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.

On the signal boosting front

March 2, 2011 4 comments

Firstly: thanks to the Wild Hunt for linking my crappy little blog yesterday, and welcome to the folks that found their way here. Now I might actually have to update more than once a When a Gemini Feels Like It.

One positive development that’s come out of this hot mess is that there’s been a lot of awesome discussion going on about the role of gender in Pagan paths, and trans Pagan spirituality, and I wanted to do a little signal boosting for a couple of posts that were linked in comments yesterday that deserve some attention.

foxfetch has a pretty bad ass manifesto demanding an expansion of our sacred images beyond the gender binary. Really, go read it, it’s amazing. (Though I do find it interesting that one commenter over there perceived the post as an “attack” on gender essentialism in Paganism. Funny how that seems to happen whenever marginalized people assert themselves!)

femmeguy has some interesting thoughts on the Sacred Masculine, that pretty neatly dovetail what I was talking about regarding the Feminine. Synchronicity FTW!

And finally, in the interest of fairness: CAYA, the coven at the center of the PCon controversy, has issued a statement explaining their position on gender and ritual space. I’m linking without comment, mainly because I’ve said my peace, and “OMGLOL” isn’t really constructive.  I will echo what a friend said though, which is that maybe all this attention is a sign that Lilith is working through these folks in ways they didn’t necessarily expect. Ultimately, it’s my sincere hope that people learn from all this and don’t just dismiss it as another dumbass internet flame war, though I wish those lessons didn’t have come at the expense of transfolks.

Categories: Gender, Paganism Tags: ,

Truly Inclusive Gender-Based Mysteries

March 1, 2011 16 comments

This started as a comment on a friend’s blog post on the recent Pantheacon transfail, and it started frolicking into teal deer territory, so I decided to just make it a post here. Beware, this is going to be ranty.

To summarize: a Dianic group advertised a public ritual in honor of Lilith at Pantheacon, which is a pretty big and well-known Pagan con, except they neglected to mention in their announcement that the ritual was meant for ciswomen only. So they ended up turning away trans women and men at the door, after they’d waited in line for ages. Yeah. Cue the usual sort of cissplaining garbage and transphobia from the straw RadFem bigots and their apologists. Wild Hunt has it covered, but as usual, you probably don’t want to read the comments unless you’ve got about a gallon of your favorite adult beverage handy. This response to the issue from a priestess of Lilith is pretty rad, though.

Personally, I’ve done enough hulkraging about this bullshit that I don’t want to rehash it, only to say, again, this is a) why I can’t stand 90% of Dianics and b) why I am solitary, too many privileged assed Pagans out there, and not enough wanting to check their privilege going on. What I wanted to talk about was a comment someone made that mentioned they don’t understand gender-exclusive ritual and don’t agree with it, making comparisons with Odinist white power groups.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think you can put a truly inclusive women-only or queer only ritual in the same box as the white Odinist stuff. Context matters, and history matters. It’s the same reason why it’s not “racist” for college campuses to have affinity groups for black or Asian-American students. Marginalized groups frequently experience life in much different ways than the privileged majority, and having a safe space to deal with those issues and challenges amongst ourselves is helpful and critical for our own well being and for the work we do in anti-oppression. I don’t think spirituality is any different in that regard, but I’m also not one of the people who puts “religion” in one box away from the rest of my life.

Being queer, female, and black in a racist and heterosexist society (much less a frequently racist and heterosexist Pagan community) informs my spiritual experience as much as anything else in my life does. So does my social justice work. I grok that not everyone approaches things that way, and I respect that, but that’s just my deal. I don’t have a choice to ignore my race, gender, or orientation when it comes to my spiritual practice, because the minute I try to, without fail I’ll get reminded of it.

I get reminded of my race when being stared because mine is the only brown face in the circle, or getting accosted in a New Age store by some over-enthused white lady dressed in the entire Pyramid Collection catalog about this or that orisha or how she was an “African shaman” in her past life. Or asking me what the colors on some kente cloth mean. That is when I’m not being followed in the store because they think I’m going to shoplift. (Mentioning that I used to work in an occult shop, as well as loss prevention in mundane retail and telling them that following the brown patrons around just means the white teenagers have a license to steal? Usually does the trick.)

