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Confessions of a White Witch

One of the biggest reasons why it’s hard for white Americans to really understand and commit to dismantling institutional racism and white supremacy is that it means rethinking so many aspects of our lives and developing a new understanding of how the world really works. Experiences that we thought we understood as “normal” for every American happen very differently for our Black brothers and sisters. And it’s not just being stopped by a police officer. Everything from buying and selling a home, to doing your hair, to going to school has a very different line and shape if you’re Black. And re-examining your experiences to identify and dismantle racism within them is exhausting. Learning how to not center yourself and make spaces truly diverse and welcoming to Black people and other marginalized people takes a lot more energy than we’re used to expending. It’s work. Hard work. And it never really ends. And if you’re looking to whine about it, don’t — as exhausting as it is to be anti-racist, it’s only a pale shadow of the exhaustion that Black people experience dealing with racism every damn day.

It’s good to see people becoming more aware of the origins of things they used to take for granted. Being conscious of where that phrase, that practice, that food, that statue comes from. When you’re trying to build a world with more equity in it for everyone, context matters. And context is bound up with the origins of things, and their history.

If you’re a modern American pagan, you’re probably already aware that while you may revere gods that come from ancient pantheons — be they Celtic, Norse, Greek, Egyptian or whatever — you are not re-creating the rituals that ancient cultures used to revere them. Many refer to what we do as neopagan for precisely that reason. What we do now has very little to do with what was actually done back in pre-Christian times. Despite all our protestations that we worship the “old gods” or keep “the old ways,” we are doing so in a fairly nominal way.

If you’re coming from one of the Wiccan-based witchcraft practices, origins are both simpler and trickier. On the one hand, the origin story of one of the most popular forms of pagan practice, modern Wicca, is quite simple. Gerald Gardner, a retired British civil servant, was allegedly initiated into a coven in 1939 that he said was a remnant of the old “witch-cult” religions that folklorist Margaret Murray hypothesized existed. When he launched modern Wicca in the late 1940’s, it was allegedly based upon the practices from this coven, with other elements that drew heavily from his history with Rosicrucianism, Thelema and the OTO, all of which have roots in Western European occultism and Hermetic magic.

But then again, if you know the history, you also know that Gerald Gardner was prone to exaggeration. For instance, he often misrepresented his academic credentials. And given that there is no corroboration for his account of having been initiated into a remnant coven, one has to wonder if it really happened. There are in fact, a number of magical traditions whose founders claim hard to prove, dubious experiences with “familial” or “traditional” covens or magical groups that purport to lend them some kind of historic legitimacy. You can’t really say they lied, per se, because there’s no concrete proof these things didn’t happen. But you also can’t really prove that they did, either.

And then there’s the influence on modern witchcraft of new age spiritualism. With the rise of the counterculture of the 1960’s came a huge resurgent interest in occultism generally and in practices like herbalism and astrology, as well as a lot of wholesale borrowing of Asian and Indigenous spiritual practices — chakras, crystal lore, animal totems, and the like. Many of these practices were grafted into neopaganism and modern witchcraft with little acknowledgement or respect to their origins. Most of us have come to understand that this is cultural appropriation, and because of that we’re now revisiting certain practices (like “smudging” with sage bundles) in light of this new understanding.

And then there’s the magical practices of BIPOC peoples, practices like Santeria and Voodun, and pantheons from Asia and Africa, like the Hindu and Yoruba, and of course Native American and First Peoples spiritual practices. Compared to modern Wiccan-based traditions, who can only legitimately cite a direct history of maybe 80 or 90 years, magic from many BIPOC cultures have been passed down directly from person to person for centuries. Modern American witchcraft, because it lacks a coherent sense of its own history, is notoriously eclectic, and in our hunt for spells and magical lore, we can sometimes focus more on efficacy than we do on origin. I am not one of those people who thinks you can only use magic or worship gods that come from the pantheons or occult practices associated with your personal ancestors. The gods themselves are not purists, and usually welcome all those prepared to come to them in love and respect.

Let me say that last bit again because it is important: in love and respect.

Just like you wouldn’t show up to a job interview without having done the research on who your potential employer is, don’t show up at a deity’s altar without an understanding of who they are that goes beyond just a name and a basic association. It is not enough to know that Yemaya is a goddess of the seas. How you interact with Yemaya varies somewhat depending on whether you evoke her as part of a Yoruban rite, or as part of Candomble, and still differently in the context of Santeria. Practices like voodun operate with very different presumptions from European-based spellcraft. A witch who casually messes about with things they only partially understand is usually risking more than just their spell not working as intended. Magical blowback is nothing to take lightly.

