Thoughts about possession and white guilt

I am nearly finished reading “Drawing Down the Spirits” by Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera. It’s an interesting book, although I find I have mixed feelings about it. The book discusses possession from both Afro-Caribbean and modern Pagan perspectives.

Before reading the book, I had no idea that modern Pagans were even practicing possession. I haven’t been in touch with the Pagan community for well over ten years (and even when I was in touch, it was only marginally), and apparently a lot has changed during that time. I was taught that, whatever you did, you did not allow yourself to be possessed at any cost. And now it seems that some Pagan groups are practicing deity possession as part of their rituals. This appears to be mostly a positive thing. Pagans, like Vodou practitioners, can benefit greatly from intimate contact with those they serve.

I particularly enjoyed the section in Chapter 3 titled “Pagan Perspectives on Gods and Spirits.” The authors describe modern western Neo-Paganism as “less a coherent faith than a collection of vaguely similar faiths all trying to fit under one umbrella.” They go on to define the three major belief camps: polytheism, pantheism and archetypism:

Polytheism is distinct from pantheism in the sense that in polytheism, deities are highly distinct . . . Although a deity may appear under different names, all love goddesses are not one goddess, and so forth . . .

Pantheism is the belief that although there may be more than one manifestation of deity, they are all part of one larger Godhead . . . The simile often used to describe pantheism is that the Godhead is like a many-faceted jewel: the kind of divine being that approaches you is based on which facet is turned to the light…

The third point of this triangle we refer to as archetypism. This is a form of atheism (or, perhaps in some cases, agnosticism) that believes that divine archetypes are either psychologically rich internal structures that are spiritually useful for self-improvement or specific flavors of universal energy that can be “worked with” or even “commanded” in order to gain personal power . . . Archetypism also tends to be found where Neo-Paganism borders with demographics interested in psychology, self-help, and New Age spirituality, although the last group also tends to be high in pantheism.

When I was Wiccan, I fell into the pantheist camp. If I was still Wiccan, I think I’d be leaning more toward polytheism these days. In my Vodou studies, I’ve heard the lwa described both as energies and as specific entities with individual personalities.  I subscribe to the latter description, although it is my subjective opinion based on my own experience, and the experiences of others may differ. The five lwa I currently serve are each very different from the other. I am particularly fond of Papa Legba, and have difficulty thinking of him as an aspect of a Godhead, an energy form or an archetype. He is, quite simply, Papa Legba.

I mostly enjoyed this book, but do not like it as well as Filan’s “Haitian Vodou Handbook.” I think this is partly due to my personal preference for Filan’s writing style (although for having two authors, this book flows pretty well). Also, the use of the word ‘horse’ to describe Pagans who host deities during possession rituals bothered me a little bit, although I suspect the word was used for practical reasons (why have two words to describe the possessed when one will do). The use of the word ‘horse’ for the possessed is very specific to Vodou, and using it in a Western context felt a little like appropriation. But since I can’t think of a better alternative word, I’m not going to dwell on that.

Here’s a marginally related side note: Filan has a blog in which he discussed “white guilt.” I’m not going to discuss his blog per se (if you want to read it, Google is your friend), but I got to thinking about how much I don’t like that term. A person should not feel guilty because they are born white, and that’s what the term suggests to me. While some  white Americans may be descendants of those who committed atrocities against people of color, I don’t think those individuals should feel guilt about that exactly. Shame and horror, yes, but shame as a nation and not as an individual.

I propose to replace the word “guilt” with “responsiblity.” So then you have “white responsiblity,” but that still doesn’t quite work. So then I propose to replace “white” with “American.” And there you have it.

Everyone who lives in a society should take responsibility for shaping that society. So rather than feel guilt, we instead acknowledge the shame of past mistakes, learn from them, and take action to create a better society. All members of a society should set good examples for each other, and this certainly is not limited to white people. This can be accomplished by working for positive change and simply by treating each other with decency and respect.

I’m not actually an idealist, this minor spike will wear off momentarily. *smirks*

On a final unrelated note, I found out yesterday that I sold another sculpture at my art show. So that brings the total  pieces sold for this show to 7.  Ayibobo!

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2 Responses to “Thoughts about possession and white guilt”

  1. I am glad you liked The Haitian Vodou Handbook and Drawing Down the Spirits.

    Just one clarification regarding the context in which I used the term “white guilt.” On another forum, I referred to the infamous “Obama Food Stamp” as racist. A couple of other posters accused me of “white guilt” and “self-loathing” because I felt this was objectionable. (If I had been black, I’m sure I would have been one of those “militant blacks who hate white people”)

    In my experience, the term “white guilt” is most frequently used to derail conversations about racism by poisoning the well. If the person bringing up the racist incident/remark is suffering from “white guilt,” then there’s no reason to take them seriously. It implies that racism exists solely in the minds of self-hating white people and angry black folks seeking excuses for their own failings.

    I would agree with your assessment re “American responsibility,” with the caveat that the experience of a white American may differ significantly from the experience of an American person of color. And while I see nothing to be gained from “shame as an individual,” I think it is worthwhile for white individuals to consider the ways in which racial privilege has helped them. (I’ve heard lots of white folks say “I was born poor and nobody helped me!!” They don’t realize that they would have been some 700% more likely to wind up in prison had they been born poor and black – and that’s just one example that comes to mind).

    Concentration on past failings and self-flagellation about historical atrocities is useless at best and counterproductive at worst. It promotes the idea that racism is a sin of the past, not a continuing failing in American society.

  2. cheshirecatman Says:

    Thanks for your comments, and also for checking out my blog, I’m flattered.

    I agree about the term “white guilt” being used to derail conversations. It reminds me of how some people will use the term “defensive” to dismiss another person’s disagreement.

    As a person of color (although not black) I do recognize white privilege frequently, although, as you suggested above, this privilege does not always take the form of money (although many people forget that much “old money” in this country originated from government “land grants” of stolen tribal lands to white settlers). Instead, I tend to see white privilege as more of an unconscious attitude and, at times, a sense of entitlement.

    Particularly in past generations, white males were much freer to believe in the American dream or that they could be anything they wanted to be. They also were much freer to live or travel wherever they wanted to. For people of color, this was often not the case, and our sense of self was and is adversely affected by discrimination and negative media representations. Whenever I consider moving to a new city or neighborhood, one of my first concerns is whether the area is racially diverse.

    However, I also strongly dislike my fellow people of color who play into their own negative stereotypes or target random white people for reverse discrimination. Too often, they target the wrong people and end up alienating potential allies, thus derailing those of us who prefer to open lines of communication.

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