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On “Solidarity” and Privilege.

July 22, 2012 3 comments

I know this blog has been awfully quiet, and I’m extremely sporadic about updates. Generally speaking, something has to really move me to get me to write a post. Fortunately (or not), I found yet another one.

I’ve been lurking around the edges of the recent debates regarding Pagan women who choose to wear some form of head covering, largely because a) despite being prodded back into service by one of the deities commonly cited by veilers, I have not heard a single peep about adopting this practice for myself from him and thus, b) it’s none of my fucking business. I have deep reservations about the practice, and side-eye the hell out of a lot of the rationales of it that I’ve read on various veiler blogs, but it’s not my place to tell other women that they shouldn’t do it. That’s between y’all and y’all’s gods.

What finally prompted me to speak up about this practice, however, was a post someone linked me to, from the most “prominent” group of women engaging in this practice, about a “Wear a Veil in Solidarity Day”.

I’m not going into people’s space with this because I don’t especially feel like being dogpiled by a bunch of butthurt white women. I know damn well what happens when white privilege is called out in majority white spaces. So I’m going to say it here, instead:

Hold the entire fuck up, madams.

The debate I’m seeing, even in the comments of that post, is less about the idea of a solidarity day and going back to the debate of whether or not wearing head coverings is oppressive. I am not even getting into that particular shit here. I do not believe any woman of any faith background wearing any head covering by choice is inherently oppressive. I believe in a woman’s right to choose when it comes to covering or not, for whatever reason–modesty, spiritual power, whatever. Again, what you do in your private spiritual practice is between you and your gods.

This post is not about that, even though I have my own deeply held and well-considered views on the topic. This post is about questioning how largely middle class USian white women wearing veils as a gesture of “solidarity” without examining and deconstructing the white privilege inherent to veiling on a white body accomplishes anything more than feel-good self-aggrandizement for the largely middle class USian white women engaging in this action. (Spoilers: it doesn’t.)

It brings to mind the “solidarity” actions where throngs of socially conscious liberal white people of all ages posted photos of themselves on social media outlets wearing hoodies for Trayvon Martin, in another well-meaning and equally clueless attempt by white people to express support for marginalized people. Completely fucking ignoring the fact that no white person in the history of ever has ever been or ever will be shot merely for wearing a hoodie.

“But Zaratha!” they might say. “Why must you bring race into this?! Their hearts are in the right place!”

I would say their hearts are up their asses, along with their heads (covered or otherwise).

The fact of the matter is that head coverings are deeply racialized in the US and most of the western world. It is not (white) Orthodox Jewish women or quiverfull women or any of the other small minority of white women being beaten and harassed in the street for covering their heads. It is brown and black Muslim women. The hijab is a potent symbol of the Other–brown, foreign, un-American, ignorant, backwards, “terrorist”. The French ban on hijab for instance, like so many other Islamophobic actions in European colonial powers, was as much about forced assimilation of brown immigrants into a mainstream white society as it was about the “oppression of women” (and arguably more). A white woman wearing a veil may be perceived as a threat on some level (most likely thought of as “brainwashed”–by some brown man at home, natch), but at the end of the day she can hang that bad boy up and everything’s fine. Brown and black Muslim women cannot hang up their skin.

“But white women are Muslim too!” Indeed, they are–and enjoy as much white privilege in that area as they do everywhere else. I have read enough and talked to enough black and brown Muslimah to know about the colorism they experience, the preference for white converts over black ones, the preference of any convert over a Muslim-born (brown) woman. As in every other area of life, White is Right.

A veil on a white woman, regardless of what you want to call it or how you wear it, will never have the same impact as a Woman of Color wearing one. It will never have as much effect on your life. The entire narrative changes. And it is damn near irresponsible for white women to grandstand and make a show of being in “solidarity” with women whose consequences for their choice to veil are 10000% higher than some white Hellenic blogger who was moved by Hestia or somebody. The stakes are not nearly as high for you. And lest you think I’m trying to say all Pagan women who veil are white–the stakes are also different for Pagan women of color who might choose to veil. Any physical gesture that sets a woman of color apart, marks us as Other, has harsher consequences for us because our race marks as Other from jump before we even make the choice. And we are far, far more likely to be perceived as Muslim for doing so, with everything that entails.

Pagan women who veil, let me ask you this one thing: if you want real solidarity with hijabi and aren’t just grandstanding to make yourselves look important, why don’t you enter into dialogue with them and ask what you can do to help? More importantly, listen. I follow a lot of Muslimah blogs, and not once have I ever seen a single hijabi call for women of other faiths to start wearing veils in solidarity with them, or even wear them at all. Ask yourself what your motivation is here. Pray about it if you have to. But don’t sit here and act like this foolishness is constructive. If you think it is, you have some unexamined privilege.

Categories: Paganism, Privilege, Race

The West Memphis 3 and the In-Justice System

August 19, 2011 2 comments

CNN is reporting that the West Memphis 3 may be released soon, according to a source close to the case. This is absolutely fantastic news, despite the fuckery of the details surrounding the deal, if true. It’s likely a CYA move on the part of the State of Arkansas to pre-emptively block any wrongful imprisonment suits. Whatever gets these guys out of prison, I guess.

