I recently saw someone on my Twitter feed post a sentiment along the lines of annoyance that people still use the term “white magic” to market or label things in the occult, The annoyance stemmed, according to them, because the use of “white” to mean “pure” or “good”, and “black” to mean “impure” or “evil”, has significant racist underpinnings. It got into a kind of mini-debate where I honestly don’t get what there is to be offended about the terms, and that this person wanted the language to change since clearly it has an impact on the occult community with notions of social racism and that the use of such terms acts as a shaming mechanism.
This person also has a Tumblr, and as my witful sister once said about people on that network, “I had no idea there were so many things to be offended about”.
The use of white to mean purity and black to mean impurity goes a long, long way back before the civil rights era or, as far as I can tell, the use of skin color for social discrimination. Many color associations are ancient, if not instinctual to humans based on our own evolution, and many others are based on traditions and beliefs that go as far back as the beginnings of society itself.
- The Bible, arguably a foundational document in Western culture, contains many uses of white and black. The Asperges Me has the phrase “wash me and I will be whiter than snow”. God separated the darkness from the light on the First Day of Creation. There are many injunctions to keep pure with white clothes in the Old and New Testaments. White is associated with innocence, sacrifice, and purity, a la Jesus as the Sacrificial Lamb. Black and darkness are associated with evil, ignorance, demons, and the like. (Just as a note, the people who wrote these books were decidedly not white.)
- Ancient Greek religion considered white animals appropriate for the celestial gods and black ones for the underworld gods. They also considered the black underworld to be the home of pains, Furies, tortures, and the like, while the white heavens were the home of the beautiful gods and Olympos. Hades was considered to be a gloomy, dim, dark place for the dead, and Tartarus was said to be the darkest pit of them all for the most wicked.
- Kali, a violent destroyer purger goddess in Hinduism, is portrayed with black or dark-blue skin, and whose name means “dark one”. She, however, is often seen as a fearful figure, but has powers for a kind of hard-to-fathom cosmic good, as well.
- Asian cultures often use white in funerary and purification rituals.
- Yoruban mythology has the orisha Obatala, the King of White Cloth, good for purification, cooling down, and being detached from drama and pain. Babalu Aye, the orisha of death and disease, has dark colors like black and purple. (And these people, who are based in modern-day Nigeria, are most certainly not white.)
- Cornelius Agrippa mentions that prayers and holy work should always be done with light present, and the Heptameron rituals offer a blessing to purify fire and incense for light and spirit to cast out any darkness or deception from the working area.
- In ancient Egyptian thought, black was associated with Osiris, the god who died and was reborn, and also with fecundity and fertility, since it was the color of the fertile life-sustaining black soil that remained after the Nile floods each year.
These are only a very few examples I can pull off the top of my head, and I’m sure there are many more some of my readers can think of.
Why might we have had these associations? Honestly, because we see them in the world. White things turn black with dirt, grime, and mold. Food that turns black from another color tends to indicate that the food has gone bad and may make one sick or die when ingested. Corpses decompose and rot, turning dark colors, over time. Diseases often leave black marks or sores. Things that are consumed in fire become blackened and charred. Metal becomes tarnished and dark. Nighttime, a time of blackness, is when we cannot see easily and more things can more easily harm or kill us in the cover of shadow than in the daytime. And so forth, and so on. These color associations are as old as many others, such as red indicating life and vitality, blue indicating peace or wisdom, gold indicating nobility or wealth, and so on. Does that make white better than black? No. Does that make black worse than white? No. They have different purposes for different ends. Neither is better than the other, just as gold isn’t a better color than silver, or blue over orange. They have different purposes according to their hue and saturation; that’s it.
Of course, that apparently didn’t matter to this one person. Apparently, because it’s got such a long history and because it’s so entrenched in our symbolic languages, that’s all the more reason for us to stop using it entirely. It’s apparently harmful, ignorant, and disastrous to people’s mindsets, and acts as a shaming mechanism to put people of color down. This person linked me to a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., on this:
Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything black, ugly and evil. Look in your dictionary and see the synonyms of the word “black.” It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word, “white.” It’s always some pure, high and. I want to get the language so right that everybody here will cry out, “Yes I’m Black and I’m proud of it. I’m Black and I’m beautiful”.
…and this quote didn’t really further their argument in any way I could see. In fact, their argument (as little as they made before the discussion was ended and they rage-unfollowed me) didn’t seem to amount to anything more than “the use of white and black color symbolism is always racist, period”. I assume, to expand on what they didn’t, that because we use the word “black” to describe people of African descent, all the associations of color we have with black automatically are transferred to them, so we should get rid of the associations, because all those associations are demeaning when applied to humans. And, to an extent, I agree; calling someone impure, evil, ignorant, and the like is a dick move, even if they are those things. But calling them those things by means of a color that kinda-sorta resembles the optical result of the melanin in their skin? That’s even more of a dick move, because it ignores their actual state and misapplies the term itself entirely. Beating this term and all its associations of ignorance, evil, and the like into their heads because they’re described with a black skin tone is racism, flat out, but that’s not a function of the color having those attributions. That’s a function of the person being a racist and a douchebag.
To me, the MLK quote indicates that people do, in fact, use the term “black” to signify both evil and people of African descent at the same time. MLK, as I understand him, wanted to break that association as applied to people. As a Christian minister, though, he was surrounded with the color associations day in and day out, since it formed a lot of his ethics, religious background, philosophy; these things, however, are meant in a spiritual, metaphoric sense, not necessarily physical. MLK doesn’t believe that those same associations should apply to people on the basis of their skin color, which is a physical attribute detached from spiritual color, and I agree with that. Besides, as a magician, I find lots of uses for white and black that do, in fact, correspond to these spiritual meanings. For purity and blessing and elevation works, I’ll wear white clothes; for cursing, underworld, or grieving jobs I’ll wear black ones. This is something completely different from skin color; discrimination with skin color came long, long after the spiritual associations of the colors white and black. This person thinks we should get rid of the color associations; why not, instead, get rid of the racism?
Do I think that the use of white and black in the occult can be bent for social discrimination? Sure it can! This would be to abuse the associations, however, and would make one equivalent to European colonists and slavetraders who thought that one with dark skin had “the mark of Cain” or was dumber or whatever. One’s skin color has no effect on one’s propensity for magic, physical purity, or spiritual purity; it’s a non-issue. To associate “black magic” with evil and also with black people is to do a disservice to the color itself; to think that black people are always up to no good is mere racism, outside of any occult meaning of the term, and to think that black people cannot do white magic is disastrously wrong on so many levels. To use metaphysical associations of color to justify social and worldly racism is racism. It’s just another tool racism can use to propagate itself, but it isn’t a function of the colors themselves. And if you’re the one doing this? You’re racist. Cut that shit out.
Do I think we should use the terms “white magic” and “black magic” at all? Hell no! These terms are utterly stupid and fail to illustrate the nuances and fine gradations within the Work as a whole and individual workings. A noble, magnanimous prayer for victory for one’s country in war necessarily prays simultaneously for the destruction, demolition, and death of the other country (cf. Mark Twain’s The War Prayer). A working for justice for one who is harmed often harms the one who perpetrated it. A ritual to kill someone in power often saves those that a megalomaniac leader would torture in turn. Any particular ritual or working can affect the world in dozens, hundreds, myriads of ways, and to say that “this spell only does good” or “this spell only does bad” is flat-out wrong. The use of these labels simply isn’t useful in learning, working, or dealing with magic, and should be abandoned.
Do I think the terms “white” or “black” have any use in magic? Gods, yes. I think you’ll find the use of colors well-written about on this blog, even in this very post, and white and black are no exception.
Do I think the terms “white” or “black” can be used as a shaming mechanism? I…guess? I mean, if you care about labels and descriptors applied by others so much that it forces you to do something or prohibits you from doing something, that’s your business. If you care about results and getting work done, then it’s not going to matter so long as you actually make your plans and follow them through. In other words, this kind of “shame” is beneath me and a waste of my time. Worrying about how other people, with their itty-bitty tiny sliver of human perception seeing no more than an infinitesimal fraction of the cosmos, are going to label your workings when they’re not involved and operating with incomplete knowledge, is not going to help you. Now, if you’re the one trying to shame others by using these terms, what the hell is wrong with you? It’s honestly none of your business to judge and shame others. Everyone from Jesus Christ (“judge not, that ye be not judged”) to Aleister Crowley (“it is necessary that we stop, once for all, this ignorant meddling with other people’s business”) has said to stop worrying about what other people are doing and start worrying about yourself, your own actions, and your own will. It does often happen that people are conditioned by other people using shaming mechanisms or reinforcement techniques and are actually affected by this; it’s shitty, and it happens. Instead of breaking the associations, which are in fact helpful to have from both a magical and an evolutionary standpoint, why not instead stop using the shaming mechanisms to oppress others, and help those who are oppressed and conditioned to break out of that conditioning through philosophy, magic, and spiritual growth/healing?