Friday, September 25, 2015

Interview with Jennifer Snook (American Heathens), Part Two

Click here to read Part One of the interview with the author of American Heathens.

Jennifer Snook, ready for more questions

KS – You state that past scholarly work on American Heathenry “overlooked the more moderate voices of Heathens” and that the first years of your research “focused on Heathens with liberal to moderate political sympathies.” The book includes data from your survey of Heathen political beliefs that shows “Liberal or Moderate” Heathens outnumber “Conservative” ones nearly five to three. Seventy-seven percent of Heathens “Agree with Marriage Equality,” more than the fifty-seven percent of Americans as a whole. However, you also state that the values of Heathens are “remarkably socially conservative, in keeping with dominant cultural norms” and discuss “the small and difficult-to-locate left.” How would you reconcile these statements and summarize your data on political positions of American Heathens?

JS – I’m not sure if there’s anything to reconcile. Heathens are at once more socially liberal than many Americans in terms of their views on marriage equality, yet more conservative in regards to views on interracial marriage. These are merely two examples of conflicting political trends. This isn’t a surprise, given the participation in the pagan milieu and simultaneous focus on ancestry, ethnicity, and whiteness.

So at once, Heathens exist in a subcultural environment – around other pagans and in other alternative enclaves – in which liberal attitudes in regards to recreational drug use, (hetero) sexuality, female empowerment, etc., are common. These ideas are socially “liberal” in the sense that these Heathens support more personal freedoms and less oppression or regulation.

On the other hand, the hypermasculinity of American Heathenry, coming up from the days of the Viking Brotherhood and with significant influence from ex-military and ex-convicts, has an impact on the way that many Heathens express their personal politics. This plays directly into how Heathens discuss Wiccans, how people treat those in LGBT communities, how they perceive matters of race and racial exclusion, and influences prevailing sexist attitudes. So when I say that American Heathens are socially conservative, I speak in reference to my observations in which conservative attitudes toward women, transgendered people, “liberals” and academics were quite popular, and in which many Heathen norms and values echo mainline Protestantism.

For example, I observed a ton of discourse that any reasonable person would characterize as “conservative” ideological thought: a rejection of social welfare programs, the insistence that people’s use of social services is “lazy” and that people are working the system. Ironically, there is no shortage of Heathens who themselves are on social welfare of some kind, or who are part of what we might call “the working poor.” Granted, our assumptions about who is using welfare in this country is heavily racialized and stereotyped, so this plays into people’s attitudes.

Snook losing a game of "Capture the Wench" in 2011

Also, there was no shortage of sexism which seemed to run counter to the Heathen insistence on the equality or “badassness” of Heathen women. I myself experienced this on a number of occasions, from the game “Capture the Wench,” at [midwest Heathen gathering] Lightning Across The Plains – critiqued by a Heathen friend of mine as making mockery of the historical theft and inevitable rape of women by the Vikings and other tribes – to anti-feminist rhetoric, people giving me shit because I’m vegetarian, frequent paternalism, or even a “joke” at an event that I prepare a man’s meal, the assumption being that it was my rightful duty as a woman to do so. These ideas are intimately influenced by a person’s social class, education and regional location, as well.

So, like I lay out in the book, it’s complicated.

KS – Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke has written of “contemporary neo-völkisch groups and ideology in America and Europe” starting in the 1980s. Your portrayal of Stephen McNallen and Folkish Heathens seems to agree with his analysis:
Just as the original völkisch movement arose as a defensive ideology of German identity against modernity in the late nineteenth century, this neo-völkisch revival acts as a defensive ideology of white identity against multiculturalism, affirmative action and mass Third World immigration.
However, you differ with Goodrick-Clarke by stating that the pre-Third-Reich völkisch movement in Germany “championed the affirmation of white identity,” not German identity. What distinction would you make between the old völkisch emphasis on national German identity from modern Folkish ideas of transnational white identity?

JS – Well, white people – and Heathens – in the United States by and large aren’t focused on German identity. Although some ethnic whites focus on the ethnicity of their ancestors, a lot of Americans don’t have this data. They don’t know where they come from, and so they make assumptions based on their appearance, or vague information – they imagine that they are German, or English, or Scandinavian.

My dad, for example, thought for our entire lives that the surname “Snook” was a British derivative of “Seven Oaks,” like our mail-order family-crest infographic says. But when we trace our family tree, it goes back to Germany on the Snook side to Jacob Schnuch born in 1655. Then, when my dad had his DNA tested recently, it turns out we’re quite Irish. None of this changes my life or opportunities, and whether I embrace my “Irish” ancestry or not is completely voluntary.

