Pledge of the Goddess Community on Racism

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 4, 2008 — 20 Comments

A new pledge, co-written by Genevieve Vaughan (Sekhmet Temple) and Dr. Heide Goettner-Abendroth (Academy Hagia), is making the rounds within the international Goddess community. The “Pledge of the Goddess Community on Racism” urges all signatories to make a personal commitment to directly involve and honor local indigenous people and other ethnic groups in any conference or event held.

“As a member of the group of human beings who honor the present and past images of female divinity, I pledge to include in Goddess conferences the indigenous people of the locality or territory where conferences are held, and to reference and honor their deities. That is, I myself will make every effort to invite speakers and participants of the people indigenous to the area and of other ethnic groups. If I am not an organizer of the event myself I will work to ensure that the organizers invite them. Given the economic injustice in our society, I will promote special stipends for speakers of color and sliding scale or free access to conferences for any participants of color or other participants who may be economically oppressed. The multiplicity of the Goddess is expressed in the variety of humanity and in the many kinds of ritual and worship. Racism dishonors the Goddess(es).”

One notable early adopter is Reclaiming co-founder Starhawk, who has endorsed the pledge on the Women and Spirituality Blog, calling it “a sensibility long overdue in the Goddess movement”. Other prominent signatories include Letecia Layson, Candace Kant, Anniitra Ravenmoon, Catherine Wright, and Judy Grahn.

If widely adopted, such a pledge could go a long way towards healing rifts between the Goddess community and indigenous groups who have accused individuals within the movement of cultural appropriation. It also seems to be reaching for a solution to questions of racial diversity and class in a movement that has been depicted in the past as predominately upper-class and Caucasian. It should be interesting to see how widespread this pledge becomes, and if it truly results in changes to Goddess community events and conferences. If you are interested in signing the pledge, go here.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Anonymous

    There is only one race; human. That being said, there are many ethnicities. All before the industrial revolution easily separated by language, geography, religion, customs, etc. That being said, I feel little to no compassion for ANY ethnic group, my own included, who are suffering from “name your favorite misfortune”, which is usually a result of overpopulation, natural selection, non-existent or dysfunctional deities, spirits (in the indigenous religion), and economic manipulation allowed by near-sighted and unimaginative village elders/leaders. “You’d think the spirits would have warned them!”, etc. The plight of the many economically or nationally challenged people in the world, is very easy to understand… ~”When a lone mother(goddess) has sick children whom she cannot heal, but must watch suffer, she kills them”~ Why are so many universalists convinced that they should interfere in mother’s work?!STIPENDS for speakers of color?! A SLIDING scale?!So, how many apologies do I owe for being a white male (non-human)?

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    It never ceases to amaze me how much more strident “anonymous” comments are. You seem to have some pretty strong opinions about this pledge, care to add your name to them?

  • Jonathan Korman

    Though it’s good to see folks making an effort to respond seriously to racism, this seems like a problematic response to critics on a couple of points. The injunction “to reference and honor … deities” of indigenous people sound like pretty much the opposite of what critics who see cultural appropriation would want to see. And the injunction to “invite speakers and participants of the people indigenous to the area and of other ethnic groups” opens a big can of worms. “But we invited people of color” is practically a cliche among White lefty organizations facing criticism of racism in their efforts. Critics will observe that there is no reason for people of color to accept an invitation to participate in an event organized by Whites around the interests and concerns of Whites.

  • Copper Asetemhat Stewart

    Problematic, impractical, based on untenable and counterproductive notions of cultural property, and too close an intrinsically racist romanticization of the indigenous in its presumption of relevance and/or interest. Inclusion mandates seem as racist–and as senseless–to me as exclusion mandates. For some events, will invitations go out to “indigenous women only” ? In my own alliances, I’d support an effort to find those who might be interested, but I’d oppose the organizational adoption of this pledge.But I guess it’s a personal pledge and not a mandate…

  • Pitch313

    In principle, I want to and try to respect Deities of a place or region, including those of those who resided in that place or region before me. But, thanks to history, peoples have moved, prospered, declined, and disappeared. Claims today about who was where, when, are sometimes open to discussion, even dispute. About cultural appropriation. It’s the longtime character of our Western European cultures to take in, borrow, adapt, and reinterpret other cultures they’ve come into contact with. To engage in cultural appropriation. We’re all part of those cultures, theus, in some regard, cultural appropriators. We cannot avoid it. We do it. I do my best to avoid claiming any legitimacy based on indigenous entitlements. But my practice does incorporate Deities and figures from the cultures of several indigenous peoples.

