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The Lie of White Identity

GODS&RADICAL’S fiercest critics have accused the website’s writers of trying to bring about the conditions that will result in the end of white Polytheism, white culture, and white traditions.In my case, it turns out that they are right.   But not in the way that they think I mean.

“there are no white people . . “ – James Baldwin

 

WHITENESS began not as a racial or ethnic or national identity emerging from a people’s shared experience, but as a legal construct. Whiteness was designed to distinguish between poor English-speaking men brought to North America as indentured servants (after their communal lands were privatized by law and force) and people kidnapped from Africa and enslaved by the wealthy.

Neither group could vote before or after the “American revolution,” but the former Englishmen (and English-speaking lowland Scots) could eventually “earn” their freedom, buying their way into citizenship by acquiring land after paying off their bond. On the other hand, abducted Africans were doomed to spend their whole lives in slavery; in the rare event they were “granted” freedom by their enslavers, they still would not be welcomed as participants in civil society.

The intent and effect of legislating a new division of people was to create an overseer class, a class of poor “white” men who believed that they had an interest in enforcing the enslavement of Africans and their descendants.  Laws granted them a degree of privilege, the promise of greater wealth and freedom if they made society (including the torture of Black people and the eradiation of Indigenous people) continue to run smoothly.

Whiteness has its antecedent in the British colonial policy in Ireland which put displaced lowland Scots in the position of enforcing British rule. Ireland’s long internal conflicts are religious only to the degree that the Irish brand of Catholicism maintains elements of indigenous relationship to the land, while the Presbyterianism of the ethnically Scottish inhabitants of Ireland is sparser, more conventionally monotheistic, and bears no association with holy places or Pagan festivals. Many of the poor European people conscripted into enforcing slavery were members of this English-speaking Scottish diaspora, displaced again from the first land they were used to colonize, relocated to the American south.

FOR LATER generations of European immigrants, becoming white was a privilege granted only after passing through a painful process of assimilation, sacrificing identity, memory, custom, and language. They also had to agree to participate in the enforcement of white supremacism. James Baldwin wrote:

“No one was white before he/she came to America.  It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.”

My great-grandparents came from a colonized country where their language was outlawed and children were taken from their families to be indoctrinated in English.  My great-grandfather had taken up arms against the occuppiers.   My great-grandmother spoke no English even decades after the last other Irish speakers she knew had died.  They lived on the top of the highest hill in Lynn, MA, so they could always look down and see if anyone was coming for them.

It was the Ku Klux Klan that did come, burning a cross at High Rock Tower to try to drive the Irish out.  My grandfather watched while my great-grandfather kept him quiet and still.  To the Klan, the Irish were not white. Nor were they white to the Anglo-American Christians, including the famously liberal Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who vilified the Irish “race” a generation before.

My grandfather spoke no Irish. He worked for General Electric. In his lifetime an Irish-American became President. And he cursed the first and second generation immigrants from Europe who were not yet white – the Jews whose whiteness remains contested among the alt-right now.

So what is whiteness?  It is a thought form fed by blood sacrifice, fed by the life force of those of us who accept it is part of our identity. If there is a shared white experience, it only arises from hostility to the Other.  Whiteness is an overgrown egregore that has reified itself into political, economic, and social structures. It’s an entity that has become incarnate by possessing millions, many of them among the dispossessed, driving them to do its will  while convince them it is their own. As Baldwin writes:

“[They] have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white.”

The Error of White Polytheism

MY IRISH AND Swedish ancestors felt no more and no less commonality with each other than with the Tlingit or the Kogi or the Malians or the Viet Namese.   They did not conceive of themselves as European, much less as white.

They also did not work with the same gods or share the same rituals.

Some of the Daoine Sidhe came across the ocean on ships with my great grandparents (my father heard a Bean-Sidhe wailing the night my great-grandmother died), just as the Orisa and Loa travelled from Africa to the Americas in slave ships with the people who loved and honored them.  But the next generation had to cease acknowledging their presence if they wanted to be admitted to white society.

There is no white culture. While white supremacy helped spawn the creation of syncretic Black and pan-Native cultures that grew from shared lives and shared experience, the only experience shared by what Baldwin called “the people who believe they are white” is the experience of enforcing a system of domination.