When we are respecting someone or something, we pay it attention and give it deference. We do not interact casually or take advantage of something or someone we respect. As white witches in America, we need to respect that BIPOC magical practices are not simply there for our taking, to be grafted into our workings because we think they are powerful or exotic. We need to know and understand the provenance of the magic we seek to practice, and make sure that we are seeking to acquire the wisdom embedded in these practices in legitimate ways from teachers who are authentic practitioners, and that we are not looking for shortcuts that trivialize or fetishize BIPOC people and cultures. This involves, first and foremost, asking hard questions when white people appear to be making a profit from selling BIPOC magical practices.

We also need to be aware that as practitioners of earth based spiritual traditions, our worship and practice spaces might not be as hospitable to and inclusive of BIPOC people as we think they are. We take it for granted when we hold a festival in a local campground that everyone feels comfortable and welcome there. Not many white folks realize that access to public outdoor spaces can be a different proposition for Black people. Black people camping on campgrounds have found themselves harassed at gunpoint as “trespassers” and in many instances were historically excluded from camping in state and even national parks. Going off into the woods with a bunch of white people might not feel the same to a Black man as it does to you. Are you doing everything you can to assure Black attendees feel safe coming to your events and rituals? Have you even considered whether a Black attendee might feel unsafe at your events or rituals?

Another thing to re-think about is how modern American pagans build their relationship with the land itself, and with our ancestors. Pagans making offerings to the spirits of the land is nothing new. Pagans revering ancestors is a time-honored practice. But when we do that, do we really understand the full history of that land, including it’s colonization? Do we understand the intersection between our ancestors and those who were enslaved or subjected to oppression? Every lineage and every land has a history and not all of it is sunshine and roses. Even white people like me who didn’t have ancestors who owned slaves have ancestors who have benefitted from racial discrimination. And as I have discussed before, ancestors can be problematic for all kinds of reasons, and one does not need to dig too far back into our personal histories to find individuals who are problematic if not downright awful. Deciding what to do with that context around who you are and the things you value is difficult and an individual process. But once you are aware of that context, ignoring it is no longer a credible option.

We also take it for granted that BIPOC people are going to be perfectly comfortable participating in rituals evoking gods from pantheons that are from Western European cultures, or worse yet, we lionize the idea of “worshipping the gods of our ancestors” which sets up a flawed premise that BIPOC people are somehow less authentically part of our community because they are not Celtic or Norse or Greek or whatever. The idea is utter bullshit, by the way, since most white American pagans come from a wide mashup of European cultures, and are not purely Celtic, Norse, or Greek either. We need to be prepared to meet the concerns of BIPOC seekers and be aware of how our attitudes towards ideas of genealogy and our understanding of ancestry might land differently with BIPOC seekers. Let me say it again, because it applies here too — the gods themselves are not purists, and usually welcome all those prepared to come to them in love and respect.

If all this sounds like a lot more added work just to do the same magic we’ve been doing, you’re not imagining it — it is. And it isn’t. The fact is that this is one way witches grow in power — strengthening our magic by going deeper in our understanding of context and correspondences around who we are and the work we do. Learning and gaining new understanding is the whole point of the Craft. It lies at the core of what it means to practice the Craft of the Wise. “Social justice” is not a chore that we do to be on the right side of history. It is not something we perform to prove ourselves to be “good people.” Caring about the cultural context of how our pagan practice sits within a racist society is the right thing to do — supporting equity and justice for everyone is important. But understanding how our pagan path sits within the context of a racist society (and hopefully working to dismantle racism in our pagan circles) also improves our pagan practice and our craft, just like every other effort we make to understand the context of anything related to our practice.

We do this all the time to improve our craft and our pagan practice. It’s pretty standard in our thinking that a spell cast when the moon is in a favorable aspect to type of work we’re doing will be better than one cast any old time. So we learn about the phases of the moon and add that context to our spell casting. We learn as much as we can about the components we use in spells — which herb, which tool, which words will work best for what we want to do. We spend tons of time thinking about how the changing seasons impact what kinds of magic we do when and why. Every time that we choose to deepen our understanding of an element of our practice and craft, every time we choose to learn about the context of our work, we grow and become a more effective person and witch. Understanding how race impacts your pagan practice is no different. And as white witches, we’ve all got some learning to do on that score — and it’s important that we do it.

A believer in magic and justice and the right to be exactly as you are. Anything passing for wisdom here is likely the product of surviving my own stupidity.

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