Witches, Pagans, and Cultural Appropriation

A guide for personal assessment and examination

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The Threshold

Neo-paganism has practices stemming from worldwide religions and cultures. Yet the majority of founding practitioners were white and of European-descent. Many of the stories, tools, deities, and modalities neo-pagans and witches draw upon are wildly culturally diverse, perhaps even global. Here we must acknowledge that the components of the religion do not culturally match its representatives. Increasingly, neo-paganism is growing more diverse in membership. As a result, we all will encounter the impacts of intersectionality to an increased degree. Learning about cultural appropriation can help us to create welcoming and inclusive practices, rituals, and gatherings. Learning about cultural appropriation is also deep, ethical work. For those who have turned activism into a pillar of their practice, exploring and identifying cultural appropriation may be integrated as a sacred personal and systemic practice.

Inherited Privilege and Perpetual Colonization (Columbusing)

Columbusing: an Internet slang term used to describe the act of white people appropriating non-white culture for themselves without recognizing its true origins. The term is named after the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who was credited with discovering the Americas while it was already inhabited by indigenous people” – http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/columbusing

I’ve had many conversations about cultural appropriation. Before the term was part of common language, there were pockets of struggle against the tendency to appropriate. However, despite the growing cultural awareness, appropriation has thrived. As neo-paganism grew, the tendency to appropriate was embedded and grew, too.  Folks took from what they saw as a “buffet” of religious sacraments, crafts, stories, deities, tools, and spiritual practices, and put it on their personal plate of paganism or tradition. It seemed so long as the components were arranged in a pentacle and the directions were called – it all was par for course.

However, in recent years, the term “cultural appropriation” has become a regular, commonly understood concept by an increasing number of pagans and witches. It is applicable to everyday and magical practice. As many are fond of saying, “what happens between the worlds, changes all the worlds.” This is especially true when our magic and sacred space is devised with actions and names we’ve stolen or adapted to fit our needs, regardless of greater impact on the religious and cultural agency of others. I see this as settler and colonizer mindset exercised spiritually. Our naiveté, privilege, and a deep-rooted desire to experience sacred connection have primed our current state. It is time we re-claimed ourselves, and our practices. Because we know better, we can do better.

For Pagans, agreement on what is cultural appropriation can be elusive and divisive. Cultural appropriation is not difficult to understand. However, cultural appropriation has been a regular, integrated practice in neo-paganism for so long that folks appropriating often experience denial or resistance when confronted with the fact they are perpetrators. More literacy is needed. We need to fully understand cultural appropriation as a concept and have more practices for distinguishing it.  We must achieve this literacy. We must consider the impact of our subscriptions and actions. We must stop Columbusing.

Here is where I can offer my personal practice as example. Although imperfect, my framework for self-assessment has truly revitalized my spiritual practice.  This is an invitation to pagans and witches who are curious about examining cultural appropriation within their practice.

The Offering: Using Copyright and Creative Commons Concepts

Just because an aspect of a ceremony feels accessible, does not mean it is ours for the taking. I sought a framework to help guide me in ethical practice. I have adapted Copyright and Creative Commons categories as the ground-level framework for my personal assessment.

Creative Commons is a type of copyright license frequently used on the internet. Stick with me here; it is going to make sense.

Creative Commons licenses include literary works, videos, photos, research and more (https://creativecommons.org). The licensing structure helps folks navigate what is reproducible from materials that are non-replicable, or that would constitute plagiarism or theft.   To me, this mirrors the problem of the finders-keepers practice inherent in neo-paganism and witch paths.

Copyright and Creative Commons has a variety of license sub-types along a spectrum. For our purposes, we will think about the range in brief terms, including:

  • “Open” or public domain. Finders-keepers permission granted!
  • “Attribution”: Creative Commons describes as, “distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon [the] work, even commercially, as long as [the user] credits [the owner] for the original creation”
  • “Some rights reserved”: more restricted but still invites and allows use, so long as certain attribution etiquette is followed
  • “All rights reserved”: commonly thought of as fully restricted. Material is non-replicable, and ownership, permissions, and use are only available to the original creator and their grantees (aka copyrighted).

Copyright grants to creators a bundle of exclusive rights over their creative works, which generally include, at a minimum, the right to reproduce, distribute, display, and make adaptations. The phrase “All Rights Reserved” is often used by owners to indicate that they reserve all of the rights granted to them under the law. When copyright expires, the work enters the public domain, and the rights holder can no longer stop others from engaging in those activities under copyright, with the exception of moral rights reserved to creators in some jurisdictions. Creative Commons licenses offer creators a spectrum of choices between retaining all rights and relinquishing all rights (public domain), an approach we call “Some Rights Reserved.” – Creative Commons FAQ https://creativecommons.org/faq/#what-is-creative-commons-and-what-do-you-do

The amount of access and exposure we have to divine and spiritual examples is unprecedented. I do not mean to belittle cultures or religions, or reduce them to things found on the internet. I do mean to prompt pagans to stop and consider that not all we stumble upon, or are exposed to, is ours to adapt, or use – even when we credit its origins.

Dancing in the Dark

Wrapping our minds around types of copyright helps develop a filter. It grows our capacity for judgment and differentiation. These are vital considerations on if, how, and when to use or adapt something. Sometimes we are exposed to a thing that is so magically efficient for us, we feel called to incorporate it into our practice. Perhaps we do this in hopes of helping others and ourselves. It may be a song, a story or myth, an approach, or a deity. Perhaps a sense of discovery accompanies the experience. Perhaps a strong, fiery creativity also emerges. Perhaps this “thing” seems to be a missing piece of our evolving sense of divinity.  It is here that we can pause and reflect on the origin story of this “thing”. Resist claiming that which is not open for incorporation (Columbusing). It is here that we can run the “Copyright and Creative Commons” assessment to help us reduce exploitation or appropriation.

Personal Ritual

If a ritual is actions done in a sacred way, then we can make a practice special through intention and commitment. We can build a shrine of questions that inspire awe and exploration.  As cultural appropriation seems linked to colonizer-culture, white-American practitioners may have especially big efforts to do. Example considerations and questions that deserve our attention include:

  • Am I being a copy-cat?
  • Does this come from a living culture, tradition, or religion of which I am not naturalized?
    • Would practitioners or worshipers of this tradition/religion find my actions offensive, misinformed, or inappropriately applied?
    • Would folks from this culture find my actions awkward, offensive, or veiled by privilege?
  • Does this come from a past culture or religion of which I am not naturalized?
    • If yes, did this culture or religion struggle for autonomy or sovereignty in the face of oppression?
      • Unsure? Do homework
      • Yes – might I be carrying on a legacy of appropriation by electing to use this thing?
    • Does this come from a past culture or religion that was propagated or proselytized?
      • Do I have firsthand or familial incorporation to the culture or religion?
        • Can this be transformative or healing? Do I have reparative work that comes from within my own familial/cultural lineage? Am I seeing a divine opportunity for a variant or derivative?
      • Was this tradition or religion spread so widely it could be considered “open source”?
      • Is the deity or religion ancient, obsolete or inoperative – possibly making it public domain?
    • Have I given credit when credit is due?
    • Do I have permission?
      • What are the boundaries and where does permission stop?
      • Do I recognize that permission from one person or representative may not be blanket permission on behalf of an entire group?
    • Religion and culture are closely tied. Do I have the essential cultural information required to ethically explore personal use of this religious practice, tool, or story?
    • If people of this culture, tradition, or religion saw me do this – what might transpire?

