Seems like common sense, right? Yet common sense, as the saying goes, isn’t quite so common.
At Pagan Spirit Gathering this year I attended the Redneck Ritual. Debby led the ritual, which involved Dale Earnhardt, RC Cola and Moon Pies. Being from the great state of Georgia herself, she didn’t appropriate Redneck culture, because it’s her culture. As a participant in the ritual, being from rural Georgia and eating boiled peanuts on occasion, I didn’t appropriate anything from rednecks, because I are one.
To appropriate, according to Merriam-Webster, is to 1.) take exclusive possession of, 2.) set aside for a particular purpose or use, and 3.) to make use of without authority or right. So when I saw my roommate, who is out of town, has bananas that are on their last leg, I appropriated them. When I chose to use my dresser as an altar, I appropriated it for that use. When I bought a toothbrush, I appropriated it for my own exclusive use and no other’s.
As an American citizen, when I choose to venerate Columbia, an early American personification of the country, I am not appropriating her. I’m not saying she’s mine and you can’t have her. I’m not saying she is only for Pagans to venerate. As an American, I surely have a right to American culture.
Pagans especially seem to jump on the “cultural appropriation” bandwagon far too quickly when it’s something they don’t like. Like assuming someone turned you down for a date because of your ethnicity, and finding after you played the “race card” that the truth is you have bad breath. Or assuming you didn’t get a job based on your gender or sexual orientation and finding you spelled your own name wrong on the job application. People are too quick to leap to outrage, indignation and victimhood, and it tends to leave them with egg on their face.
A friend of mine identifies as African-American. She has deep brown skin and beautiful African features. Her grandfather is a pale Irishman. She considers herself to have a right to explore Irish culture as her own, and I’m the last person to gainsay her.
I have Cherokee ancestry, and as I research my family history I’ve come to suspect that some of my Cherokee ancestry comes from slaves either adopted or owned by the Cherokee. I research this history, I respect it but I don’t consider I have any right to Cherokee culture. I wasn’t raised in it, or around it. Some well meaning people, including relatives, have suggested I do have a right to it, but I don’t believe I do. I work with Selu through my ancestors, but I never claim anything I do is Cherokee or call on her in any other sense.I have a friend (I think his ancestry is Polish or Romanian) who has been adopted by a Cherokee family. He has immersed himself in the culture, learned traditional ways and is invited to attend private solstice rituals with them. He has no Cherokee ancestry, but he has been adopted by that culture and has become a part of it. Does he have a right to that culture? I certainly think he does.
One of the reasons I find Wicca ever more interesting is because I have found my ancestry is primarily English. By ancestry and participation in, and acceptance by, a Wiccan tradition, I have a right to Wiccan culture. Unless I were to behave really inappropriately by stating Wicca is mine and no one elses, I can’t appropriate it.
Straight up, though, I have totally appropriated Hellenism. I haven’t the faintest drop of Greek blood and I’m not a member of any Hellenic religious organization (though I used to be). I haven’t any right to Hephaistos at all, except that he’s ok with my appropriation. I’d apologize, but it would be kind of hollow considering I have no intention of giving up my patron.
Cultural appropriation is a serious accusation and should only be made with all of the facts on the table. Just because you don’t like something someone is doing doesn’t make it appropriation. Something having a history of genocide or oppression doesn’t make it cultural appropriation. (Cherry-picking ideas or products with an oppressive history to get outraged over is simply illogical and dishonest. Getting upset over Columbia and still using Kodak, Siemens, Bayer, VW, Ford, Coca-Cola, Chase and IBM products is kind of hypocritical.) You can’t just accuse people of cultural appropriation willy-nilly. It’s as ridiculous as my niece calling me a racist for preferring the yellow jellybeans.
Try dialing down the outrage and treating other people as human beings, who are so often more than what meets the eye. Too often we’re too busy rushing out to complain, criticize and demonize others, too busy wringing our hands, throwing flour on our face and claiming the sky is falling, when there is good work to be done, friends to support and accomplishments to cheer. The Pagan community is strong, and, despite our squabbling (or perhaps because of it), we’re not going anywhere soon.
Now I’m going to cook Lammas food and color in a Pagan coloring book while Greek Pagans, Hellenion and YSEE may rightfully complain about my cultural appropriation in the comments section.