Lesson 1 of Decolonizing Witchcraft

Hello toothy witches!

Today's chats were filled with such great discussions. There were a lot of really good points made, especially regarding understanding colonialism from the perspective of colonized people and settlers. The start of both chats is pinned in discord so definitely take some time to read through the discussions if you can.

IMPORTANT NOTE: While the name of this course is "decolonizing witchcraft" and the work it describes is typically called "decolonizing," it's important to note that only people who have been colonized can decolonize themselves. The work that white people do to dismantle the worldview of colonialism (specifically settler colonialism in the North America) is known as "desettling."

The title of this course is (inaccurately) named "decolonizing witchcraft" in order to adhere to the seo driven nature of the internet, in the hopes that this information may be more easily found.


Lesson 1: Understanding the Effects of Colonialism on us & our Witchcraft

The witchcraft community does not exist in a vacuum. The issues and problems of our society are reflected within our community because we carry the weight of them with us. And so the major problems affecting our society—issues such as discrimination based on appearance or gender, for example—are found in our own small community despite our prevailing values.  

Colonialism is the basis of western culture and so its presence within modern witchcraft is inescapable. Rooted in dominance, colonialism seeks to establish superiority of one group over others via conquest and for the purpose of exploitation and maintaining that power dynamic.

But colonialism is about more than just land and resources. It informs our general attitudes and biases. Like racism, colonialism is learned. It roots itself deep inside of us, influencing our thoughts and actions, as well as undermining our intentions. And it is this influence that is prevalent in modern witchcraft, informing the ways that witchcraft is discussed, taught, and practiced.

Our goal for this course is to work together to identify colonialism in your witchcraft so you can kill that shit with fire. So, in this lesson, we’re going to look at the ways that colonialism manifests itself in witchcraft, examining the ways it affects all of us and permeates our language, as well as discussing how to recognize the ways it informs our biases and motivations.

Please keep in mind that we are going through this material together and that nothing herein is intended as a personal attack. You may find yourself feeling defensive in response to certain things discussed. Please take time to examine those feelings of defensiveness, should they arise, so that you can respond to those feelings rather than react to them.  

Understanding Colonialism in Witchcraft

The presence of colonialism in witchcraft can be found overtly and covertly. Overt forms of colonialism are readily seen. These include things such as:

  • the commercialization of witchcraft (take it because you can and then sell it to make a buck because fuck yeah profit)
  • rampant consumerism (don’t worry about where it comes from or where the waste from the first three you bought goes: buy more, have more, get more)
  • unethical treatment of natural resources (taking items found in nature “for spiritual purposes”—such as herbs, stones, and bones—without adherence to local laws nor asking permission from the spirit in that object or the guardian spirits of that location for permission to take)

While those first two points are generally agreed upon to be Bad Things, that last point frequently proves to be a stumbling point. For the last 40+ years, taking things from nature to use for your witchcraft has been touted as being the ideal. It’s what Real Witches do. Yet this guidance is couched in ideology that diminishes the reality of the the spirits within these objects and in language that emphasizes the dominance and superiority of the human witch.  

Although witchcraft is inherently secular and able to be practiced within or without religious context (at the discretion of each individual witch) it still carries a basic worldview that informs how we work magick and why that magick works in the way it does. This worldview is animism and can be summed up as the belief that the world is alive with spirits—not just living or natural objects, but inanimate and man-made objects, too, contain an animating spirit with whom we can communicate and engage. It is the spirit in the objects we use in our spells, in conjunction with our Will and skill, that power those spells.  

But when we treat the natural world as our own private metaphysical grocery store, we undermine that worldview by ignoring the presence of those spirits in favor of our wants. We place ourselves and what we want in superiority to those spirits (because it’s so easy to pretend they don’t exist when you have to develop skills to be able to perceive them in the first place), justify our actions (we’re taking for spiritual purposes and “spiritual” means Good and Right), and ignore the impact of those actions (we removed more from a plant that it can survive without, we took a plant that is legally protected because of decreasing numbers, we removed the only plant of its kind in that area, we removed bones from a protected species without having the necessary permits to prove we didn’t poach it, we removed natural objects from established conservation land, etc.)

We take because we can, we have because we want—not because the spirit in that object agreed to aid us in our practice, not because our practice requires them, we have them because we possessed the ability to have them. So we did. That’s colonialism. It’s about taking simply because you feel you’re justified in doing so. It’s about having simply because you want.

