Lesson 2 of Decolonizing Witchcraft


Hello toothy witches,

This month's course was easily one of the heaviest topics we've tackled so far. I'm so thankful that all of you were so enthusiastic for this topic, pushing me to turn my pages of notes into something concrete and (hopefully) useful now rather than eventually. 

We had such great discussions during all of the chats for this course. The start of each chat for both lessons is pinned, so I do encourage everyone to scroll back if you missed the chats. There were many insightful points made. I love how openly everyone approached this topic.

Throughout this course, we did reference a few topics from past courses, specifically the Shadow Work course and last moth's course on Discernment. The lessons for each of those courses can be found in our course archive, so do consider reading through those if you have time and missed those courses.

There is a lot to digest in this lesson, as well as lesson 1. Please don't hesitate to ask any questions here or in discord.

Lesson 1: Understanding the Effects of Colonialism on us & our Witchcraft 

 

Lesson 2: Doing the Work of Decolonization

Much like racism, to which it is deeply tied, colonialism is systemic. It exists within our thought processes, in our actions, and in the established ways of doing things. And so it’s no surprise that we find colonialism existing within witchcraft on many layers. As we covered in our previous lesson, colonialism exists in overt and covert ways, such as in encouraging cultural appropriation and using language that perpetuates harmful ideology of supremacy of one group over another.

Colonialism hurts everyone. It influences our thought processes, our perspective, and how we interact with the land and each other. Dismantling colonialism in witchcraft must take place on the personal level and on a communal level in order to have any lasting power. We have to work, consistently, to decolonize ourselves, each other, and our organizations.

In Lesson 1, we noted that discernment and shadow work are an important part of decolonizing our personal witchcraft practices. In this lesson, we’ll build off that by discussing how to actively counter the affects of colonialism in our practices through ancestor work and restructuring our personal practices by removing appropriated tools and techniques and replacing them with sustainable tools and techniques that are spiritually nourishing and meaningful. We’ll also discuss ways to begin dismantling colonialism in our community.

Gentle reminder that nothing in this lesson is intended as a personal attack. Everyone living in western society is influenced by colonialist-based attitudes and biases. Everyone. These lessons are meant as a way for us to discuss this issue and to work together to identify that influence within ourselves and practices so we can do that work to remove the effects of this harmful influence. In doing so, not only do we keep our practices focused on our values but our community better reflects those values, embracing them through word and deed.

Cultural (Mis)Appropriation vs Cultural Appreciation

After we begin recognizing the ways that colonialism influences our perspectives and motivates us in ways that we hadn’t realized before, the next step is to begin identifying the ways that we perpetuate colonialism within our practices. One of the most blatant colonial-based practices within the witchcraft community is that of cultural appropriation.

More accurately termed cultural misappropriation, this is the practice of taking ideas, tools, and practices (and more) from a specific religion and/or culture without that people’s consent, and putting that which has been taken to use for one’s personal benefit. That use is highlight by removal of the context (culture) which gives that thing meaning.

Common examples within the witchcraft community of cultural misappropriation that is actively encouraged by some witches includes:


  • burning white sage and “smudging”
     
  • burning palo santo
     
  • chakras
     
  • yoga
     
  • worshiping/honoring/or “working with” Lilith
     
  • dreamcatchers and dreamcatcher “inspired” wall hangings
     
  • karma
     
  • japamala
     
  • hoodoo
     

Some of these things have become so common within witchcraft, as well as western society in general, that it can be difficult to not become defensive in being told that using them is not okay. After all, some of these things are not just frequently proclaimed as being “a part of” witchcraft but their use can provide perceived spiritual benefit to us.

But that benefit to us doesn’t change the fact that each of the above mentioned items and concepts originates from a colonized people who are still alive and still struggling to liberate themselves from the effects—and political dominance—of colonialism. Each of these items and concepts was taken from those peoples for the purpose of benefiting a dominant culture. And many of these people, such as multiple tribes of indigenous people in the Americas, are continuously asking that white people stop appropriating practices from their closed cultures as it has, in the instance of white sage, made items more difficult for them to acquire and is a part of the cultural genocide they face by the dominant cultures in the Americas (not just the US and Canada, but also Mexico, Brazil, etc.)

In stripping away the context of that culture and the meaning those people attribute to those items and concepts, white people are able to turn a blind eye to the cultural theft in which they are engaging and also ignore the ongoing issues the people of that originating culture are facing. Did your morning yoga session come with a discussion of the lasting effects of British imperialism on the people of Indian? Did you contemplate ways that you can contribute to improving literacy rates among Indian girls and ending child marriages while you balanced your chakras?

