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Context matters. History matters.

April 26, 2011 1 comment

As seen on tumblr: more erasure of non-Wiccan Pagans (though at least zie makes room for Recons), and more equating of Paganism with polytheism(s). Sigh. There’s not any more that I can say on this topic that hasn’t been written about–in reams, even!–but suffice it to say, despite what the New Age shelf at the local Buns n Noodles would have you believe, Paganism encompasses a great deal many more paths than Ravenwolfian Neo-Wicca. It certainly encompasses a great deal more than just “polytheism”. But this cuts to the heart of the age old argument over just what exactly “Paganism” means, and that’s not really what I want to talk about in this post. I want to talk about the racial angle to this, and why it frequently bothers me.

Something that always sticks in my craw, and the reason why I was giving that answer the side eye, is the mention of Hindus and practitioners of Shinto in the same breath as Pagans. This is not to say that I don’t believe we have common ground or interests, particularly as minority faiths in a culturally Christian society, or that it’s not worthwhile to explore the commonalities between our beliefs and practices. I’m especially not trying to say that intersectionality is absent as a factor. It’s just…well, (once again) I believe that a heaping helping of white privilege prevents western Pagans from understanding how problematic it is for us to start “claiming” folks from other traditions.

First of all, a legion of various people’s bullshit Grandmother Stories from Alex Sanders down to Ed Hubbard to the contrary, Paganism in the sense(s) that we define and practice it (more correctly, Neo-Paganism according to Bonewits) isn’t even that old. Hinduism is thousands of years old. The practices of indigenous folks and First Nations tribes are similarly ancient. Even in the case of faiths that aren’t as old, such as the family of syncretic Afro-Caribbean faiths, there is still some distinct history. But with all due respect to the Recons among us (who, in fairness, I almost never see saying this shit), Paganism as practiced in the west is a relatively new phenomenon, without that kind of history. To me, this is really no different from the Mormons and their ridiculous baptisms for the dead, except it’s arguably worse because the people in question are still alive and kicking and practicing their faiths. And given the racial and class demographics of the western Pagan community, it’s problematic as hell from where I’m sitting. Sometimes I feel as though this driving need from some white Pagans to claim folks stems from the same place as the need some Wiccans still have to insist theirs is an “ancient” religion passed down from prehistory. That is, some deep-seated insecurity that practicing a newer religion somehow isn’t as legitimate as having an unbroken connection to the past. It’s the eternal search for spiritual street cred. The thing is, as odious as I find appropriation and commodification of cultures, appropriation of peoples is even grosser and gets talked about even less.

Folks, there is very good reason that many (most?) of the people who practice old non-Abrahamic religions don’t flock to the Pagan banner. Just as a simple matter of practicality, it’s not a community or a history they have any real need for–again, many of these faiths have been practiced unbroken, they have their own communities, their own histories, their own languages, traditions and ways of relating with one another. They don’t particularly need to be stuck under a foreign umbrella term defined by folks outside their communities. Hell, this even applies to religious paths that really aren’t that much older than Neo-Paganism (such as black nationalist Kemeticism). Secondly, much like the word “witch” before it, even though many folks have been trying to reclaim it with varying degrees of success, “Pagan” still has really negative connotations for a lot of people. “Pagan” was what a lot of folks were (and still are) called, “Pagan” was a weapon used to justify slavery and genocide, the destruction of art and culture, and on and on. Reclaiming the term is all well and good, but let’s not get it twisted.

Of course, this is where some skeptical white readers might resort to what the Unapologetic Mexican calls the fallacious flip. “Our ancestors were also persecuted and slaughtered by Christendom!” “It wasn’t just brown people oppressed and slaughtered by the church!” Of course, and they were–I’m not trying to minimize or downplay those atrocities at all. What I’m saying is that the brown folks of the world experienced this differently than the white folks of Europe, and this is a point that really needs to be made. For the brown folks of the world, Christianization went hand-in-fist with physical, psychological, economic and political colonization, and in many (most!) of the places where these faiths are practices, the effects are still being felt in the modern day. “Pagan” was (and still occasionally is) used as a weapon against brown folks in a specifically racialized way, and the way we engage with the term has a different history. It’s tied up in a specifically racialized clown orgy of Fail and Wrong with notions like Orientalism, and the White Man’s Burden. What I’m saying is the way it played out with brown folks was different. Racist doctrines such as the so-called “Curse of Ham” and similarly, the “Mark/Curse of Cain” were used to justify all manner of atrocities from the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the conquest of Southeast Asia and other places. Civilizing the unwashed brown hordes was seen as the good white Christian’s duty. It was racialized, y’all. It still is, it just takes the form of things like the Project for a New American Century’s “War on Terra”, wholesale abduction of brown children by white, Christian American evangelicals in the wake of natural disasters in developing countries (ie: Haitian earthquake). Religious imperialism was a huge impetus behind the Stolen Generations in Australia and “Indian Schools” in the US and Canada. Context matters. History matters.

Further still–and this is especially true of the indigenous folks of North America, who have much more experience with Neo-Paganism–sometimes Pagans simply aren’t trusted. With the prevalence of Wiccans appropriating Native imagery, using Lakota chants in their circles and outright stealing plains tribal practices in general (often under the erroneous guise of “Native American Spirituality”, as if there were such a thing), not to mention a long shameful history of white “medicine men” and plastic shamans ripping off and misrepresenting indigenous practices to gullible white folks to make a quick buck, ad nauseum, is it any wonder some Native folks in NA might think twice about allowing themselves to be assimilated into the umbrella of Paganism? It’s one thing for someone to claim a label because the feel it resonates with them or they identify with it; that’s cool. It’s an entirely different story to start slapping it on people just because their practices and beliefs kinda sorta if you squint resemble yours. To me, it goes back to the right to self-determination, which I fundamentally believe is a basic human right. You don’t get to define other people’s identities. And you especially have no fucking business doing it when there’s been a very gross history of people doing that. Many of them had intentions they believed were just as “pure” as yours, by the way (google White Man’s Burden).

Understand that when you try to “claim” folks who have been practicing their religions for hundreds or thousands of years, some of whom are struggling to reclaim or rebuild traditions after centuries of racist, imperialist oppression, it’s problematic as hell. Understand that when you appropriate the suffering and persecution of sub-Saharan African “witches” by linking it to your ridiculous martyr complexes (replete with wailing about “Teh Burning Tiemz!!!11”), often with a rotten side order of White Savior Syndrome*? It’s neo-colonialism, guys. Pure and simple. Context matters. History matters. Before you try to speak on these issues, familiarizing yourself with both is necessary. Legit dialogue and understanding cannot be had, bridges of solidarity and kinship cannot be built when one half of the equation is unwilling or unable to do their homework.

Context matters. History matters.

*Bonus lulz when this comes from people who otherwise bash Afro-Caribbean/syncretic faiths as being “barbaric” and “unevolved” for practicing animal sacrifices. Have often seen comments to this effect within five minutes of each other, from the exact same commenters.