The Season of the Witch: Race, Religion and Witchcraft

By Ashley-Michelle Papon

Welcome to fall—the time of year when trees shed their leaves, stores carry all things pumpkin spice, and Halloween costumes become a major part of everyday conversation.  A Harris poll from 2015 ranks Halloween as the second-favorite holiday amongst millennials in the United States. But don’t worry, this isn’t another piece explaining why selecting a costume billing itself as “sexy” anything is completely ridiculous, or providing a litmus test to determine whether a costume is racist (mostly because we’ve got that covered). No, this is taking aim at a beloved, age-old standby: the witch.

Cycling through the pantheon of figures associated with Halloween, none are as iconic as that of a woman with a pointy hat, broomstick, and ever-present black cat companion. The cultural mythos of witches is ubiquitous, and they appear in creation stories, Biblical parables, and ancient fables. They play the villains in our fairytales—often as powerful but old women—squaring off against maidens who are deemed innocent based solely on their beauty and youth. A significant number of feminists have examined the deep-rooted fear of witchcraft and how it has become a stand-in for hatred of women, specifically their female sexuality. Viewing historical events like the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials through a feminist lens to conclude isn’t new, either. So why discuss the witch at all?

Because the modern use of outdated witch iconography reveals the need to have conversations across a few lines.

While perceptions of and reactions to the witch have always reflected the codification of misogyny, dig a little deeper and you’ll see that they have also crystalized underlying racist beliefs and assumptions. This racism is traceable to the earliest known hysteria prompted by women’s sexuality: the Salem Witch Trials. There is no shortage of articles speculating on the individual factors responsible for ushering in what is arguably the single most significant persecution aimed at white women in American history. Here’s a historical tidbit that receives less press: the trials gained momentum when a gaggle of pre-teen Puritan girls convinced their superstitious elders that they had been bewitched by Tituba, a slave generally believed to have been imported from Barbados.

While very few people seem to contest Tituba’s place as the point of origin, the same cannot be said for her ethnic and racial identity. The earliest accounts characterized Tituba as alternately a woman of indigenous and even racially mixed heritage; only in more recent centuries as she been considered solely black. The loss of Tituba’s authentic ethnic and racial identity to the sands of time reveals the racial politics of the 17th century; as Veta Smith Tucker hypothesizes that for the Puritans, “God’s condemnation was visible in the color of her skin,” and the condemnation continued in pop culture. The most unforgiving portrayals of Tituba have completely erased any discussion that she could be anything but black, in spite of the evidence that her origin is considerably more complex. Over at the Root, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. laments this development with the ironic observation, “Just as Tituba had told her accusers what they wanted to hear, so, too, her chroniclers answered the call of their times.” In a recent season of the anthology series “American Horror Story” Tituba was portrayed not as a witch, but rather as a voodoo priestess.

To be certain, witchcraft has many forms, some more controversial than others. But in the centuries since Tituba lived in Salem, witchcraft has gained a measure of acceptance. As with many sociocultural experiences, however, that acceptance is almost entirely conditional and limited to those that favor white populations. Whereas “witch” once conjured up the image of an aging white woman viewed as well past her prime, an equally common image involves a young white female. Both versions are more palatable to an American audience than women of color practicing witchcraft at any age or stage of life.

Popular culture provides a narrow, wildly inaccurate, racially biased, and still largely negative view of witches and witchcraft. For this reason, one of the central questions facing contemporary followers of the craft is simply “what is a witch?” The answer largely depends on whom you ask. As with any other religious or spiritual-based identity, it reflects a mixture of individual prerogative and fundamental beliefs. Yet what defines a witch can also be contingent on the cultural baggage of the person asking and the person answering the question.

This was certainly the case with Ember Darling, a self-described witch out of Louisiana whose actions were condemned and rejected by a prominent community of witchcraft practitioners. Darling, 25, discovered just how deep the divide between white and black magic can run, thanks to Facebook, bone magic, and curse work last year. In fact, Darling’s actions gained national attention after authoring a social media post offering to send human remains to others across several closed Facebook groups and Tumblr pages. The posts were screen-grabbed and made viral within a matter of hours. Eventually, Darling’s posts were deleted and the social media accounts temporarily shut down, but not before the controversy—nicknamed “Boneghazi”—spawned a fair amount of memes and eventually, police interest.

When Darling was arrested in September of this year, the Internet revived Boneghazi with an additional helping of white privilege. Witch-centric pages that circulated the news story of Darling’s arrest hosted comments from community members denying that Darling’s actions could be attributed to any kind of “true” witchcraft. Commenters often cited some variation of the phrase, An (so long as) it harm none, do what ye will.” This philosophy is known as the Wiccan Rede, the guiding compass of allowable actions. Darling’s admission of using human bones for curse work was discussed by these groups as being completely out of touch with what “real witches” do.

But is it? After all, there is more than one kind of “real witch.”

Although the words Wicca, witchcraft, and pagan tend to be used interchangeably, this is more the result of linguistic laziness than any actual technical grouping. Former president George W. Bush might have said he did not consider Wicca a real religion, but for countless people, it is a specific spiritual practice. Witchcraft tends to be more of a broad term, describing a wide variety of traditions which involve practicing magic and revering nature. Finally, paganism is a generic term for both religions and practices of spirituality that can—but don’t have to—involve pantheons gods. Essentially, while not all witches are Wiccans, all Wiccans are witches; but while not all pagans are witches, all witches are definitely pagans. If it sounds like a tongue twister that would pop up on a Common Core math test, don’t fret. A comparable analogy might be that not all Christians are Baptists, but all Baptists are Christians.

Just as Christianity describes all followers of Christ, witchcraft is multi-dimensional and encompasses several schools of thought and practice. In other words, not all witches are Wiccans, so there should be no expectation that all adhere to the Rede. Religious groups of witches, like those who practice the syncretic religion Santeria, permit both curse and bone work. Santeria, the byproduct of merging the Yoruban religious order with Catholicism by colonized West African natives forced into slavery, is frequently conflated with other African-centric religions. People who practice Santeria might self-identify as priests, which can contribute to the confusion regarding the placement of such belief systems in the grouping of witches.

The ignorance of this fact within witch circles themselves is likely another example of racial bias. While Wicca is generally associated with white women, religions that permit bone and curse work tend to be exclusive to populations of indigenous people or people of color. Often, the discussion of Black witchcraft is limited to voodoo, despite information campaigns from places like Black Witch University. So it is important for witches in arms to check themselves when calling out the use of bones as antithetical to “true witchcraft.” Doing so whitewashes how diverse the craft actually is.

Of course, this is an issue of ethics which goes beyond which witch is which. Darling’s own racial and ethnic identity—mixed race Latinx—leads to troubling image. White-passing Darling collected the bones she was offering for sale from Holt Cemetery. Holt is a neglected potter’s field, home to many a buried bodies that belonged to slaves or their descendants making it a predominantly a black cemetery. This led many to question not only whether it would have become so rundown if whites were buried there, but also whether Darling would have attempted to remove bones with the intent of selling them.

The issue of consent here is particularly gripping. Darling insists that they  took care of graves in exchange for accepting the bones from the earth, but that assertion is irrelevant. It is actually illegal to remove grave dirt from a plot in New Orleans, let alone lift pieces of a skeleton. Once the controversy erupted, Darling admitted to never obtaining consent from the descendants of the people to whom the bones had belonged. Some practices assert that it is possible to obtain consent directly from the bones themselves, but Darling did not do this either. In other words, this cemetery is full of dead people who were forced to pay tribute to a life without consent and Darling continued that cycle by snatching up their bones and attempting to sell them.

Of course, the disdain towards the dead that belong to people of color is nothing new—Dakota Access Pipeline, anyone?—but the intensity of the reaction to Darling, both in and out of the witchy community, amplifies the need to reexamine our understanding of the everyday witch. To be clear, pagan communities aren’t without their own shortcomings in the realm of identity politics. There are leading visionaries, like Z. Budapest, who are notoriously unapologetic in their devotion to Trans Exclusive Radical Feminism (TERF) philosophies.

Racism, too, isn’t something pagan communities are immune to experiencing. Last spring, in an exhaustive piece for Vice, Rick Paulas meticulously detailed the rise of this generation’s racial separatist ideology under the banner of Celtic-inspired pagans, who call themselves Odinists after the Norse god. The symbol of the Odinist, Thor’s Hammer, has made appearances at other shocking crimes as well, including tattooed on the neck of Glenn Cross, the man who killed three people near the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park in 2014.

Ultimately, the point is this: as much as self-identified witches may want to believe otherwise, witches are not above experiencing or expressing prejudice. All witches are unquestionably part of a minority group, and take many risks if they choose to exit the broom closet. But those risks increase considerably if the witch in question is a person of color. In an era when many witches cannot ignore the pressing need for organizations like Black Lives Matter, neither can they afford to remain unaware of the spiritual practices which may differ from their own. After all, don’t each of us hop on our brooms one leg at a time?