Thursday, March 06, 2008

Pledge of the Goddess Community on Racism

A group of feminists have started a petition: Pledge of the Goddess Community on Racism. Reading the announcement over on Jason Pitzl-Waters' Wild Hunt blog, I was hoping, even assuming, this was something I could gladly sign on to. However, reading it left me with concerns.

While I applaud the intentions of the people who wrote this pledge, I won't be signing it, for a number of reasons. One reason is this statement:

"I pledge to include in Goddess conferences the indigenous people of the locality or territory where conferences are held, and to reference and honor their deities. That is, I myself will make every effort to invite speakers and participants of the people indigenous to the area and of other ethnic groups."

Unfortunately, and I assume this was not the intent of the authors, this statement (particularly, "I pledge to ... reference and honor their deities.") could easily be interpreted as encouraging cultural appropriation and tokenism. It's not appropriate for people not of a particular culture to "honor" those people by mimicking their rituals. And for whites to organize an event and then invite people from indigenous cultures to participate is essentially racist. For true cross-cultural, anti-racist participation and mutual respect, power has to be equally shared. If legitimate Indigenous groups want to co-organize an event with white Pagans, that is different. But the Indigenous people can't be treated like tokens or outsiders; they have to be in on the decision-making processes from the very beginning of the organizational process, not brought in as an afterthought to assuage the appearance of racism. Their standards have to be respected, and the gathering has to also serve the people of their communities, not just white people.

Too many times I've seen these sorts of intentions wind up in a sole Native or African person being invited to basically perform for white people. That is tokenism.

Which brings us to who is a "legitimate" representative. White Pagans often have trouble understanding this, but traditional communities have recognized leaders and elders, and set protocols about how to handle things. Joe Indigenous who you met in a bar in Flagstaff is probably in no position to make official statements for anyone but himself. A person from one Nation has no authority over practices from a different Nation. You have to look to the traditional, authorized leaders and elders in that specific community. If in doubt, call the tribal offices and ask them. Most of them have websites now.

I also fear that some of the things in this "Pledge on Racism" will encourage frauds and shameons to volunteer, and that the white Pagans, so happy to have their white guilt assuaged, will not do the groundwork to figure out if the person who has volunteered is actually in a position to represent their Nation. This especially happens when an unethical person of Indian ancestry (or who can pass as one) decides to exploit the ignorant white people. Yup, just because they're Native doesn't mean they're a leader among their people.

As far as Celtic Reconstructionism goes, yes, if you are not already a part of the living cultures, you have to find your way back. This starts by listening and being an ally to those who are part of the living cultures, and having patience. Study is part of it, and personal and group spiritual practice, but it is also about cultural identity. Being CR is not about just reading some Celtic books, it's about identity, immersion, and how you live your life. Some CRs start with only distant ancestry, others with more of a cultural connection. But the idea is to preserve what we can of the living cultures, while fleshing out the polytheistic aspects that have been neglected. It's not about eclecticism or making stuff up. I sometimes worry about those who are only looking to the "older", fragmented things from the very distant past, because in some cases I think they are trying to avoid accountability to anyone but the voices in their heads.

And while the whole "blood" thing is sort of a taboo thing to discuss, it actually means a lot to most traditional Native Americans. The elders and other traditionals I've asked, of a handful of Nations, have all agreed that first we have to honor our own ancestors. A number of white people have said that we have to "honor" the ways of those who are indigenous to the areas where we live (by mimicking them); however, when I've asked the living, Indigenous people who have maintained these ways, they have all found that attitude very odd, laughable even, and said it's our own ancestors we have to honor, that it's the ways of our ancestors we are meant to follow.

If someone believes that a deity or spirit of a culture of which they are not a part has shown up to talk to them, if they are truly committed to following up on that contact, I believe it is their duty to approach that culture on it's own terms, if the traditionals will have them. But usually when I hear this from white Pagans, they don't want to do any such thing. They usually want to be the one to set the terms. They aren't interested in being true, long-term allies to traditional Indigenous peoples. They want to just read some books written by outsiders and try to integrate the bits they like about that spirit or culture into their lives. That's not honoring, that's appropriation.

Anyway, I know that at least some of those who have signed this pledge know these things, so I'm a bit surprised they signed it with that wording. Again, I applaud the intent, but something like that needs to be better thought-out before being put out for signatories.

No comments: