As I sit here NOT heading up to the Stella Natura festival this weekend, it seems a good time to explore my own thoughts about racism, and the prominent place it still apparently holds in the ancestral traditions I value.
If you are involved in the Neo-Pagan movement you likely have seen this post, by Morpheus Ravenna, “Whose Ancestors”?
I won’t rehash the entire conversation, you can follow the dialog on Morpheus’ blog, but one thing that gave me pause was the issue of cultural appropriation.
A quick summary of my thought process is represented well in one of the comments:
2) The notion that we have access to other religious traditions because of common human heritage is one that is used to justify cultural appropriation. I don’t think that’s what you were suggesting or implying, but it’s important to consider. We don’t think twice about the Lakota refusing to share their religion with an outsider. Should the Asatru have different expectations? – Chirous
Yes, I thought. This sums up my own hesitations nicely.
I have been on the other side of the cultural appropriation issue, wherein an accusation that I was appropriating another’s culture led me to believe that I should stick with my “own” Gods. A woman in an online forum, who claimed Hindu lineage, stated that I couldn’t possibly know the Goddess Kali, ignorant white person that I was. This person had never met me in person and made this judgement knowing nothing about my practices. She was extremely dismissive and it was quite hurtful.
My response was that the Gods call who they call, and she should take it up with Kali. But still. It affected me deeply. I spoke of the incident to another friend, and his response was, why don’t I work with the Celtic equivalent of Kali. (Because I don’t see the Gods as interchangeable, that’s why).
Eventually my work with Kali dropped off. I came to believe that it was more appropriate to work with the Gods of my own ethnic heritage. That perhaps this woman was right, how could I ever think I could really know Kali. It is only recently that I have been realizing what a loss this has been.
So I had to wade through some emotions around this. Since this incident, I have been holding to a “culture and religion evolve out of the folk-soul of a people” worldview. Which is scarily similar to what the AFA says on their website. Now, of course, the folk-soul of a people is not necessarily genetic. But still. I had to think about this. If I was so willing to accept that I couldn’t possibly truly understand the traditions of another’s culture, can I so quickly say that another could understand the traditions of mine?
Another thing that was bothering me is the “Universalist” piece. Some folks are very concerned that our “We are all One” stance is going to lead us to a homogenized monoculture. This is a fair argument, and one that concerns me as well.
Thankfully, Wayland Skallagrimmson addresses this very skillfully here:
In a nutshell he speaks of three basic categories of Heathen: the Folkish, who take the stance that only those of Norse or Germanic descent can practice Asatru; Universalists, who posit that anyone who has an affinity with Norse deities can practice Asatru, and Tribalists, who take a middle road:
“ The members of the middle faction of modern Asatru are called Tribalists, and shun the errors of either extreme. The racism of Folkish practice is avoided as well as the “anything goes” motto of the Universalists. The answer the Tribalists have to the question of “Who can practice Asatru?” is: “Anyone who makes a sufficient effort to understand and adopt the culture of the ancient heathens.” Wayland Skallagrimmson
This last sentence brought it home for me.
I don’t want an “anything goes” spirituality. I want traditions with lineage, insofar as that is possible. I want traditions that carry a strong identity and depth of meaning beyond my own imaginings.
The types of lineage I value are not based on bloodlines, but on culture.
So here’s what it comes down to for me:
I take the tribalist stance – as far as I am concerned, the Gods call their own based on any number of factors, which we may or may not understand. I do not believe culture is defined by race, but by shared experience. We have been “going native” in one another’s cultures for years, and it often leads to beautiful collaborations. With respect for one another, I think we can continue to share traditions in a way that does not feel appropriative.
Amy Hale’s distinction between appropriating and borrowing, (also from Morpheus’ blog) is a useful guideline:
There is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural borrowing. Appropriation occurs in the context of domination and exploitation. Borrowing happens all the time and mostly flies under the radar – Amy Hale
Limiting the type of culture we can participate in based on race, i.e. white people should play “European” music and black people play the blues (I actually read this online recently) is ridiculous, and an incredibly stagnant way to live.
Preserving cultural diversity is more effectively accomplished by preserving the culture itself. Genetics are irrelevant. Regarding monoculture, we have far more to fear from shopping malls and fast food chains than we do from sharing our cultural identity with one another.
Also – cultures change. It is inevitable. Whatever our ancestors were doing a thousand years ago, we can be sure that much of it is lost or irrelevant. We live in a global society now. The tribes of yesterday are not the tribes of today. They can’t be. Time marches on and things change. We needn’t fear this. Micro-cultures will continue to crop up. The best way to preserve this diversity is to keep doing interesting things together in our local communities. Turn off the TV, get away from the strip malls, and create together.
I will speak out and defend against racism when I hear it happening. I will add my voice to those who say we do not accept racism in our Pagan traditions.
Also – I am uncomfortable with some aspects of the dialog around racism. There are a lot of snarky blanket statements about white people floating around the internet. A lot of anger is hurled about, and while I understand it, I also find it alienating. I am not the enemy, but a lot of the conversations make me feel as though I am.
I feel that on one hand I am told that white guilt doesn’t help and on the other hand I am expected to atone for my white privilege. I have read blog comments that say white people need to sit down and shut up. I want to partake in conversations where I am welcome to speak.
I wish we didn’t speak in terms of “White people” and “Everyone else”. It pits us against one another. We are all people of color. I am peach. I know we aren’t at that point in the conversation yet, but I hope we get there.
I understand why this anger exists and am willing to sit with my discomfort in order to participate in the dialog and hopefully be part of a solution.
I acknowledge that there are also those who speak about these issues from a powerful and well-thought-out place that does not feel alienating. (Crystal Blanton, I’m thinking of you).
Also – the “We Are All One” thing is getting a bad rap. It was never meant to be some hippy-dippy platitude, although it is quite often over-simplified to come across that way. It almost certainly comes from Buddhism and is meant to point to the interconnectedness of all life. It was never meant to encourage monoculture, monotheism, or “anything goes” New-Agism, but only to point to a common ground of being, a pregnant void of pure potential before the manifestation of any form. From this an endless cornucopia of diversity manifests.
This seems a good stopping place for now, as this post is already plenty long. Suffice to say these thoughts will surely morph over time, but I did want to give an honest weigh-in of where I am currently at with this, since it lies at the core of my community. Some of it is difficult to talk about, which is why I have been silent up till now, but better to speak of these things and work through them than stay silent. I hope I can contribute some value to this conversation over time.