From Gods and Radicals
by Sean Donahue
“[T]here 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 Orisha travelled from Africa to the Americas in slave ships and across Damballah’s rainbow bridge. 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. Like H.P. Lovecraft encountering the beings he knew as the elder gods, 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.
Sean 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.
Sean Donahue is one of the featured writers in A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred.