I’ve seen Pagans dismissing the reality of cultural appropriation as the shrill cries of people “playing the race card,” being too sensitive, or actively looking for something to get offended over. The particulars on why it’s a legitimate problem have been addressed at great length elsewhere, but it’s a subject that seems to make the most people get the most defensive more quickly than any other. Why?
It should be established at the very beginning that people don’t close their cultures to outsiders to be assholes. Closed cultures tend to be, but aren’t always, ones that have experienced and/or are experiencing some form of oppression. They tend to be, but aren’t always, cultures that do not identify as being “white.” (“Whiteness” is a social identity separate from the phenotypal appearance of fair skin; skin color does not equal one’s ethnicity or culture.) They are often religions that come from an unbroken line of inheritance; that is, the religion has been passed down through generations without the essence of it being lost or broken.
White people are certainly not the only ones who can be racist, but it’s true that a great portion of historical and contemporary imperialism is waged by white-identified cultures. Here, I’m going to use “uninitiated” to refer to any person who is not rightfully initiated into a specific closed religion by an authority of that religion but who engages in appropriative practices. That said, I intend to start the process of unpacking not the consequences of cultural appropriation but, rather, the reasons for it being such a common problem in the first place. However, please note that this isn’t meant to be an academic paper and it contains no citations; it’s purely my personal musings. I’m also writing as someone who identifies as white, so please correct me if and when those biases appear.
I completely understand the frustration of being attracted to a particular practice but then being told that I have no business adopting it. I really do. I love rootwork, for example, but when I stop to think about it, the thought of me personally carrying around a Conqueror root for protection and calling it hoodoo when it was originally carried by slaves wanting to avoid the slave master’s whip makes me feel pretty sleazy. “But many of these things are so common now, does it really matter anymore? Isn’t it a hopeless cause?” someone argues. And, sure, things like dreamcatchers and “smudge” sticks have become standard stock in occult shops, distilled into general American culture, so what’s the point of arguing now? But it’s precisely because these things have become so distilled that we need to consciously reexamine how we engage with them.
The New Age movement from the 70s onward was largely a response to the materialism and capitalism of American culture and a rebellion against what’s considered conventional, both secular and religio-spiritual. Unfortunately, it ended up perpetuating those very things when expensive weekend getaways, workshops (”Come join us for a few days and find your spirit animal!”), fashionable aesthetic, and people’s habit of wanting to collect material commodities, e.g. crystals and wands, became common. It quickly turned into a movement of commodification, not appreciation. Children of the New Age by Dr. Steven Sutcliffe is a good analysis of this, for those interested in detailed reading.
The largest demographic of New Age practitioners – and Neopaganism, for that matter – is white-identified and middle-class, which comes with some very strong social and economic privilege. It also comes with the American struggle with identity: what does it mean to be American? Uncle Sam and barbecues on the Fourth of July? The lack of a common cohesive cultural identity, especially strong among the white-identified demographic but not limited to it, contributes to the reason why many Americans cling so hard to their ancestry even if their family left that homeland over 300 years ago. One need only look at the feverish madness of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations to see how Irish Americans and non-Irish Americans are suddenly “more Irish than the actual Irish.”
This lack of a cohesive American identity is one of the big reasons that uninitiated New Agers and Neopagans are so quick to appropriate other cultures: it’s a way to connect to a cultural depth and heritage that many Americans otherwise lack. Unfortunately, white-identified people have grown up in a society of colonization that encourages a sense of entitlement towards others, so our perception of what constitutes “appreciating and sharing other cultures” is, in reality, often condescending and fetishizing. The fact that no other subject gets so many people so defensive so quickly is testimony to this sense of entitlement. There is an element of “the Noble Savage” in there, too, especially when it comes to the First Nations and stereotyping them as a simpler but spiritually-enlightened people who worship the earth, forsaking the superficiality of mainstream modern society. They are seen as a reflection of the original counter-cultural, grassroots inspiration for the New Age, but the obsession with indigenous practices remain at least partially because New Age and Neopaganism failed to live up to those very concepts. We’re still grasping after them to fill that empty space, and then it all gets strained through that sieve of commodification into the repackaged products that make it easier for outsiders to consume. We just don’t see it because we’ve never had to.
There are lines in cultural appropriation. Eating out at an Indian restaurant isn’t appropriation. Attending Native rituals that have been explicitly opened to the public is not appropriation. An “outsider” being initiated into a closed religion by an authentic authority of said religion is not appropriation. It’s when things that are sacred or otherwise integral are removed from their cultural context and distilled or altered into something else that it becomes an issue. The line between appropriation and appreciation lies between ignorance versus education, sensitivity versus entitlement, and as determined by the people of the religion in question.
Going back to the original question: “But many of these things are so common now, does it really matter anymore? Isn’t it a hopeless cause?” While changing the prevalence of cultural distillation and imperialism won’t exactly happen overnight, it can be done. The beauty (and curse) of contemporary religion and spirituality, including New Age and Neopaganism, is how flexible they are, allowing for innumerable alternatives that don’t perpetuate a culture of colonization. Instead of dreamcatchers, try witch’s ladders. Instead of calling yourself a shaman, try “hedgewitch” or “spiritworker.” Instead of chakras, you can use the imagery of the Kemetic soul alignment or the three cauldrons in Irish polytheism. We have so much room for meaningful creativity without being problematic! We live in a time in which the idea that an individual can have a personal relationship with the divine or the universe without a middle-man, like a priest, is taken for granted, even though it’s only been socially accepted in the West for a few hundred years. We have the power to create our own, personal religious practices and mythologies. I truly believe that this is a beautiful thing and that we’re wasting our potential by obsessing over what we can’t, or shouldn’t, have. But throwing up your hands and saying, “This is too complicated, it’s too late, whatever,” indicates a lack of sensitivity to cultural dynamics and continued participation in a toxic social institution. Sometimes – sometimes – simply changing the word and not trying to pass off your actions as the equivalent of actions from a closed practice is enough. Pagans and witches know the power of words, after all.
We may feel “called” to a particular religion, but we don’t live in a spiritual vacuum. Even the gods need to respect boundaries, and as a friend suggested to me, it could be a test by the gods themselves to see how you respond. It’s up to you as an uninitiated person to evaluate who you are, what culture you feel called to, and whether or not it means engaging in the above-described toxicity. What kind of person are you going to be not just in relation to the gods but to the other mortal beings with whom you live and breathe and die?
No, not everyone agrees on exactly what constitutes cultural appropriation, and it becomes more complicated when there’s conflicting opinion within the same group. For example, some say that Kabbalism is closed to non-Jews, but then, I know of an individual Jewish Kabbalist who will accept non-Jewish Kabbalists as long as they really make an attempt to understand the Kabbalah within the actual Jewish paradigm, don’t try to remove the monotheism on which the whole system is founded, and don’t try talking over Jews because they think they know better. In these cases, you should proceed with respect and the sincere effort to educate yourself. More importantly, you should always, always have the willingness to listen to people native to that culture even if you don’t like what you’re hearing, even if — especially if — what you’re hearing is, “Stop.”
11-2-15: Edited for terminology. It was brought to my attention that I had inadvertently erased those of mixed race and those whose skin color doesn’t “match” their ethnicity or culture.