apologise for the shoe-bomber, who was called Richard.

And some of the people claiming that they support free speech are surprising, to say the least.

When a Jewish man assassinated a leading Nazi in the 1930s, the Nazi regime used it as an excuse to launch the horror of Kristallnacht, in which thousands of Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues were smashed and destroyed. The people harming Muslims or their homes or mosques in revenge for the Charlie Hebdo murders, and for the murder of Lee Rigby in London last year, are no better than the Nazis. The notion of collective responsibility and collective punishment was part of Nazi ideology, and should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

One Muslim died in the Charlie Hebdo shooting (the policeman, Ahmed Merabet), and another Muslim, Lassana Bathily, saved a number of hostages in the siege of the kosher supermarket by hiding them in the walk-in refrigerator. He also helped the police to break the siege by explaining the layout of the building – despite the fact that the police tried to arrest him because they thought he was one of the terrorists.

Meanwhile the media is almost completely ignoring the flogging of blogger Rafi Badawi by the Saudi regime (perhaps because that’s where the West buys most of its oil?)

And where is the mass outbreak of rage, grief, and despair at Boko Haram’s recent murder of 2000 Nigerians? Men, women, and children were slaughtered and their bodies are still scattered through the bush.

The media are also mostly ignoring a very positive Muslim-related story, that Muslim groups have donated $100,000 to end water shut-offs in Detroit (hardly the action of an “inherently violent” religion).

But whilst I am appalled by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff, I did not post “Je suis Charlie” on my Facebook wall. For one thing, I don’t think this is a particularly good way to express solidarity in these situations (we are not each other), and for another, I thought the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were in very poor taste. That still does not provide any excuse for shooting them, of course. However, the Boko Haram cartoon that they produced, with the missing Nigerian girls depicted as “welfare queens” coming to Europe to claim benefits, was in very poor taste. Those girls were sold as sex slaves and raped. Some of their other cartoons were just being deliberately provocative, and could easily provide ammunition for racists to target Muslims. Satire is meant to attack the powerful, not to denigrate marginalised minorities. And Muslims are a marginalised minority in France – most of the Muslim population of France is from an Algerian or Malian background – countries that were colonised by France, and where resistance and dissident movements were brutally crushed. The Muslim population of Paris lives in the run-down suburbs of Paris.

Western media also conveniently forgets that since it was the West that armed the mujahideen in Afghanistan in order to undermine the Soviet Union, and some of those mujahideen went on to form the Taliban, and that jihadism and Muslim fundamentalism is not in fact a return to earlier forms of Islam, but a modern ideology fomented by Western interference in the Muslim world.

Rabbi Michael Lerner writes in the Huffington Post:

“don’t be surprised if people around the world, while condemning the despicable acts of the murderers in Paris and grieving for their families and friends, remain a bit cynical about the media-circus surrounding this particular outrage while the Western media quickly forgets the equally despicable acts of systematic murder and torture that Western countries have been involved in.”

The relationship between Islam and the West is complex and multi-faceted, and cannot be reduced to a simple binary of us versus them.  There are many Muslims who want democracy and freedom; there are feminist Muslims and queer Muslims; there are millions of Sufis and Shi’ites and Sunnis who just want to live in peace with their neighbours, yet many sections of the media want to lump all these different groups together and claim that they are all the same. There are also many white people pushing a racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic agenda, and behaving little better than the Nazis. And there are deeply irresponsible commentators on Fox News and the like claiming preposterous things like the idea that Birmingham, UK is a “Muslim-only city” (which he has since retracted) and that parts of London, UK, are no-go areas for non-Muslims (also untrue, but he didn’t retract it).

Some people have claimed that if Muslims do not post “je suis Charlie” on social media, then they support the extremists. The idea of making expressions of mourning compulsory rather debases the meaning of freely chosen acts of solidarity and mourning. Others have claimed that freedom of speech is an absolute right and that anyone who doesn’t agree with them should shut up (surely some contradiction there?)

Complexity is a wonderful thing. You can be opposed to anti-Semitism in Europe, yet oppose Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. You can appreciate Jewish culture but be critical of some Jewish men’s attitude towards women. You can be against the Saudi regime’s appalling treatment of bloggers and LGBT people (recognising that it is fuelled by Wahhabi extremism) and the horror of the murders of Charlie Hebdo staff, and yet realise that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceable, kind and charitable folk. You can be vehemently opposed to the Westboro Baptist Church and other right-wing Christianists, but highly supportive of liberal and progressive Christians like John Spong, Gene Robinson, Marcus Borg, etc. You can criticise Christianity’s evangelising and proselytising, but still appreciate its charitable efforts. You can think Dawkins is a pompous windbag, but appreciate the wonders of science, and the intellectual rigour of atheism and the scientific method. You can also be aware that some atheists wouldn’t know what intellectual rigour was if it got up and bit them. And so on.  It’s complicated. Very few things are either this or that.

The media must do better at presenting the complexity of these issues, and the complexities of religion. All too often, adherents of religion are presented as a bunch of extremist and/or homophobic bigots, when the reality is that those people are in a minority (65% of Christians believe that same-sex marriage is a good idea). Many media commentators (especially atheists) also write and speak as if fundamentalism was the “pure and original” form of religions, and more liberal interpretations are new-fangled and modern – whereas in fact, there has always been a liberal contingent in every religion. The Sufis (the liberal and mystical wing of Islam) go right back to the very early days of Islam. You can trace the tug-of-war between liberal mystics and legalistic bigots (and the whole range of people in between) throughout the text of the Bible, if you look at the textual analysis that has been around since the nineteenth century. And look at how the media depicts Pagans – it’s getting better, but there was a time when we only got coverage at Hallowe’en, and they always sought out the weirdest and wackiest members of the community to interview and photograph.

Freedom of speech is a good thing, but let’s use it to promote dialogue, tolerance, and mutual understanding, instead of using it to undermine, belittle, and trivialise.

Further reading

Black Lives Matter

I support equality. That means I support equality across the board – Black, Asian, Native American, white, lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, queer, genderqueer, cisgender, people with disabilities, older people, people of all religions and none.

The thing about equality is that it is not enough to say, in a vague and woolly manner, that you support equality for everyone, or that “all lives matter”.  Specific groups of people are being persecuted and killed in specific contexts, and there is a particular historical context for that persecution. That means that we have to understand the particular struggle in the particular context. That means we have to do the work to get involved; and to be good allies, we need to listen to the people who have been engaged in the struggle, and use our privilege to promote their voices and agendas, not talk over them and erase their voices. Ignoring the fact that Black people are being disproportionately targeted and killed is adding insult to injury. The reason we are focussing on the fact that Black lives matter right now is that there are large sections of society, most of them armed and dangerous, who seem not to agree.

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So that is why I want to add my voice to the statement, by millions of people, that Black lives matter. Black people are significantly and structurally disadvantaged by the system in the United States of America, and in other majority-white societies too. Black people are getting killed and attacked in large numbers. That is the result of systemic and ingrained racism.

We are focusing on Black lives right now, because they are the ones getting killed in huge numbers. LGBT people, women, and people with disabilities are much more likely to be killed if they are Black. Black men, women, and children have been shot to death by police. There is a full list here, going back to 1999. These deaths are completely out of proportion to the crimes committed by some of those killed; there is no death penalty for shoplifting, for example. Many of the people killed were innocent of any crime. None of them deserved to be killed.

It is hardly surprising that faced with the massive injustice of these deaths – 14 teenagers have been killed by police since Michael Brown’s death (and half of them were Black), including 12 year old Tamir Rice – people are driven to riot. It is hardly surprising that when a peaceful protest is faced by tanks and  guns, people start rioting. When the authorities are doing everything in their power to destroy your community and take away your well-being, of course you are going to riot.

Why have I been silent about this issue since 14 September 2014? Because I am so horrified by what is going on that I couldn’t find the words. I have hardly posted anything on this blog since that post – but I have been posting numerous articles on Facebook about Ferguson, systemic racism, and other killings of Black people, trying to change hearts and minds, and reading stuff myself, trying to get educated. I have joined a Facebook group that is campaigning against racial inequality, and involves real dialogue between Black people and white people. If there was a #BlackLivesMatter protest in England, I would join it. (Mindful of the issue of allies not speaking over the people we are trying to help, I am not sure it would be helpful if I organised one.)

Here in England, anti-racists and allies are busy campaigning against the racist bigotry of UKIP and other far-right groups. There are significant concerns that their anti-immigration rhetoric is being picked up by the mainstream parties. I am also engaged in a campaign – Movement for Justice by any means necessary – to prevent LGBT asylum seekers (the vast majority of whom are from Africa) from being sent back to countries where they would be persecuted. The asylum and immigration system in Britain is deeply unjust, and members of the MFJ mailing list (including me) write to the government to ask them not to deport people. Also in the UK, there is a massive backlash against people with disabilities and a rise in homophobia and transphobia, all triggered by the rhetoric of the neo-conservative ConDem coalition.

If I was in the USA right now, I would be out there joining in the protests – but using these 5 tips for how to be an ally by Chesca Leigh. As I am not in the USA, I am trying to figure out what I can do to fight racism here at home, and trying to raise awareness about the issues via Facebook and Twitter and everyday conversations.

As a Pagan and as a human being, I believe that all people are equal, but that different oppressions arise in different contexts, and therefore we must address oppression and inequality in context, and we must engage in the struggle for equality, using all the tools at our disposal, because nothing is going to be handed to us on a plate by the powers that be – every right that we possess has been struggled for by generations of activists. The right to vote in Britain was gained by riots in the 1830s, and the protests of the suffragettes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The rights to fair pay, maternity leave, health and safety at work, equal pay, limited working hours, and all the rest, were gained by the efforts of trades unions. It is a myth that we get these things by waiting patiently.

I will finish with a quote from Rosa Parks:

I’m tired of being treated like a second-class citizen.

Patheos Pagan on Ferguson and Police Brutality

Other Pagan bloggers speak out 

Systemic racism, othering, and alienation

I can’t imagine killing another human being. Can you?

I can imagine the circumstances where I might do so, if it was kill or be killed. But I don’t want to dwell on the details.

Research has shown that soldiers have to be trained to kill, otherwise they shoot to maim rather than to kill. The deep instinct of a human being is not to kill another human being.

So how did we get to a situation where, almost every week it seems, another young Black man gets shot by a police officer in the USA? How did we get to a situation of Israelis slaughtering Palestinians in Gaza, war in Syria, ISIL murdering Yezidis and Christians?

I believe that the answer is that the killers must be trained to see their victims as not human. They see them as other, as being of less worth than a person of the same ethnic group or the same religion as themselves. We can see this in white supremacist ideology and in the deadly rhetoric about the Palestinians, the Yezidis, and Christians in the Middle East.

The situation with the Palestinians, the Yezidis, and Ferguson, Missouri are all linked in my mind – not just because they were all happening at the same time, but because the root cause of all three situations seems quite similar: two distinct groups (ethnic and/or religious) occupying the same space, one of them more powerful than the other, and desiring the elimination or subjugation of the other.

I am not arguing for assimilation of one group into another – assimilation is just as violent and destructive as elimination (look at the effects of such policies on Australian Aborigines and First Nations peoples). I am saying that we need to respect and value diversity as a healthy way for a community to be.

There are many processes by which one group comes to regard another group as “not human”. One of these is the alienation produced by capitalism, in which we are divided from ourselves, divided from the work of our hands, separated from Nature, and separated from each other. Instead of seeing other people as people, capitalism sees them as commodities, resources, units of work and cost.

But the practice of othering is far older than capitalism. Look at the mass slaughter of the Crusades, the persecution of heretics and alleged witches, the pogroms against the Jews throughout medieval Europe. In each of these, the targeted group was seen as less than human. There was even a medieval legend that Jews had tails. Jews were made to dress differently so as to be easily identifiable, and to live in separate enclaves (ghettos and shtetls). They were only allowed to work at certain occupations, such as moneylending.

Now compare these with the systemic racism against Black people. Black people are regarded as other; they are discriminated against in employment and education; they are treated as potential criminals wherever they go; their hairstyles referred to as “unkempt”. It is only a generation or two since the end of segregation in the United States. But the attitudes that gave rise to segregation are still widespread.

Combine that with routinely giving guns to the police, and the authoritarian and white supremacist attitudes of many police officers, and it is hardly surprising that so many Black men and women are getting killed, just for “walking while Black”. Even in the United Kingdom, where access to guns for the general population is far more restricted and the police do not routinely carry guns, more Black and minority ethnic people get arrested or stopped and searched than white people. And there are still shootings of Black and minority ethnic people: Mark Duggan, Jean Charles de Menezes.

