Aboriginal Australians, African Peoples, Allyship, Appropriation, Australia, Australian Aboriginals, Cultural Appropriation, Indigenous Australians, Indigenous Traditions, Pagans Down Under, People of Colour, Photography, Racism
Two things crossed my news/Twitterfeed/random online shares recently that touch on something that has become my personal point of paranoia. Because I engage with Indigenous Australian knowledge and law in terms of the spiritual nature of the Land I live on, and then further share my personal practice, as it is influenced by that same ancient culture, appropriation is my personal nightmare.
I’ll be honest about one thing, I do not know for sure that I always succeed in my attempts to avoid ugly cultural appropriation. That uncertainty will never leave me, and it exists because of one unavoidable fact: I am a white person.
I have become aware, during my time of writing here on Austalis Incognita, in talking to people in the broader pagan community both online and in real-space, that I am a minority pagan. I prefix all my ritual work with a formal acknowledgment of the First Nations Peoples of the land I’m working on, and yes, that means even when I am by myself, that first intake of breath as I settle into my work is exhaled in that acknowledgment. It’s a practice that reminds me always that my culture, and the shadow that comes with it, is one that stole this land, and committed atrocities, that is part of my inheritance. And in this way it is as much for myself as anyone else. How can I grow in power and self-realisation if I am ever to be a slave to the monstrous half and non-truths of White Australia?
It extends to my written work. It is an intentional action. As I mentioned above, in the first place it serves me. For myself, as a pagan, a witch, a Westerberg, a person it is absolutely imperative I honour my ancestors (and my living family and community) by at least trying very hard to be better than we have been before; it is absolutely imperative for me as a pagan, a witch, a Westerberg, a person to be the very best I can be for the sake of myself as a future ancestor, and for those who will come after me. I have come to think that a very very large chunk of inherited curses, and what we might term (and I do) the shadow, start first with a very healthy dose of denial. If I succeed at nothing else, I will not be the ancestor of whom future generations will be embarrassed as they sift through the racism, sexism, bigotry and xenophobia in order to get to “the good/useful stuff” (gods, I hope there is some good/useful stuff!) as so many of us do still in our immediate families as well as with our magical and pagan forebears. If there is nothing of note left after I am gone, I’ll be damned if I fill the empty space with denial, non-truths and lies.
Intent though, is only one very small part of the story. Good intentions will never absolve me of ugly appropriation. Being allied, in any way, but here in terms of Indigenous peoples (and indeed, with people of colour as well) is not a free pass to “she didn’t mean it.” It’s the road of constant examination and consideration. It means constantly trying to ensure that nothing that is Indigenous is passed off in my writing and practices as my own and that instead the voices from which these wisdoms come are placed clear and central, and readers are directed to those voices specifically.
There are some things that do not require a great deal of consideration. You just know, straight away, automatically, that that thing or action or statement is just not going to fly. This image was that moment.
One has to wonder what precisely went through the mind of Hungarian journalist Boglarka Balogh when she decided this was a great way to highlight the humanity of people of colour, and bring attention to the plight of African tribes. Because blackface is blackface no matter how well intentioned you are, and as writer Kimberly Forester said in her piece ‘You Should Not Have to Center Yourself to Show Empathy‘ at For Harriet;
The photo series is shocking in its disregard for the significance of these cultural aesthetics. Balogh committed the most fundamental appropriation taboos and claims she is raising awareness of the endangered. That may be her genuine intention, but the project only manages to center whiteness, yet again, in a critical discussion of Black people and Black cultures. She has literally erased the women she claims to serve. This is objectification masked as admiration.
Since the online backlash, Balogh has deleted the initial post and instead made a short post of essentially, “I didn’t mean it…” at boredpanda. She writes:
My intention was 100% pure with this tribal art, being a human right lawyer and journalist who knows pretty much about racism and similar issues, I have never imagined that my work will annoy so many people and that I will have to explain myself. And sure, I will not do that. Keep calm and love every human.
Srsly? How lucky we are white people know about the racisms. Whatever would people of colour do without them?
If the initial image is not disturbing enough, this second one is going to pinpoint precisely what is wrong with whole affair. And it blows me away that Balogh could have seen this image and not recognised the inherent issues with it.
