Harry Potter, Adam, and the Speghetti Monster

Harry Potter, Adam, and the Speghetti Monster
"Sorry guys...you haven't seen a small metal ball with wings flapping around by chance, have you?""

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cultural appropriation: how to be a heretic without being a jerk

Thanks to Erica at Cultural Appropriation Cat

Greetings everyone.

For a while I've wanted to talk about cultural appropriation--the use of another culture's symbols, traditional knowledge, or folklore by someone who is not a member of that culture without the culture's permission.  This is particularly an issue when the "appropriated" culture has been historically marginalized, excluded, or conquered by the "appropriating" culture.

So this is the point where as an oppressed black and gay man, I'm supposed to tell haughty, clueless rich white people that they can't have my Gods and traditions and that they have no business representing my experience.  Or maybe instead, as a privileged, educated person in a first world country not living in poverty, I'm supposed to say that as long as my heart is the right place, I can do whatever I want because it's all "universal".

What I actually will say is something slightly different.  This subject is both simpler and more complicated than it seems.

Cultural appropriation is a fancy-shamy academic term which actually only stands for three things: theft, slander or fraud. Taking something that doesn't belong to you.   Misrepresenting someone to others in a way likely to damage their reputation.  Misrepresenting yourself to others for personal gain.  I've met a lot of Neo-Pagans, witchy people, etc.  While few of them are saints and some (okay, more than some) can be obnoxious, most of them would agree that these three definitions fit the words theft, slander and fraud. They would also agree that all three are morally wrong.  So why then are Neo-Pagans and witches consistently accused of cultural appropriation?

Well, part of this is unavoidable.  Witches do not subscribe to official spiritual paradigms, at least in the context of their craft.  So of course, no official religious power is going to be accepting of that.  From their perspective, witches are nothing more than amateurs, moonlighters, charlatans.  And who can blame them? If you spend years going through the hard work of a culturally-sanctioned spiritual initiation, you're probably not going to look kindly on some wise guy (or worse, some uppity woman) claiming to do the same things you have "proven" yourself qualified to do.  

I have my own differences with many religious authorities across the board and the numerous cases of clergymen that have been shown to be hypocritical, self-interested, power-hungry parasites gives me pause to say the least.  Hence my being an atheist witch (i.e. "double heretic").  That being said, I try to be an ethical atheist witch.  To quote Missy Elliot's song "Baby Girl", "Ok, I do make mistakes, but I'm the realest from the fake." So I try to be a heretic without being a jerk.  And stealing, slandering and defrauding?  That's stuff that jerks do.

So I have a few ideas about how not to be a jerk when approaching the spiritual traditions of another culture.

First of all, know who you are and why you want to approach another tradition or culture.

What is missing in your life or your spirituality that you think this other culture will give you?  Not having a clue as to the answer of this question makes you susceptible to perpetrating theft, slander and fraud.  Theft because if you can't recognize what is yours, how will you recognize what is someone else's?  Slander because if you don't know what you're after, you'll probably unconsciously project your own notions on some hapless group of people.  Fraud because if you don't know who you are, how can you not misrepresent yourself? The novel sensory experiences or concepts from a new culture can be very enriching, but they can also just be a way for people to avoid necessary introspection.  If you need to introspect, you might as well just get on with it as soon as possible because at the end of the day, you'll still just be you.  

Secondly, research as much as you can, both from sources that are as authentic as possible and ones that are "watered-down" to be culturally digestible to you.  It's a good idea to compare both types of sources.  This is not only because it gives us the widest amount of information possible.  It also serves to remind us privileged, English-speaking Westerners of our own limits.  Since people across the world are exposed to our culture and our language, we can easily forget (unlike a monolingual speaker of Hausa, for example) that we don't actually have access to all knowledge in the world.  Understanding this would help us approach some of these traditions with more humility.  Furthermore, in researching as much as you can about a particular magical tradition, you will learn a lot about the culture.  Even though I am not a Hoodoo practitioner, I would be irritated upon finding out that someone who unwittingly had distorted or racist views against black people was practicing Hoodoo. (It does happen).   This is the type of person who is likely to slander.  How can you not misrepresent an ethnicity if your view of their magic is colored (no pun intended) by your inaccurate or disdainful view of their people?

Thirdly,  if unwilling or unable to be initiated into another culture, consider that you can be inspired by principles in another culture to create your own as opposed to copying specific symbols and artifacts.  Phylactery bags (a.k.a. charms in a bag) are common throughout the world and they are composed and carried in many different ways.  I became aware of them through my studies of African and African-diasporic traditions, including New Orleans Voudou (gris-gris) and Hoodoo (mojo bag).  I've researched many ways of making them, and with that as a basis I was able to start making my own.  These are my own charm bags and they tend to serve their purpose.  I don't however claim that they are "Hoodoo mojo bags" or "Gris-gris bags" because I haven't been initiated into either of those traditions that uses those names.  (Even though I might have some legitimacy in doing so as an African-American).  If you research extensively enough to understand the principle behind certain objects or artifacts, you can probably adapt them to your own culture or your own individual mindset with symbols and materials that are meaningful and accessible to you.  That is the whole point of being a witch in the first place; making use with what you have.