I won’t get into the details of this case; chances are if you’re reading a Pagan blog, you’re already familiar with this particular miscarriage of justice, but if you’re not, Wikipedia and WM3.org are your friends here. The HBO documentaries on the case are also available via Netflix streaming.

At any rate, anyone with an ounce of sense and knowledge of this case knows that those three boys never should have gone to prison in the first place, that they were convicted because they were misunderstood outcasts in an oppressive, conformist, ignorant-ass small Bible Belt town. None of that should be in dispute, period.

But, I do have to say this as someone who has followed this case closely for years and years, when the only people who knew about it were Pagans: I hope and pray that all of the good people who fought so hard for the WM3 remember that, were Damian Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin black, all three of them would have received the death penalty, and all three of them would have been executed years ago, quietly and with little fanfare.

I hope and pray that everyone who followed this case so closely understands that the WM3 situation is more likely the rule than an anomaly for black and brown people in the United States. The same small-town, good-ole-boy, kangaroo, star-chamber system that railroaded the WM3 in the name of mob justice because they were “weirdoes” has done the same thing to black and brown people for years and years and years, with no cause célèbre attached. Few HBO documentaries are made about these other cases (The Execution of Wanda Jean is the only one I can think of off the top of my head, and it should be obvious how that one turned out. Spoilers: she dies).

When I say that my heart bleeds for the WM3, I mean that in all sincerity, with no snark. I was a teenager when the case was first widely publicized in the original Paradise Lost documentary, and began to follow the case through Peg Aloi’s articles on Witchvox. It scared the shit out of me as someone who was first taking steps into both occultism and the Goth subculture, and while I hardly lived in a small ignorant ass town in the South, I experienced a lot of vicious harassment because of my lifestyle and beliefs. I imagine that’s why a lot of Pagans, and alt-subculture people such as goths and metalheads really latched onto this case, each of us saw something of ourselves in the WM3 and wondered aloud if it could happen to us. But more deeply, it also scared the shit out of me because I knew that if I lived in a town like that, and something like that happened, no one would make a documentary about me and come to my defense. Black people are presumed guilty as a matter of course, weirdoes or not, and rarely do people outside our communities care to fly to our defense.

I hope and pray that the WM3 finally receive justice, and that those murdered children finally receive the justice that has long been denied them by a corrupt and incompetent system that was hell bent on making examples of the local town “freaks” and that was more interested in getting an angry mob off their backs than in actually solving a horrific crime. But I also hope and pray that the energy and attention that has been put behind this movement to free the WM3 doesn’t vanish and dissipate, and that people who never gave a second thought to the oppression of the in-justice system until it impacted three young white boys will turn that energy and passion toward the many black and brown people who have suffered as much as the WM3 and never received any attention or help. The Innocence Project is a good place to start.

Update: They’ve been set free.

Categories: Privilege, Race Tags: , ,

Context matters. History matters.

April 26, 2011 1 comment

As seen on tumblr: more erasure of non-Wiccan Pagans (though at least zie makes room for Recons), and more equating of Paganism with polytheism(s). Sigh. There’s not any more that I can say on this topic that hasn’t been written about–in reams, even!–but suffice it to say, despite what the New Age shelf at the local Buns n Noodles would have you believe, Paganism encompasses a great deal many more paths than Ravenwolfian Neo-Wicca. It certainly encompasses a great deal more than just “polytheism”. But this cuts to the heart of the age old argument over just what exactly “Paganism” means, and that’s not really what I want to talk about in this post. I want to talk about the racial angle to this, and why it frequently bothers me.

Something that always sticks in my craw, and the reason why I was giving that answer the side eye, is the mention of Hindus and practitioners of Shinto in the same breath as Pagans. This is not to say that I don’t believe we have common ground or interests, particularly as minority faiths in a culturally Christian society, or that it’s not worthwhile to explore the commonalities between our beliefs and practices. I’m especially not trying to say that intersectionality is absent as a factor. It’s just…well, (once again) I believe that a heaping helping of white privilege prevents western Pagans from understanding how problematic it is for us to start “claiming” folks from other traditions.

First of all, a legion of various people’s bullshit Grandmother Stories from Alex Sanders down to Ed Hubbard to the contrary, Paganism in the sense(s) that we define and practice it (more correctly, Neo-Paganism according to Bonewits) isn’t even that old. Hinduism is thousands of years old. The practices of indigenous folks and First Nations tribes are similarly ancient. Even in the case of faiths that aren’t as old, such as the family of syncretic Afro-Caribbean faiths, there is still some distinct history. But with all due respect to the Recons among us (who, in fairness, I almost never see saying this shit), Paganism as practiced in the west is a relatively new phenomenon, without that kind of history. To me, this is really no different from the Mormons and their ridiculous baptisms for the dead, except it’s arguably worse because the people in question are still alive and kicking and practicing their faiths. And given the racial and class demographics of the western Pagan community, it’s problematic as hell from where I’m sitting. Sometimes I feel as though this driving need from some white Pagans to claim folks stems from the same place as the need some Wiccans still have to insist theirs is an “ancient” religion passed down from prehistory. That is, some deep-seated insecurity that practicing a newer religion somehow isn’t as legitimate as having an unbroken connection to the past. It’s the eternal search for spiritual street cred. The thing is, as odious as I find appropriation and commodification of cultures, appropriation of peoples is even grosser and gets talked about even less.

