Posts tagged ‘race’

Topics in Polytheism: Race/Ethnicity

Topics in Polytheism #7 Race/Ethnicity

First view: Neither ethnicity nor “race” are important in polytheism, because religion is a matter of spirit and practice and toleration

Second view: “Race” is not so much a social construct as a reality, and therefore necessary in polytheism. Ethnicity is less important and reliable, because it can change or overlap.

Balanced view: “Race” is a rather useless word, but ethnicity is an indispensable concept in polytheism that needs to be redefined* in today’s troubled, modernized and global world.

To begin with not all forms of polytheism are based around a specific culture or ethnic group.  There are newer polytheist religions like the Otherfaith and the Fellowship of the Phoenix which have their own pantheons.

One can also be a polytheist within many different religions and philosophies that include different theologies such as: Wicca, Thelema, Discordianism, Unitarian Universalism, ADF Druidry, Revival Druidry, Core Shamanism, the women’s spirituality/Goddess movement and theistic Satanism/Luciferianism. In addition to of course, un-interrupted polytheisms-  indigenous Asian, African, North & South American religions/spiritual traditions. The so-called “polytheist movement” or “polytheist community” doesn’t always reflect this, making it seem as though all polytheists in the “Western” cultural sphere are reconstructionists, revivalists or traditionalists of some type. We need to be careful to say what we really mean when we say polytheist, who are we including or excluding? I find conversations with polytheists from other culturally focused traditions very illuminating, but I also enjoy conversations with polytheistic Wiccans, Druids, Thelemites etc. Of course many of us have multiple affiliations and spiritual/cultural identities. That’s one of the great things about polytheism, after all! 

For those of us drawn to culturally based religions I would tend between the first view and the third view. Rather than ethnic ancestry however, I would define it more by cultural upbringing since many of us are far removed from the cultures of our ethnic ancestors, if indeed we even know who they are. Certain people (typically some folkish Heathens) are prone to claim Heathenry or Asatru as pan-European and the label “Celtic” is often defined so loosely that anything vaguely resembling nature spirituality regardless of cultural or historic origin gets lumped in. I know many people who have made a serious effort to connect with traditions that they have ancestral connections to, or believe they have connections to with not much success, while instead stumbling across a connection to cultural tradition that they are not related to. Some of these people were later able to more easily connect with their roots after exploring another, non-ancestral tradition either temporarily or in addition to their ancestral tradition. Many people also honor their own ancestors within their adopted tradition- indeed it is often a requirement of their tradition!

The ancestry doesn’t matter at all stance goes too far. I’ve seen some polytheists become so concerned about racism and nationalism that they discouraged even mentioning or honoring ancestors as part of their practice. In particular I recall a Heathen group in Austria that had that policy– they didn’t honor ancestors in their rituals. That is going way too far. Veneration of ancestors and the dead is key component of any traditional cultural polytheism, and I also think it’s important in other forms of polytheism, simply because we’re all human, we don’t live a long time, and remembering our past and where we come from either by familial or adoptive descent or other kinds of lineage is key part in knowing who we are. In fact, I believe that instinct is the most basic ingredient of religious reverence, we can see it in our Neanderthal cousins, as well as intelligent species such as elephants. Another Pagan, NeoWayland has a unique take that some might find more approachable. Here’s another post I’ve written about different types of ancestors.



July 19, 2018 at 8:03 am 2 comments

Thanksgiving Reality Check

I’ve been seeing various posts on Pagan blogs about Thanksgiving- there are some lovely reflections about gratitude, the harvest and so forth. John Beckett, and others have commented & confronted the increasing commercialization of Turkey Day. But I’ve been disappointed that people have not been confronting the disturbing history of Indian genocide and the false elementary school narrative of interracial harmony between Pilgrims & Indians. (I did see a post about this from one of my fellow ADF Druids) Not long ago, we had Columbus Day (or Indigenous People’s Day) and a decision taking away the copyright on the name of That Team in Washington- which they are still sticking with. Right now we are also dealing with the aftermath of the events and trial in Ferguson, Missouri, another sobering reminder that we are definitely not living up to our country’s ideals of equality and justice for all.

