“But I’m not racist”

Every time I see a friend posting about how they won’t put up with bigotry on their Facebook feed, I see comments from people going “but what about anti-white comments?” or “but what about anti-Christian comments?” or “why don’t I get to have an opinion as a straight white cisgender man?” or “Black people can be racist too”, or “not all men…” or “not all white people…”

This post is aimed at those people. I have no idea if any of them will read it, but I have to try.

Yes, humans are a prejudiced lot. Black people, LGBT people, Pagans, women, can all be prejudiced against people who are not in our specific identity groups.

But as a woman, I have to think about whether I can walk down a dark alley at night without getting assaulted. I also have to pick my male sexual partners carefully to make sure I have not picked one who will be violent towards me. I have to be careful what I post online so as to avoid receiving rape and death threats from hateful trolls. If you are male, you don’t need to worry about those things anywhere near as much as I do. Yes, I know men get raped and assaulted as well, but it is nowhere near as common as the rape and assault of women by men. Yes, I know that not all men are rapists, but nevertheless I have to consider the possibility that the next one I meet might be, in order to stay safe.

LGBTQ people have to make similar calculations about where we go, who we socialise with, and what we post online. I am a bisexual genderqueer woman married to a man, so I ‘pass’ as straight, but for those who are visibly LGBTQ, this is a real worry. Straight people can kiss and hold hands in public; LGBTQ people have to look around to check if there’s anyone nearby who might violently attack them for kissing or holding hands. Yes, we know that not all straight people are going to attack LGBTQ people, but we have to factor in the possibility in order to stay safe.

Black, indigenous, and other people of colour also have to make these calculations around white people. Will that white person attack them? Will the other white people around them fail to defend them in the event of an attack? They also know that not all white people are violent racist thugs, or people who will stand by while racist thugs attack them — but they literally don’t know which white people are going to help, who will attack them, and who will turn a blind eye. As to people equating the Black Panthers with the KKK — the Black Panthers were a resistance group fighting back against police violence; the KKK is a white supremacist hate group responsible for lynchings and systematic brutality against Black people. One of these things is not like the other.

Disabled people get beaten up for being disabled, denied benefits by the government because they were deemed ‘fit for work’ by a completely Kafkaesque and inappropriate test. They get ignored and marginalised by able-bodied people. How do they know whether or not the next person they meet is going to do the same?

Pagans, Muslims, Jews, and atheists have frequently experienced Christians assuming that we are all devil-worshippers, terrorists, part of an international banking conspiracy, or utterly immoral; so if we seem ‘prejudiced’ against Christians, it is because we have frequently been excluded from employment, discriminated against, and worse because of our religion. We know that not all Christians endorse these views, but for decades, the loudest voices among Christians have been those promoting bigotry and hate — sadly supported by the media only giving platforms to Christians with bigoted and hateful views. So, if you don’t support bigotry against Muslims, Jews, Pagans, atheists, LGBT people, and so on: then those attacks are not aimed at you. If you think that holding bigoted views is ‘religious freedom’, then you are part of the problem.

So if Black people, LGBTQ people, people of other belief systems, or women seem ‘prejudiced’ against you — ask yourself why that might be. If their entire prior experience is of people either attacking them, or minimising and ignoring an attack on them, why should you be the exception?

The invisible knapsack of privilege [CC0 Public Domain]

The invisible knapsack of privilege
[CC0 Public Domain – pexels.com]

It’s not that your opinion is automatically invalid if you are white and/or straight and/or cisgender and/or male: but if you are saying “calm down” to minority groups who are scared rigid by the election of an openly white supremacist anti-LGBT misogynist who has the endorsement of the KKK, then you are dismissing their experiences of being attacked by white supremacists, anti-LGBT bigots, and misogynists — and that’s why your opinion is being discounted, and why your straight white cis male status is mentioned, because that explains why you haven’t had the same experience.

Also, since when has being on the receiving end of negative comments about being straight and/or white and/or male and/or cisgender been anything like the experience of being afraid to walk down the street or use public transport whilst visibly Muslim, Black, Latina/o/x, disabled, female, LGBT, etc because of the likelihood that you might be violently attacked, either by police or fellow-citizens? Since when has having your opinion dismissed because you lack experience of oppression been anything like being denied decent housing, jobs, or access to justice or clean water? There is no comparison between being told that you don’t know because you haven’t experienced something, and being told that the discrimination or violence that you actually experienced wasn’t really racism or homophobia or misogyny. There is no comparison between systemic and violent oppression and your feelings being hurt because someone called you out on your privilege.

Sure, not everyone who voted for Trump or for Brexit was a white supremacist, or a homophobe, or a misogynist, or anti-disabled. But they were people who ignored the blatant misogynist, homophobic, anti-disabled, and racist rhetoric of the campaigns, and voted for Trump or Brexit anyway. If you did that, it implies that you don’t care enough about the concerns of minority groups who will be victimised by the far-right policies of Trump or the Tories and by the violent attacks by thugs who feel vindicated in their racism, homophobia, misogyny, or anti-disabled attitudes. If you don’t care about the effects of far-right policies and attitudes and violence on minority groups, then that in itself is a species of bigotry. Sure, you wouldn’t go out and beat up members of minority groups — but you didn’t care enough not to vote in a way that legitimised hateful policies and hate-filled rhetoric.

Why Black Lives Matter (Too) – A Book Review #BlackLivesMatter

The Black Lives Matter movement arose in response to the violent deaths of three unarmed Black men: teenager Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Suddenly, it seemed, the media silence around such deaths at the hands of police or other authorities had broken. The names of unarmed Black adults, teens, and children assaulted or killed by police came blazing across our news feeds, seemingly a new name every week.

For many of us in the Pagan movement who do justice work, it felt like scales had fallen from our eyes. We may have been aware that our society is racist, that Black people are still suffering from the aftermath of American slavery. But we were living under the illusion that since the gains of the Civil Rights era, we were still slowly moving toward true equality.

The well-publicized deaths in 2013 and 2014 showed how wrong we were. In the US, unarmed Black children and adults can be killed by police (or, in the case of Trayvon Martin, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman) with no repercussions—and such assaults happen frequently. This is not a society moving toward equality for Black people. Rather, it’s a society whose systemic racism has simply become more subtle and well-disguised. “Black Lives Matter” is a powerful slogan because in so many arenas, our society still treats Black lives as though they do NOT matter.

why-black-lives-matter-too-revolutionary-call-to-action-by-mary-canty-merrill-phdThe anthology Why Black Lives Matter (Too) emerged from Voices for Equality, a Facebook group established by Mary Canty Merrill in August 2015. Merrill describes the group as “a dialogue-into-action community against social injustice and inequality.” After Voices for Equality agreed that the proceeds of the book should support challenging the effects of racism in the justice system, they chose The Sentencing Project as the beneficiary. To quote from its website:

Founded in 1986, The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

Our work includes the publication of groundbreaking research, aggressive media campaigns, and strategic advocacy for policy reform. As a result of The Sentencing Project’s research, publications, and advocacy, many people know that this country is the world’s leader in incarceration; that racial disparities pervade the criminal justice system; that nearly six million Americans can’t vote because of felony convictions; and that thousands of women and children have lost food stamps and cash assistance as the result of convictions for drug offenses.

The opportunity to support The Sentencing Project is, by itself, a good reason to pick up a copy of the anthology. However, the anthology has a broader mission than either The Sentencing Project or the Black Lives Matter movement as it was originally conceived. Black Lives Matter (Too) critiques racial injustice in the United States in a huge variety of contexts, and it does so with equal servings of research and personal narrative.

As a writer and editor, I can tell you that anthologies are never of completely consistent quality. Some pieces will always be stronger than others, and this is true of Black Lives Matter (Too). A good anthology, however, should have “something for everyone”—a variety of pieces so that almost any reader should be able to find something to connect with—and the anthology does fulfill that mission.

For example, there are a number of strong pieces from white activists who tell personal stories of discovering and confronting both their own racism and our society’s. Patheos Pagan’s own Cat Chapin-Bishop, for example, has an engaging essay that does this admirably. I also particularly recommend the piece by Rebecca Wiggins, which lays out the issue of systemic racism briefly and clearly and then provides a list of concrete strategies for response. Either would make an excellent introductory essay for a person or group just beginning to learn about racial injustice. Frustratingly, however, the anthology is organized alphabetically by author’s last name, not topically or by placing complementary essays in groups. This arrangement results in the middle of the book being dominated by essays by white activists, most of whom seem to be responding to the same writing prompt, “Why Black Lives Matter to Me.”

If the reader presses on through the repetition, however, some of the strongest essays are buried near the back. I was particularly struck by Rhonda Lee Richoux’s piece, which addresses how one can be a person of color (in her case, Filipino) and still be thoroughly indoctrinated in racism. This essay is immediately followed by my favorite in the collection, a piece from Native activist Bee Schrull that celebrates the accomplishments of Black scientists, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs while mourning the creative Black lives that have been lost to injustice. Some of the strongest Black writers are also included near the back of the volume: a piece by Muthu (Jordan) Weerasinghe protesting the inattention that Black Lives Matter has given to Black women and gender-nonconforming Black people, and an essay by Anthony M. Wiley about being Black and in a position of authority in the military.

These and many of the other pieces in the book would make excellent reading for a discussion group that wants to educate itself about systemic racism. I am disappointed, however, to say that I cannot recommend assigning the book as a whole to a “newbie” group. Sadly, Black Lives Matter (Too) suffers from poor editing. In addition to the ineffective system of organizing the essays, the anthology is riddled with grammatical errors that can interfere with comprehension. In some essays, sentences were so vague, unclear, or just plain muddled that they left me scratching my head. (Take, for example, this uncited statistic from p. 11 of the introduction: “A 2015 Huffington Post survey shows that three out of four white Americans believe that racism is a ‘somewhat serious’ national problem, compared to nine out of ten Blacks—that’s 68 percent of Black respondents, compared to 31 percent of whites.”) Other problems were content-based; one essay, in apparent innocence of Nazi-era anti-Semitic propaganda, uses the stereotypical image of the “crafty” Jew to criticize a former business partner.

The weak editing is particularly problematic in the first twenty-five pages of the book, which are the key parts for connecting with and drawing in an audience. Unfortunately, it is not clear who the intended audience is. Mary Canty Merrill, who drew the material together and wrote the introduction and conclusion, seems to address a sympathetic white audience on the back of the book, where she asks readers to “confront your own white privilege and fragility as you examine racial justice and equality in a revolutionary way.” The book’s prologue by Mirthell Bazemore, however, is written for a Black audience, whom Bazemore chastises for language and dress that she doesn’t see as liberatory (xx).

This prologue is followed by Merrill’s long framing introduction, which gives historical and sociological background for systemic racism. Some parts of this introduction are excellent, giving talking points and facts about topics such as internalized racism, discrimination in health care and employment, and inequality in the justice system. Merrill, whose PhD is in a psychological field and who works as an organizational psychologist, is particularly strong on the topic of mental health, and she provides careful, clear definitions of jargon such as “privilege” and “microaggressions.” Her conclusion for the book is also effective, outlining concrete strategies for readers to address racial injustice. Yet other sections of the introduction—particularly the opening pages—are much less focused, with abrupt changes in tone, facts stated without citation, and ad hominem attacks on other researchers.

These problems are especially frustrating because they distract from what is essentially a strong argument. Why Black Lives Matter (Too) could have easily been crafted into an effective introductory text for white readers who are curious about but perhaps still skeptical of the racial justice movement, and based on the back cover blurb, this seems to have been Merrill’s intent. Because the writing is not properly organized and edited for this audience, however, it preaches best to the already-converted.

Despite these issues, I can still recommend this book for educators and activists who are working with people who know little about or do not yet support the movement. Merrill’s introduction provides all the material an educator needs to give an effective introductory lecture. Educators can then pick and choose readings from the collection of essays for a combination that will draw in and then effectively challenge their chosen audience. Merrill’s conclusion, which outlines concrete strategies for activism, can be assigned whole cloth to guide future action. With this strategy, Why Black Lives Matter (Too) should be a powerful resource for anti-racism educators.

 

A Tale of Two Britains

Others have written more eloquently than I about the political, social, and economic implications of all this. Laurie Penny, George Monbiot, Gary Younge, and others have all written about the social and economic tensions that led up to this, and the ways in which white privilege and colonialist nostalgia fed into the rhetoric around the vote (if you didn’t notice that the Leave campaign was racist, check your white privilege; if you did notice, but voted Leave anyway, check your white privilege). I am so angry and distraught about the way that rampant racism is spreading its vile poison. How did Great Britain become Little England?

It ought to be obvious to anyone that Tory-imposed austerity is responsible for the economic misery that has cut services and reduced jobs and rendered many areas  full of despair. Certainly, the brutal realities of capitalists accumulating wealth at everybody else’s expense also plays into this, causing division between the people they prey upon. Instead, people blame immigration and the EU.

So we have been led to the  brink by a group of irresponsible and out-of-touch upper class twits, as The New Yorker immediately grasped, with their “Silly Walk Off A Cliff” cover art.. And although the 17 million who voted to leave the EU didn’t all vote that way on the basis of anti-immigration, the racists who are currently committing vile acts of hate up and down the land have felt empowered to do so because they are assuming that the rest of the Leave voters agreed with them.

There are at least two Britains, maybe more.

My Britain is diverse and inclusive; my heritage is William Blake, William Cobbett, E M Forster, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Edward Carpenter, the mass trespass of Kinder Scout, the Cable Street fight against the fascists, the Suffragettes, the Dissenters, the poets, the trades unions, the solidarity of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, and the miners who showed up to support LGBT people in the struggle for our rights; the Britain that welcomed Rammohun Roy and Mohandas Gandhi, the Britain that boycotted the products of slavery, a diverse Britain that has always been there, as Deasy Bamford says, from Libyans and Ethiopians on Hadrian’s Wall under the Romans, to Black people in 16th century London, the Jews returning to England in 1650, and always being welcome in Scotland, to the working men’s clubs that welcomed Black jazz and blues musicians during the 1930s: a history of radicalism, solidarity, inclusion, and working together. This is a Britain which recognises the distinctness of the Scots, the Welsh, the English, and the Irish.  And it has wonderful food, enriched by many different cuisines from around the world. This Britain is part of Europe and part of the wider world.

Then there’s another Britain: it’s a grim place, where diversity of all kinds is shunned, where the music is all nationalist, where the kinds of people who are held up as heroes are Horatio Nelson (a slaughterer of revolutionaries) and the Duke of Wellington (a rampant xenophobe). This is the Britain of stiff upper lip, compulsory heterosexuality, football hooliganism, dreams of wall-to-wall whiteness, and eating stodgy and dull food. This is the Britain that put its wellington boot on the face of half the world, and then complained when the people who had been subjugated by the Empire wanted to come to Britain. The Britain that came to the fore in the film V for Vendetta.