 

Sacrificing the Subjective Pageantry  

There are many questions we can ask ourselves when we build traditions, rituals, and relationships with deity. May we all find our way, and create spaces founded on repair and responsiveness. We may find some sticky situations. We may have some resistance. We may experience grief. Perhaps our grief will sound like the following:

  • But I love it.
  • But I like it so, so much.
  • But I only took a little piece of it, not the whole thing.
  • But I have a long relationship with it, and will miss it.
  • But it has become a significant part of my spiritual identity.

Letting go can be a radical experience of divine mystery.

Grace the Space

Am I taking what I like, adapting it, using it, and benefiting from it without accountability or reverence for origin, history, living-practice, worshipers, and intersection to culture or oppression?

It’s a long question with many components. Change can be bumpy, and transformation means that things we once recognized now look unfamiliar. The shortest presentation may be: is what I’m doing bringing peace to the dead, honoring the integrity of the living, and generating hope for those to come?

From Hollow to Hallow

Just because we have access to something, does not grant us the right to make it ours. Permission is not an inherent component of exposure. Much like consent and volition are similar, but different, we must look deeply into the difference between accessibility and availability.

White Americans have dominant-culture privileges and exploitive tendencies. Access is often in their/our favor. Access and exploitation are often encouraged. Quieting the desire to own, and not assuming possession, can be a challenge. Nonetheless, we can interrupt this tendency. Having access does not equate to a thing to being available.

Yet, there is much available! Looking to one’s home-culture and home-religion can be a place to re-center spiritual practice. Instead of coopting from others’ religions or cultural practices, look to adapt practices that are yours to reclaim. Perhaps Halloween is part of your culture. Is it time to examine why Halloween is not enough of a sacred experience for you? Then, work to fix it. Consider the impact of appropriating from other religions or cultures. Explore putting effort into re-working and re-connecting to your own cultural holidays.

Merry Meet and Merry Part

It is necessary to know the impacts our spiritual, ritual, or ceremonial actions have on others. Not just in terms of cumulative impact, but in terms of approach.

I’m still in the early stages of developing this as a personal framework. So far, it is working well for me. The Copyright and Creative Commons Framework is a tool for interrupting my own (and my peers’) tendencies to culturally appropriate.  Many pagans and witches struggle to develop discrepancy between what is ethical to incorporate and what isn’t. Having routine assessments, community dialog, and guiding principles will help. The effort is ongoing and growing.

Pagans and Witches, we have serious work to do regarding cultural appropriation. We must all comprehend religious pluralism. And, we must cultivate awareness and support for those disproportionately affected by our traditions’ oppressive and exploitive activities.  For those that have white privilege, an additional responsibility to mitigate and repair legacies of racism, colonialism, and colonization exists.

Acknowledging, recognizing, and intervening in cultural and religious appropriation is the only way neo-paganism and modern witchcraft can progress with integrity.

We must learn to lean-in to difficult conversations. We can change our actions and processes. It is within our ability to eliminate our culturally appropriative actions.

By taking a hard look into our practices, we can see how we have appropriated for some time. This can be changed and it begins with enthusiastically evaluating practices. To transform we must: 1) curiously assess our discomfort with change; 2) grow our ability to identify appropriative actions; 3) meet our grief and call it sacred; and 4) change our ways. This is how neo-pagans and witches may begin to heal, and connect to the divine in ethical ways.

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Creative Commons License
Witches, Pagans, and Cultural Appropriation by Mandy A. Paradise is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Appreciations, citations, resources

Appreciations

Thank you. Dear reader, you are a blessing.

Thank you to Lyle/Ten, whose friendship and intellect were a massive contribution. Thank you to the Olympia pagans and witches, CUUPs, BC Camp Witches, and Reclaiming Tradition. Thank you to rain crowe and the facilitated explorations you offer. Thank you, Mary.  Thank you, husband. Thanks to my family and blood coven.

Citations

Zine Template http://nuonis.com/book-templates/
Creative Commons https://creativecommons.org/
Columbusing http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/columbusing
Intersectionality, concept by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality

Resources and Learning Opportunities