I found out about a book project that is being undertaken to discuss Racism in the Pagan community. Now, I’ve been pretty quite lately, and very likely to go silent again for a bit. Still, I felt like popping up for a bit and might even send in a submission to the book.
It got me thinking, along with some stuff I’ve been hearing about a movie called “12 Years a Slave.” I haven’t seen the movie yet, and honestly I’m not likely too unless they show it on tv at some point. Which, considering it apparently is even more brutal and exploitative than “The Passion of the Christ” was…isn’t very likely
Now, as a “white” person there’s people out there who argue that I shouldn’t have a part in the discussion about race. Others would argue that my voice, while it can be heard, doesn’t have the weight of someone of “color.” Which, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me since I was taught that “White” was as much a color as the others, and I consider myself ethnically Scandinavian, not “White.” So I consider my voice to be as important in this issue as anyone’s. Especially since I am often lumped into a category of people and held to the same levels of responsibility, despite my people having had nothing to do at all with the practice.
What the book project: “Bringing Race to the Table: An Exploration of Racism in the Pagan Community”, and the movie to society at large, are doing is pushing racism to the forefront of society once again. Now, a number of people consider this a good thing. They feel that the issue hasn’t been “successfully” resolved to their tastes. So they drag it out, to rehash the situation and see “where it can be improved.” The movie appears to do this by showing a free man captured and turned into a slave and the brutality he suffers over his twelve years of slavery. The book seeks to do this by asking questions such as “how to recognize racism,” ‘How to recognize privilege,” “how pagan symbolism reinforces racism,” and “is preserving lineages/heritage based paganism racist?”
Now, Pagans regardless of color know how it feels to be discriminated against. We all know what it feels like to be the minority. We all know the feeling of being hated because of who we are.
Which brings me to ask two questions. One, why is it that Pagans of Color (as it seems they like to differentiate themselves from the larger Pagan community) think that a minority group would discriminate against another minority group that considers them a part of the larger group with no differentiation? Two, why do Pagans of Color feel the need to further discriminate against an already overly discriminated group that they claim to be a part of by insisting that “White” pagans are racist, that certain traditions are racist, etc?
With my own personal experience as a Heathen is this. While most people haven’t given too much of a crap about my religion in a secular context, I go anywhere with a religious context outside of the Pagan or Heathen communities, I can expect some crap to go down. While most people today aren’t as learned in their history, Heathens tend to get a bit different treatment than most pagans when they run into larger society. Pagans and Witches get the “OMG, you’re evil!!!” treatment. Those that know about the Vikings and our tendency to…burn rape and pillage anything Christian…well, that’s normally considered something beyond the mere casting of spells and “evil sacrifices.” The thing that comes up more often than that though, is that Heathens tend to automatically get denounced as Racists, regardless of which group you belong to or personal practice. Depending on who you ask there’s probably between 3-6 “Major” Heathen groups such as the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA), the Odinic Rite, the Troth, etc. And, depending on who you ask, anywhere between 2-5 of them are “RACIST!” The numbers follow accordingly as you get down to the smaller groups, again, depending on who you ask. In fact, it is not uncommon to find on most heathen websites and groups a disclaimer that they do not support racism. Heathens are, as a rule both in society at large and in the Pagan community, guilty before proven innocent in terms of racism.
This links back up to the question in the book project about “is preserving lineages/heritage based paganism racist?” Now, if one looks at that, one thinks it could refer to “initiatory” religions in Paganism to start with. But in every initiatory Pagan path I’ve come across, there’s nothing that could be considered discriminatory, at least not based on “race.” Gender, certainly, as the whole Dianic situation proved over the last couple of years. So it’s not those, but it does lean towards the “heritage” based ones quite well, specifically the Reconstruction Religions like Heathenism, Hellenisimos, etc, which base their religion on the ethnic practices of specific peoples like the Norse/Germanic, Greek, Romans, Celts, etc. These by their nature glorify the ancient cultures and ways of people considered to be “White” and as such are often seen as racist because of that glorification, or because of the fact that “Pagans of Color” stand out, have to assimilate into the “white” culture, and/or are sometimes asked “Why are you here?” So the question ends up being “Are things that glorify “white” ethnic heritages racist because they don’t submit/defer/acknowledge something in regards to the situation of “Pagans of color” and their situation.
