Cultural appropriation occurs when cultural practices are taken out of their original context and misused by outsiders. Cultural appropriation is different from cultural sharing, which occurs naturally in any multicultural society. Eating at an Indian restaurant is not cultural appropriation. Wearing a bindi when you don’t understand its significance in Indian culture is.
Cultural appropriation is a huge issue in modern witchcraft. When you have witches using white sage to “smudge” their altars, doing meditations to balance their chakras, and calling on Santa Muerte in spells, all without making any effort to understand the cultural roots of those practices, you have a serious problem.
When trying to understand cultural appropriation in witchcraft, it’s important to understand the difference between open and closed magic systems. An open system is one that is open to exchange with outsiders — both sharing ideas/practices and taking in new ones. In terms of religion, spirituality, and witchcraft, a completely open system has no restrictions on who can practice its teachings. A closed system is one that is isolated from outside influences — usually, there is some kind of restriction on who can practice within these systems.
There are different reasons a system might be closed. Some systems require a formal training and/or initiation, but there is no restriction on who can be initiated. Reiki and some forms of Wicca operate this way. (All other forms of Wicca are completely open.) Some systems are closely tied to a complex set of cultural beliefs that may not be fully understood by outsiders, so they are closed to people outside of that culture. Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) is an example of this. Some systems require a family lineage, so you must have been born into the system to practice within it. Zoroastrianism and some forms of traditional witchcraft fall into this category. And finally, some systems are closed as a kind of self defense, usually because they have been the target of persecution from outsiders — keeping the system closed is a way to preserve beliefs and practices that might otherwise be lost. African Diaspora Religions fall into this last category.
If a belief or practice is part of a closed system, outsiders should not take part in it. It really is that simple. If you aren’t Native American, you should not be performing smudging ceremonies. If you aren’t Jewish, you should not be practicing Kabbalah or working with Lilith as your “goddess.” If you aren’t Black, you should not be practicing Hoodoo. You get the idea.
On a similar note, just because a system is open does not mean you can do whatever you want with its teachings. You should still make a point of educating yourself on the system you are practicing and take care not to take things out of their original context. Some forms of Shinto are open, but you wouldn’t involve the kami in a Wiccan- or pagan-style ritual — Shinto has its own rules for ritual, which are very different from Western paganism. If you feel called to work with a cultural system you are not already part of, you need to be willing to put in the work of respectfully learning about and preserving that system.
It is impossible to appropriate a dominant culture. For example, in the United States, white American culture is treated as the default. There is tremendous pressure on all other cultural groups to speak English, dress like white Americans, and act like white Americans. White American culture has deep roots in Protestant Christianity, and these religious influences are enforced through social norms and sometimes through laws. Many businesses are closed on Christmas and Easter, and I live in an area where it is illegal to sell alcohol on Sunday mornings. White (Christian) American culture is literally being shoved down everyone’s throats all the time. A non-Christian immigrant wearing a cable-knit sweater, taking Sundays off work, or celebrating Christmas isn’t cultural appropriation, because they are expected to adopt these elements of the dominant culture.
It is also impossible to appropriate your own culture, even if you weren’t raised in it. For example, a Latinx person who decides to learn brujeria does not need anyone’s permission to do so. That practice is a part of their cultural heritage.
Dead cultures are a gray area, but the general consensus is that you cannot appropriate a system that isn’t connected to a living culture. For example, Hellenic polytheism is very different from modern Greek culture. A non-Greek person practicing Hellenic polytheism isn’t appropriating Greek culture, because that religion hasn’t been openly practiced in Greece for thousands of years. The same goes for many other types of reconstructionist paganism (paganism based on recreating ancient beliefs and practices) such as Kemetic (Egyptian) polytheism, Celtic paganism, Norse paganism, etc.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t still make an effort to be respectful of the cultural origins of these religions. If you worship the Kemetic gods, you should probably educate yourself on at least the basic history and philosophy of Ancient Egypt. You should probably try to be faithful to the ancient beliefs in your practice. But you don’t need any sort of initiation, because there is no direct connection between the ancient religion and modern reconstruction.
So How Do We Avoid Appropriation?
- Know the difference between open and closed systems, and respect if a system is closed.
- If a system is open or only partially closed, try to find a teacher or mentor who is already a part of that system. If an in-person mentor isn’t possible, try to find books and other resources created by people who are actually part of that culture.
- Only use items or practices in your witchcraft if you have a good understanding of their cultural, religious, and/or spiritual significance.
- If a member of a culture or magic system tells you their system is closed and asks you to stop using it, listen to them.
- Educate yourself on how cultural appropriation contributes to systemic racism and other social issues.
- Don’t try to sneak around culture appropriation. If you burn white sage to cleanse your space, you are still appropriating Native American spiritual practices (and contributing to the overharvesting of an endangered plant), even if you don’t use the term “smudging” or appropriate the entire smudge ceremony. If something is not yours to practice, leave it alone.
- Learning about other cultures is not the same as cultural appropriation. Here’s a personal example: I live fairly close to New Orleans, and I think New Orleans Voodoo is a fascinating tradition. When I visit, I like to speak to local Voodoo practitioners and learn from them about their practice. That being said, I recognize that I am not a part of that practice, and I’m not about to start incorporating elements of Voodoo into my personal practice.
As a white woman, my track record is not perfect when it comes to cultural appropriation. When I first started my witchcraft journey, I burned white sage and worked with the chakra system. I didn’t know any better, and these things were presented to me as if they were open to anyone. But now I do know better, and I’m making a conscious effort to avoid appropriation in my practice.
I’m also trying to do better for new witches just entering the world of alternative spirituality. It’s important for us to talk about things like cultural appropriation so that baby witches know from the beginning what the issues are and why they matter.
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