Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Racism, Heathenry, and Frith

Available in German, translation by Erin Banks

Over the last few weeks there has been a virtual explosion of activity, discussion, and debate on the question of racism in Paganism.  These recent discussions kicked off on August 19th when the blog Who Makes the Nazis published a piece on Stella Natura, a rock festival attended and endorsed by a number of racist and neo-Nazi acts, which was followed on the same day by the first of a four part series by the Circle Ansuz collective on the beliefs, ideas, and associations of Stephen McNallen and the Asatru Folk Assembly.  A Wild Hunt Community Notes update on August 20th reported on the Circle Ansuz piece while the Who Makes the Nazis article was circulated on social media by a number of different Pagan bloggers.

Four days later Piparskeggr Skald, a prominent AFA member, posted a blog entry titled, "A short note on my associations" at Witches & Pagans which began with, "I am a man who freely admits that I am most comfortable with folks who resemble me most strongly".  Morpheus Ravenna, another blogger on Witches & Pagans, swiftly responded with the excellent rebuttal Whose Ancestors.  Due the controversy which erupted over these entries the Piparskeggr piece was deleted in its entirety while Morpheus Ravenna's post was removed because according to her, "It was subsequently deleted by the site’s editor, Anne Newkirk Niven, specifically in order to censor its content, because she objected to my calling the AFA a racist organization."  The very next day John Beckett added his voice to the debate on Patheos joining Ravenna and other anti-racist Pagan voices like author Thorn Coyle in their condemnation of racist and racialist ideology in Paganism.  On Wednesday, September 11th Sam Warren joined in, neatly summarizing the fallacies and falsehoods of racialist practice at Witches & Pagans while providing the only online record of Piparskeggr's words.

The handling of this, in particular Witches & Pagans' decision to censor Morpheus Ravenna and destroy all record of Pipparskegr's racist statements, is unfortunately in many ways par for the course in the Pagan and Heathen communities.  As is often the case in the Heathen community whenever the issues of racism, racialist affiliations, or fascist sympathies come up the first response from those in positions of authority is nearly always, "Don't break the frith!"  Regardless of whatever vile, morally repugnant, or outright false claims are being made what is most important is not causing a scene.  The wider Pagan community shares a similar discomfort with rocking the boat for fear that if we cause too much trouble then we'll capsize our collective ship.  What this line of reasoning fails to consider is if keeping an even keel is a good idea when someone's hijacked the helm and is setting course for the nearest cliff.

Thankfully this attitude is no longer the norm as the fully justified outcry has demonstrated.  Unfortunately the recent outcry is, compared to previous incidents, the exception to the rule.  For every Pagan who has spoken out on this issue there are many more Heathen leaders, teachers, and authors who have remained silent for fear of breaking frith.  This in spite of the fact that everyone in the Heathen community who knows anything and pays attention to word of mouth has heard at least one hair-raisingly racist story about Stephen McNallen and the AFA.  A personal friend of mine has their experience of being asked by AFA officers NOT to use their Hispanic last name in their email handle on AFA discussion lists because it would cause problems.  Another Heathen relates of the time they were informed by an AFA group, in no uncertain terms, they could not guarantee their safety if they chose to attend an AFA blot solely because of the color of their skin.  There is also the infamous recent incident where Stephen McNallen completely covered for AFA members who were busted attending a white supremacist conference and the notorious Wotan vs. Tezcatlipoca article posted on the Asatru Folk Assembly's official blog.

These stories are not unique; if anything they're distressingly common.  It's not as if there is any great mystery on the subject as to how he feels or what his organization stands for. The only thing recent discussion and blog posts have done is put it all together; of the allegations and examples given by Circle Ansuz the only ones which were surprises to me and other Heathens were his palling around with Afrikaner death squads and the rumors of some kind of coup in Forn Sidr Denmark which some friends of mine in Scandinavia have confirmed as disturbingly true.  Sadly these latest charges Circle Ansuz has put forward, far from being an unusual exception, are directly in line with many of the other ugly facts which have been swarming around McNallen and his cohorts for years. 

