Revisiting appropriation and authenticity

Muscogee war bonnet

I keep thinking about these topics, which tells me that I’ve probably missed something important. This post is me thinking aloud, as it were. I think part of the reason why discussions of appropriation in magic leave me cold (including my own, if I’m honest) is that it makes us talk about magic as if it were like putting on and taking off a feather headdress. I’m not saying we shouldn’t think about the issue and figure out what is and isn’t honorable and ethical. But when the conclusion ultimately comes down to “Just don’t be a jerk,” I feel like I shouldn’t really have to say that. I’m pretty sure you already know, so if you are being a jerk, it’s probably because you sincerely made a mistake, or you don’t mind being a jerk. In which case, you know what to do. Good talk.

But magic isn’t just a hat. Indeed, the very fact that we can discuss it that way could be a disturbing sign of what Io calls “the market sweeping into the sacred.” While we don’t consciously regard it so, unconsciously, we speak about magical practices as if they were commodities. We talk often about whether this or that method gets results, and that’s an important rubric, but we don’t talk as much about dangers. I mean sure, we all know magic is dangerous, but it’s much rarer to find someone who will talk specifics. I’m arguably guilty of that too, since this isn’t a post about specific dangers of magic, but then I’m new to this path so I wouldn’t really know what I was talking about. No, my point here is that when it comes to magical tech, before we think about whether we are being offensive or even full-on racist assholes, we have to think about efficacy, the wishes and needs of Other parties involved, and safety.

This all dovetails into my argument that the vitality of a given magical tech or tradition might be more important than authenticity per se. To give a personal example, I don’t know much about African Diasporic religions or magic. I know more than the Hollywood version, but I’ve never lived in a part of the world where those traditions flourished, so I’ve had virtually no direct exposure. Also, I have no African ancestry myself (well, not within the last 25,000 years anyway), so there’s no family lore about it. So ATR traditions could not be more culturally foreign to me, and since I don’t feel motivated to go to a place with deep ATR roots and learn from the masters, I feel it would be a little approriatey of me to try and use their methods. But I do find these traditions interesting and appealing because they strike me as very vital indeed. It’s precisely because of this vitality that I am convinced that if I do become seriously interested in ATR, I should probably seek proper instruction. It is clear to me that there is a current there which couldn’t be captured in books, as well as fraught political relationships between me as a white American and peoples of African diasporic descent. Moreover, if I as a dilettante were to go around encouraging spirits to possess me, I might get some decidedly undesirable results. Josephine McCarthy’s advice (in a comment here) is sound: “Learn how to put yourself back together before you attempt to blow yourself up.”

Then too we have to consider the wishes of those on the Other side. I  am not going to turn away Hathor, Oshun, or Xi Wangmu just because we don’t happen to come from the same place. And I don’t assume that Nodens or Llyr want to work with me just because we may share some spiritual DNA. If some spirit is in need of aid and there’s no extant tradition (gods, can we have another word for this? I feel like I’m beating this one to death but I can’t find a good synonym) that deals with the issue, then I’ll have to seek elsewhere. And I will.

If our only worry with regard to the magic of other cultures is appropriation, then not only do we trivialize the magic and the entities involved, but we also hamper ourselves in ridiculous ways. If, say, becoming a houngan is off-limits to me because I’m not of African descent, then goetia and theurgy should also be off-limits because I’m not of Greek or Egyptian descent. There are lots of us in this world whose ancestors’ traditions were lost through colonization; are we just supposed to (once again) take our lumps and accept the diktat of cultural essentialism and imperialism? Hell no. I just have to quote again from Disrupt & Repair because Io says this elegantly and succinctly whereas my own attempts amount to only the most pitiful of verbal fumblings. He is referring specifically to Jake Stratton-Kent’s essay “What Is Goetia?” but I think what he says applies equally to our issues with authenticity and my own prioritization of vitality:

“The attitude/potency Stratton-Kent claims as ‘goetic’ [substitute here whatever attitude/potency you want] isn’t a special aspect of the Western magical tradition [substitute here whatever tradition you want]. It is more basic, resting in our humanity. When it manifests, it manifests in a magpie fashion, laying hold of whatever it can to anchor itself into the fabric of the visible world. Trying to establish a historical lineage for it misses the point that it has an allegiance to the atemporal. Throw away every book with the word ‘goetia’ [or whatever system] and the potency would manifest again and again in some other avenue….We don’t need a continuous tradition to approach that human birthright. What we need to appreciate is that the diversity of manifestations are an essential part of the process, not an accident to be erased by a return to a primal root. The diversity of negotiations being done by people all over the world, in all kinds of cultural context, forms the basis for understanding how profound the unity that joins them is.…A proper tradition needs more intimacy than that, it belongs closer to the level of kinship than to the level of the nation-state.”

(My emphasis.) Whichever end of the telescope you look through, whether you focus on diversity of practice/tradition or on unity, you inevitably come back to this: the diversity is a feature, not a bug. And the same could be said, I think, for whatever it is about human consciousness or neurology that inclines us to repeatedly interface with the numinous in certain ways.


