Friday, October 28, 2011

More on Cultural Appropriation: Responding to Matt Deos

In response to my earlier post, Matt Deos commented:
The thing is I dont think there's a specifically sharp line so much as a shift of area; (and its funny, I had this very conversation last night with a student asking about Hoodoo and when is it no longer considered Hoodoo)
I think as people add more and more to their practices there is certainly a potential for greater strength and technique that will work well for the person performing it (no prob there; we know from Hoodoo, just for example, that there's a fine history of if it works, do it, and if it doesnt, chuck it). After a while, though, what happens when the person's practice is no longer even resembling the initial techniques they were taught, if it happens that all of their additions work better for them?
Can it still be called Hoodoo when it no longer contains hoodoo? And is the person "wrong" to still use the name?
What you then have is a new spiritual practice -- and the question of "what then should you call it?" is an open and long-standing one.  Do Ahmidayya Muslims have the right to call themselves Islamic? Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints a Christian organization?  Perhaps the best answer to this would be "depends on whom you ask."

As far as "can it still be called Hoodoo," let's explore this argument from a different angle:

Betsy Conjurewoman (formerly Moonshadow Starlight) wants to call her practice Hoodoo despite jettisoning all the biblical magic for goddess chants, replacing the saints with European "godforms" and using the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram instead of praying the Psalms.  Her shop which sells "Hoodoo candles" of the Great Goddess and Horned God and refuses to do any work which would violate  the "an it harm none" rule.

Obviously her practices diverge significantly from what is commonly recognized as Hoodoo - so far, in fact, that most would say she isn't doing Hoodoo at all. So let's say that she decides to make her shop more "authentic." At what point would her practices qualify as Hoodoo? How much would she have to take from Hyatt, Gamache, and Yronwode before we could say "yep, that looks like Hoodoo?" And when would the "authenticity" of her practices outweigh the issue that Hoodoo was traditionally practiced by and for a largely poor and African-American clientele, not by and for middle-class college-educated white Pagans?
I thought Eli's responses fleshed out my own idea behind mine rather well; my original point was that Ben's questions all led to a single yes or no question that, to answer, would have been to either flat out declare *all* religion wrong, or to support fully the idea that anything can be added anywhere... the way he phrased it didnt leave room for the grayscale between the two poles of his final question.
I might take a postmodern approach: Ben was pointing out the inherent contradictions within the idea. More precisely, he was pointing out that one person's "cultural appropriation" is another person's "eclecticism." From there we could (OK, I could) note that "cultural appropriation" has not infrequently been used as a club with which one privileged white practitioner bashed another competing white practitioner.  Almost invariably it has been defined as "that which we do not do" - in other words, it is more often a label applied to demonize others than a tool by which one may weigh and measure their own actions.

Given that, I think it is worthwhile to clarify the meaning of the phrase and to note its misuses and misapplications.  It's pretty clear that we will never come up with a solid, universally recognized definition of "cultural appropriation." But that doesn't mean it is not a useful concept which can serve as a guideline for what is and is not an acceptable approach to someone else's religion.
Personally, I stand by traditions that, when they have a barrier such as cultural background or initiatory veils, feel that THEY have the rights to call the shots as far as use of their name is concerned.... eg I support a Gardnerian or Alexandrian who may express uneasiness about ecclectic pagans coopting the word 'Wicca', which those traditions feel entitled to as they not only created the word but also the legacy of secrets and requirements for access that the word rightfully implies... same for us as Vodouisants and the titles of our priesthoods (and why I praise Priestess Miriam for being *Priestess* and not *Manbo*.)
I agree with you, with the same caveat I mentioned earlier: there is often disagreement within the tradition itself as to what should or should not be shared.

For the sake of this discussion, let us assume that most Native Americans want to keep their tribal ceremonies within the tribe; some will happily sell "pipe ceremonies" and "vision quests" to outsiders, while a few others honestly believe that their tribal wisdom should be shared with sincere non-natives.  Should a non-native who feels called to "walk the red road" honor the will of the majority? Or should sie seek out a Native teacher? And how are we to distinguish between a seeker who has been accepted by an honest elder and one who has purchased a fake ceremony from a huckster?
Who knows? Our two personal feelings aside about the idea of where Kanzo can be performed, we are still in a tradition that across the board agrees that certain things are never done, like presenting Damballah or Freda with black candles or black (not skin color) based imagery; Ive personally seen for sale in a friends store a rattle made from a dog's skull, black leather, and black paint that had Freda's veve painted on it accompanied by a card "explaining" how to use it in her service... and you can bet I had a heart attack; we both know there's so much wrong to that that there's simply no way it contains a shred of authenticity or respectful sincerity. A line was crossed, but I fear that line is always going to be variable based on circumstance and opinion... even if the other side of it is clear in its effects.
The problem here isn't cultural appropriation so much as self-preservation.  Simply put, the spirits can wreak havoc in the lives of those who offended them, even unwittingly.  And while I love Maitresse Freda, she is one of the easiest lwa to offend and the hardest to propitiate once you're on her bad side. This isn't so much an issue for those who don't actually believe in the tradition or who just want to affect the trappings of a suitably exotic culture - at least not until they learn that belief or disbelief has little effect on the various misfortunes which can come crashing down on your head.

Those who want to mix and match from other cultures would do well to assume that the elders of said culture are telling the truth when they describe various taboos and the dangers associated with breaking them.  Ignoring them may not just be imperialist, arrogant and colonialist behavior - it could be hazardous to your health.