Considering these recent actions I feel binding ourselves to some illusory peace which the other side clearly has no intention of respecting is foolish in the extreme.  Our community is growing and becoming increasingly visible.  As one example of this we have a recent survey by Indiana University of Pennsylvania which pegs Wicca as the fifth largest and fastest growing religion in the United States.  Now, granted, most Pagans do not identify as Wiccans and in spite of their high visibility it would be safe to say Wicca is at best a very large plurality in the Pagan community.  That said it is likely the minds behind this project, not knowing or being too concerned about the distinctions between Pagan practices, lumped a lot of Pagans under the Wicca umbrella and called it a day.  Even if they didn't the fact that Wicca alone, which is only the tip of the Pagan and Heathen iceberg, is bigger than Buddhism in America implies the whole Pagan community is even larger.

The result is that it is very likely Heathenry will be coming under the scrutiny of mainstream society within the next decade.  In popular culture things Viking-related, ranging from the recent Thor movies to the History Channel's series on the Vikings, are already making themselves more visible to the public.  For now most of the attention is on the usual stuff but it is only a matter of time before they start asking serious, probing questions about our ideas, practices, and the makeup of our community.  The moment they see our community not only has a large, vocal racist tendency but on top of that the rest of the community treating it like an invisible two ton gorilla it is highly unlikely broader society is going to draw any distinctions between the racialists and everyone else.  If you don't believe me just hop on over to any Pagan group out there and ask if people think Heathens are all racists; you'll be picking your jaw up off the floor after the first flood of comments subsides and that's coming from a community that knows us better than society at large does.

To this issue the racialists and their apologists, defenders, and enablers inevitably cry, "You're a hypocrite!  How can you call for tolerance on one hand while denouncing Folkish practice on the other!  You're the real racist here, not us!"

Of course these screams and protests miss the point completely.  In making this argument they imply those who take a tolerant position MUST accept all viewpoints regardless of the actions, consequences, and implications of those positions.  By arguing those opposed to racist and racialist practice are the real bigots they are twisting the meaning of two important words into something completely different from what they mean.

As a point of fact here is the definition of tolerance as per dictionary.com:

1. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry.
2. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one's own.
3. interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one's own; a liberal, undogmatic viewpoint.

And here is the definition of bigotry:

noun, plural big·ot·ries.
1. stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one's own.
2. the actions, beliefs, prejudices, etc., of a bigot.

Having consulted this very simple, easy to verify fact it is clear claiming that any individual who does not meet the appropriate blood descent criteria may not practice Heathenry, based on no actual set standard or uniform practice, fits squarely under the heading of bigotry.  Furthermore there is nothing in the definition of tolerance which suggests the tolerant must tolerate those who actively work to force their prejudices on others. 

Here they will try to make claims and arguments that racist, ethnocentric determinations for spirituality are not racist because there's plenty of other cultures that do it.  They are often quick to cite Judaism and Native American practice as two prominent examples.  From here they claim those opposed to racism are being hypocritical, arguing the tolerant are denouncing white people for doing what is endorsed when it's done by non-white people so therefore it makes their actions ok.

This is, yet again, a gross distortion of the facts.  As I've discussed previously citing Judaism and Native American practice as justification does not hold water.  In the case of Native Americans the blood quotient system was not an organic development of the myriad of cultures which fall under that broad umbrella but was imposed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as one tool of many used to break the last vestiges of resistance following their near-extermination and confinement to reservations.  Judaism, similarly, accepts converts in even the most Orthodox of branches.

