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Paganism and Race

First let me say that I have always intended that this blog be a place of learning, where nothing is really off the table as long as the discussion is polite. I believe passion and intellect can live together in harmony. I am also working on becoming a better person, and my posts reflect my attitudes and beliefs in the here and now. Of course, people are individuals, and talking about any individual as a whole group is always tricky. So of course I recognize that what I am saying might not be true for all people. But for the sake of the discussion and the idea, I am talking about race and culture–a collective experience that might not be true for each individual. That being said, please, gentle reader, read on!

I was recently reading a post in a private message board about someone’s deep desire to see the Paganism revival become more multicultural. She lamented the fact that there are few people of color who worship with us. She was quite worried that maybe we weren’t being open and accepting enough, which surprised me, given the attitudes of Paganism towards sexual/gender minorities, those with alternative lifestyle, etc.

Um, I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, but Paganism is about as White as you can get. Our beliefs are based in Celtic reconstructionism, Greek philosophy, occult knowledge which comes out of Western Europe, the witchcraft trials that also came out of Europe, folks beliefs out of the UK and, well, Western Europe.

So why would someone with Chinese, African, Pacific Islander, Indian or Native American ancestry be at all interested in our religion?

Truth is, people don’t convert to our religion, they overwhelmingly see it as “coming home”. What it is is a return to our ancestral roots, to our own White culture. When most of our ancestors came to America, they worked hard to assimilate, which is where we got the idea of the melting pot. After awhile, it didn’t matter if you were from Ireland, Italy, France or Britain, as long as you spoke English. In our race to assimilate (pardon the pun), we forgot our background. But as part of the majority, White people were able to keep to themselves and exclude racial minorities from taking part in the formation of culture. While this happens to a much lesser degree today, one honestly has to acknowledge that the majority of White culture has assimilated Western European values over time.

This will probably be very unpopular, but race matters. Yes, we are all human beings, deserve the same rights, etc. But the truth is that our cultures hold different values. As part of our own White privilege, we aren’t necessarily able to see the forest for the trees, and miss the markers that make our culture different from others. Neo-Paganism is the ultimate expression of that culture.

Take our value of Personal Responsibility. It’s this idea that we should strive to become the best individuals that we can, to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and make something of ourselves. It means that we are in charge of our own fate.

This idea is entirely Western European, and very very American. Many cultures, even today, don’t share these same values. Take Chinese culture, for example. To them, family is the most important thing, and your birth order determines your role in the family. Older siblings may be required to care for youngsters, and the youngest is required to “be the baby” perhaps their whole life. Consequently, your fate is determined by the needs of your family as outlined by your father.

Many African-Americans have historically been denied equal access to jobs and education–which sort of puts that whole individualized fate thing out of the question. Many see the Black community (such as the neighborhood, or the church) as an important piece of identity. To leave that community, even if it is in your best interest, might be seen as denying your roots. Joining a Pagan community might be understood as assimilating into White culture, and abandoning one’s Blackness. Upon return to their home community, they might be subject to “authenticity testing“, in which the community (often children or immature adults) “tests” them to see if they are “Black enough” to come back to the community. It is a very difficult position to be in.

Pagans and many Americans see personal responsibility as a value that should be embraced by everyone, but by expecting that, we are pushing our values on other people–this is oppression, and obviously not our intent. Perhaps this is why we do not proselytize–to avoid this oppression which, for many, was the reason they left their original religion to begin with.

Paganism is a return to roots, it is a look at our heritage religion before Christianity. So think about this for a moment: If you are Chinese and want to return to your roots, you practice the folk religion of China, or become Buddhist or Daoist. The Japanese return to Shinto. An African-American might turn to the African folk religions, or a blended one like Voudoun. A Native American would look to their tribe and find religion there. There is no need to turn to European roots to fine ones own roots. I believe that is why the Heathens, who celebrate the Norse religion, don’t interact much with the Pagan movement–they have their own movement!

Those are just a few examples of the hardships a racial minority would have in joining the Pagan community. While we welcome those who truly seek our path, no matter what their background, I don’t believe we will ever have a truly multicultural religion for all people. That’s what Christianity tried to do, and clearly that didn’t work for everyone, or else there would be no need for Paganism!

So let’s just accept that our religion is for us, and strive to make it the best it can be in serving the needs of the people actually doing it. Let us strive to remove our blocks and hang-ups about race by working on ourselves and becoming aware of racism and discrimination in society. Let us strive to be open to others without pushing our values upon them, but in respecting that their values have deep roots, even if we don’t agree with them.

So Mote it Be!

*I got the information about culture and race from a few books:

Ethnicity and Family Therapy” and “Counseling the Culturally Diverse

  1. Vivienne Grainger
    April 25, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    I can’t deny the truth this post enfolds at all … and I still don’t like it a bit. Nor do I agree with your conclusion.

    If a person of black or Native American heritage comes to me for training, I will not refuse them outright on the basis of their blood. If they are Called, they are Called, and it was Someone on another plane Who did the Calling.

    On the other hand, I am aware that I don’t have to make that decision by myself. I can, and I will, ask the Great Ones if I am to do this. Theirs is the final word. But I will ask a person of differing heritage why their own pantheon does not appeal to them. The information I acquire will not be sufficient to override the instructions I get, but it’s something I wish to be aware of.

    As mortals, possessors of a short period of consciousness, we don’t have the view the Gods take in assigning a person to Work. We don’t have to know why They want us to teach this one, or deny that one.

    That’s why I don’t agree at all with your conclusion that “our religion is for us.” Our religion is for those who are Called to it, no matter their heritage, and I will not be the link that failed in that Calling.

  2. April 25, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    By “our religion is for us”, I mean us as in Pagans, not implying any race or group of people. I don’t mean “us” as in “White people”, although one can surely get that from the writing. Thanks for pointing that out, it was very unclear. My point is in response to the post I’d read about trying to make Paganism more multicultural. I don’t think we should spend our energy on that, I think we should work on becoming the best we can be, training others when we are called to it, and being PAGAN!

    I like what you say about being Called to Paganism, and I think that is very true, and for all of us, no matter what our cultural or racial heritage, would benefit from asking why our original or historical heritage does not serve our needs.

  3. April 26, 2010 at 6:42 am

    I understand that each culture has it’s own religious history. I understand that we’re probably not going to see a lot of Chinese, or African-American, or Polynesian, etc., Wiccans. This is just a fact, because Wicca stems from the roots of Europe.

    But what you’ve left out, is the fact that “Pagan” simply comes from not being one of the “Mainstream” religions. You can be Pagan without being Wiccan. You can be Christian without being Lutheran. You can be Pagan without being white, or European. Not all the Pagan pantheons come from Europe. Examples are Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Inuit shamanism, Vaudun. Just to name a few.

    Voodoo is about as Pagan as it gets, because it’s a blending of more than one culture to create a new one. And it’s definitely did not start as a “white religion” It also does not pre-date Christianity, in fact, it incorporates it.

    I’m not trying to make this sound like a rant, really, it’s not. I’ve given thought to the same subject, wondering if there had been a door closed somewhere. But I really don’t think so. Drawn to your comments about the differences in cultural thinking, (Asian is family-based, African-American is community-based)I came to a realisation that these different ways of growing up create cultural “rifts” in thinking. I can’t truly understand their culture, because I don’t belong to it. And they have the same problem. You can’t get “it” if you aren’t “it”. Just that simple. The door’s not closed, they just have a set of their own rooms to explore. And this isn’t their (other religions) house.

    *phew* Sorry, this got a bit wordy for a reply…

  4. April 28, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    This is a very good and well thought out post.

    While ‘pagan’ is probably too broad a word for the group you are speaking about (i.e. wiccans, heathens, Reconstruction and all the other Western European ‘old’ religions) it really only is embraced by that group. You never see Native Americans or Inuits or Aborigines walking around claiming to be Pagans (with a capital P) but they are pagan belief systems.

    I did like your thoughts on the cultural and race. I think they are easily applied to more that just the different makeups of various religions. The cultural divide is far to deep sometimes to overcome, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It often accents to the wonderful diversity that belongs to man.

  5. Enki
    May 12, 2010 at 6:25 am

    Enki :For one to suggest that Paganism derived from European culture is totally false. “Paganism”…as you all know…is an “umbrella” term for nature religions. The very first civilizations on this planet practiced forms of paganism and it all started on the continent of Africa, which predates any European culture. Do your homework thoroughly….

    P.S. No offense intended 🙂

  6. Enki
    • May 12, 2010 at 11:14 pm

      Thanks for the link! The comments may be negative, but at least people are talking about the issue.

  7. Enki
    • May 13, 2010 at 9:06 am

      This looks interesting! Are you saying some modern Neo-pagan reconstructionists are using this as their spiritual background? I’m happy to be wrong.