  • Aquari

    A gold star to the first person who can give me a well thought out defition of ‘cultural appropriation’ that doesn’t dissolve into goo when applied to the following scenarios.Say that a quarter of my ancestry is Gaelic-speaking Irish, but I don’t speak a word of Gaelic, have never set foot in Ireland, and my immediate family’s culture is pretty generically Anglo North American. If I worship the Celtic deities and teach myself Gaelic in order to do so better, is that cultural appropriation? I’m not modern Irish and I’m sure as heck not an ancient Celt. Does my possession of Celtic ‘blood’ qualify this as ‘my’ culture? If the particular deities I worship were borrowed by the Celts from another European culture, does that make a difference? If I have some equally distant African ancestry, not visible in my appearance or represented in my family’s cultural practices, does that ‘blood’ qualify me to worship African deities?Say a Lakota man makes ‘dreamcatchers’, an element of Ojibwa culture, for sale to tourists. Is he appropriating Ojibwa culture? Say this man is also a devout Methodist. Is he appropriating British culture?If I become a naturalized citizen of another country, marry one of it’s native sons, and begin practicing his ancestral religious and cultural traditions within our home, is that cultural appropriation? If not, why not?If I visit a foreign country and, in the company of my native hosts, attend a local religious festival, is my full participation in the festival cultural appropriation? Is it more appropriate, or more offensive, for me to refuse to participate? If the town’s economy relies on money obtained from the domestic tourist trade, is my moral status as a foreign tourist different from those of domestic tourists? If so, how and why?These are the sort of questions that make we anthropologists sweat. We talk about culture like it was an object, something with clear boundaries and an owner, something you can preserve or lose or destroy or appropriate. And then we ask ourselves questions like, ‘why do we tend to call it transmission of culture when a non-white culture learns from another non-white culture, globalization when a non-white culture learns from a white culture, and theft when a white culture learns from a non-white culture?’ And then we get uncomfortable and change the subject.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Aquari, Any discussion of cultural appropriation has to be considered along with issues of context and consent. Most of the examples you provide imply different levels of consent by the “host” culture. They would then (mostly) avoid the pejorative definition of appropriation. A guest to a festival, a marriage and full adoption into a foreign culture, and a man using his native skills and culture to make money.As for your Celtic question, I would ask the Celtic reconstructionists. They spend a lot more time on that specific issue that I do.

  • Joe

    Aquari, first let’s address your closing remarks. The differences between transmission, globalization, and appropriation have nothing to do with ethnicity but rather on force and permission. I have a feeling that you know this, and understand that the objections to globalization are when one culture forces change on another, often by colonizing or through market pressure. That it is predominantly European nations that are in the economic position to do this, does not mean that only whites can do so; e.g. there are objections to Japan’s globalization as well. For the gold star, appropriation occurs when an individual takes elements from a culture in which they are not a member and uses those elements outside of their cultural context. The Lakota man making Ojibwa dream catchers is performing cultural appropriation. The traveler taking part in a local festival is not.The worshiper of ancient deities may be appropriating culture, but only if that worship bears little resemblance to the worship that would be done by members of that culture. Since the original druids are dead, folks who care about cultural appropriation tend to give more leeway in these instances since there is less room for confusion that the practices are absolutely authentic. But there are still plenty of folks who are claiming to be doing ancient Celtic rituals that have no resemblance to anything that a Celt would recognize, in that case, the person is simply appropriating the name.In a similar vein, there is nothing wrong with you learning and adopting the faith of another extant culture, say becoming a Hindu. A Wiccan who worships Siva in a magic circle cast by the Elements, after calling forth Hecate and giving offerings of wine and bread, is another matter. Folks who look down on cultural appropriation would find such eclecticism distasteful.Worse still would be the same person claiming to be a tantric master after attending a weekend yoga seminar. Or the Hispanic man claiming to be Lakota Pipe Bearer after reading about the position on the internet and buying a pipe at the flea market (possibly from a Native American). In these cases, not only has the cultural action been removed from the cultural context (which is only rude), but by misrepresenting themselves, they do harm to the original culture by passing themselves off as something they are not.Let’s be clear here, as well. Cultural appropriation is not a whites-only phenomenon. Looking at vintage Hoodoo labels, marketed to a predominantly African-American audience, you’ll see a number of images of men in turbans, women in belly-dance outfits, and Buddha. You’ll also find names like Swami Oil. At the time, the Middle East was thought of as exotic and mystical (still is). Product manufacturers were capitalizing on the association.

