Monday, October 28, 2013

New Blog

Greetings Friends!
I am not blogging here anymore. For my recent writings, please check out my new blog,

Wisdom From the Green Bloods

I now share weekly reflections on the plants, healing, and justice.
Thanks for reading!

In Soldiarity and Spirit,

Friday, August 23, 2013


I have recently returned from teaching at this years Free Cascadia Witchcamp. Camp was powerful and transformative as always and I have returned feeling grateful to be a part of the Free Camp community. This year was not unlike others as I often found myself in conversations about privlege and solidarity.

A question that is present in the hearts and minds of many Reclaiming pagans is how do we as a community of people of largely settler descent live, work, and worship in a way that is moving towards right relationship with First Nations peoples of this land.  As colonized colonizers we are building a tradition that has some very old roots and some very new roots.  What does it mean that we are trying to move towards right relationship with the land and the ancestors of the land when we live in a colonized society of which many of us have largely benefited from that colonization?

I believe that right relationship with the land and the ancestors of the land means that we must work towards right relationship with the descendents of the ancestors of the land.  But what does right relationship actually look like?  These are questions that I have been talking with elders about, reading about, researching, and praying on.  I am not going to try to  answer these questions today although you will likely read some of my reflections in future blog posts.

No, today I'm going to repost a recent article by Andrea Smith an activist, theologian, and member of the Cherokee Nation.  If you haven't read her work, I suggest checking out almost anything by her.  She's one of the founders of INCITE Women of Color Against Violence, an activist organization of radical feminists of color who are doing some really amazing and inspiring work in the world.  Smith's work regularly blows my mind and challenges me to think, act, and pray differently.  This article which is a shortened version of an article in a recently published book, is no different.  In fact, it has had such an impact on me that I'm doing something I haven't ever done before which is repost an article here.

This piece has challenged some of my leftist notions of privilege and the problematic dynamics around the "confession" of privilege in many anti-racist circles.  Smith argues that anti-oppression work focusing on a confession/absolution dynamic around privilege has been problematic and at times undermines our efforts towards healing and dismantling oppression.  I think this article is important for Pagans, especially us Reclaiming Pagans, as a shadow side of modern Neo-Paganism is what I would call "spiritual navel gazing" i.e an obsession with our own personal work.  This is a place that I believe many of us can get trapped and Smith provides some keen insights about the importance of a connection with the land and with the larger community as we weave strands of healing. 

It's a long piece in the world of blogs, but it's worth reading at least three times.  You can click on the title and follow the link to the original article if you'd like to check out Smith's blog.

The Problem with Privilege
by Andrea Smith

For a much longer and detailed version, see  my essay in the book Geographies of Privilege  
In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege.  These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: “I am so and so, and I have x privilege.”  It was never quite clear what the point of these confessions were.  It was not as if other participants did not know the confessor in question had her/his proclaimed privilege.   It did not appear that these individual confessions actually led to any political projects to dismantle the structures of domination that enabled their privilege.  Rather, the confessions became the political project themselves.    The benefits of these confessions seemed to be ephemeral.  For the instant the confession took place, those who do not have that privilege in daily life would have a temporary position of power as the hearer of the confession who could grant absolution and forgiveness.  The sayer of the confession could then be granted temporary forgiveness for her/his abuses of power and relief from white/male/heterosexual/etc guilt.   Because of the perceived benefits of this ritual, there was generally little critique of the fact that in the end, it primarily served to reinstantiate the structures of domination it was supposed to resist.  One of the reasons there was little critique of this practice is that it bestowed cultural capital to those who seemed to be the “most oppressed.”  Those who had little privilege did not have to confess and were in the position to be the judge of those who did have privilege.  Consequently, people aspired to be oppressed.  Inevitably, those with more privilege would develop new heretofore unknown forms of oppression from which they suffered.  “I may be white, but my best friend was a person of color, which caused me to be oppressed when we played together.”  Consequently, the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible.  These rituals often substituted confession for political movement-building.  And despite the cultural capital that was, at least temporarily, bestowed to those who seemed to be the most oppressed, these rituals ultimately reinstantiated the white majority subject as the subject capable of self-reflexivity and the colonized/racialized subject as the occasion for self-reflexivity.