  8. Enki
    May 13, 2010 at 9:55 am

    jamiefreeman :This looks interesting! Are you saying some modern Neo-pagan reconstructionists are using this as their spiritual background? I’m happy to be wrong.

    Have you read the article in it’s entirety?

    • May 24, 2010 at 2:38 pm

      No. When someone cites Lovecraft as a source, I generally stop reading. I’d be interested in your response to the question, though.

      • Enki
        May 24, 2010 at 2:57 pm

        Ok…when you have the time to completely read the entire thread let me know.

  9. mlr52
    May 15, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    My understanding of Christianity is that historically it never tried to be multicultural, but tried to make all cultures it came into contact with into its image.
    Can you elaborate on this? “I don’t believe we will ever have a truly multicultural religion for all people. That’s what Christianity tried to do, and clearly that didn’t work for everyone, or else there would be no need for Paganism!”

    • May 24, 2010 at 2:42 pm

      There is an underlying Christian thought that they need to let people know the “Good News” about Jesus, that they don’t have to live in sin, and can have a personal relationship with Him. That’s why they go to other countries and do missionary work–they want to bring people “into the flock”. Even at home they do that. I used to go to a food bank that preached to you while you waited in line. Not talking individual churches or denominations here, but in general, part of Christian doctrine is to spread the word of Jesus, and they do sincerely feel for people who don’t choose their way. Pagans (or, more accurately, Wiccans) do not feel that way. Wiccans feel that if you aren’t called to it, or aren’t interested, then Wicca isn’t for you. No pressure or pity for others who don’t believe as they do. One of the reasons people join the Pagan movement is because they didn’t want the dogma of being told how to think.

  10. Eric L
    May 24, 2010 at 11:29 am

    Dear Jamie,
    Thank you for cutting out the ranting. I suggest that the clarification be made more clear that your reference is to Wicca as a specific path. Many folks who practice Condomble, for example consider themselves Pagan.

  11. May 26, 2010 at 4:25 am

    My view of Paganism conflicts absolutely with everything you have said. IMHO paganism is exactly about the contrary: understanding, acceptance etc. Now if you want to practice a white-only Paganism than you should clarify that you are talking about your very own path and not about paganism as a whole, especially not about neo-paganism. I am white, come from Western Europe but the colour of skin and my race do not have a single thing to do with my spirituality and with what I believe in as a Pagan. By stating “paganism is about as white as you can get” and “race matters” you are coming dangerously close to a time that ended 65 years and – hopefully – never ever shall return. Blessed be !

    • May 26, 2010 at 8:27 am

      It is not about being exclusionary, it is simply an observation about the roots of Wicca, and much of the neo-Pagan movement. Denying that race, ethnicity and background has anything to do with our choices is a part of White privilege that I am trying to fight against. To be fair, until very recently, I agreed with you. 🙂

  12. Selina
    May 23, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Personal responsibility assumes that you can control certain factors, This is easier to do if you are white and not too “Different”. i have not been harassed by other black folks because I seek a different path and with all due respect I don’t know if I am black enough for the writer of this article.
    I don’t think any God gives two figs what color skin you have and values are NOT inherited.
    There are plenty of people of all races who are lacking in the Personal Responsibility area. By the way all religions stress this, it’s how they often explain away their hypocrisy.

  13. Selina
    May 23, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    I am glad you started this discussion, here is a great article from a different perspective if you like: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daughtersofeve/2012/03/respecting-diversity-what-does-this-mean/

  14. July 20, 2012 at 6:03 am

    I was doing some research on racial harmony to write my blog, and your blog left an impression on me.

  15. Viking_Terror_616
    December 10, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    I agree whole heartedly Paganism, blood and heritage are inseperable. I personally feel a strong loyalty and kinship with my fellow people of European descent (Whites) I wish no harm on any other people but have a special love for my own race. Just as our Pagan ancestors did with their particular tribes on a smaller level.

    To those who think that’s racist, remeber you wouldn’t try to mold Paganism to fit in line with Judeo Christian values, why try to mold it to fit in line with Neo Marxist/Leftist values, that dominate western society today?

    See resisting the dominant culture of yesterday (Christianity) is easy. There are many blogs and videos from Pagans expressing their contention with the Christian oppression of the past. When it comes to the dominant culture of today that’s opposing you, that’s when few are up for the challenge.

    Ethnocentrism and tribalism isn’t something to be demoted, it’s part of human nature! Accept and embrace it like your ancestors did.

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