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An example where there is a history of the appropriating culture oppressing the appropriated one is the appropriation of the Passover Seder by modern Christians.

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I think this is a particularly crass example of cultural appropriation. So even based on what we know of history and lore, that claim is utterly spurious, but culture is not transmitted by genes, but by the passing on of stories and rituals and symbols. Where there is a loss of meaning is when a practice is appropriated into a very different cultural context and takes on an entirely new meaning. An interesting example of this is chakras, which were imported into Western spirituality from Hinduism and Buddhism via Theosophy.

To me and I know not everyone feels the same , this is a complete and utter travesty of what the Wheel of the Year is about, and I find it really offensive, because the meaning of the festivals has been completely changed. Arguably there was a mutual enrichment of meaning. Culture has nothing to do with genetics.

Culture is transmitted through word of mouth, stories, practices, and being immersed in it; it is not transmitted genetically. If I moved to another country and became immersed in their culture or if I decided to become a Buddhist , the fact that I am probably not genetically related to anyone from that culture is completely and utterly irrelevant. But both the ancient Britons and the ancient Romans are dead and gone, so we are not perpetuating that oppression by reconstructing Romano-British culture and religion.

If you go and live in another country, it behooves you to learn their customs and culture and stories and traditions, so you can appreciate their local culture and be a good guest. A chameleon Furcifer pardalis. When Megan Manson who is a British practitioner of Paganism and Shinto joined the Pagan Channel , there was a brief discussion of whether her practice of Pagan Shinto was cultural appropriation.

If you lift the rituals of that other culture out of context and offer them to the deity without fully understanding how they work and what they mean, then it might be. Many people have taken the idea of cultural appropriation to mean that you can never do any practice that comes from another culture. Yes, they told people of European cultural background to seek our own cultural heritage — I very much doubt that they meant that it was somehow genetically encoded in our DNA.

The view that you can only do the spirituality associated with your genetic background is clearly racist, and deserves to be called out wherever it appears. This also means that we need to be really clear about what cultural appropriation means, and to push back against people who claim either sincerely or in order to derail a conversation about it that cultural appropriation means no-one can ever do anything from another culture. Race is a social construct, but one that has been used to oppress people , and therefore it is a social construct with real effects.

What about cities where many different cultures come together and create a unique fusion of concepts? And probably the original culture is flourishing perfectly well in its home environment, so everything will be just fine. This cultural fusion and exchange is how new cultural forms and traditions arise.

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As to making money out of it, as long as both sides are making the same amount of money out of it, all will be well. It matters because if you accept the watered-down, stolen, distorted, or culturally appropriated version of the ritual or tradition as being somehow real, the meaning and value of the original and genuine practice is in danger of being lost, and it endangers the culture, and therefore the well-being, of the people whose ritual or practice or symbol it is. Much recent research has shown that loss of cultural traditions and stories and language underlines and destroys traditional cultures.

And it must be remembered that there is a long and continuing history of oppression which leaves painful emotional scars in the memory of the oppressed group. But I think you have to do the work of examining each and every situation to work out whether it is cultural appropriation or respectful cultural exchange. You can use my suggested criteria to help you decide is there a continuing history of oppression?

Sure, white people can perform Blues songs. But can we sing the Blues? The Blues originate from a particular cultural and social history unique to Black people. Yes, the musical form was a fusion of European folksong and African musical and folksong techniques — but the emotion underlying the Blues was something special, and the characteristic musical style of the Blues the blue note can be traced back to Africa. It was further disseminated throughout the Southern States over the first two decades of the new century by travelling shows and wandering songsters.

The first audiences for Blues music were segregated; there were separate performances for Black and white audiences. The Blues were born out of the pain of Jim Crow, segregation, slavery, sundowner towns, lynchings, chain gangs, and all of that pain. The Blues… its bar, bent-note melody is the anthem of a race, bonding itself together with cries of shared self victimization. Relentless rhythms repeat the chants of sorrow, and the pity of a lost soul many times over.

This is the Blues. So if a white performer sings a blues song, and fails to acknowledge that history, and makes more money off of it than Black performers… now we are moving into cultural appropriation territory. Blues is not always a sad music and up-tempo tunes are great for dancing, and there was always competition to show off the best moves and attract a partner. The other great function of the Blues is to articulate the hardships of life, richly expressing the pains of love, loss and bad luck, and helping to lift the burden by sharing the load.

Both kinds of Blues touched the people who heard it. And remember that this happened during or not long after segregation… I would say that was cultural appropriation. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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In fact this is a perfect example of the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. Musical genres are freely exchangeable when the cultures involved have equal prestige — but when one of those cultures is persecuted, and the musical genre involved is an expression of the pain of that persecution — then it becomes problematic. Similar arguments happen about klezmer music as well, and probably cajun and zydeco, for all I know. Most performers recognise that to perform a song really well — to really express it, not just give a technically good rendition of the song — you need to try to understand the meaning of the song.

How does this insight help with Pagan instances of cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation is always a difficult topic to get across in a nuanced way — and no-one seems to agree on what is respectful borrowing and what is cultural appropriation. What many commentators miss, however, is the power differential in cultural appropriation. In countries with a majority white, western, Christian population, European cultural norms prevail.

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Being regarded as exotic makes the products of other cultures ripe for commodification and packaging up as a consumer good. Consider the late 18 th century and early 19 th century craze for Chinoiserie. Lots of people made a lot of money out of that one. Being regarded as primitive makes the products of other cultures seem taboo. This means that countercultures within the European cultural sphere want to adopt them. This situation creates a massive imbalance where the products of other cultures are trivialised, fetishised, and repackaged as consumer goods for the amusement of Europeans.

Fine — now imagine that it is on top of your land being taken away, your ancestors being enslaved and murdered, your economic, employment, and housing chances being severely limited by systemic racism — are you angry yet? Oh wait, our pagan ancestors were killed for their beliefs — albeit a long time ago.

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This unequal power dynamic is why a white person painting their face black is considered inflammatory, whereas a black person painting their face white is not. In vaudeville theatre, the black-and-white minstrel shows presented a caricature of Black people which was deeply offensive. It does seem likely that the introduction of black-and-white minstrel shows to England gave fresh impetus to Morris blackface. This unequal power dynamic does not mean that we can never do anything associated with another culture; it does mean that we should approach other cultures with sensitivity and tact, and if we are told to back off, we should back off.

The same applies to clothing styles, hairstyles, and artefacts which may have specific meanings and be associated with specific identities, especially if those identities have been crafted in resistance to European cultural hegemony, or are expressions of the sacred in a particular context.

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When the artefact, clothing, or hairstyle is ripped out of its context, the original meaning can be lost, diluted, trivialised, or erased. In two previous posts on cultural appropriation, I explored the difference between respectful borrowing and cultural appropriation , and how practices are not plug-and-play components that can be easily transferred from one cultural context to another. Many people do not understand what is and is not cultural appropriation because they assume that practices and techniques can be easily transplanted from one context to another, but this does not take into account the issues around the particularity of traditions to their culture, place, and history, and it does not recognise the impact of colonialism and the commodification and commercialisation of indigenous traditions.

Cross-fertilisation: dandelion seeds blowing away in the wind. Photo by Brian A Jackson, courtesy of Shutterstock. Take for example the practice of calling the quarters. This is based on several assumptions: that circular space is the most sacred; that there are four cardinal directions, and four elements with a meaning that is embedded in a particular cultural context the Western Mystery Tradition, or of several Native American traditions , and that making a connection with the four elements and the four sacred directions helps you to become more connected to Nature, or the universe, because we are the microcosm of the universe an idea found in Neo-Platonism, Kabbalah, and Swedenborgianism.

If the practice of calling the quarters is transplanted to another tradition which does not have these assumptions, myths, and symbols, it will only be a shallow version of the practice, and will probably not even make sense in the context to which it has been transplanted. People who charge money for the practices of others, without respect for their situatedness in a particular culture, history, tradition, and totally failing to notice the power relations involved in the colonialism of the very recent past, and the continued assertion by the West of the superiority of capitalism, consumerism, and the rationalist enlightenment is a big ethical issue.

