7 Major Points of the #tarotsowhite discussion & why I don’t agree with them

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In lieu of a piece about difficult cards, today I’m writing instead about a difficult topic – race – as it relates to me and a not-so-recent discussion in the online tarot community.


I struggled with whether I would even write this piece.

It’s clear through my work that I’m willing to write my own rawness. That being said, the things that strike the deepest chords in me, I carefully meter, digest, or guard and just don’t talk about… yet. I have an emotional  gatekeeper. It’s informed by my experiences as black, female, queer, femme, NOT femme, kinky, poly, crazy, NOT crazy, ill. The list goes on. While living with all these labels, discretion has done everything from keeping me safe in dangerous situations to keep me closed-minded and fearful. Even now I hear a voice within saying: ‘this is nobody else’s business anyhow.’

And yet.

Now that I’ve had some time to process and some space, I’ve decided to speak up and trust that it will do some good, that when my peers in the tarot community and my readers say they want to know my opinion as a person of color, that they meant it, and that they meant it without putting conditions on what I would say. I’m trusting those things.

Back in April, Benebell Wen posted a blog in response to a video by Kelly-Ann Maddox addressing her perceived lack of representation of POC (people of color)  in tarot decks. I felt many things in response to these two posts. Excitement. Sadness. Frustration. Curiosity. Hope. Chief among those feelings though was anger – an anger so thick and crippling that I decided against either exploring or explaining my feelings about the #tarotsowhite conversation.

I wasn’t angry about the race conversation in general. I manage to discuss race with my tarot peers all the time. Most recently during my final #rsstudio16 twitter chat.  No, it was contents of this particular conversation that got to me. Both of the above posts, in each their own distinct ways, served as reminders that even though tarot bloggers inhabit the same space, we do not all agree.

The Bones of the #tarotsowhite Discussion

(At least the parts I am responding to)

I’ve taken these points below almost verbatim from the two posts I mention above. As you read these, remember that they are tiny snippets of sizeable commentaries on race that also contained some points that I agree with. It’s probably best to read/watch for yourself before jumping to conclusions based on my comments here.

I’m going to take this one at a time.

1.“There are very very very few people of color in tarot decks.”

I remember when this felt very true for me too. I’m sure this still feels true for many people regardless of their race. This felt true to me right up until I sat down to receive a reading from a mentor of mine, an older white woman, and she whipped out the World Spirit Tarot and I saw more people of color in a tarot deck than I’d ever seen. If it wasn’t for her diverse collection, if it wasn’t for her seeking out people of color in her decks, I would have never realized that they existed. I would have been one of those people hearing “there are very few people of color in tarot decks,” and nodding my head and feeling angry about it and wishing it were different. It is different. I won’t bother listing the myriad diverse options in the tarot world because frankly there are others more versed in this. I’ll link their work below.

2.“Call out publishers to let them know consumers are interested in diversity.”

Here’s a picture of some of the people of color in my decks:

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I couldn’t really fit them all in the photo and this isn’t all of my decks, just the top 4 most diverse. (I’ll name them at the bottom of this post.) None of these representations are fetishistic or stereotypical. The people are everything from mystically fierce to doing average things. These four decks are each made by some of the largest publishing companies that exist.

Without even getting into the delicious world of independently published decks, of which my collection is woefully short (I’m working on it!), this looks like solid representation. Especially when I grew up during a time where there really was no representation other than that one 9 of pentacles in the Morgan-Greer. My collection consists primarily of diverse decks and it looks like this because these are the decks I chose, sought out, and purchased.

3. “We have to convince publishers & deck creators that it’s just economic good sense to feature boring racial diversity.”

I don’t think either publishers or deck creators need convincing. Not just because I discover more and more diverse decks every year. I don’t think they need it because they aren’t the ones that brought diverse decks to my attention. Consumers did. To survive, publishers meet the demands of their consumers. That or fail. I trust publishing companies, to an extent, to respond consumers. And where they fail, independent deck creators are excelling.

4. “I can never know what it’s like to support decks and see that I am not represented in them… but I can surely imagine.”

I disagree and this one is harder to address. It’s less about what can be imagined and more about the premise that, in order to take action, a person must understand or empathize with someone different from them. The truth is even a thoughtful and well-meaning person might very much want to understand the experience of another person and not be able to. And this is totally fine as long as the conditions for allied action don’t hinge entirely on empathy.

I deal with so many different kinds of aggressions day-to-day that the last thing on my mind is how many POC are in my tarot decks. Am I excited to see options that reflect me? Absolutely. And to begin to understand my perspective you’d have to be able to relate to the experience where there is so much trauma and so much to process, that in order to function it has been necessary to bury, detach, and set a good chunk aside and quickly in order to feel safe. Our realities are not the same and so no, you may not be able to imagine. And that’s ok. Let’s honor that even as we work toward a future where our realities are, at least, not so destructively different.

5. I’m not being given any diversity.

This goes back to the publisher thing. Is diversity something you receive? As a consumer, sure.

It definitely might be. But not as an ally. An ally actively pursues and promotes POC and decks with POC on their platforms, in their content, and in their giveaways. An ally educates people about the diverse options available. An ally fills their collection with diverse decks and educates themselves without burdening POC with the task of constantly teaching them.

Could there be more diversity? Absolutely. And to say there is none kinda feels like the diversity that exists got erased… It’s like when people tell me that there are no POC tarot readers. I exist. And diverse decks exists.

6. Seeing a POC doing something that is not stereotypical or fetishized is…so different that it can actually become a distraction.

This is obviously subjective. It depends how many POC you encounter in real life. It depends on what you expose yourself to. Even if the only POC you will ever encounter are in your tarot deck, this is why some of us sit with our decks before using them with others. Looking at the art. Processing. Feeling. Dialoguing. Before I had access to diverse decks, when all my decks were white only, this is how I dealt.

I engaged art that didn’t quite speak to me and I made the translation because I had to. I don’t have to do this with diverse decks. These decks don’t distract me because POC are already a part of my life. And while I can’t speak for white tarot readers, I’d hazard that maybe some of them aren’t distracted by POC in tarot either. I think if a person wants to use a diverse deck distraction-free, they can do so the same way they can interact with POC distraction-free: with practice.

7. 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.

Just who is everybody here?

Not me. Not readers I know. Not deck creators I know. I can’t claim to speak for publishers but from the decks I own, even they seem a little more interested in diversity than this suggests. This was painful to read. Because it made it seem like one of my favorite tarot writers might be writing for an audience that doesn’t include me or people like me. Or at the very least might not share the opinion that many people want to see diversity. It’s totally possible there are entire tarot communities that feel this way, and I’ve just been living in a bubble filled with radically progressive folks. If so, I’m grateful for it and that’s where I’ll stay.

The amount of POC in tarot is a reflection of a larger issue.

As Kristen says in her blog on this same topic: “When you create art or anything else, you create from what you know. The issue isn’t about simply putting people of color into every deck. The real issue is about getting to know real people of color in the real world.” I agree with this. I also agree with Benebell when she talks about it coming down to communicating wants through spending.

Tarot bloggers are in a unique position to dispel diversity myths, to explore & showcase different cultural perspective, and to start honest & needed dialogue, as Kelly-Ann has done with #tarotsowhite. Even if it means we get triggered or exhausted, it’s a conversation worth having (for those who feel up to having it and when they feel up to it). This and other ally actions are ways to effect changes to the face of tarot. That said, remember that even if it seems like the experiences of POC or other marginalized groups are accessible or relatable, or that a conversation will make us the same kind of angry or trigger the same kind of reactions, remember that that just might not be the case.

I have more to say, so I’ve continued this conversation over at my blog this week with 7 Questions for the Earnest Ally, and I’ll put up a walk-through of my most diverse decks sometime in the near future. Keep in touch to know when these drop. Share this post if you know someone who might benefit it. Thank you for hearing me.

