I’ll start with a hoodoo story. About 10 years ago, I was in California and I went out to the Lucky Mojo shop to get a lodestone and some Black Arts oil. They were all out of the oil but, since I’d driven about 4 hours to make the visit, Cat Yronwode was kind enough to mix up a bottle of it while I waited. It was very inspiring to actually watch her work. While she mixed it up, I asked her for the recipe—not really expecting her to tell me, but aware that if you don’t ask the question, you’ll never get the answer. She said, “If you want to know what I know, you have to do the research I did.” Period. That was exactly what I thought she’d say and I took no offense at the response. Her point: in magic, as in anything else, you have to put your time in to actually get real skills.
I mention this because it applies to an even bigger issue. I inveigh pretty loudly against gatekeeping in magic and, I think, for good reason. I believe we should honor what makes us all unique but we should also accept that we are one and that love, exchange, and understanding crosses all boundaries.
With that in mind, I want you to teach me what you know and maybe I have something to offer you as well. When we share with each other, we both grow stronger. Everything beautiful is the product of two other different things coming together. Think about that.
But you can’t buy your way into a spiritual system, even if you have the best intentions. That includes hoodoo, Wicca, or even very open practices like spiritual yoga or Reiki. Let me repeat that: you cannot buy your way into these things. When Cat said that if I wanted to know what she knew, I had to pay my dues, this was the lesson.
We’re seeing a lot of suburban Caucasian North Americans seeking initiations into African American, Afro-Caribbean, South American, and Mexican magical-religious systems—not because they’re necessarily spiritually called to do so, but because it’s trendy and seems edgier to them than their existing Christian, neopagan, or Indo-European reconstructionist traditions.
And because the occult merchandising industry aims primarily at those with the most disposable income to spend on books, ritual tools, events, etc., we’re also seeing the commodification of of the ATRs the same way witchcraft got commodified from the 1960s to the present.
But the ATRs are primarily oral traditions and naturally resist this kind of economic colonialism. I understand this and it saddens me that there can’t be more cultural exchange taking place beyond tone-deaf non-magical academic anthropology on one end and pseudo-spiritual opportunism on the other. But I keep in mind Cat’s lesson and I have to stress: if you want to be initiated into a tradition that is not culturally your own, you have to assimilate to the host culture first if you want the initiation to be real.
You have to pay your dues. Since these systems are so closely linked to their cultures (i.e. there isn’t much distance between cultural identity and spirituality), you can’t just walk in, pay for an initiation, and then claim that as an identity. It’s disrespectful and pointless, even if you don’t realize it at the time. Just remember: culture and conjure go together.
This may seem ironic coming from a white conjure worker. But I actually have paid my dues, many times over and have nothing to prove. Also, hoodoo as a practice doesn’t contain formal initiations like some of these other systems. So it’s kind of unique in that the dues-paying is a lot more implicit and informal (but still there). I have been initiated into other forms of magical-religious practice, but those forms were closer to my ethnic origins and weren’t therefore a big leap.
My point here is actually simple and not so original, but I think I need to make it because I spend a lot of time arguing in the other direction (that we should come together and share what and who we are across boundaries). I don’t like the term “cultural appropriation” being used as a racial gatekeeping term (people with a certain skin color can’t learn or shouldn’t be accepted). At the same time, when you approach someone’s house and ask to live inside, be ready to accept their way of life and understand their culture / language instead of trying to buy your way in.
It is my sincere wish that all cultural identities be honored, respected, and preserved. I also hope that this will never stand in the way of universal brotherhood, love, and growth.