Cultural Appropriation and Paganism. Cultural Appropriation and Magical Practice. I honestly don’t know if what I am about to write is going to come across as sensible or insensitive, controversial or common sense. I do know it has been on my mind since I started doing research for my Palo Santo and White Sage article. It seemed too big a can of worms to open at the time.
But what the hell, here goes!
First, a note on my perspective: I am a white American woman. I had a privileged and positive upbringing. Curiosity and learning about other cultures was encouraged in my home. My parents were collectors of American Indian art, and I learned a lot about the meanings and the stories behind pieces in our home. Like a lot of budding witches, I first learned about modern witchcraft during high school. My early practices were eclectic as f**k, with little regard or research into where things came from.
I was absolutely guilty of cultural appropriation. Still am.
So are you.
What is Cultural Appropriation?
Dictionary.com defines cultural appropriation as “the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.”
I see this all over the place in pagan practices and in magical practices. To use the above example, it came up as a reason besides the “endangered” status for why we shouldn’t use palo santo or white sage.
Both of these are from practices unique to native peoples of the Americas. But for the beginner witch or energy sensitive, they often just hear “Use this to clear negative energies!” without any of the original source it came from.
I have seen it express itself in other ways: adding deities to one’s practice without cultural connection or study, incorporating eastern traditions right alongside Celtic ones, mojo bags used by that specific name with no additional connection to hoodoo… These cultures, practices, and studies all have their own weight and history. By just adding it in under the umbrella of “eclectic” we are doing the cultures and ourselves a disservice.
Appropriation or Appreciation?
Does this mean don’t use anything that does not come from your own culture? Do I hate eclectic witches? Absolutely not on both accounts!
What this means is I want you to take a moment and acknowledge where the traditions you use come from. Study and learn, and then you can both better appreciate the cultures different magical practices come from. Look at what you do and ask, “Why?” Once you have done that, you can better decide whether it can be used in an educated and appreciative way, or if the negatives of appropriation outweigh that.
But how do you know?
One thing I strongly recommend is that if you can find someone actually of the culture in question, talk to them! We are an amazingly global world thanks to the internet, so if you don’t know someone personally, chances are you can still find someone online who either has already given their opinion on the subject, or are willing to give it.
We are all human, so opinions on where the line between appropriation and appreciation is are going to vary. You will also find some people who take offense at use of things from their culture or religion when taken out of context, and you will find some who want people from other cultures to learn about their traditions to keep them alive. Give all these opinions serious weight.
There will also always be culturally tinged words and stereotypes that will be offensive. If you find out you are using one of those… stop it. Stop it now. If you find yourself saying, “I don’t care, I’m doing it anyway,” stop it now.
Should I Care?
Well, I think you should. But I can’t make you. It is a choice you need to make for yourself.
Nothing that we do exists in a vacuum. Most magical practices and many pagan paths encourage you to be sensitive to the energies and the world around you. They say that in order to change things, you need to first understand them.
How can you do that if you disconnect yourself from these rich cultural histories?
And frankly, if you are coming from a place of privilege, and then using parts of cultures that have been oppressed, undervalued, enslaved, and claiming what is their’s as your own, aren’t you repeating patterns that we should be breaking?
But on the other hand… like a lot of Americans, my cultural heritage is thoroughly mixed. If you take the time to study traditions that arose in America – after European colonization, that is – you find that much like our language we borrowed bits from all over the place and combined them into new “American” things. Some of these traditions arise from not having a clear idea of our own culture. That very disconnect has drawn more than a few pagans I know to their current paths.
To the outside, to people in other countries and cultures, we do sometimes look absolutely ridiculous trying to claim the heritages of our great-great-grandparents. But does that mean we should not learn those traditions? That we should not study those faiths?
How much do we care before sensitivity overwhelms our desire for connection?
I’m betting if you made it this far through my ramblings, you care a bit.
What Should I Do?
Want to be better about cultural appropriation in your own magical practices? Here are some of my suggestions:
- Study, study, study! Learn everything you can about why you do what you do.
- Evaluate. Are you adding something that is trendy right now, or what someone else recommended to you, without knowing where the practice comes from?
- Including something from another culture? Learn its importance within that culture first.
- Talk to people. Find out whether others consider the practices you are using are appropriation or not.
- Look to your own culture or family history. Start with seeking to appreciate where you came from to give your path a stronger foundation.
- Decide. Only you can determine whether to use practices from other cultures or not. Whatever you decide, stand by that decision with knowledge of what you are doing.
Any other suggestions, or thoughts on cultural appropriation? Let me know in the comments!
Interested in learning more about cultural appropriation? Check out these books from Amazon!
Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation
Race, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition (Contributions to Zombie Studies)