The conversation around cultural appropriation continues all around me. It isn't something that I want to just dismiss as irrelevant. I am confident in my choice to follow the culture that I feel at home with, but I also want to continue to refresh and renew my understanding and the understanding of the society around me about what the real implications of my choice are.
I was poking around on the Internet like I do and I found a discussion about Native American Shaminism. This discussion, actually, was less about the culture and practices themselves, and more about whether people who are not Native Americans could choose to incorporate aspects of it into their spiritual practice.
These discussions often come back to this idea of "white privilege." This is something that I know nothing about. I have never really studied sociology or anything like that. Sadly, not hearing about it doesn't make me not a part of it. Even though I don't feel any loyalty or connection to my literal ancestry or to my skin color, I am still automatically in a privileged position, according to what I've been reading.
I can't know what it is like to be not white. I have been in situations where I am the minority, but in most of my life, I am in the majority. If I do non-mainstream things, those are a choice. Because of my looks, I have the choice to fit in more than I do. People with other skin tones often face discrimination and prejudice and there is nothing they could do to change that (aside from educating the ignorant people who are discriminating against them, I guess).
What saddens me in this is that, as white people, we are expected to bear a lot of blame and guilt for the way our ancestors may have treated people (I have a hard time believing that my Irish ancestors were out there oppressing anyone!). I don't know if that is right or wrong.
I am going to paraphrase some of the points and ideas that were brought up in this discussion. There were some things that I haven't thought about before:
On Facebook, a group called Speaking of Faith posted a question: “What can we learn from Native American shamanism?” The poster on this forum said she was surprised by some of the reactions to that post, that went from "everything" to "leave it alone, it's not yours to experience."
She asked if involving oneself in another culture's spiritual practice is dishonoring or invading them in inappropriate ways.
Why, she asks, would it be bad to encourage people to experience cultures different from their own?
Here are the basic points that were brought up, on both sides of the issue:
-it's a fad
-we have a varied ethnic make up, why not draw from all of them?
-turning it into something it isn't
-white people expect to be able to do whatever they want and take whatever they want without consequence
-cherry picking religion (still plan to do a post on this based on Eat Pray Love)
-people whose ancestors tried to wipe our your religion are now practicing it
-white people erroneously seeing indigenous people as "pure"
-is it still the same religion if it is modified by people not totally understanding it practicing it or "making it their own"?
One person made the statement that it was up to the native members of that culture to choose whether or not to accept an outsider in their practices. I thought that was a grand idea, but impossible in practice. I pointed out that most religions do not have one central person who can declare who is in and who is out. This is what I wrote in response:
"One of the troubles with this is that there isn’t always one authority in a religion or culture. If you are welcomed by one spiritual community, but then someone else from another town sees you practicing her religion and is offended, what do you do? Do you say, 'Ask my priest (or whatever), I got permission from him'? Do you need to carry a signed statement around to say that someone culturally from this religion approved you?"
To which I have not had a response as of yet.
Whose approval is it that we need and why? I'm working now on the idea that I only need my own approval, but I don't want to be insensitive these issues, so I continue to learn about them.
Here are some paraphrased responses to the post on Shaminism:
This seems similar to Messianic Judaism, which combines Judaism and Christianity in a way that offends many Jews. They feel that their religion is being co-opted and turned into something it is not, combining the sacred with something they find profane.
In terms of Native American stuff, I have some Native American heritage as well as a lot of European. I wonder if we need to just be aware and careful when taking these things on. That's why I was reluctant to jump into Celtic paganism because I wanted to make sure it was my path and not just me following a fad. I didn't want my interest to fade and to move onto something else, but now that I'm following that path, I'm trying to be respectful and sit back and learn instead of acting like I'm an expert. And it's frustrating when you've been doing something and it suddenly becomes "cool."
I see a couple of things going on with Native American religious practices. First is the history. White people perpetrated cultural genocide against Native Americans and it must be hard to see your religious practices adopted by people who don't look at the realities of that history on a daily basis. There is also systemic racism in this country and it must be hard to see your practices adopted by people who seem unaware of the unearned privilege that their race gives them. People whose ancestors worked hard to eradicate your culture can now choose to practice it without any negative consequences.
Cafeteria spiritualism that takes just the convenient bits of practices around the world really bothers me.
Involving oneself in another culture's spiritual practice can be dishonoring or invading. There are churches that do not welcome everyone to communion. Non-Mormons are not allowed in certain parts of Mormon sanctuaries. I would not expect to be invited to a friend's celebrations of Passover. If it is not ok for me to walk into a Catholic monastery and explore, why should it be ok for me to go to other sacred places like a sweat lodge? Why do Westeners think they can barge right into practices that are "indigenous" and "close to the earth" without asking?
I see a lot of racial distinctions in what traditions are considered fair game to adapt. Partly this is because of the misguided idea of indigenous people as pure and unsullied by everything that is wrong with Western culture. The avoids the nuances and subtleties of a challenging situation and is naive.
The way people are talking about it, no one outside the culture has a right to even study it, let alone take it on. If there is a non-indigenous person who really is seeking to learn about it and is respectful, why would that not be allowed?
Certainly barding into someone's sacred space and expecting a welcome is a problem and the people who operate that space have the right to decide who is allowed, what if the people are setting up their own versions of something sacred from that culture in their own space? Like if a UU church is teaching kids about dream catchers. Is it inappropriate appropraition from the children to make dream catchers at their church?
A comment on the cafeteria spirituality. This idea that picking and choosing from different traditions is wrong is a Western prejudice and not shared by all cultures. For example, in Japan rituals from Shinto, Christian, and Buddhist traditions are often used throughout a person's life. There's nothing wrong with that unless you adhere to the Western dualism that says you ahve to be this or that, not something in between. We in the West can be very rigid in our thinking, particularly when it comes to spirituality.
Some people say that you should worship in the religion that is most predominate in your own culture because you are born into that culture to learn something specific within that framework. To go outside of the culture you're born into is disrespectful to the gods. I thought it was an interesting concept, though I don't agree with it.
I was on vacation recently and was looking at Native American jewelry. I avoid purchasing jewelry that has symbolic Native American designs just like I avoid wearing African styles of clothes, even though I think the fabrics are really beautiful. It feels as if I am taking something that isn't mine. I asked the woman I was buying jewelry from about this and she looked at me like she had never thought of it like that. I am protective of symbols. If a non-Jew put up a mezzuzah [a container for a sacred scroll that Jews attach to the sides of their front doors], I woudl feel infringed on, like if you are not willing to take on the commitment, why are you taking the symbol. I feel that way also about people I know are not Christian who wear crosses because they are in style.
It's true about the messianic Judaism. I looked at their source texts against the original Hebrew and not one verse means what they say it means. At some point you have to say, this is not Judaism. Dressing like a Jew and sprinkling in some Hebrew is not the equivalent of being Jewish.
And lastly, an interesting article written by a young woman who is both Black and Jewish (and born Jewish, not a convert) and her feelings of being not welcomed by Judaism: