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:
Like ’Dear Abby’ with a pointy hat!
Jamie is a freelance writer, tarot reader, teacher, and pre-service counselor. Oh yeah, and she's a Witch!
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