It started when I listened to a podcast that made me deeply uncomfortable.
I felt that way because I realized I was being called out, even if ever-so-gently, in the comfort of my own home, by a sense of integrity and social justice that couldn’t abide my lack of consciousness.
The topic was cultural appropriation, and in the year since listening, I have begun to awaken to the ways I have ignorantly appropriated other cultures – and awaken to the impact that I have in doing so, as a white, privileged female entrepreneur, despite my good intentions.
A few things triggered me, lately, to want to finally write about it,
which, by the way, feels just as prickly and scary as it did a year ago.
The first was a visit I made to a local spirituality-focused trade fair.
I walked quickly through, and left, disconcerted. Though I profess I might have stayed longer to learn more about the initial assumptions I made, what I saw was a lot of cultural appropriation dressed up as new age spirituality. There were dream catchers and drums and feathers aplenty. And the purveyors and consumers of these goods appeared to be primarily white.
Then I saw this article, written in my local newspaper a couple of weeks ago, and it propelled me into a stock-taking.
But let me briefly explain cultural appropriation, first. Cultural appropriation is the use of the practices, beliefs systems, tools and other aspects of a culture that is not one’s own. At its worst, cultural appropriation is done by an individual with intersectional privileges (think race, education, wealth, gender, sexual identity) who has taken the practices of a historically and/or currently oppressed group, without permission, for their own profit. Think: white ladies selling dream catchers. At its (possibly) mildest, it’s the yoga class you went to last night.
Those of us on a path of personal growth are likely to have engaged in and/or perpetuated some form of cultural appropriation, because it seems as though the practices of other cultures have become more mainstream or more desirable in some way than our own.
In her book If Women Rose Rooted, which is a searching and introspective look at Celtic mythology in relation to modern spirituality, Sharon Blackie says,
“in our own Western societies we are seeing more calls for a return to native wisdom, but we cannot live by the world views of other cultures, which are rooted in lands and histories that have little relationship to our own.”
Cultural appropriation is rarely done with ill intention, but it is also important to realize that even our good intentions can have a negative impact. When we ignore the systemic oppression of others whilst cherrypicking our favourite parts of their cultural heritage and take them for our own, we do harm.
This is deeply challenging territory for me.
The name of my business is Hawaiian.
I am a yoga teacher.
I practice Reiki.
I have taught retreat-goers how to make dream catchers.
I have an om symbol tattooed on my ankle.
I smudge my house.
I have co-opted the word Goddess from goddess-revering cultures and used it to make my own entrepreneurial offerings more appealing.
I have, in the past, referred to the community of women surrounding my business as a tribe.
I have nourished new mothers with Mother Blessings and Closing of the Bones rituals.
I wear mala beads.
And so many other things.
What’s more complex is that I have adopted many of these practices into my own sense of self, such that they feel like an authentic expression of me, even though they are not of my culture. But they are not – and cannot actually be – authentic, for me.
There are no rules about how to untangle from the many tendrils of cultural appropriation that, if you’re anything like me, have made their way into your life.
Some say just this: Stop. Make Amends. And just. stop.
Some say: Admit your wrongdoing and change course. Get involved. Find an elder and learn more. Offer monetary compensation. Learn more about your own ancestry. Find self-compassion in the fact that we live in a global society and have unprecedented access to the wisdom of other cultures. Apologize. Keep it personal, but don’t make money from it. Ask permission.
I have stopped smudging as an opening ritual for my retreats and workshops. I still smudge my home, but with elements that are authentic to my own Celtic roots and/or grown in my backyard. I am designing a coverup tattoo for my om. I have completely stopped ever using the word “tribe” to describe the women that surround me. I teach weaving instead of dream catcher-making. I have, thanks to my mom’s love of ancestry.com, begun to explore the earth-based, seasonal nature of my ancestors’ beliefs systems, and I’ve realigned my own business offerings as a result. I’ve read every book I could get my hands on about Hawaiian mythology, and worked and spoken with kahunas, shamans and elders, offering my deep respect for the beautiful words I have chosen for my business and asking for permission to continue using the words.
My work is only just beginning. I’m often sad about the idea of disidentifying with the cultural practices I have made my own but were actually never mine to begin with. I think about changing the name of my business, and wonder about the harm I may be doing keeping it the way it is. I love my malas, but dammit if I really only wear them as necklaces and rarely actually meditate with them.
I don’t have much to offer in the way of a solution, but writing this feels like another part of the untangling work I have to do. If this is hitting close to the bone for you, know that it did, and still does, for me too. I’m still getting it all wrong. A great many of us are. So I want to gently offer up some awareness, and an opportunity for us all to begin to choose differently.