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Friday, August 30, 2013

Racism and Cultural Appropriation

   American paganism in many ways reflects the contemporary trends of American culture: in the 60's and 70's it was feminism and women's empowerment, in the 80's and 90's it was individual empowerment. In the last ten years, and more so now, I've seen an increase in the focus on the ideas of ethnicity, race, and cultural appropriation within paganism.
   Issues of culture and race are complex and this is no less true in paganism than it is in the wider culture. On the one hand people often seek, through spirituality, to reconnect to their own history and roots, to gain a sense of belonging, and this can sometimes lead to a focus on culture. Certainly this is the case with most reconstructionist faiths which often emphasize both specific culture and ancestral connections and veneration. Feeling connected to ancestry through religion teaches us to be proud - proud of our ancestors' trials, struggles, and successes. Generally this is a good thing; we should be proud of our ancestry and our cultural history. This can become a problem though when that pride and the desire to feel that sense of belonging becomes a sense of possession, as if that religion belongs exclusively to any one group or people. In Celtic paganism I see this when people are dismissed as not really Celtic, as if their opinions have no or less value if they don't live in a Celtic country, speak a Celtic language, or have recent Celtic ancestry. In Heathenry it can be less subtly expressed in outright racism* and exclusion of non-Europeans from groups. I've heard of it in other faiths as well, from Wicca to Hellenismios, when one person tells another that they have no right to that religion because it belongs to another culture. It's all rooted in the idea that these beliefs are ours and we must protect them by keeping out the unworthy or those who might threaten the quality of what is ours. It's not always expressed that way, but that's the core idea behind it; we have something special that belongs to us and we must keep it safe from anyone who isn't us.
   The big, obvious problem with this is: who gets to decide who owns the culture? Who can say what amount of heritage is enough? Oh people try, certainly, but it all comes down to personal opinion and assumption, no matter how prettily they attempt to dress it up as the will of the Gods. How far back does someone's ancestry have to go for it to be enough? Can skin color really be a measure of heritage when it tells you nothing practical about that person's ethnicity? My heritage, like many Americans, is complex, including both European and Native American, so what cultures am I entitled to? What cultures am I excluded from? There are Heathens who would say that I cannot be Heathen because I am Cherokee on my father's side; there are tribal members who say I cannot follow tribal ways because I'm too fair skinned, despite the fact that historically none of that mattered in either culture. Belonging to a culture, sharing its beliefs, was based on far more than skin color and birth. History tells us that the Vikings intermarried with the Irish, that our ancestors, as they moved into new lands, intermarried with the people already there. The Gods were your Gods because they were the ones you honored, the ones you prayed to and offered to, not because you passed some litmus test of color or ancestry. The culture was your culture because it was what you lived, valued, and passed on. This was true in the past so in a modern multicultural, multi-ethnic society what place could racism possible have?
   Or, to summarize, racism is stupid and has no place any where in any thing.
   On the other hand we have cultural appropriation, a very popular term right now that is often horribly misunderstood and misused. Taken from sociology, cultural appropriation - also called cultural borrowing - is a natural and normal cultural process wherein one culture adopts beliefs, practices, or items from another culture usually with modifications. The western idea of karma is a cultural appropriation from the east, for example. Cultural appropriation, in and of itself, is not inherently a bad thing, however it can be so when the culture being taken from is a minority culture and the one doing the taking is a dominant one. In such a case appropriation can often lead to the loss of the original culture's belief or practice as it is subsumed and eventually discarded in favor of the dominant culture's version. The fear of that happening is often cited in cultural forms of paganism, including Irish and Norse, as grounds to speak out against or reject concepts taken from a specific culture and redefined by more popular modern pagan traditions. For example a reiki practitioner took the Irish Ogham and created what they call Celtic reiki, something that is seen as appropriation by some Irish pagans and some traditional reiki practitioners. The taking of the four Celtic fire festivals for use in the neopagan wheel of the year is often viewed as appropriation. James Arthur Ray's appropriation and misuse of sweat lodges is another, more tragic, example. Cultural appropriation is a very complex subject though because it is a natural cultural process and can occur organically - the incorporation of food, for example - so that not all appropriation is necessarily bad. In academia cultural appropriation may be divided into different categories which can include exchange, dominance, exploitation, and transculturation (Rogers, 2006). Exchange and transculturation are positive while dominance and exploitation are negative. Culture itself is built on a process of interaction with and reciprocal appropriation of other cultures which over times creates cultural exchange (Rogers, 2006). Generally when Cultural appropriation is discussed in paganism what is actually meant is cultural exploitation, the taking of aspects of a minority culture by a dominant one for the advantage of the dominant culture. This is a touchy issue for me as someone who regularly sees both my Native ancestral culture and Irish culture exploited. But as modern pagans we cannot simply say that we will not ever use or include anything that isn't originally from our culture or that no one else has a right to what we consider ours, particularly since, as I already discussed, it can be very difficult to decide who has a right to what; certainly the ancient pagans freely incorporated material from others in what would be seen as cultural exchange. On the other hand we should be respectful of other cultures and do everything we can to avoid what amounts to cultural plagiarism. My personal rule of thumb is to look at the context of the original and then how it is being applied outside that context; if it seems to be respectfully done then I am okay with it, if it seems to be done superficially, without respect, or understanding then I am not okay with it. We can use Samhain as an example: in modern paganism some people have begun to incorporate genuinely Irish pagan practices including a food offering to the fairies. I would not have an issue with this when the person researchers it and understands why it was done and historically how, even if their version is different from mine - candy instead of caudle, perhaps - but if the person simply hears that it was a practice to offer to the fairies, doesn't bother to learn anything about it, and offers something that would traditionally be offensive - spoiled food or leftovers, perhaps - then I would see that as inappropriate.  When you come across genuine appropriation the best way to fight it may be to educate people about the real beliefs and practices and the history, the roots, from which they have come.
   We are all, ultimately, seeking the same thing. As human beings we all want to be happy; as religious practitioners we all want to find spiritual fulfillment. The differences between us are, literally, only skin deep, and yet culture can shape us in profound ways that go far beyond outward differences and do deserve to be honored. Be proud of who you are and where you've come from and respect the journey that's brought you this far, but always respect those who are walking along with you as well by honoring the things we have in common as well as our differences.
   Ní neart go cur le chéile

* racism is the belief that different races have different abilities and characteristics and race can also be used to describe ethnic groups, including the Irish, English, etc., While we might most often think of racism as the division of people by skin color, it applies equally to the division of people by ethnicity. The infamous "No Irish Need Apply" signs of 19th century America are examples of that type of racism. 

Rogers, R., (2006) From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation. Communication Theory, vol 16, issue 4


  1. In many ways those of us who practice the Classical religions, the ancient Khemetic religion, or any of the other of the world's polytheistic religions are luckier in that our festivals were not appropriated for the synthetic religion of Wicca (I do not mean synthetic in a bad way here) , which has since morphed into a strange sort of weird "New Age" something which is very hard to define. I have to admit that I shudder whenever I hear them mention "using" the Gods. Such little, hubristic gnats, I think. They don't understand the relationships of reciprocity and of sacrifice. As ever, your blog is a bright point in my day.


    I've run into the former in the same way, having this one or that one attempt to dictate to me which part of my ancestry I can or can't venerate or incorporate into daily life and practice. It particularly boggles my mind when I hear a proponent of this thinking insist that intermarriage never happened in all of history, and that mixed offspring (or their mothers) would not have been allowed to live to be "an offense to the gods". Pifflesnot. Serious Do Your Homework Fail going on there.

    I think a good bit of the problem (aside from bona fide exploitation) with the latter is simply people throwing around loaded buzzwords without having the least clue what they mean. If you can trot out some righteous indignation at someone else for not following your rules, it means you don't have to actually think about whether they might be on to something, neh?

  3. Thanks so much for this. I almost gave up with heathenry because I felt excluded because I'm not of Norse descendant. Also, I want a religion I can talk with my friends without regard of their origin or color. Gods calls whatever they want to, Black's, Asiatic, Latinos (like me), and nobody is whom to said me I can't or my friends can't. European history shows a very mixed origin, so nobody is 'pure', that's a modern lie and against our gods.

  4. I've always been a bit perplexed by folks who say you can't talk to a diety if you don't have the right pedigree. Given their power, I would have thought that the gods could talk to whoever they want