Animism stands in direct opposition to colonialism. It is the original worldview of humanity, an Indigenous worldview, and it is the primary means of countering the destructive influence of colonialism in witchcraft. Colonialist attitudes are not compatible with witchcraft, yet we each fall victim to the dominant culture in which we live. And so colonialist view and practices are found throughout the witchcraft community.

Colonialism Hurts Everyone

Covert forms of colonialism in witchcraft aren’t obvious, and so are easily overlooked as they are, unfortunately, common within western culture. We don’t always notice them because they’re common. But widespread prevalence doesn’t change the harm they do in greater society nor within witchcraft. The influence of colonialism directly impacts the ways that we interact with each other, as well as undermining our confidence in ourselves as witches.

We see this influence in the myth of scarcity, that there isn’t enough of anything to go around: not enough talent, not enough skill, not enough knowledge. This is what feeds imposter syndrome and ideas that we’ll never be good enough as witches, never be powerful enough, never be knowledgeable, never have read all the right books. Similarly, colonialism’s endless need to conquer is behind our culture’s obsession with competition and winning, which ties into feeling like our efforts as witches may never be good enough because we focus on comparing ourselves and our practices to other witches.

This obsession with competition and winning is also partly to blame for performative allyship as colonialism justifies appearing to have done the work if doing so gets you recognition of others, that recognition being the trophy that shows the proof of you having won.  

A great example of this is the recent Blackout Tuesday, where many white people posted a black square to their instagram account and then  resumed posting about food and their dogs the next day, or, worse yet, made posts about how they stood in solidarity with Black folx but centered their support around themselves, such as by organizing group spells rather than using their platforms to amplify the efforts of Black witches.  

The second example, in particular, really illustrates colonialist attitudes in action because it seeks to take the attention (trophy) away from Black voices (the “othered” people) in order to further the efforts of that white witch (conquest). This example also illustrates how colonialism and racism frequently go hand in hand.

Colonialism emphasizes the ends, not the means. It encourages winning (conquest), right now, regardless of what it takes, regardless of who is affected by our actions.

Deconstructing Language

In witchcraft, we often talk about the power that words hold. A spell spoken is Will enlivened, the better to shape the future to our desires. But for all the importance we place on words in this context, it isn’t fully translating to the language we use in discussing witchcraft. We aren’t using the same care to ensure that the words we use are in line with our intentions and values.  

If words have power, then the words we use matter.

Words handled carelessly will betray thoughts and reveal biases and motivations that we may not have even be aware we hold. And so attitudes that are founded in colonialism often reveal themselves in the way we talk about certain things. A great example is the way the witchcraft community talks about inclusivity.

Rather than taking action to make sure that groups and organization are safe places for marginalized individuals—i.e., inclusive—the word is used as a means of presenting the right image in order to maintain attention focused upon that group and further the group’s goals, as well as continue to draw members. In this way, inclusivity is treated as little more than a buzzword and is “enforced” by removing anyone who rocks the boat or creates dissent. And so members with divisive ideologies are allowed to remain within the group (because they’re so polite) while marginalized individuals who bring up issues (such as racist microaggressions and overt statements) are made to feel unwelcome and is pushed away for causing problems.  

We say “inclusivity” when we mean “good vibes only.”

This is an attitude that continues to maintain oppressive power structures, rewarding those who don’t (immediately) upset or challenge that structure and punishing those who do threaten it. But, those who challenge the order are not only the ones being hurt by that structure/order, but are the same people we claim to be a safe space for with our “inclusivity.”  

There is no inclusivity if marginalized voices aren’t allowed to speak up and speak out. Inclusivity cannot mean that just marginalized bodies are allowed, it must mean that marginalized voices, viewpoints, and feelings are allowed to be present, too. Inclusivity isn’t a way to rack points with the universe or to demonstrate how “spiritual” we are, it’s how we make sure that our groups and organizations reflect our communities in honest ways and that our groups and organization reflect our values in honest ways.

Another example of the ways in which language used in the witchcraft community betrays colonial-based viewpoints is the use of the light/dark dichotomy.  