Spiritual traditions are not and cannot be divorced from context, and they are not automatically the property of all humanity. We need to approach other traditions with mindfulness and respect, and not assuming that everything is ours for the taking. Spiritual traditions are rich with meaning, both mythological and historical, and taking a practice or a ritual out of the context within which it was created strips it of the rich associations that it had in its original context.

If you take practices out of context, you are very likely to end up doing them superficially. Respectful engagement with other traditions requires a reasonably in-depth engagement with them, and a certain amount of immersion, not just a brief encounter. As a minor example, even copy-cat behaviour towards an individual can be problematic. A few years back, I had very specific labels in the religion and politics boxes on my Facebook profile, which I had arrived at through considerable soul-searching, angst, and upheaval, both social and personal. I was also recognised by other members of the groups I belonged to as a member of those groups.

He was not even a member of either of the religious traditions concerned. I was furious. And there was not even a history of colonial oppression in the history between him and me. Now imagine how people from other cultures feel when that happens with their identities and culture. However, say you have encountered a practice that really speaks to you, or that will significantly improve your health, and you want to borrow it respectfully. What should you do? Is it enough to ask someone who might be considered an authority in the tradition you want to borrow it from?

The problem here is that there are many different people within a given tradition, and they do not all speak with one voice. So, what should be the criteria for whether or not a person can be considered the keeper of a tradition? Is it strength of belief? Is that they are a priest or recognised holy person?

Many people would argue that the laity should have just as much say in the matter as the priesthood. However, the construction of an argument around strength of belief as a possible criterion for being the keeper of a tradition, or the idea of a holy person as no more worthy than a secular person, is all grounded in a particularly Western and rationalist and Protestant view of how religion works. My argument has nothing to do with strength of belief, keepers of tradition, or any inherent ownership of ideas: it is about the historical and cultural context in which something arose, and in the case of Native American spirituality in particular the colonialist appropriation of ideas, artefacts, rituals, and the commodification of them.

Cultures whose spiritual traditions have been appropriated are complaining about the commodification of their ideas, and the way they have been packaged and sold and marketed by fake gurus and shamans in the West. A priest or shaman has been trained in the technique and the safeguards that go with it.

Many popularisers of various meditation techniques forget to tell you the safeguards. The shaman or priest is steeped in the culture and the context and the meaning of the practice. A populariser whether a lay person from the same culture, or someone from another culture is not necessarily aware of the context, meaning, safeguards, etc. Because without the safeguards and correct techniques, and an understanding of the context, some practices are dangerous. The people doing the commodifying are the appropriaters, who often want to make a fast buck out of repackaging the practice for a Western audience, usually stripped of its sacred context and meaning.

All of this does not mean that you can never borrow a practice or a ritual from another culture — but it does mean that shallow engagement with it is not enough. You need to examine whether the practice fits within your own tradition, by looking at the religious, spiritual, and cultural assumptions which have gone into its construction. There have been many fruitful and successful moments of syncretisation of different traditions , and some failed ones. The most successful ones seem to be when the two traditions met as equals, and engaged in genuine dialogue and exchange as when Buddhism met Taoism and created Zen Buddhism, or when Buddhism met Shinto and created Ryobu Shinto.

When an imperial and colonising tradition moved in, the indigenous religion was often either crushed like when Christianity met ancient paganisms or subsumed like when Buddhism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity met indigenous religions. Anyone studying the history of encounters between religions and cultures can easily see that cultures are not monolithic, intact, or impermeable. Often, the response is only an uncomfortable silence.

Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopagan Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation is an attempt to shatter that stillness and to promote constructive communication about the issues surrounding cultural appropriation in neopaganism. The nineteen essays approach such practices and faiths as Celtic reconstructionism, neoshamanism, and ritual magic; and explore and critique topics ranging from academic appropriation of pagan and occult practices, to intra-community intimidation, and potential solutions to the problem of appropriation.

This powerful, diverse set of voices is poised to break open a new dialogue, one that must occur if our spiritual communities are to balance individual needs with concerned criticisms. The table of contents is as follows:. Phillip Bernhardt-House.