These rituals around self-reflexivity in the academy and in activist circles are not without merit.   They are informed by key insights into how the logics of domination that structure the world also constitute who we are as subjects.    Political projects of transformation necessarily involve a fundamental reconstitution of ourselves as well.  However, for this process to work, individual transformation must occur concurrently with social and political transformation.   That is, the undoing of privilege occurs not by individuals confessing their privileges or trying to think themselves into a new subject position, but through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges.  The activist genealogies that produced this response to racism and settler colonialism were not initially focused on racism as a problem of individual prejudice.  Rather, the purpose was for individuals to recognize how they were shaped by structural forms of oppression.  However, the response to structural racism became an individual one – individual confession at the expense of collective action.  Thus the question becomes, how would one collectivize individual transformation?   Many organizing projects attempt and have attempted to do precisely this, such Sisters in Action for Power, Sista II Sista, Incite!  Women of Color Against Violence, and Communities Against Rape and Abuse, among many others.  Rather than focus simply on one’s individual privilege, they address privilege on an organizational level.  For instance, they might assess – is everyone who is invited to speak a college graduate?  Are certain peoples always in the limelight?  Based on this assessment, they develop structures to address how privilege is exercised collectively.   For instance, anytime a person with a college degree is invited to speak, they bring with them a co-speaker who does not have that education level.  They might develop mentoring and skills-sharing programs within the group.  To quote one of my activist mentors, Judy Vaughn, “You don’t think your way into a different way of acting; you act your way into a different way of thinking.”  Essentially, the current social structure conditions us to exercise what privileges we may have.  If we want to undermine those privileges, we must change the structures within which we live so that we become different peoples in the process.

This essay will explore the structuring logics of the politics of privilege.  In particular, the logics of privilege rest on an individualized self that relies on the raw material of other beings to constitute itself.   Although the confessing of privilege is understood to be an anti-racist practice, it is ultimately a project premised on white supremacy.   Thus, organizing and intellectual projects that are questioning these politics of privilege are shifting the question from what privileges does a particular subject have to what is the nature of the subject that claims to have privilege in the first place.

The Confessing Subject
My analysis is informed the work of Denise DaSilva.  She argues in Toward a Global Idea of Race that the western subject understands itself as self-determining through its ability to self-reflect, analyze and exercise power over others.  The western subject knows that it is self-determining because it compares itself to ‘others” who are not.  In other words, I know who I am because I am not you. These “others” of course are racialized.  The western subject is a universal subject who determines itself without being determined by others; the racialized subject is particular, but is supposed to aspire to be universal and self-determining.

Silva’s analysis thus critiques the presumption that the problem facing racialized and colonized peoples is that they have been “dehumanized.”  Anti-racist intellectual and political projects are often premised on the notion that if people knew us better, we too would be granted humanity.  But, according to Silva, the fundamental issue that does not get addressed, is that “the human” is already a racial project.  It is a project that aspires to universality, a project that can only exist over and against the particularity of “the other.”

Consequently, two problems result.  First, those who are put in the position of  racialized and colonized others presume that liberation will ensue if they can become self-determining subjects – in other words, if they can become fully “human.”  However, the humanity to which we aspire still depends on the continued oppression of other racialized/colonized others.  Thus, a liberation struggle that does not question the terms by which humanity is understood becomes a liberation struggle that depends on the oppression of others.

Silva’s analysis implies that “liberation” would require different selves that understand themselves in radical relationality with all other peoples and things.  The goal then becomes not the mastery of anti-racist/anti-colonialist lingo but a different self-understanding that sees one’s being as fundamentally constituted through other beings.  An example of the political enactment of this critique of the western subject could be glimpsed at the 2008 World Social Forum that I attended.  The indigenous peoples made a collective statement calling into question the issue of the nation-state.  In addition to challenging capitalism, they called on participants to imagine new forms of governance not based on a nation-state model.  They contended that the nation-state has not worked in the last 500 years, so they suspected that it was not going to start working now.  Instead, they called for new forms of collectivities that were based on principles of interrelatedness, mutuality and global responsibility.  These new collectivities (nations, if you will, for lack of a better world) would not be based on insular or exclusivist claims to a land base; indeed they would reject the contention that land is a commodity that any one group of people should be able to buy, control or own.   Rather, these collectivities would be based on responsibility for and relationship with land.

But they suggested that these collectivities could not be formed without a radical change in what we perceived ourselves to be.  That is, if we understand ourselves to be transparent, self-determining subjects, defining ourselves in opposition to who we are not, then the nations that will emerge from this sense of self will be exclusivist and insular.  However, if we understand ourselves as being fundamentally constituted through our relations with other beings and the land, then the nations that emerge will also be inclusive and interconnected with each other.
Second, the assumption that we have about liberation is that we will be granted humanity if we can prove their worthiness.  If people understood us better, they would see we are “human” just like they are, and would grant us the status of humanity.  As a result, anti-racist activist and scholarly projects often become trapped in ethnographic multiculturalism.  Ironically, in order to prove our worthiness, we put ourselves in the position of being ethnographic objects so that the white subject to judge our claims for humanity.

