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The Challenge of Cultural Appropriation

This post was written by Donald Michael Kraig
on October 14, 2013 | Comments (3)

It’s my observation that many people are looking into their pasts. These pasts may be genetically based (“My great-great grandparents came from…”) or spiritually based (“I feel such a pull to the ________ tradition…”). This can be a great thing or it can be a horrible thing. This was brought up in a wonderful post by Taylor Ellwood entitled “Cultural exchange vs cultural appropriation.”

Although I agree with Mr. Ellwood’s conclusions, we have some disagreements over the details that get there. He states that “[c]ultural appropriation is the wholesale stealing of a given culture’s practices.” I respectfully disagree. For example, if someone who was not of a particular culture immersed himself or herself into the practices of that culture, and then authentically brought the entire thing, “wholesale,” to a wider audience, I would respect that. In fact, I would think that most people brought up in that culture would love to see an authentic presentation of the beliefs and practices of their culture brought with integrity to a larger audience.

The problem with cultural appropriation is that it specifically doesn’t bring a culture’s practices to a wider audience in a wholesale and authentic way. Instead, cultural appropriation steals sections of culture’s beliefs and practices, often blending them with practices foreign to that culture, and presents it as being the totality of that culture’s system. In my opinion, what makes cultural appropriation a horrible thing is not that it exposes the traditions of a different culture, but that it tries to blend in a bit of that culture with other concepts and presents it to the public as an authentic representation of the original culture. Some people put on buckskin, go to a Native American Pow-Wow, pray to the “Great Spirit,” and think they’re following “the” Native American path.

Cultural appropriation is 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. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held.

—Wikipedia

Years ago I saw three manuscripts from the same author, each purporting to be the Pagan tradition of an ancient culture. On close examination, all three manuscripts were the same, only the names of the deities had been changed. If people followed the ideas in those manuscripts, thinking they were following the ancient teachings, they would have been misled. If they thought they were following traditional practices and ways they would be disappointed. They would have false beliefs about that original culture and direct descendants of that culture would be misunderstood and perhaps even discriminated against because of beliefs based on the cultural appropriation of part of their culture.

There is a man who claims to teach secret sexual traditions of a Native American Nation, however actual leaders of the Nation have denounced him and his teachings as having nothing to do with the culture. He does use various trappings of the culture. I know several people who claim that what he teaches is very positive for people who need that work. That’s fine, and I see no reason why he shouldn’t share his ideas. It’s just that what he shares is not from the tradition as he claims. It misrepresents the culture to people who are studying with him, leaving as wrong an impression as the many Western movies that misrepresented various Native American traditions and history.

The Keys Are Research, Integrity and Honesty

Mr. Ellwood shares a story he heard from R. J. Stewart. A Lakota Shaman said to Stewart “she didn’t want white people trying to take the practices of her people and make them their own, but rather that she wanted them to find their own practices and then meet with people from other practices and share what each of them was doing.” Mr. Ellwood refers to this as a type of cultural exchange, and something he believes is good. I agree. But…

What good is cultural exchange if you don’t put it to use? “Wow! I’ve been doing an hour of ritual every day and haven’t noticed anything, and here’s a person who says they get significant effects within a few minutes. I think that’s great, but I’m going to go back to my own practices and ignore what that other person does because I don’t want to be involved in cultural appropriation.”

I don’t think so.

Mr. Ellwood writes that he studies “Tibetan and Taoist meditation practices. I am not of the cultures where those practices originated and I don’t try to be. I study those practices to learn from them and implement them in my life, without trying to identify with the culture.” This is exactly what my subhead above suggests: he’s doing research, does it with integrity, and is honest about what he’s doing. To my mind that cannot in any way be considered cultural appropriation any more than eating kung pao chicken means you’ve taken over all of Chinese culture.

To sum up, I see nothing wrong with learning certain aspects of another culture and adopting them as long as you don’t try to fool yourself (or others!) into believing that your minor adoption which is influenced and altered by your upbringing and beliefs is either the original beliefs or a complete representation of the culture.

Hear Me Interviewed LIVE

Saturday, October 19, 2013
11:00 p.m. Eastern——8:00 p.m. Pacific
Live Interview with me on The Church of Mabuse Radio
Tune in and listen: http://churchofmabusradio.com

I’ll be talking with host Jeffery Pritchett on a variety of occult topics, leading edge politics, and more. Be sure to listen in!

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Celebrate Llewellyn Week at Mystic Journey Bookstore, the favorite metaphysical bookstore on the Westside of Los Angeles. There will be four nights of fun with Llewellyn authors. Come here them talk and meet them in person. Here is the current schedule with their topics and times:

• 10/23, Wednesday, Tess Whitehurst – Magical Fashionista 7-9pm
• 10/24, Thursday,  Lon Milo DuQuette - Low Magick 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
• 10/25, Friday, Karen Page - My Life Across the Table 7-9pm
• 10/26, Saturday, Donald Michael Kraig – Modern Magick 7-9 pm

I’ll be giving a workshop there Saturday night, but be sure to attend all four evenings. I may pop in to see my friends! I hope to see you there, too!

Reader Comments

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#1 
Written By Kyle
on October 14th, 2013 @ 9:48 pm

Interesting piece. I am sensitive to people’s fears about cultural appropriation as we see it on many levels in our lives as it can rob the item/idea of its foundation, which can be frustrating for those who built it or who have studied how it was built. Yet, I think some allegations of it are unfair and sometimes downright silly, as just because I share the same beliefs, ethnicity, gender, etc., I’m now in the “in crowd” and you must be excluded. And I can’t escape that much of the idea of cultural appropriation, attacking often Western appropriations, is in fact a very Western notion itself. In my travels abroad, I’m often welcomed in foreign temples and included in religious rituals. Many overseas, I have found, are genuinely pleased someone from the outside sees value in their own systems. It’s only when coming home that we are often told to “stop appropriating.” As I said, I do think it’s a real phenomenon, and we should try to respect an idea and its foundation, but in the end, we are not just separate tribes and cultures; we are all human beings and we can all share.

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#2 
Written By Taylor Ellwood
on October 15th, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

Hello Mr. Kraig,

Thanks for responding to my article. I see the response as a type of cultural exchange, in and of itself, and needed when it comes to the topic of cultural appropriation. I also appreciate the points you make, and would even agree that by doing the research and being honest about what you are doing, you can demonstrate that what you are doing isn’t cultural appropriation. I think that precisely this is such a sensitive subject it requires some very clear communication about what a person is doing with a given cultural practice.

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#3 
Written By Constant Reader
on October 16th, 2013 @ 8:51 am

I would like to mention that sensitivity to the wishes of the group in question is vital. If I join in a ritual and learn some things, and then start giving workshops incorporating those things without the consent of the group I learned them from, that’s cultural appropriation. They gave it to me for free, now I am combining it with other practices and packaging it for sale. It’s my understanding that some Native American groups, in particular, have objected to this kind of thing. I know a lot of Pagans believe that spirituality should be free to all, but if you’re a member of a dominant culture and you’re taking from a marginalized culture because your belief in freedom of information trumps their belief in culturally specific practices taught a certain way by certain people in a certain context, that’s appropriation.

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