“You take a part of a person’s culture that means everything to them, and you make it meaningless. You were the symbols that represent their cultures without actually understanding the power of what these facets of their culture means to them.” – Udoka Okafor
It is quite disheartening that we still live in a time when People of Color’s voices are silenced by those of dominant cultures within our society. While we are moving through a time of such intensity around the needs, pain and brutality being experienced by People of Color, especially Black People, it is one of the most important times to be self aware and cognizant of the ways we participate in the reinforcing of white supremacist culture in this country. We collectively support systems of oppression and harm by ignoring the damage, continuing the damage, being complacent in the face of the damage, or by using the power created by the damage, to thrive. All of these things support and reinforce systems of disenfranchisement and racism in this country and around the world.
Why is this important here? Why is this important now? And why is this important to Pagans?
For all the reasons that our spiritual and human experiences shape and mold how we engage in the world and how we interpret our work, these things should be important to everyone. People are victims of mass incarceration and New Jim Crowism, suicide and mental health are rising, and people are dying at the hands of systemic racism and continued systems of oppression in our country. How we acknowledge and dismiss the damage of the very systems we are a part of will help to shape our overculture, and in our case… the culture of Paganism.
This brings me to the topic at hand…. Cultural Appropriation. What is cultural appropriation? It is the borrowing and using of another person’s cultural treasures without permission, without necessary cultural context and without employing the respect due. Many times cultural appropriation is the means of monetary gain by the exploiting of things that should not be for sale, and sometimes it is to gain prestige or credibility. It is also a way that white people have gotten fame or credibility by the very use of cultural attributes that others from the culture are criminalized, vilianized and demonized for. Either way, cultural appropriations takes the valuable pieces of marginalized cultures, those who have already suffered at the hands of painful oppression, and further takes what is left for them to have agency over. When one’s culture is gone, all things are lost.
When we ask people about what is and is not cultural appropriation, we will always get a plethora of answers. Within Paganism, the lines of appropriation and cultural exchange often get confused. We look for concrete answers to what it is and what it is not, and get confused at the complexity that there is no easy answers. We look at it as if all marginalized cultures should have the same rules, and make it easy for us. That Eurocentric frame of mind that this country was build on makes it feel complex when it is actually less so.
Here are some clear things we should remember when speaking about cultural appropriation:
- It is very real. Taking from oppressed groups is a trait that follows us in history and when we take one’s culture without permission or respect we are doing the ultimate injustice.
- When people from privileged cultures or backgrounds attempt to dictate what is and is not cultural appropriation versus cultural exchange, they are reinforcing the imbalance of power that has continued to steal the voice from people of color throughout history. The best people to speak on the use of their cultural treasures are those who struggle in systems that erase them.
- Just because we don’t like something does not make it less real. Just because some people feel they should have the right to use whatever they want when they want does not mean they should or can. And when they do, they are still taking it without permission and without respect. When we take things without permission, that is called stealing, that is not called cultural borrowing or exchange.
- When we remove the agency that one would have over their own culture to say yes or no to your use of their cultural property, you are rendering them insignificant and their stuff as your property to do what you will with it. Not only should marginalized cultures have the right to have agency and authority over their own cultural pieces, they should not have to remind you of that in the process. If you need to be reminded, you are too comfortable in the role of oppressor.
- Riding on the heels of others cultural pain is a form of appropriation in and of itself. In attempting to have dialog about the pain and victimization of any culture, it is important to have it WITH that culture, not about that culture as if the expert lives outside of them.
- Pagans have an obligation to show respect to the cultures in which we are exchanging with, and this means actually engaging in respectful attempts to honor and support those very cultures. It is NOT an exchange if you are JUST taking and using it how you see fit… that is just a form of colonizing.
- Modern Paganism, as a largely Eurocentric community, should be extra careful not to ignore the marginalized within their own communities by saying things that serve as microaggressions against them and their cultures. Ignoring and denying the existence of something like cultural appropriation, that has brought so much pain to marginalized cultures over our history, is exactly that.
- If you are from another culture, and you THINK you understand, that should be a clue to you that it is time for you to listen. Stop talking.
- And last, for now…. cultural appropriation and cultural exchange are NOT the same thing. It is important to know the difference in that.
While I will not link the article that pushed this piece from my mind and through my hands…. it IS all about that article and yet NOT about that article at all. The recent article by Tom Swiss is one example of how we use privilege within our own little society of Paganism to perpetuate harm and then continue to justify it in our practices. This must stop. Examples of this happen all the time within our larger society and within our small microcosm of Paganism. When we start to care about the impact we have on others, we will have to step outside of the places of comfort to say…. “HEY, that is not ok”. Not only do incidents like this reinforce misinformation, it erases real pain and creates microaggressions against POC in the process.
It is not ok to treat the pain of oppression as a moment that is irrelevant, AND it is not the type of foundation we want to condone within our community, or within our society. And regardless of the many layers of cognitive dissonance that exists in such matters…..we are still responsible. We are always responsible.
Elemental Castings recording of the Appropriation or Honoring panel from Pantheacon 2015: http://static.thorncoyle.com/podcasts/ElementalCastings_77_PCon2015-2_022515.mp3
Great community voices speaking on cultural appropriations versus cultural exchange in the Wild Hunt:
Cultural Appropriation: The Act of Stealing and Corrupting: