I originally wrote this as a post for a class I am taking about Native American religious and spiritual practices. A component of this class includes an expectation that students experientially engage in individual rituals to deepen their understanding.
I’ll start by saying that I’m probably the person that gets pegged as “PC-er than thou” more often than not; I believe strongly in the power of words and that their usage, no matter the intent, can reify a negative paradigm or dominant structure when utilized by people who have no ownership of the term as a way of organizing their identity (e.g. people using pejoratives like gay or retarded to describe something as sub par.) And it’s that ownership thing that I’m struggling with in process to this class. I don’t have any ownership of Native American spirituality or identity.
Therefore, taking this class to enrich my intellectual, spiritual, emotional/empathic understanding of people of Native American identity or experience is important and relevant – both from a personal standpoint and, ultimately, professionally. However, the piece that I’m working on is the co-opting piece: experientially engaging in Native American spiritual practices, as they do not have the cultural, historical and personal significance to me that they would someone raised in that identity. I am especially cautious around co-opting or appropriating practices from traditionally oppressed cultures.
My privilege of being a Catholic-raised white man is that I do not get assumptions thrown at me on the basis of my skin color or gender or religious/spiritual upbringing, unless they are generally positive. Appropriating the practices of an oppressed culture is not understanding; it is often tokenizing, an eroticization of the “exotic” and discarding of a larger understanding of the complex issues, judgements and consequences of being perceived or identifying with an oppressed identity.
While this most certainly does not mean that I feel that I (or any other person) should remain in identity-exclusive spaces (much to the contrary!) it does make me cautious about approaching matters of such deep personal significance as spirituality and religion. This past Saturday, I went to a Seder for the first time in my life, and enjoyed it immensely. Through six hours, four cups of wine and more tasty vegan and gluten free food options any Portlander could shake a stick at, I was blessed to witness and participate in a ritual which was equal parts community building, laughter, religion, and testament to the importance of social activism.
On the way home, a friend and I briefly touched on the subject of appropriation. They mentioned that they, as Jewish person, had a rosary, and wondered, half-seriously, if that meant they had to get rid of it. I responded that would mean that I would have to get rid of my Buddha statues. And I think that’s the correct answer – for me, in this case. However, the issue becomes more complex when dealing with a people whose identities and ways of life have been fundamentally oppressed. I don’t know that I would be comfortable owning, for example, a dream catcher without putting some very intentional thought into why I felt I needed it and what significance, if any, it held in my spiritual practice.
There’s certainly more to say about the issue, but I’m curious on your take – how do you feel about entering into and engaging in the spiritual practices of traditions other than your own? How do you best do it in a mindful and intentional way? What are your thoughts on appropriation?