Dearest pagan community, we need to have a conversation about cultural appropriation. I know; I can already imagine the sighs and the eye-rolls. “This again?” you may grumble. However in the interest of intersectional witchcraft, it’s a very damn important conversation, and one that I do not think is had enough in our circles.
Recently I got into an argument with a friend of mine in the community who posted a link to this Upworthy article about cultural appropriation on her Facebook feed and asked for our opinions about it. The summation of the article and video is that cultural appropriation is okay if your intention is good.
I screenshot the responses, but I’m not going to include them because they were terrible. Most of the respondents jumped on what I like to call the “anti-PC brigade” in which the excuse for whatever behavior someone is calling out is that people (specifically minorities) are being too sensitive about issues of oppression. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that one! See the 7 Myths video (listed at the end of this piece).
Someone shared that they thought goth culture was being appropriated, something which while I can see how they would believe that, is not the same as ethnic or religious minorities having their sacred symbols stolen, commodified and de-contextualized.
Another person started talking about how the Irish were enslaved (another popular response) and I’m still not sure what that had to do with the conversation, other than an attempt at trying to say that Saint Patrick’s Day is an example of how cultures blend. It was a mess.
Anyway, attempted to call out my friend and was met with dismissal, tone-policing and personal attacks. I wish I could say that was new for me. I’m disappointed but not surprised.
Here’s the thing: cultural appropriation is wrong. I’ve heard every argument from“isn’t everything appropriated from something else” to “but I’m just appreciating the culture”. They’re all wrong.
I’m not going get into the details and nuances of why it is wrong; there are TONS of articles, videos and personal accounts as to why this is an oppressive behavior. It’s not up to minorities to educate you, please look them up yourself.
I will try to explain this once as simply as I can, because I want to go into what cultural appropriation means for our communities and why cultural appropriation is something radical pagans should stand against and call out.
What is it?
I like this definition best:
“Cultural appropriation is the process by which a member of a dominant culture takes or uses (appropriates) aspects of another culture (often a colonised culture) without that culture’s permission and/or without any understanding of the deeper cultural meanings behind the appropriated item.”(source)
Cultural appropriation is, at its core, about power. When one group has structural power over another and takes aspects, symbols or objects of a marginalized group without permission and erases the meaning behind them, something is lost or destroyed in the process. In a capitalist framework, the appropriated items may also be commodified as they are de-contextualized and sold for profit. It’s perverted, oppressive and wrong. Cecil Joy Willowe calls cultural appropriation:
“the power to steal, misrepresent, and/or corrupt cultural items from an oppressed cultural group.” (Bringing Race to the Table, pp. 68)
Some of the most popular examples of cultural appropriation include the bindi and the Native American (Plains) headdress or war bonnet. From my own culture I would also include the hamsa or Hand of Miriam/Fatima as a currently popular appropriated item.
Why is this important to discuss in Pagan communities?
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