The Neopagan community today is an odd combination of a publisher’s Summerland and a publisher’s Hel. There are wildly popular markets and bewildering hundreds upon thousands of books on some Pagan topics—cookbook-style spell books, books promising an instant cool factor and a good many serious books on specific gods, goddesses, methods and re-constructionist traditions. But there are some areas of great interest and concern that are untouchable, effectively off-limits to most publishers.
One of those issues is the quagmire of Neopagan race politics. It’s a scary swamp of murky definitions, guilt, fear, hate and accusations—cultural appropriation, stifled multiculturalism, isolated Santerians, Neo-Nazis masquerading as re-constructionist Heathens and lots and lots of white people confused about the concept of being a “minority” versus having “privilege.”
There is no conceivable way to enter this swamp without being criticized from one quarter or another (or all at once). It reminds me of writing articles from the interethnic war zones of the former Yugoslavia. The only way I knew I was even slightly on track was when I worked very hard to understand every side and then everyone was angry when I went to press. When one side was totally happy with me, I worried.
That makes me think the book Bringing Race to the Table, which tackles the issue of race in the Neopagan community is doing a damned good job in a difficult crossfire. There is no way that anyone will be 100 percent happy with all of the opinions expressed in this anthology, because the authors don’t all agree with one another on all issues.
I would give this book top marks, five stars or whatever the equivalent, not because I agree with everything in the book. I have some quibbles. But because it does an excellent job of tackling such an incredibly difficult issue. And my quibbles are all on matters in which I agree with some of the authors but not others. I learned a massive amount by reading this book.
Being white, I learned fast and hard during the first half of the book, which reflects more the perspectives of people of color in Neopagan communities and I squirmed uncomfortably at times in the second half which reflects more the perspectives of white people. But this anthology represents most essentially an act of great courage both by the publisher and the authors, treading into a minefield and making a blessed good stab a very hard task.
As a white Pagan who is part of a racially mixed family, I have become convinced over the past five years that the issue of race is the Achilles heel of the Euro-centric Neopagan movement. I believe that we either solve this problem, clean the skeletons out of our closets and lay them to rest or our movement will go the way of the Flower Children, to be remembered by future generations as a short fling with reinvigorating ancient Paganism, an attempt that was doomed by deficits in spiritual depth and inclusivity.
Is Paganism a fashion statement or a religion? That is the question and oddly enough race is at the core of it. Many Neopagans have been hiding from the issue of race, pretending that “European Paganism,” which somehow ended up including Egyptian, Romani (Gypsy), Middle Eastern, Classical, Celtic and Heathen Paganism but nothing else is somehow distinct as a “religion” and that we can clearly identify a tradition, a goddess, a culture or an individual as “European” or not. In this paradigm race becomes a non-issue because the nature of this “religion” is that it originated in Europe.
I hate to break it to those folks, but Egypt is not in Europe anymore than Nigeria is. And there is nothing all that unique or unified about European Pagan traditions. Celtic traditions share a lot of similarity with Native American beliefs. Most Pagan traditions worldwide share many similar tenants and often eerily similar details in mythology. Any line we draw around one continent’s Paganism is an arbitrary line and thus a line that cuts open the can of worms called “race,” no matter how hard we try to hold it closed.
The trouble Neopagans have with race begins with the fact that we don’t talk about race. When Moon Books sought to create an anthology of Pagan thought in the 21st century and titled it Pagan Planet (not Pagan Anglo-Empire), they forgot to include anything about non-European Pagans. It’s an all too common pitfall.
But worse than that, some Pagans do talk about race—just carefully and when it is about the white race. During recent racially charged incidents in the United States and Europe, I have seen several news items posted on Pagan forums with emotive posts in support of white parties in the conflicts, but I have not seen Pagan posts sympathetic to victims of crime who are people of color.
When I recently posted a news item critical of white supremacist groups in the United States on my own page (and thus not intruding on specifically Pagan forums) I was insulted and shamed by several members of Neopagan groups to which I belong who noticed my page. This may seem little different from the regular verbal sparring over political and social issues that goes on every day on social media, but after long observation on Pagan forums, a pattern emerges in which most members of Neopagan groups are silent about injustices against people of color.
A vocal minority in the Neopagan on-line community shames and attacks those who speak up for people of color while posting their own racially charged items that favor people of white appearance. No one in turn shames or insults these white-favorable posts in Neopagan forums. Those of us who dislike such posts generally want to keep the peace and we hope the racist end of the Neopagan community will somehow just go away. In the end, there is an atmosphere where discussions of racial tensions in society is taboo with the exception of posts favorable to white-supremacist and European-heritage-only Pagan groups. It is difficult to imagine that people of color could feel comfortable in such a community.
The lack of a non-European perspective in the book Pagan Planet is a clear symptom of the problem. A book that references the whole planet, that is supposed to take a broad look at Paganism in the twenty-first century, published by a respected Pagan publisher—one of the most up-to-date books of its type—contains almost no mention on race. That’s why we needed Bringing Race to the Table, edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood and Brandy Williams.
Crystal Blanton describes some of the things that people of color encounter when attending Neopagan meetings and events: “From strange, questioning looks when someone walks into circle to asking a Hispanic practitioner if she is the maid at a Pagan event, all of these types of interactions happen within our community.”
There is a difficult interethnic tension in the very term “Pagan.” Many non-European indigenous religions that would otherwise fit the definition of an earth-based polytheistic spirituality, are not considered Pagan either because their adherents vocally reject the Pagan label or because European Neopagans fear that they might be offended. Thus Hindus, Native American spiritual practitioners, Santerians and many others are often not considered “Pagan,” despite fitting all of the definition except the “European” part.
Blanton theorizes that the root cause of incidents that are unwelcoming of people of color is inherent in this assumption that European Paganism is the norm in the Neopagan definition: “The fundamental assumption that we are attempting to integrate into a community that is not ours is the root of all these microaggressions. The Eurocentric construction of the Pagan community lends to a structure that coincides with greater society, making Caucasian the default, the overculture. This structure automatically “others” people of color.”
There are some corners of the Neopagan community where groups openly state that they are only open to those of European heritage, justifying themselves by saying that there are groups which are only open to those of Native American or African heritage and insisting that they wish to have an authentic Re-constructionist experience of their ancestral spirituality.
Blanton explains, “I was recently told that I could not join a specific group of Heathen practitioners because I was not of European descent. When I challenged that, and actually concluded that I was [of European descent], I was told I still could not participate because I was not of ‘primary European descent.’ When I asked how that was measured, I was not given an answer that was consistent among those who would apply. In the end, I concluded that looks would be the determining factor of whether someone was of primary European descent, and although I would not qualify, my son would because of his sandy hair and blue eyes.”
I personally have encountered a related problem. As an obviously white person with light-colored hair, I was allowed to attend several Neopagan events in Central Europe until local groups met my children, who have darker skin and hair. Then I was given the cold shoulder and told that only European practices and deities were acceptable, even as organizers of the event held a large ritual honoring Egyptian gods. Somehow European Neopagans have decided that Egypt is part of European, not African, heritage.
Genetic exclusivity is a thorny issue, because there are indigenous spiritual groups from many continents who maintain genetic exclusivity as a means of protecting their cultural and spiritual treasures from continued exploitation and colonization by those in possession of greater wealth and power. This is one of the areas where I disagree with some authors in Bringing Race to the Table. I understand that there are good reasons people of color must protect indigenous traditions and European Neopagans don’t encounter the same pressures.
However, the world is now full of racially mixed individuals such as Blanton as well as the descendants of indigenous individuals who were removed from their culture of origin and either adopted or “reeducated” in boarding schools and other institutions. These individuals, both mixed race and those whose cultural heritage has been stolen or hidden from them (and thus who may not even know of their genetic background) are harmed most by genetic exclusivity. Beyond that, many people of European heritage now live on land that was stolen from indigenous peoples many generations before. While wallowing in guilt over what one’s distant ancestors did helps no one, to simply transplant European Neopagan traditions to these lands and utterly ignore the indigenous traditions of the land on which one lives feels callus and simply spiritually wrong.
The issue of cultural appropriation is related, however, and it causes significant confusion in Neopagan communities. Unlike the few genetically exclusive groups, most Neopagans insist that they want more people of color in their circles and that because they embrace various parts of Native American, Asian or African cultures or spiritual teachings, they are multicultural and welcoming of people of different races. The problem is that this very adoption of bits and pieces from other cultures (and most often the adoption of the titles of spiritual leaders such as “Shaman” or “Medicine Woman” and identifying one’s self as one of these without clear knowledge of even which culture the term belongs to) is often felt as a slap in the face by people of color. It can feel like the flaunting of the spoils of colonialism and when those from outside the culture set up shop as teachers of an indigenous culture in order to profit from their incomplete knowledge, it adds insult to injury.
Neopagans often struggle with these issues, trying to be sensitive to indigenous cultures but feeling the need to connect beyond cultural boundaries. Yvonne Ryves writes about her shamanic practice that is guided by spirit allies of various cultures: “My guides are also not Celtic, nor is the shamanism I practice. In fact my shamanism still doesn’t link to any particular culture, but this no longer concerns me. As I am taught by my guides I may learn something that links to the culture they are from, for example early on, my Native American guide taught me how to make an offering to bird spirits with sage and feathers. This doesn’t make my shamanism Native American in any way though, especially as I make my own sage bundles from the sage I have growing in my garden, working with the spirit of that which is native to where I live.”
While such practices are well-meant and authentic to the practitioner, adopting a term such as “Shaman” and using it out of context—Shamanism technically is Central Asian and does not refer to all out-of-body journeying techniques—can make people from indigenous cultures mentioned uncomfortable and thus alienate them from Pagan circles, where they might otherwise find an appropriate umbrella for their spirituality.
As a result, some among both whites and people of color insist that cultural appropriation occurs when those not born to or given primary access to a certain tradition use the symbols, teachings, terminology or practices of that tradition. However, this is another area where the authors of Bringing Race to the Table don’t have consensus. Reluctant Spider, a writer of African heritage, rejects the rigid genetic/ethnic measurement of cultural appropriation. She points out that unbiased application is impossible when some Greek myths have African origins and even Thor has ties to Ethiopia.
Several authors of Bringing Race to the Table struggle to define the exact boundaries of cultural appropriation. Is it a question of power imbalance, when those with greater access to education, wealth and leisure time take what they want from those with less resources for spiritual study? Is it the cherry picking of only some terms, images or misrepresented concepts from other cultures and interpreting them through the lens of one’s own culture? Is it when the mystery of another culture is used for gain, whether to sell something or to claim titles and positions of spiritual authority? There is no easy answer but the common theme seems to be the attitude and respect with which we interact with other cultures. Neopagans do often give that respect when taking from other sources but sometimes they don’t.
Paradoxically, the final reason that people of color often don’t feel welcome in Neopagan communities is a lack of respectful and culturally sensitive inclusion of the deities, terms and practices of non-European earth-based traditions. Essentially, there must be some respectful cultural integration in order for Neopaganism to become inclusive.
For instance, most encyclopedias of deities popular in the Neopagan community either put the vast majority of their focus on European and classical deities or include deities of various continents with the conspicuous exception of sub-Saharan Africa. Naming the Goddess, edited by Trevor Greenfield is an example. The latest edition of the Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines by Patricia Monagham includes some African deities but they are only either Egyptian or African diaspora deities and this is the far progressive end of the spectrum with countless books entirely devoted to northern European and classical deities.
Reluctant Spider, one of the authors of Bringing Race to the Table, set up an objective experiment to determine the acceptance and placement of non-European deities and images in the Neopagan community. Because so much of the community is on-line, the on-line reflection of the community can be assumed to be fairly true of overall attitudes. And because the rankings of Google searches are based primarily on popularity statistics, such searches can accurately reflect what is appreciated in a community, as well as what has the backing of major organizations and funders. Therefore, Reluctant Spider used Google Image searches as an objective measure of the prevalence of images of non-European deities in 2014. She searched for specific terms and then counted the number of images of Caucasian deities one had to pass by in order to reach a single image of a non-European deity.
First she simply entered the term “Goddess.” After 21 images of European goddesses, she encountered one Native American goddess. After two more, at number 23, she encountered a Hindi image. There were 35 images before she found a goddess image with skin dark enough to be conceivably African, although the image had European nose and lip features as well as bright green eyes. After 65 images she finally encountered a tree nymph with a green leafy afro. There were occasionally other Hindu images as well as Egyptian iconography, but there were no other black African goddess images. She stopped counting at 200.
While a Google Image search is a reasonably objective tool Reluctant Spider’s first search was simply the term “Goddess” and it would not only produce results from Neopagan sites or forums. It would produce all images associated with the term “Goddess.” She also entered the search terms “Black Goddess,” “African Goddess,” “African American Goddess,” and “Latina Goddess.” Instead of resulting in a flood of more culturally diverse goddess images, these terms resulted in lists of images featuring secular celebrities and sexualized models. Then she tried “White Goddess” and she was returned to actual goddess images, primarily those of the Neopagan community with a scattering of historical sites. But of course the real test was when she put in the term “Pagan Goddess.” In this case there were no results showing a goddess resembling an African within 200 results. (Reluctant Spider 2015, 8-9%)
Clearly, filtering the original search for Neopagan sites resulted in an even more extreme lack of multicultural images. I have unintentionally replicated these experiments many times while searching for appropriate Goddess images for my racially mixed family and coming up frustrated. It is important to remember that it is the actions and preferences of millions of Google users—what they share and pay attention to—that is reflected in such a Google Images search. This makes these results all the more troubling. We have no one to blame it on and it is very likely to be a true reflection of the aesthetics preferred by most English-speaking Pagans today.
After reading Bringing Race to the Table, I must conclude that the Neopagan community falls woefully short of meaningful inclusivity at the present time. While the authors sometimes don’t agree with one another, their differences are invariably about details, such as the exact definition of “cultural appropriation.”
Blanton argues that this unfortunate state of affairs will not change until Neopagans openly take action for racial inclusivity: “We cannot pretend that our spirituality makes us decent people if we are not out there fighting to make things right in areas of inequity for people of color. We justify away what makes us uncomfortable. We also excuse rules, prejudices and guidelines that eliminate the participation of people of color. Then the community ignores the lack of black and brown faces in our circles or conventions, excusing it away instead of exploring it.”
Bringing Race to the Table is the best source of material for investigating these issues at present. I wish it could be required reading for all Neopagans. Given that that won’t happen, I hope that Neopagans who do care about these issues will read it and be vocal about the problems. Our future depends on it.
“The road forward in an inclusive community would have to start with an honest evaluation of how our actions are causing intentional and often unintentional harm by setting a culture that is not welcoming or embracing of those who do not fall within the walls of our Euro-centric overculture,” Blanton writes.