Thoughts On … Bringing Race to the Table

raceBringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, published by Immanion Press, was released just this year, and already it’s making a big splash, at least in terms of the on-line pagan blogosphere. (I can’t speak to much beyond that; I’m not involved in local community and my social media network exposure is pretty much just Facebook and blogs). When I first heard about this book being in the works I knew it would be a book I’d be adding to my (virtual) bookshelf. Having since devoured it, I have to say: I wish it was more affordable to purchase the physical book, because this is a book I want to have multiple copies on hand, to hand out as needed. Before I jump into my praise, let me share my thoughts about the book. Before I do that, let me explain where I’m coming from.

I’m pagan, I’m a polytheist, I’m cisgendered female, and I’m white. I grew up in New England, in a small town that was not overly diverse. (The town I grew up in prided itself on being religiously diverse, but what they meant was there were thirteen to fourteen Christian churches). When I was in grade school we had a black family move into town, and our school had an assembly to prepare us for this event, to help us realize that our new classmates were people just like us. I’m not talking the 1960s here. This was in the mid to late ‘80s. I lived in this town until I was 19, I moved to a similarly small New England mill town for a few years, and then I relocated to north eastern PA, and then I landed in Philadelphia. I did not fully appreciate the cultural diversity of living in a major city until my first trip back to New England to visit. I remember walking through T.F Green, looking at the faces around me, and wondering what looked so strange to me. “There’s something out of place, what is it?” Oh! Most of the faces all looked the same! Huh. Weird.

In my beginning forays into the topic of privilege and all the many forms it can take, I’ve brought up the same arguments others have used. I’m not privileged, because I’m part of  a minority religion, or because I’m female, or because I grew up poor, or because I grew up in an unstable home, or any of these other reasons. It wasn’t until I came across an article using male privilege to help people understand how one type of marginalization does not cancel out whatever privilege one might have, that I internalized yes, white privilege is a thing alive and well in the world, and I benefit from it. I realized, the majority of the aspects of my life where I could face marginalization, I can decide from day to day whether or not I want to “fight” that particular battle in each particular moment. Really, except for being female, I’ve got a ton of privilege. Do I see it as such? Do I even think about it all that much? Well, these days, more and more, but previously? No — and that’s a huge part of the problem.

I’m coming to this review intimidated and slightly afraid to speak — but I’m coming to realize that being afraid to speak, being afraid to raise our voices in support, in community, should not be a reason to remain silent. Do I even have a right to have an opinion on this book, on this subject? I think: yes, providing that I’m willing to be silent, to listen, when it’s time to do so. I think: yes, because this book needs to be discussed, word of mouth needs to get out there.

I want to sit down with this book and share with you, essay by essay, why this book is so important. Why it’s touched me, why I hope it touches you, why I think every pagan out there needs to read it. Since I’d rather you just read it rather than read my thoughts on each contribution, I’m not going to do that. I am going to speak of ones in particular that reached into my heart or tore some more blindness from my eyes or conjured discomfort, guilt, and shame so that I could name them, sit with them, and decide what I would do about them.

The book is divided into three main sections. Part One focuses on anecdotal stories — the experience of racism by people of color within paganism. Going in, this was the section I knew I wanted to read. I am best able to see where other people are coming from if they share with me some of their experiences — it’s part of my worldview that stories are how we connect, to our own humanity, to the humanity of others, to the inherent worth of others and the worlds we share. Going in, I thought, in my growing awareness of these problems (that they even exist), that I would find value, sure, but that my eyes were already open, so there would not be much in the way of revelation. I went in knowing racism is a problem. I went in knowing that systemic racism is as bad (worse, I’d argue, though it’s all theoretical for me since our society has been built to privilege my race; the only racism I can suffer is the personal, private racism, and since our culture backs my race, I can still choose to be not bothered by it. I’m not going to lose my job because I’m white) than personal, private racism, and that white privilege was a powerful thing. I went in thinking that I’m an ally, I’m a good ally, my partner’s daughter is biracial damn it, I’m not one of those people.

The very first essay, the very very first one, took any ideas I had of what I thought I knew, tore it to pieces in front of me, and stomped it into the ground. In “Between the Worlds” Reluctant Spider recounts her journey to paganism, the frustrations of having to be a representative for whatever group you might fit into (something I suspect pagans or any minority religious group could understand to one degree or another, after all, are we not cognizant of the fact that, for better or worse, we represent not only other pagans — whether or not we view them as co-religionists — but also our very gods and spirits to the mainstream world? At the same time, I don’t for one second feel burdened to have to represent all 30-something year old cisgendered women. Nor do I feel like I represent all white women, or all ex-New Englanders, and so on.) and the frustration, too, at coming to paganism only to be met with more WASP mindsets, attitudes, and limitations. Much of her story touched me in ways I wasn’t expecting, but the part which really drove home her point to me was this: as recently as 2014, in a quick experiment with Google, she entered in the term Goddess. 21 images in, she finally saw a person of color. 35 images in there was finally someone whose skin tone reminded her of her own — though this image sounds more like some Northern European image with the skin color changed, nothing more. This hit me in the gut, not so much because of artistic representation or lack-there-of, but because what it means about the stories we are telling in general, the stories that we’re putting out into the world, the stories that are there for us to bring to ourselves. As a writer of sacred fiction (as well as other kinds) this hit me hard. If we are unwilling to read, hear, see, and share the stories of the gods and spirits that touch our worlds, what kind of a world are we trying to build? What if I reached out, and I could not find an image I could relate to? Whatever I believe the form of the divinities to be does not matter here — what matters is connection, and we connect through visual form, most of us. For crying out loud, this is why in the West so many images of Jesus show him fair of hair and face. I’ll bet good money that Jesus of Nazareth did not have eyes that matched my baby blues.

My discomfort did not stop there. Another essay that forced me to sit, to really sit with my discomfort was Janet Callahan’s “Native Appropriation.” Cultural appropriation is a topic I steer away from. I don’t have any easy answers, and I feel like nothing other than a hypocrite when I open my mouth. I’m an American of mixed European descent — my ancestors hailed from Ireland, England, Germany, and Scotland. Yes, I could make a claim for my ethnic background making it “okay” that I worship Odin, but I’m never interested in that, because I’m firmly in the “the gods call whom They will,” camp. I struggle with: how much does culture have to go along with religion? Are there some people out there who believe I’m guilty of cultural appropriation since I also worship Poseidon? Yes, in fact I know there are pagans out there who believe only modern  day Hellenes or descendants of past Hellenes have any place worshiping the Hellenic gods — and there is nothing in this world that will keep me from worshiping Poseidon, speaking my praise of Him, adoring Him, loving Him. So, the topic always makes me freeze up. What are they saying? Are they saying that white people can’t be touched by the spirits that live in this land our ancestors invaded, that we continue to invade, with our contemporary ignorance and wrong idea that this all happened in the past and isn’t still going on? Why does this voudoun get to say no, when my experience is telling me that this lwa or that lwa is reaching out to me? Why can’t we celebrate and honor traditions that speak to our hearts? Why isn’t the fact that we are lacking our own traditions enough for us to take this practice, and that practice, and fill these holes in our hearts, in our souls?

This is what Janet demanded I sit with, and I didn’t like it. It’s a complicated, nuanced, heavy topic with no obvious solution. There’s no pat answer to the topic of cultural appropriation, because not every group speaks for every group. It’s up to each group to decide, “Yes, this is okay if these conditions are met,” or “No, it is never okay for you to adopt these things/you cannot be part of this culture.” When I speak of culture — in the arrangement of beliefs, history, traditions, and worldview that shapes how we engage in the world sense — and our lack of culture in America, I don’t mean that we don’t have culture. We obviously do, though culture in the above sense is more regional and less across-the-whole-country, and all of it is riddled through by consumerism. Many religious types (and this is true in the monotheistic faiths as well) feel a disconnect, a lack of spiritual connection, with the overculture in they contemporaries . . . And I think it’s natural to look around and scoop up what you find, that helps fill that void. In our lack of meaningful culture, though, I suspect we lose a bit of empathy and compassion for others coming from whichever culture we seize upon. We don’t believe we have anything worth defending, anything of value in the culture that is not fulfilling us, and so it’s harder to empathize with those whose cultures stir something within us. What’s the big deal? We’re hurting, we’re in spiritual need, we are thirsting and look at that clear well that you have, why don’t you want to share?

The personal experiences contained in the first part of this collection offer us the change to see exactly why they might not want to share, and bulldozing over those reasons by insisting that our needs matter more than theirs just furthers the problem.

The second part of the book focuses on racism as its presented both in historical and mythological contents, and why denying that racism is present in our histories (and thus the present that we are building upon our histories) is dangerous. This section was thought provoking as well, but more in an academic way.

The third part of the book focuses addresses allies. It features allies talking to one another. It features People of Color talking to allies and potential allies and allies who make things worse rather than better. Over and over the plea is given: know when to be silent. Stop making everything about you. Learn how to sit in discomfort, confusion, pain, and hold in your mind that the world does not exist to make you comfortable, to lend you clarity, to ease your pain, to serve you.

It is always those in the positions of power — whether we seek to be powerful or whether our power is an accident of birth — to expect the world to order itself around us. As pagans, do we not have a more holistic idea of the intersectionality of the worlds? Do we not glimpse that maybe ‘the real world’ is made up a variety of worlds that overlap? Do we really believe that the world is there for us, to use, to comforted by, to shape around our needs? Who says we deserve comfort? What does deserve really have to do with anything, if we aren’t willing to accept that humans — or all beings, even — deserve to have these things. To know comfort, clarity of mind, and security in being. Why do I ‘deserve’ to not be challenged when so many people are challenged every day, not because of who the worship or where they live, or who they love, but because of the color of their skin?

This is a hard, hard book to read. Or, maybe not. Maybe for you, coming from where you come from, with the past you have and the friends you have and the worlds you inhabit, it won’t be. For me? It was humbling, at times humiliating, embarrassing, uncomfortable, and constantly emotionally hard. Reading Bringing Race to the Table was nothing short of an initiation. It requires that I look into the mirror, every single day, and it demands that I hold in my mind the experiences of others. I cannot change the world. I can barely change my small piece of the world, but I can change myself . . . And the world cannot be made better until we are willing to change ourselves and attempt to make it better.

If there has been one book on paganism and community that I’ve read in the last five years that I think every pagan should read, it’s this one.  I am grateful to the contributors of this collection for their time, their words, and their willingness to share their experiences with us. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

[Jolene Dawe is a polytheist devoted to Poseidon and Odin. She is the author of Treasures from the Deep, a collection of Poseidon’s myths retold, and The Fairy Queen of Spencer’s Butte and Other Tales. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her partner, a small horde of cats, one small dog, and three spunky spinning wheels. You can find her online at http://thesaturatedpage.wordpress.com%5D.]

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