Because a strengthening sun culminates on the longest day of the year at Summer Solstice or Litha (typically celebrated between June 20 and 22), Wiccans focus on fulfilling projects and plans that have been simmering throughout the winter and spring. In Feminist Wicca, at this time of year, we also acknowledge the power of rage and outrage to facilitate rapid personal and social transformation. In ritual, we think about what needs to be burned away by the sun’s heat to create a stronger foundation for life to flourish.
We are living in a moment of rage, outrage, and racial reckoning intended to deeply transform social institutions to better support life, dignity, and human need. This moment is also the culmination of unfathomable effort.
This moment may be surprising or even shocking to some white people. But, the kindling and logs--the causes and conditions--of this uniquely US American bonfire have been layered carefully, systematically, and thoroughly, for centuries, since Europeans first colonized indigenous people, enslaved Africans, and took Mexican land. The genocide, slavery, occupation, and sadism that founded this nation have proven to be inescapable. Structural racism is in the DNA of virtually all the social, political, judicial, and economic institutions within which we function. Racial othering is part of the first breath we all take as newborns.
But it is also true that the enormous efforts to dismantle and destroy systems of racial oppression--led by organizers, thinkers, activists, artists, spiritual leaders, and writers of color--over these same centuries, have been ingenious, persistent, resourceful, at times joyful, effective, and, at the end of the day, the most significant reason for any of us to feel pride in being US American. This overall story of resistance is the true US American history.
We are experiencing what can feel like rapid transformation, but is also the culmination of billions of painstaking, brilliant, and courageous actions to save lives, live with dignity, preserve families and communities, educate and enlighten oppressors, serve human needs, build a humane society, and force the US Constitution to have real meaning.
As a white person, what can I add that helps illuminate this moment and its possibilities?
I credit the millimeters of progress I’ve made (in my 4 decades as an adult) in expanding my awareness of racial oppression, becoming educated about US history, noticing white privilege, and attuning my life path accordingly to several specific people who were heartbreakingly generous with their time and teaching.
I want to tell you about them and what I learned.
As background, in high school in 1981, I lived with my family in the Middle East and emerged as both an anti-occupation (of Palestinans) activist and a feminist as a result of my observations and direct experiences. Learning about European colonialism, US-backed occupation, and the political and social disenfranchisement of women attuned me to the fact that genocide, settler-colonialsm, enslavement, and mysogyny form the very foundation of my own country.
As an undergraduate in 1985 at my small liberal arts school, Carleton College, I looked for a focus of study that would reflect and expand on these insights. There were no Ethnic, Women’s, or Gender Studies majors available at that time, and so, eventually, I designed my own major entitled “Literature and Theory of the Disenfranchised in American Society” and minored in Spanish. I was interested in experiences of marginalized people and the ways those people have transformed US American society as a result of their outsider status.
I also received two National Endowment of the Humanities fellowships in African-American Studies at UC Berkeley to supplement my learning during the summers. In those fellowships, I wrote about the use of female mentor figures in folklore and their role in healing suffering inflicted by racism--a topic that foreshadowed and contributed to my later work as a Wiccan priestess.
The following are the key lessons I learned from the people who taught, advised, and mentored me so long ago. Their lessons helped me build a framework for living my life as a feminist, friend, community builder, and for my professional work in LGBTQ community engagement and as a priestess.
Address Racism Through Friendship
Carleton College Political Philosopher and Professor Maria C. Lugones wrote about developing deep empathy for other’s points of view as a way to overcome racism--and, specifically, the power of non-extractive and non-exploitative friendship between women of different races. Developing mutually beneficial connections between white and non-white women is enormously challenging, some might say impossible. But when done honestly and effectively, these connections shift entrenched dynamics and have ripple effects throughout communities. I interpreted this idea to mean that dismantling white privilege will only go so far when powered by intellectual altruism--the idea or the desire to do so. Arguably, humans are most deeply transformed, willing to risk and be vulnerable, and acknowledge painful truths when they do so in service to love. I have endeavored to build supportive friendships with women of color and have failed miserably and spectacularly multiple times (just last week!). Yet, I am grateful to all those who have checked my assumptions, challenged my use of power, and demanded my true attention and witnessing in the context of love and friendship.
