History · Racism

Wil Wheaton’s Spirit Animal Problem

“You have nothing to apologize for, Wes.”

Somehow I managed to remain ignorant of the whole Wil Wheaton “spirit animal” brouhaha that erupted last week. Now that I’ve been made aware of it (thanks, Pundit!), I have a thing or two to say about it. But first, a recap for those who have been living under the same rock as I have since the contretemps.

On February 9, Wil Wheaton responded to a post on Tumblr, with a lighthearted remark that the author was “my spirit animal.” Self-identified “activist,” “angry black woman,” and author K Tempest Bradford then replied:

Using ‘spirit animal’ is kinda uncool. Different forms of it belong to specific cultures that are already having a hard time with erasure/delegitimization, partially through appropriation.

In fairness, her initial post was nice, respectful, and offered some alternatives (although it was still problematical in its content – see below). Then Mr. Wheaton made a predictably (given his political leanings) over-the-top, Politically Correct, apology, decrying what the early Americans did to the Indians (“I hate that my country was built on their blood,” etc.), but that wasn’t enough for Ms. Bradford. Nosiree! He was “Whitesplaining,” don’tcha know (whatever the fuck that’s supposed to be… or wasn’t Ms. Bradford “blacksplaining” in her replies?) They went back and forth a couple of times and here we are.

Now, there are two main things wrong with this whole controversy.

First and foremost is the fact that Ms. Bradford is either willfully lying or is painfully ignorant about the subject of “spirit animals.” When she says that the term and its forms “belong to” Amerindian culture, she is omitting a millennia-long legacy of European religious and magical practice. There is the Germanic tradition of the fetch (English) or fylgja (Old Norse) – mine, for instance, is the fox, but *GASP!* perhaps I’m being Culturally Insensitive by daring to have a “spirit animal” with which I identify – and the Medieval European tradition of the “familiar spirit”, and the Catholic tradition of identifying various saints and angels with animals, and so on, and so on. And I’m not the only person who made this point.

You didn’t “take anything” from anyone, Wil. You used a phrase and a concept that is universal, and no group has ownership of it, despite what the Perpetually Outraged might say.

In short, K Tempest Bradford “speaks with forked tongue” (if you’ll pardon the phrase). The concept of the spirit animal is just as valid for us Europeans as it is for anyone else.

Which brings me to the second point. I don’t think that Wil Wheaton had anything to apologize for in the first place. Setting aside the fact that Ms. Bradford was factually incorrect when she said that Indians own “spirit animals,” Mr. Wheaton’s apology, in which he apologized for the evils that the American settlers did to the Indians, was completely unnecessary and even incendiary.

Did the settlers of the American West do crappy things to the Indians? Yes. Were they unique in doing so? Abso-fucking-lutely not. I have news – blacks settled the West, too, and they did just as shitty things to the Indians as the whites did. Do they need to apologize too? What about all the atrocities that they committed against whites in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)? In a hundred years, will Ms. Bradford’s grandkids be apologizing for some offhand remark that they make about roller derby?

Just what is the statute of limitations on collective racial guilt? As far as I know, none of my ancestors made it west of the Mississippi before the 1930’s. Does that make me immune from the need to apologize to the people who are the descendants of the Indians that other people’s ancestors did bad things to? Just how far back do you want to go? I have German ancestry; do I deserve an apology from every Frenchman I meet because of what Charlemagne did at the Massacre of Verden in 782 because they “erased and deligitimzed” the Pagan Saxon culture? I have English ancestry, too – am I entitled to reparations from Italy because the Romans conquered Britain in 43 CE and “erased and delegitimized” the pre-Roman Briton culture?

No, no, no, and no again! This professional victimization has to stop! My ancestors did horrible things to other peoples’ ancestors. And their ancestors did horrible things to my ancestors. If we keep clinging to that absolute nonsense, over and over and over again, we’ll have nothing else. In my religion, we carry the art of feud and vendetta to a high art form. But even so, it ends with individuals, or their immediate family. At some point, the claim to vengeance reaches its expiration date, especially if you’re talking about things on the gross level of race.

White people did crappy things. Black people did crappy things. Asian people, and Indians, and everyone else has done crappy things. Our ancestors all did crappy things to one another. Get over it, stop trying to find reasons to be insulted (or, worse, to apologize for things you weren’t responsible for) and move on. There’s more than enough guilt to go around, because humans, on the whole, don’t follow Wheaton’s Law.

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