Woowoo and Cultural Appropriation

What is 'Woowoo' and how to follow the path respectfully


J. Freels

5/22/20244 min read

The Ways of WooWoo and avoiding Cultural Appropriation

What is Woowoo?

The exact origins of the term "woowoo" are murky, but it began popping up in the latter half of the twentieth century to refer to a loose knit collection of unconventional beliefs and practices that often fall outside the realm of mainstream science. It encompasses everything from mystical forces and spiritual awakenings to alternative health remedies and metaphysical phenomena. Some people use it as a mean-spirited derogatory term, while others recognized it as a kind of playful "hi sign" to those in the know. Most woowoo folks fall into a healthy balance of skepticism and open-mindedness.

Embracing a silly name like 'woowoo' demonstrates a kind of playful openess to new possibilities. When the playful curiosity is balanced with a respect for the traditions we are drawing from we learn and grow more effectively. Sometimes it can be tricky to find this balance however, and this is why I want to introduce the idea of being mindful of cultural appropriation.

One of the biggest issues people have had with the woowoo eclecticism of the New Age Movement is the fact that so many people slip from respectfully learning about other cultures and traditional practices, to cultural appropriation, usually without realizing it.

A lot of people incorporate shamanic practices into their work, and it's respectful to remember that this doesn't make you worthy of the title 'shaman' any more than putting gas in the car makes you a mechanic. They're not the same thing. Reading about a culture online doesn't provide you the same experiences, paradigms, and insights as those who are born into and raised in that culture. They're nto the same thing. Buying a t-shirt with a tradition's sacred symbols emblazoned on it is very different than studying, honoring, and living the values those symbols represent. They're not the same thing.

If someone invites you into their home and shares something of their way of life with you, try to be a good houseguest, ok? If someone hasn't even invited you inside to learn about their way of life, there's probably a good message here too.

To live a full life and grow into who we need to be we must pay attention to the world around us and the many different ideas out there. It's easy to become excited by new ideas that really resonate with us, and a lot of what we learn about can be integrated into, or shape our own practices. This is how we grow. It's important to remember to be respectful and value everyone else's experiences as well as our own as we learn and grow. When we lose sight of this our growth will be stilted and incomplete, and just really not the best use of your time and energy!

Here are some basic principals of respect to avoid cultural appropriation as you learn about other people and their traditions.

1. Approach with Humility and Respect: Acknowledge that you are an outsider to the culture you're interested in and approach it with humility and respect. Recognize that you may not fully understand its complexities and that you are a guest in learning about it.

2. Educate Yourself: Take the initiative to educate yourself about the culture through reliable sources such as books, documentaries, or reputable websites. Learn about its history, customs, traditions, and the significance behind cultural practices. Please remember that no amount of second hand "book learning" can make you more of an expert than the people who are living what you're learning about.

3. Seek Permission and Consent: If possible, seek permission or consent from individuals within the culture before participating in or adopting any cultural practices. Respect their autonomy and recognize that not all aspects of a culture are meant to be shared outside of it.

4. Understand the Context: Gain a deeper understanding of the context in which cultural practices occur. Appreciate the historical, social, and political factors that shape these practices and their significance to the community.

5. Avoid Stereotypes and Generalizations: Be mindful of stereotypes and generalizations when learning about another culture. Recognize that cultures are diverse and multifaceted, and avoid reducing them to simplistic or caricatured representations.

6. Credit and Attribution: When sharing or referencing cultural practices, always give credit to the originating culture and acknowledge its influence. Avoid appropriating cultural elements without acknowledging their origins or claiming them as your own.

7. Engage in Cultural Exchange, Not Appropriation: Foster genuine dialogue and exchange with members of the culture, rather than simply borrowing or taking elements out of context. Build relationships and collaborations that promote mutual understanding and respect.

8. Be Open to Feedback and Criticism: Be receptive to feedback and criticism from members of the culture if your actions are perceived as appropriative or insensitive. Use these opportunities for self-reflection and growth, and adjust your behavior accordingly.

9. Respect Boundaries: Respect the boundaries set by the culture regarding what is considered appropriate for sharing or participation by outsiders. Be mindful of practices that are sacred, sensitive, or restricted to certain individuals within the community.

10. Support Cultural Preservation and Empowerment: Instead of appropriating cultural practices, support initiatives that promote cultural preservation, empowerment, and self-representation within the community. Amplify the voices and perspectives of cultural insiders rather than speaking on their behalf.

By following these principles, you can engage with other cultures in a respectful and ethical manner, fostering meaningful exchange and appreciation while avoiding the pitfalls of cultural appropriation. You'll grow and thrive without poisoning the well you're drinking from!

By utilizing these principals you won't be tripping over your own baggage and preconceptions, you won't be offensive to those you wish to learn from, you'll learn more quickly and easily, and you'll more easily recognize what fits with who you are. When you make these principals part of your general conduct, it also frees you up to have fun on the journey!

Your own bag o' tricks is going to fill up with a lot of different tools to do your work. Always strive to find the balance of Respect, Curiosity, and Playfulness in your woowoo work.