Tag Archives: cultural appropriation

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

We're moving!

Orisha Online Altar is moving to a new domain, Orisha.me

Please update your bookmarks and links. This site will be up until April or May of 2023 to give everyone who is linking to us time.

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.

Click here to continue reading.

Europeans Accusing Africans of “Cultural Appropriation” of African Faiths

We're moving!

Orisha Online Altar is moving to a new domain, Orisha.me

Please update your bookmarks and links. This site will be up until April or May of 2023 to give everyone who is linking to us time.

There seems to be a sad but comical trend lately, of “initiated” Europeans accusing Africans of cultural appropriation for practicing spirituality that we grew up with, and is our ancestral birthright.

Though I have in the past responded to this sort of thing with anger, when I took the time to realize how pathetic it is, and what kind of feedback they are going to get from Nature for it, I’m not mad anymore.  I feel sorry for them.

I have European friends who practice Vodun and other African and diaspora spirituality mindfully, so I don’t see being European as any excuse.  One can’t say about this, “Well, this is just how ‘white’ people are…” especially since I see some organizations doing the same with regard to European and Asian spirituality.   African faiths are not uniquely put upon by the “Babylon” mentality that everything has to be documented and submit to some (when all illusions are stripped) arbitrary human authority.  It is also not unique in that people co-opting it from cultures outside presume they are somehow doing it better…the subgroups of westerners who think they’re out-Buddhisting Asian Buddhists spring to mind.

How can one explain to these people who apparently missed the entire Pan-African movement that we are not as worried about people who follow our faiths borrowing from one another, and filling in educational and philosophical and practical blanks where needed, as they are?

For Africans in the community, life goes on.  We’re not really worried about these people as they dig their own graves with this focus on the wrong thing.  We have bigger fish to fry.  So long as they’re doing the work, my main criticism is just the treachery against the people who carry African spirituality in their blood and in their hands.

Who they ought to be worried about is people who make up fake initiations and massive profits telling lost Europeans looking for some exotic pseudo spirituality that makes them feel like rebels.  Then again, in many of these cases of Europeans (can’t help but laugh) demanding that I name drop and tell them who initiated me into Obeah (LOL!) and who are my “god parents”, may well be the victims of such scams.  They’ve invested a good deal of time and money in their orders and organizations, and the idea that someone can get the same thing being a fisherman, that they got from spending $2000 and getting a pretty necklace and a “spiritual experience” they can tell their friends about, is horrifying.

Real African Spirituality

For the sake of consumer information, a site with no Africans is not representing African spirituality.  Be mindful that not all Africans have dark skin.  Still, someone should at least have some affiliation with African and diaspora activism and community aside of the spirituality.  One of us is living in us and sharing our concerns.  If they have no idea of the conflict in the Congo, chemicals leaked into the ground from unscrupulous copper mining, or “white” supremacists still being active in South Africa, they’re not African enough.

If you don’t see any photos of any Africans there doing anything but posing for a portrait, it is not representing African spirituality.  The only excuse would be if they are a European living in an area where there are no Africans around, but you will see clearly that they are doing their best with what they have.

If it is racist against any group of Africans or trashing any diaspora Africans for their spirituality and not because they actually did something wrong to someone, then it is not representing African spirituality.  The moment you see any trashing of Africans, you know you are at a site run by Europeans who are defending their money, not African spirituality.

I have no problem with my enemies worshiping my Gods.  If they want to beg my Gods, this is fine with me, and will hopefully lead us to peace or a physical victory to go along with the psychological one.  So I have no problem with Europeans, most of whom are not my enemies, worshiping the Vodun.  It is only when they attempt to take them away that I think to myself that since they didn’t manage that with 400+ years of slavery, I don’t see how they’re going to do it with trash talk.

The people with a problem with us usually don’t even know any or many people with recent African ancestry.  If they did, they would be given the same “beg my Gods” speech I just did…or since we are definitely not all angels, maybe they’re being coddled for what may or may not be an entirely ethical reason.

Real African spirituality is not dependent on any organization or priesthood, even though we rely on the recognized and/or hereditary priesthood in Africa as the keepers of our history.  Santeria is only one of very few non hereditary systems in the diaspora with more than locally or group recognized ranks.  I am told that this is not even the rule for many Santeros as customs vary and not everyone agrees.

When Santeros, whose system is syncretized with Catholicism and mixed with a lot of western spiritism, start calling others frauds and “cultural appropriators”, this is a red flag that maybe they aren’t very aware of the history of African and diaspora spirituality.  There may however, be something else going on…

Infiltrators and Informers

Another, perhaps more sinister reason this is happening could be government or other hostile groups attempting to infiltrate Santeria and the African spiritual communities.  They may fear that too many people involved in African spirituality may threaten their interests, and have recruited infiltrators and informers to report our activities and sow discord.  This has already happened in Cuba.  According to this article in the Sun Sentinel:

Many santeros are influential members of Cuban society, and recently it was revealed that state security had infiltrated Santeria circles.

Because many people involved in African spirituality would now be seen as radicals or possible terrorists even for small things like promoting self sufficiency, sustainable energy solutions, home farming, and natural diets, the people in power want us discredited.  Since Santeria is one of the most popular and organized streams in the diaspora, they would naturally be used to attempt to stamp out others.  Santeros should be very watchful that their houses do not get infiltrated, and make sure that one of the vows is to stand up for and protect the children of Oduduwa.

Just be careful out there.  If you find yourself being targeted by infiltrators and those who steal our cultures and put them in boxes as if the Orishas, Alusi, Lwa, Spirits, etc. belong exclusively to them, just let them know you aren’t going to take it lying down, but don’t get overly emotional about it.  They’re just lost or informers, and every morning, you still wake up African, and they wake up…not African.