We’re in the the long and lazy days of summer, and yet, out of habit, I’ve made it into the office. I’m sitting around, minding my own business. I’m good at that. (I’m also good at finding lint, but no one pays me for that.) In the summer, academics are often left to their own devices, daydreaming about research, or travel, or giving everyone an F – that kind of fun.But there’s a hellish risk to visiting the office in the low season: people want to chat. The abandon of summer empowers my colleagues to ask all sorts of questions. I tend to answer with a deep breath, a smile, and a silent thought.
“Are you having fun?” I was.
“I love bruschetta and Alfredo. How do you say bruschetta in Italian?” Vaffanculo.
“Can you make people do things with Witchcraft?” I clearly need more practice, or you would leave me alone.
“Do you feel safe around here?” Hmmm. Now that’s a complex question.
My colleague’s question about safety catches me off-guard. It’s Pride Month, and so when I hear the word “safe,” I automatically think about the term in that context. I understand the question as evoking the creation of safe spaces that have evolved over the past few decades to create a haven from prejudice.
My office is one of those safe spaces. I have a pink triangle “Safe Zone” sticker on my door, and I’m clear about what that means. It means that that a person’s minoritized gender or sexual identity has no bearing on whether they are welcome or supported. It also means that I will block any hate speech I encounter – gender, sexual, racial, religious, whatever it might be. I won’t allow it to happen here.
I also recognize, however, that we’ve allowed this term, “safe,” to take on a lot of bloat. Does being safe mean being free of risk? Does it mean being supported? Does it mean being welcomed? Does it mean being protected? In particular, I wonder if my colleague is conflating emotional safety with an academic freedom to debate controversial ideas. The latter meaning is a jargonized way of understanding the term “safe” that has been contextualized to the privileged space of academia.
The sign on my door is also misleading. I can’t really guarantee emotional protection. I also can’t really assure anybody that my office, lab, or building is risk-free. I can’t promise that a passersby won’t yell at them, insult them, or worse. I can’t promise that an innocent remark will not have bigoted overtones. But I can confront the person who makes that remark. I can insist on respectful dialogue and do my part to prevent abuse from recurring. And I can take steps to prevent a person from adding to the harm.
All of this is also true in the Pagan cultural landscape. We talk about festivals being “safe spaces.” We talk about ritual space as a “safe space.” We even expect “safe spaces” when we congregate for meetings.
Now, we should expect some of that safety. It’s not only expected given our codes for hospitality, but it’s also an acknowledgement of the reality that our community experiences real and present forms of discrimination. We experience that discrimination not just through ostracism, but through all sorts of marginalization, from the economic to the spiritual. So we should affirm that bias against Pagans, writ large, is real, and that we should create safe spaces in response to that bias.
That said, Paganism – in all its forms – is a choice. It is a path we select. We can acknowledge the sense of being called by the rightness of that path. We can desire freedom from being persecuted based on our practice. We can even experience a coming out of sorts, where we accept the implications of the path we’ve chosen and openly discuss them.
To do this does take bravery. But let’s be clear, this challenge is not the same as the struggle that trans people experience in accepting their identity or a gay people, or the struggle of being black in society. I could go on. These are groups whose realities were not created by choice, and their calls for safe spaces go far beyond comfort – they are a matter of survival. Their notion of safety is about literally being safe.
Given the recent public declaration about witchcraft from some powerful organizations, the NRA among them, I fear some of this may be true for our community as well – Satanic Panic II: The Phantom Menace, just as bad as the first. Even still, the burden is less. At the end of the day, we can pass.There is still more to discuss around this issue of safety, about the work that we do for spiritual and emotional clarity. When my colleague asked the question “Do you feel safe?,” the witch in me thought, I hope not. Spiritual work and awakening is not about embracing safety. It is an act of squirming through acceptance of self and others while drowning in countless realities and realizations. Spiritual leaders got there through spiritual boot camp. They never sought safety- they sought change.
I found my puzzled voice forced to ask a question: since when do Witches sail in safe waters?
The very act of referring to oneself as a witch is a violent assault on social normativity. Its use reclaims millennia of oppression and rejects a powerful social order. It is a political embrace of otherness, capable of penetrating the lies and commandments of the kyriarchy. In calling ourselves witches, we are not forging a safe space for ourselves; we are announcing that we are a sober and awakened threat, a tool for karma and justice.
Our whispers are shockwaves that cleave through illusions of control. Our spellwork is seen as an act of spiritual and material terror. We represent the power of subversion through truth. We carry mantles held by the spiritual leaders and mystics that have altered history. We cut through the cowardice built within organized faiths that demand obedience: we unmask the fragile egos of the powerful. We are a danger because we are free willed.
We are not the ones in need of safe space. We are the ones who can create it for others. I have no doubt that we will continue to do what Witches have done since Endor. (Not that Endor, Jedis.) We will comfort. We will protect. We will keep silent.