The writer, the witch, the poet

Understanding what Racism looks like and its Impact on POC

Understanding what Racism looks like and its Impact on POC

Feb 21, 2015

After the recent issues that came out at this year’s PantheaCon convention, I have seen thread after thread asking the same questions of POC. It seems that people are trying to conceptualize the reality that POC are faced with racism within the Pagan community, and this challenge is intensified by the lack of collective understanding of what racism actually looks like, how it survives in a community and how that dynamic shapes the experiences of marginalized peoples.
So in a recent thread I found myself writing an incredibly long, details response about the nature of what racism looks and feels like for me, as a Black woman. The same questions keep popping up…. What exactly made POC feel unsafe, why would POC feel unsafe, why are POC so sensitive and can’t just ignore it……
The answers are still the same.
I apologize for the long post… it is the only way.

I have stepped away in an attempt to try and figure out how to approach even answering some of the questions. I came to a conclusion, while running through the halls of the West Oakland school I work at. If someone does not understand the fundamentals of what oppression does then it is impossible to answer the questions that have been posed by others because it is like trying to put a program for a PC on a MAC computer. This is an important thing for me to note here because all things then trickle down from that point and definitions are given different context. The context of a hostile environment is very different within different contexts. Without that understanding, people will look for things that do not equate in this environment. So let’s explore the difference in overt racism and aversive racism. One of the text I was reading in school last year talked about how aversive racism is the biggest issue on the racism continuum today because people do not recognize it as racism unless you are the targeted population. It is hidden in biases and preferences. If dealing with racism boiled down to people saying stupid things to us, we have been dealing with that for a couple hundred years. Ignoring ignorance is not the problem. But for the sake of understanding (or maybe not) let’s explore that.

Overt racists statements are not something new in Pagan events, not just in this one. It is not something that happens one time. It is something we deal with constantly, from hearing people refer to Niggers to not being able to participate in a rite because of racial purity. You are asking for specifics for THIS ONE SNAPSHOT IN TIME to make it real for you, and yet missing all the information that has been given. Yes, there were overt statements made this year. Yes it was reported to Con. Yes they are aware.

 

There were statements made about people being half-breeds, there were workshops that taught as a part of the workshop about the fundamentals of racist texts, there was a huge dispute in the parking lot about racial purity, there was a huge issue with another workshop where some comments were made about a specific ethnic group. There were some Pagans that were overheard, talking about wishing the workshop for white Pagans to ignore racism was real.

 

The issue of people calling out “racist” while walking past the POC suite, or going in very confrontational to challenge the presence of a POC suite is a NORMAL occurrence. It didn’t just happen this year. It has happened every year, several times a day, for the last 3 years it has existed. Suite staff spoke very clearly about this in Monday’s forum, to the point of telling everyone that it has become a running joke… anticipating the timing of the next one.

 

Now… let’s talk about aversive racism. The racism that is embedded within conditioning… the one that is really hard to see. These often translate as microaggresions to people of color. Microaggressions happen when people don’t even realize it is offensive and yet they are. They are the biases that happen, the things people don’t see as racist, that very clearly alienate or express preference or thoughts to a POC around such issues. They are the statements like “oh…. we are a Wiccan circle, you must work with Egyptian Gods….” or… “Why don’t you work with your own religions?” or…. purposefully using slang or “urban” dialog when a POC enters the conversation, or referring to Paganism as “only” European, or………. discounting the experiences of POC. Or how about “you talk different than other Black people”. Or…. well, you have to be of primary European decent… and when asked how they prove that, there is no way but by sight. (yes that happened to me, ALL of those things happened to me and many others)

 

They are the things that CLEARLY translate a knowing that alienates or “others”… marginalizing the POC in that space. I personally have heard every… single… one .. of those… statements….  And what was amazing to me was traveling and /or speaking to other POC from different areas for the Shades books.. and hearing them echo to me the same shit. And yes such things were said and done this year. They always are.

