Pagan Studies

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Cultural exchange vs cultural appropriation

Recently I attended a workshop run by R. J. Stewart and he related a story of a discussion he had with a Lakota Shaman. Something she said to him was that she didn't want white people trying to take the practices of her people and make them their own, but rather that she wanted them to find their own practices and then meet with people from other practices and share what each of them was doing. When I heard that story, it made me think that something which is really important for all of us is cultural exchange, where we appreciate what a given person (and his/her culture) brings to the table without feeling the need to steal from it. Instead that appreciation allows us to learn from the other person and reflect on our own practices in context to what we've learned. We engage in a cultural exchange, so that everyone can benefit from what is learned.

Cultural appropriation is the wholesale stealing of a given culture's practices. The reason people do it may be a result of feeling disconnected from the culture they are in or identifying spirituality as only residing in the cultural practices of the culture they are appropriating from. Regardless of what the reason is, such appropriation ultimately creates a mockery of the original practices, because while the person might steal away the practices, s/he can never truly know the culture. S/he is always interpreting the other culture through the lens of his/her own culture.

One of the grey areas in this kind of discussions involves the choice to study a given culture's practices. I likely fit into that gray area. I study Tibetan and Taoist meditation practices. I am not of the cultures where those practices originated and I don't try to be. I study those practices to learn from them and implement them in my life, without trying to identify with the culture. It's a grey area, because I'm not trying to appropriate the overall culture and pretend to be something I'm not, but I am learning and practicing from that culture's spiritual practices. However, I think that such learning can fit into cultural exchange if it is done respectfully and with an intention to respect the original culture without trying to become part of it.

I recognize with any such practices that I learn that I have at best a limited understanding of the cultural context that those practices occurred in. I recognize that I can never really know those practices in the way that someone from the culture does. So when I do such practices, I take a careful approach and focus on what the practice enables me to do moreso than how it fits into a given cultural context. I feel that by approaching a technique in this way it allows me to understand it as purely a technique. And working with a practice in this way provides me a distinct understanding of it that isn't rooted in culture, but instead is grounded in the practice of the technique. Some might consider what I'm doing cultural appropriation, but one thing I've recognized is that there are certain practices that may not have an equivalent type of practice in one's own culture. If you want to integrate those practices into your life, then you are faced with determining how to do that respectfully and I think the approach I take is one of way of doing so.

In terms of cultural exchange, I think such occurs when we can meet with people from other cultures and share what we are doing in a manner that is respectful to everyone involved in the exchange. There is no need to prove that one cultural practice is better than another, but rather a spirit of cooperation and collaboration is mediated by all involved and as a result what occurs is a sharing of resources for the betterment of all involved as well who and what they represent. Such cultural exchanges can occur anywhere at any time. For example, when you go to a cultural festival you are engaged in a cultural exchange. When you attend an interfaith meeting, you are involved in a cultural exchange. Ask yourself what you can bring, and most of all what you can do to show respect for the culture(s) and representatives you are interacting with. Go with an open mind and share what you know, but be receptive. The key is to be willing to learn while also recognizing that learning about a culture doesn't automatically make you part of that culture...it just helps you understand it and the people in it a bit better, which in and of itself can be a useful way to better understand and appreciate the world we live in.

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Taylor Ellwood is the author of Pop Culture Magick, Space/Time Magic, Magical Identity and a number of other occult books. He posts about his latest projects at Magical Experiments. He is also the managing non-fiction editor of Immanion Press. Taylor lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two kids, as well as 7 cats.

Comments

  • Carl Neal
    Carl Neal Wednesday, 09 October 2013

    Very interesting! I recorded a panel discussion last weekend (at the Oregon Coast Pan Pagan Gathering) that addressed this same issue. Llewellyn author Lupa was among the panelist, and she edited a book on this topic a few years back ("The Elephant" if I recall the title correctly). You can see excerpts from the panel in this month's episode of The Pent O'clock News, but an upcoming episode of Magick Moment will focus on this panel discussion and will include more detail. This is an important issue for all Pagans to consider and I really appreciate you writing about it.
    If you'd like to see the news story you can find the episode at this link:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwZ0Sa40PP0

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Wednesday, 09 October 2013

    Hi Carl,

    Thank you for commenting. I wrote an essay for that anthology. It's a good anthology, and some of the other ones that we've (i.e. Immanion Press) released since have also been along a similar vein. These kinds of issues need to be talked about, so that we can build a stronger community.

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Wednesday, 09 October 2013

    The story I tell about cultural appropriation is that I once approached a Native American practitioner and inquired about learning more about his tribe's traditions, and he gently suggested that I should focus on learning the traditions of my own people.

    A couple of months later he presided, as high priest, over the Wiccan handfasting ceremony of a couple I knew.

  • Jennifer Tindell
    Jennifer Tindell Thursday, 17 October 2013

    Thanks, this is very good.

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