Fourthly, don't claim to be someone that you're not.  With the number of non-native people claiming to be "Native American shamans"*, you would think that Indian medicine men just roamed the plains looking for the first white person to shower with their centuries worth of knowledge.  Meanwhile back in reality...people who went to a weekend course on "shamanic techniques" put on some feathers and banged together some drums while giving people a distorted and simplified idea of indigenous cultures.  And these people come to be seen as experts on a culture that they genuinely know nothing about.  Cultures by the way, which in large part have disappeared or are dying out as its bearers persist in a severely adverse environment.  Trance, meditation, drumming, herbalism, magic were not invented by Native Americans.  So why use their name in vain, if you're not actually Native American and have not really been trained in their traditions?  Doing that is slander, fraud and theft.  If you've never met a Native American, but the spirits find you in a dream or a trance and you do research and then you act as an effective spiritual intermediary in your community, more power to you.  No one is stopping you from doing that.  In fact, you may be doing something very good for your community.  It's just that then you have to call yourself a modern, ___________ (Neo-)Shaman, not a Native American.  That's all.

Fifthly, do indulge in traditions of other cultures that are deliberately open to the world.  The great thing about these otherwise troubled times that we live in is that now more than ever we have the possibility to interact with people from other cultures.  Musicians from all over the world have albums on iTunes and other less commercial electronic media.  You can read what people in literate cultures have published all over the world, sometimes for free on the Internet.  There are on-line radio stations that broadcast in every language, from English and Spanish to Lingala or Hawaiian.  There are many religious ceremonies and places of worship that are open to the general public.    Interested in Voudou?  Start by going to an open Voudou ceremony.  Listen to music from Haiti or the diaspora.  Learn Creole or French.  Find a pen-pal or start a language exchange with a Haitian. This will make your Voudou studies more comprehensive, deeper, and more respectful.  If you do not initiate, you will at least have an idea of how non-initiate Haitians respectfully serve or petition the Lwas.  If you do initiate, it is more likely to be a positive experience because you will have some impression of where it all comes from.  It will be deeper and more satisfying.

In conclusion, as I said, cultural appropriation is not as complicated as it seems.  Don't steal, don't slander, and don't defraud.  To do this, you need a little bit of humility which is a by-product of  knowledge (including knowledge of what you don't know).  And while witches (and atheists for that matter) may not be associated with humility, we do tend to pride ourselves on (and should be associated with) knowledge.  So let's walk the walk.


*"Shaman" is a word of Eastern European origin and is not a native concept to any North American indigenous culture.  Elders, traditional healers, etc. were and are called by other names.


  1. Very relevant article - pleased to find it.Thank you. Something that has worried me for many years in Witchcraft/wiccan and Paganism. Living in Africa I watch as local African cultural and shamanistic beliefs and practices are 'misappropriated', simplified and re-interpreted for us white westerners to understand.As I seek to develop and localise my own neo-pagan practices - to be in tune with my land rather than the north europe of my ancestors - I have to think very carefully about is legitimate use and what may be theft or slander.

  2. Thank you Maandanser. I think it's legitimate to include practices or beliefs that you've been genuinely exposed to as an acculturated outsider. It would almost be stranger if you didn't have any African influence...it would imply that you had no contact with Africans which sounds far worse to me! But like you say, we have to think carefully.

    I personally think that what gets people in the most trouble is claiming official titles they have no right to. If people don't claim to be Voudou priests, then the official Voudou hierarchy would not have "audit" power over them and their practice. That's why I try to stick with universals...the Yoruba have Yemoja and Wiccans have the Goddess but nobody owns the moon itself! (Cackles)

    Anyway, thanks for visiting and for your perspective.

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  4. Hello !
    I know it's an old article, I don't know if you'll read this, but still.
    I'm a French agnostic beginner witch who asks herself a lot of questions about cultural appropriation. I don't have any connections with traditional practices, and I don't want to use rituals or supplies that are attached to cultures that aren't mine, for example I don't use white sage, as it is attached to Native American culture.
    However I've always felt connected to druidic craft, as my birth was more or less predicted to my parents when they were in Brocéliande forest, standing next to a menhir, and I recently discovered that there is a dolmen where druidic rituals took place in the forest near my house, which probably explains why I've always felt there are forces out there that kinda influence our lives.
    My point is, I don't really know if I have the legitimity to use druidic rituals ? I'm super confused, but your article helped me a bit, so I wanted to thank you. I'll continue to read on the subject, but this piece is definitely something I'll bookmark and re-read from time to time.