The concept of white Polytheism or European Polytheism is ahistorical. The fact that such a concept is new does not inherently make it wrong – there are plenty of gorgeous traditions and practices and religions that have emerged in the last half-century or so.  But its roots in and its reinforcement of ideas of whiteness is inherently problematic.

Whitness, Baldwin asserted, is a moral choice. To choose to identify as white is to accede to continued exclusion and devaluation of Black, Brown, and Indigenous lives, and to be complicit in the continued ritual sacrifice of Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies to feed the egregore that is White America. In return for those sacrifices, it will continue to bless you with a very small portion of the power you yourself sacrificed to it, rather than excommunicating you.

Victor Anderson warned that if we have not dealt with our racist beliefs then we will be in danger when we stand before the gods. H.P. Lovecraft unraveled on encountering the beings he knew as the elder gods while holding on to his racist beliefs, we will will fare no better.

The belief in whiteness is the foundational racist belief. So I absolutely stand in opposition to white Polytheism. Any religious or spiritual movement that is based in white identity leads people to sacrifice power, sovereignty, and a part of their humanity to the egregore of whiteness.  And the world cannot afford for anyone to continue to believe that they are white.   The acknowledgement of whiteness as the legal and cultural fiction around which white supremacy was built is a necessary step in its dismantling, and in the preparation of those of us who have believed ourselves white to begin becoming allies and accomplices in the dismantling the brutal and continuing oppression that is founded on the lie of white identity.


Sean Donahue

instagramcapture_edc36932-d0dc-4eff-b259-7381fd88c18bSean Donahue is a highly neurodivergent wild forest creature who defies the seelie/unseelie binary. He lives on traditional Klickitat territory in Trout Lake, WA and has an herbal practice in Portland and Beaverton, OR. He is an initiated priest of the BlackHeart line of the Feri Tradition of witchcraft, and carrier of the Green Wand.


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Sean Donahue is one of the featured writers in A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred.

13 Comments »

  1. This is an interesting piece. I hadn’t come across ‘white polytheism’ until I read this. I identify as a Brythonic Polytheist of mainly English ancestry with white skin colour but would hate to see myself as part of the racist egregore of whiteness founded on the oppression of Other that you describe. Hence with other Brythonic Polytheists I’m keen to build a polytheism based on inclusivity that, whilst rooted in Brythonic culture and the British landscape and veneration of its deities, is not founded on racial identity – https://dunbrython.wordpress.com/2016/07/08/inclusivity-in-brythonic-polytheism/

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The question may be not only how we stop thinking of ourselves as white, but how we get other ethnic groups to stop seeing us as white as well. My ancestry is relatively free from being part of the white “culture of domination” of which you speak. There are no slave owners; no indentured servants. My mother’s family is descended from a Norman lord (he may have dominated other whites), and came from England by way of Canada two generations ago. My father’s family came from East German Saxony three generations ago and settled in New England as farmers. Other people have tagged me as white; certainly other races would tag me as white because of the color of my skin; the government has tagged me as white – what choice do I have in the matter?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Our heritage is so similar, if one generation back— my father worked for GE and my sister is learning Conaught Gaelic with great study while it was our Grandmother’s milk language. Although I have White Privilege (other peoples’ decision) we identify as Diaspora Irish; colour has very little to do with it except for the sunburn.

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  4. “just as the Orisha travelled from Africa to the Americas in slave ships and across Damballah’s rainbow bridge”

    just for the record, Damballah is a loa within Vodun, not an orisa, so the mixing of traditions is a lil inappropriate within this context, despite the fact that both sets of spirits certainly traveled w enslaved africans

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you Sean Donahue, this is a excellent articulation of the features of “whiteness” – how it came to be and where it is going. It bears repeating that “whiteness” was created in Europe first by a cadre of Anglo and Germanic patriarchs – anthropologists, ethnologists, scientists, aristocrats, intellectuals and statesmen – before the ideology was brought to the Americas. I am always struck by the irony of these conversations, as having an identity based on ethnocultural affiliations was the norm for all human groups for thousands of years which we “special” modernists seem to have forgotten. Can what was stripped away in the great Empire-building process ever be recovered? Does self-identifying as i.e. Scots-Gaelic still have meaning here on Turtle Island in this post-modern late-stage capitalist world?