The Snook Family Crest, according to the interwebs

When Heathens appeal to ethnicity, by and large they are appealing to whiteness. But whiteness itself is only a thing in contrast to the racialized “other.” It is a political construct meant to divide and conquer, used historically to make white wage-laborers work to support the white elite, rather than working in cooperation with freed black slaves also suffering under the same terrible working conditions. So whiteness has always been a privilege used for political purposes, and in this country, not much has changed. Yet, because we so infrequently identify whiteness as a category, it’s largely invisible.

Heathens are special in this respect, because so many focus on ancestry and a genuine desire to identify where they came from, their ethnic histories are salient. But my ethnic history may be different from another Heathen’s ethnic history, and yet, when we seek a common ancestral story, tradition or connection, we are appealing to a generalized whiteness. When we talk about Heathenry with the words “The Folk,” to which folk are we referring? And we know that Heathens of color frequently get crap from other Heathens who have no idea what their ethnic background is, but make assumptions based upon appearance.

I grew up with kids whose mothers were German but whose fathers were African-American soldiers. I have no doubt that these people would have a more difficult time settling into Heathenry and would constantly have to justify their “right” to belonging, simply because they don’t “look” white. So this is what I mean by an “affirmation of white identity,” which is intimately connected to the history of race and ethnicity in our country and culture in ways that I outline, perhaps too verbosely, in the book.

KS – You discuss “symbolic ethnicity by the offspring of immigrants” and “absence of actual ethnic identity among whites.” However, you also point out that many African-Americans “have white ancestry.” As a sociologist, how do you determine the relative “actuality” or “realness” of ethnic identity for a “German-American” daughter of postwar immigrants and an “African-American” whose ancestors have lived in America since the eighteenth century? Does academic parsing of identity politics override and overwrite individual and community self-definition?

JS – No, of course not. People’s real-world lived experiences will always be more “real” than anything that we academics theorize. But, it’s our job to theorize, to observe patterns, to identify the historical, social, and economic significance of human events and behaviors. I don’t think that my words as a sociologist, in regards to symbolic ethnicity, in any way robs people of their agency to define their own ethnic identities.

"Whatever Happened to German America?"
Click here to read an excellent New York Times
post on "America's largest national ethnic group"

What I would argue, however, if you’re asking the difference between the symbolic ethnicity of white people, and the “real” ethnicity of African-Americans, is that we’re talking about two different concepts. We don’t know the ethnicity of white people, unless they express it out loud. I can be Irish, I can be German, or I can just be a default taken-for-granted white American with nothing to prove. My ethnicity is invisible unless I’m wearing an ethnic costume, a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” shirt, or participating in folk dances, for example. We do assume, however, that we know the ethnicity of African-Americans because their racial category is visible and we often conflate race with ethnicity.

Race, however, is a political construct; it is a tool used to place people in a hierarchy in order to decide who has access to domains of power and privilege. Ethnicity is the bearer of culture, which determines custom, language, religion, and culture – food, music, clothing, etc. So my point in saying that many African-Americans “have white ancestry” is to say that our focus on ancestry in regards to who gets to be Heathen – when this focus appeals to whiteness – is often a focus on race, rather than ethnicity.

KS – Discussing European immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, you write that “ethnicity is something that white people adopt or neglect according to their whims,” describing “Americans who highlight their Irish American, Italian American, or German American (white) ethnicities during festivals and holidays.” Even in the last fifty years, there has been real discrimination in housing, hiring and government against some European immigrant groups and their descendants, many of whom were not considered “white” (such as Sicilians). There are still Americans today who draw sharp distinctions between Americans with Irish, Italian, German, Spanish and other Old World roots. In America’s major cities, there are communities where English is a second language after Polish or Russian. How does the idea of ethnic-by-choice relate to these continuing experiences of ethnicity by descendants of immigrants?

JS – Of course these communities exist, and ethnicity is a salient characteristic in the lives of the people within them. My research happened outside of these insular communities.

I am using the work of scholars since the 1970s who speak to the increasing disappearance of ethnicity as a category of identification among white Americans. See Alastair Bonnett’s 1998 piece “Who was white? The disappearance of non-European white identities and the formation of European racial whiteness” in Ethnic and Racial Studies. It may be salient to some people, but it’s certainly not as salient in the lives of white Americans as it was at the turn of the twentieth century.

