Okay, I’m just going to come out and say it: I’m sick of white gods and religiously-themed stories about white people. I really am. At this point I’m willing to give points to movies, even bad ones, for featuring people of color as gods or at least the main characters in a spiritual movie, because this is starting to get ridiculous. No, scratch that—it has always been ridiculous, but I feel like we should know better at this point.
For those of you who have not heard, there’s a movie coming out called Gods of Egypt. It features an all-white cast with the exception of one Black character. Yep, a whole movie about Egyptian gods—but the gods are played by white people.
There is so much wrong with all of this—not just from a representation standpoint, but from a theological one as well.
Obviously, we have been talking about the issues with whitewashing, particularly of Egyptian people, since the Exodus movie came out and people associated with the movie tried to claim that no one knew what ethnicity the Egyptians actually were. Of course this claim led the creators to use an all-white cast, because if we “don’t know the Egyptians’ ethnicity” then of course white ends up being the default, because racism. If this was actually the case, you would think it would have made sense to have more diversity just to err on the side of caution, but that was not the case. Obviously this gross misunderstanding of history is still an issue here; not only are all but one of the gods white, but based on the trailer it looks like pretty much all the human characters and extras are white too. But representation and whitewashing becomes even more problematic when religion is involved.
Whether you believe in any deities or not, you have to recognize that religion and belief in a god or gods in general is a powerful force and shapes the way people think and view the world. So of course portraying or viewing God or gods as strictly white is hugely problematic. The major issue here is by having any god(s) aligned and identified solely with a group of people who have historically and even currently are oppressing various other ethnic groups, you end up showing divine support for the oppressor over the oppressed. Though in this post we are specifically discussing Egyptian gods, I want, for a second, to look at a Christian understanding of this, not only because this is the form of theology I am most familiar with, but also because the themes in Black theology could potentially be applied across faiths and because of the wealth of academic discourse on race and theology in Christianity. James Cone, one of the most famous Black theologians, discusses the issues with whiteness and Christ at great length. Ron Rhodes explains some of Cone’s theology and how race plays a major factor in it. He writes:
One of the more controversial aspects of Cone’s Christology is his view that Jesus was (is) black: “The ‘raceless’ American Christ has a light skin, wavy brown hair, and sometimes – wonder of wonders – blue eyes. For whites to find him with big lips and kinky hair is as offensive as it was for the Pharisees to find him partying with tax-collectors. But whether whites want to hear it or not, Christ is black, baby, with all of the features which are so detestable to white society”.
Cone believes it is very important for black people to view Jesus as black: “It’s very important because you’ve got a lot of white images of Christ. In reality, Christ was not white, not European. That’s important to the psychic and to the spiritual consciousness of black people who live in a ghetto and in a white society in which their lord and savior looks just like people who victimize them. God is whatever color God needs to be in order to let people know they’re not nobodies, they’re somebodies.”
Cone not only talks about how historically inaccurate it is for Christ to be portrayed as white, but also shows how the supposed “raceless” view of Christ is really just a white Christ. He explains that in a society where white people are in power and Black people are oppressed, an image of a Black Jesus is extremely radical. Having a god that is identified with the oppressed and not the oppressor almost naturally says that divine power is on the side of the oppressed. Having only white images of god(s) forces people of color to solely view the divine as white, and supports the notion that god(s) favor their oppressors. Furthermore, the image of the white blue-eyed, blond-haired European Christ that developed in Western European medieval art was probably created when when there was a very strong cultural association between whiteness being associated with light, wealth, purity, and goodness, and black being associated with darkness, poverty, impurity, evil, and working outside for a living. Making Jesus lighter than his peers somehow became a sign of his divinity, specifically of his divine purity and sinlessness. Writer Jonathan Merritt, in an article for The Atlantic, explains:
The myth of a white Jesus is one with deep roots throughout Christian history. As early as the Middle Ages and particularly during the Renaissance, popular Western artists depicted Jesus as a white man, often with blue eyes and blondish hair. Perhaps fueled by some Biblical verses correlating lightness with purity and righteousness and darkness with sin and evil, these images sought to craft a sterile Son of God.
The idea that Blackness is something evil has been around for a long time and exists in modern history and even today (if the continued lack of any depictions of god(s) as people of color is any indication). In the 19th century, Mormons assumed that black skin was actually a sign of the Mark of Cain (the symbol that marked Cain as a murderer after he killed his brother Abel). This has continued into even recent years; there’s a really famous 1977 Jesus miniseries by Frank Zeffirelli that cast a blue-eyed man to play Jesus, and it probably did a lot to reignite the idea of the blue-eyed Jesus in pop culture.
Black theology in Christianity is largely about finding space in a religion that many people of color now identify with, but which was also one that their ancestors were largely forced into. Jesus wasn’t white, but a Jesus who is actually a person of color is an image that needs to be reclaimed and explored since people of color were victims of religious colonialism. Christianity and the image of a white God and white Jesus were forced on the people who were also forced into following Christianity. For example, in the United States, African slaves who spoke the same tribal language were purposefully separated so that they couldn’t talk to one another or practice their own religious beliefs and instead were taught Christianity by the plantation owners.
But religious colonialism had an even worse effect on pagan religions, because Christians tried to destroy and demonize any non-Christian faiths. As I explained in another post on religious colonialism:
As Christianity spread into Europe, pagan sites of worship were destroyed and churches were built in their place. In the Americas, the native peoples’ language, tradition, and religious practices were banned and even declared evil. Native peoples could be killed for witchcraft and worshiping the devil just for practicing their original religious beliefs. On top of this, religious colonialism encourages conversion by promising more rights and freedoms to the conquered people who convert.
Many pagan faiths partially or completely disappeared because of this. What the Neopaganism of today does is an attempt to reclaim or at least find a new understanding of those religions that people feel drawn to. In an article on witchvox.com, one author explains how pagans of color go to Neopaganism to explore non-white and multi-racial forms of faith and practice.
People of color in the Neo-Pagan community do know that Neo-Paganism is European-based. So why do we practice Neo-Pagan paths?
For some people of color, such as myself, Neo-Paganism serves as a non-intentional gateway to other paths that are not Neo-Pagan, such as Yoruba, American Indian, Asian and Polynesian spiritualities. Some of us find that we see some similarities between these and Neo-Pagan paths. For others, especially people of color who are biracial or multiracial, Neo-Paganism introduces them to cultures that gives view to who and what they are. For better or worse, Neo-Paganism helped me to discover these other paths; the learning came directly from people of these other paths—an issue that Neo-Pagan community leaders and elders need to point out to their folks.
Kemetism or Egyptian Neopaganism is a belief system in Neopaganism that revives ancient Egyptian religious beliefs. These are gods that people still follow, worship, and believe in. Even if there weren’t people still following this religion, historically speaking the ancient Egyptians were certainly not white and portraying their gods as such is a gross whitewashing of history. People of color have been drawn to religions like Egyptian Neopaganism because that is a faith that allows them a connection to their ethnic background, to follow gods who actually look like them and to get away from some of the racist baggage that come from religions like Christianity. Because of this, whitewashing the Egyptian gods is even worse, in my opinion, than whitewashing Jesus. It’s like watching colonialism and religious colonialism play out all over again. Neopaganism, specifically Neopaganism practiced by people of color, is in some ways even more radical that portraying Christ as Black. Some forms of Neopaganism not only challenges the belief that God has to be white in order to be associated with goodness and power, but also challenges the religious colonialism that took many of those religions away from them in the first place. Taking the gods of ancient Egyptian belief and turning them white is appallingly racist and deeply offensive, both culturally and religiously.