Spiritual Not Spiteful - Keeping Cultural Appropriation out of Your Spiritual Practice

It’s finally fall, the temperature is dropping, we’re busting out the halloween decorations, and it’s time to get spooky. While for most of us this is just known as “Halloween time” or “the most wonderful time of the year,” it takes on a few other names in some circles as well, namely: “Baby Witch Season” or the “Baby Witch Boom.” No, this does not mean that witches start popping out babies during this time or that babies start developing magical powers. Instead we find that around this time, we see an influx of people finding their way to alternative spiritual paths, paganism, and witchcraft. For those of us who already operate in these circles, this is both an exciting and sometimes frustrating time. We see a lot of the same questions and a lot of the same mistakes, most commonly in the area of cultural appropriation. To clarify what we’re talking about here, cultural appropriation is the uncredited and out of context use of a culture’s significant practices by someone outside of that culture. Some of the primary issues with cultural appropriation have to do with theft and trivialisation of the culture. Someone without the cultural context of the source culture cannot fully engage with the practice as it is intended because they do not have the perspective and experience with the larger culture that a person within the culture would have. By choosing bits and pieces and taking them into their own culture, they strip it down to what is understandable from their own cultural context, leaving the rest of the practice behind. It also generally occurs by a person or group from a majority or oppressing group taking from a minority or oppressed group. For many of these groups, the issue with removing the practice from their culture and into the oppressing culture not only strips it of its deeper cultural significance when presented within the oppressing culture, but also takes yet another thing away from the oppressed culture. When land, rights, dignity, and safety have already been jeopardized or stolen by the oppressing culture, often all the oppressed culture has left are their unique cultural practises. By the oppressing culture claiming it for their own, they often are denying access and ownership of the practice to the originating group, thus stealing the practice. Now that was a lot, so let’s break it down a bit into what may or may not be cultural appropriation. Please keep in mind that I am a white woman from the USA writing this, so I certainly do not have a definitive say on what is and what is not cultural appropriation - that is for a group to decide and its members have the final word on that. This is simply my understanding. Some signs that using a practice from another culture might be cultural appropriation are as follows:

  • It is considered a “closed” practice. Initiation or birth right may be necessary to practice this. Unless you have the necessary qualifications defined by the practising group, steer clear.

  • It’s a ceremony or religious practice. This is certainly not a hard and fast rule, but a lot of ceremonies are closed practices. The best way to tell is if you ask if you may participate in the ceremony held by those within the culture. Keep in mind though, just because they allow you to participate, does not mean that you may have the right to recreate or lead the ceremony in the future. Talk with the leaders of the ceremony when appropriate to determine what you may or may not have access to.

  • Ask. Asking is always a good way to determine if something is closed or not. Often you can do your own research beforehand and you will find people’s arguments as to why it is or is not a closed practice. If you have done your research and could not find a clear answer, then go ahead and ask someone from the culture. Avoid hounding them with questions and give them time to answer. They may get asked this a lot and do not owe you the labor of a response. Try to be patient and understanding.

If you’re told that you may practice something, take the time to study it from credible, in-culture sources. Learning from your own group may be tempting as it will be more comfortable for you, but to be as respectful as possible, it is best to learn from the context of the culture you are sharing with. When practicing an open practice, be honest about where the tradition originates and allow members of the originating group to take priority within spaces regarding the practice. It is theirs first and foremost, and if they have chosen to share it with you then you need to treat them, their culture, and the practice with all the more respect, much like an expensive gift. 

 

In recent years, the trend of appropriating magical and spiritual practices comes from a variety of colonial sources, including media which often doesn’t differentiate between closed and open spiritual practices, big businesses that sells “spiritual” goods which are often mislabelled and stripped of their deeper significance, and longer historical histories of cultural oppression, destruction, monetization, and theft. While I myself am not a POC (person of color) and therefore cannot claim any of these practices myself, as “the season of the baby witch” rolls around, I feel that it is important to remind current practitioners and inform new or interested ones where some boundaries need to be set up.

