Equality, PT 2.

AKA: Cultural Appropriation.

This morning, I’ve been knee and elbow deep in the cranberry bogs of cultural appropriation, trying to harvest the best aspects and the worst aspects. I’ve been actually working on this subject matter for a couple of months, but I feel that it ties inextricably with my initial Equality posting about PoC. I’ll tie the whole thing up with a nice red ribbon before I’m done. First, however, we need to discuss cultural appropriation, where I stand on this, and then I’ll explain why it’s linked with the PoC blog and the pagan-drama-llama about the PoC in general.

So, what exactly is cultural appropriation? From the various websites that I’ve used to look this up, apparently, the definition can be as scattered as the arguments used to defend or protest against it. This doesn’t give it a good start, in my opinion. If we can’t all agree on what it is and what level we need to be outraged against, then how can we have a clear set argument about it? The generalized definition seems to be, as taken from this website, “sometimes used to describe the act of borrowing aspects of another culture.” However, if we turn to the Wiki page about it, the definition is more in-depth, “the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture.” In the first site, we have the term “borrow.” And in the second, we have the term “adoption.” I’m more inclined to view the definition as given by Wikipedia as the more common and universal definition based, mostly, from my reading of blog posts in regards of cultural appropriation. To me, borrowing denotes that we can “give it back” at some future point, where as, in a pagan sphere, when we discuss cultural appropriation, it tends to be a “long-term borrow” or a “permanent fixture” to the pagan practices we have going.

So, to wit, cultural appropriation as discussed in the pagan hemisphere, is the adoption, assimilation, or acculturation of specific elements (OTHERS™, practices, statuary, spells, etc.) of one culture by a different cultural group.

Now, what is my stance on this, right? I mean, I’ve never really come down in one way or the other about where I stand on this, in this blog. Oh, I’ve made comments on other blogs as well as on Facebook posts about it that pretty much give hints about what I’m going to say. But not everyone is obsessed with mearound me as often to have read those statements. In effect, my stance on this whole thing has been a confused muddle. I didn’t really know or understand it.

And as I look around at what I do on a daily basis and the OTHERS™ that I interact with, I have to assume that by even the slightest of definitions of cultural appropriation that I am guilty of it. I have “adopted” major cultural elements of a culture that is not mine, specifically in the ancient Egyptian sphere as well as the voodoo sphere. My culture, if you will, is American. (And I’ll get more into this soon, I promise.) And if you trace my ancestry back far enough (more, again, in a minute) you get a hint of Native Peoples blood, but primarily English and French. There is absolutely no Haitian in my bloodline. There is absolutely no ancient Egyptian in my bloodline. So, from that perspective, I am guilty of cultural appropriation.

I guess you can see where I stand on this: paganism, in general, is cultural appropriation.

Now, according to this Tumblr blog post about it, what I just said is considered a “straw-man argument,” which for the interest of nuggets of information, in the UK, this is known as an “Aunt Sally argument.” (Also as a quick note, in that article, the OP mentions that anyone who has this argument “serves to bolster the idea that anyone who takes issue with cultural appropriation is a hysterical hater.” I, in fact, do not believe anyone who argues about cultural appropriation is a hysterical hater. Everyone is allowed an opinion, even if it differs from my own.) What this means is that my argument is based on a misrepresentation of information. However, if you go back to the definition that I settled on in regards to cultural appropriation, I don’t really see how it’s possible to consider my argument thus. Now, I’ve tried to see where my argument will fall over and blow off in the wind, as we could expect an actual man made of straw to do, but I don’t really understand how it’s possible. According to the definition that seems to be the most universally found in the pagan hemisphere, the fact that we, as pagans, take beliefs from another culture, especially if we are not of that culture, then in effect we are culturally appropriating.

But, wait. Wait. Satsekhem! I’m of Irish heritage, so my Celtic recon path isn’t considered that!

Oh, really?

The only way that comment even holds up to what I’m thinking is if you are (A) living in the country in question or (B) are either a first or second generation immigrant. Once you hit the third generation mark, you are considered a part of that country. Er. Well, that doesn’t include when a country (-cough-US-cough-) makes idiotic decisions regarding an ethnic policing of a culture because they are war with the “fatherland.” But, you know, anyway, once you get to the third generation, unless you marry a first generation immigrant from the same culture, you are considered a citizen of said country. So, as I said, when you are claiming that you are following the path of your ancestors that is one thing, but since you are not living where your ancestors lived and enjoyed their lives and their beliefs, you are in fact culturally appropriating. (Thanks, Sis for this awesome discussion, by the way!)