Rey Chow notes that within this position of ethnographic entrapment, the only rhetorical position offered to the Native is that of the “protesting ethnic.”  The posture to be assumed under the politics of recognition is the posture of complaint. If we complain eloquently, the system will give us something.  Building on Chow’s work, this essay will explore how another posture that is created within this economy is the self-reflexive settler/white subject.   This self-reflexive subject is frequently on display at various anti-racist venues in which the privileged subject explains how much s/he learned about her complicity in settler colonialism and/or white supremacy because of her exposure to Native peoples.  A typical instance of this will involve non-Native peoples who make presentations based on what they “learned” while doing solidarity work with Native peoples in their field research/solidarity work, etc.  Complete with videos and slide shows, the presenters will express the privilege with which they struggled.  We will learn how they tried to address the power imbalances between them and the peoples with which they studied or worked.  We will learn how they struggled to gain their trust.  Invariably, the narrative begins with the presenters initially facing the distrust of the Natives because of their settler/white privilege.  But through perseverance and good intentions, the researchers overcome this distrust and earn the friendship of their ethnographic objects.  In these stories of course, to evoke Gayatri Spivak, the subaltern does not speak.  We do not hear what their theoretical analysis of their relationship is.  We do not hear about how they were organizing on their own before they were saved/studied by these presenters.

Native peoples are not positioned as those who can engage in self-reflection; they can only judge the worth of the confession.  Consequently, the presenters of these narratives often present very nervously.  Did they speak to all their privileges? Did they properly confess?  Or will someone in the audience notice a mistake and question whether they have in fact become a fully-developed anti-racist subject?  In that case, the subject would have to then engage in further acts of self-reflection that require new confessions in the future.

Thus, borrowing from the work of Scott Morgensen and Hiram Perez, the confession of privilege, while claiming to be anti-racist and anti-colonial, is actually a strategy that helps constitute the settler/white subject.   In Morgensen’s analysis, the settler subject constitutes itself through incorporation.  Through this logic of settlement, settlers become the rightful inheritors of all that was indigenous – land, resources, indigenous spirituality, or culture.  Thus, indigeneity is not necessarily framed as antagonistic to the settler subject; rather the Native is supposed to disappear into the project of settlement.  The settler becomes the “new and improved” version of the Native, thus legitimizing and naturalizing the settler’s claims to this land.
Hiram Perez similarly analyzes how the white subject positions itself intellectually as a cosmopolitan subject capable of abstract theorizing through the use of the “raw material” provided by fixed, brown bodies.  The white subject is capable of being “anti-“ or “post-identity,” but understands their post-identity only in relationship to brown subjects which are hopelessly fixed within identity.   Brown peoples provide the “raw material” that enables the intellectual production of the white subject.

Thus, self-reflexivity enables the constitution of the white/settler subject.  Anti-racist/colonial struggles have created a colonial dis-ease that the settler/white subject may not in fact be self-determining.  As a result, the white/settler subject reasserts their power through self-reflection.  In particular, indigenous peoples and people of color become the occasion by which the white subject can self-reflect on her/his privilege.  If this person self-reflects effectively, s/he may be bestowed the title “ally” and build a career of her/his self-reflection.  As many on the blogosphere have been commenting recently (see for instance @prisonculture and @ChiefElk), an entire ally industrial complex has developed around the professional confession of privilege
Of course, this essay itself does not escape the logics of self-reflexivity either.  Rhetorically, it simply sets me up as yet another judge of the inadequacies of the confessions of others.  Thus, what is important in this discussion is not so much how particular individuals confess their privileges. If Native peoples are represented problematically even by peoples who espouse anti-racist or anti-settler politics, it is not an indication that the work of those peoples is particularly flawed or that their scholarship has less value.  Similarly, those privileged “confessing” subjects in anti-racism workshops do so with a commitment to fighting settler colonialism or white supremacy and their solidarity work is critically needed.  Furthermore, as women of color scholars and activists have noted, there is no sharp divide between those who are “oppressed” and those who are “oppressors.”  Individuals may find themselves variously in the position of being the confessor or the judge of the confession depending on the context.  Rather, the point of this analysis is to illustrate the larger dynamics by which racialized and colonized peoples are even seen and understood in the first place.

