We Need To Talk
Dearest pagan community, we need to have a conversation about cultural appropriation. I know; I can already imagine the sighs and the eye-rolls. “This again?” you may grumble. However in the interest of intersectional witchcraft, it’s a very damn important conversation, and one that I do not think is had enough in our circles.
Recently I got into an argument with a friend of mine in the community who posted a link to this Upworthy article about cultural appropriation on her Facebook feed and asked for our opinions about it. The summation of the article and video is that cultural appropriation is okay if your intention is good.
I screenshot the responses, but I’m not going to include them because they were terrible. Most of the respondents jumped on what I like to call the “anti-PC brigade” in which the excuse for whatever behavior someone is calling out is that people (specifically minorities) are being too sensitive about issues of oppression. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that one! See the 7 Myths video (listed at the end of this piece).
Someone shared that they thought goth culture was being appropriated, something which while I can see how they would believe that, is not the same as ethnic or religious minorities having their sacred symbols stolen, commodified and de-contextualized.
Another person started talking about how the Irish were enslaved (another popular response) and I’m still not sure what that had to do with the conversation, other than an attempt at trying to say that Saint Patrick’s Day is an example of how cultures blend. It was a mess.
Anyway, attempted to call out my friend and was met with dismissal, tone-policing and personal attacks. I wish I could say that was new for me. I’m disappointed but not surprised.
Here’s the thing: cultural appropriation is wrong. I’ve heard every argument from “isn’t everything appropriated from something else” to “but I’m just appreciating the culture”. They’re all wrong.
I’m not going get into the details and nuances of why it is wrong; there are TONS of articles, videos and personal accounts as to why this is an oppressive behavior. It’s not up to minorities to educate you, please look them up yourself.
I will try to explain this once as simply as I can, because I want to go into what cultural appropriation means for our communities and why cultural appropriation is something radical pagans should stand against and call out.
What is it?
I like this definition best:
“Cultural appropriation is the process by which a member of a dominant culture takes or uses (appropriates) aspects of another culture (often a colonised culture) without that culture’s permission and/or without any understanding of the deeper cultural meanings behind the appropriated item.” (source)
Cultural appropriation is, at its core, about power. When one group has structural power over another and takes aspects, symbols or objects of a marginalized group without permission and erases the meaning behind them, something is lost or destroyed in the process. In a capitalist framework, the appropriated items may also be commodified as they are de-contextualized and sold for profit. It’s perverted, oppressive and wrong. Cecil Joy Willowe calls cultural appropriation:
“the power to steal, misrepresent, and/or corrupt cultural items from an oppressed cultural group.” (Bringing Race to the Table, pp. 68)
Some of the most popular examples of cultural appropriation include the bindi and the Native American (Plains) headdress or war bonnet. From my own culture I would also include the hamsa or Hand of Miriam/Fatima as a currently popular appropriated item.
Why is this important to discuss in Pagan communities?
In many ways, we are microcosms of the larger majority culture. For the purposes of this discussion I’m only going to talk about the context I know which is that of pagan communities in the United States, so when I refer to the majority culture I’m talking about the White Supremacist Capitalist Hetero-patriarchy in the United States. Due to a lack of racial and ethnic diversity in pagan communities, cultural appropriation is especially problematic.
It seems like everybody wants to be a shaman! Does anyone even know where the word comes from? Janet Callahan (Oglala Sioux) elaborates:
“The word shaman is particular to the Evenk and Buryat peoples of Siberia. Their practices are decidedly different than the practices of the tribes of North America. And yet, the same word was used by anthropologists to describe the spiritual leaders of Native Americans. This does a disservice to both the native Siberians and the Native Americans, all because English didn’t have good words to talk about this sort of thing. In either case, these spiritual folks were part of their community, and the community recognize them for their skills and gifts. Now there are Pagans using that word to describe their own practices with no links to any of the original cultures is involved.” (Bringing Race to the Table, pp. 44)
Anecdotally at a variety of pagan events I’ve seen White folks with dreadlocs, wearing bindis, mistakenly blending the imagery of Día de Muertos and Halloween, appropriating the word “g*psy”, and generally using sacred imagery from cultures that they do not understand. Another common practice I witness is White folks taking names that sound Native American or claiming Native ancestry to give them some sort of spiritual street cred. Not cool!
As a person of color I find this makes me uncomfortable and at times I find it highly egregious. When culture is appropriated, it is disfigured and stolen. In a way, the people who it comes from are erased. When cultural erasure happens, we lose something valuable. In the interest of intersectionality, I say again that pagan communities should not be a party to this!
Fortunately the conversation is starting. Many pagans have begun to write about cultural appropriation. Luminaries of our circles including Sable Aradia, Lupa Greenwolf and Crystal Blanton, among others, have all written excellent responses to cultural appropriation in pagan communities (please see the resources section at the end of the essay).
So what are our options? Let’s vision a little bit. How about true cultural exchange and cultural appreciation? I envision pagan communities alive with a plethora of people in all shapes, sizes, colors, of all sexualities, genders and abilities. I envision class lines dissolving. I envision respect for indigenous peoples of the lands we occupy. I envision a place for all people at the table and in the circle. Thank you for listening.
In solidarity and love, S.
- Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community
Edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood and Brandy Williams
- What is Cultural Appropriation? – Marina Watanabe (Feminist Fridays)
- What’s Wrong With Cultural Appropriation? – Kat Blaque
- 7 Myths About Cultural Appropriation – Franchesca Ramsey
- “A Much Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation” by Katie J.M. Baker
- “From the Shadows: Why Every Pagan Should Care About Cultural Appropriation” by Sable Aradia
- “Pagans and Cultural Appropriation” by Lupa Greenwolf
- “Culture and Community: Appropriation, Exchange and Modern Paganism” by Crystal Blanton
- “Don’t Make Me Rip Those Chicken Feathers Off You” by Dana Lone Hill
Simcha is a rad non-binary QPOC brujx, community activist & voodoo devotee living on occupied Kalapuya & Chinook territory. By day they work in community mental health & by night they can be found spinning in circles & dreaming of faraway desert lands.