MMost progressive liberals are aware of the dangers of borrowing from racially marginalized communities. My students are no exception. They quickly identify and condemn forms of cultural appropriation when white people adopt styles from communities of color for financial gain or to increase their coolness quotient. Which is to say that we are in a very important cultural moment of awareness of systemic racial injustice. We are willing to consider racial borrowings as probably ethically burdensome. And this is a good thing.
But few seem to care or even notice when religious borrowing causes harm. In fact, quite the opposite. Religious combination is not only common, but also encouraged as a way to engage in religious practice without having to submit to religious institutions, hierarchies, and doctrines. It is a method of obtaining the spiritual benefits of religions without losing individual autonomy. What is spiritual but not religious if not a commitment to borrow religious practices while remaining foreign to religious communities, a situation conducive to appropriation?
When concerns are raised, religious appropriations are defended by calling them something else based on their liberal motives – politics, education, therapy – a tactic that hides the harm they can cause religious communities. In my latest book, steal my religion, I explore three cases of borrowing that were all motivated by goals that we would consider “good” from a liberal point of view: demonstrating an alliance with a religious minority (wearing a hijab of solidarity), learning a religious rite of going through a first-hand experience (studying abroad on the Camino de Santiago), and a therapeutic treatment based on a religious practice (practicing yoga). In each case, I found that these motivations were not sufficient to prevent poor outcomes. Simply put, liberal intentions led to illiberal results.
Given how susceptible many of us are to racialized forms of cultural appropriation, why do we have such a blind spot when it comes to forms of religious appropriation? I think one answer is that we don’t understand that race is fundamental to religious appropriation as well. When borrowings come from cultures associated with black communities, we know white supremacy is at stake. But one thing surprised me while conducting research for steal my religion was how central race was to understanding the ethics of religious borrowing as well. Whiteness motivated every case of borrowing I looked at and white supremacy in one form or another was a reason why borrowing was harmful, and therefore properly called appropriation.
The first case study I discuss is the solidarity hijab – wearing an Islamic headscarf to signal opposition to gender-based Islamophobia – such as the #HeadscarfForHarmony campaign which was launched following the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand . This campaign encouraged non-Muslim women to wear a hijab to protest violence against Muslims, but many Muslims experienced it as a false form of white wedding ring.
Black Islam and Muslim fashion scholar Kayla Renée Wheeler described the solidarity hijab for the #HeadscarfForHarmony campaign like erasing and called the campaign a liberal virtue signaling, “People can congratulate each other”, she tweeted“without doing anything meaningful/useful. I think it’s harmful. Layla Poulos, author and activist, stressed how the gesture was temporary. “Keep in mind,” she tweeted“many non-Muslim women who wrap themselves in a headscarf for a day of ‘solidarity’ will take it off and snuggle up with the same ideologies and the same men who make us dangerous.”
The Muslim women who spoke out the loudest against the #HeadscarfForHarmony campaign on social media were black. And it was no coincidence. Black Muslim women saw something different because, living amid overlapping patterns of oppression (Islamophobia, misogyny, and white supremacy), they are used to being erased, tokenized, and exploited. For black Muslim scholars and activists, the solidarity hijab was a form not only of gendered Islamophobia, but also of white supremacy.
Let’s look at my second case study: an educational program on the Camino. The Camino de Santiago, or “the Way of St. James”, is a popular pilgrimage route through northern Spain, where legend has it that the bones of St. James the Apostle are buried. This trip is a Catholic pilgrimage, but Catholic pilgrims are in the minority. I hiked a section of the Camino five times with students as part of an experiential study abroad program I led from 2013-2017 for Northeastern University. The goal of this study abroad program was to increase religious literacy, but I now realize that the program has reinforced a Christian-centered, whitewashed narrative of Spanish history.
Historically, the Iberian Peninsula, where the Camino is located, was home to a wide range of religious traditions, including Celtic, Greek and polytheistic practices. The Christians did not obtain a stronghold until the Visigothic occupation in the 5th century, which ended in 711, when the Visigothic decline allowed the Muslim Moors of North Africa to claim this territory. Islamic rule of the region known today as Spain lasted for seven centuries. Many historians regard this period of Islamic rule as the golden age of Spanish intellectual and artistic production, even as the rest of Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages.
However, there is another way to describe the period of Moorish rule in Spain: as the invasion and occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by foreign forces that Christians fought to expel for over 700 years. And this is the most common narrative in Spain today.
Now consider the role of the Camino in the context of these competing accounts of Spanish history. As a result, the moment of the discovery of the tomb of Saint-Jacques around 813 is significant. This provided the Christian authorities with a means to bring more Christians to the area at a time when they were trying to overthrow Islamic rule.
But there is more. Legends circulated that St. James inserted himself into the growing tensions between Christians and Muslims by miraculously returning as the figure of Matamoros, or Moor Slayer, a knight helping to defeat the Muslim Moors. There are still visual depictions of Matamoros all over Spain, including in Santiago Cathedral, crushing the heads and bodies of the Moors under the hooves of his white steed. This means that the Camino is a pilgrimage not only to the tomb of the Apostle St. James, but also to a medieval Anglo-European knight celebrated for murdering non-white North African Muslims in order to “return” Spain to his imaginary Christian roots. But most pilgrims don’t know this version of the story or Saint James, and literally walk past the scene of the crime. So while the Camino’s very existence depends on a violent history of religious pluralism in which race plays a central role, its popularity today depends on erasing that history.
The role of whiteness in popularizing yoga – my third and final case study – is also clear. When yoga arrived in the United States around the turn of the 20th century and physical postures were tied to devotional yogic beliefs, it was met with suspicion. This yoga was too eastern, too alien, and frankly too related to bodies of color to become mainstream for white Americans. For yoga to become mainstream, it was cleansed of its devotional meanings and presented in comfortable spaces for white people.
For example, when my mother was introduced to yoga in the early 1970s, it was not from an Indian guru, but from Lilias Folan, a white woman in a leotard whose popular PBS show introduced yoga to a generation of women. white Americans. Folan’s postures and simple meditation techniques seemed slightly exotic at the time, which was part of their appeal, but they were also presented in an accessible and comfortable way for my white Protestant mother.
Rumya Putcha, a South Asian performance studies specialist, shares a powerful story on her research blog, Namaste Nation, which illustrates the role of yoga in creating public white spaces. When Putcha lived in Texas, she was a member of a local yoga studio. Another member who was a white woman used a pun, “Namastay together”, which offended Putcha as a desi woman. But when she voiced her concerns, the white member spoke to the studio owner and Putcha was asked to leave the studio. This illustrates what can happen when white privilege is triggered. The studio was happy to borrow from South Asian culture to make its members’ yoga experience more “authentic,” but true South Asian members would be left out if they questioned that appropriation.
If Americans are more sensitive to racial appropriation than to religious appropriation because we assume that only the former is involved in white supremacy, then we fail to see how the latter is also dependent on whiteness. I agree that there is something particularly egregious when white people appropriate practices associated with non-white communities. But a black-white racial binary is not the only way whiteness is implicated in creating exploitative conditions for appropriation.
The ideology of whiteness manifests itself in various ways in forms of religious appropriation – when practices associated with bodies of color are adopted by white agents, when histories of racism are erased, and when forms of appropriation position White Americans as the appropriate interpreters of the “true” meaning of a practice. Whiteness is part of what makes religious appropriation possible and popular in the first place, then seen as morally neutral.
So the next time you see others borrowing a religious practice, or you yourself do so, consider applying the same scrutiny you would apply to cases of cultural appropriation where the role of race appears more obvious. Religious minorities are racialized, white Protestantism is embedded in many of our laws and institutions, and race is part of the historical narratives that are promoted and left behind. There are likely to be racial implications in the spiritual practice you pursue for your well-being or personal fulfillment. Just because you can borrow something doesn’t mean you should always.
Liz Bucar is Professor of Religion, Dean’s Leadership Fellow, and Director of Sacred Writes at Northeastern University. An expert in comparative religious ethics, Bucar is the author of four books and two edited collections, including Stealing my religion: not just any cultural appropriation. His public scholarship includes signatures in Atlantic, The Los Angeles Timesand teen vogueas well as several radios and podcast interviews.