Both Britains exist, and have existed side-by-side for centuries – now and again, one or the other has the upper hand. For a few decades, inclusive, vibrant, multicultural Britain has had the upper hand. We emerged from the ghastly uniformity of the 1950s, into the explosion of colour that was the 1960s. The 1970s were pretty grim (especially the overt homophobia, the vile racism, the dreadful food and the tasteless wallpaper), and the 1980s were not much better. Then the effects of the prosperity brought by the EU started to have an effect, and for a short while, it looked as if inclusive Britain would triumph, despite setbacks.

Rhyd Wildermuth writes, in A Storm at the Crossroads:

“Would it not be better if we were to stretch into ourselves like felines?” Peter Grey asks, and is that not also how anything grows? The muscle always tensed becomes useless, the heart defended by castle walls will never dare to love, the soul constantly defending borders will never take flight in travel, and the mind that entrenches will never learn to dance.

You know that story about the two wolves that live in the psyche – the friendly one and the vicious one – and it’s the one that you feed that gets the upper hand? Well, the combination of austerity and cutbacks and racist demagoguery has fed the wolf of nationalism in the British psyche – especially the English and Welsh bits of it (though Scotland is by no means immune). There has been a massive vote in favour of insularity, nationalism, and isolationism (and even if you didn’t mean your vote for Leave in that way, that is how it is being interpreted both by the racist thugs, and by the rest of the world).

I am also reminded of the bit in the stories of Arthur and Merlin, where Vortigern is trying to build a castle on a hill, but it keeps falling down. Merlin sees with his inner eye that this is because two dragons are fighting each other in a lake underneath the hill, and advises Vortigern to drain the lake. We are trying to build a beautiful city of inclusion and welcoming diversity, but the dragon of hate and intolerance is having a fight with the dragon of inclusion and diversity. But King Arthur won’t be coming back to fix things. It is up to us now to build the circle of Camelot, in the realm of Logres, the dream vision of Albion, the land of diversity and inclusion and hospitality.

By William Blake - William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8310345

Two forms of Los with Enitharmon, Plate 100 of Jerusalem. By William BlakeWilliam Blake Archive, Public Domain.

So what can we do?

  • Build and strengthen your links with your local community – other faith groups, people from other cultural backgrounds. Talk to your neighbours. Hold a local event to bring your community together.
  • If you can facilitate workshops, create a workshop on civil courage and standing up to racism.
  • If you are a Pagan organisation or group or an individual with any sort of platform, make a statement rejecting hate and racism.
  • Sign and share the inclusive Wicca statement rejecting racism, and the Pagan Federation statement against racism.
  • Wear a safety pin to show solidarity with diverse communities – but don’t stop there. Be prepared to intervene if you witness a racist incident or attack.
  • Report it – if you are the witness or the victim of a hate crime, please report it to the police.
  • Join Pagans Against Racism (UK) and work to make Paganisms more inclusive.
  • Do rituals and magic to support a positive outcome. We need all the allies we can get. If my vision of an inclusive and welcoming Albion, with the round table of Camelot at its heart, speaks to you, then you might want to focus on that in your rituals. Imagine the round table being filled with people of different colours, ages, genders., and sexual orientations.
  • Here’s some suggestions from The Guardian on six positive things to do. I especially like number 3: solidarity with immigrants.

Cultural Appropriation has nothing to do with “race”

Nearly every time I write a post about cultural appropriation, someone comes up with a reductio ad absurdum argument which makes something that really isn’t cultural appropriation look as if it is.

One of the most frequent push-backs (or even derailments) when cultural appropriation is mentioned is “does this mean no-one can ever do anything that originated from another culture?” No, of course it doesn’t mean that – although that is what racist and völkisch types want you to think it means.

Cultural appropriation is when someone from a colonising or culturally dominant culture takes a ritual or sacred or meaningful practice from a subjugated or devalued or colonised culture, lifting it out of context and draining it of meaning. And probably making money out of it. The key features of cultural appropriation are:

  • There’s a big difference in power between the appropriating and the appropriated culture
  • There’s a history of the appropriating culture oppressing the appropriated culture, and the oppression is still happening now
  • The meaning of the practice is lost or changed in the process of appropriation
  • The appropriator makes money out of repackaging and selling the practice, and the originators of the practice don’t get a penny of it

A difference of power

An example where there is a power differential between the appropriating culture and the appropriated one is the appropriation of Native American ritual by “plastic shamans” and New Agers (and some Pagans). The issue here is not that the appropriators are genetically unrelated to Native Americans: the issue is that there has been a considerable loss of power (land-rights, cultural cohesion, economic power) and white people have consistently tried to erase or exoticise or exterminate Native Americans and their culture. And  in order to fully understand and engage in Native American ritual, you have to be immersed in the culture and know all its stories and symbolism, and share the political and economic struggles of the Native Americans. Non-Natives are sometimes invited to learn from and participate in Native American culture; but you can’t learn their tradition just by picking up a book and sticking some feathers in your hair.

If there is no power differential between the appropriating culture and the appropriated one, then it’s not cultural appropriation. If I start wearing a dirndl and practicing Austrian folk dancing, that’s not cultural appropriation: my culture hasn’t oppressed the Austrians or threatened to erase their existence or frequently belittled their beer-drinking and yodelling. (Actually I think we find these qualities rather admirable.)

I read a great story recently where a guy moved to the Amazon rainforest, married the daughter of the tribal ‘shaman’, learnt their practices and traditions, and is going to be the next tribal ‘shaman’ (or whatever their preferred title for the role is). Now that is respectful engagement with a tradition.

A history of oppression

An example where there is a history of the appropriating culture oppressing the appropriated one is the appropriation of the Passover Seder by modern Christians. There used to be a charming Christian custom of “celebrating” Easter by holding a pogrom (the mass murder of Jews in “revenge” for their alleged “betrayal” of Jesus). And now modern Christians think it’s appropriate to commemorate the fact that Jesus was celebrating Passover at the Last Supper by holding Passover Seder and inserting all sorts of Christian symbolism into it. I think this is a particularly crass example of cultural appropriation.

If there is no history of oppression, it probably isn’t cultural appropriation. Celts and Vikings are not being oppressed by anyone Black, Chinese, Asian, or Middle Eastern, so if any of those people choose to honour Viking or Celtic deities, then it definitely isn’t cultural appropriation.

Racists will try to tell you that anyone who doesn’t have Viking or Celtic blood in their veins can’t do Norse or Celtic spirituality. Well, the Vikings intermarried with people of other cultures all the time, and the “Celts” (apart from being a label imposed by the Greeks) were a vast range of people from Galatia in Turkey, Galicia in Spain, Wales, Brittany, parts of Austria, and were united not by genetics but by shared culture, related languages, and similar art styles. So even based on what we know of history and lore, that claim is utterly spurious, but culture is not transmitted by genes, but by the passing on of stories and rituals and symbols.

Loss of meaning

Where there is a loss of meaning is when a practice is appropriated into a very different cultural context and takes on an entirely new meaning. An interesting example of this is chakras, which were imported into Western spirituality from Hinduism and Buddhism via Theosophy. As this particular appropriation happened about a hundred years ago, it’s probably so deeply entrenched that there’s not a lot of point moaning about it, but if you compare the Western understanding of chakras with the Eastern view of them, it is possible to see that they are viewed quite differently. Another example is the growth of “forest church” among Christians, where they go into the woods, celebrate the festivals of the Pagan Wheel of the Year, but with Jesus and the Trinity and the Atonement as the core of their religion. To me (and I know not everyone feels the same), this is a complete and utter travesty of what the Wheel of the Year is about, and I find it really offensive, because the meaning of the festivals has been completely changed.

If there is no loss of meaning through the transfer of the practice, then it probably isn’t cultural appropriation. Within living memory, OBOD Druidry acquired the festivals of Wicca, and vice versa. Originally, the Druids mostly celebrated the solstices and equinoxes, while Wiccans celebrated mainly the four “Celtic” quarter days (Candlemas, May Eve, Lammas, and Hallowe’en). Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols used to sunbathe side by side in their nudist colony in Hertfordshire, and a fruitful cultural exchange occurred, whereby the two nascent religions acquired each other’s festivals, and the modern Pagan Wheel of the Year was born. Arguably there was a mutual enrichment of meaning.

What about cultures of the past?

If the culture being revived or recreated or reconstructed is a “dead” culture, and there are people reviving it who are not genetic descendants of the people who created the original culture, that’s not cultural appropriation. Culture has nothing to do with genetics. Culture is transmitted through word of mouth, stories, practices, and being immersed in it; it is not transmitted genetically. If I moved to another country and became immersed in their culture (or if I decided to become a Buddhist), the fact that I am probably not genetically related to anyone from that culture is completely and utterly irrelevant.

The Romans oppressed the indigenous people of Britain and assimilated their deities into a cultural fusion that we now refer to as Romano-British (and thereby preserved those deities’ stories by writing them down). But both the ancient Britons and the ancient Romans are dead and gone, so we are not perpetuating that oppression by reconstructing Romano-British culture and religion.

What about living within another culture?

If you go and live in another country, it behooves you to learn their customs and culture and stories and traditions, so you can appreciate their local culture and be a good guest. That’s not cultural appropriation. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, as the saying goes.

640px-Furcifer_pardalis_-Zürich_Zoo-8a

A chameleon (Furcifer pardalis). Photo by Marc Staub – originally posted to Flickr as IMG_8957, CC BY-SA 2.0

When Megan Manson (who is a British practitioner of Paganism and Shinto) joined the Pagan Channel, there was a brief discussion of whether her practice of Pagan Shinto was cultural appropriation. I don’t think it is at all, because there is no loss of meaning – Paganism and Shinto are sufficiently similar that mutual enrichment may occur. The British are not currently oppressing the Japanese or trying to erase their culture (nor do we have a long history of oppressing them), there is no power differential between the two cultures, and she isn’t making money out of her practice. Furthermore, she lived in Japan for a long while and immersed herself in Shinto there.

What if a deity comes calling?

If a deity from another living culture calls to you, that’s not cultural appropriation. If you lift the rituals of that other culture out of context and offer them to the deity without fully understanding how they work and what they mean, then it might be. You don’t have to be genetically related to the culture that originally named the deity in order to work with or honour that deity. It helps if you can understand and relate to the deity’s cultural context, but that has nothing to do with genetics.

Using cultural appropriation as a smokescreen for racism

Many people have taken the idea of cultural appropriation to mean that you can never do any practice that comes from another culture. That really isn’t what cultural appropriation is about at all – but racists want you to believe that that is what it is about. They believe that each “race” is unique, has essential characteristics that are genetically transmitted, and that these characteristics are immutable – and that, in their view, is why people of Asian or African descent can’t participate in European spirituality. The racists also try to claim that the Native Americans told them to seek their own heritage, which somehow justifies their völkisch views. Yes, they told people of European cultural background to seek our own cultural heritage – I very much doubt that they meant that it was somehow genetically encoded in our DNA.

The view that you can only do the spirituality associated with your genetic background is clearly racist, and deserves to be called out wherever it appears.

This also means that we need to be really clear about what cultural appropriation means, and to push back against people who claim (either sincerely or in order to derail a conversation about it) that cultural appropriation means no-one can ever do anything from another culture.

We also need to be really clear about what “race” and racism are. Race is a social construct, but one that has been used to oppress people, and therefore it is a social construct with real effects. However, there is only one “race”, the human race.

If you engage respectfully with the other culture, seek to learn from it, make sure that you are learning from the real sources (or people who have learnt the practice from a genuine lineage or tradition) and not from somebody who has made up their own version of something and stuck an “exotic” label on it – then that is respectful engagement with another culture, and definitely to be encouraged.

What about cultural melting-pots?

What about cities where many different cultures come together and create a unique fusion of concepts? That’s great – they are probably all on an equal footing in the city, and they can create vibrant and exciting fusions of ideas. And probably the original culture is flourishing perfectly well in its home environment, so everything will be just fine. This cultural fusion and exchange is how new cultural forms and traditions arise. But just because this kind of creative fusion exists and is good, doesn’t mean that cultural appropriation is not an issue. In situations of cultural fusion and exchange, there is little or no power differential between the two cultures; there is probably no history of oppression (because they’re probably both formerly colonised cultures); and there is no loss of meaning, but mutual enrichment. As to making money out of it, as long as both sides are making the same amount of money out of it, all will be well.

The blues is an interesting example – sometimes the performance of blues by people who aren’t Black is respectful cultural exchange (e.g. when musicians from different backgrounds perform it together), and sometimes it is cultural appropriation (as when all-white radio stations would only play blues music performed by white musicians, and prior to that, the blues, and rock’n’roll, were dismissed and denigrated by white people).

Why does it matter?

It matters because if you accept the watered-down, stolen, distorted, or culturally appropriated version of the ritual or tradition as being somehow real, the meaning and value of the original and genuine practice is in danger of being lost, and it endangers the culture, and therefore the well-being, of the people whose ritual or practice or symbol it is.

Much recent research has shown that loss of cultural traditions and stories and language underlines and destroys traditional cultures. By eroding, erasing, and distorting those cultures’ precious cultural heritage, cultural appropriation threatens the well-being of those cultures.

And it must be remembered that there is a long and continuing history of oppression which leaves painful emotional scars in the memory of the oppressed group.

No single correct answer

Many people would like there to be a single easy-to-work-out formula to identify when something is cultural appropriation and when it isn’t. But I think you have to do the work of examining each and every situation to work out whether it is cultural appropriation or respectful cultural exchange. You can use my suggested criteria to help you decide (is there a continuing history of oppression? is there still a difference in power between the two groups? is there a loss of meaning when the ritual or symbol is transplanted? is there financial exploitation involved?) but even then, there will be differences of opinion.

If You Have A Racist Friend

So you have a racist, sexist, homophobic, white supremacist friend. Your racist friend is perfectly affable to you, buys you beers, likes to chat about the football and whatever. But you are white and male and straight, so of course he is nice to you. And he doesn’t challenge your world-view, or your assumptions about how the world works, because both you and he are white, straight, and male.

But you know what they say: a person who is nice to you, but not nice to the waiter, is not a nice person. 

One of your acquaintances, on the other hand, points out (on a fairly regular basis) that Black Lives Matter, that there is racism and white supremacism rampant in your community. He (or she) makes you uncomfortable, because s/he challenges your assumptions, and makes you aware that you might have straight/white/male privilege. You are unable to separate out his calls for social justice from  other aspects of his personality that irritate you. Maybe he isn’t actually irritating by any general standard, you just find him irritating because he makes you think about topics you would rather not think about.

