Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Category: Cultural Appropriation

On Cultural Appropriation

Yvonne Aburrow, writing over at Pathetic Pagan (although she is also a contributor over at Godless & Radicals), has an interesting piece up about appropriation entitled Living Traditions. It’s pretty short, so here it is in its entirety:

Why cultural appropriation doesn’t work 

A culture, and a religion, is a massively complex system of interlocking ideas, philosophies, symbols, and practices.

If you take one of these ideas out of context and try to shoehorn it into another tradition, it’s like taking a complex part out of a clock, and trying to put it in a completely different clock, or even a completely different machine.

Or it’s like an organ transplant – the new organ may be rejected and you need to take lots of drugs to get your body to accept it.

The New Age, which has lots of different parts cobbled together, is basically Frankenstein’s monster.

Or it’s like looking at a completed jigsaw puzzle and taking one beautiful rose from the middle of the picture and trying to put it in a completely different jigsaw. No two pieces are exactly the same, and it doesn’t fit the picture in the other jigsaw anyway, and so you have to hit it with a hammer and file off the edges to get it to fit in the other jigsaw.

A friend of mine pointed out that this is actually a very folkish position. Folkish Asatruar are against cultural appropriation as well; we no more want to see some Lilly-white person glomming onto the Lakota sun dance than we want to see some person of African descent trying to play around with runes. Removed from their cultural and ethnic context, they lose meaning, and can even be harmful to the practitioner.

If culture isn’t based in ethnicity, how can there be such
a thing as “black culture“?

Ah, but she’s talking about culture, not ethnicity, I hear you cry. True, as far as she goes. But for most of human history, the chief means of transmission of culture from one generation to the next was through the shared community, clan, and family experience. It’s only within the last century or so that culture became so plastic. Even with mass migration in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, ethnic groups tended to retain their own cultural identities, while at the same time melting into the “American” polity. Folk-based culture (as distinct from folk-destroying culture, as imposed by universalist creeds like Christianity, Islam, Marxism, or Secular Humanism) stems from the folk that produces it; i.e., the ethnic identity of the folk. That’s why there’s black culture, and Hispanic/Latino culture, and so forth, and why people not of those ethnicities are roundly mocked when they try to lie about their own ethnicity in order to gain entry into an ethno-culture that is not their own.

Thus we speak of Pennsylvania German culture, or Chinatowns in various cities across the country, and see the establishment of organizations and cultural events designed to retain ethno-cultural identity, such as the Hibernians or Sons of Norway, while at the same time allowing for assimilation into the larger overculture and polity. For someone without roots in the ethnic-based culture whence a particular practice or complex of practices stems to attempt to co-opt those practices, is simply appropriation. No matter who does it, no matter if they are white, yellow, black, or brown.

And we, as Asatruar, are dead-set against appropriation by any and all comers. So on this issue, at least, we can agree with Ms. Aburrow. Appropriation is bad. Don’t do it.

The Dark Side of Cultural Appropriation

In my previous post on this month’s blogfest subject, I laid out the case that adoption of elements of one culture by another is not necessarily a bad thing. Now I would like to address the flip side; when cultural appropriation can be a negative.

The most obvious example of the dark side of cultural appropriation is the so-called “plastic shaman” phenomenon. This refers to people claiming to represent a particular culture, religious tradition, etc. without actually having any legitimate connection thereto. Although it originated in relation to people posing as having Amerindian backgrounds, the term is more broadly applied to a variety of different cultures and traditions.

The plastic shaman can be dangerous on at least two levels. First, it represents a potential danger due to a lack of knowledge and/or experience of the practice involved. Most famously and recently, New Age “guru” James A. Ray was found guilty of negligent homicide when three people died in a sweat lodge ceremony he was running. Had he truly had a firm and legitimate background in the practice, it’s very possible those deaths could have been avoided.

Plastic shamans can also do damage to the cultural traditions whence they take their “shtick”. Because they lack the background, experience, and knowledge necessary, they themselves are often ignorant of the details concerning the practices they claim to know. Their misconceptions can easily be transmitted to others (who have no way of knowing any better) as “genuine” and thus diluting the value and nature of the actual practices.

In the United States, we see this a lot with Amerindian practices and images (spirit quests, rain dances, dream catchers, Kokopelli, etc.), yoga, and even runes. When these are presented as dumbed-down for easy mass consumption, they become cheapened in the public consciousness, and lose much of their esoteric and spiritual significance. The perception becomes that there isn’t any spiritual depth to such cultures, since “everybody knows” their practices are just fluff.

When someone, whose only exposure heretofore has been this watered-down version of what is actually a deeply spiritual practice, is exposed to the real thing, they are prone to be confused, disappointed, and sometimes even refuse to believe that what they’ve been exposed to before was just quackery.

Another related negative of cultural appropriation is the secularization and overall cheapening of symbols, practices, and other elements of culture that have profound significance to that culture. When children can buy “Indian brave headdresses” in any dollar store, when rune pendants are hawked at every Renaissance Fair, and deities from nearly every pantheon show up as comic book superheroes, the sense of awe and mystery around the spiritual sides of those items evaporates. It is very much a way of saying “isn’t it adorable that you actually think Thor exists; he’s just a comic book character!”

That’s not to say that an Asatruar can’t be a comic book fan, nor a Soux enjoy reruns of F-Troop or Gunsmoke. But we should be aware that borrowing from other cultures what they deem to be sacred can, in many cases, be at best insensitive and at worst destructive. When the spiritual cache of a thing is diminished to increase its commercial or pop culture value, real harm is being done.

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