Columbus Day is celebrated in some places with a parade and sales at department stores, but not a family feast. It doesn’t help that many of us have relatives who are already rather racist, even if they’d be loathe to admit it, and outraged if we suggested it. “Racism” must always be conveniently defined narrowly by whites as some scary extremist in a pointy white hood. “I’m a good, fair-minded person, so I can’t possibly be racist” , is what we all rationalize. I don’t claim to be perfect myself- I too am a product of a racist, classist society. I have internalized all the same messages, but rather than unthinkingly swallow them, I try to question them.

I come from a liberal family, the members of which are all pretty aware of the historical facts and fiction of Thanksgiving. I remember my mother, while working at a daycare/preschool, made efforts (in vain) to convince the Powers That Be to change the Thanksgiving decor & curriculum, especially since there were Native children! Still, we don’t talk about it much, and we still celebrate it. I’m not sure how to march in there, and tell everyone we have to cancel this evil racist holiday, without looking like the bad guy. I’m having Thanksgiving with my in-laws, and I already know better than to discuss any ethnic group or non-Christian religion in front of my father-in-law in particular. My mother-in-law can be diplomatic and just “agree to disagree” but my father-in-law will get into diatribes if you let him. I’ve tried to educate and enlighten, but those efforts have been shown to be clearly unwelcome.

So at the end of the day, I’m not really sure if we can turn Thanksgiving into a non-racist/anti-racist holiday, or if we should just observe a Day of Mourning instead, like many American Indians and their supporters do. I guess that larger question is rather irrelevant if I am observing the holiday with people who can’t admit their own racism.


The Suppressed Speech of Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, Wampanoag, to have been delivered at Plymouth Rock, 1970

The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story

American Indians in Children’s Literature- Thoughts on Native American Month (November) & Thanksgiving

I can’t recommend enough this wonderful website by Debbie Reese, a member of the Nambe Pueblo, and children’s librarian. In addition to folks that are raising or teaching kids, it is also a nice resource for adults working on un-learning all the misinformation we grew up with about Indian cultures!

“Happy Thanksgiving!” An American Indian Perspective

The Silly Conservative Myth That Thanksgiving Marked the Day that Pilgrims Gave up on Socialism

I hadn’t heard of this trope before, then again I don’t exactly seek out conservative revisionist history (isn’t that already a redundancy- since they are usually the ones writing the history books?)

The Real Laura Ingalls Wilder story finally published OK, so this isn’t Thanksgiving related, exactly, but like the popular history of Thanksgiving, the not entirely historically accurate (and yes, racist!) Little House books are certainly a big part of American settler cultural identity- especially when you grow up in the Midwest with lots of “Laura Ingalls stopped here once to pee!” signs everywhere. I even jokingly refer to my Dad as “Pa Wilder” after moving us thru so many states- Montana, Idaho, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and while I’ve stayed here in MN, my parents and brother have since moved back to Montana and now, Wyoming.

Modern Reality:

Thanksgiving is Becoming Impossible for Low-Wage Working Women

Queer for the Holidays: When Birth Families Reject Us, We Create Our Own

November 26, 2014 at 2:43 pm 2 comments

A Racial Autobiography

I’m currently reading Learning to Be White, by Thandeka, a Unitarian Universalist minister & theologian. I’d read some of her essays before online about race and class issues, and thought she was just the kind of medicine that UU social justice discourse & theology could use! This book came out of her realization that she, as an African-American had by necessity been hyper-aware of race since a very young child, whereas her white colleagues saw race as being something that “other people” had. What is the hidden process she wondered of becoming white? Inspired by this I decided to write a racial autobiography of sorts, and I recommend doing the same to other white folks who are trying to better understand racial issues.

My first memory of race is when I was around 7 years old and lived in Topeka, Kansas. I had a playmate named Renarda, her skin was darker than mine, she wore her hair in braids. To me, she was simply another child to play with. However, another playmate, Sara called Renarda an unfamiliar word that I could tell was bad, and said her father wouldn’t let her play with Renarda. I recall that Sara said her father even threatened violence against herself or Renarda if she disobeyed him.  Though I didn’t understand what was going on,  I did not want to play with Sara again after that.  I must’ve run home crying to my mother about, but strangely I don’t recall the conversation with either of my parents. Which is odd, considering you’d think if I was going to suppress a memory, it would be one about one friend threatening another!

Anyway- I realize that I had an unusual upbringing, as far as Midwestern white kids are concerned. My parents were actively involved throughout my childhood in the NAACP and in discussions of race relations in the United Methodist Church. Like most Protestant denominations in the United States, the Methodists split over the issue of race in the 1800’s, Northern and Southern churches broke apart over slavery, and the Northern church split over segregation- Black people were expected to sit on the second floor in the choir loft. They left to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I didn’t really understand *why* people were racist, other than “because they were mean”. I didn’t hear about the concept of white privilege until I was in high school, before that racism was vaguely “Bad Stuff” that happened to Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American people, and occasionally to Good White People who befriended and tried to help defend them against Bad White People. I suspect this the general idea of racism that most white kids in the U.S. grow up with, unless their parents listen to more right-wing talk radio and TV in which case they might get the impression that brown people “brought it on themselves”.  Poverty was also a mysterious thing that Just Happened, but Good Christians were supposed to help needy people, who were victims of Bad Stuff Happening and possibly other Mysterious Mean People. Like Ronald Reagan, I supposed. Still I was more politically savvy that most 10 year olds!

We moved to Dubuque, Iowa where we lived from 3rd grade thru 8th grade, the “diversity” of the town at the time was Irish Catholics and German Catholics. My parents continued in their activism, though my understanding of racial issues did not really become much more sophisticated due to lack of discussion outside of my family & their liberal friends and relative lack of diversity.

Then we moved to St. Paul and I attended a school that was about 70% African American, the other 30% were Asian-American, Latino and a few Native Americans and Caucasians thrown in. So that was kind of a culture shock. I think being on autism spectrum has given me a unique perspective on interacting with different cultures, because I am already a bit of a cultural outsider even within my own culture of middle-class college-educated white liberals. So I learned to adapt to a mostly Black school after coming from a town in Iowa, and studying Spanish and travelling to Mexico. Later in college when I took another trip to Mexico, I recall my classmates commenting that they had an easier time speaking Spanish after they’d been drinking. It loosened them up, and so they didn’t feel so awkward speaking an unfamiliar language. I don’t need alcohol to loosen my inhibitions, I do have them, but they are not so firmly “in place”!

Anyway, in a high school discussion about immigration, assimilation and related issues, one of the teachers recommended the book “How the Irish Became White” by Noel Ignatiev. Just as the title implies, it’s about how Irish immigrants were not originally considered white when they came to America, and the process by which they gained this status. This had a huge effect on my thinking about race and my Irish-American identity. It was also my introduction to the area of whiteness studies, a branch of Critical Race Theory, which I further studied on my own.  Here and there in college, I attended speeches and workshops about racism and white privilege. However, I had trouble figuring out how I as an individual could “fight racism” or “deconstruct whiteness”. Most of my activism in college was focused on GLBT issues in our campus GSA which was very white!

In spite of all my attempts to educate myself, I still often come into anti-racist discussion groups online and feel like I do not know all the social justice lingo- and there seems to be a lot of hostility towards people who aren’t familiar with it all. I find the best approach is to keep listening to and reading books, blogs and other media by people of color from a variety of viewpoints and backgrounds, not just American, to learn about what issues they are concerned about in their communities and support them on those issues. In Minnesota there are many racial gaps in housing, education and employment, and a major component of this is the criminal in-justice system, and the school to prison pipeline. So I’ve come to be involved in the Second Chance Coalition, which TakeAction is a part of.

I also have been hearing a lot of frustration from people of color about white folks’ lack of racial understanding, and that they are tired of educating us. So I have been trying to work on educating white people (when I can get them to listen!) particularly in mostly white subcultures that I participate in. To aid in this effort, I’ve been trying to read blogs and other media by people of color within predominantly white subcultures- Black/Latin@, Asian, indigenous GLBTQ people, geeks, goths, atheists/skeptics, UUs, Pagans, Heathens, New Agers et al. If anyone reading this has such a blog, book, or other resource, please feel free to share. I respect the need for minority space, so if you prefer white folks, or cis/hetero men, or people of whatever group not comment on your blog, that’s cool, I understand.

November 6, 2014 at 12:34 am 3 comments


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