While it is technically true there is a definite practice based on specific descent what the racialists completely miss is this descent is not based on ethnicity.  Unlike the Asatru Folk Assembly and other prominent Folkish advocates who have no set standard, consistent measurement, or other uniform approach for determining the "correct" amount of Germanic descent to participate Native American tribes and the Judaic practice have very specific rules for this.  In Judaism one is considered part of the community and is accepted into the faith without question if at least one of their parents is also Jewish.  It doesn't matter where the parent is from, what color their skin is, or which Jewish tradition they come from if one parent is Jewish then their child has the right to make the same claim.  In Native American practice the specifics vary wildly from tribe to tribe but what they all have in common is a specific, quantifiable claim such as requiring proving descent from a specific group of people or verifying a specific level of verified descent from the tribe in question.  Even in the case of the Scottish clans, an example from my heritage, the only requirements for being a member of a clan is proving descent from Scotland and having a surname which is part of a recognized clan.

On a deeper level the problem of racialism and racism in our community isn't just an issue of the lack of justification for the proponents' claims or the shame society as a whole will heap on Heathenry and Paganism when they really start paying attention.  Racism, prejudice, and bigotry in many ways are head-first at odds with the core of Heathen ethical practice.  As Heathens we are encouraged by the Eddas to boldly face obstacles, struggle, and challenges to our communities, seek out knowledge and experiences so we may grow as individuals and as a community, and live every moment knowing our honor is the sum of our speech and actions.

Those who wallow in shallow, artificial prejudices do so in defiance of these virtues.  By fearing others based on superficial differences they forsake their courage living the life of the craven coward quivering in fear of their fellow human beings.  In shutting themselves off from vast swaths of the world they atrophy their minds letting ignorance, myopia, and dogma reign.  Above all else their speech and actions seeking to propagate their brand of hatred not only shames their own honor, by calling themselves Heathens it brings unwarranted shame on the whole of the Folk.

It is long past time for the Heathen community to stand up to these honorless cowards.  They have made it plain they see it as a holy mission to drag as many as they can into their fold.  The co-optation and purge in Denmark shows no matter what noises they and their apologists make for frith and community they will not respect the boundaries set by others.  This will not be easy, quick, or painless by any stretch of the imagination.  Many fear what may come of a genuine struggle to redeem the honor of our Folk, seeing the price as too high.

Yet in spite of these understandable reservations events have made it clear the price of doing nothing is far steeper than the price of doing something.  It is time we heed the example of the wisdom of the lore, all of our ancestors, and of the Holy Powers and take necessary action.  As is eloquently stated in the Sayings of the High One:

The sluggard believes he shall live forever,
If the fight he faces not;
But age shall not grant him the gift of peace,
Though spears may spare his life.

Havamal 16


  1. You're absolutely right about the need to stand up to racist bigots, but *how* does one challenge ugly, entrenched mindsets that rely on knee-jerk emotional reactions? Everything you say is correct but a lot of people don't let logic get in the way of their need to be a special snowflake. I'm asking because the racial attitudes of some of my kinsmen are making it hard to justify remaining in my kindred or in the larger Heathen community. If there is a future for me here, I have to figure out how to be a more effective anti-racist ally.

    1. Three words:

      Educate, organize, mobilize!

      First educate the community and others of the problem. The racialists are visible and vocal but they are not as numerous as they appear to be. There are a lot of younger, less connected Heathens out there who aren't racists; many in fact stay out of the loop deliberately because of that problem. Others they snag are usually ignorant of the true implications of what they're hearing; education is a powerful tool for defeating that.

      Second is organize Heathens who are opposed to the racist tendency in Heathenry into cohesive groups which can build community and alternatives to the racists, slowly but surely sucking the oxygen out of the room that they need to operate. An example of a group like that is Heathens United Against Racism but there are plenty of others. What matters is this has to be bottom-up, people-powered organizing. Top-down is faster to get started but in the long run bottom-up, grassroots organizations are more flexible and enjoy far greater staying power once they get going.

      Third is to mobilize the resources of the educated, organized community into a series of actions to raise the profile of that community, make connections with others who oppose racist co-optation, and leverage the potential offered by a cohesive movement into whatever specific actions and campaigns are determined to be most effective, ranging from statements denouncing such practices to dis-association, boycotts of merchants who support them, and whatever else would be effective in strengthening the movement, weakening theirs, and growing public support.

      It won't be fast or easy but it's gotta be done.

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