10 thoughts on “Revisiting appropriation and authenticity

  1. I feel you on the term ‘tradition.’ It’s hard to find a better term, but it is so loaded.

    I’ve been rereading Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and there are ideas there which seem like they could contribute to this discussion. If I could just get them to come together in a post…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know that feeling! Sometimes ideas need to marinate for a while so the flavors can blend, or at least that’s what I tell myself. I look forward to reading your thoughts if/when they come together.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I want to take this opportunity (since I don’t get it very often, and hopefully it will resonate with somebody reading this) to point out that it’s more likely that you have some African ancestry than you might imagine. For one thing, there have always been more Africans (mostly from areas of N. Africa, but other regions too!) moving around in what we now think of as Europe than many of us imagine now.

    Anyway, it shouldn’t matter wrt magic, because, as you said, simply sharing some DNA (spiritual or otherwise) doesn’t mean a deity will automatically want to work with you.

    I can say (as a white-identified Euro-American sort involved with two ATRs) my DNA doesn’t matter to the Orishas and Bakulu. It can matter a great deal in navigating the communities around these religions, though. Which puts me in mind of what I think may be the real issue with “appropriation” which is that it’s become a symbolic way to talk, or not talk, about power and race dynamics in the magical community.

    Maybe this wants to be a post . . . hm. What are your thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve had my DNA tested a couple times (different tests each time) and so far, no non-European ancestry has shown up. I was actually kind of disappointed not to find the traces of some secret ancestral indiscretion or something. But of course, with genes it’s all about timing–go back far enough, and we’re all African; zoom in closer, and you can pretty much choose your ethnicity. For the past 1000 years all my ancestors have lived in Britain and Ireland, or America, but if I go back past that, I start to find Scandinavians and Mediterraneans. Before that, I would undoubtedly find people from other parts of Eurasia (maybe even Neandertals–a girl can dream). Genes may code for our proteins, but spiritually speaking, yeah, I don’t think they are that important. But it can be SO tricky navigating the communities, as you put it. I have a special gift for putting my foot in my mouth too.

      I would love to see you post about “appopriation” as symbolic of race dynamics if you are so inclined. For one thing, race dynamics are probably something that needs to be dragged out of the broom closet for an airing. More and more I think that “appropriation” is about NOT talking and that annoys me. Also, I just want to hear more thoughts on this. Most of my friends and acquaintances are well-meaning liberal types who are desperate to do and say the right thing, but they are literally gagged by their white guilt. My friends of color seem much more able to discuss these topics but none of them are magical or alternative-religious, so they can’t really speak to that dimension. Anyway, yes, please post!


  3. Thanks for letting me soapbox in your comments thread (she said with some ruefulness). That was a manifestation of an argument I’ve been having in my head with Paganism since 2007 or so. (I dabbled in Heathenry for a few years and got acquainted with the widespread Pagan taste for mistaking race for ethnicity and assuming either has anything to do with spirituality.) It’s a perennial topic, unfortunately, and I often feel the need to comment when I see it pop up, even if it’s not actually there. Apologies for leaping to a small conclusion about where you were coming from.

    I haven’t had my DNA tested yet, but I want to. I’m hoping that there’s some non-European ancestry in there, but I’m braced for disappointment.

    Wrt the race and appropriation post idea I floated, I’m game. I need to organize my thoughts, and it’s going to be a busy week — would you give me a nudge if Sunday comes and goes without me posting about it?


  4. No worries, soapboxing is fine as long as it’s interesting! All the points you brought up are legit. The only reason I first had my DNA tested was because I was rooming at the time with a friend who was getting her degree in anthropological genetics. She was prepping to teach a class in forensic anthropology and voila, I got a free DNA test out of it. Pretty sweet. Although I didn’t discover any non-Euro DNA, doing my genealogy I still had plenty of surprises that made me re-evaluate my family’s history and my relationship to my ancestors. Race and ethnicity and DNA are absolutely NOT the same things and race and ethnicity are socially constructed and constantly negotiated anyway. And should be irrelevant to spirituality, really; but we have to deal with our fellow human beings, the communities around the spirituality as you said, and that always gets thorny.

    Speaking of communities, I have some of the same qualms about paganism too. I just have never been able to think of myself as pagan (even if others would characterize me that way) and I just don’t feel like a fit with most self-professed pagans. I can’t really put my finger on why, though I could identify any number of little pet peeves. Anyway, I will do my best to prod you if you don’t post! I have a post that wants to be written on a kind of tangentially related subject, but it has yet to coalesce. We’ll see if anything comes of it.


    1. I guess great minds think alike. 🙂

      I read your post and thank you for sharing your story. Nowadays, it seems to me, you have to be brave to admit to making a mistake in spite of being a good person. I think the important thing is not to be perfectly aware at all times but willing to learn.


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