Side by side the finished photoshopped product and the original image of the African woman in traditional dress demonstrate what is wrong with blackface. As soon as you see it, you realise how the second of the above pictures is a white woman in black makeup (or, in this case, photoshop). The black face is so much more than the colour of the skin. Blackface is no more than white person appropriating culturally significant costume and skin colour, and as Forester said, “literally erase[s] the women she claims to serve.” Balogh, by removing the black woman and adding her own face, attempts to validate the image.
We should not have to have whiteness to validate the humanity or experience of any person. The question seems to be, what is wrong with everyone and Balogh, that the third photo above is not already valid enough?
This is obviously an extreme case of white privilege and ugly appropriation, and also at its most insidious under the guise of “good intentions”. But there are other more subtle forms, the kinds that are more readily seen in contemporary Australian society.
18 year old Yarramun Conole, who runs the Tumblr On Being a Blackfella spoke to SBS NITV News earlier this month; she’s the blogger who forced the ‘Walkabout’ dance party name change. Conole is perfectly succinct in her interview, and pinpoints exactly what is wrong with cultural appropriation:
It made me really angry because going on walkabout isn’t something that my family and my people do anymore. So why did these people think they have any right to claim a connection to country when they’re non-Indigenous?
My family lost that part of our culture in the early 1900s. So, whilst they stole my culture and whilst they ripped off Indigenous spirituality and connection to country, I’m still left without my culture. I’m really tired of non-Indigenous people disrespecting my culture, my history and my people.
Yes. Whiteness validates the use of “walkabout” stripped entirely of its cultural context. Because what white people do is ok by virtue of whiteness, and it doesn’t matter for them to consider that using something that was forcibly ripped from the culture of black people might hurt black people’s feelings because their feelings are not validated by virtue of whiteness. “They love our culture, but they don’t love us.”
That last point is particularly salient, especially for the pagan community. Very often in programs for events I see listed some person who is going to teach everyone how to make dream catchers, or speak about South American shamanistic practices, or whatever, the list goes on but is very often centred on the First Peoples of the Americas. Occasionally someone presents something they learned from an Australian Indigenous Elder. Even more rarely, an Indigenous or person of colour is the speaker. And those people speak in good faith, desperate to have their voices seen as valid, and share their ancient wisdom, finally, rather than have it disregarded entirely. And contemporary Australian pagans are happy to take it.
The ubiquity of the dream catcher in Australian pagan homes is a sad and sorry affair, particularly when one ventures a conversation regarding comparisons between Canadian, U.S., and Australian First Peoples incarceration numbers and associated cultural issues and systemic institutionalised racism. Or the redefinition of the term “Sacred Site” by the Western Australian government in order to grease the wheels of industry, or the closure of the Homeland communities, or the water crisis in the Utopia in 2014, or the return of the infamous Quod on Rottnest Island after years of being part of a resort. It does happen, and I make the honest disclaimer that these are generalisations, not indictments on every single pagan individual in the country. After all, I’m one.
BIMA Vision ‘Let’s Talk Incarceration’.
ABC RN Background Briefing Podcast ‘What’s sacred now?’
“I am my homelands” Watch Rosalie Kunoth-Monks from the Alyawarr and Anmatyerr Peoples explain ‘homelands’: “It holds your language, it holds your customary practice…
It’s fine to listen to that didjeridu meditation CD, or use a set of clapsticks, or use a story as a basis of a ritual. But the truth remains, for the most part, we love their culture, not the people. In terms of the people, they’re an irritating point at which a white person runs the risk of being called racist. And to be completely honest, I find that people hate being called racist much more than they do actually doing something or being racist.
It is why I keep trying to advocate for and share Indigenous voices and highlight issues rather than just write a pretty pagan blog sprinkled with Indigenous tidbits. Simply, you can’t have one without the other. Besides, the idea one can love a culture and not appreciate and respect the people enough to think they should have water or access to their homelands, or not be subject to institutionalised racism, or are so invalid in a photo they need to be replaced by a white face is an act of cognitive dissonance I’m not willing to entertain.
I said in the beginning, I may not always get it right. But keeping ourselves cognizant of our privilege in order that we continue to reassess our behaviour beyond good intentions is imperative. It’s time we are more purposeful in our consideration that person and culture and history are irrevocably entwined, and we can’t love a culture, and not the people who have gifted us with it. Part of that has to be to continue to highlight the plight of these people, allow their voices to be heard, and not cherry pick the pretty things we’re comfortable with.
I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land under kunanyi, in Trouwunna, the Mouheneener tribe, their ancestors past and present.