The September 2013 discussion about racism and cultural appropriation in the Pagan communities centers around the festival in Northern California that is happening this weekend, Stella Natura. It is important to keep this conversation front and center even though the festival itself is presumably now over. Some of the issues turned up in this discussion include cultural appropriation, issues of privilege, and identity and belonging. These are unlikely to be fully explored in a handful of blog posts.
Quick summary of the discussion
The web site “who makes the Nazis?” published a blog post, “Anon: Fascists Rally at Stella Natura Festival”. This post surfaced the sponsorship of the festival by the Asatru Folk Assembly. The Heathen Anarchist Collective Circle Ansuz published a four-part series exploring the AFA’s fascist and racist rhetoric. Jason Pitzl-Waters chimed in with a Wild Hunt blog post, “The Asatru Folk Assembly and White Nationalism”.
Morpheus Ravenna wrote a Pagan Square blog post explaining that she wasn’t attending Stella Natura and exploring the issue of racism in Paganism. Her blog post was subsequently removed from Pagan Square, and she explained a follow-up post that she understood this was because she had called the ASA racist.
Race does not exist…
Ravenna reminded us that there is only one human race and that we are all genetically related. In particular European DNA has been so intermingled that separating out “pure” ethnic strains is not scientifically defensible. If that is so, doesn’t every human have equal claim on every human culture?
…so we all have equal rights to every culture, right?
A comment on her blog brought up the subject of cultural appropriation, which Sharon McKnight explored in her blog post “Racism and Cultural Preservation In Modern Paganism”, where she shared the story of how Hindu woman had challenged her right to worship Kali.
This is a good moment to remind us all of the wonderful collection of essays in the anthology Talking About the Elephant, Anthology of Neopagan Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation edited by Lupa. The anthology includes a number of nuanced and thoughtful discussions of cultural appropriation in the Pagan community.
Haven’t we taken enough?
The problem with any universalizing generalization is that it can be turned used as a tool for the continuation and perpetuation of imperialism and colonialism. If I say, “we are all one race” and then say “so every human has the right to participate in every human culture” in an effort to be inclusive, what prevents me from stepping into any culture and appropriating it?
We haven’t begun to talk about privilege much in this conversation. Race doesn’t exist, but racism does. Racism is the tool of imperialism and colonialism, creating underclasses and appropriating physical and cultural resources from those underclasses. Once we acknowledge the power differential the issue of cultural appropriation becomes much more comprehensible. As a “white” American I directly benefit from the racism of the present and the racism of the past which built wealth for my immediate ancestors on the backs of dispossessed native peoples and of servants and slaves. If I step into an indigenous culture whose lands my people have taken, and begin to imitate their folkways without invitation, I am exercising power and privilege over those people.
Any analysis of cultural appropriation which does not include an acknowledgment of privilege and power risks perpetuating colonialism. What is most egregious about white nationalist rhetoric is the failure to acknowledge privilege and the casting of “white” peoples in the role of victim. There have been ways in which I have been placed in an underclass, but it has never been because of my membership in the white world.
What do I have a right to?
First, if there is an indigenous culture that has managed to remain intact despite the best efforts of the imperialist – colonialist – industrial complex, it is my obligation to respect it, and to assist those people in the preservation of their lives and culture. Second, it is my obligation to recognize racism and its ongoing corrosive effects and to challenge it in my communities and the world.
So, if I reject the idea that the only gods I am entitled to worship are the gods of my immediate ethnic ancestors, and I wish to avoid cultural appropriation, what can I do?
Sharon Knight and John Beckett (and I am sure others) which for the idea of tribalism to explain why they have a sense of belonging in some places and with some people and not others. I don’t think I understand enough about what they mean to be able to comment on it, but I worry that it is possible to use “tribal” as a euphemism for ethnicity.
Personally, I wasn’t raised in a tribe and I don’t live in one. I live next to a tribe, and I know what that looks like, and I know that that’s not my life. I’ve participated in Pagan efforts to create tribes, but they haven’t created anything like what my neighbors have.