That’s not true, Satsekhem! I’m following the way of my ancestors!

Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. However, unless those ancestors are there to teach you every nuance of the beliefs you are ascribing to, then by definition, you are appropriating the culture or belief, in effect you are adopting them, to build your practice.

Let’s use an example from my life. My husband (TH) is an Italian descendent. He has about a quarter Italian in his blood, to be honest. I believe it was his great-grandfather who came over here, but his family could have been here for longer. (There’s not much information available on his Italian side because his surviving family member from that side thinks the whole male line is evil and should never be discussed. SO ANYWAY.) Since his bloodline is mixed with Swedish, French, and English, this means that he has an ancestral tie to Italy, but he is not of that culture. He was not raised to enjoy tiramisu or risotto on a regular basis. He was not raised in the ways of anything other than, “Hey, you are Italian. Woo!” So, if he were to ascribe to their beliefs, say as an Italian witch or something, he would actually be appropriating even though his bloodline, in some form, hails from that country. TH is an American who has blood ties to various countries; this is what it says on his birth certificate (literally since his last name is über Italian) and it says in his genetics, but he is not of that culture.

So let’s get back to my statement that my culture is American, hm?

As much as I’d like to take pride in my ancestry, and occasionally I do, I have to admit that when it comes to a generalized culture, I have to take pride in the fact that I am an American (with both its positive and negative aspects). In effect, it’s a giant hodgepodge of various cultures. So, entirely based on the fact that I am an American, we could almost say that this cultural appropriation thing is the entire basis for the formation of this country. With each new culture of immigrants, new aspects have become usurped into the generalized culture of the United States. Let’s just look at cuisine, alone. You can go to a restaurant and get curry, you can make yourself the “typical” dinner of Saint Paddy’s day with your corned beef and cabbage, or you can find pizza places in every sector of town. These are all day-to-day aspects of other cultures that have been usurped and assimilated into the American culture. (Although, I will thoroughly admit that some of the spicier cultural cuisines are things that I just cannot eat. But give me a batch of Spanish rice or jambalaya and I am all over that like white on rice.)

So, when it comes to taking this cultural appropriation argument to an extreme, I suppose you could say that I am there. But just basing this off of the culture that I happen to live in, currently, as well as the fact that the definition seems to support this theory, no matter what I say or do, I am culturally appropriating. And I’m not the only person here who has had these issues. For example, I know of a woman in England (HI, SHARON!!!!!) who also has a relationship with Papa Legba. She has absolutely no relation, I assume, to Haitians and who knows if she’s ever even been to New Orleans? And yet, she has this relationship going (and not just with PL but with other lwa as well). Then, you have me. I have my relationship with PL and I also have the netjeru all up in my grill seven days a week. And as I’ve stated, I do not have a drop of either Haitian ancestry or ancient Egyptian. Let’s look at the Sister: she works almost entirely within the Greek pantheon. She is descended from the Irish (and others). And I know that there are a ton of pagans out there that I can use as prime examples.

Now, where am I going with this? What the fuck does this shit have to do with equality? I HAVE A POINT, I SWEAR! I JUST NEEDED TO SET UP MY ARGUMENT AND RANT A LITTLE.

All of this got started when I read this Tumblr blog post on the PoC. And I will also bring back up the Tumblr blog I mentioned yesterday for all of this. We are so wrapped up in this cultural appropriation thing and a lot of it seems to have some basis in skin color, skin tone, and ancestry. You saw my imaginary conversation (if you’ve gotten this far with my long-windedness) with someone who claims that they’re basing their religion off of their ancestry. So, how in the fuck are we supposed to be a well-groomed, fantastic, happening group of people if we’re so focused on not appropriating from other cultures, in general, and then in specific because we’re worried that we may come off as racist or bad?

The point to all of this is the fact that if an OTHER™ comes a-knocking, you don’t just shut the door in their face because you’re worried about cultural appropriation. If that was the case, I wouldn’t have a relationship with Papa Legba, and I bet you my lovely UK example wouldn’t either. But maybe in that case, it’s a little different because there’s N’Orleans voodoo, right, and white people can practice that. Um, no. I can’t vouch for other people who work with him, but I do very much try to adhere to a Haitian voodoo aspect to my practices with Papa Legba. I may not be very good at it (yet) but I do try. I take the same feeling – recon stance – as I get with my Kemetic path and use it via my voodoo path. So, just based on the definition and the color of my skin, I’m appropriation Papa Legba and the voodoo culture.

But does that mean that I’m going to say, “I’m sorry, Papa. I love working with you – you’re a barrel of laughs, really – but I just can’t do this anymore because it’s inappropriate because my skin color doesn’t mesh with others of the voodoo persuasion.” Nope. No. Sorry. I’m not.

The whole point to this thing is my final point, which I may explain in further depth after tomorrow’s PBP post.

I seriously doubt the OTHERS™ give a flying flip what color your skin is, what nationality you are, or what culture you come from.

Relevant Post
Equality Pt 1.


10 thoughts on “Equality, PT 2.

  1. So many people have this response to those who complain of cultural appropriation. That definition from Wikipedia actually had the key “relative to a minority culture.” you cannot have a problem with appropriation in the absence of a complaint from an oppressed people. James Ray killing people in a fake sweat lodge is appropriation. You worshiping the neteru of ancient Egypt is not.

    Of course, it gets complicated because not all practitioners of a particular minority culture agree on whether outsiders should be taught their ways; however, hardly any of them are OK with outsiders setting up as teachers without authorization.

    • To appropriate is to remove something from its context (in this case, religio-cultural). It means to take something for one’s own use: to take something that belongs to or is associated with somebody else for yourself, especially without permission. The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines it as, “to take or make use without authority or right.”

      Technically, for those of us who belong to Revival and Reconstructionist religions, we’re all guilty of this. We’ve thieved bits and pieces largely out of context from the dead. When did any of us ask the dead for permission? We’re ALL outsiders.

      This is a massive problem within the “Heathen” community. A lot of Recons go around calling themselves “Vikings,” when they were not even raised in Scandinavia, let alone in 9th – 11th Century Scandinavia. It’s not their culture. A lot of confusion results from this, and from the general lack of TRUE scholarly representation among practitioners. Everyone fancies himself an Historian, without having attended Binghamton or Brown or Fordham or Oxford or Helsinki for Medieval Studies or Scandinavian Studies.

      It also has a lot of extreme implications in terms of worship and magic. Take Revival Mesopotamian religion, for example. Now, I’m not a huge fan of Messiah-el Bey (Warlock Asylum) — much less any “tradition” that thinks the Necronomicon is anything other than a Science Fiction literary device of H. P. Lovecraft’s invention — but he makes an excellent point:

      “The Mesopotamians, like other Ancient Oriental cultures, classified disease and sickness as evil spirits. This was not due to superstition . . . but a description of the ailment and its quality . . . Imagine if the people of Mesopotamia classified a certain disease as an evil spirit, and the Western mind of today insists that this “evil spirit” was just an Ancient God. This misconception leaves the “dark occultist” with the idea of building an altar for this spirit, chanting its name, and dedicating [his] life to this “evil God.” Now imagine if this evil spirit was actually the name of what the Ancient Mesopotamians considered to be tuberculosis by Modern physicians.”

      – From the introduction of “The Oracle of Enheduanna.”

      Appropriation leads to misapplication. The aforementioned is a prime example — worshiping disease like a God, which can have SERIOUS consequences for the misinformed. Likewise, most people can’t separate Sumerians from Assyrians from Neo-Assyrians from Chaldeans, let alone understand that “Mesopotamia” was NOT home to just one unified, contiguous culture.

      You have a lot of idiots running around with cultures they don’t understand, usually applying their Baptist or whatever-the-fuck Monotheist worldviews (a predominant and unfortunate occurrence in the States), sexism, racism, and every other piece of Modern Western baggage to Ancient and Early Medieval cultures that had no concept of such things, or very different concepts of such things — especially since Kemeticism and Scandinavian indigenous religions, et cetera, existed LOOOONG BEFORE nationalism was even a “thing.”

      Also a good (though aneurysm-inducing) example: how most Westerners have no idea what the eff “Karma” really is — hint: one cannot live out one’s Karma in a single lifetime, the idea is to avoid accumulating Karma entirely in order to gain freedom from the cycle of rebirth, and Karma is inextricably connected to the principles of Dharma and Varna. At least, within Hinduism.