1. Smudging

Courtesy of Canva

This is always the one I have found to come up most often. Smudging is a spiritual practice originating from a variety of Native American tribes across the Americas in which smoke is used to drive out bad spirits and entities and effectively clean a space. Herbs such as white sage, cedar, juniper, and other herbs are burned and a ceremony is performed to clear a person or space of harmful spirits, entities, or other things that could affect them. The herbs and ceremony differ from region to region, depending on the beliefs and traditions of the tribes in the area and the plants available to them. The practice and the herbs involved, particularly white sage for plains-dwelling tribes, are sacred and deeply spiritual for these diverse peoples. It is not a practice than can or should be replicated by non-Natives, and doing so is cultural appropriation. Using herbs like white sage or palo santo takes those resources away from those to whom it is most significant, and raises the prices, again restricting access. Large companies selling “smudge sticks” and white practitioners claiming to “smudge” paints the practice as something to be commodified and as simply waving around a burning stick of herbs. The practice is significantly deeper than that and cannot be practiced by outsiders, as whatever an outsider does, is not smudging. Smudging is done only by Natives, and not by anyone else. 

Some alternatives to smudging: smoke cleansing with incense, smoke cleansing with burning home grown or store bought herbs that are not palo santo wood or white sage, sound cleansing, cleansing sprays, oil diffusers, using garden sage as opposed to white sage, but still not calling it smudging. 

2. Hoodoo

From southernfolkmagic.com

Hoodoo, also known by the names conjure or rootwork, is a practice specific to African Americans, and originates from African slaves in the American South. Hoodoo has long been part of black Americans’ fight to regain control and power in their lives that has been stripped away by white America. The practice has important ties to black suffering and fights for freedom and equality within the United States which it cannot be separated from. Though it blends aspects of Christianity and African practice, it is not available to just anyone. Without that ancestral link and the African American context, one cannot practice Hoodoo. Any attempt to do so would not be Hoodoo. 

 

Alternatives: Research your own heritage and folk traditions. Most cultures have something that is more magical than it appears at first. For those with European ancestry, you may want to look into Celtic or Germanic magic, just be careful as sometimes white supremacists take a hold of these practices and appropriate them for their own uses. For those in the rural East Coast, Appalachian Witchcraft may appeal to you, or if your family has strong ties to the Pennsylvania Dutch, look into Braucherei or Hexcraft/Hexerei, sometimes called Pow-wow. There are options in your own culture available to you. 

 

3. Voodoo

From The National Interest

Many people confuse Voodoo and Hoodoo. Voodoo stems from the West African practice of Vodun, and often combines with aspects of Catholicism. It is a religion, practiced within the South (especially Louisianna), Haiti, and Brazil primarily. This designation as a religion is part of what sets it apart from Hoodoo - Hoodoo is a practice. Though some may treat it as a religion, it is more of a way of working magic. Voodoo is a full belief system and religion and varies greatly from the Voodoo seen on television screens. Like Hoodoo, Voodoo is tightly tied with African History across the Americas and has its basis in African religions and belief systems. Therefore, it would not be appropriate - if even possible - for those outside of this African culture to practice Voodoo.  

4. Chakras

Courtesy of Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

This one is a bit more contested. I can guarantee you have seen some things here and there about Chakras - maybe chakra necklaces, crystals, flower arrangements even in beautiful rainbow patterns. They may claim to balance your energy and reset your chakras. But here’s the thing, Chakras by some are considered to be a closed practice. But hold on a sec, you say, according to Hinduism and Buddhism, we all have chakras right? So if we all have them, we can all do stuff with them, right? Well….the jury is still kind of out on that. We all have energy centers, but whether or not people outside of Hindu or Buddhist traditions can really claim Chakras is complicated. Some claim that Western culture has Chakras oversimplified and has generally misunderstood them. Some may say that like Karma, we have applied our own ideas of science, medicine, and morality to them, thus watering them down or turning them into something that doesn’t really resemble Chakras anymore. Some however argue that anyone can work with Chakras and that if taught by the right teacher, especially someone within the origination culture, outsiders can work with Chakras just as well as someone born within the culture. This is one that it may be best to do some of your own research on, and talk to people within the Hindu and Buddhist communities near you to gauge their comfort level. I would recommend staying away from commodifying or trying to make money off this practice though if you are outside the culture, as that can be seen as more appropriative.

 

Alternatives: Work with energy centers in general and learn styles of energy work from your culture. 

 

5. Romani Culture and the “G” slur

Courtesy of WenPhotos from Pixabay

This is another one I see a lot with usernames and shop titles. A person feels like free spirit and a wanderer of some sort so they name themselves or their shop as a g*psy. This word is in fact a slur used against the Romani people of Europe who have faced persecution and oppression for ages. The Roma are an ethnic group within Europe, often with darker pigmented skin from their ancestors in Southeast Asia. They are usually considered to be a nomadic group, primarily because historical discrimination had forced them to continually move for their own preservation. They have been the target of persecution across history in Europe, notably by Hitler during the Holocaust. Still they are a people with a rich culture that attract a great deal of interest, while their very tightly knit group keeps an idea of mystery alive. This combination of seemingly “exotic” culture within Europe, closed groups, and a nomadic lifestyle has made the perversion and idealization of Romani culture popular among New Age practitioners. To clarify, Romani Culture is a closed culture, and their practices are closed as well. The G slur, as mentioned above, is meant to make these people “other” and is based on false assumptions about their origins. It does not mean free spirit or that you like boho styles. It is an offensive term to describe a culture that has been horribly misrepresented across centuries.

Alternatives: Again, look to your own heritage for practices of your people. If you feel like describing yourself with the “g” slur and are nor Roma or Romani, try using terms like “free spirited” or “a wandering soul,” or something else to describe your lifestyle and aesthetic.

 

8. Spirit Animals

Courtesy of Free-Photos on Pixabay

This is another common one that many people use even outside of spiritual practice. How many times have you seen on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, or even heard your friends say “such and such is my spirit animal?” Spirit Animals are another deeply treasured spiritual tradition from Native American cultures which has been stolen, twisted, and trivialised through appropriation. Even the term “spirit animal” is a colonial construct, as each tribe or culture had their own word or concept of it, which was boiled down to “spirit animal” by colonizers so it could be understood by these invaders. Using the term “spirit animal” to describe something you like or have an affinity towards is inaccurate to the roles and origins of spirit animals in Indigenous practice, and ignores the deep cultural significance of these entities in people’s lives. In many Native cultures that believe in spirit animals, there are ceremonies and traditions and deep seeded beliefs that affect someone’s regular life that spirit animals are tied to. To ignore that and use it as a fun little term for how much you love something claims that somehow your affinity to this thing or person is equal and the same as these deep, spiritual, and important beliefs. 

 

Alternatives: If you really like something, just say you love it! Other common ways to say that something really speaks to you is to say something like “I relate to this on a spiritual level” or “so and so speaks to my soul.” You can play around with different wording and phrases that don’t include practices from other people’s culture. If you are looking to work with spirits that may follow and teach you, you can work with spirit guides, which may be animal spirits, but they are not your spirit animal. You may also work with ancestors and other entities in the spiritual realm. 

 

I am not an insider in any of these cultures. I am not a practitioner of any of these, so I cannot speak to the deeper intricacies of each, and this is in no way an exhaustive list. But I hope through this article you have had a chance to reflect on some assumptions you may have held, and if you are looking at starting a spiritual practice, you will take some extra time to consider where your practices come from. Every culture has their sources of spiritual power, and while you can appreciate the sources of other cultures, remember they are for the members of those cultures first and foremost. Any invitation to engage with those sources is a true gift and a deep sign of trust. As spirituality calls us to be mindful in our daily life, try to be mindful in your spiritual life as well. 

 

Best wishes to all out there looking for something more, 

 

Love, Sydney 

~HCXO