What diverse decks do you own?
I’ll keep an eye out in case you comment using #tarotsowhite.
As always you guys are invited to comment below.

Places where diverse decks are cataloged:

Places where the #tarotsowhite conversation is archived:

Sources I like about allyship:

Diverse Decks Featured:

The Gaian Tarot by Joanna Powell Colbert forthcoming 2016
Tarot de St. Croix by Lisa de St. Croix Devara 2013
The Mary-El Tarot By Mary White Schiffer 2012
The Sun And Moon Tarot By Vanessa Decort US Games 2010

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25 comments

  1. marandars says:

    For me, as a tarotist of more than 40 years, this is a so sad. I am of mixed race – albeit less obviously than many others – and I read regularly for mixed race clients, and the “Do these images represent me?” question has never been raised. Why? Because the archetypes spoken of by these images are universal. They do not have to show a man with a shattered limb, a woman of colour with a dead baby, a disabled couple being married, a Syrian child losing her parents, an Asian woman being gang raped, an old Chinese woman cradling her grandchild, an old Inuit man sitting alone on the ice – well, you get the point? We understand the images and we take them into our soul, interpret them and weave the story from the fabric of our own lives. That’s why we can relate to Tarot cards that portray only animals, or angels, or fairies, or cats, or Native Americans, or Occult imagery. To feel excluded from the image of the High Priestess because I am a man; or from The Hierophant because I am a woman; or from The Sun because I am neither a white boy baby or a horse – well, for me this is to miss the essence of Tarot entirely.

    • Siobhan Rene says:

      I think it’s human to recognize yourself in the world and to want to. I agree we can engage the archetypes without this level of recognition. Especially when we think this is our only option. Since I have found diverse decks my relationship with the archetypes has deepened. When my mentor used a deck with faces like mine I felt safe in the space she created for me and I felt seen. I had no idea it would affect me at all. At the time I also thought it didn’t matter. Not everyone will respond like I did I’m sure. And not everyone will express it out loud when they feel these things. You may not know what it means to the person across the table to be affirmed and to be seen. They may not know either. Until it happens.

    • A. says:

      I get what you’re saying, but I disagree on the conclusion. There’s a tendency in the wider culture to think of whiteness (and maleness, and straightness, etc etc) as default, to which anyone should be able to relate, and anything else is a deviation from that norm, it must represent something specific, it must be for those kinds of people only. This, of course, does bleed into tarot as a product of that culture, which is a real shame because the community is full of so many femmes and alternate gender identities, so many people of color, so many queer people. Not discussing this tends to keep things in a “colorblind” (I don’t see the lack of darkness because I don’t see color) status quo.

      And, rather than split up my comment….
      Siobhan, thanks for a thoughtful post. I’m still pondering over some of my quibbles, but I am so with you on 6 & 7, and I think it’s a great idea to celebrate the decks that do this well. Off the top of my head from my collection, I can think of the Science Tarot (no people in the numbered minors but the majors had diversity in mind), the Girlfriends Tarot (really adorable, pip deck but lots of different POC representation, probably my most casually diverse deck which is surprising for such a little, easily-overlooked gem), and the Tarot of the Cat People. Also, I know the Light Grey Tarot has several great POC figures (I love the King and Queen of Swords in that deck), but I don’t remember the overall balance or feel. And the Sakki-Sakki has not many peach-colored people and instead a whole rainbow of odd colors, so it is probably worth mentioning in this context although a bit different.

  2. James Bulls says:

    This was a really challenging essay to read. On the one hand, I agree with the earliest respondents in the #TarotSoWhite discussion that there seems to be a lack of diversity in Tarot, but on the other hand – after reading your contribution – I feel like the problem may not be the available Tarot decks, but me myself: even when I think I’m being more aware and attentive to imbalances in the Tarot world, I’m still not seeing the people of color who are already present. If like me the white-majority of readers is convinced that it’s seeing a stellar lack of diversity, but the PoC-minority of readers isn’t seeing the same, then I feel like it must mean that both the problem and the solution are biased by the white-majority’s perceptions and possibly misunderstandings. You’ve given me a lot to think about – thanks for sharing your perspective.

    • Siobhan Rene says:

      When I wrote this I expected that many wouldn’t agree regardless of race. Even I think it’s worth talking about how there are fewer representations of POC in tarot despite what it sounds like here. But when it comes to issues like this I feel the real change comes when people start by analyzing and acknowledging their own biases, beliefs, and limitations. Especially when it’s tempting to assign blame. It’s not as clear cut as “publishers don’d do enough” or “I haven’t done enough.” The truth is somewhere in the middle – muddled and paradoxical. And hence worth thinking and inquiring about. I’m relieved to know this piece inspired thoughts. This is what I hoped for! Thank you for hearing me and for your feedback, James!

  3. I appreciate that you took the time to add another diverse voice to this discussion. I’m a queer white tarot reader and I’m glad to learn more about diverse decks, and I’ll be looking forward to reading your post about being an earnest ally.

  4. Beth Maiden
    Beth Maiden says:

    I’m so grateful that you added your voice to this conversation Siobhan. As always you’ve added so much realness and vulnerability and pragmatism, and as always you’ve given me loads of food for thought. As a white person who lives in a diverse and radical online bubble but an incredibly white real life bubble, my learning how to be a good ally is slow and though it’s no POC’s job to educate me, the more I am able to access diverse opinions on these topics, the more I can challenge my own thinking and grow.

    Thanks especially for reiterating this:

    “An ally actively pursues and promotes POC and decks with POC on their platforms, in their content, and in their giveaways. An ally educates people about the diverse options available. An ally fills their collection with diverse decks and educates themselves without burdening POC with the task of constantly teaching them.”

    It’s not rocket science, but it involves putting aside the delicate white ego and committing to what allyship and genuinely diverse spaces can look like.

    Looking out for your follow-up post, too!

    • Siobhan Rene says:

      I’m glad you liked this piece and I’m super grateful for you and people like you who go to the trouble of creating those bubbles – radically inclusive spaces where diverse can be the norm. “Alternatives” are what will make the old way obsolete and irrelevant.

  5. SJ Witchling says:

    Thank you so, so much for adding to this discussion. It’s worth it to hear from all points of view on this. And I did wonder about the thought that there aren’t a lot of diverse decks… I tend to be drawn to decks that have fewer human figures, but the ones with human figures that I’m drawn to have people of color, people of all ages, women on the King cards, men on Queen cards etc. (Right now I’m loving the Book of Shadows So Below deck for having all kinds of people on it.)

    When I started to get interested in the online Tarot community, I was so excited to see black queer Tarot readers talking about Tarot. Because I don’t want to just hear voices echoing my experience. I want spaces where it is safe to be vulnerable and disagree. And I’m so glad you took that space and talked about what #tarotsowhite means to you, because our vulnerability and ability to love one another will bring us to the revolution.

  6. judy nathan says:

    Hi Siobhan. I applaud your bravery, vulnerability and honesty in putting your own personal thoughts and feelings out there. Like you, I have decks that are full of every kind of person you can imagine! I find those decks are actually more interesting and relatable.
    On the subject of ‘archetypes are archetypes and it shouldn’t matter’… on the one hand.. sure, and animal decks show that.
    On the other hand.. I was reminded of something that happened in a discussion group I was in that I think might shed some light on the subject. It was a Buddhist study group and we were going through the “Dhammapada” (the Buddha’s sayings). I noticed that I had been substituting “she” and “her” for “he’ and “him” to make the words have more meaning to me. To feel them in my body rather than just hear them… it really does make a big difference. Try it sometime with important writings of old, if you haven’t already. So, one evening I asked everyone to close their eyes while I read the passage and I read it substituting feminine pronouns. It had quite an effect on both the men and the women. These were mostly older people who had not thought much about this. The women were deeply touched by how the words reverberated deep inside them in a way they hadn’t before. But the men.. that was the most interesting part… one man, the Buddhist monk leading the group, opened his eyes and said “that was very illuminating.. I kept thinking “who is SHE?”. The point is… sure we can all relate to the archetypes and learn through them.. but I’ll never forget the difference to those words(and pictures in the case of Tarot) when it was about ME.. not ‘him’.