So what are you gonna do about it?

Apparently one answer is to do a public character assassination on the anti-racist acquaintance, claiming that he is abrasive and difficult.

In the feminist and anti-racist communities, this is called “tone policing“. It is the assertion that people who demand social justice (as opposed to asking for it politely) are automatically wrong for demanding equality and inclusion. In the anti-racist community, it’s also called “being an apologist for racism”. People who are on the receiving end of racism, sexism, and homophobia (and other forms of oppression) have a right to be angry:

Nobody was ever given rights by politely asking for them. Politeness is nothing but a set of behavioral expectations that is enforced upon marginalized people.

If you see someone who is angry and upset about something that was said or done to them, don’t tell them they should be nicer. Instead: Recognize their emotions as valid. Recognize that their emotional state is an indication that something extremely harmful was done to them, whether it was by you, or someone else. Work to understand why the action was oppressive. Take all that energy that you’re wasting being so concerned with how people are responding to their own oppression, and channel it into fighting oppression. 

Another answer is to say, well, y’know, I don’t like the anti-racist guy, but he is right about calling racism out in my community, so even though he gets up my nose, I will stand with him on this one issue. And the racism of racist guy is so extreme that I am going to have to dissociate myself from his white supremacist views, and call him out on them publicly.

Regardless of whether you find racist guy to be an affable dude to hang out with, and anti-racist guy to be a bit of a douche: racism is wrong, and white supremacism is even wronger. That means racist guy is not an affable dude; he’s an asshole.

And as The Specials so memorably put it, If you have a racist friend, now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end.

But apparently some people just want a quiet life.

Well, I don’t want to see racism, white supremacism, or apologies for racism on Patheos. And I don’t want to see character assassination of individuals on Patheos. So I agree with John Beckett: Racism cannot be tolerated, and Stephen Abell should no longer be welcome to post on Patheos Pagan.

By Frerieke from The Hague, The Netherlands - Flickr: Day 20.06 _ Diversity and Unity, CC BY 2.0

By Frerieke from The Hague, The Netherlands – Flickr: Day 20.06 _ Diversity and Unity, CC BY 2.0

Cultural appropriation is about power

Cultural appropriation is always a difficult topic to get across in a nuanced way – and no-one seems to agree on what is respectful borrowing and what is cultural appropriation. Some people even go so far as to claim it doesn’t exist.

Aaron Muszalski - “Cultural Appropriation Illustrated” on Flickr [CC-BY-2.0]

Aaron Muszalski –
“Cultural Appropriation Illustrated” on Flickr [CC-BY-2.0]

What many commentators miss, however, is the power differential in cultural appropriation. People forget that we are living in a postcolonial world, where non-European cultures are still routinely dismissed as “primitive”, “backward”, reactionary, and hidebound by tradition, and European culture is presented as the norm, and an ideal to live up to, despite its over-consumption, cycle of boom and bust, and exploitation of other parts of the world in order to maintain the expensive western lifestyle.

In countries with a majority white, western, Christian population, European cultural norms prevail. The rituals, clothing, and even hairstyles of other cultures are seen as outside the norm, “exotic”, and “primitive”.

Being regarded as exotic makes the products of other cultures ripe for commodification and packaging up as a consumer good. Consider the late 18th century and early 19th century craze for Chinoiserie. Lots of people made a lot of money out of that one. But it didn’t help actual Chinese people trying to survive in Western culture – they were labelled strange, weird, foreign, the “Yellow Peril”.

Being regarded as primitive makes the products of other cultures seem taboo. This means that countercultures within the European cultural sphere want to adopt them. However, whilst such countercultures have less economic and cultural leverage than the mainstream, they still have more leverage than the culture being borrowed from.

Either way, the economic power, social power, and cultural prestige of the European hegemony massively dominates the world in terms of what is seen as “normal”. In the religious sphere, Christianity is seen as the norm, and everything else (including Pagan religions) is seen as exotic and/or primitive. In the economic sphere, capitalism and commodification are seen as the norm, and other systems of exchange are seen as exotic and/or primitive.

This situation creates a massive imbalance where the products of other cultures are trivialised, fetishised, and repackaged as consumer goods for the amusement of Europeans.

Consider the way in which Hallowe’en has been commercialised, commodified, and trivialised, and you can imagine how people from other cultures feel when their treasured traditions, clothing styles, and rituals are repackaged as consumer items.

“Oh but I don’t mind the commercialisation of Hallowe’en”, I hear you cry. Fine – now imagine that it is on top of your land being taken away, your ancestors being enslaved and murdered, your economic, employment, and housing chances being severely limited by systemic racism – are you angry yet? (Oh wait, our pagan ancestors were killed for their beliefs – albeit a long time ago.)

So, if a person from another culture adopts a European practice or personal adornment style, they may be doing so in an attempt to gain some of the economic and cultural leverage that they lack; whereas if a European-ancestry person adopts a non-European practice or cultural adornment style, they may well be doing so because they want the “exotic” or “primitive” glamour conferred by it, which is why it is often disrespectful and erasing of the other culture, because it contributes to the “othering” of that culture.

This unequal power dynamic is why a white person painting their face black is considered inflammatory, whereas a black person painting their face white is not. In vaudeville theatre, the black-and-white minstrel shows presented a caricature of Black people which was deeply offensive.

In Morris dancing, the origins of black face paint may be because Morris dancing was originally an imitation of Moorish people brought back from the crusades; or it may be because the dancers wished to disguise themselves, and using soot to ‘black up’ their faces was effective as a disguise; or it may have been an imitation of miners and/or chimney sweeps, whose faces were black because of coal dust; or it may have been copied from vaudeville blackface; or it may have been a combination of all of these. It does seem likely that the introduction of black-and-white minstrel shows to England gave fresh impetus to Morris blackface. Therefore, many Morris sides have modified their face-paint so that it does not resemble vaudeville blackface quite as much; or they explain the miners / chimney-sweeps / disguise theory before they begin their performance.

This unequal power dynamic does not mean that we can never do anything associated with another culture; it does mean that we should approach other cultures with sensitivity and tact, and if we are told to back off, we should back off.

I don’t think that worshipping a deity from another culture is wrong – deities have migrated from one culture to another for millennia. I do think that it is disrespectful to take someone else’s ritual to that deity, or any ritual, rip it out of its original cultural context, and plug it into your own cultural context without regard for the differences between the contexts. The same applies to clothing styles, hairstyles, and artefacts which may have specific meanings and be associated with specific identities, especially if those identities have been crafted in resistance to European cultural hegemony, or are expressions of the sacred in a particular context. When the artefact, clothing, or hairstyle is ripped out of its context, the original meaning can be lost, diluted, trivialised, or erased.

In two previous posts on cultural appropriation, I explored the difference between respectful borrowing and cultural appropriation, and how practices are not plug-and-play components that can be easily transferred from one cultural context to another.

Further reading

Walking While Black: A Song

Walking while Black

A song for Sandra, Tamir, Eric, Freddie, and many others

Protestors carrying placards at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York City 28 November 2014, 12:50:28 CC-BY-SA 2.0 Author: The All-Nite Images

Protestors carrying placards at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York City
28 November 2014, 12:50:28
CC-BY-SA 2.0
Author: The All-Nite Images

Eric was walking down the street
Walking while Black, held his head high
Just trying to breathe, trying to pray,
Trying to get through another day.

O mourners, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O mourners, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

Tamir was playing in the park,
Walking while Black, held his head high,
Sandra was just trying to drive,
Trying to survive, trying to thrive.

O sisters, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O sisters, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

As Bree was climbing that flagpole,
To bring down a symbol of hate,
And Martin was dreaming of a new world,
Even though the hour is late.

O brothers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O brothers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

Walking while Black should never be a crime,
In this or any other time.
And we must rise against Jim Crow,
O Lord, enough blood has flowed.

O mothers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O mothers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

The Charleston nine had met to pray,
Studying about that good old way,
And they shall wear the starry crown,
Resting in the heart of God.

O fathers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O fathers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

They that followed the drinking gourd,
They that survived the Jim Crow years,
They that rose up to get the vote,
This time, we’ll find a way.

O singers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O singers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

As we go down to the river to pray,
Black lives matter every day
We remember those who fell,
Speak their names, for ever more.

O mourners, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O mourners, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.

As we walked over the Pettus Bridge
Let’s follow the river to freedom now
And we shall find the promised land
Heart to heart and hand in hand.

O dreamers, let’s rise up,
Let’s rise up, let’s rise up,
O dreamers, let’s rise up,
Up to the dawn of a fine new day.


(Tune: Down in the river to pray)

As I went down in the valley to pray,
Studying about that good old way,
When you shall wear that starry crown,
Good Lord, show me the way.

O mourner, let’s go down,
let’s go down, let’s go down,
O mourner, let’s go down,
Down in the valley to pray.


I wrote this song in response to the murder of Sandra Bland, and all the other deaths at the hands of police and systemic racism.

Why is Hate More Newsworthy Than Love?

Recently, Icelandmag reported that Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and the members of the Ásatrúarfélag (Icelandic Pagan Association) had received hate mail from a few vocal homophobic and racist bigots for their intention to conduct same-sex marriages in their new Heathen temple, and their view that a person of any ethnicity can be a Heathen.

“Þingblót 2009” by Photograph by Lenka Kovářová. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. -

Þingblót 2009” by Photograph by Lenka Kovářová. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. –

So I decided to launch a page where people could sign to show their support. A petition site seemed wrong, as we were thanking them for being inclusive, rather than asking them to do anything, so initially I launched a page on 38 degrees – but quickly discovered that only people in the UK could sign it. So I launched a change.org page as well: Thank you for supporting same-sex marriage and inclusiveness. At the same time, Haimo Grebenstein created a Facebook event in solidarity: “Ásatrúarfélagið – we are at your side!” The event is sponsored by Asatru-EU, an informal group of people of Germanic Heathen background, most of them members of associations from many European countries. They have been active since 2006 and are hosting the International Asatru Summer Camp (IASC), which starts on 25 July in Sweden.

The Facebook event has 2400 people supporting it, from many different Pagan and polytheist religions; the change.org petition has 640 signatories, and the 38 degrees petition has 124 signatories.

Meanwhile, if you can see the Facebook social plugin on the Icelandmag article (I can’t see it on a PC or an iPhone, and only intermittently on my iPad, but I am getting notifications of who has replied to my comment on there), then you will see that the haters appear to be in a tiny minority compared to the people who support inclusivity towards both LGBT people and people of other ethnic backgrounds.

Icelandmag ran a follow-up story about the messages of support, but again focused on the original hate-mail rather than on the messages of support:

Over the weekend we will be publishing an exclusive interview with Hilmar Örn, about the honourable and respectful nature of Ásatrú as it is practiced in Iceland, his interaction with foreign pagans and the disturbing messages he has received from foreign pagans.

The Wild Hunt also did an article, Ásatrúarfélagið Threatened with Vandalism over LGBTQ Support– also focusing somewhat more on the hate-mail than the outpouring of support, though kindly linking to Haimo’s Facebook event and my petitions. I am glad that the issue has been covered, but concerned that what I believe to be a small minority of haters is getting more coverage than the overwhelming number of people who support inclusivity. Maybe it is because hate and bigotry (despite what you might think from reading the newspapers) are actually the exception rather than the norm? Or is it because the mainstream media wants to make us feel small and isolated and powerless in the face of all this bad news?

The same thing happens with Christian bigotry against LGBT people. Granted that there are some loud voices of hate, but there are also many Christians who support same-sex marriage and regard same-sex love as natural, and are welcoming towards LGBT people. In the UK, Stonewall, the LGBT pressure group, did a survey of attitudes of religious people, and found that 58% were in support of same-sex marriage (as compared to 68% of the general population). So the difference in support between the religious population and the general population is 10%. There could be a variety of reasons why this is, but given the focus on religious bigotry by the media, most people would probably be surprised by how small the difference is. It is also noticeable that church leadership (who are often the ones making the bigoted pronouncements) are seriously out of step with the laity on this. Not only that, but the list of religious groups where leaders and laity alike support LGBT equality is quite long and impressive, and some groups (Quakers, Unitarians, Liberal Jews, and Pagans) have supported and campaigned for LGBT equality for decades.

It is also noticeable that Heathens, Polytheists, Wiccans, Druids, Kemetics, and Pagans from all over the world have signed the change.org petition. There are so many awesome comments, I urge you to go and read all of them – it is very heart-warming.

So here are a few of the signatories of the thank you petition, and why they signed:

Kurt Hoogstraat ELK GROVE VILLAGE, IL

I’m gay and a heathen. My husband and I have been together 25 years, raised a daughter and have two grandchildren. Family is very important to us, and I live the practices of my religion every day with my family. Besides, the Gods communicate with me and protect my family every day — they don’t seem to mind I’m gay!

 

Dale Overman WEST VALLEY CITY, UT

Our ancestors were far more open minded than many modern heathen in some parts of the world. The world and its religions and deeply divided as it is. We modern heathen and Asatruar need a bit of common unity and respect. Inclusiveness and hospitality is part of a decent human community.

 

Wendell Christenson CLOVIS, CA

I know in the news reports when they said that “foreign practitioners” of Asatru are sending hate mail, that “foreign practitioners” really means “American Heathens.” It is embarrassing! Not all American Heathens are simply Protestant Christians who grew up to drink mead and “play Viking” on the weekends! Thank you, Ásatrúarfélagið, for building a modern-day temple and providing services to all.

 

Dieter Tussing GERMANY

Celtoi and Gaulish Polytheists say thanks. We are in complete agreement with you.

 

Carl Guldbrand LINDESBERG, SWEDEN

Bröder och Systar, jag står med er.

 

Reverend Janet Farrar CLOGHRAN, IRELAND

They truly represent the old Gods of their land.

 

Elma O’Callaghan BELFAST, UNITED KINGDOM

Basically, some people are so full of hate when they see others being happy. They need to know that Paganism is all encompassing and inclusive of equality and human rights. Well done Iceland and Hilmar for showing the true face of humanity.

 

Heather Demarest WANCHESE, NC

I honor these same deities and know that deep wisdom is its truth, that our souls are equal and even Odin supposedly dressed as a woman. Once you get past all the chest-thumping, Heathenry has deep and profound and beautiful wisdom that can empower all of us, regardless of gender, sexual preference or race.

 

Mike Stygal LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM

There should indeed be no room for racism or homophobia or transphobia in Heathenry, Druidry, Wicca, witchcraft, Paganism, polytheism, and kindred traditions.

 

Alexander ter Haar ZOETERMEER, NETHERLANDS

The Asatruarfelagid give an example of how heathenism can be: tolerant and open-minded, hospitable and respectful. It is saddening to hear that they receive hate-mails because of that. And at the same time it is wonderful to see how many people stand with them. I am proud to count myself amongst them.

