@ElenaRose: Preparing for White Supremacists at a Pagan Conference

My name is Elena Rose, and in this context I am a working priestess and community organizer — particularly coming in as a member of the Board of the Solar Cross Temple.
(Edited for clarity)

Lightning Bolt: What is Pantheacon?

It’s a large, interreligious conference that’s mostly pagans, polytheists and witches, and a lot of folks from the African Diaspora and indigenous religions, also.
What’s your role in the conference this year?
I’m hosting the hospitality suite for people of color, as well as convening a caucus of practitioners of color for conversation, and leading some anti-racist work in the form of workshops and in the form of ritual.
How are you doing readiness and preparedness for Pantheacon?

A few years back we recognized a need in the community for more support for people of color across the board. A lot of people of color were reporting feeling really beleaguered and exhausted, having to deal with either passive or explicit white supremacy often in their religious communities. So we wanted to provide spaces that were affirming — we started convening discussion groups, we started holding hospitality space at the conference, making sure that people had a quiet place to come be themselves, decompress, and get a bite to eat — it’s not really a people of color space if someone doesn’t ask you if you’ve eaten when you walk in the door! [Laughs] And also to support each other in teaching both academic and ritual work in community.
We were successful in really shifting a lot of public opinion around observing, naming, and dealing with racism and white supremacy in the community generally, and have been pretty successful in building pushback against those trends in these religious communities. It’s a long, deeply entrenched situation that we’ve been dealing with, especially in some of the European traditions that some of my folks adhere to.
We’ve always had some backlash — there’s always been some people who are vocally angry that we have spaces set aside for people of color, even when those spaces aren’t people-of-color-only but just people-of-color-focused.
We’ve always had backlash for naming racism and speaking out against it — especially when it involves prominent members of the community.
We’ve always had drive-by comments from people who come into the space and demand to be thrown out on the grounds of their whiteness, and then are shocked when they don’t get a confrontation.
Or people who come by and call out “RACIST!” and then run away, because they feel they’re being discriminated against as white people.
So there’s always been quiet hostility from a lot of the folks who promote white nationalism, white separatism, and overt religious white supremacy, particularly from a group called Folkish Heathens. They’ve mostly been underground, they’ve attended in smaller numbers and tend to have their most racist discussions in private.
But we learned this year that leaders of some of those more folkish and white supremacist sects are planning to attend Pantheacon again this year, and that many of their members feel emboldened by the current political climate.  
So we’re expecting to have to buckle down and deal with them coming out in greater force.

So what advice would you give, or where are you at with your strategy, in being a part of a community that wants to see itself as welcoming of “diverse views” (like we saw at UC Berkeley last night), and yet therefore kind of giving safe harbor for people who have an actively violent white nationalist program? Or safe harbor to ableist, transphobic, or other varieties of oppression that might exist there?

I mean these are similar constant problems, particularly in pagan and polytheistic communities, um, they tend to lean white liberal or white libertarian, and there tends to be a real fear and a real strong reaction against the notion of excluding anyone, or saying that any of you is unacceptable partially because so many members of these religious communities are converts from other religions and have felt excluded before, and so they tend to react very strongly to the notion that anyone shouldn’t be welcome and they tend to ascribe to the sort of live and let live views where they see it just as a difference of opinion.
 It’s taken a lot of work to build the kind of community that can oppose that and honestly I think one of the things that has worked the best is just building the strength of people of color in the community, that when we do that quiet work of helping people feel braver and less alone and better fed, that when we help strengthen the people who are already in the community and already working, they do more and better work to change things.
When they feel more confident and more sustained, they’re more able to speak out in their own small spaces and the people around them are more likely to notice their work and to recognize their specific concerns that this is an international conference, it’s the largest conference of its kind on this continent, and it means people are coming from all over, largely North America but from all over to attend.
And so whatever happens there at this sort of convening, it’s a funny sort of hybrid event. There are people who go there it seems like as a convention and to sort of party, and there are people who go there as a conference and it seems like more of a diplomatic summit with the heads of a number of very small religious movements all meeting together so the work that gets done there gets redistributed and re-dispersed when everyone goes home and so we find that when we’re able to just provide basics to help people of color who are often very alone for the rest of the year in their communities, build confidence and build courage and build knowledge, and build connections with each other, that they find people that they can call for support, they find resources, they find literature that other people have read or  arguments that other people have used successfully, it helps them when they go home to do that work in the communities that they spend the rest of the year in.
So while a lot of my personal focus is on doing that speaking out and that diplomatic work myself and reaching out to heads of religious organizations and other clergy, and pushing them on these issues, I think to a great degree the more durable work has been just in providing supportive community space for the people who are doing that work elsewhere and to get this once a year to join together with their community.
People often in their feedback just say how much it meant to them to realize that they weren’t alone and to have the change to roll deep here and there, to walk with 20 of us, to converse with 20 of us.
And that’s true on a lot of these lines, these are communities that have longstanding entrenched ableism, as you said, there’s a lot of crossover with the anti-civilization communities that also have longstanding entrenched ableism, and likewise there is a long long ugly history of transphobia in these religious communities and I’m used to working on those issues as well and those are fights that are also going to go on for a very long time and likewise when we provide these spaces for people to gather their strength and to muster their resilience it means no one person has to carry all the work.
Do you have a sense that the Trump administration and a lot of the panicked but energized response from the left is going to embolden the left wing of this conference in parallel to more right wing elements? Or do you have a sense that people are feeling like their energy is being sapped? 
I don’t know. Particularly pagan and polytheistic communities have a very complicated relationship with actual leftism. A lot of them are liberal, and a lot of them are libertarian, and there is an anarchist wing and there is a socialist wing. But in terms of radical politics particularly anti-colonial or post-colonial radical politics, those are still small minorities. I think that there are going to be a lot of people who go and just want to blow off steam and not be in the world that they’re in. A lot of people are traveling from the midwest and the south and the central valley and from a lot of more rural areas where they feel less support in their communities a lot of the rest of the time and they’re just going to be relaxing among people they feel safer among, but I do think that it is a strong opportunity to push that energizing of leftists in the community, and I know that I’ll be taking that opportunity to really do my best to galvanize people and to help them get into and stay in the struggle, depending on where they are.
When that many people from that many backgrounds are meeting in one place it’s always an opportunity to build connections and to build energy. And I think, I hope, that when we see who is emboldened to demonstrate this ugly white nationalist bent, when we see them get confident enough to stick their necks out, a lot of people who were able to be in denial about that existing in the community and not being a thing are of the past, are going to have to abandon that. It’s going to be visible, it’s going to be explicit, and a lot of people who are trying to hold the center or moderate or be “well why can’t we all just get along” are going to actually have to confront it and accept that the people who were warning them all along are correct, and that might be, as terrible as it is a great opportunity to get people on board with actually facing these trends in the community.

As you say, it’s a horrible catalyst for so much suffering — and yet a lot of Trump’s orders have provided something clear to push against. Within a conference like this, and within more liberal or mainstream spaces, a) what is the bright line at which point the community can confidently say, “This is a behavior that’s not within our community norms and needs to stop” — coming from a Nazi or white nationalist position? And b) what’s the ideal result of clearly identifying that this is the line that should not be crossed, this is not ok? Is it kicking people out of the conference? Is it holding restorative justice circles?  What does safety look like when people are anticipating these conflicts?

Wheww, that’s a difficult one, it really is. Historically I’ve seen too many things I thought should be bright lines be crossed and to some degree the people that we are bracing up against have become adept at plausibly deniable ways of stating their beliefs, that they are very good at coded language, they’re very good at saying most of it and then leaving out the piece that allows it to be explicitly and undeniably identified as what it is. They’re very good at using euphemism and what we call “dog whistle” language. That’s stuff that if you’re in the know you know what it is and if you’re not in the know, it could appear to be innocuous. So a lot of what’s being reflected in this current administration and this current national climate is just what was just already there but explicit and unabashed and naked in the open. A lot of the racism and the misogyny, it’s not as though it wasn’t already there and it’s not as though the people supporting it weren’t supporting it before they felt authorized and endorsed.
So to some degree we’re just going to see people stating unabashedly what they already believed and supported and worked for and perhaps with less coded language because they feel they’re man has the big gun now and they don’t have to hide it. So the bright lines that shouldn’t have been crossed long ago, my hope is that a lot of people will look behind them and see those bright lines suddenly visible and decide to start backing up towards them. They’ll see that the lines have already been crossed.
I’m hoping that some of the ground work we’ve done and translation work of making the cultural competency around it plausibly deniable, half measures coded language, that it will all connect up for people who were skeptical. To some degree in a lot of these communities that have a really really deeply entrenched ethos of “everyone gets a say” and ” it’s just an opinion” and “we’re all good people” and “if we suppress any opinion we’re just as bad as yada yada yada…” I honestly think that they won’t see it until someone else is physically hurt, and even then they’ll drag their feet.
It took the most bald faced racism to get anyone on board with facing these bans, or these laws, and it had to be combined with so many other kinds of oppression at once, that it was identifiably coming from someone that they could call evil. And it’s still hard for them to acknowledge when it comes from their neighbor. It’s still hard for them to acknowledge when it comes from someone who’s virtue they otherwise enjoy or a leader who taught them something valuable in their lives. As long as they believe that these qualities belong only to evil people they have an incentive not to see them in the people who are good to them. We see that in all the struggles that we’re dealing with that an unarmed person can be shot on camera and people will find ways to justify it because they need to believe that the world they’re living in and the society that they’re living in and the laws that they’re living under are in some way just and in some way fair, or they have to confront too many really terrible and painful truths about themselves and the people that they love and the people that they know and the people that they trust. And there are lines (therein lies?) of hideousness that may have to be crossed for everyone to see. And I fear that there are some people who still will just wait until many years from now if they get the chance to say that there’s no way they could have known, no matter how many times we told them.
So there are some people that I have sort of accepted that we are not going to be converting at this time. And to just focus on people who are a little more ready to see, to create a little more of a critical mass there. For the folks for whom bright lines have not already been crossed I only hope that as the situation around us continues to escalate they will remember who told them the truth before and come looking for more truth.