Friday, March 2, 2012

Defining Terms: More for Wade Long

Wade has complained that our arguments appear to be shifting between various terms.  He has a point. the word "racism" is used to describe a number of different prejudices, beliefs and actions which might more precisely be called classism, anti-ethnic prejudice, and xenophobia. Terms like "white" and "black" are rather blunt tools when used to distinguish the many subtleties of American life.  To clarify things, let's try defining a number of different factors which can come into play in these discussions.  While I have addressed some of these issues in my earlier posts "Race, Tribe, Family, Clan" and "More on Race, Clan, Ancestry and Heathenry" I think it might be worthwhile to consider the issue in more detail.

RACE: A system used to classify human populations based largely on geographic points of origin and physical characteristics like skin, hair and eye color.   The old rule of thumb used to be "White" (European origin), "Black" (African origin), "Yellow" (Asian origin) and "Red" (Indigenous American origin).   Today "White" and "Black" still receive a good deal of attention. Most East Asians would take offense to being called "Yellow:" most South Asians lack epicanthic folds and the characteristic East Asian complexion and in fact have European features combined with dark skin.  (Not surprising if you consider the whole "Indo-European" origin theory...), so they don't really fit the old "Yellow" phenotype anyway.  And while Native Americans may still talk about "walking the Red road," genetic evidence suggests America's indigenous populations in fact originated in Siberia and crossed the Bering Strait over 10,000 years ago when the oceans were lower.  (It should also be noted that many Native Americans dispute this theory, claiming they did in fact originate here and questioning the viability of the "Bering Strait" hypothesis).

Anyone who has ever read a newspaper horoscope has figured out the problem with trying to separate everybody into twelve convenient little boxes.  Racial divisions are even more crude.  A white high school dropout working in a factory in rural Georgia might share skin color with a Harvard-educated investment banker working out of an office in Connecticut, but they have very little else in common.  Barack Obama, Shaquille O'Neal, Ol' Dirty Bastard and Herman Cain are all "black" -- and if I may be forgiven for saying so, they don't all look alike to me.

For purposes of sociology race is important insofar as it trumps other factors and leads to difficult interactions between people of differing "races."  For purposes of spirit work it is not nearly so useful, I've found that spirits are not so interested in "racial" phenotypes as in...

ANCESTRY: You have a mother and a father. They each had a mother and father. And so on, and so on, and so on. Your blood and flesh provides a direct link to millions of deceased souls, each of whom have a personal interest in you and each of whom can provide you with a connection to the Gods they worshipped. This idea is at the heart of many Congo religions: there's a reason why a Palero's prenda has a skull atop it and a dead spirit who serves as a fetch for interactions between the Tata and the Nkisi.  Within Vodou we learn there are several ways one can make the acquaintance of a spirit.  You may have the spirit en sang (in the blood) if your ancestors served it; you may be introduced to it at a fet or through initiation into a société; you may purchase it as a pwen achete (bought point) from one who already works with it.

This notion of ancestry puts paid to the idea that black Americans are/should be primarily interested in working with "African spirits." The majority of black Americans trace their ancestry back to the southern United States and the days of slavery.  And most have ancestors who trace their roots to Europe thanks to that antebellum and postbellum tradition of what they called "miscegenation" and what we today call "rape." And if you've got ancestors from Europe, there's a chance you'll hear the call of the European gods.  A white ancestor in your distant past can provide you a direct link to a whole river of blood. Those who assume that those with visually "African" features should stick to working with African gods are forgetting the "one drop" rule goes both ways.

(I apologize for bringing up an ugly and painful episode in American history. I understand the pain that this rape culture caused and still causes for black Americans and I don't wish to minimize that pain. But if we're going to discuss ancestry, we're going to have to talk about ancestors we might rather forget. We should also remember that no matter how vile Ancestor X was, if you go down the line enough generations you are almost certain to find decent and loving ancestral spirits who recognize you as their child and who are more interested in your blood than your skin).

Not all spirits are concerned with ancestry. I've found the Gods of empire will accept offerings from anyone who honors them.  (This may explain why the Yoruba spirits, who were the gods of a notoriously expansionist and militaristic culture, have found worshippers around the world).  But there are some who are not interested in working with anyone who doesn't have the proper ancestry.  The Jewish G-d would be a good example of this type of spirit: He only allows those who are kohanim by blood to perform certain of His rites and saddles them with extra obligations as well.  But while I've encountered spirits that are only interested in those of a certain ancestry, I've not yet heard of a historical God or spirit who wished to work only with "black" or "white" people.  And given that concepts of "race" had little meaning before the pre-Christian era, I'd be very surprised if I did.

I hope to address more of Wade's concerns in a later post. Right now I need to return to my sadly neglected writing-for-meager-profit.  But I hope this will clarify at least those two terms: next I need to address "culture," "class" and "ethnicity."