I’ve received a lot of anonymous flames lately about the cultural appropriation visible on this blog. It was even suggested that I read this badly argued post and “educate myself”. Right. Some people seem to feel that my appropriation of different spiritualities and cultures into my own brand of syncretism is inherently inappropriate, insensitive, and oppressive. I, of course, disagree. Appropriation is essential to my spirituality, which I like to call syncretic witchcraft. I think that appropriation is a healthy spiritual activity, and like to encourage people to think for themselves rather than to consume any religious dogma simply because it was written down as such. To have an ideological problem with appropriation is to have an ideological problem with syncretism, and so I found the topic relevant enough to make one (ONE only) post about. This blog is not about identity politics, it is about witchcraft and spirituality. I don’t want this blog to be a place of argumentation and propagation of hatred, I would like it to be a place of respectful discussion and acceptance . To me, that is what syncretic spiritualities embody. I find it interesting that a lot of blogs that deal in identity politics and appropriation of culture ignore the spiritual aspect of cultural appropriation, and how spirituality was and is often a syncretic creation. I refuse to use spiritual oppression and massacres of the past as any part of my argument. Around 100,000 individuals (mostly women) suspected of being witches were killed in the Burning Times. Being a witch today does carry a stigma, and at the same time many fashion blogs espouse the witchy aesthetic as trendy. I do find this a tad ironic, but I refuse to hold hatred within my heart. Live and let live. The past is the past - let us acknowledge it, learn from it, and move forward.
The problem is not cultural appropriation. The problem is when dominant cultures demonize and dehumanize the people that are being subjected to oppression, and do everything they can to illustrate why these cultures are inferior and wrong. It’s also problematic when cultural appropriation is done in a way that is wildly insensitive to the cultural concerns of an approrpiated culture. Cultural appropriation is not inherently an insensitive or harmful thing, and believing so is not a reasonable and nuanced view. Our lived reality is fluid and porous. We live in a highly networked, highly industrialized world, and not everything is necessarily going to be just and perfect and when things are appropriated not everyone is going to respect it, but people can respect things and use them. It’s impossible not to appropriate anything from any other cultures - we drink tea, we smoke ciagrettes, we use rubber products and plastic products. our entire society is full of appropriation and cultural conversation. It’s impossible to say, “I will avoid all forms of cultural appropriation, ever, amen” and to actually succeed in doing so. Furthermore, why would anyone desire such an existence? The richness in our world lies in experiencing its beautiful diversity.
The idea that we can’t cross cultures or change cultures (culture is, of course, a social construction, not an inarguable biological truth) reeks of essentialization, which reduces all of us to a core essence. Third wave feminism in particular is very much against this - we are just as much products of our own sensitivities as we are a product of our own biologies. Suggesting that the only appropriate way to engage with spirituality is to look to our own ethnic heritages and cultures falls back on the same conventions that underpin racism, sexism, segregation, and other forms of oppression and essentialism.
Viewing all cultural appropriation as being harmful is an essentialization of what we consider to be ‘other cultures,’ as well as other cultures’ essentialization of themselves. Regardless of how it needlessly polarizes people from one another, this essentialization is at most a capitalist critique which argues that putting culture through a machine and decontextualizing it causes it to lose its essential meaning. Through systems of production and reproduction, cultural objects become meaningless (this harkens back to the work of Adorno, Horkheimer, and Benjamin). Our cut-and-paste society is all about decontextualization. We bring new meanings to things every day. Yes, privledged people can use things and aspects of culture, but people without privledge do so as well. Non-privledged people are always taking different things and using them, and finding new ways to use them and make them their own - as we all should. Saying that you can’t incorporate anything from another culture into your life and suggesting that you can only appreciate it from a distance is presenting a false choice. It’s false to say that you can never come close to something because if you do you’re somehow in the territory of completely disrespecting culture. That idea in itself is very flawed, because many people are very happy to share their culture and stories with others.
All of this doesn’t mean that people can’t have opinions about your appropriation or use of their culture. We should all listen to critiques and ask people why they’re upset. Do they think you don’t truly understand it, or are they of the opinion that engaging with other cultures in a meaningful way in general is wrong? There is an assumption that people enjoy other cultures because it is “aesthetically cool,” and an assumption that all consumers of other cultures are ignorant of context. We all pick and choose from different cultures to make our own, because our world is so globalized. The idea that somehow cultures aren’t going to bleed into each other and mix, or that they shouldn’t, is ridiculous. There are so many things in our world that came from traditional ways of life. Our present society is a result of the mixing processes of hundreds of thousands of years. Cultures come and go; they mix and create new cultures. Culture is constantly changing. If we essentialize an essential “indianness” or an essential “blackness” or an essential “whiteness” we only reinforce those boundaries that separate us rather than realizing that we’re all human and that we can respect each others’ cultures, and learn from them, and come together. It’s totally anti-colonialist to want to understand and interact with and be a part of native groups and cultures. With that comes the responsibility of understanding their current struggles and their history - why are they where they are today? Where are they going and how do you fit into that?
The key thing in all of this is wanting to engage in dialogue, and not reacting defensively. We should all always be willing to learn more about different cultures, and being sensitive to people when they voice their concerns. Culture is important, and that’s why it’s meaningful. It’s important to understand that you do have privledge, but at the end of the day it’s about coming together, and not trying to separate people from each other. If you want to build a broad movement for social justice and change, you don’t build it on hatred and anger - you do it through dialogue, discussion, and empathy. People have the right to be upset, but it’s not constructive because being upset only drives people to be more and more defensive. If you want people to get more angry and reified in their beliefs, just keep attacking them, and they’ll get more defensive and angry and act hurt - because they are being hurt. I’m always willing to accept history, but I’m not going to blame myself for the sins of my fathers. It’s important to acknowledge history and try to fix it, and create movements and discourse that moves us away from old colonialisms and the new ones that we perpetuate. There are certain cultural sensitivities to take into consideration, and it’s important to be sensitive to other people, but culture is not that simple. You can’t reduce everything to appropriation by white colonialists, because that’s not the case.
There are all sorts of struggles - for women’s rights, struggles against racism, sexism, and homophobia. They’re all connected, which is what Donna Haraway argues. Her idea of the cyborg suggests that we can’t all be the same, we can’t all hope to agree on everything. We can’t ever hope to have one direct goal, but we can at least come together in our differences and fight for equality in our disparate ways, because the hope for a unified broad movement that agrees on everything 100% is just not going to happen. If people don’t want to engage in subtlety and nuance, you aren’t going to find your way of convincing anyone that what you’re talking about is meaningful. It’s just communication. Change and awareness is created through dialogue and discussion.
It’s too bad that I and others have to mention the ways in which we are marginalized and/or educted to garner any feeling of respect or equal treatment from many proponents of identity politics. For instance, in this post I recently replied to about veganism being only for people of privilege, I got an apology from someone I was engaging in dialogue with - only after I mentioned the many ways I am not as privleged as she assumed I was. I’m white, sure, but I’m also female, bisexual, a witch, health compromised, vegan, and certainly not the richest chick on the planet. In order to avoid being bitch-slapped by anons about the cultural and spiritual appropriation on my blog and in my life, I shouldn’t have to explain that I have read hundreds of books on alternative spiritualities and done extensive research on different cultures. I shouldn’t have to explain that I’ve read 20+ books on shamanism and that the only native-influenced products I own were handmade by various native peoples themselves. My ideologies and arguments should be enough, because this isn’t about me and it’s not about you. It’s about ideas and engaging in a respectful dialogue, regardless of who’s on the other side - and stepping forward to create a better world, together.