Monday, May 5, 2014

Vévés, Kimonos and Headdresses

On the bus last week, my sister and I saw a young woman with a beautifully done tattoo sleeve comprised entirely of vévés. We both had to admire the skill of the artist, even as we raised our eyebrows up into our hairlines, since the young woman in question was white.
Like, white-white. As white as we are. Glow-in-the-dark white.

This is not to say Caucasians cannot practice Voudou - they obviously can. Karen McCarthy Brown, the author of Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn became an initiate, and Kenaz Filan is white. There are others who have been formally trained, and more still who have dabbled as a result of the widespread interest in African diasporic religions and folk magic. I count myself among the latter group.

"So why the fuck are you judging this chick's tattoos?" you might be wondering.

A few years ago now (Jesus, time flies) I actually saw another blog post on this exact same topic. It addresses the magical side of the WTFery, which I'm not really going to rehash except to say that yeah, it does seem a bit like an open invite for possession. But that's not terribly likely without the proper ritual framework, so I don't think it's terribly dangerous.

And, as was pointed out in that other post, the woman with the tattoos in question could actually be an initiate. Maybe she's a serious student of the occult. ...although I doubt it, since she appeared to have as many vévés on her arm as she could fit, which looks badass but is not something an actual student would do. The Erzulies do not like one another, for example, and so you would think an actual student would at LEAST put them on opposite arms.

Beyond the occult issues, what really bothered me was that big bad boogeyman again: Cultural Appropriation.

"You JUST SAID you're white and flirted with voudou gods!"

Yes, I did, but calm your tits for a second while I get a little more in depth.

Cultural appropriation is a big problem in both paganism and burlesque. I just attended the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival this weekend, and one of the best acts I saw was Ruth Or Dare's solo as part of the Pandora and the Locksmith's Awakenings production. Ruth is First Nations, and the dance integrated traditional ethnic dance. She informed me after the show she had been working on that number for two years as a response to cultural appropriation within the community. I nearly cried.

With burlesque, it's very, very easy to wind up on the bad side of the fence concerning this topic, because the art form is very much about stuff that looks pretty. Kimonos are beautiful. Saris are gorgeous. You see things and think, "aha, that would make a good act!" and very often do not think past that.

I've done it. My very first burlesque act was inspired by Japanese imagery as seen in horror films and anime, set to my favourite Visual Kei song of all time. It wasn't designed to be offensive; it was a love-letter to things I adored. But would I do that act today? No. No, I wouldn't, because as much as I had a love affair with the culture, it is not mine.

In paganism and the occult community, the very same thing happens a lot. You see a pretty thing, and you want to see what you can do with it. Fortunately, there's a chance to truly educate yourself on the practices you are interested in. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't bother, and some will even hide behind the Chaos Magic defense: use what works, none of it really matters really, hail Eris.

Have you noticed how many chaos magicians are white cis-dudes? You know, the people who are used to being able to use whatever and whoever they want? I'm sure there's absolutely no connection, though. /sarcasm font.

Now, not every chaos magician is a total prick - the majority of serious practitioners are really big on research, as they don't just want to cherry-pick beliefs. A big part of Chaos Magic is true paradigm shifting, and that requires immersion, and that does not allow for a haphazard system unless one wants to fuck oneself up really badly.

Eclectic pagans of the Wicca 101 school are also really, really bad about this - their source materials often advocate a magpie approach to spirituality that can hinder the seeker's growth and harm the living cultures from which they are adopting things. Because really, that's where shit gets messy.

African diasporic and First Nations religions are alive. They are still around. This does not mean that a white person is barred from learning about them, but when approaching these systems one must do so with honest respect and an understanding that we have no right whatsoever to expect to be allowed to learn their secrets. If I approach a Voudou priestess and ask to be taught, it is her right to tell me to go blow myself.

Both First Nations people and African Americans have a long, long history of being used and abused by Caucasians. That does not make us whiteys all evil people, but it does mean that there are hundreds of years worth of us stealing shit that's not ours. So in this modern age, when we are all hopefully striving towards equality, for us to take symbols or bits and bobs from a repressed minority's religion just because we like the look of them is morally disgusting.

Intent matters. It matters a lot. And history matters, too.

I've worked with the lwa. My involvement with those spirits has been minimal if very enlightening and I would not dare call myself an expert or a true adherent. Just because I know a little, would I tattoo myself with what is traditionally used as a conduit to the spirits? No. I have no right to do that. I actually feel similarly about certain First Nations symbols in tattoos; I adore the artwork of the Pacific Northwest indigenous peoples (especially Kwakwaka'wakw) but I don't think someone as pasty pale as me has any business getting something I may not understand on my body. 

That girl on the bus may very well have known what she was doing. I didn't get a chance to ask her "Who did these for you? Are you a practitioner? Why did you get them?" and perhaps it speaks to my own snobbery that I would assume they were simply done for aesthetic reasons. On the other hand, getting those symbols is taking a bold move when you are outside the culture and if you're never challenged on your motivations, you may never learn that you don't get to have everything you want.

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