I Am Guilty of Cultural Appropriation!

I Am Guilty of Cultural Appropriation! September 30, 2015

It is always an exacting experience to examine our own contributions to perpetuating oppressive cultural norms. What is personal inevitably triggers resistance to concepts that directly confront our own behaviors.  This is a process of evolution of belief and social understanding.  While my core beliefs have remained constant my insight into what those beliefs require in terms of actions and the compassionate support of others is in a constant process of maturation.

I am guilty of Cultural Appropriation. This statement does not mean that I embrace any such actions, only that my understanding of the concept has evolved over the years: nurtured by listening to the experiences of those whose beliefs have been trod upon by our privileged over culture of which I am a participant.

My spiritual journey began in the Hopi Lands of Arizona. In the Hopi I found a true feeling of peace, wonder and appreciation of nature. My young mind was overwhelmed with my sense of having found beliefs that reflected my worldview. For a number of years I embraced everything that was Hopi. Traveling to the Hopi lands often to just sit in silence and soak up the experience of being at a place that so filled my spiritual cup.

In time, I made friends at Hopi, individuals would share some basic beliefs with me and I was always honored.  Central to these beliefs are the idea that much of Hopi religion is held as secret knowledge by clans that one must be born into.  In time. I came to understand that I could have immense respect for the Hopi beliefs and societal organization only by holding their cultural norms as secret.  This understanding meant excluding my own spiritual quest from the framework of Hopi belief.

It was the insight that honoring the beliefs of this culture is more important than my personal needs or desire for insight that began the process of moving from cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation.  There are cultural lines that it is disrespectful to cross.  These boundaries can only be learned by deep listening too and respect for those who are products of the culture.

Does this mean that I have a clear understanding in all cases of what constitutes cultural appropriation?  No, it only means that I have developed a deep respect for others beliefs and cultures.  It means that I have surrendered my place of oppressive privilege in favor of respect, learning and honoring others beliefs and customs.

Recently the community has been struggling with the concept of cultural appropriation.  I urge those who resist the idea to take the time to investigate their actions.  If you feel the pull to honor a deity from another culture speak to a legitimate elder from that culture, determine what is respectful, what norms surround such actions and when personal desires and beliefs should be secondary to honoring the culture from which the divinity emerged.


DSC00698As my Pagan path has evolved I have developed a deep respect for many belief systems and gods from other cultures. My home is filled with these images.  I have a deep regard for what I perceive they represent.  I humbly honor them in private moments in my personal practice. It is important, however, to recognize that I do not have the cultural context to shape public rituals around them.  Such actions would be disrespectful to the communities from which they come. The lines between appropriation and appreciation can be malleable and unclear and we are not all going to agree on where they are drawn. What I ask, of myself and those I worship with, is to approach the subject with respect for other cultures, holding their experiences of appropriation above our own desires for participation.

Cultural appropriation is real. I cannot imagine how insulting it would be if I were to witness the Goddess I honor reduced to a cartoon character on a lunch box, or a corporate logo, or a sports team’s name.  It is not the business of the oppressor to determine what is cultural appropriation; it lies within the realm of the oppressed to make such determinations. We should respect their cultural norms and boundaries.

So today instead of “calling out” those who deny cultural appropriation, my intent is to “call you in “ too deeper understanding, deeper reflection and a more complex understanding of the damage that is being experienced by other cultures.

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  • Interesting that you mention cultural appropriation. It is a process that occurs like this:

    1) You learn about the culture, its ins and outs.
    2) You selectively pick things that appeal to you or would be important for the third step, and discard the rest.
    3) You take the selected things and fit them into the western frameset you are still operating in, having the effect of “improving” the currency of the western view.
    4) This is the worse part – the source of this information/knowledge/tradition is thus deleted, erased. The scholar doing this ends up being a “pioneer,” a “discoverer of this or that” in the eyes of western academia and its students and grant-givers. In other words, Dharma is gone, not evident in the Western Scholar who took the knowledge without due attribution.

