Unless you are living under a rock these days, identity politics are a major issue. It is complex and nuanced by class, race, culture, religion, sexuality, gender, and many other factors. There are a lot of people, mainly white middle class spiritual seekers, who would like to get rid of identity labels all together. The usual refrain is “Aren’t we all humans?” And while I agree in the spirit of the statement (especially on a scientific level), the unfortunate truth is that in practice, it erases the experiences of the marginalized. It also discounts how people live and move in the world. When people ask who you are, the automatic response is a list of your chosen identities. It is rare to have someone respond to that question with “I’m human!”
When the newly converted, Pagan, Christian, or otherwise, get to the stage of where their tradition is enmeshed with their identity it becomes comfortable and a fundamental part of one’s life. There is the comfort of having a sense of self that belongs to a community, whether one is a solitary practitioner, in a church, or working within a small group or coven. You now have a group of people that also claim that identity with you. Once the newness wears off, the identity of the group can provide protection from the “others” who may want to hurt everyone of that identity. It is the sense of self that is very present and immediate. It’s a time where the person lives and breathes “I AM THIS!” mentality.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Shared identity can help people organize around an injustice or a cause. It can help people figure out that they are not alone in their oppression. Identity can also help maintain a collective cultural history. And, as mentioned earlier, it can also help you describe yourself to someone. Instead of a 20 minute explanation of my view of my personal identity, I can tell people I’m a queer, pansexual, polyamorous cis-gendered female. Using these labels can also be triggers for further conversation.
The pitfalls, however, are when these identities and labels are used to further marginalize people. Just this morning I was talking to people online about how some pagan groups use their lineage and identities, specifically the label of “initiated witch,” as a way to determine who is a “real” witch. To me, this is similar to the Christian Fundamentalist concepts of the “Saved” and “Unsaved” and that those who are “saved” in their particular tradition are “proper” Christians. This is when labels and identity are used as a blunt instrument in order to oppress others. And, my fellow pagans, the sooner we recognize that this does exist in our community, the better.
In short, it is not up to me to police someone’s identity or the labels that they use, and it is important for us to recognize when identities and labels are being used to further marginalize others.