Closed Traditions, Cultural Appropriation, and Race

Closed Traditions, Cultural Appropriation, and Race June 24, 2020

“Closed” traditions, cultural appropriation, race, ethnicity, who does or does not have the right to engage in certain traditions or practices, and how those issues all play into each other, is an incredibly complex topic. Long as this article is, I feel it only barely begins to scratch the surface, but that surface needs to be scratched.

Scratching that surface is likely to be uncomfortable and difficult. It might be confusing, and it is entirely possible some of you will feel attacked or get defensive. No matter how it makes you feel, I hope you will read through to the end, and sincerely ask yourself why you feel the way you do, and whether or not that feeling truly serves you and your fellow humans. It is not my intent to attack anyone, but instead to encourage greater appreciation of diversity, and less knee-jerk one-size-fits-all answers to these complex questions.

We cannot be afraid of complex answers. Overly simplistic answers do not solve complex problems. Image by Breeze_Ng from Pixabay

The Wrong Gatekeepers

Cultural appropriation is a serious problem, even in pword circles, and I am glad it is getting more attention. Another serious problem receiving attention is the hijacking of ethnic traditions and practices by disrespectful people with white privilege. It is fantastic that people are trying to pay attention and change how we do things, but when practices have historically been so egregious, there is a tendency to swing too far to the other side.

As a result, I am deeply troubled by the trend I am seeing of assigning race as the primary determiner of who can or cannot practice various traditions. I have frequently seen it labeled as cultural appropriation to have a sincere interest in learning more about a path in question, with the accusation based solely on the apparent race of the querant. (Side note: it is NEVER cultural appropriation to learn more about other people. Education and understanding are two of the best tools we have for dismantling racism and colonialist systems. Appropriation happens when traditions are hijacked and misused, not when they are learned about.)

These assertions of cultural appropriation usually come from well-meaning white people who are not practitioners of the traditions they are declaring inaccessible to others. Their intentions might be good, but that does not change the fact that they are acting as definitive gatekeepers to traditions they have no say or stake in, and no real understanding of. There is a very important line between pointing out potentially problematic behaviors to other privileged people, and acting as a gatekeeper to someone else’s tradition.

The only qualified gatekeeper of any tradition is a qualified member of that specific tradition. Image by Aron Visuals from Pixabay

The only ones who rightly have a say in who can or cannot practice a tradition are the people who are part of that tradition. The only qualified gatekeepers to a tradition are its particular leaders and members. Best practice when discussing accessibility is to point out that you believe the tradition has membership requirements or limitations. If the querant is genuinely serious, encourage them to both read up on the culture and history of the tradition, and to politely inquire with people who are currently practicing that specific tradition.

Race-based gatekeeping is damaging for everyone. Walls and gates can be used to keep people in as easily as they can be used to keep people out. When people gatekeep someone else’s tradition based solely on race, not only are they disrespecting the tradition they have no right to gatekeep, but they are caging in those who do not find their spiritual and cultural home among the traditions of their ancestors.

In these situations, the gatekeeper is insisting that race is the most important factor in determining what tradition anyone should follow. Regardless of intent, the gatekeeper is saying that all traditions are based in race first, because you must always consider race as the first pivotal qualification.

No matter how you dress it up, gatekeeping other people’s traditions is problematic. Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Let us assume the intent of the gatekeeper is simply to protect ethnic traditions from further plunder by colonialist privilege (as is usually the case). If they declare all traditions of non-European origin blanket inaccessible (regardless of what the actual practitioners of those traditions think), they are saying that the only traditions available to white people are those of European or modern origin, which are by default white-originating and usually white-centering practices.

Even though most of those traditions are also available to people of other skin tones, by this reasoning they are first and foremost white. They must be, since white people are ethnically the default members and keepers. The gatekeeper is buying into the racist prejudice of white-as-default by declaring that the only traditions which people of any skin tone can practice are white-originating and white-centering traditions. All traditions which do not center white people are for non-whites only.

