One of the cornerstones of the humanist philosophy is compassion. This is a motivation that inspires the very lifestance of humanism, according to Humanist Manifesto III. Part and parcel to compassion is empathy, the capacity to identify with the frame of mind or circumstances of others.
Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling recently received criticism for appropriating slivers of Native American traditions for her new Potter-world series, History of Magic in North America. For example, she uses the Navajo legend of “skin walkers,” people with the power to transform into animals. It’s a legend that holds ceremonial meaning in Navajo culture even today—and Rowling turns it into a made-up story intended to demonize wizards, who in Rowling’s fictional world are real.
Cultural appropriation tends to be a difficult topic to navigate. Some aren’t sure what this term means, and many—being unable (or unwilling) to appreciate social contexts and lived experiences foreign to their own—fail to see why issues related to cultural appropriation are problematic.
This is where empathy comes in. We can’t experience this heightened sense of understanding until we’re willing to listen and become emotionally available to receive new information. Everyone’s prone to cultural blind spots or ignorance in social matters, which is why we should try to be receptive to the input of those directly impacted in these kinds of situations, even when doing so defies our comfort level or challenges what we previously thought to be true.
Rowling’s new story is clearly guilty of borrowing from Native American culture, a key feature of cultural appropriation. Fordham University law professor Susan Scafidi defines cultural appropriation as:
Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.
Editor of Native Peoples magazine Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota), who is a self-described “Potterhead,” doesn’t let her enthusiasm for all things Harry Potter soften her criticism of Rowling’s latest work depicting magic medicine men and mythical skin walkers. Walker calls out Rowling for traveling “down the well-trodden path of stereotypes and cultural appropriation so popular with non-Native writers trying to depict Native people,” thereby transfiguring “a few very real Indigenous practices, beliefs, and values into cultural clichés.”
Walker highly recommends that those in need of additional understanding read the point-by-point analysis of Rowling’s History of Magic in North America by Dr. Adrienne Keene, citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Walker explains why Rowling’s incorporation of Native American cultural practices is so problematic:
The savvy among us know media representations greatly influence outside perception and worth, and more importantly self-perception and self-worth. For Native Americans, study after study (after study after study) reveal stereotypes negatively impact Native people, especially our youth, who—unlike their white counterparts—have little to no accurate representations of themselves in pop culture. When you can’t see yourself reflected accurately (if at all) in the media, feelings of worthlessness, anger, frustration, and withdrawal can manifest, which is part of the reason Native youth experience the highest rates of suicide among any racial demographic.
If we had diverse representations of Native people the same way white people do, Rowling’s latest wouldn’t be so problematic, because consumers would have other options from which to base their opinions. As it is, so much of the Native narrative is romanticized and fantastical and now one of the world’s most successful authors has thrown her mighty magical empire against our fragile reemergence from near-total cultural genocide. That the work is fiction doesn’t negate centuries of oppression.
This is why empathy matters. Without it, we’re able to rationalize or otherwise shrug off cultural appropriation without understanding how its adverse implications resonate. “This is the same situation George Lucas found himself in with Jar Jar Binks,” journalist Desiree Kane (Miwok) observes. “Both further what our society already arrogantly reinforces: that white people can take whatever they want for the purposes of making money off black and brown people and their unique cultures without according them the proper respect…. Appropriation and cultural theft by non-Natives is exploitative and a form of erasure.” Kane goes on to note that Rowling:
Is also contributing to stereotypes that further reinforce the belief that Natives are magical, a common racist trope, by including a real belief set into a fictional space. To hide plain disrespect behind calling her selfish desires for cash ‘writing fiction’ is insulting.
How much of that money will go back to the Diné, who she is stealing this from? The typically expected amount: zero. The same amount Lucas gave back to the Afro-Caribbean community when he brought racial ventriloquism to our screens for cash. This is what racist colonialism in practice looks like.
Humanists aspire to the greater good. A component of this principle is to behave decently and extend dignity towards all. Cultural appropriation is a flagrant regression from these humanist goals.
How we practice compassion ought to mimic the Chinese philosopher Mozi’s injunction of jian ai, which means “impartial concern” or “universal love.” This concern for the welfare of others makes no distinction between oneself and others, or friends and strangers. We must also appreciate the fact that our views are compromised by an environment that nurtures the marginalization of minority groups. Cultural appropriation is an expression of this insensitivity, devaluation, and disregard.
For those that want to do and be more, acknowledging these things leads to a more evolved sense of concern for the condition of others. Compassion must be strengthened like a muscle or we risk its significance being blunted by incuriosity, prejudice, and complacency.