The presupposition is that Indigenous peoples are oppressed because they are not sufficiently known or understood.  In fact, however, this desire to “know” the Native is itself part of the settler-colonial project to apprehend, contain and domesticate the potential power of indigenous peoples to subvert the settler state.   As Mark Rifkin has argued, colonial logics attempt to transform Native peoples who are producers of intellectual theory and political insight into populations to be known and hence managed.  Native struggles then simply become a project of Native peoples making their demands known so that their claims can be recognized the by the settler state.  Once these demands are known, they can they be more easily managed, co-opted and disciplined.  Thus, the project of decolonization requires a practice of what Audra Simpson calls “ethnographic refusal” – the refusal to be known and the refusal to be infinitely knowable.   The politics of decolonization requires the proliferation of theories, knowledge, ideas, and analyses that speak to a beyond settler colonialism and are hence unknowable.

Alternatives to Self-Reflection
            Based on this analysis then, our project becomes less of one based on self-improvement or even collective self-improvement, and more about the creation of new worlds and futurities for which we currently have no language.

There is no simple anti-oppression formula that we can follow; we are in a constant state of trial and error and radical experimentation.   In that spirit then, I offer some possibilities that might speak to new ways of undoing privilege, not in the sense of offering the “correct” process for moving forward, but in the spirit of adding to our collective imagining of a “beyond.”   These projects of decolonization can be contrasted with that of the projects of anti-racist or anti-colonialist self-reflexivity in that they are not based on the goal of “knowing” more about our privilege, but on creating that which we cannot now know.

As I have discussed elsewhere, many of these models are based on “taking power by making power” models particularly prevalent in Latin America.  These models, which are deeply informed by indigenous peoples’ movements, have informed the landless movement, the factory movements, and other peoples’ struggles.  Many of these models are also being used by a variety of social justice organization throughout the United States and elsewhere.  The principle undergirding these models is to challenge capital and state power by actually creating the world we want to live in now.  These groups develop alternative governance systems based on principles of horizontality, mutuality, and interrelatedness rather than hierarchy, domination, and control. In beginning to create this new world, subjects are transformed.  These “autonomous zones” can be differentiated from the projects of many groups in the U.S. that create separatist communities based on egalitarian ideals in that people in these “making power” movements do not just create autonomous zones, but they proliferate them.  These movements developed in reaction to the revolutionary vanguard model of organizing in Latin America that became criticized as “machismo-leninismo” models.   These models were so hierarchical that in the effort to combat systems of oppression, they inadvertently re-created the same systems they were trying to replace. In addition, this model of organizing was inherently exclusivist because not everyone can take up guns and go the mountains to become revolutionaries.   Women, who have to care for families, could particularly be excluded from such revolutionary movements.  So, movements began to develop organizing models that are based on integrating the organizing into one’s everyday life so that all people can participate. For instance, a group might organize through communal cooking, but during the cooking process, which everyone needs to do anyway in order to eat, they might educate themselves on the nature of agribusiness.

At the 2005 World Social Forum in Brazil, activists from Chiapas reported that this movement began to realize that one cannot combat militarism with more militarism because the state always has more guns.  However, if movements began to build their own autonomous zones and proliferated them until they reached a mass scale, eventually there would be nothing the state’s military could do.    If mass-based peoples’ movements begin to live life using alternative governance structures and stop relying on the state, then what can the state do?  Of course, during the process, there may be skirmishes with the state, but conflict is not the primary work of these movements.  And as we see these movements literally take over entire countries in Latin America, it is clear that it is possible to do revolutionary work on a mass-scale in a manner based on radical participatory rather than representational democracy or through a revolutionary vanguard model.

Many leftists will argue that nation-states are necessary to check the power of multi-national corporations or will argue that nation-states are no longer important units of analysis.   These groups, by contrast, recognize the importance of creating alternative forms of governance outside of a nation-state model based on principles of horizontalism.  In addition, these groups are taking on multinational corporations directly.  An example would be the factory movement in Argentina where workers have appropriated factories and seized the means of production themselves.  They have also developed cooperative relationships with other appropriated factories.  In addition, in many factories all of the work is collectivized.  For instance, a participant from a group I work with who recently had a child and was breastfeeding went to visit a factory.  She tried to sign up for one of the collectively-organized tasks of the factory, and was told that breastfeeding was her task.   The factory recognized breastfeeding as work on par with all the other work going on in the factory.