Many white people seemingly cannot understand the legitimate anger and frustration of Black people. Try to imagine being afraid just to walk down the street, in case you get arrested and killed. Try to imagine being afraid just to send your son to school, in case his walking out the door in the morning is the last time you see him alive. Try to imagine being turned down for employment just because of the colour of your skin. Try to imagine people asking where you’re from, and not accepting the answer of a place in the same country, because you must be from somewhere else, right? Try to imagine being someone’s token Black friend. Read about the experiences of Black people in being confronted with systemic racism, ingrained in the very institutions that we take for granted will treat us as equals (unless we are female or LGBT, but that’s a different blogpost).

This is a quote from Pam Duggan, Mark Duggan’s mother:

Mark was a peacemaker. He had a soft heart and he loved life. I have to be strong for the sake of Mark’s children, my grandchildren, and the rest of my family. But my life has changed so much since the police shot Mark. Sometimes I’m scared to go out. And if I see a police car driving down the street my whole body starts to shake. I think that the officer who killed Mark could be in that car or that they’ve got guns and might do to someone else what they did to Mark.

A Huffington Post article compared the scenes in Ferguson with the street battles of the Civil Rights era. The only difference was that the Ferguson photos were in colour and the police were more heavily armed.

Even middle-class Black people are not immune: look what happened to Charles Belk and Henry Louis Gates. And it is not just Black men who are targeted: many Black women have also been killed by police.

Recently I posted some UK government statistics on my Facebook wall, comparing the numbers of arrests and convictions of Black and minority ethnic people in Britain, and asked whether people thought that they represented racism in the justice system. One person shared the following anecdote:

A doctor driving a blood sample to the lab late at night, in his own car. Stopped by the police, who want to give him a breathalyser test, check his licence, and want to know what’s in the bottle. They give him a very hard time while he repeatedly tells them: he’s a doctor, he works *here*, he’s driving the blood to *here*, yes, this is his car, no, he is sober, he is on call, he doesn’t drink when on call…. Eventually a phone call from the lab wanting to know where the blood sample was convinces the police he really is who he says he is, and they let him go suspiciously. White lab staff find this bewildering and inexplicable, they’ve never heard of the police bothering doctors on call before. Black doctor doesn’t, and notes that this is why he wears a respectable suit-and-tie at all times when driving his expensive car.

That is institutional racism. The assumption that a Black person is more likely to be a criminal, that the expensive car they are driving must be stolen, that they are involved in a gang, or shoplifting, or that they have a gun or a knife.

The Macpherson Report defines institutional racism as:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

Systemic racism is a similar concept to institutional racism, but it occurs when the way a society is structured systematically ends up giving advantages to some and disadvantages to others. Individual racists are a problem, but it is when the system gives them a free pass to act out their violent supremacist views that we have a systemic problem. Consider the difference in response to the Ferguson protests and the Bundy protests. Benjamin Corey writes:

The piece that completely tipped the scale for me was this piece which illustrates the response to protestors in Ferguson compared to protesters at the Bundy Ranch. At the Bundy Ranch, armed whites confronted the government to stand along side a rancher who’s been stealing from the government. They went as far as having weapons drawn on the police– and the response? The government backed down.

Compare that to Ferguson, where protesters have been met with police who were more armed up than the folks I served next to in Operation Allied Force (and I’m not even kidding).

If you do not believe in systemic or institutionalised racism, have a look at these statistics. Black people are systemically discriminated against in housing, schooling, and employment, from preschool onwards. Black children are more likely to be suspended from school, punished more harshly for misdemeanours, and regarded as less innocent than white children. African American job candidates are less likely to be hired on the assumption that “they do drugs”, and more likely to be arrested on suspicion of drug possession, despite the fact that white people take more drugs than Black people. Black people are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated, and more harshly treated by the system than white people. Frankly, I am not surprised that the people of Ferguson, Missouri, took to the streets in protest. I am surprised that they didn’t start a revolution.

August 15 protests in Ferguson. Photo by Loavesofbread

August 15 protests in Ferguson – a peaceful protest. Photo by Loavesofbread

So what can we do about systemic racism? I honestly don’t know, apart from the usual suggestions of education and cultural change. But I do know that we need to acknowledge its existence and start working to bring about change.

One very striking example of the transformation of a racist society is that of South Africa, and its Truth and Reconciliation process. South Africa is still a society with large economic and social injustices, but it is a lot less racist than it was.

The first step to rectifying the situation is to acknowledge the endemic racism in the system. We need to stop seeing a specific group of people as being of less worth than other people. We need to stop being frightened of people who dress differently, walk differently, or talk differently. Instead of trying to force people into a dehumanised mass of work units, we need to see every human being as having inherent worth and dignity.