Monday, August 17, 2009

Thinking in terms of heritage, not race

Tonight, let me start by saying I am very gratified by the thoughtful responses my blog entries are receiving. Click on the "comments" button below each blog entry to see these fine contributions. I do have veto power to publish or not publish comments, but it will be my policy to try to publish all comments except those that are vicious and abusive. One respondent queries why I am focusing on the problem of racist or Nazi attitudes within Asatru/Heathenry, as opposed to other Pagan groups with similar issues. This is a valid complaint which I take seriously, and in response I would have to say that first of all, it is beyond my knowledge and abilities to explore this issue in all the different possible varieties of Paganism that are out there. Asatru is what I know best and what most concerns me, but I would hope the author of that complaint understands that I am a supporter of Asatru. I am speaking from "within the family," so to speak, and not concerned with sugarcoating difficult issues to create a more pleasant public image. Future postings will deal with other Pagan groups, I can assure you of that.

As my earlier post explained, in a passage which I fear may have been overlooked, my mind is fixed on the Asatru-Nazi-racism problem these days because I have been working on a scholarly article specifically intended to debunk the association between Asatru/Heathenry and Nazism/neo-Nazism. As my Asatru friends and colleagues are all non-racist and anti-Nazi,to the best of my knowledge, I had started this project expecting it would be EASY to disentangle Asatru from Nazism and racism, but the sticky issue I have run across is that there are indeed a small number of neo-Nazis who purport to be believers in the Norse gods, and that in addition to that, there are many Asatru believers, who are by no means neo-Nazis, who place a high priority on ancestral ethnic identity that in my view is potentially problematic, because it does sometimes seem to walk a line between pride in heritage and a possible unconscious attitude of racism.

This is very personal to me because my first attempt to reach out to an Asatru group
back in the 1980s introduced me to a white supremacist, ultra-racist version of
Asatru based in Florida that so disgusted me that I avoided all contact with
Asatru or Heathen people for many years. It was only when I lived in Iceland in the mid-1990s and got to know people in the Asatru Fellowship there that I felt reassured that Asatru could truly be a spiritual movement and not a racist one. As some of you know, I am an academic and have researched and published on Asatru in scholarly publications, and in my writings, I have always tried to defend Asatru against the charge that it is racist, and this includes my current research project about Asatru groups' efforts to dissociate themselves from any kind of racism, neo-Nazism, etc.

In another forum, I had an exchange with an Asatru believer who spoke about "having pride in one's own race" as a key element of their interest in and faith in Asatru. In approaching Asatru or other forms of Paganism I would like to express an alternate point of view. I don't see Asatru being about pride in the "white race" at all. I see it as a matter of loving and taking pride in the spiritual dimension of the cultural heritage of Scandinavia and/or Germanic Europe, not the "white race" per se. Being white or Caucasian is not any special achievement; it is just an accident of birth. However, learning about Scandinavian/Germanic heritage,
developing a sense of spirituality rooted in that heritage--now THAT is an
achievement, based on an intelligent thought-process and a personal decision.

I take pride in the people I know who have worked hard to cultivate an
Asatru/Heathen spirituality, but it is not because they are white. If I were to
meet a person of African or Latino descent who had similarly dedicated him or
herself to Asatru/Heathen spirituality, I would welcome them, and I hope you
would too, and I would not think any less of them because of which color womb
they fell out of. I don' t think the circumstances of our birth are really so important, as they are quite arbitrary and beyond our control, unless you believe that our birth-situation is determined by karma or something like that. In my thinking, what is far more important is what we make of ourselves after our birth, through our own effort, intelligence and understanding. I know plenty of white people who are cretins and jerks, and aside from our sharing the same pale skin,I don't really feel all that much in common with them. I have lived in Japan and felt much more in common with people I met there who impressed me with their nobility of character than with many ignorant, closed-minded, self-satisfied white people I meet in America. On the religious level, most white Americans are Christians, as I am sure you have also noticed!, so I also don't feel any particular "white" spirituality that bonds us together. This is why I believe Asatru or Heathenry is best defined in terms of a particular spiritual-cultural heritage, not a particular race.

I see the same applying to other forms of Paganism based on the past cultural heritage of a particular region, such as Slavic, Celtic, Baltic, etc. If you relate well to that heritage, and find that it exerts a spiritual pull on you, then it is well and good for you to develop spiritual practices based on that heritage, even if you are of a quite different ancestry. Of course, if you have ancestry related to a particular region and cultural tradition, that might be all the more reason why you would feel attracted to it, and I know many Asatru believers reason thus. Where I part ways with some is that I do not believe ancestry, or race, should be the key criterion of faith or fellowship. It is just one possible path up a very high mountain.

Certainly the gods, whatever they may be or how we may conceive of and connect to them, are beyond race and narrow tribal boundaries, and I cannot believe they mean for us to be narrow and limited in our understanding of the world and approach to life. The Vikings were all about expansion and connection to other parts and peoples of the world, were they not?

All for now.


Matt Benson-Parry said...

Some forms of cultural appropriation are valid, others are not. I think that it is easy to declare asatruerhood available to everyone when it is effectively a newly reconstructed faith with some claim to an ancient past. The same is true of Paganism, and personally I think it is the great strength of modern Paganism that it is a many headed hydra of a faith system, impossible to eradicate completely. However, there has to be some space in faith systems for nationalism, because it is important, whether it is important to yourself or not. If I take myself as an example, I am a Western Australian of British/Italian heritage, maternal family are witches, paternal family are Christian. I have been influenced by the Nyoongar people and their Derbil Yirrigan dreaming. The Nyoongar people here have lost almost everything in post-invasion Australia. One of the strongest remnants of their former reality is their culture and their religion, which has been fused with Christianity. A white fellah like myself cannot hope to join such a culture even if I should learn all there is to know about the Nyoongar and their belief system. I simply am not and cannot be a Nyoongar.
If we look at Pagans and Heathens in the same way as the Nyoongar, there is a very real case there of people with everything taken away except folklore fused with Christianity to aid in their self-definition. Now that we are able, these last 150 years, to identify with the pre-christian faith systems per se, can we even willingly give away the nationalist/cultural bias that must come with it? Germans will be German whether they are Asatruermenn or Lutheran. Same for the English or the Basque or the Nyoongar. Powerful differences exist and it leads some people to devote their lives to finding out where their true feeling of nation lies. Recognising these differences is not the same as claiming superiority. Their recognition empowers people to combine culture, race and religion in a way not accessible to Christians outside of the Biblical Holy Land.
I would like to point out that I acknowledge that a person's personal descent is a sticky subject. Many African-Americans have Welsh blood from their living for many generations in towns populated by anti-slavery taeogy Cymru people (Cymru people from Wales had in previous centuries their own slave like caste system called the Taeog, who lived in towns referred to as Taeogdrefi. This naturally made them poorly disposed to slave owning after the dismantling of the Cymru caste system). Latino people similarly have ancestry from a variety of areas, from Aztlan to Spain or further afield. This makes personal quests to trace lineage important, but that is not always possible, particularly if the person is from a slavery background. So before a flame war starts telling me how many ways I'm a racist, bear in mind that I am making an argument. That is "Do we have the right, as Pagans and Heathens, to take away the element of nationalistic pride from ourselves, when we have only just gotten it back, in its Pagan/Heathen form?"

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Another issue is encountering when some Europeans believe that Americans of European descent should embrace the local Native Spirituality. How impossible that would be in most cases and highly suspect in the others. It astounded me that they did not really hold that the old European Gods were portable that way. And there was an idea that if one was not born physically not only to a certain ethnic heritage but also in a specific regional area, that one had no call to be associated with those entities or the symbolisms associated with them.

As an American I have encountered not only Racism within the Asatru Community and Anti-Semitism--though not as bad as it could have been, still bad enough, and a fair share of sexism which was shocking to me at the time, but undeniable. But also I have encountered a kind of Racism from the Native Peoples here as well. That no one who has a magickal practice outside that of a Medicine person could be authentic and powerful in their own right. The Natives need to make up their mind. They do not want Anglos appropriating their symbols--fair enough for me, but also Many Natives do not allow for Anlgos to occupy any parallel nonChristian system either. It is as if {and who could blame them} they want to be completely divorced from Anglo Culture spiritually speaking. Its funny how incredibly tangled up it is in a variety of isms, and attitudes and cultures.
American Christians of any ethnicity will assume that because I am white, I must be Christian. That is annoying all by itself for a variety of reasons.

As an American with a variety of ethnic bloodlines--I find that I just do not fit into any of the above categories due to ethnicity, appearance, gender, spirituality, and feelings of fairness. I would rather be alone than put up with racism, antiSemitism, or sexism.

Travis said...

"The Vikings were all about expansion and connection to other parts and peoples of the world, were they not? "

I think we have to be careful not to assume that the reason the Vikings were expanding and trading was anything more than a people taking advantage of an economic opportunity. Of course, there were social and cultural reasons for trading and raiding in foreign parts but they were less about finding connections to the rest of the world than they were about improving one's standing inside their own community. In short, the norsemen took advantage of a business opportunity. It seems clear that there were opportunities for a brave and clever trader to circumvent the Moors. Cutting out the middle man is a time honored way to increase one's trade profits.

Matt BP said...

I'm reading Goddess of the North by Lynda Welch at the moment, but I'm finding her writing style a little bit, well... girly. It would appear from her description that the Goddess is only capable of a soft nurturing schnuggly love bubble and has little dimension beyond that. Shouldn't the Goddess be all things to all humanity? Certainly the Celtic equivalent is - she is nurturing and loving, true, but she is lustful, wrathful and there with you from birth to death. If that is the same for the Northern Goddess, then as all things to all humanity, she most certainly surpasses trivial things like geography and skin colour. In a way, the Catholics love her as Mary, who gave life and was present at death. Eerily pale too, just like a Robert Gravesian Death Goddess. Mind you it was Catholicism that ruined the Vikings, made them care about the other guy.

Harold said...

The way I understand it, nationalism in Europe is actually fairly recent and is usually connected up to the Romantics (1800s), who saw folkways as a possible source of inspiration for lit, art, and music. Before that, Europeans were more interested in being pan-European and in seeing the commonalities of educated people across the board, peasants be damned. Latin was the lingua franca not just because of the Church but because of the unity of the educated classes. Plenty of what we now see as nations were not nations for most of their history. For most of its history, for example, Germany was not a nation but comprised of many duchies, dukedoms, etc., and cultural and even language differences could be significant. Bavarian German to this day remains a dialect that can be incomprehensible to a German from elsewhere, just as one example. Italy had the same thing going on--lots of different types of Italian spoken that were not mutually intelligible, lots of small nations, each with their own folkways. So if we are going to talk about having a "right" to identify nationally, that right is going to be limited to a very small number of people who can trace all of their ancestors back to at least the same small principality and preferably the same town. I really doubt that 99% of Americans, Canadians, Australians, or any other folk living in a country filled up by European immigrants can do that. We are what we are--mutts. It is better to recognize the advantages of that, IMO.

Matt BP said...

Celtic Paganism teaches us that all people come from somewhere else, ie we're all mutts anyway.
I was reading about the Norse Goddess Nott last night (ironically enough come to think of it seeing as night is her speciality). Her skin and hair are black. Does this make her more accessible to black skinned humans? Perhaps.
Personally I have no particular concerns about what faith a person wants to follow, even if it isn't the faith of their ancestors. I haven't followed a Pagan path because my Irish ancestors were only converted in the 1600's. I follow it because it feels right to me.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Matt BP wrote: "...the Goddess is only capable of a soft nurturing schnuggly love bubble and has little dimension beyond that."

Yick! I mean its nice when you can get it but, sheesh, how often does THAT happen!

Okay back to serious discussion. How many people here have either gotten a DNA test or considered getting one, just to see what pops up?

And if you did, if you got a return for a racial type that you didn't expect---would you be excited or mortified? I am going on a hunch that many of you will be excited and curious. I know I would be, but I can just imagine some branches of my family tree having kitten expelling fits if any markers came up that were SubSaharan {referencing that one drop rule mentioned in another comment section on this blog}.

The first chance I have the spare 250 $, I am going to do it. I think it would be great fun.

Also how much of the Racism issue actually stems from Individual Family Traditions or even Churches of Origin, and are carry overs into modern Paganism?

Matt BP said...

I've looked into that too. I think it would be great. My mum's family (the Pagan side) wouldn't mind what popped up, they have Anglo-Italian, Romany and Indian in them anyway. My Dad's family would probably expel kittens. Mind you, my dad would probably start wearing a pride t-shirt after a while.

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