Pagan Blog Project Week 48 X is for Xenophobia in NeoPaganism. (I decided just to go with PBP and pick up where they are at. I will be participating and making it a goal to complete a whole year of PBP next year, so onwards…)
Xenophobia is the fear or dislike of people who come from other countries perceived as strange, dark, or weird (negatively). I am extending “xenophobia” to mean the fear and/or dislike of people or beliefs from other countries and cultures for the purpose of this article. This fear often manifests in characterizations of those people, cultures, or traditions as evil, dark, strange, and weird. How many times have you heard something described as “weird” in the pagan community? Next time you say something like that take a minute to examine what you mean. Often when we find ourselves saying something is “strange” or “weird” we don’t mean anything particularly negative but what we really mean (and probably should say but I’m guilty of this as well) “I don’t understand” or “that does not make sense to me.” It’s okay not to understand something or to draw attention to concepts or practices you find problematic, we just need to be careful about how and why we do so.
In my professional life I work in grassroots political action. In 2008, I ran canvass offices all over the US endorsing the Obama-Biden ticket. I think that election really changed politics, attitudes, and the daily rhetoric here in the United States. In the spring of 2008, I graduated from university with my Women’s Studies, English, and Theology degrees excited and confident: I was READY to change the world. I was thrilled with the job but by the time I signed on in July, I had already witnessed the ugly side of American life. I can’t say I was surprised by the racism or sexism of the Clinton-Obama primary race but it left me doubtful if we are really “ready” for this as a nation. While I didn’t go in naïve about how racism, even “old school” racism, is still alive and present in the United States; I was somewhat sickened by the blatant displays of “old school” racism all over. I am sad, but not shocked, to see it happening again in 2012. From the GOP’s crowd shots on election night showing a sea of white faces, to the post election riots at Ole Miss and super racist tweets after the election old school racism is alive and well in this country. In an election where a presidential candidate has been called “Muslim,” “not a Christian” and the N-word, young unarmed black men are shot walking down their streets, and Sikhs are shot going to worship, we have to admit we are experiencing a very fear filled, xenophobic moment in national history in the United States.
We are products of history: especially if we “get stuck” in one time period and stop learning, growing, and changing. I hope this era is just a blip, or the death throes, of a kind of xenophobia and racism but that is only a hope. Through the eyes of history, xenophobia is a common reaction to difficult financial or unstable political times: the Nazi party (highly xenophobic) came to power in Germany during the recession of the 1930s. I bring this up because I think a historical perspective is important; perhaps this will help us put our own feelings into a wider perspective. The xenophobia the media bombards us with on a constant basis works at a subconscious level, and requires that in order to not buy into it we are constantly aware of it and re-affirming our own values.
Within the NeoPagan and Traditional Witchcraft communities I think there is a certain level of xenophobia. Often certain goddesses (Kali) get labeled “dark” when they are simply misunderstood or do not play into a cultural context we inherently understand. Another example is when groups discourage the worship or incorporation into ritual of certain deities like Buddha, Hindu deities, or other deities outside a cultural boundary. There is an inherent insistence that within our own cultures as Western Europeans there is “enough” in our own cultures. I do think sometimes we gravitate towards the gods and goddesses of our ancestors; that can and should be respected. It is easier to gravitate towards the god and goddesses that reflect our culture because we speak the same “language.” I already speak the Germanic-based languages and my own cultural heritage re-enforces Greek philosophy; I was raised with only a little Celtic folklore and no Celtic language. My Heathen friend raised in a traditional Scandinavian, Lutheran family thinks in the same cultural way his gods and goddesses represent. These reconstructed religions “fit” into our lives because of our own culture but that doesn’t make them “better.” However, there is a in some communities an assumption that ONLY those with a certain heritage should or are able to properly maintain relationships with these gods and goddesses. This idea of a necessary genetic link, for me, is problematic. Not only on a personal level because I am an American with a varied heritage but also because this is xenophobic. Not just the fear of those other cultures but the fear that people of other cultures will somehow pollute our traditions.
Most of us as NeoPagans are seeking to recreate a tradition that is lost. I agree with the sentiment we need to look towards “our own culture” first before we look into Native beliefs or Eastern beliefs. Cultural appropriation is kind of fetishization of a culture, you are attracted to it because of the “otherness”: similar to this guy I knew in college who only dated Asian women. Be careful not to take something from another culture before we truly understand where that culture is coming from. Cultural appropriation is a real problem in some parts of the NeoPagan community. Additionally, I can say from my experience there is much mystery, shamanism, exotic, danger, whatever one may see that would lead someone to fetishize another culture in European cultures. I think part of this reaction when someone brings up a culture that is “other”, many rush to defend their own tradition, but part of that also can be a fear of that other culture. We need to be careful to decide if we believe if others we identify with experiment with new practices and traditions ours will die out. We should accept that if our traditions and practices are good, relevant, and valid they will not disappear.
Religions are now and always have been constantly shifting: moving to different regions, cultures, and adapting. For a historical example of this we can look at the Christian Church. In the beginning there was a debate if non-Jews could become Christians. Paul decided that yes, the teachings of Jesus were universally true and thus non-Jews would be allowed to join this religion. I think we are at this “universal” point in NeoPaganism today, though certainly in the past there probably were more regional differences in beliefs and practices. While my own personal practices evolve with the land I live in, the seasons I experience, my gods and goddesses are universal: they reflect not just natural but human experiences. The gods are universal, but practices certainly are very personal. The NeoPagan community is a very accepting and affirming place but I think we all need to be aware of xenophobia and be careful to examine our beliefs about other cultures.