Let’s start at the beginning: cultural appropriation involves people of dominant groups exploiting the culture of less privileged groups. This happens a lot in modern Witchcraft communities, especially where those communities overlap with modern pagan religions. Dress, rituals, symbolism, and other traditions have often been “borrowed” from oppressed, exploited and/or closed cultures.
Some examples of the cultural appropriation from various Native American tribes include non-indigenous Witches claiming to have “spirit animals” and “totem guides”, making of dream catchers, referring to smoke cleansing as “smudging” and the co-opting of sweat lodges as purification ceremonies. But appropriation happens to cultures across the world; from Hinduism to the Romani, chakras to mojo hands, Vodou to Maori, and everything in between.
There are many reasons expressed for this “borrowing” and the motivations of Witches perpetuating this appropriation are often well-intended: “we’re reclaiming the word witch”, “witchcraft is about using whatever works”, “the gods have called me”. But intention doesn’t justify anything here. Context matters.
All too often these traditions are used as part of identifying certain cultures as “Other”, while framing the dominant (White) culture as normative; creating bigotry that can, and frequently does, end in violence. It’s offensive and damaging to share the privilege of belonging to that group of oppressors while at the same time picking apart traditions and practices for their approved, “exotic”, parts. We don’t get to show love for some aspects of a culture while remaining prejudiced against the people of that culture!
The other problem with this practice is that by only showcasing parts of these cultures, and presenting them in a way that is comfortable for the dominant group to accept, we inevitably portray those marginalised cultures inaccurately or one-dimensionally – and are more likely to be heard and believed than those who are being oppressed.
The real kicker is that those privileged “borrowers” then often get credit from their peers for being “edgy” or “creative” or “real” – credit that certainly isn’t given to the actual members of the culture that birthed whatever trend is being lauded. When privileged people benefit and oppressed people continue to suffer, a power dynamic is being created where that power flows one way.
Cultural exchange is different – it involves a power dynamic where both groups are equal. Cultural assimilation is also different – it involves a marginalised group adopting elements of a dominant culture in order to live with less discrimination. These power dynamics are what makes it impossible to appropriate from the cultures of the dominant group.
As Feminist Witches, it’s our job to learn about and respect the history, experience and traditions of other cultures. If we’re not part of those cultures, we don’t get to pick and choose parts of them to “borrow”. If we want to be part of those cultures, and it’s possible, then we must do the work required to join the community.
If it’s not possible – for example, if those practices are part of a racial tradition that we can’t share – then we need to accept that, and move on. Witchcraft is inherently creative, so there’s no need to appropriate when we can simply create!
As Erick DuPree says: “the problem with this “everything’s borrowed” thinking and “we don’t need new words” is that we actually do need new words.”
Many of today’s forms of Witchcraft have roots in the 19th century occult revival when European intellectuals took religious inspiration from several sources including the religious practices of other cultures. The problem with this, of course, is that these individuals shared the Imperialist worldview prevalent at the time, and this has trickled down (and admittedly been slightly watered down) over the years. This focus on Imperialism, where European civilisations expanded rapidly across the globe at the cost of the oppression of any tribes, cities or nations in the way, led directly to cultural appropriation as well as racism.
We live in a postcolonial world, and it can be difficult to overcome this outlook. When we’re part of the dominant group, we start from a position of ignorance because we haven’t directly experienced the consequences of cultural appropriation. We haven’t lived with the harm. When we find ourselves confused, fearful, angry, guilty – it’s a good start. But we must act, not react. We begin by challenging ourselves first.
We must work to find a way to sort the wheat from the chaff; to find and create Witchcraft traditions and practices that will build a brighter future. Only by confronting and changing systems of oppression that harm the disenfranchised will we build a power dynamic that flows from within and without, that shares instead of stealing, that is equal and strong. It might not be easy, and it will take time, but that is why it is part of our Great Work.
In a blog post at wildhunt.org, pagan priestess Crystal Blanton writes some good questions for us to ponder: “How do we… respectfully exchange with other spiritual cultures? What are we giving in exchange for the knowledge that we gain and using for our own spiritual experiences? How can we respect the context, culture, history and people of the cultures we are exchanging with?”
I am a Witch of European descent. I was born with privilege. This ancestral history and the modern societal benefits that flow from this don’t make me a bad person – but being a responsible and compassionate individual does require me to acknowledge it. Therefore, I am choosing to use my privilege to discuss issues of cultural appropriation with other White practitioners. I don’t want to call you out, but to call you in – in to contemplation, action and a more complex view of the realities of the damage that marginalised cultures experience.