Cultural Identity, Racism, and the Lens of “Us”

August 11, 2020 | Filed Under History, Things I Think About | 2 Comments

My dear friend and honored colleague Corvid Longcoat pointed me to this piece on “Ethnic and Cultural Identity” as defined by archeology in the early Celtic period as part of a larger discussion about racism in modern paganism, and particularly in the Norse/Heathen traditions. We engaged in discussion, and this blog post is the result.

The article examines the generalities of early historians (Roman, Hellenic, etc.) in describing “the barbarians” by various, and often interchangeable, names—”Celts”, “Germans”, and “Gauls” being the most commonly used. As these tribes also fought against the Roman and Hellenic armies in league with Scythians, Getae, and Galatai, people from a variety of geographical areas and cultural backgrounds were lumped together as one unit.

“In sum, the classical sources often mention the ‘Celts’ as an undifferentiated and largely unknown mass. When subdivisions are mentioned, the extent to which these reflect indigenous circumstances is entirely unclear. We may say with certainty that the classical authors considered the northern barbarians to belong to one very general cultural group or category, that the variation among individual ‘Celtic’ groups was poorly understood, and that the classical sources impose a view from without on a people who undoubtedly saw themselves in a very different light (Chapman 1992, 35).”

Which to me says that the classical authors fell into the same mental trap many modern researchers still fall into, which is that “our culture” is the only lens through which to view the world, and that all other cultures and societies are an indistinct mass of “otherness” and “not-like-us” which can be examined to take what we find appealing and to judge the “other” for what we perceive as cultural shortcomings or moral/ethical failings.

I would also infer that the various levels of confusion from the ancient writers, both in the inconsistency of naming the “other” and the inability to create a cohesive account of the culture, point to the likelihood that the people were organizing in smaller groups as a “tribe” or “clan” during that time in history, rather than in larger groups that we would call “race” (an artificial and not particularly useful term) or “ethnicity” (as a means of trying to capture a larger cultural context).

I appreciate the repeated emphasis in the article that race is an artificial, not genetic, construct. In terms of academic writing, “race” seems to become a commonplace of the late 18th to early 19th century, when, by curious coincidence, the rise of anti-slavery movements began in the UK and the US. The concept of a genetically determined and unalterable “race” grouping was suddenly quite useful to the pro-slavery contingent.

National identities, such as English, French, Spanish, etc., manifest earlier, mostly as a political phenomenon once the city-states of medieval Europe started consolidating into larger entities and declaring themselves a country ruled by a particular king or emperor. (Except Italy. Because, Italy. Uniting the disparate territories of the peninsula would take until the 19th century—the city-states flourished and functioned as their own small countries, and one was Florentine, or Venetian, or Milanese, etc., and that identity was glorified and defended as intensely as any national identity.)

The idea of national identity can also be fluid. For someone who becomes a naturalized citizen of France, even today, once you are a citizen of France, the Gauls become your ancestors. Not genetically, of course, but culturally and socially, because you have become a part of France, which derives its cultural and social identity from the early Gauls.

So, how does this relate to racism in modern pagan communities?
The racists claim that our traditions are only for people who are descended from the Vikings, which is itself a cultural, not a racial, identity. Since the Vikings traveled extensively, marrying and breeding along the way, and in the subsequent centuries, their descendants have dispersed across the globe, it’s more than likely that someone born in South Africa has the same Scandinavian DNA as someone born in the Arctic Circle, and the genetic argument restricting the Norse Gods only to white people falls apart. (Not that it had any credibility to start, and not that the scientific argument will change the minds of the racists; however, if you’re reading my blog, it’s extremely unlikely that you are a racist exclusionist.) (However, if you are, please don’t bother to comment, I’ll simply delete it; just fuck right off and save us both the aggravation.)
Belief is not about your genetics or appearance; belief is the basis of your ethical code, which is the foundation of your behaviors, your treatment of others, and the way you live.
Cultural identity is shaped by our geography (I grew up in the Midwest, and a Coke is a “soft drink”, not “soda pop”; sorry, East Coast friends) and our personal exploration of the larger world around us. Our spiritual belief is part of that identity and exploration. Especially now, with the plethora of information (of varying quality) which makes it easy to assemble your own DIY religion, people can discover gods, beliefs, and practices that their original or current culture would not have made known to them.
Instead of viewing what we know as the “right” way of believing, being, and living, and judging all others by our standards, we can use the lens of our cultural identity and experience to find the similarities and differences, and decide how those fit with, expand, or subvert our current understanding of ourselves and the world.

2 Responses to “Cultural Identity, Racism, and the Lens of “Us””

  1. Nice one. It’s so disheartening to see these behaviors extending to all our areas of life. No matter how much people try to justify these behaviors, it all comes down to the same thing.

  2. Thank you for the comment, Cindy! It took a while to write this, but it’s such a complicated and complex topic, I needed time to sort through it.

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