    This process is called the U-Turn by Rajiv Malhotra. Consider the article, “The Tiger and the Deer: Is Dharma being digested into the West?” – http://rajivmalhotra.com/library/articles/tiger-deer-dharma-digested-west/ – this is an example of the deer (Dharma) being killed and eaten by a tiger (Western Civilization). The deer, upon dying, thinks, “Although my body will die, it will live on as the tiger.” Actually, the deer will be gone forever, while the deer’s body is taken apart and assimilated into the tiger’s body structure. There is no deer in that tiger that we can see upon “digestion” of the deer, and what wasn’t used or incorporated into the tiger’s body is excreted as waste material (i.e., the unpalatable parts of the culture being appropriated).

    From the linked article:

    Just as the tiger, a predator, would, the West, a dominant and aggressive culture dismembers the weaker one – the deer – into parts from which it picks and chooses pieces that it wants to appropriate; the appropriated elements get mapped onto the language and social structures of the dominant civilization’s own history and paradigms, leaving little if any trace of the links to the source tradition. The civilization that was thus “mined” and consumed gets depleted of its cultural and social capital, because the appropriated elements are then shown to be disconnected from and even in conflict with the source civilization. Finally, the vanquished prey – the deer – enters the proverbial museum as yet another dead creature (i.e. a dead culture), ceasing to pose a threat to the dominant one.

    Such cultural appropriation may at first appear as the meeting of equal cultures; however, while at the level of popular culture it may be so, at the deeper levels, where the core assumptions of a civilization reside, the playing field is tilted. After being digested, what is left of a civilization is waste material to be removed and trashed. While the “tiger” or the host (the West) is strengthened, the living identity of the “deer” disappears forever. The prey is thus lost, its generative capacities gone. Eventually, to take the metaphor further, the entire species of “deer” gets rendered extinct, thereby diminishing the diversity of our world.

  • Your essay provides clear a example of the issue, thank you.

  • Ambaa

    I think there is more than one kind of cultural misappropriation and what is being spoken about in this essay is slightly different. He appears to be talking about how even honoring and respecting the culture from which it comes and acknowledging the source, you can still be guilty of misappropriation.

    Forgive me if I’m wrong, but your comment appears to be a rant that you would copy and paste onto any article that mentions the words “cultural appropriation.” It does not engage at all with the text of what this author has written about.

  • It’s not a rant. It’s is just an explanation by Rajiv. It is what it is, without using heated language or insulting anyone. Also, I could have mentioned that there are layers of misappropriation, but it’s good to know the original source of this appropriation habit of the average person; the original invaders of cultures who appropriated the knowledge to help themselves at the expense of the original source of knowledge.

    How is honoring and respecting the culture and acknowledging the source considered misappropriation? It would be like, I found about the food habits of a certain culture; I honored that this is what they have to do in that environment and respecting them for that, and they originated that practice under those conditions. How is that misappropriation from merely knowing or just reading about it, not saying anything about it to anyone, and not even benefiting from the knowledge (not using that knowledge in my current environment, nor is it a suitable adaptation for my situation with food)? Just the mere act of reading the efforts of an insider writing about his experience as a member of that culture is misappropriation? Please explain.

  • Rick Van Hatten

    As an Eclectic Witch I adopt concepts from all belief systems to complete my philosophy and make no apology for it. Wisdom comes from many sources and I see no reason to exclude these because someone is sniveling about cultural appropriation. Belief systems need to evolve with the time, not stagnate. If not they die out. The only thing left of them are what is adopted by other belief systems. At the end of the day, the truths and wisdom of a belief system are what needs to continue and who figured them out first is pretty much irrelevant. All that being said, whenever I have discussions about my philosophical principles I always credit my sources of ideas to those that originated them so anyone interested can further research the peoples from which they came.