 

Rev. Selena Fox BARNEVELD, WI

Appreciation, Well-Wishes, Support to You for your support of same sex marriage.

 

Jay Friedlander ANDOVER, ENGLAND

As British Heathen I support equal rights for same-sex marriage. Homophobia and transphobia has no place in modern heathenry or modern society either! I support inclusivity of all regardless of race, faith, sexual orientation, social class or any other ‘difference’ and believe tolerance of all is the only way forwards in a modern multi-cultural world.

 

Freya Aswynn CóMPETA

I am Asatru.

 

Wayne Sievers

The Icelandic Asatru Association conducted my marriage last year.

Paganism for Beginners: Controversies

Over recent years, there have been a number of controversies among Pagans which probably left a lot of newcomers to Paganism a bit baffled, especially when the terminology got a bit arcane. Sometimes different commentators on the issue also seemed to misunderstand and talk past each other on occasion.

I think these controversies are interesting and illuminating because they illustrate our concerns as a community, or as a network of communities, or a network of networks, or a patchwork of groups, or whatever metaphor you prefer to describe the contemporary Pagan movement.

So, in a spirit of inquiry and openness, not in a spirit of washing our dirty linen in public, and certainly not wanting to reignite these controversies, here is a summary of some of the most recent ones.

These controversies and discussions raise important questions of who we are, how we relate to each other as a community and individually, what we hold sacred, and how we relate to deities and the world around us.

The A to Z of Pagan controversies

I was not sure what order to present these in, as I think that ranking them by relative importance would be invidious, so I decided to list them in alphabetical order.

Atheist Pagans

Yes, there are Pagans who identify as atheists, and/or atheists who identify as Pagans. Humanistic Paganism is a large and growing community. Yet some people argue that the worship of deities is a key aspect of Paganism, and that therefore atheist Paganism is a contradiction in terms. However, there have been people who see deities as metaphors or archetypes for decades, and they have been welcome in Pagan rituals, especially in traditions that focus on practice rather than on belief.

The debate over whether Pagans can be atheists is important because it calls into question whether beliefs, practices, or values are at the core of religion, and which of them are more important for Pagans. It also relates to the idea that there are four centres of Paganism (Nature, Deities, the Self, and Community), and that different people and traditions will focus more on some than others. If you are not a deity-focused Pagan, then being an atheist and a Pagan works just fine.

Christo-Pagans

Pagans who also embrace Christianity in some form are pretty controversial because of Christianity’s historical persecution of Pagans, the claim of many Christian traditions to be the “one true way”, and their claim that its mythology is the only valid mythology. Several Pagan commentators have said that it is not possible to be a Christian and a Pagan, because of the exclusivist stance of Christianity and the extraordinary claims made about Jesus. However, there are so many variations within Christian belief about the nature and person of Jesus, that I can see how it is possible to be both Christian and Pagan in a variety of interesting ways. It would not be the path that I would choose to walk, but if people want to do it, then I wish them well (and I think it is rather exclusivist to claim that they can’t be Pagans).

Consent

Recently there have been several high-profile cases of Pagans abusing children, and incidents of sexual harassment at Pagan events. Many Pagans would like to think that such issues would not arise within Paganism, because we are so open about sex and sexuality. However, sex-positivity does not always equate with an acceptance that not everyone wants to have sex. There were many calls for Pagan events to have a safeguarding policy and a harassment policy. The issue also caused considerable self-examination by the Pagan community on what we should be doing about rape culture in our own communities and in wider society.

Pagans are very accepting of sex and nudity, but this enthusiasm is a problem when sex-positivity tips over into attitudes like ‘you’re a prude if you don’t want to have sex with me’. We need to have an ethical sex-positive culture.

Christine Hoff Kraemer and I are editing a collection of essays on Pagan consent culture, which we hope will become a valuable resource for people seeking to firmly establish consent culture in Pagan communities.

Apart from the very important issue of making Pagan communities and spaces safe for everyone, this issue has implications for how we view ourselves as a group, how we relate to each other individually and collectively, and how we cope with the fact of human fallibility.

Kinky Pagans

Z Budapest also caused controversy when she posted a comment that stated that she wanted to blow up Pantheacon because she saw a lot of kinky people walking around. Several people, myself included, found this remark to be deeply intolerant. I wrote a piece on why I believe that anti-kink attitudes have no place in Paganism.

There is a conversation to be had about the presentation of kink in a public space. Not everyone is comfortable with people wearing a collar and leash in a public space, for example (and that includes many kinksters who are uncomfortable with it). But the outright dismissal of the kink lifestyle is just plain ignorant.

This issue is important because, if Paganism is a sex-positive and tolerant community, we need to be tolerant of other people’s sexual preferences, provided that they are done by consenting adults. As the kinkster motto has it: “Your kink is not my kink, but that’s OK”.

Leaving Paganism

Thinking of leaving Paganism? Please close the door quietly on your way out. Lots of people have a crisis of faith, and leave Paganism either temporarily or permanently. However, there are good ways to do this, and bad ways to do it. A number of prominent Pagan bloggers have left Paganism, mostly to rejoin Christianity. Doubtless many of the things they were having issues with are real issues for the Pagan community to consider; some of the other things seem to be just a difference of perspective. Carl McColman is an example of someone who left Paganism gracefully, converted to Catholicism, but now works to build dialogue between Christians and Pagans, and promote mystical Christianity to other Christians.

It also behooves the Pagan community to react with grace and understanding to those leaving the Pagan community, and wish them well on their new path. Even if they are being a bit of a schmuck about it.

Some people reacted to these prominent changes of faith tradition with the notion that such people were never proper Pagans in the first place, and started to point the finger at other people who do not dismiss Christianity outright, or who embrace theological concepts that look superficially similar to Christianity. If anyone ever comes up with a definition of what a “proper” Pagan is, let me know – but so many hours have been spent on internet forums debating what Pagan actually means, that I very much doubt such a definition will ever be arrived at.

LGBT inclusion

Paganism is not generally homophobic, but it can be heterocentric (centred almost exclusively on heterosexual symbolism). Many Pagans, especially some Wiccans, focus their devotion on a God and a Goddess, and often view them as a heterosexual couple, and insist on heterocentric interpretations of magical concepts like polarity and fertility. This can feel very excluding for LGBT people. Calls for a more inclusive version of Wicca, mine included, have caused considerable controversy in some quarters. I have explored the development of views of gender and sexuality in Paganism (part 1 and part 2) and so has Christine Hoff Kraemer. I also produced a video on gender and sexuality in Wicca, seeking to expand and deepen our understanding of the concepts of polarity and fertility, what tradition is and how it works, what we bring into circle and what we leave outside, and how to make Wicca more LGBTQI-inclusive, with examples from rituals and from history. I further developed these ideas in my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca.

Monism versus polytheism

Monism is the view that there is a single underlying energy in the universe. Polytheism is the view that there are many deities. Quite often, monists want to claim that the single underlying energy gave rise to the individual deities, or that it encompasses them, or that they are merely facets of it. This feels wrong to a lot of polytheists who feel that the deities are distinct beings, and that monism reduces unique experiences to a generic viewpoint. It is possible to reconcile the two viewpoints and have polytheistic monism (or monistic polytheism). There have been quite a number of blogposts from both a monistic perspective and a polytheist perspective. This matters because it is about how we relate to other Pagans with a different theological perspective, how we relate to Hinduism (which includes both monists and polytheists – if it can even be categorised using Western labels), and how we relate to our deities. Or perhaps monism and polytheism are just a matter of temperament?

The Pagan umbrella / big tent

Many people use the word Paganism, or the phrase ‘the Pagan movement’, as an umbrella term for all the various traditions that exist (Druidry, Feri, Heathenry, Religio Romana, Wicca, etc etc), but the Pagan umbrella is leaking, and some people are standing at the edge getting rained on.

People sometimes say that we are all taking different paths up the same mountain – but your mountain may not be the same as my mountain. One person’s Pagan path may be so different that they are not climbing a mountain at all – but their path is still recognisably Pagan. A lush and varied Pagan landscape seems like a better metaphor than a single mountain.

Still others say that an umbrella is too small, and what we really need is a Big Tent.

Jason Pitzl-Waters writes:

All of the recent debate over community, terminology, and theology, is, I think, a sign of our collective success. When our religions were under constant threat, when we truly feared jail, or worse, because of our beliefs, we huddled together for safety and solidarity. We created advocacy groups to speak for us, and empowered authors and activists to be our public face(s).

The more closely we try to define or describe Paganism, the easier it is to find someone who feels excluded by that definition or description, and ceases to identify as a Pagan. That is why models like the four centres of Paganism are really useful, because they give a conceptual framework for diversity of Pagan belief and practice.  Many people feel that celebrating the diversity in the Pagan movement is important, and that we need to have a unified Pagan voice in order to communicate and negotiate with governments, other religions, and other world-views. I don’t think that unity and diversity are incompatible – but sometimes we need to emphasise our unity, and sometimes we need to emphasise our diversity.

Pagan veiling

Some Pagan women have experienced a call from their deities to cover their heads. As head-coverings for women are often associated with misogynistic attitudes and attempts to control women’s sexuality, the fact that some Pagan women chose to cover their heads was very controversial. Pagan women who chose to do this gave various reasons for doing so – because a deity had asked them to, because covering their head makes them feel protected, empowered, and blessed, as an outward sign that they are a priestess, as a sign of maturity, to increase confidence, and because it makes them feel sexy.

This issue is important and interesting for all sorts of reasons. Do you do something you might not feel like doing because a deity requests it of you? If you do something that means something very different in another culture, are you endorsing what it means in that other culture? Should we revive every practice that existed in the ancient pagan world? What is the meaning of covering your head?

Racism in the Pagan movement

To my mind, one of the most important issues in recent years has been the inclusion of people of colour in the Pagan movement, and how we relate to other indigenous religions.

Shortly after the protests in Ferguson over the killing of Mike Brown last year, Crystal Blanton asked for expressions of solidarity from Pagan individuals and organisations, which resulted in an outpouring of support. I feel that she should not have had to ask, but it was great that the support was forthcoming. One of the responses, from Covenant of the Goddess, was a bit vague and hand-wavy, and was strongly criticised by several bloggers. They have since revised their statement. Many of the writers on the Patheos Pagan channel responded to the call, and some were already writing about the topic. I collected together some of the responses from the Patheos Pagan channel on my own Black Lives Matter post.

Controversy erupted at Pantheacon 2015 when a satirical newsletter (PantyCon) appeared, sending up the tendency of white Pagans to fail to take notice of the experience of Pagans of colour, and specifically the original vague and woolly statement by Covenant of the Goddess. Several white Pagans thought that the workshop advertised in the satirical piece was a real workshop, and actually showed up for it. The satire was rather too close to the bone, and – together with several racist comments made by both attendees and presenters – made many Pagans of colour feel unsafe and unwelcome at Pantheacon. Jonathan Korman called publicly for an apology from the authors of the newsletter, and they did apologise. The founder, organiser, and sponsor of Pantheacon also issued a statement.

One of the positive outcomes of these events was a workshop called “Creating Brave Spaces for People of Color” which sought to begin a process of truth and reconciliation.

An excellent resource for understanding issues of racism and Paganism is the book, Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Taylor Ellwood, Brandy Williams, and Crystal Blanton. It has essays by a number of prominent Pagans, Black and white, and reflects on racism, the rise of the New Right, cultural appropriation, and related issues. I recommend it very highly.

Crystal Blanton is currently producing a great series of posts, the 30-day Real Black History Challenge, which is another great resource for understanding the reality of systemic racism, and how to start rooting it out.

Transphobia

The anti-transgender rhetoric emanating from certain Goddess-oriented traditions has caused considerable controversy. When CAYA coven organised a women’s ritual at Pantheacon 2011, where trans women were turned away at the door, Z Budapest defended this in very excluding and inflammatory language. Traditions which take an essentialist approach to gender tend to have difficulty coping with transgender people. There is an excellent post from 2011 by Star Foster explaining the issue. The British transgender activist, Roz Kaveney, even weighed in on the issue – and note that she appears to be under the impression that all Pagans are transphobic, which is not the case, but shows how damaging these kind of incidents can be. It is a shame that she did not do a bit more research, as a Google search on the subject will reveal dozens of blogposts protesting about the incident, and some defending it too. Neil Gaiman wrote about these issues in 1993 in a graphic novel, A Game of You, and the issues it raises are explored and explained by Lady Geek Girl. [1]

Wiccanate privilege

There was a discussion on Wiccanate privilege at Pantheacon 2014, but the debate had started in the Pagan blogosphere some time before that. John Halstead neatly summarises what “Wiccanate” means:

“Wiccanate” is a term coined by Johnny Rapture, and it refers to American Neo-Pagan theological ideas and liturgical forms common to large public Pagan gatherings and rituals, which are derived from Wicca, but are perceived to be “generic” or “universal” to Paganism. “Wiccan-Centric” is a related term. “Wiccanate privilege” is a phrase that has been going round in polytheist circles recently. It refers to the ways in which Wicca-inspired ritual and theology are assumed to be normative for Paganism as a whole.

The Wiccanate privilege controversy was a debate on how  public and eclectic Pagan ritual is structured, how Paganism is represented to newcomers and outsiders, and how we define or describe Paganism. It was argued that, because most of the books and websites are about Wicca, and many public Pagan rituals are based on a vaguely Wiccan style of ritual, many outsiders and newcomers to Paganism think that Wicca is the only form of Paganism. Furthermore, the widespread assumption that everyone celebrates the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year, or that everyone is a duotheist, or that everyone creates sacred space in a vaguely Wiccan manner (i.e. Wiccanate), means that other Pagan and polytheist traditions and ideas are marginalised within the Pagan community. I also feel that the widespread notion that Wicca is exclusively duotheist is harmful to Wiccans who embrace other theological viewpoints such as polytheism.

Where do these controversies start?

I am rather worried that this post makes it look as if nearly all Pagan controversies happen at Pantheacon. This is not actually the case, but because Pantheacon is a huge annual gathering, many controversies do get aired there. Controversies start in face to face interactions, get aired and discussed on the internet, and chewed over at conferences and pub moots and gatherings.

If you feel that I have missed out any controversies, or missed out any good links to articles on the ones described above, let me know in the comments. Links to good overview/introductory articles are especially welcome. I have mainly tried to focus on ones that might be especially baffling to newcomers and outsiders, and ones that have something to say about how we interact as a community, or as a linked group of communities.


 

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost.

[1] Thanks to P Sufenas Virius Lupus for pointing out that A Game of You was written way before the transphobia controversy, and hence does not directly address it, though it is relevant.