Each of these items and concepts was taken from a living people and altered for the direct consumption of and benefit to white people and are then frequently bought and sold, as part of hugely profitable industries, with zero benefit to the originating peoples and cultures who are fighting for their right to their own religions and cultures.

In understanding the primary difference between cultural misappropriation and cultural appreciation, it’s useful to consider the source and consider the context of use:

  • Does this belong to a living religion or living culture? Yes? Okay, but...
     
  • ...did someone from that religion/culture give you that knowledge, teach you to make and properly use that tool? No? Well..
     
  • ...did you research and learn how to make and use that tool so you could use it within the context of that religion/culture?
     

Answering that last question with a yes is a fairly good indicator that your use of that item or concept is appreciative and not appropriative. If knowledge or the use of a tool is given to us, it is done so for our personal use, not for us to turn around and try to profit off of (that’s colonialism; no marginalized person is going to teach you a skill so you can turn around and sell it to other people and put money in your pocket out of the goodness of their heart). If we come to the knowledge/knowledge of that tool ourselves, through research, if that use is not informed by the original context associated with that knowledge/tool, then our use is appropriative. Context gives meaning. If the meaning is stripped from that knowledge/tool, then the use is only appropriative.

Back to Basics

Implementing culturally appropriated knowledge and items within our spiritual practices negatively impacts our ability to practice deeply. This is because that knowledge and items have been stripped of the context and meaning they hold—context and meaning that allows them to have a profound impact upon those Indigenous people because it is woven into the framework of their worldview, religion, and culture. These items and knowledge cannot have that same degree of effect on us because we don’t belong to that worldview, religion, or culture. Any meaning we assign to them will lack the nuance that makes them an integral part of spiritual practice and an effective piece of spiritual technology. The depth just isn’t there.

And so, in order to continue to use those appropriated items and knowledge, we’re forced to focus on the trappings—we focus on the superficial, on the item, on the physical action, because there’s nothing else to focus on. This further discourages, and even prevents (to some degree), us from being able and willing to do the deep and painful work of witchcraft because colonialism encourages the “good vibes only” attitude and need for instant gratification. Colonialism tells us we’re okay exactly as we are, that witchcraft can be whatever we want it to be, that we can have anything we want. Colonialism actively encourages us to dismiss details, to ignore history, and redefine things to place ourselves at the center.  

This makes it imperative that we each take a discerning look at our personal practices to see where we’ve latched onto techniques, practices, concepts, and tools that are culturally appropriated, consumer-driven (anything that encourage quick use and easy replacement), and/or ecologically destructive (e.g., glitter, collecting natural objects such as crystals and bones). From there, we must work toward removing those things from our practices.

At first, the idea of removing things from your witchcraft practice can feel threatening. It’s not weird to have become fond of culturally appropriated knowledge and tools. So the idea of removing them from your practice can make you feel these things are being taken from you or as if you’re being left with holes in your practice. It’s important to remember that culturally appropriated knowledge and tools were never ours to begin with, regardless of how much we enjoyed or felt we benefited from it. Feeling as if we’re being left with holes in our practice only underscores that we had misplaced emphasis onto that knowledge or tool and not on what we were attempting to achieve with it.

For example, in removing “smudge sticks” from your practice, you may feel lost as to how you’ll cleanse yourself and your home. But the ability to perform cleansings and purifications was never dependent upon white sage or aesthetically pleasingly bundled herbs, especially not when European folk magic is filled with practical methods to cleanse and purify—and some of those methods even involve burning different herbs if you really like setting stuff on fire (who doesn’t!)

Readjusting focus to what it we’re trying to achieve helps to reemphasize the basics of witchcraft, which then allows us to look for ways of achieving that goal without stealing from other cultures.  

Back to the Land 

Witchcraft is one of numerous systems of magick and each of these systems is marked by defining details that make them different from one another. These defining details are found in general focus, worldview, and practices. While each is a model for using magick, none is better than another—though one may be more effective for certain things versus others—they’re just different. And that’s okay.

One of the defining traits of witchcraft is that it is based upon (either through inspiration or surviving practice) European folklore and folk magic. The word folk is important to recognize here as it refers to common everyday people. And so, a big focus in witchcraft is using magick to create change in our common, everyday lives using common, everyday materials. Often, the how of creating that change via magick was learned from the land and the many spirits with whom we share the land.  

