On Doing Nothing, Pt 1: On Listening, Not Derailing

Let Pagans of Colour Speak

Let’s start with some stories told by Pagans of colour in the Pagan community, about their experiences there. All very much worth reading. Indeed, I don’t think you can properly participate in the current ‘controversy’ in the Pagan blogosphere if you haven’t read some writing by Pagans of colour on this subject.

The Invisibility Cloak: Race and the Pagan. A Pagan who goes by the username Black Witch talks at AfroPunk about how the Pagan community reacts when criticised by minorities within it, including people of colour, about how it treats them. It’s disturbingly similar to some of the reactions in the current ‘controversy’. “Let the minority open its mouth, even criticize Pagans and their shortcomings in the culture department and watch that cooing and sympathy drop quick. All of a sudden, it’s “We’re being attacked” and rationalizing ahoy… Mention words like “institutional racism”, “tokenization” and “privilege” and up come the defenses. I’ve dealt with a stunning variety of Pagan women or Pagan men who thought they don’t benefit at all from any form of institutional anything and definitely not privilege because they’re Pagan, bigotry only benefits you if you’re Christian….”

KW on Being Black and Pagan. “As a minority in a minority religion, the most frequently asked question I get is “How can you be a Pagan, you’re BLACK?!” This implies that my religion is defined by my race, an assumption that I hope no one really thinks is valid… The call of the Gods is just as strong in us as it is in say, someone of Anglo-Saxon descent. Another assumption made is that if I am Pagan, then I must practice Vodoun and/or be pledged to the Orishas. If I am neither, then I must not respect my ancestors. This argument more than any other frustrates me. It assumes that you can tell my racial makeup by the color of my skin, it assumes that I’m ashamed to be an African- American, and it assumes I have no honor whatsoever for the family that bore me. None of these is true.”

On a topic very closely related and intertwined with racism and neocolonialism in Paganism: Crystal Blanton writes over at Daughters of Eve about Avoiding Appropriation and the Perpetuation of Privilege. “It is quite disheartening that we still live in a time when People of Color’s voices are silenced by those of dominant cultures within our society. While we are moving through a time of such intensity around the needs, pain and brutality being experienced by People of Color, especially Black People, it is one of the most important times to be self aware and cognizant of the ways we participate in the reinforcing of white supremacist culture in this country. We collectively support systems of oppression and harm by ignoring the damage, continuing the damage, being complacent in the face of the damage, or by using the power created by the damage, to thrive. All of these things support and reinforce systems of disenfranchisement and racism in this country and around the world.”

More from Black Witch, this time on a disturbing example of crypto-fascism in Paganism – she answers a question on exclusion of people of colour based on ‘genetics/heritage’ in Paganism. “In the Pagan community I interact with (which is mostly white), conversations often revolve around trying to figure out which of the European ethnic groups a person descends from is the one he/she/ze feels the most connected to, or identifies the most with, in order to pick out which flavor of ethnic Paganism (Germanic/Irish/etc.) to practice. I pointed out that this was a part of white privilege, from not having been subjected to the ethnocide of slavery, and that African-Americans didn’t have the luxury of picking out which ethnic group they feel like the most. One responder said that all African-Americans had to do was take a genetic test to determine which ethnic group they’re descended from, and make a pagan religion based on that…”

And don’t forget Kavita Maya, who is researching racism and neocolonialism in the goddess movement. Her work is very accessible to non-academic readers. Try this article to start with.

Let Us Listen

Speaking is easy. Listening is hard.

Imagine you’re on an axis of privilege in the current conversation. For example, you are a white person talking to or about people of colour. What do you think the balance of speaking vs listening should be?

I consider that, if we find ourselves too busy talking about the situation to listen to the people facing oppression, then we are participating in the oppression. We need to stop talking and listen.

It’s very hard to listen to people of colour in Paganism. This is partly because there are so very few of them (because of some of what is described above). Often, another reason is that their stories can make us uncomfortable about our privilege and about our religious and political positions. Both of which make it all the more important that we listen.

We are doing something wrong in Paganism. We are excluding people. You can tell by the sea of white faces in the Pagan community. You can tell by the stories people of colour tell and the work coming out of research they are doing. It is time for us to listen, to ask people why this is happening, and to listen to the answers. To stop talking, from our position of privilege as white Pagans in a white-dominated, white-washed Pagan community, and simply to listen.

Derailing the Conversation: A Form of Not Listening

Photo: White hand covering black mouth. Text above reads: “Black people created #BlackLivesMatter and then white people created #AllLivesMatter. Pictoral representation.”

There is something in debating called derailing. It is about turning the conversation around, making it about something else (e.g. about you), so that you don’t have to address what the other person is saying. By derailing, you ensure you don’t have to face the darker sides of yourself or of a situation. It allows you to talk, endlessly – rather than ever having to listen.

The following examples illustrate typical derailing strategies. Some are lifted straight from real conversations I’ve had or seen.

  • “I know some disabled people are living in terrible poverty, but we need to sort out the rates of disability benefit fraud*, and surely you don’t disagree that that’s a bad thing?” This involves changing the terms of the conversation, refusing to debate the issue that the marginalised person wants to talk about, and instead redirecting toward something that isn’t relevant but seems to be. It’s a silencing technique.
  • “Don’t call me a cis person. I haven’t chosen that word. Now I want to talk about me and how you’ve offended me, rather than the way I’m treating you.” Or, worse, “The debate about whether trans people should be allowed to use bathrooms appropriate to their gender is about safety! I’m not trans-phobic! I certainly don’t believe my majority views are going to lead to an increase in violence against and murder of trans people! I mean, does that even happen?” In the second example, the derailing involves changing the terms of the conversation, and erasing oppression in the process – not allowing the other person to speak about their oppression. In the first example, the speaker is moving the focus away from the marginalised person, onto themselves. This way the speaker doesn’t need to examine their views in any detail and can stay in their comfort zone. “You’ve offended me!” is heard far too often in debates around oppression and marginalisation – when it’s not actually about you.
  • People of colour experience this kind of derailing all the time, especially in settings where they are very marginalised (such as the Pagan community). One horrendous example is the way “Black lives matter” was hijacked, white people demanding that “All lives matter” be said instead. This prioritises the hurt feelings of the majority white population, who rarely have to fear police violence and don’t deal with the constant threat that they will be killed on the street, over the experiences of the oppressed group. It also once again changes the terms of the conversation, making it all about us. (Follow Crystal Blanton on social media to see the scary levels of racism and violence being faced by people of colour in the US today, as terrifying examples. If you still want to talk about your hurt feelings after seeing all of that, I’ll be surprised.)

Derailing takes the focus off the marginalised people calling for change, and focuses it back on the majority. It draws attention away from changes we need to make in ourselves, and turns it onto to our fragile feelings. You’ve offended me by calling me a racist/calling out my disablism/drawing my attention to my privilege in this situation.

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Image: a man on a roof with a megaphone. Source: A. Carroll, flickr

Of course, it’s a different situation when it’s a person from the majority group criticising the behaviour of others from the majority group. In many contexts, white people talking about black people are taken more seriously and find themselves listened to more. (That’s why I talk about trying to ‘hand back the megaphone’ that I have, as a white person, to people of colour (though I fail at this all the time), and why I value non-disabled allies of disability rights a great deal.)

And sometimes, in speaking about oppression, the majority ally gets it wrong, distracted by their own privilege. That’s where it gets really complicated. If you speak on behalf of others or in support of others, you have to do a lot of work to ensure your voice doesn’t drown out theirs. You have to be careful not to steal their ideas and pass them off as your own. And you have to be particularly attentive to your privilege and its effects. One example might be calling out racism in groups you do not belong to while claiming that the groups you do belong to are immune to it. (I have done this.)

We all make mistakes based on our privilege. When people on the axis of oppression draw our attention to these mistakes, it’s our responsibility to deal with the effects of our privilege there.

But if that’s all that people are ever talking about, and the people talking about this are the privileged people rather than the oppressed people, this can be a form of derailing. It is not acceptable to say “Ha! You’re doing some of the oppression you’re complaining about!” as a derailing tactic to avoid looking at ourselves, our darker sides, and our own oppression of others.

As my next post will talk about, I find it a particularly  worrying sign when the derailing response is to call people to unity and peace, refusing dealing with the issues of privilege and oppression that have been raised, in the process. “Oh no, more controversy in the Pagan community! I hate controversies! Why can’t we just be spiritual?” That’s erasure, silencing a conversation about oppression, and it’s dangerous. Especially in such an important controversy as this. This is not an inter-tradition debate over who worships their gods in a more correct manner, or an argument about what words we use for our traditions, or any other relatively minor differences/issues like that. This is about the ways we are oppressing the Other and slowly sleepwalking towards a community, and a society, that aims to exterminate that Other (whether literally or metaphorically). Our spirituality and religion are political. Claiming that they are not, or that they should not be, is worrying to me. But I’ll get to that.

We need to stop worrying about our feelings and start listening to the victims of our oppression. We will always be able to find something to criticise in the delivery of the message. The message itself is far more important than that.

Are we listening?

Which leads me to Part 2 of this post, which is coming up very shortly and which I will link to here when it’s done…

Three things it is everyone’s duty to do: listen humbly, answer discreetly, and judge kindly.

– Irish triad.

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*Disability benefits fraud accounts is at a rate of 0.5%, according to the DWP’s own estimates, by the way. But that’s another story for another time.