A Festival Season Warning

The outward spiral is kicking into high gear. Warmer, sunnier weather is here or on the way soon, and many of us are looking forward to our first festivals of the year. These wonderful gatherings are a time to connect with our spirituality and community in a focused way. For those of us who’ve attended the same festival, conference, or gathering many times over the years, there are also deep friendships to rekindle. We’re looking forward to sacred fires, dancing, workshops, conversations, rituals, laughter, music, and more. 

And, as with all brightness, there is also shadow. 

The Pagan world, even at our sacred gatherings, is not immune to the rising tide of radicalized white nationalists plaguing the United States. Last year, more than one colleague reported seeing recruiters for folkish/racist Heathenry at large Pagan events. If they were out last year, they’ll definitely be out this year. So, let’s talk about it. The best way to protect ourselves and others is to recognize these predators early. 

One thing to know right away is that you won’t be able to identify a recruiter on sight. Hate groups don’t send people in wearing racist symbols or easily-recognizable extremist tattoos. Recruiters are generally likable – that’s why they’re the ones doing the recruiting. They look like normal white-passing Pagans and are generally affable, friendly, and easy to talk to. They’re polite to Black, Indigenous, and people of color as well as queer-identified individuals. They won’t cultivate deep friendships there, of course, but they also won’t run screaming in the other direction. They are specifically trying to pass as normal within our community, which is also why the screening procedures at most festivals and gatherings won’t catch them. 

Most recruiters are looking for a specific kind of prey: white-passing people who are disenfranchised or disadvantaged in some way. They seek out young folks who are a bit lost, the parents of young children who are struggling to get by, and outsiders and outcasts. One of the most effective ways to get a hateful ideology to “stick” is to convince a target that the reason for their suffering is one of the many marginalized communities in our country (rather than capitalism and systemic injustice). Recruiters will make their targets feel special. They will show them things their targets fear or find uncomfortable and suggest ways of coping with those challenges that seem reasonable. They will offer support and community. They want to radicalize targets without them knowing that it’s happening.

So, the first thing I want to remind you of is hospitality and inclusion. Remember: the folks representing hate groups will be socially gifted. Their targets generally will not. If you’re at a gathering with more than 300 people in attendance, it’s safe to assume that a recruiter is present. If you’re at a gathering, and you see someone having problems making friends and finding their rhythm at the event, help them. Be the one who reaches out. 

The next thing to be aware of is language, both spoken and what we see on the internet. Recruiters are often promoting one of their organizations – a Pagan or Heathen group of some kind. Both conversation and the web listings for those groups offer a chance to identify some warning markers. 

Be aware of what’s absent. Particularly in the case of Heathen groups, inclusivity will be one of the first things mentioned. On a website, flier, or business card, this is frequently accompanied by the use of a Pride Progress/Queer Pride image of some sort. In conversation, a safe Heathen will start by describing their organization as inclusive, or will immediately reference leadership that are non-white or queer-identified i.e. “Our gythia is Akari. Her wife Hannah is also a member of our Kindred.”  

The majority of racist groups do not openly state their extremism. Remember, they’re trying to trick people. So, the red flag you’re looking for is the absence of inclusive language. If you visit a Heathen or Pagan group’s website and there’s no inclusive language and all images are of heteronormative white people, you have most likely found an extremist group. 

Also, be aware of the buzzwords. Radicalized groups use dog whistles – signals that are designed to pass beneath the notice of non-radicalized folks. The language in use is always changing as the wider population becomes aware of different terms as red flags. Some terms in use right now by radicalized groups and individuals are Folkish, Indigenous/Native Europeans, Pan-European, European Folkways, European culture, Traditionalist/radical traditionalist, Odinist, Eurocentrist, and Euro-folk. Remember, some of these terms are harmless by themselves, so look for more than one clue – I do know some non-radicalized Heathens who describe themselves as Odinist, and European Culture is a term used in a few different ways. 

The next thing to consider are “litmus tests.” If you’re in conversation with someone and you suspect they may be recruiting, ask them some pointed questions. “Does your group welcome queer people?” “How many BIPOC members do you have?” If the potential recruiter is Heathen, one effective test is Loki. Our beloved bringer of transformation who changes gender at will makes radicalized groups incredibly uncomfortable. “Does your group honor/toast Loki?” is a great question to ask. 

If you spot a recruiter at an event, tell that event’s leadership immediately and bring as much proof as you can gather. I have personally thrown people out of events for recruiting/promoting racist ideology and any event leader worth their salt will do the same. If the event’s leadership is conflict-averse or seems to be having a hard time figuring out what to do, quietly spread the word and keep an eye on the recruiter. Team up with a few people to ensure that the recruiter doesn’t have the opportunity to corner anyone and cozy up to them. 

My last suggestion is the one that’s the focus of a lot of my own work in community: support efforts to make your community a poor target for recruiters. Pagan religion has a white supremacy problem, and a heterocentrism problem. Many of our structures and practices inherently center a white, straight narrative. Begin doing the work of dismantling those systems. Amplify non-white voices. Invite, and compensate, non-white presenters at events. Amplify queer voices. Begin stripping the gender binary out of Pagan spiritual practice. You don’t actually need it – turns out magic works whether you think Elemental Fire is masculine or not. 

The work of creating and maintaining safe communities falls to all of us. Pagans are largely outsiders in our parent culture – many of us wrestle with some form of disadvantage/disenfranchisement. That trait makes us appealing to recruiters from radicalized organizations. Let’s make our community as inaccessible to them as possible. Keep your eyes and ears open, and help protect our most vulnerable people from being exploited by groups pushing hate. 

So, have you seen recruiters out and about? Do you have additional resources for helping to identify and shut them out? Hit me up in the comments. You never know when your thoughts are exactly what another witch needs to read. 

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