This kind of politics then challenges the notions of “safe space” often prevalent in many activist circles in the United States.  The concept of safe space flows naturally from the logics of privilege.  That is, once we have confessed our gender/race/settler/class privileges, we can then create a safe space where others will not be negatively impacted by these privileges.  Of course because we have not dismantled heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, settler colonialism or capitalism, these confessed privileges never actually disappear in “safe spaces.”  Consequently, when a person is found guilty of his/her privilege in these spaces, s/he is accused of making the space “unsafe.”   This rhetorical strategy presumes that only certain privileged subjects can make the space “unsafe” as if everyone isn’t implicated in heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, settler colonialism and capitalism.  Our focus is shifted from the larger systems that make the entire world unsafe, to interpersonal conduct.  In addition, the accusation of “unsafe” is also levied against people of color who express anger about racism, only to find themselves accused of making the space “unsafe” because of their raised voices.   The problem with safe space is the presumption that a safe space is even possible.

By contrast, instead of thinking of safe spaces as a refuge from colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, Ruthie Gilmore suggests that safe space is not an escape from the real, but a place to practice the real we want to bring into being.  “Making power” models follow this suggestion in that they do not purport to be free of oppression, only that they are trying to create the world they would like to live in now.   To give one smaller example, when Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, organized, we questioned the assumption that “women of color” space is a safe space.  In fact, participants began to articulate that women of color space may in fact be a very dangerous space.  We realized that we could not assume alliances with each other, but we would actually have to create these alliances.  One strategy that was helpful was rather than presume that we were acting “non-oppressively,” we built a structure that would presume that we were complicit in the structures of white supremacy/settler colonialism/heteropatriarchy etc.  We then structured this presumption into our organizing by creating spaces where we would educate ourselves on issues in which our politics and praxis were particularly problematic.  The issues we have covered include: disability, anti-Black racism, settler colonialism, Zionism and anti-Arab racism, transphobia, and many others.  However, in this space, while we did not ignore our individual complicity in oppression, we developed action plans for how we would collectively try to transform our politics and praxis.   Thus, this space did not create the dynamic of the confessor and the hearer of the confession.  Instead, we presumed we are all implicated in these structures of oppression and that we would need to work together to undo them.  Consequently, in my experience, this kind of space facilitated our ability to integrate personal and social transformation because no one had to anxiously worry about whether they were going to be targeted as a bad person with undue privilege who would need to publicly confess.    The space became one that was based on principles of loving rather than punitive accountability.

            The politics of privilege have made the important contribution of signaling how the structures of oppression constitute who we are as persons.  However, as the rituals of confessing privilege have evolved, they have shifted our focus from building social movements for global transformation to individual self-improvement.  Furthermore, they rest on a white supremacist/colonialist notion of a subject that can constitute itself over and against others through self-reflexivity.   While trying to keep the key insight made in activist/academic circles that personal and social transformation are interconnected, alternative projects have developed that focus less on privilege and more the structures that create privilege.   These new models do not hold the “answer,” because the genealogy of the politics of privilege also demonstrates that our activist/intellectual projects of liberation must be constantly changing.  Our imaginations are limited by white supremacy, settler colonialism, etc., so all ideas we have will not be “perfect.”    The ideas we develop today also do not have to be based on the complete disavowal of what we did yesterday because what we did yesterday teaches what we might do tomorrow.    Thus, as we think not only beyond privilege, but beyond the sense of self that claims privilege, we open ourselves to new possibilities that we cannot imagine now for the future.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

DOMA and Liberation

I remember the day that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was made into law. It the fall equinox and it was cold and rainy that day in 1996. I was 15 years old. I was a part of a queer youth group in the DC area called SMYAL (Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League). We had been encouraged to attend a press conference announcing the anticipated passage of the bill. Honestly I don't remember many of the details of that day. But I have a distinct memory of the feeling in my body during that press conference.

It was sometime in the afternoon. We were standing under a large tree somewhere around the Capitol. There wasn't a lot of media there other than the gay press. Some Senator was giving a really depressing speech about the bill. The Employment Non Discrimination Act had just failed again a few weeks before. I was a teenager, queer, and living in Virginia in the 1990s. What did I have to look forward to in this life? Congress had just sent a very clear message that my love wasn't real love and that I wasn't even worth a job.

The world seemed bleak and overwhelming the day that DOMA passed. I remember looking up at the leaves on the Oak tree as rain from the sky and mixed with the tears on my face. The rain was cold on that dark fall day. I remember feeling a deep chill of hopelessness inside my body as I rode the metro home. I couldn't image what my life was going to look like as an adult in a world that hated me so much.

Today the Supreme Court, by what seems like divine intervention, struck down much of DOMA and Proposition 8 in one fell swoop. After the racist repeal of the Voting Rights Act earlier this week, I was not feeling hopeful for a positive ruling today. I received the news from a childhood friend who still lives in Virginia this morning. She and her partner have been waiting for this ruling to figure out the next steps in their lives. The victory today is not a full victory because the clause in DOMA making it legal for states to deny marriage rights to same-sex married couples from other states was not challenged or changed. This means that states like Virginia do not need to recognize same-sex marriage.

While this is a loss, much federal recognition of around marriage equality has bent towards justice today. This ruling has created a new pathway to citizenship for same sex bi-national couples. This is a big step forward in the fight for just immigration reform and it's just a step. We still have a long way to go and we must not stop here. We must continue to organize for comprehensive immigration reform for all of those LGBT immigrants who are not partnered. We must continue to organize for all immigrants who are living in the shadows.

And it doesn't stop with justice for immigrants. The Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA) has still not passed, and it is still legal to fire someone for being queer or transgender in all but 16 states. That means that in my home state of Virginia and 33 other states it the livelihood of millions of LGBT people is not protected.

A recent survey of the homeless community in San Francisco identified that over ¼ of the population living on the streets is LGBT. Children are still kicked out of their homes for being LGBT. Queer kids in the foster care system continue to face discrimination. And thousands of people of color and other minorities have just lost protections around their right to vote.

We have come a long way, and we still have a very long way to go.

But today, let us celebrate. Let us savor this moment of victory. On this day so close to the summer solstice when the days are long, dance in the sunshine my friends. Let it warm your face as you celebrate. Let it fill you with hope and faith that change is possible. May this celebration be nourishment for our bodies, our spirits, and for the larger movement for equality and liberation for all beings.

For tomorrow we will continue the fight. Tomorrow the struggle for liberation will move forward.

Image from a Direct Action protest in the weeks following the passage of Prop. 8

Monday, April 22, 2013

Earth Day Liberation

I woke up and checked my facebook account this morning and saw quickly from my friends posts that today is Earth Day.  I have a Pagan confession to make.  I never have really cared much for earth day.  I feel like that must make me a bad Pagan.  We love the earth so naturally we would love earth day, right?  I guess I just have never really been moved by the organizing that happens on Earth Day.  Celebrations sponsored by Chevrolet and Microsoft declaring what a great job we are doing saving the earth, like the one happening in San Francisco today, have never inspired me. 

I'm taking an "Environmental Ethics and Liberation" class this semester.  This week we're reading James Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology.  He talks about the interconnection of the fight to protect the earth and the fight to dismantle white supremacy,

“People who fight against white racism but fail to connect to the degradation of the earth are anti-ecological whether they know it or not. People who struggle against environmental degradation but do not incorporate in it a disciplined and sustained fight against white supremacy are racists- whether they acknowledge it or not. The fight for justice cannot be segregated but must be integrated with the fight for life in all its forms."

As Pagans, as people who love the earth, we must begin to see the ways in which we can as a people, engage in a disciplined and sustained fight against white supremacy.  This struggle is critical for the health and well being of the earth.  Furthermore, this struggle is a fundamental dimension of the development of a moral compass for people who love the earth.  What kind of spiritual communities are we building if we focus exclusively on "self growth" and magical practices that are blind to racial and social injustice? 

This earth day,

May we not forget that the struggle to protect the earth can not be separated with the struggle to dismantle white supremacy.

May we allow ourselves to open to the love that is present in collective liberation. 


Check it out--Seriously.

James H. Cone,  "Whose Earth is it Anyway?", Cross Currents (Spring/Summer 2000)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I believe in the Sweat of Love and the Fire of Truth

It's Black History Month.  I've been inspired by the facebook posts of my friends, posting images and stories of important African Americans in their history and in their lives.  So today I'm going to tell you about a Black woman who changed my life.  I'm not going to tell you about someone I know.  I'm going to tell you about Assata Shakur and how how my life was changed when I read her autobiography.

I thought I was going to study photography when I went to college.  In my first semester I took an African American history class and realized how much I had been lied to in my history education.  This began a rather naive search for "the truth" of history.  It was in a class on the relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power movement that I read the autobiography of Assata Shakur.  This book changed my life.

