Yes, This is Our Paganism: Llewellyn, Weiser, & White Supremacy
last month a blog post went around from Jason Mankey titled "That's Not Our Paganism". Its theme centered on stating unequivocally that homophobia - and other forms of bigotry such as racism, xenophobia, etc - has no place in the modern Pagan community. It celebrated the strides we've made towards inclusivity, and I agree with it to a large extent, at least...I agree with the spirit in which it was written. Our community should certainly continue to strive towards being an outspoken group who welcome all people with open arms and squash hate in all its forms. However, I would like to posit a radical idea we need to confront and accept: bigotry very much is our Paganism.
What I mean to say is that the more we buy in to the idea that our Pagan umbrella is void of homophobia, racism, xenophobia, classism and other bigoted ideas, the more we disarm our ability to reflect thoughtfully on all the ways, macro and micro, that we unconsciously promote bigotry within our community. Whether we state that sexual predators are not part of our Paganism, or pedophiles trafficking in child pornography, or openly racist hatemongers, we are practicing a fairly dangerous kind of cognitive dissonance. We are unable to determine the ways in which our power structures are continuing to contribute to cisgender, heterosexual (cishet) white supremacy, and that's dangerous because it does not allow for the possibility that the way we've always done things is broken and need to change.
Let me put it another way.
My mom doesn't think she's a racist.
My mom is a Nice White Lady™️ who lives in a small Texas town. She goes to church. She teaches kids how to play the cello. She was a school secretary for many, many years, and she was beloved by the students there as well. Everyone thinks of her as kind and generous. As she puts it she "has no hate in her heart" for anyone. Which is why she's spent the last few weeks confused, upset, angry, and unable to understand why she received such pushback from her friends, former students, and others connected to her on social media when she posted the following meme:
My mother lost friends over this meme. So many people tried to come out and tell her that this meme was wrong, that it echoed racist All Lives Matter sentiments which seek to silence Black Lives Matter protesters. That saying "Black Lives Matter" doesn't negate the fact that all life is precious, but that right now we are focusing on racial injustice and the disproportionate killing of black people at the hands of police and the broader issues of racial inequality and disenfranchisement in this country. This wasn't something my mother was prepared to hear. Remember, she has no hate in her heart for anyone. She couldn't possibly be racist. She said she posted this because she believes that Jesus Christ died for all of us and that all life is precious. She even called me crying and...ranting?...about how she's not allowed to love Jesus anymore because that makes her racist. See, in my mom's mind, the only kind of person that is a racist is someone who is actively harming BIPOC. Screaming racial slurs, kneeling on their necks, burning crosses, wearing a white hood. Those things are being racist. Racism couldn't possibly look like her, because she's a Nice White Lady™️.
She's the kind of person that thinks racism doesn't look like firing Colin Kaepernick because he kneeled during the national anthem. She's the kind of person that believes most people killed by the cops wouldn't have been killed if they had just done what the officer told them to do. She voted for Donald Trump, but doesn't think that means anything about her personal views on immigration or foreign relations or LGBTQ rights - despite the fact that she pretty much aligns with him on all of those. The thing she doesn't seem to get about racism, homophobia, xenophobia, islamophobia, etc. is that it isn't relegated to Big Racism. It's not just Obvious Racism. It's the subtle ways we build our society to support and maintain cishet white supremacy.
What does that mean? It means that everything from our film studios to our publishing houses to the people running our businesses to our financial industry and government representation is cisgender, heterosexual, and white. It means that even when stories about minorities are told, they're told from the perspective of a white savior or the actors, writers, directors, etc are not from the community whose story they're telling. (Seriously, go watch Disclosure on Netflix for a brilliant example of the importance of authentic representation on screen by and from the culture being represented.)
What does this have to do with Paganism?
The Pagan community is a fairly unique religious community in that it has almost no centralized authority. While this is controversial depending on what brand of Pagan you practice, by and large people can call themselves practically anything they want - Priest, Priestess, High Mugwump, Grand Poobah, etc - and there's really nobody that can come along and invalidate those titles. We have no grand governing body. We have no Bible or recognized holy text, though there are many books floating around the various Pagan communities that many might consider liturgical. Who do Pagans new and old alike turn to for guidance, scholarship, or leadership?
Pagan celebrities, if you will. The folks whose names come to mind when you think of popular Pagan leaders. The people who are on the panels at Pagan events like Pantheacon or headlining your local Pagan Pride Day. If you're an older millennial, when you think of BNPs you might think of Silver Ravenwolf, Scott Cunningham, Dorothy Morrison, Judika Illes, Raymond Buckland, Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner, or Janet and Stewart Farrar. The list goes on. What do all of these people have in common? They wrote books on Paganism. Those books helped increase their visibility. Publishing helped to give them credibility and establish them as leaders amongst occult practitioners. A lot has been written about how each of these figures have been the center of controversy over their careers - some are still quite controversial long after their respective deaths. I'm less interested, today, in the singular controversies created by these authors, and more interested in unpacking the people who conferred celebrity status and legitimacy upon each of these people.
Pagan publishers are not often discussed in the specific. Sure, we mention them when we talk about an upcoming book, but we rarely, if ever, think of them critically. Why is that, I wonder? We spend a lot of time discussing problematic authors, but seem to forget that the reason many of us even know they exist is because they were plucked from the obscurity of Pagan blogs, podcasts, or social media and given a book contract, which raised their profile exponentially. Who decides which authors get a contract? Why are some books published and others aren't? Furthermore, as the people who decide what the face of Paganism looks like to the public, what are they doing to ensure that face is diverse and representative?
Llewellyn and Weiser
It is impossible to discuss Pagan publishing without centering the discussion on the two largest publishers of Pagan books: Llewellyn and Weiser and the ways in which they, specifically, have contributed to cishet white supremacy in the Pagan community. Now, what does that look like? I would argue it should be examined through the following criteria.
- The general diversity of their topics
- The general diversity of their authors
- The authentic representation amongst their authors writing about topics derived from colonized, oppressed, or enslaved groups
As far as topical diversity, we know that polling tells us the largest Pagan religion is Wicca, so it makes some kind of sense that when you look at the upcoming releases section of either of these publishing houses you see a lot of Wicca and general Intro to Paganism books. Wicca was founded by white people and is generally made up of white people, so the white faces behind the writing of those books isn't shocking. It's a bit sad that publishing houses as large as them can't seek out diverse writers in this area, but that isn't my main concern. My main concern is their white-washing of the spiritual traditions of colonized, oppressed, or enslaved communities.
What are these Pagan publishers doing to promote the spiritual traditions of BIPOC - Black / Indigenous / People of Color? Traditions such as Hoodoo, Voodoo/Vodou, Curanderismo, Brujeria, Native American or Indigenous spirituality? Both publishers carry books on these topics, but who is writing about them? While both publishers have problems in this area, I'd like to dig in to Llewellyn's for 2 reasons:
- They are far and away the largest Pagan publisher, with a larger market share of selling Pagan books than any other publisher, and therefore set the tone for what the rest of the industry looks like.
- (One person I spoke with in publishing while researching this article estimated that if you went into a bookstore looking for a book about Paganism, you had a 7 in 10 chance of walking away with a Llewellyn title.)
- They are a much older publisher than Weiser or some of the smaller, less-known presses and therefore we can see the arc of Pagan publishing through their body of work.
Llewellyn's Brujería Problem
I'd like to start by examining one of Llewellyn's new releases they've been promoting: The Sacred Art of Brujeria by Katrina Rasbold. Brujería is a specific witchcraft tradition hailing from Latin America and non-Afro-Caribbean diaspora. Like its sister religions of Haitian Vodou, Candomblé, and Santería, it has a long history wrapped up in the slave trade between the 16th and 18th centuries, as slaves were forced to convert to Christianity. During the 1800s and 1900s, white Americans attempted to disrupt the legitimacy of Brujería through concerted attacks.
Rasbold is up front that she is not Mexican, nor from any of the cultures that gave birth to Brujería, yet she is the face of Brujería at Llewellyn in 2020. Rasbold even attempts to combine multiple cultures, such as Hinduism - of which she is also not a part - in her book. Not only that, the book tells you how you too can make a business off of becoming a Bruja/Brujo. I think it is important to criticize the idea that a white person saw enough profit in taking from the culture of Latinx and enslaved people that they repackaged it, sold it, and want to teach Llewellyn’s largely white audience to do the same.
So, I thought to myself...gosh...Surely Llewellyn has some books by people of color in their Brujería section, right? Surely, at some point, they've done that. To find the answer, I scoured Llewellyn's products trying to find the Brujería section. There isn't one. What they do have is a section called Santería, where they...seem to lump all books related to Latin American and Non-African Diasporic traditions. This is their selection dating from 2020 to 2002:
In 18 years they have published 6 books on the topic. (I will not bore you with the details of how many books they have released on, say, Wicca in that time. Please know that it's a lot more than 6.) Of those 6 books, there are 5 authors: Katrina Rasbold with 2 books, Tomás Prower (3 books by Llewellyn), Frank Baba Eyiogbe, Rev. Ray T Malbrough, and Migene González-Wippler. Of those, 3 are people of color: Eyiogbe, Prower, and González-Wippler.
(Edit: In previous edits, I mistakenly labeled Tomás Prower as non-Latinx when he is, indeed, Latinx.)
The issue isn't just the lack of books, it's with white authors overwhelmingly being chosen to write about and profit from the cultures of People of Color. As I mentioned above, there are a number of traditions created through the forced colonization of indigenous and enslaved people. Now, you might not think that Hoodoo or Voodoo/Vodou are hot topics at Llewellyn or Weiser, but that's because they don't directly label their books as being about Hoodoo or Voodoo/Vodou. They use the word "conjure" in most titles, because it strips the information of its cultural heritage and allows it to be repackaged for a white audience, void of any perceived stigma associated with the proper terms. If you search the word "conjure", suddenly you'll find books like The Secret Keys of Conjure by Chas Bogan who is described on Llewellyn's website as a "sought after conjure doctor".
Search for topics like "hoodoo" and "voodoo" on Llewellyn's or Weiser's websites. Look at the full scope of their author lineup on all topics. Look at their new releases and their back catalogue. The overwhelming number of white faces…feels like a choice.
Native American Erasure
I would like to ensure that we don't forget about the I in BIPOC, which stands for Indigenous. The mystique surrounding Native Americans and other indigenous populations is one pervading many areas of modern Paganism. Books about Wicca almost always include the recommendation of burning white sage, which was illegal for Native Americans until 1978, without much discussion of ethical sourcing, the history behind the practice, or any mention of the people from which the practice is derived. It doesn't end there. An incredible number of books include or devote themselves entirely to vaguely related Native American or indigenous practices without once crediting the cultures from which they come or acknowledging the deeply racist and violent history still being perpetrated against the indigenous people of the United States.
And if you're curious about looking up a Llewellyn book about Native American or indigenous practices, don't go looking for a section titled "Indigenous Cultures". You need to look in their section called Shamanism, which lumps together books on Native American practices written by white authors, the deeply problematic idea of having a "spirit animal", birds, and oracle decks created by Italian author/artist Lo Scarabeo.
Their two most recent works specifically providing insight on Native American spirituality are written by Eagle Skyfire of Philadelphia, PA, otherwise known by her actual name of Annabelle Butterworth.(which I found by googling "Eagle Skyfire" and going to the second page of Google results, which, again, I assume Llewellyn could do as well) Annabelle's Eagle Skyfire's next book is due out November 2020 from Llewellyn. As part of their description of the book, they specifically state she is a Native American shaman.
Multi-Classing as a Pagan Author
What I find most interesting when searching through these authors is that, for most of the white authors writing about the cultures of oppressed, colonized, and/or enslaved groups of people, they are not writing as singular devotees of the subject. In fact, most of their biographies have them claiming expertise in various traditions of Wicca, BIPOC cultures, East Asian spiritual traditions and praxis, and more. Like most of us who found our way to Paganism, we learned about it through books, the internet, or maybe we were lucky enough to find some in-person teachers, so it is understandable how one can be interested in so many esoteric subjects, but to be a master in each? To be so experienced and learned that you can become their public face through the aisles of Barnes & Noble? These authors seem to multi-class as though they were a wizard in a role-playing game and the goal is to rack up as many different types of occult titles as possible. While their intentions might very well be pure, there is a serious check of privilege that needs to occur.
The problem with this is that these traditions came from a place of pain, servitude, death, oppression, and forced colonization that the BIPOC who created these traditions do not get to separate themselves from. However, the privilege of being a white author in these spaces is that you get the fame and notoriety and financial profit from these traditions, without bearing any of the societal burden of looking like the culture itself. Your land was not stolen. Your children are not locked in cages. You do not experience housing or economic or legal inequity. You are not killed in larger numbers by police. You get to try on oppression like a mask, cherry pick that which serves you best (or will make you the most money), and leave the rest.
