Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cultural Appropriation or, "Not This $#!+ again... "

It all started on Facebook, when I posted a link to this photo from F.A.I.R. Media (For Accurate Indigenous Representation).   F.A.I.R. takes issue - and rightly so - with non-indigenous people dressing up as "Indians."

As is often the case when these issues come up, a fair amount of commentary ensued.  Thankfully, none of my Facebook friends rose to the defense of those who wanted to dress up like cigar store Injuns.  Nobody felt that it's OK to name your team the "Washington Redskins" or "Atlanta Braves" even though it wouldn't be all right to call them the "San Francisco Chinks," "Texas Wetbacks" or "New York Christkillers."  But then that old, old issue raised its head -- cultural appropriation, or, more precisely, what is or is not cultural appropriation.  Ben Gruagach chimed in with these observations:
This discussion makes me uneasy because it leads to the question of when is it appropriate or inappropriate to borrow from outside one's genetic heritage? And what about the vast majority of us who are a mix of cultural backgrounds?
Eli -- I understand the feelings and statements about misappropriation but have to wonder where the line is drawn? It could be argued that Voudou misappropriates, converts, perverts, twists, changes, mutates and otherwise subverts Catholicism. And Wicca misappropriates all sorts of stuff, mixing it up and presenting it in ways foreign to the origins of the things borrowed. And Christianity twists and changes not only Judaism but all sorts of pre-existing Pagan ideas, practices, etc. Is all religion wrong then?
Ben's questions raised several important points.  At what point does the mixing and matching of imagery, practices, and beliefs cross the line between eclecticism and cultural appropriation? And who gets to make that call?  We all appear to agree that dressing up as Tonto or Tiger Lily for Halloween is in poor taste.  Once we go beyond that we find ourselves in some very muddy waters.

Matt Deos responded with:
Ben, just so you know you've set up a straw man.... appropriation is something *other* than going through the traditions the way they're made to be worked; stealing is different than earning it (which is the very point many try to hammer home all the time)
While I understand where Matt is coming from, I'm not entirely sure the issue can be dismissed that easily.  A few points which may be grounds for further thought:

There are many devout Haitian and Cuban Catholics who are utterly horrified to see saint and madonna statues used for sorcery and idol worship.  Should we take their opinions into consideration when we are making offerings to Ogou Sen Jak (otherwise known as St. James the Greater, or St. Jacques Majeur) or placing a statute of Our Lady of Fatima on our Obatala shrine? Or it it only cultural appropriation when those offended are of a suitably low cultural and social caste -- in other words, when they are brown enough and poor enough to deserve our sympathy and when their religion is exotic enough to deserve preservation?

There are many "plastic shamans" who are not Native American: there are also a fair number who have at least some Indigenous ancestry and who have figured out that they can make a living selling "Indian ceremonies" to gullible non-Natives.  (Given the rates of poverty and unemployment among Native Americans, who can blame them?)  And there is not always consensus within a community as to what should and should not be shared with outsiders.  There are certainly Haitians who will not initiate non-Haitians into Vodou. Do their opinions matter, or should we only listen to those Haitians who are willing to teach us their secrets?

What constitutes "going through the traditions the way they're meant to be worked?" Who gets to decide what is or is not "the way they're meant to be worked?"Ask a random sampling of Haitian Houngans and Mambos whether or not initiations can be performed outside Haiti.  You will find some who will tell you that no initiation can be performed; you'll find others who will tell you that initiations up to Si Pwen level can be done; still others will tell you that you can make Asogwe in the United States if the proper preparations are made. There's no small amount of controversy about these issues. (And because Vodou is a money-making endeavor, there's also no small amount of "Listen... she says you can only do initiations in Haiti but that's because her cousin is a travel agent who sells you the plane tickets" or "he says you can do initiations here, but you should go to Haiti with me instead..."

And what about practices like New Orleans Voodoo? The Crescent City's spiritual practices have long mixed, matched, blended, and stir-fried traditions from all over the place: many of the "roots" of New Orleans Voodoo go no deeper than the mid-20th century with most dating back to the swinging 70s and Charles "Voodoo Charlie" Gandolfo.  Orisha and lwa are served alongside Catholic saints, Pagan gods and spoon dolls imported from China. And yet despite all that New Orleans Voodoo has become, for many people, a vital and enduring spiritual tradition.  These people may not have been "properly initiated" into the mysteries of Haitian Vodou - yet the lwa seem perfectly happy to answer their petitions.

I don't see any easy answers to these conundrums. But I think it's important that we keep asking ourselves these questions, even if we don't always come to the same conclusions.  I have no doubts about Matt's sincerity, nor do I question the bona fides of Mambo Maude Evans, his initiatory mother. If we disagree here, we do so as fellow Vodouisants, not sworn enemies. (I'll grant you that if you peruse a few Vodou forums it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference... ).