Assata Olugbabla Shakur, who's name means "She who Struggles" "For the People" and "The Thankful" is a leader in the struggle for Black liberation in the United States.  She has dedicated years of her life to radical resistance to racism in the US.  For her action, she was targeted by the US government's campaign against people of color, COINTELPRO.  The dramatic part of the story of her life is that she was arrested in a shootout with the NJ police.  She was later convicted of shooting a police officer and sentenced to many years in prison.  She was injured during this shootout and medical evidence shows that she could not have committed the crime she was convicted of.  However, this evidence was not allowed in her trial. 

Years later, she was liberated in a "commando style raid" upon the prison facility where she was being held.  Not much is known about this raid.  She managed to leave the United States where she lives with her family, "free with political asylum in Cuba".

Common, a kick ass hip hop artist, wrote a song about her.  You can listen here.

It wasn't the dramatic story of escape that touched me so deeply about this woman.  It was her words about the lived experience of black people in the United States that moved me.  As a white woman who grew up in Virginia, I am no stranger to racism.  I have witnessed it and seen it impact black and white people that I love.  The thing about her book, for me it was a wake up call.  It was a call to action. Her words, her poetry, both gave me hope and helped me to see, just a glimpse, of how much there is to be done. 

Assata Shakur is controversial.  She's a radical.  She's a truth teller and she's a prophet.

She changed my life.  She opened my eyes.  She woke me up.

Maybe she'll change your life too.  True to the values of black liberation, a copy of her book is available for free download here.

There have been many nights that I have opened up her book and read a passage aloud to myself to reconnect with the sacred spirit of justice, the spirit of liberation.


This Black History month I honor Assata Shakur.  
I say thank you, thankful one.  
Thank you for your struggle for the people.  
Thank you for the ways that you inspire me to fight against racism.  
Thank you for your wisdom and your poetry.  

The divine speaks through you elder sister.

By Assata Shakur

I believe in living. I believe in the spectrum
of Beta days and Gamma people.
I believe in sunshine
in windmills and waterfalls,
tricycles and rocking chairs.
And I believe that seeds grow into sprouts,
And sprouts grow into trees.
I believe in the magic of the hands.
And in the wisdom of the eyes.
I believe in rain and tears.
And in the blood of infinity.

I believe in life.
And I have seen the death parade
march through the torso of the earth,
sculpting mud bodies in its path.
I have seen the destruction of the daylight,
and seen the bloodthirsty maggots
prayed to and saluted.

I have seen the kind become the blind
and the blind become the bind
in one easy lesson.
I have walked on cut glass.
I have eaten crow and blunder bread
and breathed the stench of indifference.

I have been locked by the lawless.
Handcuffed by the haters.
Gagged by the greedy.
And, if I know anything at all,
it's that a wall is just a wall
and nothing more at all.
It can be broken down.

I believe in living.
I believe in birth.
I believe in the sweat of love
and in the fire of truth.

And I believe that a lost ship,
steered by tired, seasick sailors,
Can still be guided home
to port.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Six Sacred Considerations for Pagans in Solidarity with Idle No More

I first heard of the horrific attacks on First Nations people by the Canadian government from Clyde Hall, a Shoshone elder. I had seen a few things on Facebook but I did not understand the potential to strip Canadian First Nations people of their sovereignty until Clyde laid it out in plain English. As he explained in detail the implications of the law that was on its way to passing in Canada, the danger of this legislation began to sink into my body. If this legislation passes, the Canadian government will cease to recognize First Nations treaty rights. The potential of which is that Canadian First Nations could lose the rights to their land, among other things. Furthermore, ceasing to recognize the treaty rights of the First Nations is a move towards an erasure of indigenous identity and an another attempt at genocide. If this legislation passes in Canada, it's just a matter of time before this kind of legislation comes to the United States. 

Native people across North America have been organizing a peaceful movement of resistance called “Idle No More”. A lot of my friends have been asking me, what is this movement about? Idle No More was founded by First Nations women and has gained significant momentum through the leadership of Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskit First Nation, who has been on a hunger strike since December 11, 2012. Her demand is that the Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gov David Johnston meet with First Nations leaders to discuss treaty rights. The resistance is spreading like wildfire and I recently had the honor of joining with hundreds of First Nations people and their allies in Oakland for a Round Dance in solidarity with Chief Spence and Idle No More. 

As a descendent of colonizers of this land, I have often struggled with the knowledge that my ancestors played a role in the genocidal attacks on first nations people of this land. As a descendent of settlers and a person with white skin privilege, what is my place in First Nations struggles for liberation? As a non-Native Pagan who feels deeply connected with the land, how do I honor that connection? How do I honor the spirits of the land who howl along the wind, crying out for healing? How can we as non-native people who love this earth be supportive of the movement in a way that does not reproduce systems of inequality and the generations of colonization that runs through our blood? 

I struggle regularly with these questions. I do not propose to have the answers. But, in this time of great change as waves of resistance spread across the land, I would like to share with you some things that I have have learned through the resistance that I have have been honored to be a part of over the years. 

  1. We must learn to follow the leadership of first nations people. This is a movement led by First Nations people. Those who are most directly impacted by decisions made by people in power must be leading this movement. Part of how colonization and white supremacy works is by instilling in white people the belief that their opinions and voices are more important than others. Too often, I have seen white people get involved with justice struggles led by people of color and quickly begin speaking loudly and often in meetings and decision making processes. Part of being an ally is learning how to be a follower. This is not our movement to lead, this is a movement in which we are to follow. This is not to say that our voices are not important or that we should be silent. Just check yourself as you get involved and keep checking yourself. We must be humble, connect with the earth, and listen to our brothers and sisters.

  1. We must not seek to imitate or colonize indigenous spiritual traditions. This is hard. As pagans, most of us come from blood lineages that are no longer connected with the earth based spiritual traditions of our ancestors. Because of this, the “culture vulture” can emerge and give birth to “Native American Shamanic” trainings led by non-native people disconnected from any tribe, elder, or actual lineage. We must enter into support of this movement with consciousness that we are guests in ceremony. Just because you have danced a round dance in the streets with first nations elders does not give you the right to bring a round dance back to your coven or community. Our Pagan traditions have roots, reasons, and a context. If someone came to a spiral dance ritual organized by your community, and then returned to their Christian congregation to do a spiral dance and then did it backwards while singing “Onward Christian Soldier”, you would likely be pretty upset. Respect the traditions and respect that you are a guest.

  1. Respect the people, respect their ways. Don't assume that just because you are in ceremony that you are in a similar context to your Pagan context. Native traditions vary widely from tribe to tribe. Many of the Idle No More actions are being held in a ceremonial context. Often in a ceremonial context there is protocol and different people have different roles. Look around and notice how people are interacting with one another. Are people holding hands and hugging or are they more generally less physically interactive? Are people making eye contact with one another? How are people interacting with elders? Try to respect the culture and follow along with the way people are interacting.

  1. Don't make assumptions about someone's spiritual orientation. Don't assume that a ceremony seeming to contain Pagan elements means that the people you are working with are Pagan. Many First Nations people identify as Christian or with other religious traditions. There is a long history of Native American people taking Christianity and transforming it into a tradition that is relevant in their cultural context. This has been a fundamental element of resistance for many First Nations people. So no Christian bashing. That's a good agreement to hold in any multi-cultural or interfaith context. Just because Christianity has been an oppressive force in your life as a Pagan does not mean that it can not be a force of liberation for others. Respect the way others have found divinity. We all hold a piece of the truth.

  1. We must be compassionate and humble. Solidarity is not easy. Racism and colonization thrives on the pride of those in positions of power. We are going to stumble. We are going to make mistakes. We have been raised in a racist world and even with the best intentions we are inevitably going to act in ways that reflect the racist context in which we were raised. Unlearning generations of colonization can not happen overnight! We must be compassionate with ourselves and with each other. Don't hesitate to name racist behavior when you see it and please be compassionate when you speak about it. Focus on the action that the person did, not the character of the person.

  1. Consider committing to this movement for the long haul. The healing of this land is deeply connected with the liberation of the descendents of the ancestors of this land. As Pagans, if we are to be in a good way with the land, we must be in a good way with the ancestors and the spirits of the land. Colonization is the voice that tells us that one life is worth more than another. Colonization is the weapon that drove our ancestors away from right relationship with the earth and each other. Coming into right relationship with each other is critical for the healing of the earth. And one of the best ways we can return to right relationship is through the long slow work of relationship building. 

    So much is at stake in this moment. This latest land grab at Native land is connected with attempts to develop the Tar Sands Keystone XL Pipeline. If you care about the earth, if you care about stopping the tar sands, if you care about leaving earth that our children and our children’s children can live in, please get involved with Idle No More and support the leadership of First Nations people in this movement to protect our sacred mother earth.

    To learn more about how to get involved with Idle No More, go to

    Please Note: I wrote a slightly different version of this piece that speaks to a larger audience of Non-Pagan people.  This version has been published on several blogs.  Please click on the links below to read the other versions.  

    Tikkun: To mend, repair and Transform the World