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Solutions: How to Avoid Negative Cultural Appropriation of African and Diaspora Belief Systems

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Hof Dor, Israel

Hof Dor, Israel

Lately, there has been some buzz in the community about cultural appropriation of African belief systems.  We’ve talked a lot about the problem, and I think it’s time we addressed some realistic solutions.  The global spiritual community has always shared information, but the speed has increased dramatically since the internet.  Sometimes speed isn’t such a good thing when one is dealing with ideas that can take many years to grasp, even for someone who belongs to the culture in which it arose.

It is very important that diaspora practitioners, who sometimes have the western tendency to be a bit focused on maintaining identity in a way that Africans in their ancestral homelands don’t have to worry about, understand the way others learn about the Vodun.  If you are multi generation legacy, the way you learned is not the only way or the only legitimate way.  For some, this is a journey they began as an individual, or their legacy may be only one or two generations deep, or may have been secret.

In some cases, someone may have been called/contacted by a Vodun, Orisha, Lwa, or other African flavor of Energy/Spirit even though they are practicing a non African faith.  In some, they find that African ideas fill in some space in their belief system that others don’t.  Sometimes, it’s just a matter of liking an idea and incorporating it into their practice.  These aren’t necessarily bad, but can turn bad if they are misinterpreting something, and don’t have the guidance to correct it.

Heritage, Tradition, and Innovation.

A great artist, Pablo Picasso once said that one should learn the rules so that one can break them like an artist.  Though African spirituality tends to be more like a science no matter where in Africa it is from, one should learn the traditions well before taking it upon one’s self to deviate from them.  For this reason, if you are not a practitioner of west or central African belief systems, but were called nonetheless, or you are incorporating Spirits whose relational identities were crystallized in Africa into your belief system, you should take it upon yourself to contact a priest/ess in or from Africa.

All of us in the diaspora with the option and any level of respect, have connections with priests and practitioners in Africa.  All of us.

Be aware that most traditions were local and based around families, clans, and villages, and that the people and geography and climate were important and unique.  What is a blessing in one place may be an abomination in another, as far as general practice, but at the more esoteric level, many things start to merge.  You will do well to be in touch with someone aware enough and deep enough in actual practice, to advise and guide you even though you are far from their local area.

Even if you don’t intend to fully commit to an African belief system, it is important to have this line of communication to avoid doing things that may be disrespectful or just imbalanced or nonsensical.  If, for instance, you are Wiccan, and you like Yemaya, that is all good, but if you want to get the most positive energy from that, you should ask Eshu to open the way for you to speak to Yemaya.  There is no Yemaya without Vodun, and in Vodun, we (generally) call to Eshu (or the Gate Keeper by another name) before we contact other Orishas.  There are many good reasons for this that a priest/ess would be able to explain to you in detail.

We keep in touch with those in the Motherland so that even if our ways are quite different, we stay within certain bounds of sanity and soundness.

Now, using the Yemaya example again, once you understand why you should ask Eshu to open the gate first, and the ways to go about this, you may think of ways to do this “seamlessly” in a Wiccan ceremony or observance.  This is an innovation, and it is okay.  Just get some feedback from your African guides, and perhaps discuss this with others who are doing something similar.

Once you know the traditions, you can understand how to deviate from them in a respectful way.  Respectful deviation is far, far away from negative cultural appropriation.  It is good innovation, and nobody should have a problem with it, though some will anyway.

Doing it Wrong

The wrong way to go about appropriation/incorporation is to steal bits and pieces of practices without any regard for their cultural origins, or to claim titles specific to certain organizations without actually earning them.

It is the habit of many neopagans to call themselves priests and priestesses of whatever deities they like.  We don’t do this in African systems.  To be a priest/ess of a deity, you must pass through the initiations and rise through the ranks of the cult of that deity.  There is no way around this.  The first members of this deity’s cult may have had to go it alone, but once it was established, it became a matter of community.

This does not mean that you are not permitted to worship an Orisha.  Some today are running around telling people that they are not entitled to worship or mention Orisha because they have not been initiated, but this is just a bald faced lie.  The Orishas are forces of Nature, and all living beings live in the same Nature.  Atheists call it “ocean”, and we call it Olokun.  It doesn’t matter what it is called, it is what it is.  Thing is, if you’re going to utter the name Olokun in reverence, you must respect the fact that the name and its legends come from west Africa.  Part of that respect is respecting the priesthood unless or until the day comes that the priesthood no longer respects Olokun, and I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

In the diaspora, there are priests and priestesses within their specific systems.  In this case, they will add which temple or group in which they serve as a priest or priestess, so as to avoid confusion with the temples in Africa.   The ranks may not imply what they would in Africa though.  In some groups, being a priest/ess may mean that they have begun service to the community, and may still be in a phase of training, whereas in other groups, they have passed through the highest initiation for one of more deities.  African systems are alive, and new groups develop all the time.

It is wrong to treat Vodun and other very alive African belief systems as if they are dead, and nobody knows what they should be doing.  It is very much alive, and for anyone in the world with internet, guidance is just a click away.

It is also wrong to attempt to force African belief systems to fit Christian or western “hippie” sensibilities.  Though we do believe that one’s beliefs affect one’s behavior and energy, and therefore one’s life, there is no thought policing in Vodun.  We do not insist that everyone think the same or behave the same or according to the same set of rules and taboos.  Not only do traditions and pantheons vary from place to place, but what is a good deed and what is a “sin” or unwise or negative action varies from head to head.  Sometimes person to person as well.

