One of the things I’ve periodically bumped into as a justification for neoshamans and other neopagans to draw from indigenous cultures is that “white Americans don’t have a culture”. By this they generally mean that white American culture is limited to strip malls and fast food and pasty men in suits telling us how the country ought to be run. Somehow this then translates into a dichotomy where everything that seems antithetical to this construct is considered “good”. Hence we end up with a bunch of white people playing African drums, offering rum to lwa, and shoving New Age concepts into oracles based on “Native American spirituality”.
I’m not condemning drumming, white Vodouisants, or non-Native people having good relationships with Native cultures. However, if you look at the “cultural appropriation” category of this blog, I think it’s clear that I have some issues with the way in which a lot of pagan-type folk “borrow” from cultures other than their own. Often it’s a surface treatment of the borrowed culture, with little to no awareness of the power differential between the culture of the borrower and that of the borrowed.
The other issue is that the borrowers often forget that yes, they do have a culture that they’ve been raised with and which, whether they like it or not, permeates their lifelong conditioning and approach to the world. This is why there can be such conflict when they try to insert themselves in another culture–they’re bringing more cultural baggage with them than they want to admit, and if they aren’t admitting they have it at all, then the baggage is just going to sit there and be a big problem. Just because they don’t notice it’s there doesn’t mean others don’t, either.
Let’s look at one of the hallmarks of white American culture (and, admittedly, others, though the U.S. seems to have particularly latched on to it)–individuality. As a culture, white Americans value individuality above collectivity. “Do your own thing”, “the rugged individualist”, “the lone wolf”, “just do it”–these and so many more societal messages encourage us to work independently of others. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Valuing being an individual doesn’t automatically translate to having narcissistic personality disorder. Individuals often display a certain amount of unfettered creativity because they don’t feel held back by group norms. And people in a more individual-based society can still have healthy relationships. It’s just that values and mores may be somewhat different than in a more collective society.
Many indigenous cultures tend toward being more collective. Again, this is not better or worse, objectively speaking. However, there’s a huge difference between being raised in a collective culture, and trying to create community in an individual-based culture. The way one forms relationships, the values that are applied to those relationships, and the balance between self and others are ingrained from birth, and it’s harder to learn new ways of doing these things later in life, especially as an adult. It’s not impossible, of course, but it requires more immersion than what most neoshamans and neopagans who draw from other cultures experience.
Yet time and again I see pagans romanticizing collective cultures and demonizing individuality. In doing so, they ignore the conditioning they have as individuals and try to shoehorn themselves into some artificial community construct, or, alternately, attempt to join up with a more collective culture while approaching it with a largely individualistic mindset (which they often deny they have!) In the former case, all too often these artificial communities end up with short lifespans because no one really has the skills to be able to build their scaffolding from scratch. In the latter, there are numerous examples of well-meaning but clueless white people hanging around the edges of indigenous communities, hoping someone will take them in, or worse yet, inviting themselves into the community and creating quite a mess of things.
Additionally, the conflict between individual and collective ways of being manifest themselves in some of the more arrogant manners of cultural appropriation. These tend to be along the lines of “My spirituality is MINE, and I can do whatever I want with it, and if the gods/spirits/etc. talk to ME, then I can work out whatever relationship I want with them and no one else matters!” Granted, this is an extreme; I am quite individualistic in my approach to totemism and my insistence that in this culture it’s better to work out individual relationships with the totems. However, I also urge people to be aware of cultural appropriation when looking at any other culture’s totemic system, and to be mindful of where they’re coming from when approaching those other systems.
My point in all this is not to say individuality is bad and collectivity is good. Individuality in and of itself, again, is not a bad thing. What this is meant to be an example of is how ignorance of one’s own culture of origin can seriously affect interactions with other cultures. And it affects the continuing formation of neoshamanism.
See, one of my biggest gripes with core shamanism in particular is that so many people claim it’s “culturally neutral”. Which is bullshit. Core shamanism is white, college-educated, middle-class shamanism. Only people with the greatest amount of privilege would have the audacity to say that what they’re doing has no cultural trappings, because they’re the only ones who have enough privilege to ignore cultural differences. That’s part of what privilege is about: you have the option of ignoring everyone else, while everyone else has to pay attention to you.
And I see this time and again with white neoshamans. “We have no culture, so we can plug our shamanism into other people’s cultures.” It’s racist, and it’s also separating neoshamanism from the possibilities it could have in the culture that produces so many neoshamans. If we’re so busy trying to be like other cultures, is it any wonder that we have an increasingly negative view of our own?
So how do we white American neoshamans change this? Well, first of all, by admitting that we do have a culture, which, yes, does include things like strip malls and suburbs, but includes a whole lot else, too. We need to be exploring our communication styles, our values, our biases, and how this affects our interactions with others. We need to stop looking at our culture as something to be ignored or demonized (but not go the opposite direction and try to elevate it above everyone else–white supremacy is bad, mmmkay?) And we need to understand that even “white culture” is a broad artificial construct, that the concept of “whiteness” was created to try to marginalize racial and ethnic minorities, and that there are a lot of nuanced subcultures under the umbrella of “white culture”. Plus there’s the issue of intersectionality–we are not just our race, but our sex, gender identity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, ability, and numerous other things that make up our social location. We can’t ignore these influences and just say we’re “culturally neutral”. It’s impossible.
Most of all, we need to stop with this whole “All people are one people” thing. Yes, it is good to acknowledge interconnection and universality. However, “all people are one people” is too often used in the same way as “I’m racially colorblind”–a nice-sounding way of absolving one’s self of the hard work of admitting there are still very real inequalities, and saying “we are all one” does jack shit to actually address or do anything about those inequalities. It’s little consolation to people who are stuck on the bad end of those inequalities, and again “we are one” originates uniquely out of a place of privilege.
And “we are one/all people are one people” is too often used to justify cultural appropriation. After all, if we’re all human beings, then we all have the right to use whatever cultural or spiritual trappings we like, right? We’re breaking down the barriers and boundaries between us, aren’t we? Except a lot of the time it’s the people who are more empowered who are busting down the defenses of minorities who use those boundaries to feel more protected. Just read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, for example, and you can get a pretty good idea of why so many Native people are so distrustful of white people–and why walking in saying “We’re all brothers and sisters” just ain’t gonna cut it.
So I challenge you to start thinking about this stuff if you haven’t already. If you’re a white, middle-class, college-educated American neoshaman like me, look at how your culture–and other social factors–affect your shamanism. If you glorify indigenous cultures over your own, look at what you dislike so much about yours and see whether that’s really warranted. Chew on this stuff. See what you make of it.
ETA: 11 September, 2012 – The comments on this blog, to include this post, are screened. If you’re going to just leave vitriolic screeds against one group or another, don’t bother. They’ll just get trashed. If you want to constructively add to the conversation, whether you agree with what I say or not, that’s fine. But ranty bits about how “all members of [group] are [stereotype]” aren’t going to see the light of day here. This is a very sensitive topic, and I don’t want this to devolve into people virtually screaming at each other. It doesn’t do anyone any good, and it won’t help you feel better, either.