I was raised in a nuclear family with connections to other blood relatives who engaged in a few ethnic practices. However, my family assimilated into melting pot culture. Culturally, I am an American, and a white American. I was raised Catholic and converted to Paganism. So the ideas of tribe and religion based ethnic heritage strike me as metaphors, not part of my lived experience, and dangerously easy to use to justify white privilege.
Do we have permission?
I’ve thought a lot about Sharon Knight’s experience of being told by a Hindu that she could not worship Kali. I believe and it is my experience that the gods call who they will. Who has the right to tell me what gods I can and cannot worship?
There’s a concept among the native peoples where I live of ownership of ritual. I attend events where native songs are sung. The singers are very clear which songs we could learn if we could “catch” them, and which we (anyone not the singer) are not welcome to reproduce. Obviously if I were to learn a song I was forbidden to learn, that would be an act of cultural appropriation. I would also be appropriating culture if I were to present myself to the world as being a member of this tribe, or in some way practicing the indigenous religion. But I am specifically invited to learn the catch – it- if – you – can song. I have permission.
Have we been introduced?
My entire coven turned up at a local Buddhist temple for a White Tara empowerment. The saffron-robed monks looked at the row of us dressed all in black, blinked, said “She calls who she calls,” took our money and give us the empowerment. I have an animated image of White Tara which I pray to everyday with the mantra that they taught me.
I am a ko member of Tsubaki Grand Shrine of North America, practicing jinja Shinto. I have a shrine in my house which contains ofuda of the three main kami enshrined there. I make offerings at the shrine using the ko member book. In fact, Rev. Koichi Barrish reached out to me when I joined and specifically invited the Pagan community to participate at the shrine.
Recently I attended a Ganesh puja conducted by a Nath initiate. I have an image of Ganesh in my house to which I make offerings and chant his mantra, similarly taught to me by a Nath initiate. I don’t say I myself am a Nath, I just do the worship.
As a Witch in my first initiation I was taken to each of the four quarters of the circle and introduced there to the God and Goddess. Although there are other Witches who refuse to stand in circle with me because I didn’t have their exact initiation, I have declined to be initiated in any other line of Witchcraft, on the grounds that I have already been introduced to the gods.
While I am still working out the issue of what I can and can’t do, and I am in fact eclectic, I notice that I never question whether it is appropriate for me to engage in a tradition in which I have been trained and/or initiated, so that is at least a good start.
These discussions and the meditations they have sparked have led me to articulate some of my own guidelines.
- My ethnic heritage does not limit or determine what gods I can worship or what religion I can practice.
- If a culture is intact, respect it, learn it if invited, leave it alone if not. Don’t steal.
- If I am called to the worship of a god, try to get an introduction.
- If I write a ritual, I get to perform it. However it should be as original as possible or within the tradition in which I am initiated or in which I have permission to work. (See 2 above).
Where do we go from here?
This is not the time to say “We’ve done that, time to move on.” This is just the beginning of the conversation. Here are some ideas I’m going to be exploring:
- our obligation to confront racism and the colonial legacy
- the connection between Neo-Pagan movements and nationalist, fascist, and racist political groups in Europe and America
- racism, imperialism, colonialism and other forms of prejudice in Western scholastic work and how drawing from those works affects our reconstructions of Pagan religion.
I’m glad to see that we have begun to have this discussion. I hope we don’t shy away from the difficult places it might take us, but continue to be honest, gentle with each other, and sincere in our desire to build inclusive community.
Anon: Fascists Rally at Stella Natura Festival
Circle Ansuz, A Heathen Anarchist Collective
Jason Pitzl-Waters, The Asatru Folk Assembly and White Nationalism
Morpheus Ravenna, Whose Ancestors
Ryan Smith, Racism, Heathenry, and Frith
John Beckett, Tribalism: The Good, The Bad, and The Future
Sharon Knight, Racism and Cultural Preservation in Modern Paganism
Lupa, ed., Talking About the Elephant, Anthology of Neopagan Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation