Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation?

Cultural appropriation is about ownership of your own culture both individually and as a group.  The cultural melting pot trope entails true appreciation of a culture in respectful ways that benefit everyone.  Misappropriation is the adoption or exploitation of another culture by a more dominant culture, involving just attractive bits and pieces taken and used by members of the dominant culture for profit or leisure.  The dominant culture redefines the marginalized culture and siphons the benefits to the dominant culture instead.

As an example:  Rap music was born from the rhythmic story telling traditions of West Africa via slavery.  Cultural mainstreaming failed to benefit the black originators until white performers adopted it and then benefited disproportionately.  Rap is an African art form commercialized by whites for the benefit of whites.  Should whites be allowed to rap?  Of course, they “can.”  But is it racially harmful or insensitive?  Is it appreciation or appropriation?  Does it honor the roots of the tradition, the culture where it originated and the struggles of individuals in that culture?

Cultural appropriation cloaks everything borrowed in the dominant culture’s values.  The dominant culture feels entitled to use whatever they want and then claim appreciation and “melting pot.” However, borrowing without experiencing and honoring the  underlying group and individual struggles is just another form of oppression and shows the underlying lack of respect and sense of entitlement.

I’ve read extensively on Native American history and culture, especially religious traditions.  I became aware of cultural appropriation (although I didn’t use the term) concerns when I began to adopt the information and practices that appealed to me.  I became aware that I didn’t have the right to use more than the concepts.  Commercialization of those concepts AND practices now make me very uncomfortable.  Even when elders of those cultures are sharing those concepts, I don’t automatically assume that is an invitation to adopt them myself.

Shamanism, altering consciousness to “journey” to alternate realities in order to meet spiritual guides and provide healing, is nearly universal in all cultures and religious traditions.  Some religions have altered the base concept considerably (Christian mysticism, for example).  I attended shamanism workshops which taught the technique and respect for the process without including any particular cultural or religions system.  I felt and continue to feel comfortable with that. Of course, I am not perfect, and feel a certain entitlement as a seeker.  When I use tools that originated in another cultural tradition, I limit it to my private spiritual practice.  I do not incorporate it into shared and/or public practices, especially if that entails financial or other gains.

I am, after all, a life-long student of comparative religion and mythology.  I appreciate the universal elements and the beauty of each tradition.  The study and the appreciation is real, but I remain vigilant about slipping into cultural appropriation.