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  6. I am white because today right now I have tons of invisible privilege because of my skin color. I consider it a matter of personhood. Who at what time was considered to have personhood. African-Americans and women didn’t have full personhood if we consider it in terms of who got to vote as a 100% person. The KKK today can’t get enough white skinned Protestant members and today have granted Catholic white skinned people, especially Irish-Americans, personhood. (Look, we’re accepted by white supremacists! We’ve … made it?) If being white didn’t exist, then families would not have split up with those who could “pass” never acknowledging their other family members – and everyone understanding why. If whiteness didn’t exist then African-American actresses with light skin and “good hair” wouldn’t be the ones who become stars. Latinos wouldn’t be divided into two different groups in the US – light and dark skinned. What you wrote is nice historical information about how whiteness is a privilege granted at different times and places. Italian and Irish Catholics rarely belonged to the same church in the USA, fighting for coveted whiteness. Then new immigrants arrive and up the ladder of personhood go the last immigrants. My friends in Ireland are fascinated with Irish-Americans’ racism (and financial support for the IRA, as none of them have lived in Ireland for generations and know nothing about modern Ireland). Anyway, today I’m white because I wouldn’t be pulled over for driving black. I could have funky hipster dreadlocks and get a job. Because a white man with a criminal record will get a job easier than an African-American man without a criminal record. I don’t get to say I’m not white. I don’t define the terms in this culture. Paganism? White supremacists are not going to read this or care. You’re already written off by them. So it doesn’t change much. Their agenda is going just fine because no one takes action, just writes about why they are wrong. If the goal is to upset them (and be even more easy for them to write off) like someone commented excitedly, it’s not an effective tactic to stop white supremacists or Nation Anarchists. No one listens to people who have already made strong us versus you lines. What is the goal with white supremacist Pagans? What strategies and tactics have you organized? 1 in 1000 Americans are a Pagan in prison. It’s the white supremacist Odinists who provide all the information. There’s more “Pagans” inside prison than out and their teachers are the white supremacy gangs hiding under Pagan religion.

    If people’s concerns are the AFA why isn’t action being taken by raising money to get people to where they have their event, work with Our Troth and Heathens Against Hate (yep, you’ll be allied with cops and soldiers but is the cause worth finding common ground?), contact all local colleges looking for any anti-racist groups, LGBTQIA groups, and liberal Christians like Lutheran and Episcopalian, the UU, and contact the local media with ads about what the AFA believe. Since they discriminate, but no one wants to join them, and they haven’t broken any laws, plus there’s no official “white people are better” but instead “all cultures are beautiful and everyone should follow their ancestral path” – so this post would be something they may actually like- it’s kinda hard to get people too worked up since other religions (Hinduism, Judaism, Chrisianity, Islam, some African-American diaspora religions, some indigenous) have versions that say it’s just for “our p people” – if they didn’t keep to themselves it’d be easier to get people worked up but police murdering African-Americans, abortion possibly becoming illegal and the even more insane current anti-immigration stance of the government will probably have people more focused on survival. The AFA camping party may not matter to anyone other than some Pagans. And if the protest goes wrong (one local hears a slam about the town, people can’t put inside ideologies to stand united, there’s no legal help for if people get arrested, the media says “Satanists all fight amongst themselves!” etc) every Pagan, especially any living in that area, will pay heavily for it…. But let’s say you get positive media attention, only media savvy designated speakers speak to media, people are trained well, and you protest enough to make it much harder for the AFA next year (that means people need keep it up, know what the AFA are planning) then you may have made a difference. If you photograph cars going in and out and get the identities of members, contact their work places etc people probably won’t want to join. It’ll push others into a more hardcore white supremacists alliance – and you’ll have a ton of legal actions against everyone. The AFA or Odinists or any other hate monger can call the ACLU. Unlike people who care about the polytheist community, some people will take legal action and it’ll get in the press as “Polytheists are racist!” somehow.