 

So then I go back to my original point. What is a hostile environment? What is a threat? If this stuff is going on throughout (not just regular society) but within Pagan community all over…. why would POC feel wanted, welcomed or safe? Why do we think the numbers of POC at events are so low? Where are all the POC in our community?

 

And another note……… the setting up of support systems and escorting one another around was done BEFORE we got to con. Why? Because it is a normal experience within Paganism. It is what is our normal… it is what we live with. So when someone is asking for a specific something to prove that we are justified in feeling unsafe, it is obvious that the very definitions of oppression, marginalization, othering and the functions of racism are missing.

 

That is why the whole idea of questioning victimization is just wrong. It immediately says to a minority (in ethnicity and numbers) that they have to prove that what they experienced really is something real to people who do not and cannot know what that is like. We have to reach into comparisons to help the translations… compare to being a woman or other categories to help make the connection. We have to work hard just to build a culture of understanding so that we can support people in paying attention to the harm we are experiencing.

 

(here we go)…. it is like telling a woman to retell her experience of being raped to every person who doesn’t know what rape feels like….. (in descriptive detail) and then prove to them that it didn’t have anything to do with their clothing or leading people on… or that they were looking for it. Or to verbalize what PTSD post rape feels like and how the visceral reaction feels when a man looks intently at her breasts or eyeballs her up and down, or uses the creepy voice when saying how beautiful she is….  Over… and over… and over again.

 

Why is a POC caucus important? Because we don’t have to do THAT. Everyone in that room knows. They experience it. So someone can stand up and just talk….. and be heard, and understood, and validated.

 

So. In this very long response, I have given very clear examples of things that happened at this particular event, and that happen all the damn time and in multiple venues. Why? Because until people understand that this is not a Pcon problem but a cultural problem, an insensitivity problem, a tone deaf problem, a conditioning problem…. nothing will get done and nothing will change.

17 comments

  1. rosejayada /

    Thank you so much for posting this! I was in a conversation today where I wanted to be able to link that post directly, because it’s so succinct. Now I can :)

  2. Oh hell YES! Thank you, Crystal, for writing this. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  3. Jacki Richardson /

    I had a POC ask me just exactly *what* happened that was “so bad” at P-con. It was perfect to be able to share this as there is this underlying message that person had gotten from others was that somehow this wasn’t nearly as bad as it seemed and the reaction was over the top. Thank you for posting this because this says so well what is difficult for me to capture in words. <3

  4. Thank you so much for this post.

  5. Brilliant work, Crystal.

  6. Jo Butler /

    As a white woman, I have a brief analysis of racism in the so-called pagan community. – White privilege. Whites continue to deny others experience because we, whites, do not share the experience of oppression. I am a crone and have been pagan for more than 40 years. Crystal – I send you blessings, support, and strength. Keep speaking your truth. (BTW I see racism in every all white circle, because it is all white.)

  7. Florence Edwards-Miller /

    Thank you for this Crystal. I’m sorry that you had to articulate this, but I’m thankful that you did. I would have thought that more white Pagans could extrapolate the experience of being a religious minority and conclude that there are challenges for being a racial minority that they don’t personally witness… but that might be hoping for too much.

    I hope we can continue the conversation in the community as to what actions we, as a Pagan community, can take to not just avoid hurting Pagans of color, but actually being supportive and welcoming. We can and must be better than this.

  8. I’ve been thinking about how to get white folks to understand tge need for POC space. As a white person, my understanding is that POC need a space to rest, receive support, not have to explain everything all the time, and have their own experience be normative. I’m sure there are nuances to this that I’m missing, not being a POC. But it strikes me that one analogy that might help white Pagans begin to understand is to think about why PCon itself exists as a Pagan space, as opposed to an interfaith gathering with a majority of Christian attendees. Of course this is an imperfect analogy, but white Pagans who are uncomfortable with POC only space might reflect on the difference in how these two hypothetical conferences would feel as a beginning to try to understand.

  9. anoldguy /

    I am white. My life has been mostly de-facto segregated. I live in the rural end of the suburbs of a major US city. Most of the people I know are white. A rare few are POC. I have had various experiences with POC in my life, some good, some not so good. The same with white people, I suppose, though there were some unpleasant experiences I have only had with POC. That said, it can feel awkward to me to be with POC, there is always in my mind a shadow of the racial problems. I never have had enough time or closeness to talk through my experiences. I do deeply want to find some release of this tension, but none seems available. I wonder if a similar sort of tension sometimes perpetuates the separations. You talk about how the POC caucus is important as a shelter from aversive racism. I can understand that. I can also understand how being in the minority can leave a person of color constantly bombarded with questions. It seems kind of like being an emergency room doctor … you see nothing but sick people, and this can affect how you understand the world. My own small tensions sometimes bring me to tears. I imagine that some, perhaps many, POC feel this much more hugely than I do. How can we heal this rift? I know that having more experiences with POC might help me. Experience can wash away any old habits of reaction. I can’t speak for what you have experienced, but I hope there are ways we can move away from where we are now. I do hope that there are many people and places where the tensions are less. More integrated societies, or ones where differences are more commonplace, less loaded, and are cherished or unimportant, depending on the individuals involved.

  10. this is why i don’t deal with other pagan people in strange settings. only the ones i know personally. i do not engage in ritual with new people, pray or meditate with new people. unless i know for sure that the individual(s) in question are not going to say crazy racist shit to me, i will not worship or work magic with them.

  11. They are the statements like “oh…. we are a Wiccan circle, you must work with Egyptian Gods….” or… “Why don’t you work with your own religions?” or…. purposefully using slang or “urban” dialog when a POC enters the conversation, or referring to Paganism as “only” European, or………. discounting the experiences of POC. Or how about “you talk different than other Black people”. Or…. well, you have to be of primary European decent… and when asked how they prove that, there is no way but by sight.

    This part really stuck out to me. Don’t get me wrong the rest of the behavior you describe is downright heinous and unacceptable.

    But, Wow. Talk about a willful lack of self-awareness, not to mention ignorance of one’s own religious traditions.

    Consider the number of white people who practice Voodoo, or misappropriate Hindu deities (An Indian-American friend of mine is the son of Hindu clergy. He foams at the mouth whenever modern Tantra comes up.), or mix and match pantheons.

    And don’t even get me STARTED on the comments about slang/language use or the assumption that all black people must be of Egyptian heritage…

    I am neither black nor part of a pagan tradition, but I would like to stand with you in solidarity.

    You have the right not only to be treated with respect and dignity in your chosen community, but also to have access to safe sacred spaces.

  12. David Legare /

    What hit me hardest was the intimation that color could bar someone from a given pantheon. I work with a person of color who is descended from Irish slaves transported to the U. S. in the 17th century. While he is not pagan, I would fully expect that, if he were, the celtic pantheon would make perfect and unassailable sense for him. In his case, it is a question of heritage. I believe, however, that all of us have the right and responsibility to work with the deities who speak to us, regardless of our heritage. It hurts deeply to see racial purity still used. As an anthropologist, I can unequivocally say that, physically and genetically, race does not exist. There is only variation in the population. It is what makes us adaptable and strong.

  13. BlairSanne /

    Thank you so much for this post. <3

  14. Ahhhh, thanks so much for sharing! As a POC, I’ve struggled for some time with the idea of attending any pagan functions for fear of having to deal with all the things you shared. I deal with it enough in my work and family life (yes, family, as I’m bi-racial and all my white relatives are dearly loved but racist), I don’t want to deal with it in a spiritual setting as well.

    I’ve actually tested out possible acceptance into a pagan community in Chicago by simply visiting pagan stores to catch a “vibe”. The last store I went to left me thinking the solo practitioner route my best bet. The owners just quietly stared at me! Uncomfortable to say the least.

    Maybe, one day I’ll muster enough strength to attend something. Your site has given me hope!

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