Disappearing into the landscape: Snook in Colorado

So it’s not that ethnicity is not in play in some spaces, it’s that it’s much less a factor in the lives of white people than it used to be. In many cases, ethnic identification is optional for white people.

But perhaps more important is that ethnic identification by white people doesn’t necessarily, as a pattern of experience, exclude them from the privileges of whiteness the way that being non-white in our society does. Most white Americans do not live in these communities, and for the average white person in this country, ethnicity is not ascribed.

KS – You offer a critique of past scholars of American Heathenry, writing that “previous research has focused overwhelmingly on a fringe element within American Heathenry for whom whiteness is central to the question of who gets to be Heathen.” If we accept that the word Heathen “is inclusive of all varieties of Germanic paganism” (as you write in the book), then the term must encompass Odinism and overtly racist ideologies like Wotanism – as is suggested by your reference to the racist subjects of previous authors as “a fringe element within American Heathenry.” What hard data is available to sociologists that shows the percentage of the overall Heathen community that consists of those “for whom whiteness is central to the question of who gets to be Heathen”? In other words, how can we know scientifically that they are, in fact, a fringe element?

JS – In 2012, I put out a survey to Heathens over social media and email lists. I didn’t ask the question “Are you racist?” or “Are you a white supremacist?” – but I did ask people about their political identity. Of the 687 people who took the survey, only one of them identifies as a “white nationalist.” One white nationalist out of 687. That’s 0.1%.

What was more important to me than the survey data, however, was the field work. When we observe and interview the people with which we come in contact and listen to them, we can get a sense of the Heathen landscape. I did this for over a decade, all over the country. What I can speak to is the depth and breadth of my own data, across time and space, which clearly suggests, like the survey data, that most Heathens are not white supremacists and most are not overtly racist.

I should qualify what I mean by “overtly racist.” We have a conception in this country that racism requires people to not only declare the superiority of their race over those of the racialized “other,” but also to use derogatory terms and behave unpleasantly toward those who are non-white. This is what we sociologists call “traditional racism.” It’s the racism of our grandparents.

After the Civil Rights triumphs, however, the way that we discuss and experience race in this country has changed. Now, it is no longer acceptable to be openly racist – yet, racism persists. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva discusses this in his book Racism Without Racists. We’ve fundamentally learned a new way of talking about race that allows us to express racist sentiments – “soft” racism, if you will – or to disclaim or avoid accusations of racism by talking about how we’re “friends with black people” – which empirical data suggests is uncommon, anyway – or to use racism as a form of comedy, etc.

Bonilla-Silva's Racism without Racists

All of this by way of saying that the way that we do racism these days has changed. It’s more subtle and symbolic, it’s institutionalized and often unintentional. So when I say that most Heathens are not overtly racist, what I mean is that they are not traditionally racist. This doesn’t excuse them from their color-blind racism, any more than it would the average American – and Heathens are not special in this regard. They were socialized to understand and express ideas about race the same way as everyone else in the United States.

Although my survey was widely dispersed throughout the Heathen community and represents a diverse cross-section, my interviews and fieldwork didn't focus on Odinists, Wotanists or any group that was overtly racist. Mattias Gardell did enough of this in his book Gods of The Blood. But the Heathenry that he featured was not the Heathenry that I had known, nor was it the Heathenry I would come to know through my work. We cannot discount these groups – they exist. But they were not part of my sample, which was plenty large enough without them in it.

KS – Why do you think that academia and the media have focused nearly exclusively on the far-right, racist subset of Heathenry? Why do they largely continue to, as you write, “ignore the sizable contingent of outspoken antiracist Heathens”?

JS – For reasons you may have guessed – White Supremacy is dramatic and interesting. These groups are more vocal and obnoxious and easy to locate, because part of their whole shtick is being heard. The people that I observed and interviewed were not political activists in this way; they are regular people living regular lives.

Embracing the Other: Snook with troll

It would be much more challenging for a researcher who was not already a member of a group like Heathenry to locate and study its participants, although it has been done in the last few years by another colleague of mine who came to Heathenry as a non-member and then slowly went native. And then you’d have to have a compelling enough research question going in, unless you were convinced there was something of interest at play and were committed to allowing the data to speak for itself over time. I was committed.

To be concluded in Part Three.


If the infographic fails to load after a decent amount of time, click here to view it offsite.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

A really interesting article!

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