A Polytheist and Pagan Guide to Privilege

Almost everybody has some sort of privilege, somewhere in their lives.

Are you white? Are you a gender-normative male? Can you at least pass for “gendernormative heterosexual male”? Do you eat least identify with the gender you were raised as? Did you at least attend university? These, and more, are Mainstream or Overculture Privileges. It’s not bad to be any of these things, but it does tend to mean that there are things that you’ll (almost certainly) take for granted. As most of the “job creators” in the Western world are of some sort of North-Western European descent, you can probably get just about any job you’re qualified for and assume that you earned it for all your hard work to gain those qualifications. If you’re a gender-normative male, you probably don’t think anything of it when people assume you know what you’re talking about, even if you’re lying your arse off, and it probably will be more likely to make you laugh than ruin your day if the cashier at the grocery store, should you be there during an especially busy hour, accidentally calls you “Miss”. Hey, nobody’s faulting you for that, we’re all raised, to some degree or another, to accept that as just the way it is. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be. A great way to help break this system is by further developing your sense of empathy, and listening to people when they talk about their experiences is a great way to start. Listen, try to reference a point in your life that brought out a time you felt that way or similar, and relate. If you can’t relate, then own that, admit that you can’t even imagine what that must be like, and go from there, try to make a human connection.

Smaller communities often end up mirroring Overculture Privilege AND creating their own idiosyncratic systems of power and inclusion/exclusion.

In the pagan community, there is no shortage of people of colour who regularly state that they experience racism even amongst other pagans, who often believe that they’re better than that. This is privilege brought in from the overculture at play. I’m sure many people don’t even realise that they’re doing it, but here’s the thing: If other people are saying it happens to them, especially if multiple people and well-respected people are saying this, then maybe you should think back and really ask yourself if you’ve contributed to that –even if you don’t think you have, be sceptical of that memory, ask yourself if that’s really how it happened or if your privilege got in the way or your good judgement. After that, do better; educate yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for assistance in that, if you don’t know where to go to do that. It’s not going to happen overnight, no-one is seriously expecting it to.

A community also creates its own system of privilege when there’s a clear hierarchy of one group within that community getting All The Cool Shit, like recognition and visibility and an air of “legitimacy” from both the overculture and the subculture, and other groups have very little or practically none of the “Cool Shit” in comparison. In the Pagan community, it’s safe to say that Eclectic/Popular Wiccans (as opposed to Trad Wiccans), and those whose religion has practises innate to Pop Wicca (the Wiccanate) get the most Cool Shit, especially with regard to visibility and airs of legitimacy in and out of the subculture. There is evidence of this: Go to any bookstore that at least has a section for books on Paganism (it might even be labelled “Occult/Metaphysical), grab any book that looks like a “Paganism 101” sort of primer. There will probably be a chapter that gives a very brief (and occasionally accurate!) description of up to ten different pagan religions and occult traditions, while the rest of the book gives a very generic description of Ecclectic Witchcraft/Pop Wicca, and many of its most-common practises and ideas. The book is also very likely to use words like “witchcraft / the craft”, “Wicca”, and “paganism” virtually synonymously, regardless of whether or not they clarify early on something like “all Wiccans are witches and just about all witches are pagan, but many pagans are not witches, nor do they even necessarily use magic”.

Now, i could go on a tangent on how many of these practises and ideas that became American/Western Ecclectic Witchcraft are misappropriated from other, more racially marginalised groups of people (like just about anything that a “pop-culturised” version of something from Dharmic religions), but that’s another story for another time. What’s important is that about 90% of that book discussed only one religion and barely gave lip-service to a very small selection of others. No-one is expecting every book about paganism to be all things to all people –I know I certainly am not– but these books tend to take for granted that only one, loosely-defined, pagan path is merely the most popular (especially in the United States and Canada), ignoring that that one path simply cannot be at all representative of paganism as a whole. By even unwittingly taking this for granted by speaking largely about a single path while under the guise of speaking broadly about paganism, these writers commit an act of privilege.

Historical revisionism is a tool of privilege.

You could argue, as others have, that the popularity and broad accessibility of Wiccanate paganism and the steep slant of information about it is just because Wiccans have been around longest and worked hardest to have their voices heard, and while that certainly seemed true in the 1950s and ’60s, when Wicca was a very new-to-the-public religion with a murky history that some claimed to go back centuries, if not millennia, was it really true?. Did you know that Neodruidry goes back to the 18th Century? Were you aware that Romuva, the indigenous polytheism of Lithuania and other Baltic people, was revived during the Romantic period of the 19th Century, after a relatively brief suppression (maybe a few hundred years; the indigenous religion remained the state religion until about the 15th Century, though there is no shortage of evidence, especially among smaller ethnic groups, including the Sami, retaining its practice even longer)? And furthermore, Hellenic reconstruction goes back at least as early as Thomas Taylor (1758 – 1835), in the Anglosphere, and if you trust V Rassias of YSEE, the Stratioti Tradition that many members of YSEE practise goes back to the 1500s or 1600s (source, Hellenic_Recons yahoo group –search the archives for “Stratioti”). According to sourced statements on Wikipedia, Heathenry or Germanic pagan reconstruction/revival, as a serious religious practise, can be dated as early as the 19th Century Romantics, and the same can be said of Celtic religious revivals (though a lot of that history is blurred with Neodruidry). Now, there are reasons that a lot of these other religious movements didn’t get the momentum that Wicca did in the 1950s and ’60s:

Neodruidry was only very loosely organised until the founding of certain organisations in the 1960s. Some early attempts to organise also were loosely based on Freemasonry, but that’s another story for another time. For much of its early history, it seems like the earliest days of Neodruidry may have largely been Christopagan, as well, but my sources are limited.

