Today we’re going to talk about cultural appropriation within the magical community. First we need to understand what cultural appropriation is and then we can talk about what it is not and then how it shows up within the magical community.
Cultural appropriation is when a person takes a culture that is not their own and tries to make it their own. By trying to make it their own I’m talking about practicing aspects that they like of another culture whether they understand them or not without proper teaching or instruction on what those cultural aspects mean. I know that there is a huge debate about appropriation versus appreciation versus what is open practices and what are closed practices. What I’m doing here is giving you my very quick views on this.
I’ve just explained my views on what cultural appropriation is so what is not cultural appropriation? Does cultural appropriation mean that you can’t see an aspect of another culture and learn it? No is the quick answer to that. There are ways that you can practice another culture that are not appropriation and there are definitely ways that you can appropriate another culture by doing things from that culture that are not your own.
Basically the whole idea here is respect in how you go about learning something. If you’re from a culture you grew up knowing the influences of that culture, how it influenced what you did, how you practice your craft, your spirituality. It’s who you are. You grew up with it and an outsider comes and they see aspects of your culture and they like it. It becomes trendy and they just start practicing it with no rhyme or reason. They don’t know anything about it other than what they see and they start doing it for themselves. That is appropriation.
However, let’s say this outsider sees your cultural practices and they start to appreciate them, and they want to find out how they can make those practices their own. They come to you or someone else within your culture and respectfully ask to learn. Now as the original culture you have the right to tell someone that they’re not able to learn your culture- that they have to be born into your culture. That would be a closed practice. Or if it’s an open thing and you’re willing to instruct somebody on how they can practice your culture- that would be an open practice.
So basically what I’m talking about here is respect and where you learn things and what you claim as your own. If you’re approaching a culture that is not your own and you start randomly practicing aspects of that culture and you’ve never been instructed in them, you don’t know people within the culture, you just see it and you like it and you start doing it- that’s appropriation. And it’s disrespectful. It’s wrong. But if you like something, you want to learn about it, and you go to people of that Culture and you learn it, you study it, you find out what it is and how it’s done, and you ask respectfully if you can practice it, that’s not appropriation.
Now, let’s say you have learned an aspect of a culture from someone within that culture-let’s say someone did open up their cultural practice to you and they instructed you on it- it’s not your place to be teaching it to other people without permission. Don’t claim it as your own and don’t profit off of something that is not your culture without permission. There are cultural practices that you can learn and that you can practice respectfully without appropriating but that doesn’t mean that you can claim them as your own and start teaching them to other people. If you have permission to teach it, that’s fine. If you don’t, then be respectful.
Just because we’re talking about cultural appropriation doesn’t mean that everything within a culture is unique to that culture. There are a lot of practices that have been adopted the world over throughout history because our world is not a world in which everything is set like this is my culture, this is your culture, this is their culture. There’s been a lot of interaction throughout history and throughout the world, so there are a lot of practices that belong to a lot of people. They may not be called the same thing; they may.
One example of this is smoke clearing. In some traditions this is called smudging and it’s done with white sage in a ceremonial practice. There are other cultures that also have smoke clearing, maybe not with white sage but with other plants. That doesn’t mean that smoke clearing is only appropriate within the native communities that practice sage or smudging with sage. Other cultures have used smoke clearing too. They may not be called smudging. Those practices are generally not called that and they’re generally not necessarily done with white sage. There are many different plants that you can burn and use the smoke to clear and cleanse space- which by the way is not the same as burning sage in a smudging ceremony. Those are two different things. Be careful about what you call the practice you’re using. It doesn’t mean that you can’t use sacred smoke to cleanse a space but be mindful of what plants you’re using and what terminology you use.
Another example here is the use of spirit animals or spirit guides. I have seen this in a lot of discussions lately about spirit animals being a closed practice that is only open to native cultures. This is not true. Many cultures throughout history have used animal guides or animal spirits. They may or may not have used the terminology. Native cultures didn’t use that anyway because it’s not even their language. English is not their original language and spirit animal is not exact translation. So just be mindful if you’re around somebody and they’re telling you that your practice is not yours and that you are stealing their practice. Ask yourself, is this really my practice? Is it culturally my practice? I’ve had people tell me that spirit animals are not a practice that anyone should use if they’re not from a native culture. Well I’m Jewish and a lot of people don’t know that spirit animals and animal helpers have been used in Jewish tradition throughout history so it is from my tradition. I try to respectfully educate people on that. If i’m around native people and they tell me that i’m doing something that is offensive to them I will do my best to try not to be offensive while still practicing my own beliefs and my own practices.
If you’re wanting to learn a culture that is not yours, ask yourself why. Ask yourself who you are in terms of your culture and how has your culture interacted with the one that you want to learn. Are you from a colonizing culture that has condemned people or made it illegal for people of the original culture to practice? There are many instances of African American practices or Native American practices that have been seen as illegal or wrong and these people were not able to legally practice their own belief system. Now the colonizing culture wants to take those practices and make them their own. That’s not respectful in and of itself. It doesn’t mean that an individual person can’t learn if someone is willing to teach you.
Just ask yourself why you want to learn a culture that’s not your own. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you can’t necessarily do it and it doesn’t necessarily mean you can. There are respectful ways to go about learning and practicing a culture that you were not born into.
And while you’re learning other cultures, learn your own. There are many times that there are similar practices. They may be called different things. They may be practiced in different ways but have the basic same function. Don’t just say you want to learn another culture’s practice because you’re attracted to it and you like it. There may be something similar in your own culture if you actually take the time to study it.