Ethics and Cultural Appropriation
Updated: Sep 10
Recently I saw a post on the Interwebs which vented anger at white folks for practicing and teaching Reiki, discussing the ways that medicine has been whitewashed over the years and assimilated into a white, wealthy, New Age-y world.
While I could respond to the many details in that post which are distorted, slanted, and omit certain key details of the history and inherent nature of Reiki, I would rather explore some of the deeper themes of ethics and cultural appropriation with practicing originally non-white healing modalities.
I understand the history of white people colonizing the world, with their inherent - and for centuries unquestioned - sense of dominance and superiority, taking over other cultures and passing off their medicines / teachings / art / music / rituals as their own. I understand the importance of listening to, respecting, and elevating traditionally non-dominant peoples and cultures which have been sidelined and silenced for far too long. For a full, inclusive, healthy, relational society, the white voice cannot be the only one in the boardroom, on the bookshelves, or on the television.
And also, there is a limit to what is fair to be claimed as cultural appropriation.
Reiki, for instance, is a frequency of energy. Energy does not belong to a nationality or a culture, just like electricity does not belong to Nikola Tesla's Serbian culture. Neither acupuncture, nor shamanism, nor a particular type of clothing, nor a particular food is only for the culture it came from.
Discovering the deeper nature and context of any of these items undoubtedly enriches one's appreciation and use of them. To research the original kanji characters which make up the Japanese word "Reiki" or any of the names of the acupuncture points can add powerful new levels of connection with those medicines.
In the world of shamanism, some indigenous cultures use drums to induce trance states. However in the Amazon, the weather is too damp for the animal skin of a drum to remain taut enough to make a quality sound consistently. The plants native to the environment there have the properties which can produce similar psychospiritual effects as the drums do elsewhere in the world.
Understanding these culture-specific differences helps drive home the point that native tribes learned from and worked with the land around them to develop and maintain their spirituality and medicine. This level of comprehension encourages a more complete appreciation for shamanism as a whole and leads students to connect with the land near them in a more curious and honorable way.
Understanding context opens the door to deeper levels of practice of any modality or cooking of any food. But to say it is a requirement, without which one is a fraud or a cultural thief, is short-sighted and shallow. Reiki, like shamanism and acupuncture, is a living, breathing thing, meant to be mixed with other cultures, other approaches, other mentalities so it can breathe as broadly as possible.
If one is to say that only pure-bred Japanese people are able to "properly" practice Reiki, is that not also exclusionist? Does that mean only Jews are allowed to wear Levi jeans? How can there be, then, Australian chefs who cook Italian food? Or Israelis who study electricity?
No doubt, there are people who practice these modalities and charge exorbitant fees, are lost in their own Egoic arrogance and selfish motives, and are blind to the deeper truths of reality. Yet that is true in any cross-section of life. You can find people who act similarly within the cohorts of authors, chefs, landlords, athletes, psychotherapists, mechanics, and medical doctors.
It is incredibly sad that there are people who cling to the shallowest elements of human life and purport to be the end-all-be-all of their specialty. Those who do are blind to the history of white dominance, cultural suppression and appropriation. They are certainly worthy of being called out for their arrogance and self-centeredness with the intention to help them wake up to the deeper truths. Self-appointed shamans are certainly guilty of not appreciating the truest nature of their work and practicing under false pretenses.
I am not purporting to be Japanese nor Native American. I do, however, honor those cultures and implore my clients and students to do the same. But to say that I am appropriating other cultures because I use the techniques which originated in them is just as closed-minded and as disrespectful of me as others feel they have been treated.
Practitioners of any modality act with integrity and treat their craft with respect and honor. They strive to go deeper within themselves and within life. They are humble and they let the medicine, or art, flow through them. Reiki, like shamanism and acupuncture and allopathic medicine, is a living, breathing thing. Healthy, respectful practitioners are humble and creative; they explore the roots of the medicine as well as push its limits and see what else it can do and where else it can lead.
In the end, these ancient techniques and modalities must be adapted to fit modern times. They interweave with others to create new blends, just as mixing different kinds of expertise lends itself to new discoveries, new frontiers being pushed, new beauties to behold. This is how we grow as a culture and as a species. This is how we develop a deeper understanding of all of life.