  • Zaratha

    It’s the longtime character of our Western EuropeanThis is part of the problem, right here: the assumptions being made. People of color are never included in these discussions, and when we are, our views are marginalized or we’re offered meaningless platitudes such as “there’s no race but human” and such blinded-by-privilege garbage.I am a Pagan witch of mixed ancestry (Black, Muskogee, and Romanichal), I have actively practiced Paganism for going on twelve years, and this sort of thing is a large reason why I am solitary. I feel this is a step in the right direction, but unless the people involved actually involve people of color and our persepectives, it will fail as spectacularly as similar efforts among progressive political groups. These things always end up as a bunch of upper middle class white folks talking amongst themselves about how to best go about the “problem” of the brown folk. And inevitably, after these folks go home and pat themselves on the back for being so liberal minded, they will do things like stare at the black chick who shows up to the Beltane circle, or start asking the Latino guy at Pagan Pride Day about Santeria (because all colored people everywhere worship only their ancestral deities). Or assume that because I am black I know everything about Voudoun and know how to throw bad juju around. Or, if I show up with a white partner or friend, address them instead of me like I’m an interloper or an exotic curiosity. Or continually use antiquated terms like “black magic” and “white magic”, perpetuating the dualist nonsense that says black = dirty and evil and white = pure and good. Like I said, there’s a reason why I’m solitary.On the question of cultural appropriation, I don’t believe that working with deities or using rituals from a tradition outside your own is inherently bad. For goodness sake, I was a Hellenist for a good chunk of my Craft life, and I currently work with an eclectic mix that includes Hindu deities. I think it’s the intent that separates such things from cultural appropriation. Are you approaching this culture with respect, and not just wantonly grabbing things because it “sounds cool”? Particularly with living traditions such as the Afro-Diasporic faiths, are you doing the research and talking to practicioners and respecting their thoughts and feelings on the matter? UPG (unverified personal gnosis) is all well and good, but are you really taking the time to understand the context of how and why a deity is worshipped?Joe said that cultural appropriation is not a whites-only phenomenon, and that is certainly true, particularly in the case of Orientalism (and this is why I am very, very careful about how I approach my personal practice; the only reason I work with the deities I do is because they poked me first). However, again, you have to examine the context. No one is “entitled” to anyone else’s culture or spirituality, particularly ones that were violently stripped from said people and systematically destroyed. Privileged people simply do not have the right to intrude on cultures who do not share that privilege. Is it fair? No, but life ain’t fair–visit the Pine Ridge Reservation some time if you really want to see some unfairness.

  • Tautalos

    Above and before all, why must any religious group, or conference, take an anti-racist position?Is this religion… or politics?Or is it another deed of the New Anti-Racist Holy Inquisition?

  • Aedus

    Though I can respect how good-natured and sensitive members of the pagan community want to make an honest statement to indigenous cultures and religions that may have inspired many of our own practices, I must say that as a whole, we should try to remove ourselves from the bonds of collectivism. By defining arbitrary boundaries that separate us into groups as opposed to recognizing everyone as individuals, we are really perpetuating the model that racists, sexists, and religious bigots use against us.At least that is my take on this.