Rashunda Tramble did an excellent write up on this, sharing her experiences and views as a Black woman, and discussing how this dichotomy betrays underlying racist attitudes that run unchecked in the spiritual community. I encourage you to read her piece Are you Afraid of the Dark?

I would like to build off her words for this specific context, noting further reasons why the light/dark dichotomy is not just racist/colonial bullshit, but also does not hold up in witchcraft, regardless of how bad some people cling to it and form an identity around it (looking at you, white witches and whitelighters).  

1.) The worldview of witchcraft, animism, is directly incompatible with dualism—upon which the light vs dark dichotomy is dependent. Dualism, as a worldview, purports that there is a clear division between the spirit world and the physical world, with little to no interaction between the two except by trained religious specialists (i.e., priests). Animism, however, asserts that the world is alive and thrumming with spirits, that we encounter numerous spirits every day in our lives. These spirits exist in innumerable forms, echoing the diversity that we find in the physical world. That diversity directly refutes the “this or that” framework of dualism and the light/dark dichotomy.

2) Regardless of historical sources, in the world we live in right now, this dichotomy reinforces ingrained racist attitudes that continue to reward and value white voices and bodies over Black voices and bodies. White is good, black is bad/evil. Even if you don’t consider yourself racist, language such as this betrays the presence of racism and oppressive colonial-based attitudes within you. Everyone who lives in western society has racism and colonialism within them, to some degree. You have internalized it, we all have to some degree or other.

3) This dichotomy does not contribute to greater spiritual understanding of the world we live in. It is not a foundational belief or tenant because witchcraft is inherently amoral, rejecting ideas of “good” or “bad” in favor of personal responsibility—we each determine our own morality and must hold ourselves accountable for our actions. Good/bad are not universal concepts and are entirely dictated by personal ideology, experience, and the influence of the dominant culture in which one lives.

4) This dichotomy is easily refuted by direct experience and is explicitly irrelevant in a land-based, locally focused witchcraft practice. Black soil is fertile soil, perfect for crops and sustaining life; white is sun-bleached bones, brittle and crumbling. There is no one hard standard to what light/white dark/black represent. All associations are determined by perspective and culture, and western culture is founded in colonialism.

Part of the work of decolonizing witchcraft is ensuring that the language and wording we use is transparent, honest, and thoughtful—taking care to say what we mean, address issues directly rather than talking around them, and not decentering a conversation around ourselves in order to maintain established power dynamics.

Identifying Colonialist Attitudes within Ourselves

Decolonizing witchcraft is a process that begins on the personal level. In this way, it is absolutely a process of growth and personal development. Two of the greatest tools that we have as witches for aiding our personal growth are also some of the best tools we have to begin identifying unknown biases and motivations that are rooted in colonialism. These are discernment and shadow work.

More than a just a way of telling this from that, discernment is most valuable to the witch as a form of contemplative practice. Our monthly course for June was on Practicing Discernment with Spirits and we discussed the value of discernment as a contemplative practice at length. You can find that lesson here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/38077249

Essentially, discernment as a contemplative practice is a means of using objective awareness to better understand ourselves and encourage spontaneous insight. Engaging in those moments where we allow our thoughts to wander about an idea or concept is an opportunity to ask why, to better understand the thoughts and emotions that arise, and to better uncover hidden bias and motivations that we may not even be aware that we hold.

This is a hugely important for white people, in particular, to do as part of recognizing the extent to which we perpetuate and engage in harmful colonialist views and racism. This is how we identify how deeply these attitudes and biases are embedded within us so we can begin dismantling them. Discernment is the first step in shadow work and a means for us to address our feelings of entitlement that are so tangled up in the “take it because you can, have it because you want it” battle cry of colonialism. This helps us to more clearly see the effect that colonialism has on our witchcraft (in terms of our power and efficacy), on the land (the source of witchcraft), and our community.

From there, we can work to actively counter colonialist-based thoughts, beliefs, motivations, and  biases so that our words and actions accurately reflect our intentions and values. Doing the work of decolonizing witchcraft allows our personal practices to be more fulfilling as a result of our willingness to do the hard work and our refusal to allow witchcraft to be distorted by ideology that stands in direct opposition to its worldview and focus.

In next week’s lesson, we’ll look at ways we can begin decolonizing our witchcraft on a personal and communal level, looking at the importance of ancestor work and a land-based focus.

Lesson 2: Doing the Work of Decolonization  

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