Romuva had to remain underground for decades, during Soviet rule.

Hellenic polytheism, in Greece, was actually criminalised until 2006, and thus had to survive underground prior, with only small groups taking risks to promote it that started to emerge in the 1960s. In the English-speaking world, Hellenism and Heathenry were also seldom taken seriously as religious movements, but commonly regarded, in spite of clear devotional practises of many, as little more than an “intellectual hobby” for eccentric academics.

Also: Television didn’t get invented until 1939, and really took off as a household staple in the mid-1950s. Gerald Gardner published Witchcraft Today in 1954, and yes, Gardner utilised both television and radio interviews (radio remained a staple of household media in the UK far longer than it did in the US) to promote Wicca:

Many early Wiccans and supporters of Wicca as a religious movement were more PR-savvy than a lot of people today realise. This romantic notion that Gardner and others just popped out here and there, but otherwise contented themselves to developing their spirituality is just as much a “sacred mythology” to many in modern paganism as Murray’s more fantastic ideas about the witch-cult hypothesis or the notion of “9 million women burned during witchcraft hysteria“, in spite of the fact that neither claims have significant (if any) evidence as being literal fact; the witch hysteria of Europe during the 1300s-to 1700s certainly resulted in many deaths, and mostly women (though in a handful of countries, the gender ratios were even, and i think even a few towns executed more men –but these were exceptions), but most estimates based on heavy research of court records state 60,000-100K unjustly executed is a more fair estimate, and at best, the “witch cult hypothesis” is better off refined to an hypothesis of pagan survival, but it’s still best to assume that, at absolute most, less than half of those executed were actually non-Christians of any sort.

Many early public Witches basically utilised the media to spread the word (and not to mention the comparatively tight organisation of the coven model), while other movements were either un-organised, in comparison to Wicca, or were underground by necessity. Wicca hasn’t actually been around any longer, and even the most generous estimates place Traditional Wicca’s origins as no earlier than the 1920s, and Popular Wicca or American Ecclecticism being no older than the late 1960s (arguably starting with Dianic movements), making Wicca as a whole, in reality, among the youngest of the pagan religious movements.

Wicca did not “earn” its privileged position by age and hard work so much as Wicca arrived to it by happenstance: Wiccans came out publicly at the right place and right time, and with the right people who were just media-savvy enough to spread the word.

Again, no-one is faulting Wiccans in the here and now for this. No-one is even faulting Gardner for being a remarkably savvy old coot (a term I use affectionately; you really can’t watch or hear him in action and not think he worked that “eccentric old coot” image to his advantage —just look at him!), but for all the Humanism (both secular and religious) that’s popular and influential in the pagan community today, many people practising Pop Wicca or American Eclecticism and other pagan religions remain completely unsceptical of the common notion that “Wicca has been around longest and done the most”, they take its alleged factuality for granted, and thus end up (often unwittingly) committing historical revisionism that privileges Wicca and other paths derived from it. You can combat this by questioning every “truth” you might believe about paganism and the religious movements often thrown under its umbrella (often whether said religions like it or not), by educating yourself and searching for where certain ideas came from.

Privilege held in one area doesn’t go away just because you’re disadvantaged in another.

You’d think this would be easy, what with stating early on in this piece that just about everyone has some degree of privilege or another, but I dunno, some people seem really quick to try and play Misery Poker with the hand they were dealt and hope it beats the other person’s, cos Person A misspoke and ended up mooning the whole room with their privilege, and Person B said, “er… that’s not cool.” It often goes a little like this:

Tasha: [white, Wiccan, tries to speak for Black Afro-Caribbean religions]
Geordie: [is actually Afro-Caribbean and practises an AC religion] Tasha, please stop, you don’t know what you’re talking about and you’re letting your privilege show.
Tasha: What would you know about privilege!? I’m a transgender butch female and functionally autistic and my grandmother was Mexican, so I’m bi-racial too, and you’re just Black and cisgender het male!

No, seriously, this kind of thing happens ALL THE TIME. Even in the pagan community. If you think it doesn’t, then you’re not paying enough attention. And it doesn’t have to happen ALL THE FREAKIN’ TIME. If the topic was transgender, or gender-normativity, or feminism, or neurodiversity in the pagan community, yeah, Tasha could probably teach Geordie a thing or two, and being Black wouldn’t suddenly become a way to absolve him of the need to show those people in the pagan community the basic dignities they say they deserve. Hopefully, Geordie knows that. What Tasha doesn’t understand is that while there may be a similarity of experience between different marginalising traits, being Wiccan, or a trans woman, or a butch woman, or functionally autistic, or a quarter Mexican doesn’t tell her fuck all about being Black, or being Afro-Caribbean, or being one who practises an Afro-Caribbean religion. Tasha needs to sit herself down and LISTEN, EMPATHISE, and GROW.

Please don’t make it about you.

We all go there, at least once in a while. Yeah, sometimes you do have a point in doing so, but most of the time people are reminding you that it’s not about you, you’ve probably done this all too human thing:

Prioritised your own feelings over what’s being said.

We all have feelings, but there are times and places to share them. There are times and places where it’s beneficial to share them, and there are times and places where sharing them is more detrimental.

It would be nice if any time and place was a safe space to share one’s feelings, but that’s not how it works. When tensions are high, it’s best to take your feelings out of the room and share them elsewhere –if you’re on-line and the comments on a blog post are affecting you, either go to another forum or turn your computer off, or Skype with a friend or *something* to remove yourself from the situation so that the simple act of airing your feelings won’t contribute to a hostile climate; make a final comment excusing yourself, if you must, but keep it brief and keep your feelings out of it, cos it’s not about you.

The thing about this is, especially in spaces where, say, pagans of colour are discussing how that affects them and makes them feel, if someone who is apparently privileged in that area talks about how this line of discussion is making them feel, then suddenly the room feels like it just turned into one more place where the feelings of white people are prioritised over the feelings of people of colour.

Most spaces in this world are assumed to be “safe spaces” for those with the most privilege to talk about whatever they feel like, and those who lack privilege have long felt safest in expressing our own experiences and feelings in smaller, often temporary spaces. Gay bars and TS/TG or autism support groups are some of the ways these “safer spaces” have developed as a means to temporarily give oneself the sense of freedom to express oneself without threat of judgement or violence. In a world where people are increasingly recognising the need for people to be who they are without fear of judgement or violence, more and more people are opening up dialogues, at in-person discussions and on blogs. Unfortunately, because of the problem where the overculture still often creates a hostile climate for people to express themselves without fears, this creates a need for those interested in social progress to prioritise the disadvantaged in discussions about issues that most-affect them.

As a bonus, it’s only logical to prioritise the feelings of people most-affected by, say, the presence or absence of wheelchair ramps, or the presence or absence of Santeria at Pantheacon, or policies on gender in women’s groups, simply because the most-likely “worst case scenario” for anyone else is a minor inconvenience, and absolute “worst case”, either you find a new place or do some remodelling or (gods forbid!) a rule change in the event’s or group’s constitution or revision of its mission statement. If you can walk, how is wheelchair accessibility harming you? It’s not, so you really have no qualified opinion on its necessity. If you’re an Ecclectic Witch, and not a Santeria practitioner, why would a Santeria event at Pantheacon bother you, especially where there are going to be at least half a dozen other events going on at the same time, most of which are catered to those like yourself? It doesn’t, so just move along and go to other events. If a women’s ritual has nothing to do with menstruation or childbirth, then what is the point in barring trans women, and if it *is* about “menstrual mysteries”, then why not ban all women who have never and will never menstruate, and stop singling-out trans women? If you’re not a woman, cis or trans, then you automatically have no qualified opinion on the presence or absence of trans women at any particular women’s rite (though if you’re bigender, and one of those is Woman, then obviously that would be enough, I’d think, but your mileage may vary).

Yes, sometimes people may end up saying things that hurt your feelings, but address that to them, personally, and be tactful; you won’t make things any better by trying to spin it around to make the conversation about you and your feelings that are essentially assumed privileged in all other conversations.

Cos it’s not about you.

From the position of some-one who lacks privilege in a certain area, most spaces are spaces where the comfort and convenience of those possessing privilege are prioritised. If you take a minute to step outside yourself and empathise, it’s easy to see where these ideas are coming from, cos it’s usually true; sure, things in certain especially specific areas (like the acceptable expression of emotions based on a person’s gender), things can get weird and it may be easily argued that no-one is clearly “privileged”, but that handful of very specific things is not reason to ignore the wealth of areas where the model of privilege applies. This necessitates the need for “safer spaces” where people lacking privilege in areas can speak up and be heard. Discussing the finer factual details may seem important, but should only really be offered if the person is specifically seeking advice, and any advice offered should be offered tactfully and with any applicable privileged dynamics in mind.

Did I mention that I’m giving away free Germanic goddess prayer cards?

Were you also aware that I’m raising money for moving expenses? These two things are completly separate, but please tell your friends about both so that I don’t have to do as much.


4 thoughts on “A Polytheist and Pagan Guide to Privilege

  1. I often think that old Gerald must have had quite the mojo to charm so many attractive young women into the “witch cult”. He certainly wasn’t doing it on the strength of looks alone. *g*


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