    • Siobhan Rene says:

      Thank you for sharing this powerful story Judy!! These little shifts can be nothing or they can be a powerful way to feel closer and connect to a message. I’m definitely going to try this the next time there’s an opportunity!!

  7. Living in Biloxi, Ms I have a diverse clientele. One day, an Afro-American came over for a reading with. I felt highly uncomfortable, I did not have a “diverse” tarot deck. When I buy a Tarot Deck, I never think about looking for the skin color or ethnicity depicted in the deck. I look for its accuracy. Is it pretty looking and do the images spark my intuition and abilities. So I went and said to that client of mine: I am soooo sorry! I don’t have a Tarot Deck representing your skin color. Oh you cut of cut the silence in my tarot room with a knife!!! Finally, she spoke up! She said, “I don’t care what color the people in the pictures are. I came here for you to tell me what the cards say about my situation!”. Oh dear, I gaffed but went on to do her reading for her. Next African-American that came over for a reading, she just looked at me and said: “your white! Are you sure you can read the Tarot”? lol… Yes said I, and scarelly accurate lol… I think the tarot community make to much of a big deal about race, our clients just want us to know what we are doing when we give them a reading…

  8. Jan says:

    As an African-American woman who reads tarot only for myself (for decades), I find it very difficult to seek counsel from people outside of my race. There are too many layers of the onion to peel, and too many good readers who don’t understand the issue of race in 2016 (and do not care to learn, which is their right and privilege, because archetypes are archetypes), and therefore cannot REALLY interprete the cards in context.

    • Siobhan Rene says:

      I can relate to this. For years I would only read for myself. I never inquired deeply about why but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was related. I feel blessed to know so many readers with privilege who do care to learn. The more of them I meet, the more hope I have that there are even more out there. I just wrote about this in my newsletter – how powerful it can be to meet people who do care and how these meetings can challenge our belief that there are none.

  9. Jan says:

    I work for therapists and this topic comes up often in the clinical therapy environment as well–“culturally competent practitioners.” Many therapists seek post-graduate training because we’re all connected and the world is becoming smaller. More often than not, clinicians will end up working with people from all walks of life, especially in the large city in which I work. There are many well-meaning people who really do want to assist, but I don’t want to be “accommodated.” If you have to apologize for not being the person who you thought I would expect you to be (see how complicated this can get?) before the reading even begins, I will have difficulty trusting the overall process. I speak only for myself, and feel very fortunate to be able to read for myself. I believe the best tarot reading requires a certain level of trust between client and reader. I am grateful that more and more readers of all persuasions are coming forward. We need them all.

  10. I’m a white queer woman living in a very redneck country town in Australia. I’ve traveled to places all over the world. I’m certainly more open minded than most people I know because of the traveling that I’ve done. Thank you for your voice on this topic. When people were saying that there’s not enough diversity in tarot decks I wondered if they had gone blind. I have a couple of decks that are diverse: The Sun and Moon Tarot, and Tarot of the Cat People have already been mentioned. There’s also an oracle deck called “Earth Magic” by Dr Steven Farmer that has a nice array of POC in it. Many blessings.

  11. astro says:

    Thank you for sharing this nice story like this Judy. There are many well-meaning people who really do want to assist, but I don’t want to be “accommodated.” If you have to apologize for not being the person who you thought I would expect you to be (see how complicated this can get?) before the reading even begins, I will have difficulty trusting the overall process. I speak only for myself, and feel very fortunate to be able to read for myself.

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