Educate Yourself

March 8, 2014 at 12:04 am 4 comments

For the record: You have my full permission (not that you need it) to use any part of the watered down Anglo-Germanic, Midwestern, mainline Protestant middle-class liberal white sector of American culture that I was raised in.  If you re-write the English nursery rhymes I learned as a child, or commercialize German fairy tales, feel free. By doing those things, you’re not mis-representing or distorting a culture that has been historically demeaned or romanticized in a condescending way. Does this make sense now?

I’m seeing more people on various fora, blogs etc. asking “Is it OK for me to explore cultural/spiritual tradition X? Will people from that culture be offended if I do?”

I think the fact that more people are asking that is a sign of progress. Pagans and New Agers frequently treat cultures and religions like an international buffet- a little curry here, some tacos, some kim chi. But some of us are starting to realize that the haphazard spiritual combo meals we’re creating are giving us indigestion and aren’t nutritionally balanced. That, and our neighbors don’t appreciate our table manners. You don’t sample things while you’re in the buffet line. And you take a new plate when you go back for seconds. And at some buffets, there are no second helpings.

I can’t speak for another culture. But you might not get the chance to meet say, a Navajo if you live in Maine. What I can do is give some general guidelines, based on my experiences engaging with other cultures and religions.

*Research the culture in general, not just about the religious/spiritual/magical aspects. Even if that is what you are focused on, you will better understand the spiritual components if you have a wholistic view of the culture.

*Don’t assume just because someone has particular ancestry, that necessarily means they identify with that culture, or are included by that community. Don’t assume that just because you have particular ancestry, a related ethnic community will welcome you without question.

*Attend public events  Student groups at colleges and universities are often a good place to start- I’ve attended Kwanzaa, Yalda (Persian winter solstice) and pow-wows at various schools in my area. Find out what etiquette is expected and observe it. Dress appropriately. Do not wear ethnic/ceremonial regalia unless invited to do so. Show up on time. Yes, different cultures have different concepts of time, but it is not your place to determine that. Give a financial contribution (even a small one) or support vendors if possible. Help out (with clean-up etc) if asked or volunteer if it seems appropriate.

*You have two ears and one mouth- listen twice as much as you talk. Regard any information folks of a given culture tell you as a gift, and treat it accordingly.

*If an originally polytheistic/animistic/shamanistic culture has many people that have adopted another religion (such as Christianity/Islam/Buddhism)- or syncretized older practices and beliefs with it, respect that. It may be a bad idea to wear a pentacle or loudly proclaim your Pagan-ness. Observe and use your judgment.

*The culture may have particular ideas of gender roles and sexuality that you disagree with. Please remember the women (and sexual/gender minorities) of that culture are quite capable of speaking for themselves and support them. Do not get involved in internal conflicts. Respect cultural sovereignty.

*Try learning the language of the culture/religion- at least a little. If you’re studying from written sources or formal classes, you’ll likely be learning a more academic, artificially standardized form, so keep that in mind when interacting with native speakers. Don’t correct their grammar.

*How much and how deeply you can get involved in an indigenous religion or culture is up to the members to decide. You are not entitled to inclusion.

*Learn about your own cultural background and history, and how members of your cultural group interacted with this culture. Keep those things in mind.

Links for further reading- some are more spiritually related, others are more about appropriation in geeky subcultures or mainstream culture

Gypsy Appropriations

Native Appropriations

On Reverse Cultural Appropriation (inspiration for my opening paragraph)

More to be added…please contribute if you have any suggestions








Entry filed under: Ethics. Tags: , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. James Bulls  |  March 8, 2014 at 8:29 am

    My experience learning about other cultures’ religions and spiritualities has mostly been with the Natives I’ve met in northern Ontario and what I’ve read about appropriation of Native culture in North America. Generally speaking, I refuse to have anything to do with Native religion and spirituality because I know that Native people don’t want me to have anything to do with it.

    And that’s fine with me because the other thing I’ve learned is that many religions are intricately tied to the geography, language, and culture from which they originated. Geography can be crossed, but is challenged by bioregionalism. Language can be crossed, but suffers from fetishization and either misinterpretation or not being translated at all and creating something entirely different. And culture is a border that I don’t know should be crossed.

    Or at least, I can’t explain when it should be crossed. I know Natives don’t want non-Natives to use their “stuff” because it follows on a history of non-Natives destroying or stealing pretty much everything they have. But other cultures? I dunno. I know that Hindu practices are really popular in Paganism these days, but it’s a blurred line because Hindu organizations have been heavily engaged in interfaith bridge-building with Pagans in North America.

    I think the cultural line for honest use versus appropriation is made by knowledge of and respect for the source of the religion or spirituality in question. When folks just go and cut Deity A from Religion B and paste it into Spirituality C for use in Ritual D without any consideration for the actual rituals and practices of said deity, that’s pretty awful. But when they understand the history of said deity and how it relates to cultural practices and extant rituals, then I think it can be appropriate for the practitioner to work with said deity in different rituals but the same context.

    But take that with a grain of salt – when it comes to gods, I don’t believe in any of them at all.

  • 2. caelesti  |  March 8, 2014 at 9:53 am

    “many religions are intricately tied to the geography, language, and culture from which they originated” Very true. This is why following European traditions in North America (in my case) can be tricky. But it is also a good reason to try to learn about local Native traditions and their experiences with the land. Non-natives must tread cautiously, but it can be done. My uncle has a great friendship with many Crow Indians and has even been trained by them as a sweat lodge leader. This is a huge honor, and quite rare for a non-Indian to participate that deeply- but he has spent many years living among them on the reservation, listening to them and gaining their trust.

    “I think the cultural line for honest use versus appropriation is made by knowledge of and respect for the source of the religion or spirituality in question.” I agree with you there. A lot of the problems with appropriation stem from the “Noble Savage” or Orientalist attitude toward the culture, not just what is being done. A lot of people don’t even realize they have these attitudes, but when they get all their info from New Age/Pagan books and websites they absorb them unconsciously.

    Re: Hindus- I posted a link in another post with suggestions to (western) Pagans on exploring Hinduism written by a Hindu.

  • 3. Pagan Blog Project Archive Post | The Lefthander's Path  |  January 4, 2015 at 10:20 am

    […] – Educate Yourself March […]

  • […] Educate Yourself!  Attempt at figuring out some guidelines for approaching other cultures respectfully […]


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