The concept of cultural appropriation—an idea shaped & popularized largely by an elite class of Ivy League intellectuals in the 1980s–has permeated witchcraft in the last decade.
It’s high time to call it out as the corrosive, hypocritical, toxic initiative it is.
Opposition to cultural appropriation in spirituality is really advocacy for religious segregation.
Let’s just define cultural appropriation—because that seems to be the start of the problem. Often, no one even agrees on what it is. So for the purposes of this discussion, let’s go with good old Wikipedia:
“Cultural appropriation is the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from minority cultures.”
Let’s break that down one sentence at a time.
First of all, let’s take note of the word inappropriate. Inappropriate is not the same thing as bad or evil. Inappropriate simply means “not suitable or proper in the circumstances.”
Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Emmeline Pankhurst are all famous for their “inappropriate” behavior. I think most of us can agree that we’re all better off for it.
Then there is the word unacknowledged. Let me remind you that you appropriate culturally-specific practices and ideas without acknowledging their origins every day of your life.
The sofa is an idea “appropriated” from the ancient Greeks and Egyptians—-who used it as an identity symbol for wealth and power— and then twisted by the French into something resembling your living room couch. My guess is, sitting in it never once prompted you to contemplate with any special depth where it came from or what culture “owns” the idea that keeps you comfortable while you binge-watch Netflix and get tipsy on girlie pink wine.
Got embroidered pillows? Ever wear your hair in pigtails? Have you whipped up a batch of Mexican pizza? (Please don’t, it’s terrible).
Now, let’s talk about the last sentence. The issue of a dominant culture taking or borrowing ideas from a less dominant culture. This is, at best, flawed logic, and at worst, a completely senseless notion.
Any anthropologist will tell you that all living cultures have, by definition, been dominant over other adjacent cultures at some point.
Otherwise, that culture would not have survived. And so, it stands to reason, that a “less dominant” culture has also borrowed from less dominant cultures than it.
In fact, the more a culture is open to borrowing from other cultures and incorporating that culture’s best ideas into its own self-generated ideas, the more likely that culture is to succeed.
Cultural appropriation breeds cultural richness. Segregation, in contrast, is cultural poverty.
Common arguments against common sense.
If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that arguments against cultural appropriation—meaning arguments made by people who believe cultural appropriation is a negative thing as opposed to a natural consequence of integration —typically fall under one of the following categories.
#1 The “It’s-Not-Cultural-Appropriation-When-I-Do-It” argument. This is a common tactic when you point out that unfavorable accusations of cultural appropriation are inherently hypocritical. Often, when asked to explain why it’s not okay to include a Roman god in your practice–even though the Romans were undoubtedly a dominant culture and undoubtedly appropriated many aspects of less-dominant adjacent cultures into their religious culture—-they resort to Tactic #2.
#2 The “Emperor’s Clothes” argument. In this rebuttal, the debater dresses up her position in fancy language to hide the stark nakedness of her position. She often resorts to very opaque language that is deliberately confusing and intimidating. Sometimes, it sounds very academic yet doesn’t actually mean anything substantive.
“The Romans didn’t appropriate Greek culture. It was a soft-power meme.”
Language like this is semantical and doesn’t actually mean anything that can be applied in a practical, common-sense way. It certainly doesn’t explain why the notorious Roman pillaging of culture—which included some astonishingly violent and oppressive strategies—was somehow less harmful than you putting a statue of Venus on your altar or some dumb college kid wearing a sombrero to a frat party.
To be clear, I am not demonizing the Roman Pantheon. I’m just pointing out that it’s ridiculous to compare the cultural spoils of actual violence and warfare favorably to a non-Italian person practicing Strega.
#3 Circular logic. People who demonize cultural appropriation in new age or alternative spirituality can’t seem to get straight exactly what their objection is. This becomes clear the moment you challenge them—something they are definitely not used to.
“You shouldn’t wear a garment made from traditional West African fabric as a ritual robe.”
“Actually, I don’t think it’s ‘traditional West African’ fabric. I think they just borrowed the pattern?”
“Well, it’s obviously been appropriated from African culture. So you shouldn’t wear it.”
“Why? Who is it hurting?”
“Majority groups shouldn’t use symbols from others in their religions.”
“But practitioners of witchcraft aren’t a majority group. They’re actually a very tiny religious minority.”
“It’s wrong for people from the dominant culture to profit from the cultural ideas of another culture without crediting them.”
“So you’re mad at China? Because it says my robe was ‘Made in China.'”
“No, it only counts as cultural appropriation if the culture that benefited is a dominant culture.”
“China is the second-largest economy in the world.”
“Yeah, but they’re not dominant here in the United States.”
“Um, actually . . .”
“China is over there. We’re over here. Or something.”
“So you think Chinese people shouldn’t wear American jeans in China, where they are clearly dominant? Is that what you’re saying?”
“No, I’m saying it’s offensive to West African people to wear their clothing if you’re not West African.”
“It wasn’t offensive to the Ghanaian person who gave it to me.”
“Yeah, but you’re taking it out of the context of that person’s culture.”
“What context? The context of wearing clothing?”
“The ritual context.”
“It isn’t a ritual item. It’s a shirt. It’s a very long shirt with a vaguely African-looking pattern on it.”
“Well, it’s still offensive to some West Africans.”
“Sorry, do you know any West African people? Like even one? Can you identify a single West African country on the—”
“I’m just saying, your friend doesn’t speak for everyone in his community.”
You can respect cultures and still borrow their ideas. Yes, I said it.
The notion that you cannot possibly borrow an idea, concept, technique, word, image, or any other fragment from another culture and still show that culture your respect is not only ludicrous.
It’s hostile to free thought, creativity, and free expression.
“Cultural appropriation” is in fact, the foundation of all surviving cultures around the world. And especially, all spiritual traditions and practices have borrowed or “appropriated” motifs from adjacent cultures, reshaping them into unique versions that only faintly resemble their original format.
There is no such thing as a living society anywhere in the world that has not committed the “sin” of cultural appropriation and every one of us has undoubtedly benefited in uncountable ways from it.
We owe every major progress in human history to cultural appropriation, and people who want to stop the free-flow exchange and reshaping of culture are really in opposition to progress.
Go ahead. Call it smudging. I dare you.
Do you wish you could put a statue of Venus on your altar because you adore her, but you’re not of Italian ancestry? I wouldn’t worry about it. After all, the Romans stole very nearly their entire pantheon from the Greeks and called it their own.
No one cares anymore. It’s literally ancient history.
In fact, adopting or incorporating gods from foreign cultures was common practice in the ancient world, and it’s something the Greeks did themselves.
Want to incorporate Kuan Yin onto your altar because you think she is the most graceful, elegant symbol of compassion and love? You’re right. She is. She totally is. Put her statue on your altar and be proud of it. After all, she is a Chinese appropriation of an ancient Indian myth—which are both hyper-dominant cultures in Asia and have been for centuries.
Don’t smoke out your bedroom with white sage. Not because it’s a Native American tradition to use sage in rituals—but because it’s overharvested and at risk for endangerment. Grow, burn and bundle garden sage yourself. Or use rosemary, cedar or any other abundant herb.
But feel free to call it smudging because after all, smudging is an English-origin word, that literally means “to make a smokey fire” and is not etymologically specific to any particular ritual at all. More importantly, refusing to apply that word does nothing to help Native Americans.
If even one-tenth of the people complaining about these things put their money where their gaping mouths were and donated to a cause like The National Indigenous Woman’s Resource Center, they could make a real difference.
But yelling loudly on Twitter about your superiority because you “know better” than to use turkey feathers for energy clearing does absolutely nothing to effect change. Speaking of which.
It’s fake advocacy.
The next time someone lectures you about your “insensitivity” to (insert whatever group) for using (whatever ritual tool/format/”borrowed” word) really ask yourself what that person has done for this group.
Aside from speaking for them.
And no, simply being a self-proclaimed member of that group is not enough to count as “advocacy”—especially if they’re 2 or more generations removed from it and have never once set foot in the “motherland.”
Have they volunteered in that community? Donated even one dollar of their last paycheck to help needy people in that group?
Or do they mainly just shoot off on Youtube about how stay-at-home moms are evil because one year they made it trendy to sew teepees for their toddlers?
By the way, these people are advancing the agenda of white supremacists.
You think you’re so enlightened for lecturing others on how they should “keep to their own people”?
Think that we should “maintain the purity of cultures” and not “taint one another” by mixing traditions and ideas?
Well, the KKK totally agrees with you.
Cultural appropriation is a concept developed by people who think they’re smarter than you. I don’t agree.
If all of this sounds very confusing, it’s not because your dumb. It’s because it doesn’t make any sense at all.
Cultural appropriation as a concept was largely popularized by a small, elite group of academics in the 1980s.
These people believe they know what is best for those of us who didn’t get into Ivy League universities or have influence over intellectual discourse in the exclusive, powerful circles that shape our culture.
They think you’re too dumb to object to obvious failures in logic.
They think it’s better for you to be separate and distinct from people who don’t look like you or come from your background than it is for you to be connected to and share with them in a fluid, uninhibited way.
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why that is?
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Whenever I think of cultural appropriation, I think of Speedy Gonzales. When Loony Toons was planning to make a comeback they were going to omit Speedy, on the grounds that he was offensive to Mexicans and Hispanics. The Hispanic community rejected that notion quite soundly, pointing out that Speedy was considered a positive icon of their culture. The group that was supposed to be offended ended up pushing to get Speedy back on the air!
The lesson I took from that is that when someone says something is offensive to their culture, it’s worth listening to. One may agree or not, but at least it’s worth hearing them out. If someone is offended on behalf of some other culture, however, it’s simply not worth listening to (unless they’re part of a group that focuses on advocacy or some other major factor is involved).
(Comment received via email)
Comment section isn’t working and so I couldn’t post it directly. Wanted to send this to you directly:
There is so much wrong with this post.
Honestly, this whole post seems like a knee jerk response to being repeatedly wrongly accused of cultural appropriation by those who don’t understand or can’t properly express cultural appropriation themselves. It’s unfortunate and unhelpful when this term is hijacked and used by others to gatekeep and police behavior. This is usually a knee jerk response from people who have been manipulated and exploited themselves but do not have the tools to stop hurtful cycles. I’m sorry that you’ve been on the other side of that. But your stance and defensive response isn’t the way to move forward, especially since you are someone that others look to for guidance and leadership.
It’s not about cultural osmosis and the blending of traditions. Cultural appropriation is about oppression and exploitation. Period. It’s about taking a part of someone else’s history, identity, culture, tradition and manipulating it to erase their significance and/or (more commonly) create value and make money without any effort to credit or acknowledge where the worth came from.
Wearing an African print made in China vs. using the print as your own “unique and cool design” on a shirt you’re selling.
The borrowed devotions from gods of old (Roman and Greek gods) vs. using cultural tradition to erase identity (winter solstice practices become Christian Christmas).
Writing about smudging to share with others what you’ve learned vs. taking credit for discovering how smudging can clear energy in order to drive traffic to your site and make ad money and sell smudging kits.
And to be clear, yes – cultural appropriation is everywhere. The capitalistic, patriarchal system we live in REWARDS this behavior. But that doesn’t make it okay and it doesn’t mean we should engage in it ourselves.
As witches, we practice with true intention and power that flows through us, not from us. Hold this heart. The core of why we even exist is because we are the expression of those who have been victimized, manipulated, exploited finding power within ourselves and each other through love and community. Let us not use the tools of the oppressors to oppress each other.
Thank you so much for this thoughtful perspective. I think it’s so important to discuss this topic openly in our community instead of shutting each other down.
I’d like to respectfully address each of these points.
“Honestly, this whole post seems like a knee jerk response to being repeatedly wrongly accused of cultural appropriation by those who don’t understand or can’t properly express cultural appropriation themselves.”
In fairness, there seems to be little consensus on exactly what cultural appropriation is. But in this case, we’ll go with your definition:
“It’s about taking a part of someone else’s history, identity, culture, tradition and manipulating it to erase their significance and/or (more commonly) create value and make money without any effort to credit or acknowledge where the worth came from.”
What you’re describing is, almost to the letter, a concise definition of unchecked capitalism. If you’re saying that unchecked global capitalism is harmful, we are in agreement about that. But it is my contention that that is a problem of macroeconomics, not social insensitivity.
“Wearing an African print made in China vs. using the print as your own “unique and cool design” on a shirt you’re selling.”
I’m not even sure I’m clear on what the point is here.
When you say “using the print as your ‘own unique and cool design’, to whom are you referring? It seems based on the way you wrote it, you think that an independent, small-time seller is somehow more responsible and more blame-worthy than a Chinese manufacturer. Why? Especially when you consider that Chinese manufacturing exploits deeply impoverished labor forces as a matter of industry practice with almost no regulatory oversight at a very high cost to the environment, whereas a small-time independent business owner is subject to copyright infringement, trademark violation, ect.
In fact, by your own definition of cultural appropriation—-“taking a part of someone else’s history, identity, culture, tradition and manipulating it to erase their significance and/or (more commonly) create value and make money without any effort to credit or acknowledge where the worth came from”—Chinese manufacturing is arguably (and by far) the most prolific offender on the planet.
If you’re going to cancel a small business owner for the same behavior, are you going to stop purchasing Chinese goods to make your point? My guess is, probably not. And for the poorest people in the world (or even just this country) it’s not a realistic option.
Because again, it is a macroeconomic problem that is not solved by university students fighting with each other about who can wear a kimono.
Assuming the design is truly unique, what you’re describing is intellectual property theft. At least in the United States, it is and should be illegal in many cases—though enforcement is a problem in a virtually lawless globalized economy, and it’s not specific to any one cultural identity.
“And to be clear, yes – cultural appropriation is everywhere. The capitalistic, patriarchal system we live in REWARDS this behavior. But that doesn’t make it okay and it doesn’t mean we should engage in it ourselves.”
Again, what specifically are we to not engage in? If the answer is intellectual property theft, then I agree. But I don’t think that’s what we’re really talking about here.
“As witches, we practice with true intention and power that flows through us, not from us. Hold this heart. The core of why we even exist is because we are the expression of those who have been victimized, manipulated, exploited finding power within ourselves and each other through love and community. Let us not use the tools of the oppressors to oppress each other.”
Again, we’re not far apart here. But my contention is that this type of academically-coined language is exactly the kind of tool rich, powerful people use to encourage infighting among people who have a great deal more in common with one another than they do with rich, powerful people who happen to look like them.
I loved this article, and am grateful someone had the guts to say this out loud. I’m of Irish descent, and if someone of Japanese heritage wanted to learn Irish step dance and join a coven that uses Celtic mythology, I would embrace that wholeheartedly. And if I didn’t? I would be racist for “not letting them join.”
Sometimes you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Be open to all cultures, people, and possibilities with respect and love.
Yup! Good on ya.