Equating Race with Culture and Eligibility

I understand where equating race with eligibility is coming from, but that does not make it correct. The Western world, and especially the United States, has a deeply troubling history with equating race to culture and legacy. We see a particular skin tone, or hear a particular accent, and it is common to make all sorts of sweeping assumptions about who that person is, what they are like, and what they believe in.

The problem is – skin tone, ethnicity, and race – those things do not determine culture. They do not define our legacy, even if they can be a component of legacy. Our culture is determined by how we are raised, or where our hearts find their home, and those factors exist independently of what womb we were birthed from, or what color our skin is. Being raised in China, Japan, Italy, Germany, Poland, South Africa, Australia, Columbia, the United States, etc. are different experiences, and create very different cultural backgrounds, regardless of where a person’s ancestors came from. Even different regions of those countries can have dramatically different cultures.

Culture is always learned. Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay

Formative culture is important, but it is also not the be-all and end-all of our existences. A lot of people move, some of them to vastly different countries with different cultures. If we come to love our new homes (and sometimes even if we do not), we will adopt aspects of the local culture, or even completely enculturate. We can become completely a part of cultures and traditions which have nothing to do with the ones we were born into, or the ones our ancestors lived in. We can learn new cultures, just as we learn our formative cultures as small children.

Human reproduction and migration are messy, and what most affects our perspectives are the experiences we actually live. It is not our ancestor’s experiences. It is our own personal experiences, and those are in large part determined by where we live, and what other people we are around. This can create the illusion that culture is a product of skin tone because unless you live in a country with large numbers of immigrants and their descendants (*cough* United States *cough*), people originating in a given culture tend to be of similar ethnicity.

Structural racism further reinforces the idea that race equals culture. It is a web of societal problems, privileges, and discriminations that create shared experiences (usually bad) based on skin tone and ethnicity. These experiences, and the way they connect people, have a profound impact on individuals and society, but they do not make all people of a particular skin tone predestined to follow some particular path or tradition.

Open or Closed Traditions, vs a Spectrum View

Most discussions I have seen online have been discussing whether traditions are “open” or “closed”. It creates an all or nothing mindset. Either it is all ripe for the taking, or none of it is, with no in-between. So, when people are concerned about appropriation, they are likely to err on the side of caution and advocate that any tradition which is connected to a minority culture or ethnic group is hands off to everyone else. You also get people who do not want to be rigid, so they throw up their hands and say it’s all good.

An all-or-nothing mindset provides no good answers. Image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay

Both are wrong, and that wrongness, regardless of intentions, stems from defining all traditions in such an absolute manner. When there is no middle ground all you get is extremes. Extremes are usually rigid and incorrect.

Instead of using an overly simplistic two-point binary model, it works better to think of openness as a spectrum. This ranges from universalist at one end, through tribalist in the center, with folkish on the other end.

The most extreme form of universalist would be conversion religions like Christianity, which compel their adherents to bring in new members, no matter their culture or ethnicity. Universalism also includes traditions like Wicca that are fully accessible and available to anyone, and most ancient traditions which are reclaimed or rebuilt and do not have a living culture associated with them (ex: Mesopotamian and Egyptian pantheons).

Tribalist traditions require the newcomer to become fully educated in the tradition and be fully accepted by its community before someone can be considered a full member of the tradition. The exact qualifications to join are determined by the specific tradition and the community which practices it.

Folkish traditions consider DNA/ancestry to be the primary determiner of membership, and appeal to racism and bigotry for membership qualification. When that DNA requirement focuses on whiteness or European ancestry, they are also commonly xenophobic, and hostile to those who do not “qualify” for their tradition.

Universalist Traditions

A universalist tradition is one which is open to anyone who has an interest. This includes, but is not limited to, Christianity (and any other religion which practices active conversion), Buddhism, and Wicca. Whether or not they have an existing culture of origin, the nature of the tradition is such that it welcomes outsiders with open arms, no matter their culture of origin.

I have seen the race-determines-eligibility crowd state unequivocally that it is cultural appropriation to practice Buddhism if you are white. The reasoning declares that since the religion originated in Asia, only those of Asian descent may practice it. This reasoning is inherently racist. Asia is a huge continent with an amazing diversity of cultures. There is no unifying “Asian” culture which can claim all forms of Buddhism, and it is racist to imply that Asia is homogeneous.

Buddhism is a universalist religion with a long and culturally varied history. Image by Jordy Meow from Pixabay

This view also shows a gross lack of understanding of Buddhism itself, making those who espouse it particularly unqualified to speak on behalf of the religion. I am not a Buddhist, but I did have an interest in it for a time, and it did not take much to educate myself about that aspect. Buddhism has a very long history, sometimes bloody, and often of a conversionary nature. That is why it can be found throughout Asia, practiced by wildly disparate cultures.

The practices of different Buddhist sects can be as varied as Christian denominations, and have different requirements of new adherents, especially those who wish to become monks. It is easy to find books written by Lamas and others of significant status in Buddhism, which give advice and instructions on how to practice the religion even if you do not have access to a temple or local group. If the leaders of a religion choose to make their tradition available to all, who am I (or any other lay person) to tell them they cannot?

The Dalai Lama himself has personally given a great many talks and lessons which were open to anyone. I attended one of them many years ago. He is often misquoted as saying that he is against conversion, but his opinion is more complicated and nuanced than that. This page from His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s website quotes his stance on conversion in greater detail. This is one small excerpt:

“However, for those who are seriously thinking of converting to Buddhism, that is, of changing your religion, it is very important to take every precaution. This must not be done lightly. Indeed, if one converts without having thought about it in a mature way, this often creates difficulties and leads to great inner confusion. I would therefore advise all who would like to convert to Buddhism to think carefully before doing so.”

That is sound advice for anyone who is interested in changing their religion or tradition, no matter how welcoming it is or is not of outsiders. It should be done carefully, thoughtfully, respectfully, and with deliberate action. That is, you should endeavor to learn as much as you can about a new religion or tradition so you can embrace it with whole-hearted sincerity, knowing consciously that it is genuinely what you want and that it will meet your needs.

Another large category of universalist traditions are those which no longer have a living culture associated with them, and therefore no one is qualified to act as a gatekeeper. This includes reconstructed traditions, like those which worship Roman, Greek, Egyptian, or Mesopotamian deities. It also arguably includes most other pantheon religions of European origin, especially in cases where the traditions were all but wiped out and the cultures which originally spawned them have long since moved on to other religions.

Universalist traditions will typically have lots of books describing how to practice. Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

A good test of whether or not a tradition is universalist is whether or not it is easy to find books which outline how to practice the tradition. Universalist traditions often include a component which encourages adherents who are so inclined to help educate others and make the tradition accessible.

It is sometimes easy to find books which discuss tribalist traditions, but in such cases the books will usually focus on anthropological or cultural education, rather than providing a road map to becoming a member of the tradition.

If you are still not sure if a tradition is universalist, ask someone who is an established member, ideally of some status. Someone who is not a part of the tradition can tell you what they believe to be the admission status, but they cannot speak for the tradition in question, and definitely cannot grant you membership.

Tribalist Traditions

This type of tradition is called “tribalist” because you must be part of the “tribe” (group or community) in order to qualify as a member of the tradition.

In any tribalist tradition, there is a set of qualifications which must be met before a new member is accepted as a part of the tradition. This usually at a minimum involves becoming fully educated about the tradition. It also often involves being fully accepted into the community of that tradition. It can involve a rigorous and lengthy initiation process, to provide education, prove that the newcomer is dedicated, and give the community a chance to decide if they will accept this new person.

Judaism is one mainstream example of a tribalist tradition, because new converts are required to learn the religion thoroughly before they will be considered Jewish. Catholicism is bordering on tribal, because despite being a conversion religion, you must prove your understanding of Catholic history, ritual, and tradition in order to be a confirmed member of the religion.

Wicca started out an initiatory, tribalist tradition, and there are many covens and flavors of Wicca which continue those tribalist roots. Anyone can buy books and build their solitary Wiccan practice, or even form their own coven, but joining an existing coven or specific tradition often carries tribalist requirements that must be respected in order to become a member.

Many heathen groups are tribalist in nature, because they require converts to become a part of the culture and community to be a member. Scandinavian deities are accessible to anyone, but heathenism as a tradition is culturally based. That means anyone can adore Freya, give her offerings, and even be a devotee, but revering Freya does not automatically make someone a heathen or Asatru.

You must earn your way into tribalist traditions. Image by tillburmann from Pixabay

Some other European pantheons have recreated traditions which are of modern origin, like Religio Romano, Hellenic Paganism, and Kemetism, with associated communities that range from universalist to tribalist. If you want to practice such rebuilt traditions with an established community, you will need to meet their requirements in order to become a member. But, anyone can read up about the pantheons in question and devise their own personal practice.

Voodoo is also a tribalist tradition. I do know one white person who put in the years of study under a qualified teacher to genuinely become a part of the tradition. That happens from time to time because skin tone is not what matters most. What matters is sincerity, authenticity, respect, and work. Do the work, in the right way, with respect and sincerity, under a qualified teacher, and eventually you can become an authentic member. Picking up a book and playing at it will never make someone a genuine member of a tradition like Voodoo.

Many native and indigenous spiritualities are tribalist, but thanks to the abuses of colonialism, most are effectively closed to the majority outsiders. However, there usually are avenues by which select individuals with other ancestry can be accepted into the community and tradition. Please keep in mind that for most native and indigenous spiritualities such occasions are extremely rare, and that selectiveness allows them to protect themselves and their culture. Always respect the need to be insular. They have no end of good reasons for it.

Native groups also tend to be wary of outsiders who take DNA tests and attempt to lay claim to their traditions, because ancestry does not impart cultural understanding. Even those who discover they have ancestry and want to explore it usually need to work to become part of their ancestral culture before they are allowed to join its traditions. Having the “right” DNA does not grant immediate access to native practices.

DNA does not grant automatic privileges. Photo by Brittany Colette on Unsplash

Let’s say Karen takes a DNA test and discovers she is part indigenous American. If she uses white sage smudge she is still engaging in cultural appropriation, because even after taking the DNA test she is still clueless about the deeper context and spiritual meaning of the sacred ceremonies that inspired the new age practice. Multiple native tribes who have such traditions have clearly and repeatedly stated that using white sage smudge is cultural appropriation. Unless she becomes part of her ancestral culture and community, she has no more right to their practices than if she had entirely European ancestry. In order to avoid cultural appropriation, the rest of us need to use other herbs or incense, and not call it smudging.

The exact nature and strictness of conversion requirements varies tremendously from tradition to tradition, and community to community. The only people who are qualified to say exactly what any requirements are, are members of sufficient status in that community and tradition. If you are serious about joining a tribalist tradition, inquire politely and be prepared to accept “no” for an answer. If you are only willing to accept an answer of “yes”, you are not being respectful of them or their tradition, and they are doubly justified in denying you.

If you are really serious about joining a tribalist tradition, take steps to become a friend or member of the community before you inquire about joining their tradition. This does not mean skulking about and manipulating them with a hidden agenda. Be honest with them about having an interest in their spiritual traditions, while centering a genuine desire to learn more about and hopefully become a member of their community and culture. If you do not genuinely want to become part of their community and culture, a tribalist tradition is not going to be a good fit for you anyway, no matter how “neat” you think some of their practices or philosophies are.

If a tribalist community does not want to entertain your interest in their traditions and culture, they do not owe you an explanation. You approached them. They did not approach you. No matter how frustrated you feel, do the respectful thing and walk away. If you do not walk away, you are proving that you disrespect them and their traditions, and thus are completely unfit to join their community on top of whatever reasons they had initially.

Folkish Traditions

Folkish traditions are based on the idea that ancestry (DNA) is the primary determiner of who can or cannot be a part of a tradition. Folkish traditions also often have tribalist requirements of new converts, but if you are not of the correct ancestry or skin tone, you will not be allowed to join, no matter your other qualifications.

DNA is not religion, but it is an excuse for xenophobia and racism. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Folkishness is a huge problem in heathen circles, and also in druidic circles, where it attracts white supremacists, bigots, and xenophobes. It is nowhere near all heathens and druids, and you can find pagans practicing racist ideologies in just about any tradition, but those two groups are particularly loud and influential.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to explore the traditions of your ancestors, but it is the height of hubris and conceit to believe that your ancestry makes you inherently special and worthy, better and more deserving than other people. Your ancestry might give you an affinity to a specific pantheon, or it might not. By the same token, people can have an affinity for a pantheon despite no ancestry in its culture of origin. We are not our ancestors, and our paths are our own.

One of the biggest mistakes I have seen well-meaning people make is in taking the concept of ancestry-qualification from folkish traditions, and applying it to any tradition which originates in a non-European culture. Not all cultures are as concerned about racial purity as Western culture is.

The mistake is in taking the philosophies of racism and using those as a penultimate litmus test for cultural appropriation and accessibility. Instead, we need to listen to the people who are part of the traditions, who may very well have completely different metrics for qualification.

DNA and ancestry should never be used as the sole justification for joining or avoiding a tradition. No matter how you justify it, it boils down to racism, because DNA is not religion. Religion is experiential, not biologically inherent.

Biology does not determine religion, culture, or community. Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay

Mind the White Saviors

There is a fine line between being an ally and being a white savior. Both allies and white saviors feel that it is important to uplift and empower marginalized people. The main difference is that the ally will always center the people who are marginalized, seek to continue learning, and apologize and correct their behavior when they mess up. The white savior centers themself, often treating marginalized people much like children who are in need of guidance from someone who knows better. White saviors also tend to think they already know everything, and take offense when their mistakes are pointed out.

White saviors will typically decide what is best for the marginalized group, ignoring the opinions and real needs of those they wish to help. In issues of cultural appropriation and “closed” traditions, this leads the white savior to act as a gatekeeper on behalf of those traditions, even though they are not a part of those traditions, and do not fully understand them.

Despite “good” intentions, acting as a white savior is racist. It is a product of colonialism, and goes hand in hand with the idea of the “noble savage”, who needs the guidance of the more “worldly” Westerner. It is a way to embrace white privilege and superiority, while still having compassion and concern for non-whites. It is the light end of racism, where the person’s sense of superiority is reinforced by the goodness of caring about those “less fortunate”, vs the deadly end of racism which prefers genocide.

Not everyone who is marginalized needs “saving”. If you want to be anti-racist, don’t assume. Own your internalized racism, listen to what marginalized people consider problematic, change your behaviors, and do what those marginalized people tell you will be the most helpful to them.

Deities Call Who They Call

I am paraphrasing John Beckett, because there really is no clearer and more succinct way to put it, though he is not the only pagan I have seen make that declaration.

If a specific deity calls to someone, that deity has every right to do that. I am not going to tell a deity they are not allowed to work with a particular human. Are you? Do you sincerely believe that you can determine with greater accuracy than a deity, who They are best suited to work with? Are you possessed of the kind of hubris and conceit required to look a deity in the eye and tell them that they are wrong about who They find suitable?

If a deity calls you, take the time to learn about them and their traditions. Image by lil_foot_ from Pixabay

I know I am not going to do that, and I do not believe anyone else should either. If someone tells me that they are being called by a particular deity, I have no means of determining the Truth of that, and neither does anyone else, because such experiences are profoundly personal and inherently unverifiable. It is not my place to gatekeep another person’s spiritual experiences. What I can do is encourage them to learn about the history and culture and traditions of the deity who called them, and, if applicable, to respectfully investigate how to become a member of that deity’s tradition.

Bear in mind that not all deities require you to become a full member of a tradition in order to work with them. For example, lots of people work with Hekate, Artemis, Brigid, Cernunnos, and so many others, without ever taking steps to become part of a formal tradition which centers the pantheon they come from. I am sure there are some deities which only work with people within their traditions, but nowhere near all are picky in that way.

Fully Including Marginalized Voices

Arguments over racial determination of eligibility often go hand-in-hand with complaints that white people are the face of education about traditions that originate in non-European cultures. As the reasoning goes, white people should not even be practicing the tradition, so why are they given book deals, allowed to offer classes, and consistently approved to present at conventions and other large public events?

The clap-back usually asserts that despite being white, those people writing and presenting are part of the tradition and have just as much right to teach as any non-white practitioner of the same status.

In this case, I see both as being right.

Uplifting marginalized voices strengthens our traditions and communities. Image by Sajjad Saju from Pixabay

If you are of sufficient status in your tradition and its community to teach, then it is your right to teach, no matter your skin color. Those who are not part of the tradition have no right to say who can and cannot teach about the tradition.

If you are organizing an event (even a small one), or if you are an editor or publisher, you have an obligation to marginalized people to uplift their voices. That means if you have multiple people offering to teach or write about the same tradition, and one is also ethnically of the culture that originated the tradition, you have an obligation to uplift that voice (unless there is some other compelling reason that individual is a poor choice).

If you are an organizer, editor, or publisher, you also have an obligation to ensure white voices are genuinely qualified to teach, and have the support of the communities of their tradition. You have an obligation to avoid blatant cultural appropriation, and to deny your platform to those who engage in such practices. You have an obligation to be sensitive to the needs of the most vulnerable in your audience, to avoid harming them at every possible opportunity, and to apologize and make tangible changes when harm is discovered.

It is also the responsibility of the white member of the tradition to recognize their privilege and make room for more marginalized voices. Far too often, non-white voices are dismissed, ignored, or even punished for speaking up. If you truly care about your tradition, its culture, and its heritage, and you are white, you have an obligation to make sure its non-white voices are uplifted, even if it means you personally miss out on a publishing deal or speaking engagement or two.

To do anything less is to embrace your white privilege for personal gain at the expense of the community you claim to love, and that is never a good look.


…but, my ancestors were…

Finding the tradition or path that works best for you is a completely separate issue from working with or respecting your ancestors.

No matter who you are, you have a staggering number of ancestors to potentially work with, be they genetic, emotional, cultural, or spiritual ancestors. I guarantee you that those ancestors are of varied cultures and varied religions. Even if your family has been completely Catholic since the middle ages of Europe, the Catholicism of 500 CE is not the same as the Catholicism of 1000 CE or of 2000 CE. Religions change as cultures change, which is an inevitable and continual process.

We each follow our own path, even when we do it in groups. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Your ancestors had their religious views. You have yours. The two do not have to be the same. Let them be who they are, and do not let that stop you from finding your truest path. You can still respect and work with them, for they are part of your roots, even if their paths were not and cannot be the same as yours.

It is great to learn about the traditions of your ancestors, simply to better understand them and where they came from. If you do decide to follow the same tradition as an ancestor, let it be because you love the tradition, not solely because it was the tradition practiced by distant ancestors, or even your parents. Your path is your own, and your community is where your heart finds its home.


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