I was sure as hell reminded of my orientation every time I participated in a Wiccan circle where heterosexuality was pretty much celebrated as the central mystery of the ritual, via the Great Rite, even when it was in token. I’m reminded of it every time the discussion turns to sacred polyamory and nothing but heterocentrist models are used. Hell, this could be an entire other post right here.

My gender? Well, that’s a trickier can of worms, but no less relevant. While women may not be as marginalized in Pagan communities as in the larger society, per se, Pagans are still raised in the some kyriarchal mess everyone else is and will bring that to the table as well. And as women, we’re raised and socially conditioned with a very different set of expectations than people who are perceived as male, and we face different challenges and issues to unravel as a result. That’s what Women’s Mysteries mean to me, it’s not about dancing skyclad around a giant paper mache vagina singing about how awesome periods are. It’s not just about biology, or even mostly about biology. Yes, it’s important to reclaim the sacredness of female bodies because they’ve been so denigrated for so long, but that’s not all there is to it, and even on the biological tip, female bodies don’t all look the same. FFS, if we can understand and celebrate that women’s bodies are beautiful and sacred no matter if they’re fat, thin, or disabled, white or brown, hairy or scarred or anything else, why is it such a fucking stretch to include that female bodies that came with different or ambiguous genitalia are also beautiful and should be celebrated? Why is the set of chromosomes we got in the cosmic genetic lottery even relevant to our sacredness as women? It’s why most Dianics make me hulkrage, because I feel they’re missing the forest for the trees.

It’s also why I seriously don’t understand this incessant need to exclude trans people from these rituals, if anything their own unique experiences of transgressing gender expectations only add to the understanding taking place. That’s not to say Magical Trans Women Are Here for Cis Lady Enlightenment, merely that their experiences are every bit as important to what constitutes Being a Woman in every possible sense, and that all women can learn from that. Goddammit, Women’s Mysteries means exploring all the mysteries of womanhood, be it cis or trans, butch or femme, queer or het, white or PoC, young or old, working lady or SAHM, childfree or mama of 5 bad assed kids, and all the awesome gray areas in between all of these labels. Because women are all these things, you assgoblins! Fuck, this is not rocket science. Trans women’s experiences are important to me as a cis woman because even though I don’t live them, they’re just as much a part of the mystery of womanhood as my own experiences. By denying my trans sisters, I’d be denying a piece of myself. By acknowledging their pain and their triumphs, I’m getting new insight to my own, and what it means to be a woman in a world that constantly denigrates that. Trans women represent the full gamut of Goddess archetypes and were acknowledged in our ancestral mythologies and belief systems. This is not new, people. So why act like it is, and shun it? You’re only contributing to your own ignorance in the end, much less the pain and hardships of women who have it rougher than almost any other group of women on the planet. How can you purport to work toward ending violence against women and dismiss our trans sisters, when they suffer violence at a disproportionate rate, particularly trans women of color? How can you pretend to celebrate female strength when it takes a special kind of strength just waking up everyday living your life in a world that sees you as sick, deviant, and broken? Who are you trying to fool here, really?

FWIW, I think Men’s Mysteries are important for similar, albeit slightly different reasons. Kyriarchy damages men too, just in different ways, and I think men can and should be allowed to explore what masculinity means to them in a spiritual context if they feel the need. But that doesn’t mean excluding trans men from that either, because (say it with me now), trans men’s experience is part and parcel of Men’s Mysteries. Because, you know, they’re men. And hell, we should make some Genderqueer Mysteries too, while we’re at it. Do we even have those? Why the hell not, if not?

If you take absolutely nothing else from this post, take this: if you truly hold a worldview that the Divine is immanent, and that everything is sacred because of this, then you must strive to make that worldview reflected in every aspect of your life or else you have entirely missed the point of the path you purport to walk. It does not demand perfection, merely the deepest yearnings for it, and the strenuous working toward making it a reality. If your life does not reflect your practice, perhaps you need to seriously examine both.

Banishings and Beginnings

December 21, 2010 3 comments

[Trigger Warning for spiritual abuse.]

Blessed Solstice to you all. For those of you in southern climes, you’ll be marking Midsummer; to those of us in the cold north, it’s the Winter Solstice, and that’s what I’ll be talking a bit about.

At some point I’ll touch upon it a bit more, but according to my personal paradigm, I walk the path of a sayyadina. This is a term borrowed from Frank Herbert’s Dune (a book which was pretty influential in my spiritual development, oddly enough) that roughly means “friend of God”. The “God” in question, to whom I am specifically pledged, is a Goddess associated with elemental darkness which I call the Dark Lady. She has a great deal in common with Nebet-het/Nephthys, and plays a similar role in her own mythos, though these two Ladies are not the same entity.

Working with the Dark as I do, you might imagine that tonight was very special for me. Because of my living situation, I can’t really go hogwild with ritual the way I used to when I lived alone. My few altars are small and discreet, and most of my tools are hidden away. Most of my workings happen on the internal level, through meditation and dreamwork. Still, I resolved to do something tonight to mark the occasion, though I didn’t know quite what until the last moment when things became crystal clear to me.

The energy was very palpable. I was a bit wired all day, admittedly, but as the Eclipse approached, I found myself getting pretty antsy. It wasn’t until I stood outside and meditated on what this night meant that I understood. My personal lesson for tonight was to let go of fear.

This is yet another topic for a future post, but for now it will suffice to say that I’m a survivor of the sort of spiritual abuse that is sadly all too common in the Pagan community. For roughly a year and a half, I lived with a charismatic woman who fancied herself a guru of an eclectic high priestess, that basically took the famous Bonewits Cult Evaluation and used it as a To-Do List. I’ll call her Nancy; if you’ve ever seen that glorious bit of cinematic cheese called The Craft, she was basically that character on steroids. She was paranoid, abusive, and extremely controlling, and not only terrorized her domestic partners, but myself and the entire household to varying degrees.

Nancy did a number on my psychological and spiritual health in the year and a half or so that I lived with her. Even though I haven’t spoken to her in well over two years now, and I’ve moved back to the opposite coast of the country, my experiences still weigh heavily on me. The lessons I received were not necessarily the ones she intended to teach, and they were learned at a very high price. I’ve come into my own since those trying times, deepening my relationships to my Deities and my craft, but I’ve found myself shackled in a lot of ways by a crippling fear that if I were to assert myself magically, to really commit to and claim my path, I’ll turn into Nancy.

It’s a ridiculous and irrational fear on the face of it, really. I don’t manipulate people or abuse them, or play them against each other for my own benefit. Despite the fringe paradigm I work in (I have definite chaote leanings), I have my feet firmly planted in reality, and I’m not ruled by delusions of grandeur. But in some completely fucked up way, Nancy became the model for Spiritual Power in my head, much in the way that children from broken homes fear committed relationships as adults because their dysfunctional parents became models of What Relationships Are to them. That’s where the fear comes from, I think. It’s been hindering my growth in a lot of ways, keeping me from deepening my relationships both with Spirit and the woman I love.

Eclipse energy is very strong for banishings, and this one was especially significant, falling as it did on the Winter Solstice, a day which is fundamentally about rebirth. And this was a night when the energy I work with was especially potent. I understood what I had to do, what all this meant, when I was outside in the frigid cold, and the Dark Lady spoke to my heart.

Internal paradigms only shift when we’re willing to die, you understand. Our egos, our fears, our doubts…all of these things must die for us to be truly reborn. We are a microcosm of the Universe, in that fashion. The phoenix always rises from the ashes, but the phoenix must die, first. Many Pagan mystery traditions teach this very basic truth, but it’s one that I didn’t fundamentally understand until that moment.

Tonight’s a night of banishings, of letting go of the things that hold us back. It’s a time of casting spectres of the past out of our lives and sending them back from whence they came. I made a decision there, staring at the shadow of the moon, to free myself of those self-imposed limitations, because I didn’t do anything to deserve a preemptive nerf bat. I’m freeing myself of the fear; I surrender it and watch it crumble beneath my feet. I’m a survivor, and it’s time to be free.

I’ll leave you with a mantra that should be well familiar to the sci-fi geeks in the house, but one that’s served me very well over the years as a powerful magical tool. I hope it does the same for you, on this night of casting out.

I must not fear.

Fear is the mindkiller.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will allow it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.

Take Two.

December 19, 2010 4 comments

So, uh. How ’bout that local sports team?

I don’t believe in bullshitting people, so I’ll just give it to you straight: I’m somewhat notorious for concocting grandiose plans and then failing to follow through on them. This blog just happened to be another sad chapter in that particular book of Zaratha’s Awesomely Stereotypical Gemini Tendencies. In fairness, life sort of ate my face for a while too, but that’s neither here nor there. Before I knew it, guilt about abandoning this idea before I ever really got it off the ground ate me up, and I didn’t know how to pick this up again or even if I should.

Here’s the thing, though: I’ve noticed that the Universe has a way of kicking us in the pants if we’re not doing what we’re Supposed to be doing. By “the Universe”, I mean my patron Goddess, and by “us”, I mean me. It’s not enough for me to piss in the wind every time someone uses racist dogwhistles to defend hir particular spiritual path, or some bloviating douchebag outs hirself as a fascist in the comments of a Very Popular Pagan Blog. It’s not enough to rage in private on Dreamwidth and Livejournal, or on AIM to my partner or friends. It might be cathartic for a little while, but preaching to the choir never really changes anything.

This sort of thing kept happening, and kept happening, and every time it happened, I’d think to myself, “I need to get back to that blog. There needs to be a Pagan space explicitly devoted to anti-oppression principles, or simply talking about spirituality from the POV of a queer Pagan of Color.”

So in the spirit of that notion, I’m cutting away the guilt and dusting this space off. What’s important is that it’s here, and that I’m making a commitment to keeping it here, whether it’s prolific or not.

–Z.

Categories: Uncategorized

Let’s talk, y’all.

April 21, 2008 4 comments

So, who the hell am I and why am I here?

To the first: My name is Zaratha Zarathi. Not my legal name, just one of many magical names. I also go by Morboriel Parthenos. I’m a 27 year old African-American witch, born and raised in New York City, currently residing in the Southwest. I say “African-American” despite despising the term, largely because “black witch” still conjures up stupid shit in many people’s minds (a rant for a future post). I’m a lot of things that Black Women are not “supposed” to be: Gothic, bisexual, polyamorous, gamer chick, anime geek. Hell, I’m even a Mac user. I don’t say this because I think I’m some kind of special, unique snowflake. Quite the contrary. There are many, many more like me out there.

I’ve been practicing various forms of Paganism for about thirteen years. I was featured in a documentary called “Out of the Broom Closet” which has yet to see the light of day, unfortunately. I’ve also had an essay published in a scholarly anthology on teenage witchcraft. I’ve done time working at a fairly well-known witch shop in New York; if you shopped at Enchantments, Inc. some time in the mid-to-late ’90s, you’ve probably met me.

In my time as a Pagan, I’ve explored British Traditional Wicca, Celtic and Norse-based traditions, Feri, Hellenism, Thelema and just about everything in-between. My current path is one of Eclectic Dark Paganism, with Middle-Eastern/Indo-Pagan leanings, though it’s not really anything I can nail down in a short, pithy label.

To the second, why am I here? Because I’m tired of seeing news article after news article insinuating that All Neo-Pagans Everywhere are bored middle class white women. I’m tired of being looked at cross-eyed because I am the only person of color at a public ritual. I’m tired of being followed in metaphysical stores because the proprietors think I’m stealing. I’m here because I am way the fuck over the rampant, unexamined white privilege I see in the community. I’m tired of seeing comment after ignorant ass comment on blogs equating Halloween decorations with the lynching of blacks, and the so-called “Burning Times” with the Middle Passage. I’m tired of righteous middle-class WASP indignation over animal sacrifice in Afro-Caribbean traditions, and I am sick and fucking tired of having to explain that no, I don’t work in those traditions despite being of African descent. Perhaps above all, I’m tired of being invisible.

Really, there’s just a whole lot of Lose and Fail that goes about unchallenged in the Pagan community with regard to issues of race and ethnicity. There are Pagans who valiantly try to put a spotlight on these issues (Jason Pitzl-Waters of Wild Hunt in particular has my undying admiration for continually trying to drop some sense on people). For the most part, though, the silence is truly deafening. More people need to speak up, and my loud ass is volunteering. I will not always be ranting about the Dumb Ass; I’ll also be talking a little about my personal path. I’ll also try to highlight the positive, because as many problems as the community has, there is a lot of good to be found there.

Hopefully I can help you laugh a little, and think along the way.

Categories: Uncategorized