Witchcraft, as a system, springs forth from the Land. When we seek the stillness of the natural world, the land and its spirits whisper to us, offering us warnings and wisdom in equal measure. One need not ever read a book on witchcraft to become a witch, it can be learned exclusively from the land and the genius loci; books and folklore merely offer guidance.

Looking to the Land and ensuring that our actions are focused on respectful relationship with the land and its spirits provides a direct counter to colonialism. Whereas colonialism is predicated upon superiority of one group over all, witchcraft emphasizes relationships—and those relationships extend not just to other people (which is a huge start to countering colonialism and white supremacy) but to the spirits that are found in all things, animate and inanimate, as well as roaming freely about the land. In recognizing these spirits as people, like us, we are obligated to alter our behavior to reflect that recognition.

And so we have further incentive to look at the ways in which we are causing harm to marginalized peoples and the land, and to then identify ways to correct ourselves so that our spiritual practices more accurately reflect our worldview and values. Returning our focus to the land and land-based practice helps us to find ecological supportive and culturally sensitive ways to build an effective practice that enriches our lives and spirituality—and without that enrichment coming at the expense of anyone else.

(And all of this circles back to the importance of being locally focused: look at the land where you are, know the spirits where you live, buy food and goods that are grown/produced in your local area.)

Ancestor Work

Ancestor work is not a way to change the past. It is not a way to dismiss the past.  

Ancestor work is a way for us to take responsibility for the actions of our ancestors so that the energetic effects of their actions no longer continue to play out through our actions.

It isn’t an instant solution but is an ongoing process of healing relationships, breaking energetic patterns, healing and crossing over our dead, and looking at the way that the actions of our predecessors are continued through us.  

Ancestor work is the spiritual equivalent of recognizing the ways that we personally benefit and perpetuate colonialism (as well as white supremacy, white privilege, and racism—they are connected; the work we do to dismantle one helps to dismantle the others). It’s a way to begin resolving some of the energy that perpetuates and maintains colonialism on a systemic and personal level. It is a way for us to take responsibility for the past in a spiritual context.

When we actively and deliberately untangle and resolve the pain of the past, we lessen its impact on the present and, thus, future. No, this does not change the past, but it does remove the energy of the pain and trauma that encircles our ancestors and that ripples across our family lines, affecting us, affecting our actions. Elevate your asshole ancestors so they cross over, stop being assholes, are freed of their pain, and stop inflicting their pain upon you—so you stop enacting that pain in your own life and on those you interact with.  

Many white Americans struggle with feeling disconnected from the past, our ancestors, and a clear sense of culture. Colonialism is directly to blame for this as it is the reason why our ancestors gave up their language, names, food, clothing, and other aspects of culture; colonialism robbed us of our ancestral heritage.

But this heritage is not lost to us. While we can’t lay claims to the culture of our great-great-great-great grandparents (culture is learned, it’s not tied to blood), we can strengthen our relationships with our ancestors who can help us to recover some of that knowledge. Through ancestor work, we can regain that connection to the past and our ancestors, we can touch something larger than ourselves to which we are directly joined.

Decolonizing your Community

All the work we do to decolonize our personal witchcraft practices doesn’t have much meaning or impact if we don’t take that action further to decolonize our community. It is the general state of the community—what we collectively condone and encourage—that directly influences those who are new to witchcraft and sets the tone for what witchcraft looks like in the future.

Part of decolonizing witchcraft involves looking at how we talk about witchcraft, whose voices are being centered (who we include/exclude), why we are talking and acting in such a way, and what we can do about that. It involves acknowledging why we, as a community, are focusing on certain trends (e.g., look how quickly everyone stopped amplifying Black voices and talking about the ongoing protests to talk about “baby witches hexing the moon”).

Modern witchcraft may be largely based upon European folklore and folk magic, but that doesn't make witchcraft white. Europe has historically always been marked by plurality. Even in the most northern regions, the people were never exclusively white. Every region has been called home by people who looked similar to each other and who looked different, who were born there and who traveled there. This is as true in ancient times as it is now. Overlooking and dismissing BIPOC voices does not accurately represent witchcraft—not as it currently exists and is practiced nor its historical basis and inspirations.  

Decolonizing witchcraft seeks to present witchcraft and the witchcraft community in a more honest and realistic way, acknowledging the unique strengths of our shared practice and acknowledging the great diversity that exists among witches. It is a way for us to encourage greater honesty and integrity in our interactions with each other—including how we teach witchcraft, how we organize and facilitate our groups and organizations, and how we talk about witchcraft.  

Nonetheless, decolonizing witchcraft on the community level is the most difficult for one reason: it involves other people. And each of these people will have their own opinions and views, their own beloved appropriated practices and tools, their own level of work they’ve done toward personal and spiritual growth. Different people are different (which is wonderful!) and that means that there are no easy solutions or one size fits all approach that will get us all on the same page with anything. Ever.

But that doesn’t make the work any less important.

Small but crucial things that we can all do—in conjunction with decolonizing our personal practices—to help decolonize the witchcraft community:

Hold our leaders accountable. What passes for a “leader” in the witchcraft community is anyone with power and influence. They may have published a book or two, they may teach courses locally and/or online, they may have 100K followers on social media. It matters less what actual authority they have and more so what perceived authority they have—this is what contributes to them being influential. When you see leaders encourage others to engage in harmful colonialist-based practices, call them out. When you see them use language that excludes or dismisses the existence of marginalized people, call them out. Speak up, ask questions or just make it clear that their opinions/actions do not accurately represent the witchcraft community nor our values and that you do not approve nor appreciate their actions/words.

Speak up about microaggressions. Colonialism is founded in imbalanced power dynamics, not necessarily hierarchies, but in clear distinctions that some people are superior to others. Belief that one group is superior over another is frequently found covertly in the language we use, such as in microaggressions against marginalized groups. In our previous lesson, we noted how everyone loves to talk about how inclusive they are but, at the same time, inclusivity within groups is often “enforced” by silencing marginalized voices for causing disruption and threatening the established power structure when they point out that certain language and/or practices are racist.

Look at who is being centered in discussions and planning. If a group claims to be inclusive yet doesn’t take into consideration the needs of disabled folks and people with disabilities when planning events (such as by ensuring there is easily accessed handicap accessible parking, entrances, and bathrooms; or providing chairs for those who aren’t able to stand for a 2 hour long ritual because of physical ability or because they have small children; etc.) how inclusive is that group really? If a group says they are inclusive but doesn’t advertise outside of white dominated spaces or behaves coldly to (or even ignores) BIPOC, queer, trans, or disabled folks when they come to meetings, it’s clear that these people weren’t actually wanted because they weren’t considered in the planning process nor were they welcomed when they did come.

Address issues of cultural appropriation and racism in your witch friends and mutuals. This can be hard as colonialism tells us that being told no or that we can’t have what we want is an attack on us. And so people behave defensively, clinging to what they perceive as being rightfully theirs—be it an idea, attitude, item, opinion, or whatever. Defensiveness is often followed with excuses and a refusal to be held accountable. Sometimes, calling out these behaviors and attitudes is enough. Sometimes saying that something isn’t okay and explaining why is enough. But, sometimes, we need to practice calling in rather than calling out. Where calling out is focused on interrupting harmful language and behavior for the point of addressing it, calling in is focused on doing so in a way that encourages changing the attitude behind the language and behavior so that person doesn’t repeat their mistake. Neither of these techniques is better or worse than the other, they both have their time and place. Calling in may help that person better understand why what they did or say isn’t okay, but it requires more effort and energy on your part—which you may not have in that moment or desire to expel on that person.

The following are some really great resources for understanding the difference between calling out and calling in, the second focuses on multiple examples of each so that you can better see how to do so:

Calling In: A Quick Guide on When and How by Sian Ferguson

https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/guide-to-calling-in/#:~:text=Much%20like%20calling%20out%2C%20calling,little%20more%20compassion%20and%20patience.

Interrupting Bias: Calling Out vs Calling In by Rebecca at SeedTheWay.com (this is a pdf)

http://www.racialequityvtnea.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Interrupting-Bias_-Calling-Out-vs.-Calling-In-REVISED-Aug-2018-1.pdf

The material we’ve covered in this brief course in no way covers the full extant of the issues caused by colonialism in witchcraft, nor the impact it has on each of us. As such, the suggestions that we’ve covered for working to correct and dismantle the influence and presence of colonialism in witchcraft is intended as a starting point. This is ongoing, deep, dark, ugly work that requires we each to face unpleasant realities about ourselves and our community with honesty and a commitment to do better, to be better. It is my hope for everyone—including myself—that this work goes as smoothly as it can. Let us all find ways to reduce the harm we cause to others.

As always, do not do not hesitate to post any questions you may have, regardless of how much later it may be. These courses and this channel exists for us to do this work together, to have deep discussions in a supportive environment.


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