Rethinking How Paganism Engages Culture

There’s a common sentiment in the greater pagan community that, “You don’t choose who calls you.” Most pagans are converts (meaning they weren’t raised in the faith they practice now), and many of us feel that we were called by the gods to our current faith. Those callings often come from gods who have little or no biological, cultural, or ancestral link to us. Whether Wiccan, neopagan, Heathen, Hellenist, Roman pagan, eclectic, or some other path, many of us feel that our gods came to us, rather than the other way around. 

And yet, we get really weird when those divine callings cross modern racial and cultural lines.

Don’t get me wrong, cultural appropriation is a big issue, and I’m not trying to argue that it isn’t or to say that we shouldn’t be mindful of how we engage with living cultures. However, most white pagans (including myself until very recently) have a very simplistic understanding of cultural appropriation, which leads us to create very simplistic and imperfect solutions. This understanding usually includes differentiating between “closed” traditions (i.e., those with an initiatory, ethnic, or cultural barrier to entry) and “open” traditions. If something is part of a closed tradition, most white pagans will say it should be left alone or even avoided by those outside the tradition, no exceptions. On the other hand, open traditions are up for grabs.

While this way of thinking about cultural appropriation comes from a well-meaning place, it creates at least as many problems as it solves. 

The first step in any social justice work is to acknowledge and accept that there are no easy answers. The desire for a simple, black-and-white solution — preferably with an alphabetical list of which cultural traditions we are allowed to borrow from — is itself a product of white privilege. This overly simplistic approach allows white pagans to get out of doing the work of actually learning about other cultures from members of their living traditions. It allows us to get our gold star for being racially sensitive without actually changing in any significant way.

This idea that you should only worship gods that look like you or have a direct cultural link to you creates artificial barriers and makes it easy for white supremacist groups to hijack pagan rhetoric. It also encourages pagans to create cultural and ideological echo chambers, and makes modern paganism inaccessible to people of color, especially those who may not know their family’s country of origin due to the impact of slavery and/or imperialism. 

Amy Hale, PhD sums this far right rhetorical strategy up with chilling simplicity in her essay, “Marketing ‘Rad Trad’: The Growing Co-Influence Between Paganism and the New Right,” in the anthology Bringing Race to the Table“Proponents of the New Right maintain that cultural separation increases diversity, as do ‘natural’ hierarchies. In this way the New Right rhetorically distinguishes itself from the racism and anti Semitism associated with Historical Fascism, while still providing the intellectual justification for White nationalism.”

And later in the same essay: “In fact, the rhetorical emphasis on maintaining cultural diversity initially appears very Leftist, and hardly fascist at all. Cultural diversity is to be promoted and cherished, as long as racial purity is maintained.”

Another issue is that this way of thinking completely ignores the realities of multiculturalism and cultural sharing. This is how the real world works. Cultural sharing happens naturally in families and communities where people from different backgrounds are brought together. Traditions are shared and sometimes syncretized to produce something new, something both.

In the essay “Shoop! Transforming Stereotypes with Love,” Erick DuPree talks about his experiences as a white child growing up in a majority Black community, and how that cultural exchange has affected his practice. When talking about how he engages with these cultures in his spiritual practice, DuPree says: “I came into the dialogue seeking wisdom and from a place of inquiry. I made the choice to make the connection and build relationships, rather than walls of opinion. This approach lends itself in cultivating a cultural exchange over appropriation.”

As DuPree points out, the key here is to build genuine relationships with the goal of connection, not initiation into a culture’s sacred mysteries. When we have a genuine connection to a cultural tradition or feel called to build such a connection, researching it from the privacy of our own homes is not enough. We have to be willing to get out there, meet people, and be part of the community. 

In her essay “Reweaving the Web: Pagans, Privilege, and Solidarity,” also in Bringing Race to the Table, Claire “Chuck” Bohman says: “Guarding against the ‘culture vulture’ does not mean that we should only engage with spiritual traditions or practices of which we are ancestrally connected. Quite the contrary, we need to celebrate the many manifestations of divinity in its multiplicity of racial, gender, and cultural manifestations. However, I believe we must always consider the ways in which our privilege plays out in our spiritual journeys and be mindful of the impact that these practices may have on those who are from positions of less privilege.”

Or, as Najaa Young says in their article, “Black Gods in the 21st Century: A Cautionary Tale About Folks,” “Come in, sit down, keep your hands to yourself and do twice as much listening as you do talking.” 


[Long story about my personal experiences with cultural sharing vs. cultural appropriation under the cut.]

I am white. Like, really, really white. I’m a pale, blue eyed woman with very European features. And that comes with a lot of privilege. It’s privilege that I’ve often taken for granted or misunderstood. I’ve been working for years now to unlearn the thought patterns of white supremacy and to be a better ally in the fight for racial equity. I’ve come a long way since my “I don’t see color” days, but I am still learning and my understanding of race as a social construct is still constantly evolving. 

I grew up hearing stories about ancestors who were Scottish, Irish, English, German, Italian, and Cherokee. But honestly, I have never felt a strong connection to any of these cultures. Most of my European ancestors came to this land when it was still a newly-stolen British colony, and over the generations many of their traditions were lost. My family’s culture is not European but deeply American — the culture of Appalachia and of the Deep South, with all the wonderful and terrible implications of that.

The cultures I actually grew up immersed in were not the least bit white. Although I am a white woman of mostly European genetic heritage, my family is also Black, Nicaraguan, Chinese, Filipino, and native Hawaiian. As a small child, I spoke Spanish and Cantonese. My first tattoo was a fenghuang, a Chinese symbol of feminine energy that is important to my family. Our house was — and still is — full of maneki-neko (or jīnmāo) figurines, which are good luck charms popular with both my Chinese and Hawaiian relatives. We throw a carne asada for every birthday, graduation, and anniversary. Our Christmas celebrations include Nochebuena. These cultures are much more immediate and familiar to me than any of the European cultures my white ancestors came from. 

And yet, aside from exploring some very basic Buddhist philosophy and practices, I’ve never tried to incorporate any of these cultural influences into my spiritual practice. 

When I was first began to explore paganism, it was through a brand of Wicca that was very much influenced by European occultism and British folklore. That never quite felt right for me — though I still think Wicca is a beautiful religion, the images of a pale-skinned moon Goddess and a stag-headed God never quite resonated with me. 

When I began to dabble in reconstructionist paganism, I found a deep affinity for several of the Norse and Irish gods, but the philosophy and theology of those cultures never quite felt right. I developed an eclectic practice that incorporated elements of all of these traditions, but something still felt like it was missing.

I never looked to the cultures in my daily life for inspiration for two reasons. 

First, they don’t fit the mainstream idea of what paganism looks like. It’s hard to imagine invoking the Goddess in Cantonese or inviting Pele and Odin into the same ritual. I couldn’t imagine integrating these cultural elements into the very Eurocentric structure of most modern pagan religions. 

Second, I didn’t want to be guilty of cultural appropriation. I had a very simplistic idea that because I am white, it was inherently wrong for me to engage with spiritual practices from non-white cultures. It wasn’t just that I was afraid of being called out online. Even if I hadn’t publicly shared these “problematic” aspects of my practice, I still would have felt guilty. Nevermind that I grew up with these stories and still have a strong link with the cultures they come from — they and I fell on opposite sides of a racial barrier that seemed both impossible and immoral to cross.

I’ve recently realized that the reason my pagan practice never felt like it quite fit was because I wasn’t bringing my whole self to sacred space. I was bringing only myself as a white mystic, as a European-American, and as an intellectual. I wasn’t bringing my step-father’s entenada or my aunt’s zhínǚ. I wasn’t bringing my family’s cultural patchwork quilt to the altar. 

I’ve recently received some strong messages from Spirit that it’s time for me to revisit my roots, both in terms of returning to my pagan basics and in terms of reconnecting to my family’s culture and maybe, just maybe, bringing that culture into my spiritual practice. 

This does NOT mean that I’m declaring myself a brujasantera, or kahuna. And I still don’t think it would be appropriate to simply perform a Wiccan ritual with Latine aesthetics or to add Kuan Yin to my Heathen-style deity altar. Just because I have a family tie to these cultures and have grown up exposed to them does NOT make me an honorary Black girl/Latina/etc. I am still coming to these cultures and belief systems as someone who has white privilege, who benefits from centuries of colonialism and white supremacy, and I am extremely mindful of that in how I’m moving forward. 

What I am doing is approaching these cultural traditions with respect, humility, and a genuine desire to learn. Books are usually the backbone of my research on religious/spiritual topics, and I AM seeking out books written by cultural insiders, but this is one case where I think connecting with the living community is supremely important. I am visiting temples and spiritual centers. I am consulting with initiated spiritual leaders on how I can move forward respectfully. I’m bringing my family into the loop and making sure I share my experiences with them. 

Above all, I am staying open to being told no. If someone tells me, “No, this isn’t for you, and there is no way for you to honor this tradition without being disrespectful,” I am willing to listen, to believe them, and to immediately stop without argument. So far, the spiritual leaders I have spoken to have been very supportive of my efforts, but if that ever changes, I respect them and their traditions enough to leave it alone. 

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