Is it any wonder that there are stories out there of “Pagans of Color” receiving cold or hostile reactions from some paths (especially Heathen ones), when they can face being screamed at, and possibly facing criminal charges, when a “Pagan of Color” feels insulted? The book project asks “how racism effects the community?” Certainly one way is that it can destroy the open and accepting nature of Pagan communities.
But what about Pagans of Color, how does all this effect them. While I can only speak from really an “ethnically Scandinavian” point I can make some educated guesses. One, the cycle breeds distrust and fear. “How can you spot racism in the community” teaches everyone to see things in terms of race and racism. This teaches Pagans of Color to “look for racism” and then the general idea is to “confront the racism” so that “racism can be eliminated.” But this can cause things that aren’t racist to be viewed as racist, leading to hostility.
A story I heard. A black woman, self professed Heathen, goes to a Blot. She is a devote of Loki (The Norse God of Trickery, who in the Heathen community does not have the fan base that the Marvel Loki does) and loudly proclaims how great Loki is. The gathered Heathens react…poorly. They become sullen and dark, not friendly and open as is the want of a people who treat Hospitality as a sacred rite. In the end, the black woman leaves and loudly proclaims everyone there to have been racist.
Now, were those Heathens there racist? Or was it that she saw their reaction to her worship of Loki, who is largely considered one of the greatest villains in Norse religion due to his act of Kinslaying, and assumed that it was about her rather than the God she worshiped? Someone with a mind not viewing the situation in racism could see that she’d basically done the equivalent of a Jewish Convert walking into a Purim ritual filled with Orthodox Jews and yelling “Go Haman!”* Which would basically be the same effect as “Heil Hitler!”
Certainly, a number of commentators on the post I read that story in long ago thought that the Heathens were racist. Yet most of them were not Heathens, so didn’t have the cultural knowledge needed to understand the situation. So in a way, they made a “Racist” judgment (believing that a group of “white” heathens were racist based on skin tone) about an act being racist. This is the danger of racial thinking and trying to “find racism” even if it is in order to “stop racism.”
This can lead to Pagans of Color creating hostile situations, by looking for hostile situations, and reacting with hostility to end the hostile situation. That’s a lot of hostility. “If you look for war, you will find it,” as the old saying goes. It can also lead to people being afraid to express their Paganism or automatically starting out by expressing their Paganism with hostility, and that just breeds greater chances for things to be labeled as “racism.” After all, if every time a “White” coven has a Pagan of Color join them, and that POC starts “Attacking racism” for how long with that coven remain in a hostile environment? And after the coven breaks up, how will those members react when they join new covens and a different PoC comes around, who might or might not react as the previous one did? Distrust and fear will become the words of the day, as a persecuted minority learns to fear that it shall be further persecuted by those claiming to be “like them.” Which in turn would create more “racism” for those PoC eager to “destroy racism” to go after.
A vicious cycle.
One major thing, at least in my opinion, that makes little sense to me is “How to recognize privilege,” especially in the context of the Pagan community. When it comes to religious persecution, race has virtually no bearing, or possibly reverse bearing. A White preacher isn’t going to be anymore vicious to a Voodoo priestess just because she’s black, though a Black preacher certainly would be more vicious to a White Heathen. So it’s not like the discrimination is easier on “white” pagans than it is on “Pagans of Color.” In terms of economic priviledge, 99% of Pagans come from poorer economic backgrounds, regardless of color, so it’s not like “white” pagans are better off financially. No, the only real difference seems to be based on skin color and the assumption that “whites” have had it better. Which, when you get down to it…seems kind of racist and self hating, especually since on a person by person basis, there is little evidence that a “white” pagan has had a better life than a “pagan of color.”