  • Aquari

    I have a feeling that you know thisOh indeed I ‘know’ it, which is precisely why I’m putting the idea through the wringer. If anthropology exists for any reason at all, it’s to make us question our common-sense ideas about how society operates. You might end up arguing your way around to the same conclusion you started out with, but at least the second time around you’ll have reasons. Or you might end up somewhere entirely different.Arguments Jason and Joe have raised, between them:* Cultural appropriation means lacking the host culture’s consent.Follow-up questions: how do cultures give consent, or withhold it? Is a single person’s objection sufficient to invalidate the practice, and does it make a difference who within the culture is doing the objecting? Is it possible to make an invalid objection to others’ use of your cultural memes? In cases where some members of a culture consent, others do not, and others profess indifference, how should the determination be made?* Cultural appropriation means practicing something outside it’s culture context.How do we define ‘cultural context’? The practice’s nation of origin? Its ethnic group of origin? If an ethnic group long since ceased to practice something (e.g. the modern Celts and classical Druidry), is the practice still ‘theirs’ to make determinations about? If a practice was performed by multiple cultures, who may or may not have learned it from each other, which ‘cultural context’ does the practice belong to?* Cultural appropriation means pretending your practices are authentic when they aren’t.This one is based on:Since the original druids are dead … there is less room for confusion that the practices are absolutely authentic.This takes us in a new direction. If I call what I practice ‘Druidry’, but it is clear from context that I am not talking about the same ‘Druidry’ the ancient Celts practiced, but some modern creation of my own or other modern people’s devising, then arguably I am not appropriating anything. Could this apply to the Shiva-worshipping Wiccan, who is in no way even suggesting that she practices Hindusim?Also, on a theological note:the only reason I work with the deities I do is because they poked me first‘Cultural appropriation’ seems to be a human concern. Do the gods draw the kind of distinctions we do between cultures? If Shiva requests my worship, but I am not Indian, should I refuse Him? Should I try and tell Hindu objectors that they should take it up with Him?This is a conversation the Pagan communities need to have; I’m glad to see it happening here.

  • Jonathan Korman

    Aquari, I’d second the comments of Joe and Mr Pitzl-Waters, and add that your question “why do we tend to call it transmission of culture when a non-white culture learns from another non-white culture, globalization when a non-white culture learns from a white culture, and theft when a white culture learns from a non-white culture?” is easy to answer. We talk about these cultural relationships differently because the context of economic, social, and political relationships between Whites and People of Color is different, which changes the meaning of those cultural exchanges. While I am spooked by the hunger for Cultural Purity that lurks in some critiques of appropriation, I don’t think it’s hard at all to see why Whites drawing from the cultures of People of Color can be specially problematic.Zaratha, d’accord, and thanks for saying it; I recognize that it ain’t easy stepping into a conversation like this one. Aedus, “recognizing people as individuals” and attempting to ignore their race, gender, et cetera is a tempting response to the divisive effects of bigotry, but it can too easily become an unwholesome refusal to recognize the effects of systemic inequities: “We need to stop talking about these problems, and start ignoring them.”

  • Jonathan Korman

    Aquari, your last comment slipped mine, and I’d like to pick up on the tricky and interesting theological question you closed with.It is my impression as well that these days many gods are turning up for folks without respect for those people’s ethnic or cultural lineage. I agree that it’s a conversation we need to have, as I am troubled that I have no idea how to square that with responsible behavior around the cultural politics of appropriation.

  • Anonymous

    Zaratha,I think it’s the intent that separates such things from cultural appropriation.It is interesting that you jump from your initial comments — which I think are pretty much right on — to this statement of the sufficiency of intent. Don’t you imagine that the privileged White people who are writing and signing this pledge intend to treat minority ethnicities and cultures with respect? Of course they do; that’s the motivation behind the pledge.Your comment is important in large part because it demonstrates just how much is needed beyond intent. Indeed, the specific actions you describe in paragraph 3 demand quite a bit more than mere intent. I think the statement that “good intentions absolve cultural appropriation” does not do justice to the position you otherwise express.

