Grace Notes: Replacing Cultural Appropriation

Grace Notes: Replacing Cultural Appropriation March 28, 2019

Cultural appropriation is a hot topic right now. There are tons of blogs on it and several academic papers, with arguments for and against. It’s subjective, so there are folks, mostly white, who will argue ‘it’s not a thing’. They’ll tell you “have fun, do you”. Some of these folks are too self-absorbed to care. Not much else you can do there.

Some, though, probably want to be better but are exhausted at the labor that comes with changing your paradigm. I’m not judging anyone’s level of exhaustion as it relates to the Work because we’re all walking a different path. My intent in writing this blog is to alleviate some of that labor and give some starting points for doing better.

“American Progress” by John Gast. From WikiMedia. This is really pretty horrible.

For the purposes of this post, let’s assume you agree cultural appropriation is an issue. There is a lot of harm that has been done and continues to be done by the colonizer institutions that came out of the Manifest Destiny of Western European nations and their colonies in the Americas. I strongly encourage you to do additional research into the myriad reasons why folks of white, European descent need to examine their coloniser mentality. I’ve included some links as we go along, just to get you started but I want to make it clear that I’m not an expert and, in fact, am still learning every single day.

In that learning, though, I often feel awash with paralysis – what am I supposed to do with this knowledge? My anxiety hits the roof and I don’t know what my next step is. We all know that Nature abhors a vacuum, so if I’m removing a word, what do I replace it with? What about themed costumes or parties? Gods forbid we attack treasured pagan institutions like spirit animals or smudging.

As white folks, we have to do better. I thought we could start with words. Replace appropriation with better option.

For example:

Instead of Tribe to indicate your close friends, why don’t we use Chosen Family or Fam? Kin is also a good one.

You aren’t a shaman, nor are you a witchdoctor or medicine man. Embrace witch! Or, better yet, go back to the original European languages like Irish, Welsh, or Old German, that your practice is based on. Learn the words of that practice, the names of the magical practitioners.

Flag of the Romani People via WikiMedia.

Gypsy is a racial slur. Call yourself a free soul or say you have wanderlust. You’re living la vie boheme!

Instead of Spirit Animal, you’re trying to indicate a soul friend in animal form, a familiar or guide. Or, for the Potterheads, perhaps Patronus feels more correct.

While burning sacred herbs is almost universal, Smudging is a very specific North American indigenous practice. What you’re trying to say is cleansing or purifying.

There! Five (or seven if you were counting 😉 ) incredibly problematic words that you can replace in your vocabulary. And you know what this change will beget? Other people changing their words. More and more people who will stop adding to the problem, stop adding to the centuries of oppression and cultural theft. Sometimes you have to start with baby steps.

Baby steps are still steps, so the next step would be to work on aspects that aren’t as easy as updating your verbiage.

Burning white sage and palo santo is incredibly problematic, due to over-harvesting of these sacred plants. An easy alternative is to use a common plant abundant in your area – evergreens are popular and I love rosemary – or grow your own herbs based on your faith practice. As an alternative to burning herbs to cleanse & purify, you can also used blessed water.

What about throwing a line of red brick dust at your door without understanding the culture it came from? Without understanding the slaves that built this folk practice called Conjure? Let’s go back to the basics. You’re trying to protect your home with this action, so try a salt line instead. Another great option is something I learned from the Cauldron of the Celts, that is the practice of making and using warding stones8.

Image by Walkingbird 96 via pxhere. Public Domain Image.

Day of the Dead is a spiritually significant way to honor the dead in Mexican culture – it shouldn’t be a fun costume or cool face paint. If your goal in late October, or anytime, is to represent death, you could dress as a plain, ol’ skeleton or a reaper. If you want to honor your own ancestors, dress up like your favorite great aunt and tell stories from her life!

Yoga is one I personally struggle with. I’m not going to argue that white people should stop doing yoga, but it has become clear to me that it’s essential we decolonize our practice and break down the institution of “skinny white women only” to help normalize yoga as a South Asian, spiritual practice. Can you choose to go to a more authentic studio? Can you practice at home and utilize distance learning options with teachers that honor the spirituality that birthed yoga? I’m still working through those items, myself. What is your approach to this?

I hope this was a helpful primer for those folks beginning to think about replacing appropriation in their life. I wouldn’t consider this an exhaustive list. Please know there is so much else we’re doing, probably unconsciously, that we can still work on. Best of luck!

About Grace E
Grace lives in Madison, WI, cohabitating with 4 feline overlords and her love. By day she works as a project manager for a software company. By night (or during other freetime gained by finding black holes found under the sink) she is a member of and the Technology Trustee for the Sisterhood of Avalon, volunteers with Circle Sanctuary Prison Ministries, and flies her nerd flag high. Shiny! You can read more about the author here.
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