In my recent interview with 7 Black Pagan spiritual leaders from across the continent, the topic of white Hoodooists was brought up with much ire by the panel. Black Hoodooist Tiffany Newson referenced the podcaster and Hoodoo practitioner Juju Bae who decried use of St. John the Conqueror root (also known as High John the Conqueror) by white Hoodooists on her podcast last year. According to Juju Bae, the root is specifically derived from the need for slaves to break their chains, which isn't exactly something white practitioners could relate to. Much backlash from white Hoodooists ensued, which...likely proved her point.
What is Paganism?
One of the toughest questions to answer when I'm asked is "What is Paganism?". The term is a broad umbrella for so many modern magical practices that, oftentimes, seem completely unrelated if not at all-out war with one another. What I don't think has ever been mentioned is that the actual definition of Paganism is whatever Llewellyn decides it is. Or, more specifically, whatever Elysia Gallo decides it is. Who is Elysia Gallo?
According to Jason Mankey's 25 Most Influential Living Pagans list (and echoed by some Llewellyn authors I talked to in researching this article) she is possibly the most influential Pagan you've never heard of. Gallo is the Sr. Acquisitions Editor at Llewellyn Worldwide, meaning she is directly responsible for deciding what books (and other media) are selected by Llewellyn for publication. She has been with the company since August 2005, and in the head role since 2010. So, for an entire generation of Pagans, Elysia Gallo has decided what you will find in the metaphysical section at your local bookstore. (It’s all very…Miranda Priestly selecting a cerulean sweater.)
It should be remembered, too, that publishing houses like Llewellyn or Weiser can seek out new authors. If they don’t like the manuscripts they’re being presented, they can go out and find individuals with untapped potential and offer those people book contracts. If diversity is an important issue at these publishing houses, why are they not trying harder to find and elevate new voices? In my research for this article, that answer got complicated. I asked some Black Pagan writers if they had ever attempted to publish with Llewellyn and if they’d be willing to share those interactions. One told me they were afraid to share the response from Llewellyn, because of concern they might never get the chance to publish again. Another told me they were aggressively approached, but chose not to unless they had more control over the editing of their prospective book. (You may recall that the reason Dorothy Morrison told me that Llewellyn has their authors edit other authors, which contributes to the homogenization of their work among other problematic issues.) Still more told me they were so discouraged by the current white landscape in Pagan publishing that they gave up.
Let's think about it this way. You're curious. You're seeking more knowledge about Wicca, Witchcraft, Paganism, or possibly even one of the BIPOC spiritual traditions mentioned above. You start your search in a bookstore or on Amazon's various witchcraft related book charts. You're likely to find a largely Llewellyn-laden selection of books, all of which were chosen by Gallo to represent that facet of Paganism to the public. That's quite a lot of power. To the newcomer, or perhaps even to the experienced Pagan looking for new information, if the higher ups at Llewellyn decide not to publish it, you'd better be able to successfully navigate the miasma of blogs, YouTube channels, and podcasts to discern what is and isn't worthwhile information.
Black Lives Matter
The spring and early summer of 2020 have been rife with protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. While in quarantine due to COVID-19, I'd begun, like many, to become more introspective of myself, the ways I interact with the world, and the ways our institutions interact with the public. At the beginning of May 2020 I published an interview with Anthropologist, Voodoo Priestess, and author Lilith Dorsey who was quite open about the fact that not only has it been difficult as a Black Pagan author to get her book published, but that she has to watch as white faces continue to occupy spaces regarding topics of BIPOC spirituality and tradition in panels, book publication, public events, and more. She mentioned a conversation with her friend Witchdoctor Utu, a white Voodoo practitioner, in which he affirmed that white practitioners are often prioritized over BIPOC on these topics, and have historically been given more bookings, book deals, and headliner placement than their Black and Brown counterparts.
It was in this headspace that I wanted to know why, and perhaps unpack the ways our Pagan institutions contribute to the problem. So, on May 21 of this year, I emailed Llewellyn and Weiser and asked for an interview. They never responded.
