Multiculturalism and Appropriation

Today, I want to talk about multiculturalism and appropriation. This is kind of a tough set of topics, so I am going to cover them as gently as I can. First and foremost I want to talk about multiculturalism.

I consider myself to be a multicultural pagan, and some of you might be wondering what I mean when I say that? Well, for starters a lot of my practice is informed by my ancestors, who by consequence come from pretty much every conceivable place on the globe at one point or another. All that means is that I am human, and the result of countless generations across space and time.

That is one of the reasons I struggle with nationalism. I was born in the US, so yes I am subject to the culture and laws of that. But ancestrally, and like many Americans, I am a mutt. So when I hear people talk about practicing the “religions of my ancestors”, that really gives me a lot of wiggle room. I hope that is something that comes across in my series “Walking with the Ancestors.”

Some people also might be wondering if “eclectic” is the same thing as “multicultural.” Honestly I struggle with this one a lot. I don’t consider myself to be eclectic, and I’ll try my best to explain why. But please don’t take this as me belittling eclecticism. If that works for you, fantastic! It has never really worked for me, so I had to look for something that did.

To me, eclecticism is like having a bunch of pieces from multiple puzzles in a box randomly, and be expected to make a complete (or at least working) picture. I would sit for hours and hours, and just get frustrated that the pieces don’t fit together. And even if they did, I would be frustrated that the picture just looks like gibberish.

The other side of this might be considered some form of fundamentalism, or traditionalism. The idea being that all the pieces in the box are from the same puzzle. Everything fits together nicely and is nicely bounded and kept together. You get a fantastic picture when you are all done, but it some ways it is really limited. All the edges are sharp, and the picture is clearly defined. It’s nice, but I find it kind of stifling. So I really don’t fit this ideology either.

The thing is, I try my best to stay intellectually flexible and adaptable. And that is where being “multicultural” comes into play for me. It’s like having most of the pieces from several different puzzles, generally kept apart. Most of the pieces that are missing would be the outer edge pieces. As such, from one puzzle I could clearly make the picture of, say a barn. But there wouldn’t be any edge pieces, or clear cut boundaries. On another part of the table, I might have a partially complete picture of a wheat field. If I push the two puzzles together, a-not-quite-complete, but a not-quite-random scene of a farm starts to develop. That is kind of how I think of multiculturalism. Sure there are gaps in my puzzle at the end of the day, but I also have a pretty diverse view of the world. Plenty of room for adaptation and experimentation.

Maybe I will add a tractor from another puzzle? Or I may decide I really hate wheat, and replace it with a bunch of deer instead.

I draw inspiration for my spiritual path from a lot of different sources, and plenty of comparing and contrasting. Am I trying to force together random pieces? Not really. But nor am I trying to make completely opposed concepts work together. Each different piece has its own place, but it adds to the context of the greater whole. It is useful to think of it Venn Diagram style. I move together frameworks that have some sort of overlap, or parallels that can inform my worldview.

I hope that makes sense. I am finding it is a little difficult to express these ideas in words.

All that aside, the more I explored the idea of multiculturalism, the more I have found that there are multiple ways to think about it. Here in America we immediately seem to default to the “Melting Pot” concept of treating multiple cultures. The basic idea being that if we mix all these cultures together something new will be created from the “melting”.

The problem I have with the Melting Pot metaphor is that it often goes hand in hand with assimilation ideas. The idea being that “other” cultures (being non-dominant/majority) need to “assimilate” to the dominant culture. Honestly, it’s kind of colonial. The idea being that “they” need to adapt to look more like “us.” Obviously, it also feeds more into the “us vs them” mentality, and I really have no taste for that kind of thinking. I really don’t think the Melting Pot metaphor is useful in this regard, as it seems to reinforce a kind of homogeneity. That kind of runs counter to my personal values of plurality and diversity. Plus it can lead to ideas of cultural “purity”; I.e some “other” may contaminate our pot of “us.”

On the other hand, there are other ways of to think about multiculturalism. Another idea is the Salad Bowl metaphor. The basic idea being, let’s take all of these diverse pieces (apples, oranges, chicken, nuts, whatever you like in your salad) and toss them together in a bowl. The pieces are not “melted” together to form one uniform whole, but each retain their individual apple-ness or orange-ness. What keeps them together is not uniformity, but the bowl itself. The bowl might be what we would call the “common”. The common law of the country, the language(s) we share to communicate with each other. Afterall, communication, community, these all hinge on the idea of the “common”.

I am not saying this metaphor is perfect. It still is subject to majority/minority politics. The “common” of the bowl might be defined by the over abundance of lettuce. The entire salad might have the “official” language of lettuce. Obviously this puts the apples a little bit at a disadvantage if they wish to interact with the “common”.

However, I think the big positive of this metaphor is that it doesn’t require the apples to be assimilated into lettuce. Even though the lettuce may define most of what the bowl stands for, the apples get to retain their apple-ness, though they will need to interact with the “common” of the salad bowl.

Anyone else getting hungry?

Alright, to move this conversation a bit into another direction, I want to share a modified version of a graphic I have shared before.


Original from the Human Odyssey, by Simon Davies

Modifications (highlights) added my yours truly

Now, I want you to look at the above graphic. I have shared this before, but this time I have made a few changes to it. This is what I mean when I call myself “multicultural.” These are just the lines I have put a fair amount of study into, and most of these choices have been informed by my ancestors. There is still plenty of work to be done of course, and maybe some day I will even learn some non-English language. What can I say, research and study is a time investment, and I am still fairly young. Plenty more time to put in in the future.

But that is not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to draw your attention to the circles that are not green. There are a few yellow ones on this chart. These are my “caution” flags when it comes to approaching certain culture complexes.

The reason is because of appropriation. There is plenty of writing on there on the nature of cultural appropriation. There was a recent article on Patheos by Yvonne Aburrow, which I think does a decent job at getting at the heart of the matter. There are plenty other articles by the same author, which are also linked below.

Cultural appropriation has plenty of “fuzziness” around it, and that can sometimes make it a difficult concept to pin down and define without nuance. That being said I think there are really two aspects to cultural appropriation.

1) Taking something (whether intangible, such as beliefs or rituals, or tangible, such as artifacts), that you do not own/have no claim to; without permission. (Especially in a exploitative manner, IE for profit)

2) When 1) is done in a context where there is a notable inequality in power dynamics

I want to have you look at the above image again. You see the yellow circles yes? You know what a lot of those cultural complexes have in common? They have a long and recent history of being colonized, exploited, and downright marginalized.

I have wrote a little bit about the Sami on this blog before. I have done my best to do it in a respectful manner, because if I am not careful I may be engaging in some form of appropriation. The point being that the Sami have had about anything you can imagine taking from them. Their cultural lands, their way of life, their cultural heritage. They have been exploited, and colonized, and many of those practices continue to this day.

And if I were to take something (ideas, artifacts) from the Sami, I would be further engaging in those very same practices. Many Native Americans suffer from the same kind of exploitation today, and I could point to countless examples. In fact, in my next post I hope to talk a little bit about the protests going on in Standing Rock.

Also, I am saying this as someone who may (as yet unconfirmed) have Sami ancestry, and recently I wrote a post about how there is some Native American in my genetic makeup. You won’t see me claiming to be “part” of either of these cultures. I don’t feel genetic ancestry gives me real claim to these cultures. Maybe my ancestors did at some point, but I am well removed from that time and context. And so, I do everything in my power to be careful, and respectful of these cultures, and others besides

There is a lot more nuance that could be teased out here, but for now I would like to move on to other writings that are pressing for my attention.

Thanks for reading!

Sources, references;

Misconceptions about Cultural Appropriation – Yvonne Aburrow

What is Cultural Appropriation? – Yvonne Aburrow




About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

2 responses to “Multiculturalism and Appropriation

  • Rhyd Wildermuth

    Great post.
    One thing that helps with understand culture/multi-culturalism is looking at culture is a lived thing, rather than an artifact. So, for instance, “European Culture” as it is lived resembles none of the fantasies people construct about them. My Breton friends in France are living European culture; Americans trying to emulate or reconstruct it are not because they’re basing their attempts on artifacts (800/2000 years ago).

    A good parallel might be a French person wearing black hats with buckles and dressing up like a Puritan in order to be true to American culture. It becomes more obviously absurd when we turn it around. My german friends, particularly, are often appalled at what American pagans think is ‘German.’ Who knows better, the people who live there or the Americans who make a religion of it?

  • Robin Clear

    You’ll get no argument from me. Thanks for elucidating so clearly, and gently too.

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