  • Kathryn Price NicDhàna

    While I applaud the intentions of the people who wrote this pledge/petition, I won’t be signing it, for a number of reasons. I have to agree with Jonathan, who noted some of the problems with statements like: “I pledge to include in Goddess conferences the indigenous people of the locality or territory where conferences are held, and to reference and honor their deities.”Unfortunately, and I assume this was not the intent of the authors, this statement could easily be interpreted as encouraging cultural appropriation and tokenism. It’s not appropriate for people not of a particular culture to “honor” those people by mimicking their rituals. And for whites to organize an event and then *invite* people from indigenous cultures to participate is essentially racist. For true cross-cultural, anti-racist participation and mutual respect, power has to be equally shared. If legitimate Indigenous groups want to *co-organize* an event with white Pagans, that is different. But the Indigenous people can’t be treated like tokens or outsiders; they have to be in on the decision-making processes from the very beginning of the organizational process, not brought in as an afterthought to assuage the appearance of racism. Their standards have to be respected, and the gathering has to also serve the people of their communities, not just white people. Too many times I’ve seen these sorts of intentions wind up in a sole Native or African person being invited to basically perform for white people. That is tokenism.Which brings us to who is a “legitimate” representative. White Pagans often have trouble understanding this, but traditional communities have recognized leaders and elders. Joe Indigenous who you met in a bar in Flagstaff is probably in no position to make official statements for anyone but himself. You have to look to the traditional, authorized leaders and elders in that community. If in doubt, call the tribal offices. Most of them have websites now.I also fear that some of the things in this “Pledge on Racism” will encourage frauds and shameons to volunteer, and that the white Pagans, so happy to have their white guilt assuaged, will not do the groundwork to figure out if the person who’s volunteered is actually in a position to represent their Nation. This especially happens when an unethical person of Indian ancestry (or who can pass as one) decides to exploit the ignorant white people. Yup, just because they’re Native doesn’t mean they’re a leader among their people.As far as Celtic Reconstructionism goes, yes, you do have to become part of the living cultures. Some CRs start with only distant ancestry, others with more of a cultural connection. But the idea is to preserve what we can of the living cultures, while fleshing out the polytheistic aspects that have been neglected. It’s not about eclecticism or making stuff up. I worry about those who only look to the “older”, fragmented things from the very distant past, because in some cases I think they are trying to avoid accountability to anyone but the voices in their heads.And while the whole “blood” thing is sort of a taboo thing to discuss, it actually means a lot to most traditional Native Americans. The elders and other traditionals I’ve asked, of a handful of nations, have all agreed that first we have to honor *our own* ancestors. A number of white people have said that we have to “honor” the ways of those who are indigenous to the areas where we live; however, when I’ve asked the living, Indigenous people who have maintained these ways, they have all found that attitude very odd, laughable even, and said it’s our own ancestors we have to honor and their ways we are meant to follow. If someone believes that a deity or spirit of a culture of which they are not a part has shown up to talk to them, if they are truly committed to following up on that contact, I believe it is their duty to approach that culture on it’s own terms, if the teachers will have them. But usually when I hear this from white Pagans, they don’t want to do any such thing. They usually want to be the one to set the terms. They want to just read some books written by outsiders and try to integrate the bits they like about that spirit or culture into their lives. That’s not honoring, that’s appropriation.

  • Zaratha

    Anonymous person: I agree that intent is not enough, and I probably wasn’t clear enough about that (I tend to be long-winded and was trying to rein myself in a bit). Respectful intent to me is not just having an attitude of “I will not exploit and rape this culture for my own spiritual gratification”. Intent backed up by right action is key. Kathryn really said what I wanted to when she mentioned people approaching the culture on its own terms, instead of trying to set the terms.I also second the notion of honoring your own ancestors’ ways, even if you don’t ultimately follow them. That can mean a lot of different things. I keep an ancestral altar and pour libations on important days in family history, and even though I don’t follow a Yoruban path, have been known to work with Ifa on occasion. If nothing else, blood has tremendous power. OTOH, I get nervous when people start bringing up the blood issue, because in the past it has been used like a club to keep people of color out of various European-based traditions. When I first started years ago, in Wicca, I ran into a number of people who liked to throw “why don’t you worship your own gods” at me and ask why I was exploring Wicca instead of, say, Kemetic religion (uh, those aren’t my people either). Or ask me why I wasn’t studying Voudoun instead. Granted, this was back when “Wicca is the Old Religion of the Celts” was still widely accepted as fact, but it was still infuriatingly racist. This, in New York of all places. In fairness, for all the heat Asatruar takes thanks to a few bad eggs, I am good friends with a local Asatru group here in the Southwest and have always felt welcome at their events even though I am not a member of that tradition.It’s a tricky issue, and I’m thankful to Jason for continually reporting on things like this on the blog to get people thinking about them. Contrary to a couple of ostriches in the comments, these dialogues are important and are ultimately a good thing for Paganism.