Weeks went by, and the death of George Floyd sparked international outrage and an urgent call to tear down institutions that have contributed to the culture of white supremacy. Companies everywhere were having immediate meetings to dismantle their internal policies, change their company names, give a voice to Black people, and otherwise publicly state Black Lives Matter. The event "Blackout Tuesday" was created so that companies and those with social media accounts would "black out" self-promotion for one day and instead focus on promoting Black voices and organization specifically benefiting the needs of Black people. Llewellyn and Weiser abstained from any public statement during this time and continued to promote white authors during Blackout Tuesday. On June 8th, I posted to social media that I was attempting to get in touch with anyone at either Llewellyn or Weiser who could perhaps speak to their problematic publishing history and their lack of public statement of support for Black Lives Matter.
Suddenly, there was an outpouring of support all over social media, calling on Llewellyn and Weiser to do something. Since this time I have been contacted by 8 authors from Llewellyn's catalogue who have all told me that they have directly reached out to Llewellyn asking them to agree to an interview, and to express that their inaction was unacceptable. These authors told me they would be more vocal, but they are legally bound from speaking about this issue due to their contracts with Llewellyn. The author Melanie Marquis publicly tagged Elysia Gallo in that June 8th post, who provided me with her email address and stated she would attempt to respond within a week:
She mentioned Kat. That's Kat Sanborn, Llewellyn's Sr. Publicist. I was told to email both Kat and Elysia, as well as Bill Krause, the publisher, and that someone would agree to some kind of statement, interview, or response. I took them up on that offer and sent another email on June 9th. That email also never received a response.
However, what did happen was that on June 11th, Llewellyn released this statement that they call a "Dedication to Diversity". It never mentions Black people, Black Lives Matter, or any marginalized group for that matter. It states that they are providing financial support to organizations looking to rebuild Minneapolis, without ever once acknowledging why Minneapolis needs to be rebuilt. It states that they have had a 100 year commitment to "elevating a diversity of voices", which, as I've shown above, is exceedingly questionable.
On June 15th Weiser released their statement, which actually did specifically state Black Lives Matter, and further stated that they planned on publishing more BIPOC authors, examining their publishing practices, and working with their publishing partners. Additionally, Weiser's donations went directly to Black Lives Matter and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Weiser, it seems, at least on the surface, is attempting to use this as a learning opportunity. However, some of their Black authors have told me privately that they noticed that Weiser suddenly started promoting their books after my public posts and that it made them feel tokenized rather than genuinely supported. Time will, of course, be the judge of whether Weiser's change in policy and publication will match their current sentiments.
Fast forward to this writing, June 24th, and despite Llewellyn telling their authors that they would speak with me, or at least provide a written response, I have yet to receive anything further from either publisher. What is interesting is that this morning I posted publicly about this once again, and 1 hour later Llewellyn published a blog written by "Anna" titled "Some Amazing Books & Decks by Black, Indigenous, People of Color to Add to Your TBR List".
Honestly, that's up to you. I don't think we need a boycott of Llewellyn or Weiser, because that is neither productive nor likely. These companies hold a monopoly on what it means to be Pagan in 2020, and that's a lot of power that could be put to good use. We can critique our institutions without tearing them down or putting people out of work. Being a niche publisher is already a difficult thing to be in the time of coronavirus.
But, you can be a good ally. You can be watchful of those who take up space and speak for cultures of which they are not part. You can give your money to those cultures directly. You can show these companies that Black authors like Lilith Dorsey and Najah Lightfoot and Stephanie Rose Bird are profitable by buying their books. You can request that your Pagan Pride organizers stop booking white faces to teach BIPOC spirituality and instead ask that they join the "Amplify Melanated Voices" movement to center BIPOC people especially in the Pagan community in regards to teaching from their own culture.
Something else you can do is to own up to your mistakes, accept being called out if/when it happens, try not to get defensive, and use it as an opportunity to unpack your privilege and be a better ally. I've certainly had to do this.
Cisgender heterosexual white people have had a very long history of colonizing, demonizing, and criminalizing BIPOC bodies, religions, practices, and culture before appropriating it for profit. The Pagan community likes to think of itself as an inclusive group whose arms are open wide. We don't get to erase black / indigenous / people of color from their own spiritual ancestry and being centered on topics derived from their culture and then not do the work to unpack the ways in which we are sending a dog whistle to white supremacists.
My mother doesn't think she's a racist. I'm sure not a single person at Llewellyn or Weiser thinks they're a racist. I'm sure none of those people think that they have hate in their hearts, and I'm sure they don't. But...and it's a big but...it doesn't absolve any of them from needing to admit that, despite their best efforts to the contrary, they are racist and have contributed to white supremacy in the community at large.