Cultural Appropriation and Foamcore

Altarpiece progress

Originally uploaded by anselm23

I’ve been thinking about cultural appropriation lately. I’ve had a huge number of things about cultural appropriation and one of its darker descendants, the Plastic Shaman, appear in my world in the last few weeks, and it’s on my mind, both as a teacher, and a magician.

Some examples: At a birthday party last night, I overheard someone jokingly say, “we’re white. We don’t have any culture of our own.” A website for Natives to discuss, research, and expose fraudulent shamans who steal Native custom came to my attention. There’ve been a number of things on Tumblr, too, which have caught my eye along these lines — this post on Unverified Personal Gnosis, for example, or this lengthy post about not being able to see racism when you’re white. There’s also this bit about what it means to be fluffy, and whether or not it matters, which got me thinking. Today, I learned about an article which I’m going to have to search for, called “The Red God: Woodcraft and the origins of Wicca,” which it turns out may point out the close connections of early Wicca with the founders of the Boy Scouts of America.

As a white American male of old New England stock and later British immigrants, I’m practically the poster child for those who engage in the theft of the practices of other cultures. That guy out in Arizona who killed those folks in a sweat lodge? Carlos Castaneda? Those guys who helped invent the Maya 2012 thing?

So, yeah, cultural appropriation and plastic shamanism. It’s on my mind.

Look, I’ve done things and seen things that I think are part and parcel of cultural appropriation. I received the Munay-Ki rites (fortunately I didn’t pay for them). I’ve participated in a Lakota-style sweat lodge that wasn’t led by a Lakota person… and while I’ve no reason to doubt the lodge-pourer’s training, I don’t have any reason to believe it, either. I’ve walked on fire, and learned to spin poi. I’ve been attuned to Reiki (although increasingly I wonder if it’s bumped up my healing capabilities or not… certainly not as much as daily tai chi). I learned tai chi, but I continue to practice on my own away from my teacher (although I’ve not taught anyone else in a good long while). I’ve learned traditional community dances from Ghana and other parts of West Africa, from ethnologists and anthropologists. I’ve seen the film What the Bleep Do We Know? And I’ve been persuaded to see the film, The Secret, and read the attendant books. I’ve certainly read my share of pseudo-Native hokum — there’s quite a bit of it out there, hovering on the edges of the Neopagan movement, the New Age movement, and sometimes deeply embedded, as well.

Oh, yeah, and in school, in Latin, we’ve gotten to the two chapters in Ecce Romani! 1A that I hate the most, the ones about Geta running away, and getting branded on the forehead. It’s a reminder of the consequences of disobedience in a slave-holding society; but the long-term consequences on a free society of having been a formerly slave-holding society leave invisible brands on all sorts of people. All of this requires quite a bit of sorting out.

So what lines do I draw? Where do I draw the lines? Especially, where do I draw the lines given that I don’t carry lineage and I’m not the bearer of any tradition, excepting perhaps the Freemasons and a little bit of Episcopalianism? How do I incorporate Deb’s glamour work, particularly those elements informed by Hoodoo and Voodoo and Voudou (which are not all the same thing!) or the parts of Jason Miller’s work that are informed by Buddhism? How do I try to borrow and use the culture of Design Thinking without coming across as an imperialist or a cultural thief to other schools?

So, yeah, it’s on my mind.

Somewhere in the middle of this rumination, I built this “altarpiece”. It’s really nothing more than a five-sided box of foamcore (there’s no bottom), with a couple of curved panels to form the sides, and a curved central panel that divides the front and the back. The result is two shelves held together with straight pins and glue, and adorned with the various European symbols of the planets and other astrological figures. It’s hardly what one would call elegant. Nor, precisely, is it “mine”, for it draws upon the work of European and American antecedents both known and unknown. Is it cultural appropriation or colonialism? I think it isn’t: it works within an existing artistic-spiritual-occult tradition which, to some degree, I can lay claim to as an American of Protestant-British ancestors. It’s not adorned with Hindu or Buddhist symbols, and it’s not an example of stealing traditional art-forms from other cultures.

And yet. I’m mindful of Peregrin’s relatively recent discussions of how traditional British Wicca doesn’t quite work in Australia because the seasonal weather is rather different there. There’s a similar challenge in America, but it’s less obvious, and as a result the American occult movement hasn’t done the heavy lifting necessary to adapt to the North American landscape. As with Australia, I suspect, that heavy lifting is going to be closely tied to problems of cultural imperialism: there’s this temptation to work with North American Native concepts like smudging and sweat lodges. But those aren’t our traditions. What IS the tradition of the descendants of Europeans are things like a savior-god, and angels, and ritual baths, and clean clothes, and magic based on planetary movements and the stars, and a lot of awkward stuff like that…

…and it’s all especially awkward because our descendants came here with an attitude of rejecting all that back in 1610 and 1620 and 1640 AD, and saying we were going to rely on the Bible alone, and a doctrine of Calvinist salvation, and a very limited repertoire of mysteries: baptism and communion, both administered by a political-theocratic unified high command.

How awkward.

An object like the one in the photograph, had it been found in my house in 1662, might have gotten me hanged like a witch. Or, given that the governor then was apparently interested in Alchemy, and was a regular practitioner of the spagyric arts, it’s possible that it would have gotten me an invitation to dinner at the governor’s house.

And just a few short decades later, after the Enlightenment reached these American shores, it might have led to me being regarded as a deluded crank. (Which maybe it still does).

So when I hear statements like the one at the birthday party — “we’re white, we don’t have any culture,” — I think about how American ‘White’ culture arrived in this country in a state of flux, and how it experienced mental whiplash in its first few decades here, and then another form of social and political and economic upheaval ‘almost immediately’ afterward in terms of the American Revolution. All of this on top of the Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War.

The rubble hasn’t stopped bouncing yet.

A friend of mine has recently taken up the hobby of leatherworking. He’s built a number of things: a briefcase, a Steampunk mask based on the Venetian plague-doctor’s mask, some simple (and not-so-simple) wristbands, and so on. He, at least so far, is being culturally appropriate — drawing inspiration from European models Another friend is building papier-mâché masks, though, which are based on African models.

Gordon had a piece (which I can’t look up right now, but a link in a later update), about how we can all delve into another culture’s magic or culture about as deeply as an ordinary member of that culture can go, but no deeper without initiation. In First Aid terms, I can apply a bandage or close a wound as a good samaritan, but you wouldn’t want me treating your injuries in hospital or in an ambulance: there’s professionals for that. And likewise, I think about my work as a Designer: you are probably willing to pay me to teach your kids to be tinkerers and experimenters and to learn the basics of design; but you probably wouldn’t pay me to design your company’s next phone or build your next house or lead the team that launches your next $10 million satellite into orbit.

So, I think about all this, and I think about the difference between hobbyists and professionals, about cultural insiders and outside observers. And I’m not sure that I know what to think about it. I think that, sooner or later, my work is going to be informed by cultures that I’m not actually a member of. But I think that I have to put put some fairly rigid barriers in place against cultural appropriation in my life, personally and professionally and magically. I think those boundaries are largely already in place, actually. But it’s a thing to be guarded against, both now and in the future.

Via Flickr:
Yeah… So, it’s foamcore. I’m not sure I have the courage to burn candles on it or use it. But I at least have a sense of how to decorate it, now.


  1. I went to school with a girl who wore a pendant that was half-cross, half-star of David. She thought it was a really neat symbol of the religions of her two parents, while the nun who taught the class believed the blending of the two was blasphemous to both.

    While she could argue that because both were her culture, it was okay, in the eyes of someone else in that culture, it was not appropriate use. Obviously not all Catholics (or Jews) would be offended, but yes, some would be. That’s before you even touch what it would mean for someone of a different faith to do the same.

    I think it comes down to 1. Being respectful, 2. Knowing the rules. While a given Christian might consider someone not of their faith wearing a cross out of respect for Jesus the man a nice gesture, if that person is behaving in non-Christian manner, it wouldn’t be seen nearly as kindly.
    Christianity being a majority religion colors everything in my examples, of course. So much of appropriation is majority(/privilege) taking for themselves what the minority has left to call their own. I think, as you said, the rule of not going where you haven’t been invited can be very helpful.

    I was taught that the witches were the people who didn’t take sides [the implication was: between Good and Evil.] I think many pagan-types that don’t follow a particular tradition think that because they don’t have allegiance to a particular entity, they are absolved from playing by the rules. Opposite of truth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.