      What we’re left with, for the most part, is something entirely confused and unrecognizable. People are grasping at straws for identities that ultimately don’t belong to them, specifically in the West. The bookshelves are full of self-published bullshit that falsely claim historicity, making it that much harder for the average Joe to discern accurate sources of information from bad ones.

      For me, it’s easy — I know I’m walking into my religion as a foreigner. An outsider. Gradually, I’ve learned to drop my cultural biases and schemata, to tread thoughtfully and carefully, in order to better understand what it is I’m dealing with. It’s a never-ending process. Also helps that I have University training and am historically literate. But the sad fact is that a lot of people aren’t, a lot of people are confused, and a lot of people are trying to force their anachronistic agendas on the confused and the historically illiterate.

      So, yeah, appropriation IS a “thing,” and it IS a problem, for Polytheist and Pagan Revivalism and Reconstructionism.

      • And, as far as “race” goes historically: Ancient and Medieval peoples were far more genetically diverse than we are today. There are remains of Danes that have been unearthed that share genes with Arabs. Ancient Egypt, for example, was indisputably multi-ethnic, and the Egyptian Empire during its height covered a broad range of territories in the Levant and Near East, home to vast numbers of ethnic groups (one would be a fool to think that cultural, ethnic, and genetic diffusion didn’t go on).

        We all share common ancestors, genetically. Whatever ethnicity-based claims anyone makes about being more entitled to a Revival or Reconstructionist religion than another person/ethnic group are entirely unfounded, to put it kindly. If the Gods call to you, They call to you. They couldn’t give less of a fuck about skin color, I’m certain.

        Furthermore, none of these “I’m a privileged, special snowflake, no [insert demographic here] allowed!” people, I’m sure, have had samples shipped off to Oxford to determine genetic ancestry. I’m sure if they did, the results would drive them into something of a severe identity crisis and/or contemplation of suicide.

        Which I would take great pleasure in. I’m a bit of a schadenfreude.

  2. They call whom They will. I’m Celt/Germanic mix with some Anglo-Saxon and the Gods that called me are Hellenic. I’ve tried to pay homage to my genetic background by learning what I can about the historical spiritual practices linked to my ancestors. I find that I have great respect for those practices. I also find that while they influence me, they are not the sum total of my practice. Appropriation? I don’t think so. I try to balance historical information with my intuition. I think that’s just trying to forge a living, healthy path based on what I know and learn and feel. If you feel a connection, follow it and see where it leads.
    OF course this is all from soneone who is apparently ridiculously privilaged… so….

    • Exactly!

      When I first started down this road, I never even remotely considered the fact that gods would “stick” to certain “guidelines” when it came to their followers. And even now, as I read all these comments about cultural appropriation and people refusing relationships with gods based on skin color or gender or nationality or whatever, I’m completely at a loss. Flabbergasted. And just… I don’t get it.

  3. I’m mostly Irish. I’m also Swedish. Based upon arguments that have been made about this subject I’m going to decree that if you are NOT Irish, or Swedish, you may not have ANYTHING to do with that culture/religion.

    I have spoken. All hail me.

    In a way that is what I think about these people who are going on about “appropriating” other “cultures”. “All hail me! I am the last word on the subject!” or as someone who was around while I read some of the “appropriation” discussion said “They all sound like wicked religious hipsters. ‘Dude, I was totally into [insert belief/cultural system here] before it was cool!”

    Seriously people, stop being so Emo and embrace the fact that new life is being breathed into dying out systems of belief and cultures. Who cares what their skin colour/nationality of origin is? At least the message is alive and well.

    You’d think that would be a major bonus instead of some kind of religious Crusade. And we all know how THAT turned out the first, second, third, etc times it was done.

  4. Totally not where I thought you were going with it, but I liked this article.

    Does make me glad that I’m pretty much a 1/2 gen immigrant, though sadly I know nothing of my grandparent’s culture (it didn’t get shared). But while I do think that certain “cultural” things are actually genetic, and if you open yourself up enough, the old ways will flow into you, I realize that most people have to “adopt” it back.

    Though it does raise an interesting idea. If I ever run into one of those poc who start ranting about “white” people stealing their culture, I’m gonna go up to them and demand the return of all the “white” cultural stuff they have as they have “appropriated it” illegally from “my” culture. XD

    That includes any and all french fries they may be eating at the time.

    • I like to surprise people with where I’m going with things. That way, I can never remotely be considered predictable.

      Also I like this idea about certain cultural things being genetic. That is interesting. And something I want to think about later.

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