Folks, there is very good reason that many (most?) of the people who practice old non-Abrahamic religions don’t flock to the Pagan banner. Just as a simple matter of practicality, it’s not a community or a history they have any real need for–again, many of these faiths have been practiced unbroken, they have their own communities, their own histories, their own languages, traditions and ways of relating with one another. They don’t particularly need to be stuck under a foreign umbrella term defined by folks outside their communities. Hell, this even applies to religious paths that really aren’t that much older than Neo-Paganism (such as black nationalist Kemeticism). Secondly, much like the word “witch” before it, even though many folks have been trying to reclaim it with varying degrees of success, “Pagan” still has really negative connotations for a lot of people. “Pagan” was what a lot of folks were (and still are) called, “Pagan” was a weapon used to justify slavery and genocide, the destruction of art and culture, and on and on. Reclaiming the term is all well and good, but let’s not get it twisted.

Of course, this is where some skeptical white readers might resort to what the Unapologetic Mexican calls the fallacious flip. “Our ancestors were also persecuted and slaughtered by Christendom!” “It wasn’t just brown people oppressed and slaughtered by the church!” Of course, and they were–I’m not trying to minimize or downplay those atrocities at all. What I’m saying is that the brown folks of the world experienced this differently than the white folks of Europe, and this is a point that really needs to be made. For the brown folks of the world, Christianization went hand-in-fist with physical, psychological, economic and political colonization, and in many (most!) of the places where these faiths are practices, the effects are still being felt in the modern day. “Pagan” was (and still occasionally is) used as a weapon against brown folks in a specifically racialized way, and the way we engage with the term has a different history. It’s tied up in a specifically racialized clown orgy of Fail and Wrong with notions like Orientalism, and the White Man’s Burden. What I’m saying is the way it played out with brown folks was different. Racist doctrines such as the so-called “Curse of Ham” and similarly, the “Mark/Curse of Cain” were used to justify all manner of atrocities from the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the conquest of Southeast Asia and other places. Civilizing the unwashed brown hordes was seen as the good white Christian’s duty. It was racialized, y’all. It still is, it just takes the form of things like the Project for a New American Century’s “War on Terra”, wholesale abduction of brown children by white, Christian American evangelicals in the wake of natural disasters in developing countries (ie: Haitian earthquake). Religious imperialism was a huge impetus behind the Stolen Generations in Australia and “Indian Schools” in the US and Canada. Context matters. History matters.

Further still–and this is especially true of the indigenous folks of North America, who have much more experience with Neo-Paganism–sometimes Pagans simply aren’t trusted. With the prevalence of Wiccans appropriating Native imagery, using Lakota chants in their circles and outright stealing plains tribal practices in general (often under the erroneous guise of “Native American Spirituality”, as if there were such a thing), not to mention a long shameful history of white “medicine men” and plastic shamans ripping off and misrepresenting indigenous practices to gullible white folks to make a quick buck, ad nauseum, is it any wonder some Native folks in NA might think twice about allowing themselves to be assimilated into the umbrella of Paganism? It’s one thing for someone to claim a label because the feel it resonates with them or they identify with it; that’s cool. It’s an entirely different story to start slapping it on people just because their practices and beliefs kinda sorta if you squint resemble yours. To me, it goes back to the right to self-determination, which I fundamentally believe is a basic human right. You don’t get to define other people’s identities. And you especially have no fucking business doing it when there’s been a very gross history of people doing that. Many of them had intentions they believed were just as “pure” as yours, by the way (google White Man’s Burden).

Understand that when you try to “claim” folks who have been practicing their religions for hundreds or thousands of years, some of whom are struggling to reclaim or rebuild traditions after centuries of racist, imperialist oppression, it’s problematic as hell. Understand that when you appropriate the suffering and persecution of sub-Saharan African “witches” by linking it to your ridiculous martyr complexes (replete with wailing about “Teh Burning Tiemz!!!11”), often with a rotten side order of White Savior Syndrome*? It’s neo-colonialism, guys. Pure and simple. Context matters. History matters. Before you try to speak on these issues, familiarizing yourself with both is necessary. Legit dialogue and understanding cannot be had, bridges of solidarity and kinship cannot be built when one half of the equation is unwilling or unable to do their homework.

Context matters. History matters.

*Bonus lulz when this comes from people who otherwise bash Afro-Caribbean/syncretic faiths as being “barbaric” and “unevolved” for practicing animal sacrifices. Have often seen comments to this effect within five minutes of each other, from the exact same commenters.