  • steward39

    Looks to me like a way for some people to feel self-righteous while really enabling self-victimization of the “indigenous people”. I find this to be racist against “people of color”; it makes successful “people of color”, like Oprah Winfrey or Barack Obama, look like quirks that should not exist. Yes, there are many people of color who are not well-off. There are many people of paleness who aren’t well-off either; and the pledge discriminates against those.And who’s indigenous? I was born in NJ, does that mean I get in free to Goddess events in NJ? And if not, is it because I’m only second-generation? What are the number of generations necessary to make an individual “indigenous”, and do the Lenni Lenape fit that defintion? There is no indication of separate human development in the Americas, so no one’s ancestors are, ultimately, native in the Americas (and most other places.)I particularly like “I will promote special stipends for speakers of color and sliding scale or free access to conferences for any participants of color…” As Chicago Tribune Columnist of Color Clarence Page put it, “I’m old enough to remember when we were colored people. Now we’re people of color. Look how far we’ve come.”I note that Starhawk has adopted it. I wonder if she’s identified the people that she considers indigenous to Salem, Missouri, and if she’s contacted the organizers of Midwest Witchcamp to arrange for indigenous people and people of color to get recognition, stipends, and/or free admission.And, of course, one way for people to promote those stipends is to supply the stipends themselves. Should be fun to watch.

  • Kathryn Price NicDhàna

    Zaratha wrote: “OTOH, I get nervous when people start bringing up the blood issue, because in the past it has been used like a club to keep people of color out of various European-based traditions.”Zaratha, I really appreciate the points you’ve raised in this discussion.Yeah, the blood thing is a bit of a landmine. Usually, it’s more a matter of culture than blood. A lot of people seem to have trouble with complexities, but for Americans, cultural and racial identity is usually complicated. Wiccans have no right to keep people of color out, because, besides being the wrong way to treat people, Wicca isn’t even a culturally-based tradition. Gardner combined his impressions of Hinduism and misunderstood Native American practices along with the European bits. So no ethnic group can claim Wicca is only for people who look like them.And even though following the ways of our ancestors is important, I don’t know of any of the ethical European Reconstructionist traditions who would keep out someone who was sincerely interested in learning about the culture. (Well, except for the racists who’ve tried to latch on to what we’re doing, for all the wrong reasons; but the ethical groups make sure to distance ourselves from those sorts.) I have people in my household who have little or no Gaelic ancestry, but they are sincerely involved in the culture, so they have become part of it. Again, they know better than to try to change the culture to better fit expectations based on another culture, or their personal whims, but since they are approaching it on its own terms, they’ve done fine. I also think it’s necessary for white people to understand how white-skin privilege and the realities of racism makes it different for a white person to approach an indigenous or African tradition than for a person of color (sorry Steward, but it’s part of the generally accepted nomenclature) to approach a group that’s more ethically European in origins. None of what we do can be removed from the context of our country’s shameful history of racism. It’s totally different for a person of color to want to explore something mostly-European than for a white person to think they have a right to mimic Native American ceremonies. Not because mimicking European rituals out of context is ok, but because white privilege usually leads white people to assume they have a right to these things, and white people have a pretty horrible track record of being disrespectful in this area. For example, the Lakota statements about Protection of Ceremonies came about because, after generations of giving white people the benefit of the doubt and then getting ripped off over and over again, Lakota folks realized that they had to draw a line. It doesn’t mean all Lakota think all white people have bad intentions, or that it’s impossible to be accepted in a Lakota community, just that they had to acknowledge the reality of what was going on and do something to protect their ways.Whether we look black or brown or yellowish or reddish or white, most Americans have ancestry from all over the planet – it’s who we are culturally, and whether we’re respectful of each others’ ways, that’s more the issue, imho.

  • Ceri

    Enjoyed reading the comments so far.

    I am interested and somewhat saddened to see that so many appear to be assuming that not only those that wrote this pledge, (Genevieve Vaughan and Dr. Heide Goettner-Abendroth) but also those signing this pledge and involved in these conferences are all white. Out of those named above, Letecia Layson and Anniitra Ravenmoon are not. I think its a very valid question to ask what involvement non-whites had in the process of creating this pledge, but sad that so many seem to assume there was none.