Wyrd Words: Cultural Appropriation and Pagan Fear

Wyrd Words: Cultural Appropriation and Pagan Fear October 1, 2015

Greetings, and welcome back to Wyrd Words. Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, here on Agora!

This has proven to be an interesting week here at the Patheos Pagan Channel. Tom Swiss, author of ‘The Zen Pagan’ wrote an article on the idea of cultural appropriation that’s caused a bit of a stir among the other bloggers here. To clarify, by “caused a bit of a stir” I mean “initiated a spectacular fecal maelstrom!”

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With a title like ‘There is no such thing as Cultural Appropriation’, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that There Have Been Quite A Few Responses! Hang on though, because we haven’t even hit the choppy waters yet. No the real storm hit its stride in the comments sections in all of the above. I watched a community that normally prides itself on social justice and awareness just completely collapse in on itself!

I watched otherwise reasonable people vehemently attack Crystal Blanton’s response, not with any kind of intellectual forethought, but with fear and denial. Many of the commenters on the Patheos Pagan Facebook page chose to discount her because she’s a liberal, a feminist, and a woman. They would rather attack her as a person, shouting ‘PC POLICE’ at the top of their lungs, than deal with the issue at hand.

If you want to learn more about the definition and history of Cultural Appropriation, I highly recommend Crystal Blanton’s or Cat Chapin-Bishop’s articles on the subject. They both do a great job of explaining it. What concerns me is how poorly equipped for this discussion our community seems to be.

So, why do Pagans in particular seem to have such a hard time with this topic?

The short answer is fear — pure and simple. Regardless of what flavor of Paganism one is practicing, one of the more universal points of commonality between most Pagans is that we are usually trying to revive dead or nearly dead religions. Many of us are also fairly far removed from the birthplace of the traditions we practice. I’m a 21st century English speaking American, living in the Sonoran Desert. Despite my ancestral origins, I’m about as far from the frozen northern landscape of my seafaring ancestors as it gets. I’ve never even been out of sight of land in my life. I may be descended from Viking stock, but the landscape and language of the lore is foreign enough to me that it might as well be Mars.

That’s not an uncommon situation in our community. Many of us have had to struggle to feel connected to our identity as Pagans. I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to studying Icelandic (which I’m still not great at) and examining the culture and legends that I feel are an integral part of who I am as a person. That struggle is something many of us can probably empathize with. Which is at least part of why the topic of cultural appropriation inspires such knee-jerk, volatile reactions from otherwise reasonable people.

While it’s never happened to me, I’ve watched an Irish Atheist tear into a devoted worshiper of the Tuatha Dé Danann, claiming that an American had no right to his national identity. There’s this underlying fear that if we acknowledge that it’s possible to have one’s culture stolen away from them, and we may even be guilty of it ourselves, then part of our very identity might be vulnerable. In a community where we’ve had to fight tooth and nail just to have our existence recognized, the possibility that someone could call our identity into question is terrifying. So for a lot of us, it’s simply easier to ignore the issue then risk having to deal with it.

A fan of that team from Washington

However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a real issue that can cause real harm to those minority groups that are being oppressed or demeaned by casual appropriation. If you don’t believe that, then look no further than the image on the right.

Cultural drift and exchange are perfectly normal and healthy; no culture exists in a vacuum. However, when we utilize elements of a culture to which we have no claim, and fail to pay it the respect that we would expect others to show to icons of our own culture, there’s a problem. If little Suzy wants to go up onto a mountain top, burn some sage, and try to get in touch with her extremely distant Native American roots, that’s one thing. If little Suzy comes back down from the mountain and claims to be a Hopi spiritual leader, that’s quite another.

We can’t simply plug our ears and pretend this doesn’t exist purely because we don’t want to have to think about the potential consequences. That’s not rational, that’s not productive, and that’s most certainly not an action worthy of the traditions our communities claim to uphold.


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