Don’t Confuse Respecting a Culture with Using It

Western society is beginning to move from the colonialist attitude that European values and ideas are better than indigenous or traditional values and ideas. It’s a slow move. Much of academia is still dominated by the dominant, with marginalized voices struggling to be heard. However, slowly there are those who are bringing to the forefront different cultural views and practices.

I’m taking a distance class right now (not taught by my current school) on traditional modes of healing amongst certain cultures (loosely termed shamanism). At first, I was excited about the possibility of learning about other cultures and approaches, but I have found myself squirming with the same discomfort that I have if I encounter a class that automatically dismisses “native” practices as illegitimate. My reaction concerned me since this class is far from critical or disrespectful.

Initially, when feeling my discomfort, I immediately checked on my own biases to see if latent racism needed to be confronted. I was surprised to realize I was feeling something incredibly familiar but not what I expected—indoctrinated.

My discomfort in this class was stemming from the nigh-on worshipful tone towards the faith healings we were talking about. It wasn’t an anthropological approach, where we merely learned that this is what some cultures believe about illness and healing, with a goal of understanding but not adopting. Nor was it a counseling class where we learned alternative modalities for working with clients who may have different cultural backgrounds or needs. It was a class about personal experience and opinion with teachers who exhibited an unquestioning admiration and acceptance for all things indigenous.

There was no question as to whether it was true, healthy, safe, etc.

Even as I write that last sentence, there is a part of me that wonders if that is such a bad attitude. I don’t necessarily see it as my place to question someone else’s culture. However, I’d argue that it’s a subtle form of racism and colonialism to glorify traditional practices beyond reason.

The point of multiculturalism is to show that there are multiple worldviews and ways of approaching things…and then to show how they can all have value and how we should be willing to listen and learn from one another as well as to respect one another.

I don’t think it’s true multiculturalism to blindly accept a different cultural practice as perfect and effective. It feels more like a form of collection—cultural appropriation (though I rarely use that word because I have strong questions about its application).

More so than that, unquestioning acceptance and over-glorification serves to continue to erase the experience of those within the culture. It assumes everyone from that culture has the same experience or that they do not face relational, ecological, or physical difficulties as we do.

It doesn’t question whether people are being abused or controlled or deceived. It removes that right of a people to have struggles and areas of needed growth, turning them into less than human symbols and archetypes that promise us the healing that we desire within our own culture and denies them their right to change.

What happens, then, when our cultural archetype of supernatural native healing has a human problem? When they can’t magically heal cancer as we would like to believe? When a medicine man abuses his position of power over another person and we, as the ones worshipping the culture, are faced with the failure of the culture to live up to our expectations?

Then it makes for an easy return to the previous assumption that native people are full of shit and superstition because they obviously weren’t able to prove the magical abilities we expected of them; therefore, easier to go back to our Westernized ideas of the world and once again degrade and suppress other worldviews.

In the end, unquestioning admiration and worship of a culture is not respect. It’s another form of using that culture.