    So I don’t quite know why people write things if it’s too piss off racists who don’t read what you write or care about your opinion because you don’t have personhood to them. It’s a nice history lesson. But Victor Anderson was the king of cultural misappropriation (although I did enjoy my Feri training). He’s the last kahuna? All his huna stuff was serious cultural misappropriation and there’s indigenous Hawaiian people protesting “huna.” He’s somehow managed be the last religious leader of a lot of different cultures with the details being dead wrong and intense cultural misappropriation. Including Celtic when the Three Cauldrons get added to the Freudian/huna three parts of humans.

    I don’t understand what writing this is expected to do aside from tell the already identified as “us” people about how being white is a descriptive term that changes based on who the newest immigrants are. I explain Irish-American racism to my friends that way. “No Blacks No Dogs No Irish” well, hey, we can try to get considered to be more person than dogs and blacks! And it’s worked. Everyone with a 1/32 Irish background celebrates in March by living up to every stereotype that kept their Irish ancestor from getting work.

    However, there still is prejudice against Irish as alcoholics although in Ireland people consume as much alcohol as people in England. And if an Irish person moves out of New York or Boston it’s often different. Like being asked at job interviews if you’ll show up hungover. Addressing that stuff which oppresses Irish people today, getting rid of the alcohol poisoning festival of fighting to celebrate Irish culture, educating mainstream Irish-Americans about racism in the community, those things would probably affect change in the world that honor your ancestors.

    Unless this was just was supposed be another bit of American racism history. Then it’s nice. I just don’t understand people who expect writing like this to do anything about racism in Paganism. But you never say it’s to do that. Just some commenters. But if people want to be doing something about racism in Paganism writing to the converted about issues isn’t going to change much. So what’s the goal, what strategies are being organized with what networking with allies on the issue that you haven’t alienated and are different from you but agree on an important issue, what tactics will be used? How to get broad support? With specific goals?

    What are you FOR, not anti, and who else is working on that vision too? What skills do they have? Activism is life, not protests and certainly not just writing to people just like yourself.

    But we can prove there’s no gene for race, we can dismantle whiteness all we want. It doesn’t matter to racists and it minimizes the massive invisible privilege some have because of skin color. An intelligent argument like this doesn’t work in a world filled with stupidity. Racism is stupidity. It’s a belief based on no evidence or logic. If I were to tell my Hispanic and Asian family members there’s no such thing as whiteness they’d be horribly offended. The current construct says there most definitely is and only someone white would say there isn’t, so they’d consider this writing racist.

    Because it’s the same argument folkish pagans make, about their oppression being like Native American oppression and I have to say “The average white man today doesn’t die at age 46. You don’t get pulled over for driving Ukrainian ancestry 4 generations ago. You pass as the dominant cultural group and get all the benefits.”

    Which you get today too.

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  7. This post matters and means so much to me as a pagan woman of color. Thank you. My ancestors hail from all over and I have a right to honor them without having to prove whiteness or lack thereof.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Just a point of history-early in America (1607-1650ish) it was not just poor Irish/Scottish MEN who were brought here-there were many indentured women as well, and they are largely the Matrons of a certain class of people who today are accepted as “white people” but who come from a huge pool of non-whites, with Melungeon, Tri-racial and ultimately African forefathers.
    For more on the subject, look to the “Jamestown Angolans”, people like Edward Mozingo, Mihil Gowen/Goins, and Antonio Johnson, and who they and their children married. When the first ship full of slaves arrived in Jamestown, the laws about slavery and whiteness did not yet exist. So the “twenty and odd” Africans (mostly MEN) were indentured, for 7-20 years…and when they were released, they acquired land and married WHO? Indentured white WOMEN.
    Thus within a generation or two, there was a whole class of people who could only marry each other, not the wealthy whites, which meant marrying poor white, mulatto, native or black. Very quickly laws were created to stop white women from marrying anyone except white men. That’s where the slavery and “one drop” laws come in.
    And MILLIONS of Americans (and I’m talking to you KY, TN, and MO) might look white as snow, but we have measurable African DNA-the blood still runs in our veins. And frequently the more racist they are, the more true that is.

    Like

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