In a bit of what I would call irony, I’d actually say that Pagans of Color are the more privileged in a religious sense, than “white” Pagans. The closest gap between the present and the practice of European Pagan religions is about 500 years, and that’s the Slavic religions (though a few isolated strains have remained into the last Hundred years), with the next closest being the Norse at 1000 years, and 1500 for the Greeks, Romans, and Celts. Yet for most Pagans of color, a lot of their Pagan religious traditions are still alive and active, if not the primary religions of their “ethnically” home nations. Certainly, Native Americans and African Americans did have their native religions suppressed, this suppression was no more brutal than those faced by all the European Ethnic peoples as their religions were suppressed under Christianity. So a case could be made that PoC have the “privileged” of better preserved religious rites.
But no, let us be honest here. Privilege is a word, just a word, especially in the Context of Paganism. We’re all a discriminated minority at this point. Privilege in a racial context has been used to deny a voice. “You should check your Privilege, and let those who are discriminated against speak!” is the way it works. Recognition that no side in this argument has privilege is the key to moving past this foolish idea. This is important for everyone, because it allows “white” pagans to hold to their right to be heard and practice their faith free of persecution and to Pagans of Color because like raicsm, if they go around looking for someone to have “privilege” they are going to find it. Even if that “privilege” is held by a hunchbacked, one eyed dwarf with MS that lives in a box behind WalMart…simply based on the color of that dwarf’s skin.
So what about the question of “how Pagan symbols reenforce racism” that the book also wants talked about. On this one, I must admit that for starters I am completely lost. What symbols out there could possibly contribute to racism? If you can think of any, my readers, I am more than happy to hear them.
No…that can’t be right…
Oh wait…it’s racism.
Let me guess. Swastika. Thor’s Hammer, Mjolnir. Symbols like that. Symbols used by Pagan religions often derided as “Racist” simply because someone (Usually a Christian) used the symbol. So their symbols become racist, and the use of these symbols becomes racism.
Now we’re back to persecuting a minority because of the symbols they use. Symbols with histories dating thousands of years to people with no part of our Modern Racism. Symbols that have already been persecuted and maligned. Now to be further maligned because someone is insulted by their use. Because someone feels that someone has it better. Because someone has to take all the bad things in their life and blame it on someone else, to go after someone else and make them feel pain and try and take something precious from them. Because they think that will make their lives feel better.
To wrap this up I’m going to go back and point something out. The movie, “12 Years a Slave” that I mentioned earlier, with all its brutality and it’s pointing out how bad slavery was, there’s a simple truth about that movie. If you changed the setting from plantations to a ship, and renamed it “12 Years a Shanghai” you’d find the same levels of brutality and inhumanity, and it would be the same for any person regardless of race. White, Asian, African, Arab, etc. Because the story would be the same, the main character in “Slave” would be in the same situation as any shanghaied sailor. But people want to say it is about race, because it involves white people and black people. Rather than just…
People like myself and my fellow Pagans. Because Pagans are made of up people who aren’t racist. Pagans know what it means to be a minority. Pagans know not to pick on others, and in the case of Heathens, not to pick on others until we get picked on. My recommendation for looking at Racism in Paganism to Pagans of Color?
Look at why you see racism everywhere, look at why you feel the need to make other Pagans who accept you and support your faith, change theirs. Don’t be like those you hate, picking on those weaker than you, simply to make yourselves feel bigger.
*For those unfamiliar with it, Purim celebrates a time when the Jews were delivered from the machinations of a Persian minister that wanted to basically pull a Holocaust on the Jews, thanks in part to Esther (a Jewish girl) marrying the Persian Emperor and changing his mind through his love for her, which ended in Haman’s death