A couple of weekends ago, I found myself in a gay bar at 2am, reading tarot. I’ve been doing this for about a year now, amateurishly reading my friends’ cards, usually at all-female gatherings, usually when everyone has had two to four glasses of red wine. I don’t usually do it in public places, because I don’t think I’m very good at it yet and I’m afraid that, if I do, someone (a guy, usually) will walk up to me and point out all the ways that I am wrong. “Don’t tell her anything!” they say, usually. “She’s just cold reading you. She’s just using general statements. That could apply to anyone. This is bullshit.”
After that, the atmosphere changes. The woman I’m reading to usually gets a little embarrassed and will adopt an air of cool detachment, when moments earlier she had been talking – for maybe the first time – about what really worries her.
The gay bar was the first busy public space I’ve read where I did not have this issue. I had three bartenders waiting for a reading, gently making fun of themselves for being interested, but still interested. It occurred to me, not for the first time, how a certain kind of person is drawn to the occult. And, typically, it’s the sort of person who belongs to a group that has been historically persecuted.
Horoscopes are the most common way that ordinary people admit that they’re not as rational or as logical as they’d like to be. Both The Sunday Times Style and The Sun have an astrology section and, considering one sells £500 handbags and one has tits and football news, it’s kind of strange that they have that in common. It’s not mandatory to have a Mystic Meg on your publication, but it is preferable – more than that, it’s popular. The narrow strip of purple paper, divided into 12 slots, is the only part of the paper that doesn’t ask for your anger or your compassion or your money. It just asks you to think about your day. Tarot is very similar. The reason people read their horoscope and forget it 10 seconds later is because they never went there looking for their future in the first place – they went there to pause and consider their present.
If you have an internal locus of control, it means that you think that you decide your own fate. You are probably a white man. You have probably approached me at a bar to tell me that tarot is bullshit
Even then, there tends to be a gender gap within astrology and anything generally understood to be supernatural or occult, as well as a racial one. According to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Centre, women are twice as likely to see a fortune-teller or a psychic. Black or Hispanic people in America (there are more extensive studies in the States, perhaps due to more widespread interest in the subject) are far more likely to believe in the existence of astrology and spiritual energy than their white counterparts. There are a few theories as to why this might be – religion often gives way to superstition and these groups tend to be more pious than white Christians – but the one that makes the most sense, at least to me, is a theory called “the locus of control”. This refers to how much control a person believes that they have in the outcome of their own lives.
If you have an internal locus of control, it means that you think that you decide your own fate. You are probably a white man. You have probably approached me at a bar to tell me that tarot is bullshit.
If you have an external locus of control, it means that you think other factors decide your fate and you’re probably a woman, a LGBTQ+ person or a person of colour.
This is also why you tend to get more white men talking about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” or defending the American Dream as though it were anything other than a living nightmare. There’s a reason why the most common rags-to-riches stories are accomplished by white guys – it’s because they’re usually the only people who get to access that storyline.
This isn’t about confidence or learning to believe in yourself. This is about people who are historically and socially the victims of poverty and violence feeling that there are other forces controlling their lives. They don’t feel this way because they’re paranoid – they feel this way because it’s true. It is hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you are stopped and searched at every corner for being black. It is hard to seek your fortune if you have an abusive husband and four children. It is hard to feel like you have control in your life if those children have to attend substandard schools because of the area you live in. Women and minority cultures are more likely to believe in non-traditional forms of spiritual practice because they live within a system that works against them, and the occult is one of the few ways they’ve been able to redress the balance.
Of course, this doesn’t meant that all women or all people of colour or all LGBTQ+ people are interested in the occult. For many people, like my colleague Marisa Bate, it’s simply a step too far outside of their logical comfort zone. But, while it’s easy to be cynical about this stuff, it’s difficult to deny the generations of people that get an enormous amount of solace in visiting a psychic, White Witch or tarot reader. And solace is never something we can afford to be cynical about.