When I was growing up in the tarot world, the only Asian I knew of in this field was Robert Wang. Times have changed some, and I’m pleased to share with you many who are contributing incredible work to the tarot community.
In no particular order, here’s who I’ve been fangirling hard over as of late:
It begins around 25:11 when one of my favorite YouTube personalities Kelly-Ann Maddox talks about #TarotsoWhite and the “overwhelming lack of racial diversity in tarot and oracle decks.” Maddox covers it all. She acknowledges white privilege, too much whiteness in the human depictions on tarot decks, disappointment in the fetishization of people of color in the rare times they are actually portrayed (she gives the example of the Nubian queen), and wonders what it is like for us people of color to spend untold amounts of money on tarot and oracle decks only to flip through them to see that you’re not being represented.
Well. The reality is we’re used to it. Or at least I am. It wasn’t until around 2000 that my community was represented in the media beyond sage-y old kung-fu masters with broken English and fortune cookie wisdom, me-love-you-long-time, dragon ladies, geishas, or know-it-all nerds. I mean I guess I’m okay with the know-it-all nerd. I can sort of identify there.
The reality is I’m used to not seeing ordinary Asian faces in the media and tarot is no different. If I don’t see myself depicted on film, then what makes me think I should get to see myself depicted in the tarot courts? Instead, I get “pleasantly surprised” when I see non-stereotypical images of Asians, well, anywhere, and then doubly pleasantly surprised when it’s on a tarot card.
My first inclination is to say, as a person of color, the whiteness of tarot card imagery doesn’t bother me. But I can’t leave it at that. I have to ask myself why it doesn’t bother me. The reason why it doesn’t bother me is what I said before—by now I’m used to it. People of color are used to being invisible. And, well, that’s deeply problematic. So even if it doesn’t bother me, it should bother me just as it should bother every person of color. If it doesn’t bother you, then it will never change. And if it doesn’t change, then the racial paradigm will always leave us marginalized.
As for #TarotsoWhite, I really don’t know what to say on this topic. On one hand, I don’t want to think about race during a tarot reading. Anything in the imagery on a tarot deck that “stands out too much” (and I don’t mean in a semiotic way) can be distracting to me. Here’s the thing: I want to think about race. I want to talk about social justice. But maybe not during a tarot reading.
And I do find that sometimes racial diversity depicted on a deck can be distracting because—sad, sad fact—it’s not something we’re used to seeing. Racial diversity is really different for us. Seeing a token Asian dude or a Black woman doing something that is not stereotypical or fetishized is different, and it’s so different for our senses that it can actually become a distraction. It becomes your focal point because differences are always our focal points. Instead of turning my mental wheels on the symbolism of the pomegranates and what that omen holds for our seeker, I’m thinking, “Oh look! The High Priestess is an Asian chick! How neat!”
One comment you hear echoed among readers about #TarotsoWhite is that the whiteness in tarot is why they have a preference for abstract tarot and oracle decks where any human figures depicted are racially ambiguous. The subtext here is: “I want to be racially inclusive but I don’t want to think about race during a tarot reading and people of color depicted in tarot imagery is still kind of distracting so this is my best response.”
I get that. I dig it. I agree.
The catch is, if no one buys tarot and oracle decks featuring ordinary people of color (and by extension, tarot readers get used to seeing–and liking–decks that feature ordinary people of color), then deck creators and publishers won’t be inclined to feature ordinary people of color, and so we will never get to that point where the Asianness of an Asian High Priestess or the Blackness of a Black Emperor won’t distract us.
The only way for race to not be a distraction is for the topic of race to become boring. When the topic of race is boring, an Asian High Priestess and a Black Emperor will be no big deal for our subconscious to handle. Unfortunately, the topic of race is very interesting right now, especially given the racially charged climate we live in.
So if I, a person of color, don’t even want to think about race during a tarot reading, do other tarot readers want to think about race when they dish out the Celtic Cross? And if we don’t want to think about race in tarot but race featured in tarot makes us think about race in tarot, then do people really want to buy tarot decks that feature different races?
Well. We have to.
Social progress in the tarot world will only happen if it’s profitable for deck publishers to get on board with social progress. Otherwise, they’re going to throw out a few token people-of-color decks so as not to appear racist, and then stick primarily to the all-white Arcana cast. Frankly, it’s not profitable right now for deck publishers to feature people of color because even people of color don’t want to see people of color. Everybody wants to see white people.
Each one of us bears the responsibility of changing that dynamic. Tarot practitioners have to make a conscious, concerted effort to show deck publishers, by the power of our spending, that tarot decks with zero racial diversity are not profitable. It sort of has to be a forced change at first, you know, fake it ’til you make it, and eventually, racial diversity in tarot will finally feel natural to us.
But it’s a tall order because the race thing is so deeply engrained into us that most of us don’t even acknowledge it.
It’s like how my name “Benebell” can bother someone because [true story here–and this is the part that she figured was okay to say in public…] Benewell was the name of her [presumably White] Civil War ancestor and so my name Benebell becomes a nuisance and a point of distraction to her. The racialized reality is [here’s the part people would think is not okay to say in public…] Benebell distracts her because Benewell was an old white dude and Benebell is a young(ish) Asian girl.
The race issue, albeit subconscious, was the distraction, not the name issue. If I had been an old white dude, my name wouldn’t have bothered her as much. But it bothered her because of the race discrepancy. She just couldn’t get over an Asian girl “hijacking” her White ancestor’s name.
That subtle yet insidious anecdote extrapolated out to the tarot community at large explains why we find racial diversity in tarot distracting (though would die before we admit it). It’s because our brains have been wired for a very long time to envision a white High Priestess and a white Emperor, and a white Queen of Cups, and white kids in the Six of Cups, and white people fighting in the Five of Wands. When these people are not white, we can’t help but stop to think, “oh… hey.” And at its worst (like the Benebell vs. Benewell account) it’s a nuisance and at best, a point of distraction.
It’s just something we have to get over as tarot readers. Not only do we have to get over it, but we have to push homogeny out of profitability and convince publishers and deck creators that it’s just economic good sense to feature boring racial diversity. No Nubian queens or geishas, just plain, boring people of color, but, you know, decked out like the Queen of Swords or the hermaphrodite in The World.
The tarot and oracle decks that fetishize or exoticize race are popular because we can observe racial difference in a way that emphasizes difference. Somehow that’s okay for our subconscious to handle. It’s when different races, i.e., people of color, appear normal and run-of-the-mill that blows our [subconscious, and sometimes not so subconscious] minds. When people of color are depicted as the “other,” that’s okay, and we can work with that. That’s not distracting because the depictions play in to our preconceived stereotypes. Deck creators and publishers have to do better than that. Racial diversity and inclusion has to go beyond Afro-centric Timbuktu pharaohs of ancient Egypt Imperial China Japanese samurai culture art.