Culture and Appropriation

I hot topic I was hoping I didn’t have to cover. Unfortunately, cultural appropriation always feels like the elephant in the room. The first thing I want to address is that I’m not telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t do within their practice. The second is that only you can determine your entitlement to use a practice.

Appropriation is a hyper-colonial action. That’s fact and not a question. Appropriation is not participating in a practice “when in Rome”, but taking that practice and white-washing it, anglicising it. It’s mild butter chicken with way too much coconut cream, it’s Nigella Lawson’s ramen, it’s Jamie Oliver and chilli jam, It’s white girls from Bondi wearing chakra bracelets. When we talk about spiritual appropriation, it’s not only feeling entitled to a cultural practice, but then watering it down to make it more palatable for you and other white people.

Now, what I do also see a lot is a door slamming on discussion of African practices and pantheons. Many practitioners say that the African Deities and spirits are malevolent and aggressive, as a deterrent from including them in discussion. The idea that coloured deities and spirits are more wrathful than typically white deities and spirits is baffling to me. Zeus drove the Titans into the earth (Tartarus), Odin hung upside down from a tree and sacrificed his eye to gain wisdom, Set’s decapitation of Osiris…. need I go on? This shutting down of the conversation is racism disguised as respect. It is a fear of African people, and the way we’ve been taught to view them for generations, but we know that is racist so we say we are being “respectful”. Respect is learning about the culture and including it, making space for it and accepting it. This is the main reason why we see a blending of African practices with Catholicism, so that they could openly practice part of their culture.

The thing with appropriation is that there is usually an alternative to it. We don’t need to appropriate, but we feel entitled to it because we are white and that’s what our people have done for centuries. A great example is White Sage; it is so easy to find alternatives, salt, floor washes, sweeping, eucalyptus, frankincense, rosemary, garden sage, bells, clapping, the list goes on and on. So if something is special to someone, are we going to be that person that makes it less special by copying them? Yes imitation is the best form of flattery, but do we really feel so bland in our own white cultures that we have to borrow from others? Also, why do we have to assume that if we choose not to practice something because we aren’t entitled to it, that we can tell others (who may be entitled) that they also can’t do it.

So, what are we appropriating and borrowing from other cultures (I’ll make a cheat sheet as well and publish it on my Book of Shadows page);

Karma, Hindu, yup, this one is stolen. In fact, the whole Hindu religion is based around karma, dharma, artha and moksha. Karma is really about action, intent and consequences, but you pay your karmic debt in the next life and it effects your reincarnation. The lowest person you can be is non-Hindu in relation to the laws or karma. That’s it in a nutshell.

Chakras, Hindu/Buddhidm, the ancient Indian idea that our energy (mind, spirit and psyche) manifests in a physical manner. Has been Westernised and diluted for around 200 years now.

Yoga, Hindu, part of a larger method used by Indians to look after their vessel and better their life balance.

Feng Shuai, Chinese, a method of designing and organising a building or space to increase the flow of positive chi (energy).

White Sage, Native American/First Nations, a scared plant used in rituals and ceremonies.

Palo Santo, South America (particularly Peru and Ecuador), has been used in shamanic rituals since Incan times. Also comes from the same family as Frankincense and Myrrh.

Dream Catchers, Anishinaabe, was originally used as a protective charm. Would be placed over an infants bed to protect the child.

Ancestor Money, Chinese, they would burn Joss Paper money at their ancestor altars to help their ancestors pay off the debts accrued through their lifetime.

“Tribe”, various indigenous and coloured cultures, tribe or tribal communities are still in existence throughout the world. The word has become a buzzword to describe family or people who have a similar mindset to oneself.

Pop Hoodoo, The Internet of Things, so pop hoodoo is stuff like cotton ball jars and conjure work which is inauthentic and lacking understanding of the cultural depth of Hoodoo. This is not traditional Hoodoo. In fact, a lot of spells that claim to be Hoodoo are a pop version. Hoodoo is also strongly based around botanical components.

I’m not going to tell people how to practice, but we need to think, research and be respectful. The above list is by no means extensive, but it gives you something to ponder.

I also want to say a quick word on pantheons, learn about them and be respectful. I personally don’t buy into the “I was a Native American in a previous life so I’m entitled” bs. If that’s your attitude, I will personally think you’re a toss-pot, but you do you.

This is by no means saying that you can’t practice certain things, or that you should do things a certain way. It’s really important that you seek out a depth of understanding in your practice and not just looking for surface recognition, validation and gratification. We also want to avoid preaching to people we don’t know, and falling into the white saviour or performative ally trap, especially when it comes to spiritual ethics. We don’t always need to show the world that we aren’t racist. That’s definite colonial guilt that we feel doesn’t need to be passed on. We can quietly effect change without squashing opportunities for cultural exchange or to learn about other cultures and religions.

It is also important to note that in the case of oppressed people, accepting their cultural differences without stealing it is important. They do not have to share and include their oppressors within their culture, but we need to make room for them to exist along side us in equality and respect.

I will be periodically exploring spiritual ethics within our practices, and I hope you enjoy hearing my perspective!

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