I drive a lot for my day job. I was in Kansas City for work a few days ago and had visited a friend after I finished with my meetings and appointments in town. It was very late by the time I left to make the two-hour drive back to Columbia, late enough that in the weeknight Midwest everyone had already turned in. Everyone except for a few night owls like me, anyway.
I stopped in at a QuikTrip for gas and caffeine. Two men walked in while I was getting drinks, both of them white men who looked younger than forty, though I wouldn’t want to try getting any more specific than that.
One seemed a little ragged and hollow-eyed; that could have been the time of night or could have been something else. His partner, on the other hand, seemed more lively. He was covered in tattoos, the most prominent being the words “American Made” with traces in red and blue ink washing across the top of his chest, peeking out from between the shoulder-straps of his tank top. He had artwork up and down his arms, but I didn’t recognize any of the designs – at least not until I saw him from behind. On the back of his shaved head, beneath his baseball cap, I saw the curving arcs of a valknut. When he turned around again I realized he was wearing a Thor’s hammer necklace, a big, almost gaudy one.
I finished pouring my soda and he stepped to the fountain after me.
Two thoughts, simultaneous and contradictory, came into my head at once. The first: hey, another Heathen! The second: But what kind of Heathen are you?
I don’t like that these were the thoughts that came to my mind. There are few enough Heathens in the world that I want to be pleased at any encounter with a like-minded person; but the truth is, one can never be sure, certainly not at first glance, whether or not our minds really are that much alike.
I organize unions for a living. Some people come to this line of work out of raw idealism, having read their share of Marx in school and having the desire to put it into practice; that wasn’t the case for me. I came into it the other way: the way where a boss screwed me and enough other people over for us to want to organize. I found out I was a better union organizer than I was a writer – or at least better able to stay employed.
Even though I came into the work through a practical struggle, I’d be lying if I said the job wasn’t fueled by high ideals, too. I believe it when I talk about “solidarity” and “workplace democracy” and the rest. That kind of thing is necessary, because otherwise the sheer overpowering reality of how much the average person gets crushed by an employer, even at a unionized job, would lead me to drink. I still get personally furious when I hear about somebody getting followed around and harassed because they are the only woman on their crew, or when someone tells me how many jobs they have to work to pay their bills, and I still tear up when somebody starts singing “Solidarity Forever.”
One would like to believe that union life is all about people realizing their common interest, that it’s all about putting up a united front in the name of a better working life for all. At its best, that is what it’s like. But at its worst, one set of workers might be only too willing to take a deal that hurts the other people in their shop if it benefits their particular job, or one union rep might prefer to keep an easy relationship with an HR officer than fight for their members’ rights. And I’ve never had a better example of how easily racism or sexism can coexist with class struggle than in some of my union meetings.
Recently I had a meeting with one of the units I cover. We had been discussing our strategy for an upcoming bargaining session, but we were finished for the day, and only three of us were left in the union hall. Minutes before, we had been doing the work of planning our proposals for the year, but once there was a lull in the conversation, the member looked at me with a wolfish grin. “The thing I don’t get it is how guys like you can be a Democrat, myself,” he said, even though I had never brought up elections with him, and even though I’m not actually a Democrat. “Electing a bunch of towelheads like Ilhan Omar. Goes against everything America used to stand for. I don’t see any reason why we ought to let people who hate this country stay here.”
It was a test, I could see that; he was leaning as hard into his racist schtick as possible, testing to see whether I would start laughing with him, whether I would start yelling at him, whether I would go on another tired lecture on the evils of the Republican party. He was making a point about our relationship and making an inquiry about what a small room of white men would laugh about in the dark.
I didn’t laugh, but I took notes.
I can use many different words to describe myself, and each of those words defines a relationship with the world. When I say I am a Heathen, that is not merely, or even mostly, a personal description; it is a way of describing how I interact with the world and with other sets of people. Heathen implies something in relationship to Christian, to atheist, to Witch, and especially to Heathen. Similar sets of relationships exist for other words: male, or leftist, or writer, or white.
We don’t always recognize this when we discuss these terms of identity. We think about the components of identity, perhaps unconsciously, as monoliths, and when we encounter something that does not seem to fit in with our conception of that monolith, our instinct is to put it at a distance, make it no longer part of the category. But they are not distant at all. They are, perhaps have always been, part of the category, and we cannot resist them unless we first account for them. To do otherwise is to deny what is plainly before us.