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Real Anti-racism Will Involve Mistakes

By now, if you are a Pagan Internet addict like me, or one of the less than “.25% of all of Pagandom” that attended this year’s PantheaCon, you have already heard about the controversy sparked by PantyCon, the satirical workshop schedule that is, apparently, an annual feature of the gathering.  Among other offerings was this mock workshop listing on racism:
Ignoring Racism: A Workshop for White Pagans
Large Umbrella Pagan Group
Isn’t all this talk of social justice and racism just tiring? Don’t you wish you could just ignore it and put out meaningless statements of pure pablum? We’ll discuss how to ignore requests for consideration by pagans of color, cover up racist actions of high-ranking members, and pretend that you don’t understand the resulting outrage. Remember, #AllLivesMatter, except when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient.
Large Umbrella Pagan Group has been around for long enough that they think that they can get away with this stuff.
This has been the cause of considerable offense, first among people of color in attendance at PantheaCon, and then by many white Pagans present at the event, including the head of programming, who explained “that the staff was actively investigating to find out who wrote it, and if/when they found out who wrote it, that person would be ejected from the conference for violating the [anti-harassment] policy” of the con.

All of this was reported in the blogosphere, and the satirists, while not disclosing their identities, have issued an apology.

Meanwhile, it has become a matter for a good deal of discussion throughout the Pagan web, and I find myself troubled by much of the commentary I have read from Pagans so far.  Most of what I’m reading are ringing condemnations of the satirists for their “racist joke.”  The entire matter seems to be very simple for us white Pagans, in many comments: bad people did something bad, and it is now our job to shame them.

Let me come clean for you. When I first read the piece myself, I could not see what made the description offensive. It looked funny to me, in fact.
As someone who was dismayed by the Covenant of the Goddess’s first, insipid attempt at a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, I felt that the piece was a pretty reasonable send-up of an organization that had walked right into it–and probably represented plenty of other Pagan groups, too.

As a white Pagan, I felt the critique was aimed at me and mine, and that it was both funny and deserved.  
That could have been me making that joke.

What’s more, it will be me, making some other mistake tomorrow, almost certainly. Because the truth is, the only way I can be completely sure of not saying anything offensive about racism is not to say anything about racism. Which is not OK.

With some unpacking, with the help of my friends, I was finally able to grasp why that piece may not be so funny to a person of color: my feeling of certainty that, “Oh, of course nobody would think that was real” comes from not my not living the daily experience of racism. What seems over the top and implausible to me turns out to be actually the everyday, lived experience of many people of color.
Oh.  Huh.

Whoops.  (Cat looks abashed)  Yeah, I see it now.

I don’t think I’m all that unusual in how I responded to this piece.

Maybe it’s arrogant of me, but I am frankly skeptical that all of the many white Pagan voices I’m hearing crying out against the satirists saw immediately what I didn’t.  I think it’s simply easier for us to select a villain from among our ranks and hold them up as if they were the problem. Here’s a racist! we cry. Who made a racist joke! And then we act utterly shocked.

When really, the truth is, here’s a writer with the same blind spots many of us white Pagans share, who made a blunder in what was clearly intended to be an anti-racist joke.

We say that intention does not matter in determining what is racist–and in the end, that is so.

But I think there are an awful lot of us who are jumping on this guy because we want to distract anyone, including ourselves, from understanding that we could make a similar blunder ourselves. We are “buying indulgences” as one friend called it–by sacrificing one well-meaning, blundering white person, we hope never to become objects of shame ourselves.

And that… smells really bad to me.

A few voices, privately, tell me this is why they don’t comment on racism.  As Jonathan Korman put it, they have decided “that they had best not engage in discussions of racism at all, lest a misstep make them a target of overwhelming criticism by the community.

The truth is, racism has touched everybody. Everybody has internalized, implicit racism–certainly every white person.  White people need to be honest about the fact that racism, like water, has seeped into all of our basements.

Some of us don’t even want to know how bad it is down there, and some of us are doing what we can to clear it out and seal the damned foundations… but those of us with white skin have blind spots and places where systemic racism has crept in and grown mold on our souls.

We need to recognize that. We need to own our own messes, apologize when we screw up, and then get back to work figuring out how to clean out our basements and be better partners at deconstructing white supremacism.

It’s not about public stonings for those who blunder: it’s about being willing to risk blundering in order to be engaged, and to apologize quickly when we do, and then to return to doing our best to do better.

Hermanidad. Rufino Uribe, 2005
As another wise friend of mine, Patricia Hawkins pointed out, satire depends on trust.  The white Pagan community has yet to earn the trust of members who are people of color… and we need to.  Silence–or putting on a pretense of anti-racist perfection–are not acceptable substitutes.


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