Addresing Racism Through Friendship...with my beloved friend, coven sister, and co-priestess Monica Balsdon at Summer Solstice
Organize by Building Relationships
Carleton Political Science Professor (and US Senator) Paul Wellstone served as my advisor and led one of my senior seminars in the politics of race and class. He also taught his students the fundamentals of community organizing, the power of electoral politics to challenge racist structures, and how to register voters out in the real world. In his classes and field trips I learned about the importance of studying people’s true histories (not just what was written in text books), spending time listening to people’s stories, and achieving political success by building coalitions through relationships. These lessons went beyond performing solidarity or even serving as an ally, but were about situating oneself within other people’s struggles until you felt and knew that struggle as your own. This is something I rarely achieve but think about almost daily in my personal life and work.
See--really see--the Joy, Resilience, and Excellence (in experiences of and responses to oppression)
Carleton African American Studies Professor Rudolph Byrd brought such joy to his teaching of literature, history, and political thought that his classes and mentoring were not just effective but thrilling. Ellison! Hurston! Dunbar! Bambara! Johnson! DuBois! Garvey! Walker! As white people, we are taught to habitually see lack and failure when viewing or learning about communities of color (I believe that this is a primary ways white supremacy maintains its grip). But the historical and contemporary reality is so strikingly opposite. Reading the history, folklore, and theories and relishing the poetry, fiction, and essays from all these brilliant minds helped me to understand--and deeply feel--the enormity of their contribution to this country’s development and to the richness of my individual life.
There are no words for a teacher who helps students see a truth clearly within a society invested in hiding the truth.
Sometimes It Takes Work
Several Carleton professors taught me a deep love of Spanish and how to understand other people’s experiences by memorizing vocabulary (for hours and hours and hours). I eventually was able to read poetry and novels in Spanish and serve as an interpreter in clinics in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Pawtucket, RI after college. This lesson of investing hard work and repetition in learning a second language ultimately meant that my empathy increased as my inclination “to other” native Spanish-speakers decreased (especially when I began to dream in Spanish). Though I have moved from fluent to proficient to “able to get by” in this beautiful language, I carry with me the experience of accessing culture through grammatical structure.
Stand Back and Stand Up
In 1990, I attended the I am Your Sister Conference in Boston in honor of the great writer and thinker Audre Lorde. At one point, women of color in attendance took the stage in order to speak their rage, disappointment, and deep frustration at being othered, invisibilized, and exploited by white women (who described themselves as sisters). I remember opening my ears, trying to open my heart, and knowing that this was a rare opportunity to become educated and helped in my development. The messages I took from that experience included stand back and let others speak and take up space, use your access to resources and generational wealth to help others get their work done, and don’t obstruct people’s need to connect and organize without you. But the most significant and life-changing message for me that day was a call to stop apprpropriating Native culture and spirituality (in order to compensate for the many failures of European-American culture to nourish its people). The speaker said “Delve into your own history, you have Celtic religion to turn to, and stop stealing ours.”
That speaker set me on my path as a Wiccan priestess. I have tried to remake my perspective on life from a place of deeply loving the Earth and understanding divinity as imminent in her cycles, diversity, generosity, and intelligence--to understand life on this planet not as something to exploit for individual gain. In order to disavow some of white supremacy’s most sacred tenets of extraction, coercion, and entitlement, I have taught myself to see divinity as imminent in Mother Earth and her people and that we are here to learn, to connect, and to serve.
These lessons aren’t a checklist that enabled me to relinquish white privilege. Like others, I protest, write letters, and donate to causes. And, like others, I am embedded in systems of white supremacy from which I benefit, such as owning a home on indigenous land in an historically Black neighborhood in Berkeley, inheriting wealth accumulated from benefits denied to most people of color, and allowing my Spanish to deteriorate because I can so easily speak English everywhere I go.
But these lessons are insights whose wisdom unfolds through time and experience. They help me participate more effectively in the overall project of establishing social justice.
Sometimes they show up in a particular project such as Bay Area Rising (BAR) which I founded, in part, to work in connection with and help platform women leaders and artists of color [See Afia Walking Tree and Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter (as distinct from the Movement for Black Lives) speak at the 2016 BAR event.]
In closing, may you feel and contribute to the power of this moment of racial reckoning. Consider the weighty themes of Summer Solstice as you do so--rapid transformation and the power of courage, rage, and outrage to make lasting change. But also remember that all moments like this are culminations of hard work, vision, courage, and leadership. Honor those people who came before and risked so much so that all of us could live closer to the truth.
Deep gratitude to all of my teachers, past, present, and future.