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Stolen Religion: Cultural Appropriation, White Friends and Mixed Feelings

"I begrudgingly sat down, got sage smudged and entered into the ceremony."

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Written by India Jaggon.

Art by Kristin Kastein.

I have lots of white friends, I have lots of really well intentioned white friends. 

I approach this article not as an expert on any form of spirituality. I am not an expert on shamanism, shamanic practices, indigenous spirituality, culture or politics. However, I feel I am at least intermediate in bullshit white people do. I am not of indigenous heritage, my dad is White Irish and English and my mother is Jamacian-Indian and Jamaican-African. Both of the histories of my grandparents are erased and hard to trace through slavery and indentured servitude. We are Jamaicans but I have no idea of where in Africa or India my ancestors are from.  

As a person of colour who was brought up Catholic – but quickly, through my queerness and general dislike and discomfort of Western religion, renounced Catholicism – I have been on a path for the last 10+ years of being a rambling person in search of spiritual and ancestral understanding that is appropriate, fitting and inclusive of all my identities. 

I recently attended a closing dinner of a house I used to live in. All my fellow ex housemates are white and two of them who attend a shamanic Saturday school had offered to the group to perform a closing ceremony and ritual for the space. On arrival something sat weird in my stomach knowing that I was going to have to be part of some culturally appropriative ceremony in a group of (white) people who I genuinely care about. As the smudging began and the ritual started, a deep maroon filled my chest and my neck and a few things happened within me. 

The first was silence. The second was fear – knowing that if I said something I would be filling the uncomfortable role of the overly politically correct person of colour ruining everyone’s fun. The truth is that any form of held space with friends and people you love is always special and connective. Seeing the excitement in my peers’ faces of engaging in a conscious act with friends to celebrate a time shared in a house together, of memories and joy was beautiful. But it was also really fucking hard watching them blissful in their ignorance as their feelings of connectivity and consciousness come at a price of pain and appropriation of another culture. 

And as they proceeded with the ceremony all I could think about was the heartbreak of watching the same people who stole your culture feed it back to others who look like them, while making half-assed jokes and ironically brushing the bad energies off with half a owl wing and Florida water.

I begrudgingly sat down, got sage smudged and entered into the ceremony. As I looked up at my two friends as they thanked the ‘spirits’ and the earth they made a joke about this certain ceremony being called a despacho (an ancient ceremony originating in the Andes)  not to be confused with the cold soup gazpacho. Everyone laughed and as someone jeered “Who said shamans can’t be funny?!” my heart dropped. Without wanting to I thought of genocide and I thought of pain. And as they proceeded with the ceremony all I could think about was the heartbreak of watching the same people who stole your culture feed it back to others who look like them, while making half-assed jokes and ironically brushing the bad energies off with half a owl wing and Florida water. I thought about my spiritual ancestry and culture and how I’ll never know what it was, I’ll never know rituals or practices done by my ancestors. The songs they sang will never be uttered from my mouth. I thought about cultural genocide and how the ceremony I was taking part in was not just a dilution of culture but a totally synthetic version of it – like fresh orange juice compared to squash. 

I thought of the fight for land and the lack of reparations for indigenous people. I thought of the colour of my mother’s skin and my skin and how no matter how much anti racist material you read or study, you will never know what it feels like to walk a day in her skin or mine. 

I left that evening connected to sadness, pain and felt silence/d – and I know I was the only person who left feeling that way. Everyone else left with joy, elation, connectedness and in celebratory spirits. What a privilege it is to connect solely with the joy, enlightenment and gifts of a culture but none of the pain. That act within itself is the root of colonialism; going to a place and taking everything that you desire while not acknowledging the agency of the indigenous people who live there to decide what is done with their land, their culture, and their spirituality – but instead using the culture in a second hand manner to fit the needs and desires of yourself and your own community. 

“Indigenous people reserve the right to maintain, control and protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and cultural expression…therefore be warned that these individuals are moving about playing upon the spiritual needs and ignorance of our non-Indian brothers and sisters…the value of these instructions and ceremonies are questionable…maybe meaningless and hurtful to the individual carrying false messages” – Resolution of the 5th Annual meeting of the Traditional elders circle 

When we just take the riches and the wealth but don’t also connect with the pain, suffering, the histories and realities of a group of people, we are being the coloniser all over again. But instead of taking water, land and resources we are now stealing something more sacred. When we take ancestral spirituality we punch the jugular of a culture. We take the core root, the soul of something – and in my opinion this is the worst form of cultural genocide that we in the Global West can participate in.

A part of me thinks maybe it’s because I am a person of colour and that makes me more attuned to the depth of why cultural appropriation hurts so deeply and maybe that’s the reason I take appropriation seriously. Another part of me thinks that actually, I just took the time to do the reading and educate myself, to feel empathy and to connect with the direct link of colonialism and appropriation to put myself on the right side of the fence. Because I too am lost, I too am wanting to connect with spirituality, and a sense of meaning and higher power. I want the guidance of my ancestors and I too want a better relationship with nature. But I downright refuse to take what is not mine. 

From my own experience, the only thing I can compare this ceremony to is the feeling of meeting someone wearing dreadlocks, listening to reggae, being a stoner and loving up jerk chicken – and then claiming to me that they ‘feel like they are black, and they just feel like Jamaican culture is where they feel at home.’

When I connect to my blackness I connect to it in a multitude of ways – with my mother, my grandparents, my family, music, dancing, pain, suffering, ancestral trauma, slavery, hair, food, spice, reparations and celebrations. I think of curry goat on a Friday and stories of Anansi the spider, my grandmother’s experiences of racism, the time that my mum nearly got pushed off a moving train for being black. I think of the smell of Jamaica and the heat that hugs me as soon as I step off the plane, I think of fresh mangos and clear waters, I think of working twice as hard as everyone else because the world won’t treat me kind, I think of coconut oil, cocoa butter and dancing in the kitchen. 

Please let us not forget that the 90’s were filled with this kind of cultural appropriation. And while this type of person has become a stereotype we now lovingly call a ‘Trustafarian’, being white and having dreadlocks has become a place of cringe and embarrassment in the same way it will happen for white folks who decide to appropriate indigenous culture, traditions and spirituality. The same arguments that were used for justifying dreadlocks on white people such as ‘But its appreciation!’, ‘Should culture not be shared?’ ‘But where do we draw the line?’ lack in understanding; and when something is lacking in depth and meaning it is bound to burn out. As my Jamaican great-grandmother used to say: ‘A tree is nothing without its roots.’ 

There is no longevity in appropriation and if you truly understood the culture you would know that the ancestors of that indigenous group are looking over you and they are weeping

The day will come in the same way it did for the white dreadlocks – when the the lack of true spirituality and identity is exposed and the ‘fad-like’ trendiness subsides, leaving well intentioned white people who were looking for a sense of identity, spirituality and connectivity with a feeling of shame and embarrassment for furthering the pain that their ancestors started. There is no longevity in appropriation and if you truly understood the culture you would know that the ancestors of that indigenous group are looking over you and they are weeping; weeping that people like you stole their land and stole their way of life while you are sat in a ¾ of a million pound house somewhere in East London, with an owl feather and sage, performing spirituality to others who look like you having never come into contact with the source of where these rituals, ceremonies and beliefs come from. 

When we pay for spirituality we put a cost on ancestral learning. The activist Betty Cooper of the Blackfeet tribe says ‘It’s like putting a price on your grandmother.’ What a lot of people fail to understand is that when people from any indigenous group allow Westerners to come and ‘learn’ at a price, this usually stems from extreme poverty and destitution caused by the effects of capitalism and colonialism. These peoples have been affected to such a degree that they have been left in a state of poverty in which the selling of their spirituality has become a means of survival.

So the question is can we use indigenous spirituality, ceremony or traditions that don’t belong to us? My answer is a most likely no. Cultural appropriation (which sits on the pyramid of racism) is innately harmful. It is so, so difficult to engage with these practices in an ethical and non-problematic way. That’s not to say it can’t be done but 9/10 times we get it wrong and it hurts someone else. Personally, I feel that until sufficient reparations for these people exist, until justice for the acts of colonialism are restored, until we abolish reservations and massive disparities in the quality of life of indigenous groups compared to white counterparts, my answer will always be most likely…no. I urge everyone to fight for the justice of these people before you start connecting with the joys of their culture. The same goes for anything: fight for equality and against systemic racism before you get dreadlocks, fight for equality for trans women before you start saying ‘YASS QUEEN.’ Unless you understand and connect with the pain you cannot understand or take part in the healing.

I urge white people to delve into their own whiteness, backgrounds and histories to find the richness in your own culture and to bear the brunt of pain that comes with being accountable.

I would say if you truly respect culture, fight for the reparations for these people and donate your money to charities and grassroots organisations dedicated to this cause. Indigenous people were not allowed to legally practice their religions in the US until 1978 so the fight is very much real. The suicide rates in this community are some of the highest in the world highlighting the collective trauma of colonialism. Fight for the liberation of these people, fight for their justice, fight so they can reconnect to their own heritage before you start taking, reclaiming and appropriating the existence they are fighting for. I would say that if the ceremony, hairstyle, spiritual practice, regalia, etc. belongs to a group of people who are still fighting for basic human rights and facing global oppression, it is best not to f*ck with it. Connect with your own spirituality, connect with your own healing herbs and medicine. Practising spirituality should better your relationship with the earth and all people (not just the ones who look like you) on a micro and on a macro level. 

By connecting with our own spiritual heritage and having respect for our own ancestors we aid our own cultural healing. Whiteness has a lot of healing to do and by connecting with spirituality that is from y/our homelands we build relationships with our own healing. Instead of stealing the riches from other lands look for the riches on your own. By doing this you empower yourself in a much greater way. It is disempowering to take and then put on a show of something which has been stolen; it diminishes your own strength and the strength of the source you stole from. Digging deep into our own histories and into our own pain is so damn important. I urge white people to delve into their own whiteness, backgrounds and histories to find the richness in your own culture and to bear the brunt of pain that comes with being accountable. Once we get down to the root of things, into the bare bones and into the flesh – that’s when true healing can be done. 

So, Plastic Shamans and well intentioned white people, go deep into yourselves and your culture for healing so you can stand in front of my ancestors and I can stand in front of yours and we can look at each other and say ‘I respect you’.  


About The Author

India Jaggon is a writer, erotic photographer, dyke and activist living in London. Their work often centres themes such as race, gender, pleasure activism, sex and non-monogamy.

Follow on IG: @dyketactics__


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