When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what it has found. — West Africa
Over the years I have written extensively about grief: cross-cultural grieving traditions, the lack of such rituals in American life, the consequences of our inability to grieve and the absolute necessity of restoring a relationship with, as Francis Weller says, an apprenticeship with grief. I have addressed this critical subject in previous blogs here, here and here.
For six years I’ve been leading grief rituals at men’s conferences, and for eighteen years my wife Maya and I have been leading similar events at the beginning of November, in what we call our annual Day of the Dead Ritual. So we were bewildered when a good friend challenged us: had we been engaging in “cultural appropriation” in referencing the Mexican holiday but not celebrating it precisely the way Mexicans do, and of course, by not being Mexican ourselves?
Fair enough. It’s an important question, and in the interest of getting as clear as possible about what we do and why, I discovered that there is a vast debate on this topic.
Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defines cultural appropriation as
Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission…(including the)…unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.
Cultural Appropriation occurs when members of a dominant culture use aesthetic forms or artifacts from other cultures – or worse, profit from them – but don’t show any respect for their deeper meaning. In its extreme, it is a form of racism that perpetuates the old message that Third-World cultures are free for the taking.
“By dressing up as a fake Indian”, one Native American told white students, “you are asserting your power over us, and continuing to oppress us.” It comes down to yet another aspect of (white or economic) privilege.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of cultural appropriation is an imbalance of power. When people from privileged cultures or backgrounds attempt to dictate what is and is not cultural appropriation, they are reinforcing the imbalance of power that has continued to steal the voice from people of color throughout history.
And it gets complicated. Tamara Winfrey Harris writes:
A Japanese teen wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a big American company is not the same as Madonna sporting a bindi as part of her latest reinvention. The difference is history and power. Colonization has made Western Anglo culture supreme – powerful and coveted. It is understood in its diversity and nuance as other cultures can only hope to be. Ignorance of culture that is a burden to Asians, African, and indigenous peoples, is unknown to most European descendants or at least lacks the same negative impact.
Very complicated. The African-American community itself struggles with these questions. Is it cultural appropriation for an American Black person to wear a dashiki? Some native Africans think so. Even contemporary, eclectic Neo-Paganism (a pretty good description of my views) is full of argument about what they may be appropriating, to which John Halstead answers, “We’re all appropriating dead pagan cultures.”
So it all comes down to permission, right? Well, it gets even more complicated. Kenan Malik asks, what does it mean for knowledge or an object to “belong” to a culture? Who gives permission for someone from another culture to use that knowledge and those objects? And what authority has given them permission to announce themselves as gatekeepers?
After all, to suggest that it is “authentic” for blacks to wear locks, or for Native Americans to wear a headdress, but not for whites to do so, is itself to stereotype those cultures…The history of culture is the history of cultural appropriation – of cultures borrowing, stealing, changing, transforming. Nor does preventing whites from wearing locks or practicing yoga challenge racism in any meaningful way. What the campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal is the disintegration of the meaning of “anti-racism”. Once it meant to struggle for equal treatment for all. Now it means defining the correct etiquette for a plural society. The campaign against cultural appropriation is about policing manners rather than transforming society.
Indeed, those who attempt to keep their own culture “pure” and free of any borrowed elements may well fall into a kind of cultural fascism, something that appears to be developing among certain kinds of right-wing, nationalist Paganisms in Eastern Europe, Russia and Britain.
In America religion, business and empire have been intertwined almost since the beginning. This situation created a longing for authentic spiritual traditions among a minority who were attracted to the first wave of Eastern teachers and a much larger population who rediscovered Native American religion in the 1960s. The New Age was born, and along with many authentic teachers and movements have come the usual crop of con-men, who see the possibilities in appropriation and take it to its logical extreme.
“Selling the Sacred: Get Your Master’s in Native American Shamanism?” – The Native American journal Indian Country, complains of
…what New Agers are doing in Indian country…they have made a popular culture of the sacred invisible, and are selling it to the highest bidder. A case in point is the Divine Blessings Academy, which objectifies and quantifies spirituality as a product for sale. Though an Internet outcry quickly forced the academy to take down its “Native American Shaman” program from its website, it had offered a four-year degree, a master’s program, and post graduate degree in Native American Shamanism.
A perusal of the course catalogue, which was obtained before it was deleted, shows that Divine Blessings Academy offers courses in: The Hopi Prophecy Stone, Smudging and Basic Tools, Finding Your Power Animal, A Form of Reiki Using Native American Principles, Creating and Using Feather Fans, Native American Mantras and Prayers, receiving a Magikal name, and dozens more. Graduation entitles the student to join the Native American Shamanism Society and to receive “a personalized full-color certificate, which will be mailed directly to the student’s home.” (Where else would they mail it?)…All of these courses are offered through downloadable PDF files.
Part Two of this essay is here.