Editorial: A Time to Listen

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Editor’s note: Today’s article contains descriptions of violence.

In 1974, my first cousin Adrián – my primo hermano in Spanish, who lived with us as my brother, really  – got married. I was a kid at the time. He and the others of my generation were born a decade or more before me.

Adrián moved in with his wife, a white, strawberry blond Southerner who was always nice and seemed intrigued by Latin culture. They lived in a trailer on the opposite side of town, and I saw less and less of him as he and his wife started a family of three.

Two years later he came home to find his wife cheating with another man. That man was white.

They argued. My cousin called the police. They saw that the other man had a gun.

Adrián was shot dead in his house. Everyone else was left alive. They were acquitted like nothing had happened.

That event shaped how my family lives, where my family lives, and who my family trusts, whether persons or institutions. It does so to this day.

Embed from Getty Images

Soon after that a ritual started in my family. I got “the talk.” I passed it on. I gave “the talk” to my nephew. When other cousins came from Cuba, I had to give them “the talk.” They now give “the talk” to their kids.

For those not familiar with “the talk,” it refers to the family rules on how to survive an interaction with systems of power like the criminal justice system. “The talk” starts with being more cautious in white neighborhoods. Then come the rules:

  1. Be polite, clear, and respectful when asked a question, but otherwise, keep your mouth shut.
  2. Do not argue, and speak only in English.
  3.  Keep your hands visible all the time.
  4.  Do not move suddenly and explain first any move.
  5. Do not make physical contact and do not resist arrest.

For white readers, these rules perhaps can help diffuse an encounter with the police. For members of my family, the goal of these rules was to keep us alive.

(I will add that I cannot believe that in 2020, I still have to give this fucking “talk” to my family. But I have, and there is a good chance I will have to do it again.)

 

This past month, our collective bank of justice went bankrupt again, exposing our constant moral defects when it comes to understanding racism and white supremacy.

Amy Cooper weaponized her white privilege in an instant to use her racial power to get her way. We watched the video.

George Floyd lost his life while he begged to not be murdered. We watched the video.

Both events are on the heels of Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting. We watched that video too. There is a troublingly long list of others.

Meanwhile, we condemn what some perceive as looting while calling the exploitation of communities “business” and “free enterprise.” Worse still, we watch how disparately these protests are treated by police, when only days ago openly armed and occasionally masked white protestors were entering state capitols literally demanding the overthrow of the government while holding antisemitic and racist signs. Those protestors were simply asked to show some restraint and patience.

That’s the system we live in. Despite the videos, too many people dismiss the reality that black and brown people are surviving a racist landscape.

A man leaves a photo at a memorial for George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN [Lorie Shaull, Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0]

This past week my family relived Adrián’s murder. Countless other families lived out their injustices as well. That is why the outrage is palpable in Minneapolis and across the United States.

These events are personal for too many people in our society, and they again expose the racism pandemic that has been raging for centuries.

It feels as is if no matter what we say or how we say it, we are caught inside a racial system that denies racism exists. And when we point out the racism, we are gaslighted.

Some might then ask, what does this have to do with Paganism?

Well, in short, everything. There is nothing that racism does not taint. There is no quarter untouched by racism and white privilege, whether that is within a Wiccan Circle, a Heathen blót, or a Christian mass.

Even the very question exposes the gaslighting of people of color.

The power structures subordinating people of color are everywhere, and we are warned to look for them. We are even invited to come forward without observations. But when we describe them, we’re told some version of “I don’t see it.” Most famously, we’ve heard it in statements like “I don’t see color.”

A few years ago, I was brought in as a consultant to identify barriers that a university had for people of color. During the campus visit, I pointed out a security sign that read “we are watching you.” I explained that the sign suggested safety to white people, but conveys danger to black and brown people.

The response, from an all-white team: “Don’t see it. You’ll have to explain.”

“You are literally paying me to help you see the issues,” I said, “and reject them when they are pointed out.” That led to a positive conversation about how recognizing racism takes work, commitment, and investment. They were willing to make those investments.

I am not confident that we are willing to do the same as a society. But, I am confident most in the Pagan community are willing to make those investments.

Even still, our community has a great deal of work still to do.

Pagans of color are questioned when their faith expression doesn’t meet the white gaze’s expectation of skin color, or ethnicity, or even nation of origin. Our community still clings to heredity as an affirmation of inclusion and even the justification for some traditions.

When I visit some Pagan conferences, even as recently as last year, I am often the only person of color in the room, sometimes the only one at all at smaller events. That says loudly that there is a barrier to entry: to the conference, to our religions, and even to Paganism writ large.

That’s why we still have work to do and why the work is urgent.

The protests are making clear to me that I am brown enough to know the pain intimately and white enough that I need to listen more.

Our black and brown communities are under assault by COVID-19, racism, and deaf leadership. These protests are about breath and the right to breathe.

At this moment, the focus must remain on the murder of George Floyd. I’m already troubled by the charge of third-degree murder against former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin. Third-degree murder implies an unintentional action. That’s not what I saw in the video, where a police officer knelt with his knee pressed into George Floyd’s neck. The coroner’s report said the officer, Derek Chauvin, kept his knee there for almost nine minutes.

That seems intentional. That seems like an execution.