Alright, everyone, here is the big post that I’ve been saying I’m going to do. It’s a lot of questioning, so if you have any answers, please let me know.
It’s no secret that cultural appropriation has been a hot topic in the last several years. Things that flew under the radar for a very long time, such as dressing up as a Native American for Halloween, white people wearing dreadlocks, people getting tattoos that they don’t fully understand, Americans claiming to have achieved Eastern spiritualism when really they just do yoga a couple times a week…these are all being shoved out into the limelight as cultural insensitivity and appropriation. I, as a white, middle-class, Midwestern, European-descended American, probably could never understand the full meaning behind the phrase “Namaste,” let alone take on the heavy history of southern gospel music, or a Native American pow-wow, or…you know, basically anything except when I was born and raised with: a Midwest American lifestyle with a nod to my Norwegian heritage thrown in at Christmas in the form of lutefisk and lefse.
Now, just because we’re born in one position doesn’t mean we can’t see something better or even equally interesting and want to learn about that or strive for it. I don’t have any heritage from the country that I’m in right now, but I was interested in it, and I studied it, and I came here to teach English. I met little resistance on the ethics front because I’m white and this country is mostly white, so nobody was questioning if I was taking on the “white man’s burden” of going to Africa or India or something and teaching English. (I personally don’t find anything wrong in going to Africa and volunteering or teaching English, but I recognize the tones of colonialism behind it and why it can be such a controversial thing.) Anyway, I’ve been immersed in this culture for over half a year now, and I’d studied it long before I came, so if I go home and cook the food from this country and speak the language of this country and teach my children the traditions of this country, I won’t really feel like it’s cultural appropriation, because I like to think I understand it pretty well.
Also, one has to consider that in America, we are like a melting pot (though I prefer the term “tossed salad”–many different parts that offer their own unique flavor and bring something different to the table but work very well all together), and therefore every American is introduced to a whole slew of cultures. I’m guessing that if you account for the whole United States, you could probably find first-generation immigrants from basically every country in the world. So, of course, even if my heritage is Scandinavian, I can be introduced to–and even fall in love with–another culture. Take Mexican culture, for example. Near where I live, there are a lot of Mexican immigrants. It’s not hard to find Mexican shops or restaurants in my area. I even volunteered for a few weeks in a school where the student body was nearly 70% Latino. I studied Spanish in high school and have used it on more than one occasion to order food, to help limited-English customers at the store where I worked, or to help Latino students at various schools. I used it in Mexico when my family and I went there for vacation. Mexican culture is something that I find very interesting and I consider myself to know at least a bit about. I was, after all, one of the officers of the Spanish Club at my school and I did win some awards at Festival Quijote (a traveling one-day event for high schools celebrating Spanish and Mexican culture). That being said, I would never consider myself to have a full understanding of what Mexicans have gone through. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to celebrate their holidays in the same way that I like celebrating the holidays of the country I’m in now. Does it have something to do with race, with perceived differences in us based on the color of our skin? Maybe. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t spent more than seven days in Mexico, and that was all at a resort in Cancun drinking pina coladas. But I know a woman, a white, probably Scandinavian-descended woman who lives in my region, who loves Mexican culture so much that she takes a group of women there every year for a retreat, she decorated her house with a lot of Mexican-inspired elements, she changed her name to sound more Latina (her name ended with a consonant and she added an “a” to the end), and she even adopted Mexican children (no, I’m not kidding). As much as I’m inspired by and admire this woman for a ton of reasons (she’s a lifelong vegetarian, a local-business supporter, a fitness instructor at age 65, and she grows an urban garden), I can’t help but feel like her adopting Mexican culture (and Mexican children) seems a little out-of-place. Maybe even inappropriate. After all, cultural appropriation is a symptom of privilege. Many Mexican immigrants have to come here, learn English, and “act white” just to survive, but this woman can take on Mexican culture as a kind of intense hobby or lifestyle choice.
I think that, by now, many of you can probably understand where I’m going with this. As I’ve said a few times, my heritage is half-Scandinavian, and I celebrate that with my family. (The other half is mainland European but we don’t celebrate it as much.) For most of my life, I was pretty content on living with the traditions that my family had always had, including going to Catholic church, celebrating Christian holidays, and being a pretty patriotic American. Then I started branching into studying the culture and language of the country I’m in now, as a matter of interest (and I’ve been doing that for the last five years).
But you all know that I’m on a journey, and this path, at least the one I’m trying to walk on, seems to simultaneously come from a pretty specific tradition and sort of borrow from a ton of different traditions all at once.
Most Witches that I know do at least something with the Wheel of the Year, which includes these old Celtic holidays of Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lammas/Lughnasadh, and Mabon. They maybe draw inspiration from the gods and goddesses of several traditions, including ancient Greek, Roman, Celtic, Norse, Slavic, Germanic, and others. It’s a pretty open path, so you can kind of choose anything you want and roll with it. It’s a beautiful thing, for the most part.
But here I am, kind of preparing myself for Beltane, scrolling through Pinterest and finding cool ideas, reading about the origins of this holiday, and realizing something pretty important. This is not my heritage. As absolutely fascinating as the Pagan history of the British Isles is, I’m not British, I’m not Irish. I’m drawn to this tradition, and yet it feels like it must be far removed from me.
I know that you don’t have to have a heritage of Witchcraft to start on the path (at least, that seems to be the general consensus among a lot of practitioners although there is some contention). In fact, thinking that one must fit into a certain box in order to be a Witch is pretty damaging. But for the last few years of my life, I’ve been actively trying to educate myself on how to be a better human being, and part of that has been becoming conscious of things like cultural appropriation and sensitivity. How can I sit down one day and decide that I’m going to follow a calendar that I’ve never followed in my life? How can I wrap my mouth around these old words and act out these old traditions when I don’t have the context of them? Even if I studied them for years the way that I studied Spanish, can I just adopt them, as I see fit, as a luxury? After all, the same privilege is at work here–Pagans have been killed throughout the ages for not assimilating to Christianity, but here I am with the privilege to say, “Well, now I’m Pagan (or Neo-Pagan)!” Doesn’t it have the same bad taste as if somebody decided they were going to align themselves with Native American traditions and spirituality when they haven’t been invited and haven’t had to experience the pain of the past? Or (and this is the question I’m asking)…maybe it really is okay?
And as much as I know that there are Witches out there who fight against this notion, I must ask myself a question–even in the midst of the Reclaiming tradition, should I, someone whose family has been Christian as far back as I can fathom, really seek to consider myself a Witch?
Should I forget being politically correct for a moment and just do what I want, as long as I harm none?
These are all questions with which I have been grappling.
I’m eager to receive any comments or ideas from anyone. If you have an interesting thought on this, or if you have also questioned this, please leave a comment and I’ll answer you as quickly as I can.
Thank you for your help and support.