This morning a friend of mine and I were reunited after she had been away for a long time taking care of family matters in Mexico. My friend surprised me with a gift to thank me for praying for her. The gift was a gorgeous clay sugar skull.
I have had trouble all of my life connecting to my culture because of my skin color (I’m Mexican and my skin is white.) and so I found this gift particularly heartfelt. The Sugar Skull also reminded me of a few conversations I’ve had over recent years about a topic that seems to be a powder keg to polite conversation everywhere – That of Cultural Appropriation. So, taking my new sugar skull as a prompt from the gods; I am going to try and discuss this issue this morning (Everyone, this is your one chance to get coffee before proceeding.)
The issue of cultural appropriation is not that other people pick up and practice aspects of other cultures that resonate with them – far from it really. Cultural appropriation is what happens when people begin practicing aspects of other cultures with no reverence to where it came from. To some, this statement may seem trite, but that is because it is incredibly misunderstood. When I discuss cultural appropriation and its ills, I am discussing a power dynamic between groups in a society.
In America today, the majority frequently takes on aspects of its cultural minorities and makes them mainstream – that isn’t the problem. The problem occurs when the historical attitude of X practice by the dominant group was one of derision and discrimination up until they decide it’s trendy. An example of this are certain Halloween costumes such as Native American ceremonial dress. The complaint isn’t simply that people are wearing the ceremonial dress. It isn’t, “how dare you copy me,” it’s, “how dare you murder our ancestors and then put on their clothing.” Cultural appropriation is a matter of context and that is why it is so hard to define and even harder to communicate. The history of white dominant America with Native American cultures is one of genocide. Take a moment and consider that. If someone stole your land with force, murdered your ancestors, and then paraded around in their clothes; how would that make you feel? If the history of those two groups had been one of total equanimity the present day situation would be different.
At this point the thoughts of a lot of people trend toward a “Sins of The Father” argument, but in many ways we are responsible for the sins of our ancestors – especially when we don’t say or do anything about it except for say, “That wasn’t me, and you can’t hold me responsible.” We are responsible, perhaps not for the genocide itself, but certainly for acknowledging the history between our people and also for not rubbing salt in the wound.
Let’s take it a step further. When I was in my undergraduate career, some hapless white guy described himself as a whigger (white nigger) and claimed that he understood the racial challenges faced by black Americans. The support he gave for this argument was that he wore FuBu (For Us, By Us) and went to high school with a large black population.
As a white skinned Mexican American, I can tell you from first hand experience that the type of discrimination I face as opposed that of my darker skinned relatives is vastly different. I don’t know what it’s like to be called a spic or a beaner on sight.
The white guy I encountered in my school days is guilty of cultural appropriation and being a racist, because there is no way in hell he can possibly claim to have faced the challenges of the black American community to warrant that self description (nor can any person with white skin).
Now back to The Sugar Skull. Recently, Americans have become much more aware of a practice of my people – the celebration of Dia de Los Muertos. I think that Americans are becoming aware of the wonders of my culture is fantastic. However, the enthusiasm has gone quite a bit off the rails. If you walk into any department store in America, the chances of you finding some piece of popular culture decorated as a sugar skull on a T-shirt are pretty good. Buy the shirt, wear it with pride, but don’t turn around and be a racist towards the Mexican people. It’s the act of being a racist asshole after dawning the art of my people that makes it cultural appropriation – and much worse.
So how does all of this relate to neo paganism you ask? Well, that’s quite simple. Many neo pagans in the U.S. and abroad practice an eclectic path. I know I do. When it comes to my gods, who are of Celtic origin, I have no cultural connection to their worship. The only thing that I have that connects me to them is that my study of them makes my spirit soar. If I were to worship my gods while maintaining a hatred for Irish people, I would be guilty of cultural appropriation. However, because I study the history of my gods and have a reverence and respect for the culture that birthed them, what is happening in my practice is cultural diffusion.
We can see many instances of cultural appropriation when it comes to magical practices as well. In my culture, our folk healers are known as curandero/as, and it’s generally a title you have to either work for by study or you have so many years of experience in the traditional practices that no one would question the validity of that title. If I were to run around calling myself a curandero/a I would be considered extremely disrespectful among my own people. When a person who is not of my culture learns to perform a Limpia (Mexican folk cleansing) and calls themselves a curandero/a that’s appropriation. Why? Because you didn’t earn that title through study nor practice and the fact that you are part of the dominant culture allows you to get away with it. You aren’t a curandero/a, you’re an asshole that wants to sound edgy because they learned one folk ritual from a different culture. The difference between that and someone who is a true student of curanderismo is respect regardless of race or ethnicity. Respect for the people that created the practice, respect for the people who practice it today, and respect enough to interrupt the appropriation of the practice when you see it; meaning simply that if someone is making sugar skulls and then cracks a joke about Mexicans, you call them out for it.
In my Wiccan tradition, we put a premium on scholarship. When I decided that I wanted to practice a Celtic pantheon I was expected to read the Mabinogi and other related legends. Scholarship, a Google search, respect, and awareness of context are all it takes not to commit cultural appropriation. Our job as neo pagans, as revivalists of the old ways, is to be mindful of where the old ways came from and to increase the awareness of their origins out of respect for all of our ancestors and for each other. I hope my comments have been helpful.
May the Might of Morrigan bolster your step,