Most progressive liberals are aware of the dangers of borrowing from racially marginalized communities. My students are no exception. They are quick to identify and condemn forms of cultural appropriation when white folks adopt styles of communities of color for financial benefit or to increase their coolness quotient. Which is all to say we are in a very important cultural moment of awareness to systemic racial injustice. We are primed to see racial borrowing as likely ethically fraught. And this is a good thing.
But few seem to be concerned or even notice when religious borrowing causes harm. In fact, quite the opposite. Religious combining is not only common, but also encouraged as a way to engage religious practice without having to submit to religious institutions, hierarchies, and doctrines. It is a method to get 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 an outsider to religious communities, a situation ripe for appropriation?
When concerns are raised, religious appropriations are defended by calling them something else based on their liberal motivations—politics, education, therapy—a tactic which hides the harm to religious communities they can cause. In my recent book, Stealing My Religion, I explore three cases of borrowing that were all motivated by goals we would judge as “good” from a liberal point of view: demonstrating allyship with a religious minority (wearing a solidarity hijab), learning about a religious rite of passage through firsthand experience (studying abroad on the Camino de Santiago), and a therapeutic treatment based on a religious practice (practicing yoga). In each case I found these motivations were not enough to prevent bad outcomes. Put simply, liberal intentions led to illiberal results.
Given how sensitive 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 we don’t understand that race is fundamental to religious appropriation as well. When the borrowings are from cultures associated with Black communities, we know white supremacy is at play. But one thing that surprised me while conducting research for Stealing My Religion was how central race was for understanding the ethics of religious borrowing as well. Whiteness motivated every case of borrowing I looked at and white supremacy in some form was a reason why the borrowing was harmful, and thus properly called appropriation.
The first case study I tackle is the solidarity hijab—wearing an Islamic headscarf to signal opposition to gendered Islamophobia—such as the #HeadscarfForHarmony campaign which launched in the wake of 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 allyship.
Kayla Renée Wheeler, a scholar of Black Islam and Muslim fashion, described the solidarity hijab of the #HeadscarfForHarmony campaign as erasure and called out the campaign as liberal virtue signaling: “People get to pat themselves on the back,” she tweeted, “without actually doing anything meaning /helpful. I think it’s harmful.” Layla Poulos, an author and activist, pointed out how temporary the gesture was. “Keep in mind,” she tweeted, “many of the non-Muslim women wrapping in a headscarf for a day of ‘solidarity’ will take it off and cuddle up with the same ideologies and men that make us unsafe.”
The Muslim women who spoke out the loudest against the #HeadscarfForHarmony campaign on social media were Black. And this was not a coincidence. Black Muslim women saw something different because, existing amid overlapping modes of oppression (Islamophobia, misogyny, and white supremacy), they are used to being erased, tokenized, and exploited. For Black Muslim scholars and activists, 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 to St. James,” is a popular pilgrimage route that goes through northern Spain, where legend has it the bones of St. James the Apostle are entombed. This trip is a Catholic pilgrimage, but Catholic pilgrims are in the minority. I have walked a section of the Camino five times with college students as part of an experiential study abroad program I led from 2013 to 2017 for Northeastern University. The goal of this study abroad program was to increase religious literacy, but I now realize the program reinforced a Christian-centric and 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 polytheist practices. Christians didn’t obtain a stronghold until the Visigoth occupation in the fifth century, and that ended in 711, when Visigoth decline allowed Muslim Moors from North Africa to claim this territory. Islamic rule of the area known today as Spain lasted seven centuries. Many historians consider this period of Islamic rule 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 of Spain: as the invasion and occupation of Iberia by foreign forces whom Christians fought to expel for more than 700 years. And this is the narrative that is most common in Spain today.
Consider now the role of the Camino within the context of these competing narratives of Spanish history. Suddenly, the timing of the discovery of St. James’s tomb around 813 is significant. It provided Christian authorities with a way to bring more Christians into the region during a period when they were trying to overturn Islamic rule.
But there is more. Legends circulated that St. James inserted himself into mounting 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 representations of Matamoros throughout Spain, including in the Cathedral of Santiago, crushing the heads and bodies of Moors under the hoofs of his white steed. That means the Camino is a pilgrimage not only to the tomb of the Apostle St. James, but also to an Anglo-European medieval knight celebrated for murdering non-white North African Muslims to “return” Spain to its imagined Christian roots. But most pilgrims don’t know this version of history or St. James, and walk, quite literally, past the scene of the crime. So, while the Camino’s very existence depends on a violent history of religious pluralism in which race takes a central role, its popularity today depends on erasing this history.
The role of whiteness in the popularization of yoga—my third and final case study—is also clear. When yoga first arrived in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century, and physical postures were tied to devotional yogic beliefs, it was met with suspicion. That yoga was too Eastern, too foreign, and frankly too connected to bodies of color to become mainstream for white Americans. For yoga to become mainstream it was scrubbed of its devotional meanings and presented in spaces that are comfortable for white people.
For example, when my mom discovered yoga in the early 1970s it wasn’t from an Indian guru, but Lilias Folan, a white woman in a leotard whose popular PBS show introduced yoga to a generation of white American women. Folan’s postures and simple meditation techniques seemed slightly exotic at the time, which was part of their appeal, but they were also packaged in way that was accessible and comfortable for my white Protestant mother.
Rumya Putcha, a South Asian scholar of performance studies, shares a powerful story on her research blog, Namaste Nation, that 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 tattled 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 actual South Asian members would be excluded if they questioned this appropriation.
If Americans are more sensitive to racial appropriation than to religious appropriation because we assume that only the first is involved in white supremacy, then we are missing the extent to which the latter also depends on whiteness. I agree that there is something particularly egregious when white people appropriate practices associated with non-white communities. But a racial Black-white binary is not the only way whiteness is involved in creating exploitative conditions for appropriation.
The ideology of whiteness is manifested 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 proper interpreters of the “true” meaning of a practice. Whiteness is part of what makes religious appropriation possible and popular in the first place, and then perceived as morally neutral.
So, the next time you see others borrowing a religious practice, or are yourself drawn to do so, considering applying the same scrutiny you would 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 which historical narratives are promoted and which are left behind. It is likely there are racial implications to the spiritual practice you pursue for wellness or self-actualization. Just because you can borrow something doesn’t always mean you should.
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. Her public scholarship includes bylines in The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, and Teen Vogue, as well as several radio and podcast interviews.