Multiculturalism or Cultural Appropriation?

Yesterday I came across a news article about a young woman who chose a traditional Chinese dress to wear to her high school prom because she appreciated its modesty. She posted a picture on social media and was deluged with howls of protest over such an egregious expression of “cultural appropriation.” From where I sit, not only is this rank foolishness at its most bizarre but I always thought that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and she should be complimented for her “pan-cultural” awareness, not slammed for her callous insensitivity. The cliches “tempest in a teapot” and “much ado about nothing” come to mind.

Which brings me to the real subject of this post. Over the past ten years or so, there has been a groundswell of negative opinion over the lack of  diversity (racial, cultural, social, sexual, political, economic, and any other “-ism” that happens to tweak the hyperallergic activists’ collective nose) in the Waite-Smith tarot deck. Its zeitgeist is crammed with medieval, monarchical, white, male, European characters who wouldn’t know diversity if it walked up and smacked them. There is a perception that anyone who isn’t a member of that exclusive club should automatically feel offended by its very existence in a deck of cards. If Marshall McLuhan was right and “the media is the message,” we are having our delicate snouts rubbed in high-handed cultural imperialism by the very foundations of our art. Waite and Smith as counter-insurgents: how devious can you get?

Although half of my genetic ancestry is “Anglo-” and the other half is “-Saxon” (there, full disclosure at its most politically correct) and I also happen to be male, when contemplating the tarot I’m basically “culture-blind.” I pay scant attention to the visual details on the cards and cut right to the chase of interpreting the impressions triggered by those generic images in my memory. I do own decks that are chock-full of diversity – the World Spirit 2nd Edition is a fine example that is unflinching in its portrayal of the human condition – but it’s their artistry and not their politics that I find compelling. You could say that I take a “soft-focus” view of the pictures so I don’t get hung up on the particulars of the deck creator’s private crusade. An archetype will endure in its protean form regardless of the topical spin we choose to put on it, and it is the intrinsic meaning, not the surface sheen, that I value most.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are critics who are outraged by anyone with the gall to publish a monocultural deck that borrows from ancient tribal traditions. There are a number of Native American decks out there that graft the Waite-Smith model onto the aboriginal bedrock, probably so they can be called “tarot” decks and not suffer the “oracle” epithet that dutifully honoring their shamanistic roots would require. There is also a Minoan deck or two that does the same thing. “Tarot” sells, “oracle” not so much. Assuming this isn’t just cynical “moichandizing” as Mel Brooks would say in his trademark Bronx accent, such borrowing might well be deemed a sincere exposition of primordial cultural values and not merely exploitative corruption of their assumed purity.

It seems to me we can’t have it both ways. If we want culturally diverse images in our decks, there will inevitably by some appropriation of all kinds of minutiae that serve to identify the sources of our inspiration. It won’t do to import the effigy of a Hindu goddess if all of the trappings of her office are left behind. Nobody will understand what we’re trying to say. Although he might be considered the apotheosis of “white male supremacy,” Aleister Crowley was adept at injecting all kinds of  pan-cultural symbolism into the Major Arcana of the Thoth deck, and even managed to sneak a little into the non-scenic “small” cards. He did in fact present some “people of color,” but his goal was esoteric and not an attempt to achieve racial balance. My personal opinion is that we as a group need to become far more tough-minded and thick-skinned about our sensitivities than recent experience has shown us to be. Taking offense at pictures is just a distraction from our higher purpose (although I have to admit that even I am disturbed by the “castration” scene on the Estensi 2 of Wands; these things do have their limits after all.)

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