We believe that all of Nature deserves respect, not denial, and that things that are negative or evil should be coped with honestly.  The “white light” way is not and should not be universal. Conflict feels like an unfortunate aspect of life, but life could not exist without it.  Your body must draw air in and out in order for you to survive.  Sometimes a person must kill in order to protect themselves and their loved ones.

One of the hardest things some of us have found in teaching non Africans and over-assimilated Africans, is getting them to understand that some things others can do and get away with, that they cannot, and vise versa.  What is sweet for one may be bitter to another.  What would depress or degrade one may uplift and exalt another.  There is no one way for everybody.

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Vodun F.A.Q. – Can White people practice Vodun?

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Nicole and Arden by the Kineret They most certainly can.  We just prefer to think of them as light skinned.

Scientifically speaking, the genetic origin of all humans living today is in Africa.  So it is not a question of whether “white” people are naturally entitled to the Vodun or not.  The big issue around it is mostly cultural, and for adherents to the idea of human biodiversity, capability of understanding Vodun.

I can’t say that all people of European ancestry can get it, but certainly some can.  Those who do get it, same as Black folks, get it through their Ancestors.  Rather than co opting Vodun, they learn the Vodun and various ways of honoring them, and then apply that to their spirituality in a way that honors their own Ancestors.

As an example, let’s say a person of mostly Nordic ancestry begins to have dreams and visions that are clearly from an Orisha presenting themselves in African form rather than “translating” their appearance to a Nordic one.  This likely means that there is something in Vodun they need to learn that they might not otherwise get or understand.  It is usually that they need assistance from an African because some knowledge has been lost to Nordic people that is still alive in Africans.

Some apparently European people though, actually need to go through the conversion to Vodun as a faith.  It could mean that they have an African Ancestor who they are aligned with somehow, and this Ancestor wants them to basically be African.  It could also be that they are not going to get what they need spiritually anywhere else.

The problem is that though the Spirits, not humans, choose who is going to serve them and how, humans do have issues and hangups.  There is the external opposition to “white” faces in Vodun, and there is also the massive cultural and social chasm between Europeans and Africans.  In order to fully embrace Vodun, a “white” person has a longer and more perilous road to travel than someone who wakes up Black every day of their lives, especially if they haven’t unpacked the idea of “whiteness” itself.

As someone I don’t remember said long ago, a White person can put on a suit and be acceptable in western society.  A Black person, no matter how well dressed, is still viewed as a n*****.  That is in the diaspora.  In Africa itself, most indigenous Africans do not trust European people, and for good reason.  This may not be something to feel particularly bad about though, since Europeans often do not trust certain other Europeans, and some Africans often don’t trust certain other Africans.  There is tribalism everywhere.

You should consider though, how you would feel if you met an African who told you they were having dreams about Odin, and they felt they were called to Asatru.

One of your first questions would be if they were mixed.  If their answer was no, you would wonder whether someone was simply adding to their perspective or running away from their ancestry.

Like a person can’t solve the problems with their spouse in the arms of another lover, you won’t solve issues with your ancestry by running to a different culture.  Though the Orishas belong to everyone, African culture belongs to Africans.  Be mindful of the lines, so that you don’t disrespect your own Ancestors or someone else’s.

The Ancestor and Loyalty Factor

If you are a non African (or not recently African) person who feels called to Vodun, as I said, you will have a harder road and much more to prove.  The reason why is that, especially if you are American, you will need to atone for your Ancestors’ and own your own contribution to the perpetuation of “white” supremacy, and the illusion of “white” privilege.

You will no longer have the luxury of living in the cognitive dissonance that the vast majority of your peers do, regardless of what political factions they profess.  You will need to understand that much of what you call being a “good citizen” perpetuates “white” supremacy.  There may be little you can do about some things without running afoul of those in power, but you will ultimately pledge yourself to supporting the system as little as possible.

Since we all pay for the crimes of our Ancestors, you won’t be exempt from the work of stopping negative cycles left from yours.  We all have to go through this, and your road may be much more painful.  If your family owned slaves, or you know of any abuses they committed against Black people, you will have to do appeasements to those they harmed and/or killed or facilitated the harm or killing of.  You will have to be real about yourself and your background. If you are financially able, you will have to make financial reparations to the descendants of the people your forebearers presumed to own or harmed through “white” supremacist behavior. If you are unable to make financial reparations, you must do what you can to fix some of the damage.

It will be difficult.  I personally don’t know anyone western European or “white” who has made it through if they have not had a Black Ancestor within the past 5 generations.  If that’s not you, then you may want to love our faiths from a safe distance, though even as a worshiper of select Orishas, you may still end up facing these issues.  Once you open the gate, you can’t close it again.

Related Question: What is a White people trap?

A “white people trap” or “WPT” is an item that is sold to either scam or purposefully sabotage people of apparent European ancestry.  At best it is something to fool them into thinking they are special members of some religion they think is cool and exotic, and at worst it can actually hurt or kill them or their loved ones.

Horror stories abound of naive European women and some men who have been lured into cults run by unscrupulous people, and then financially exploited or sexually assaulted.  These are well publicized once they are found out.  There are also “monkey paw” situations that have become stock Hollywood fare.

What doesn’t get a lot of attention is the horror stories about people buy items specifically for spiritual purposes, and then get their butts kicked by malevolent energies for being stupid or disrespectful.  Nobody wants to talk about that.

…and though I can tell you a few stories of this happening to people I know and know of, I don’t want to mention any names.  Instead, I am just putting this information out there to tell people to be aware.  Be sure that you really understand how to respectfully approach any deity or spirit that you are bringing into your practice or your home.

Remember that Vodun was not invented for westerners or with a western mentality.  Take things out of context, and it can really mess you up.