As I promised earlier, I’ll say a few words about the depiction of race/ethnicity in the Oracle of Shadows and Light. (I promise, there are images further down but I couldn’t find anything suitable for the first part of the post – sorry!)
You see, amongst all the fantastic creatures with names like Nautilus Princess, Angel of Time, Winged Seer or Mildew Fairy the deck also contains the following cards (card name – subtitle):
- I am Kali – From death comes rebirth
- Angel de los Muertos – Transitions to the spirit realm
- Amara the Menehune – Aloha healing
- Faceless Ghosts and the Haunted Girl – Ghost people
- Voodoo in Blue – Back off!
- Pink Lotus Fairy – A time for spirit
- Fairy of the Highlands – It’s time to be brave
I could have added more cards to the list because there were more that seem to hint at specific cultures (e.g. Strangely Lonely and the Celtic Cross she embraces so tightly, Marie Masquerade and her Marie Antoinette get-up from the time of the French Revolution, or the Dutch Renaissance references in the Lady with a Bosch Egg), but I had to draw the line somewhere. So I picked the most glaring and problematic ones.
Why are they problematic, you ask? We’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s look at who this oracle is aimed at, so we get a better perspective on it. This is from the companion book by Lucy Cavendish.
They’re not words you often hear associated with the spiritual world, are they? Nevertheless, some of the most spiritual beings who have ever lived are those who have been most at odds with what we call the “mainstream.” They do not fit in. […]
So, with this deck, they ask you to step out from the shadows, to no longer hide your light away, and consult with an Oracle that acknowledges your individuality and strange genius! […]
For this oracle is like no other: It is for the lost and lonely, the broken-hearted and the orphans and misfits […].
The messages, images, and realms of this unique oracle overflow with all that is beautiful, quirky, haunting, and shadowy-sweet.
For this oracle embraces those who have long felt they have no home […].
This should appeal to me a lot. After all, I experience daily that I don’t fit in with what is considered normal in the world around me. I’d also love to have my “strange genius” acknowledged and to find a place that feels like home, the kind of home that isn’t available to me in the “mainstream.” But instead of feeling welcome, I feel repelled. No matter how much this booklet claims this deck is all about embracing our shadows, I still feel as if someone poured a barrel of sickly-sweet sirup over me.
But never mind my urge to immediately eat a chunk of strong cheese and a few pickled cucumbers. I shall endure the stickiness of the gooey sugar and proceed to do exactly what the companion book assures me I will be supported in by the beings in this deck: I won’t “be ever so nice,” and I won’t “smile for the sake of it,” and I won’t “pretend [I] feel one way when [I] feel another.”
So, after we have established that the deck is aimed at people who feel they don’t fit in and maybe romanticize being “unusual” a little bit, and after also establishing that I find it odd to tell someone to stop being oh-so-nice all the time and to embrace their shadows in a tone that is nothing but nice (I mean, come on, cheeky is the strongest word you can come up with to describe the delivery of the messages gained from this deck?), we can now move on to my actual point of this post.
To ease us into that part, let’s once again consult the companion book because it offers two entire paragraphs (which I will quote in whole) to tell us about the origins of the card characters.
WHERE ARE THESE BEINGS FROM?
We know of many magickal realms. There is the realm of Faery, of the Dragonfae, of the angels and ascended masters. The partnership we humans have had with the spirits of place and land, with ancestral spectres and wise little witches is ages old. We have always helped each other, until we humans turned away, told too often we ought not to trust these friends. Be assured: we need only ask these beautiful beings from the realms of shadows and light for help and they will give it. Even if it is cheekily delivered, it will always be for the Highest Good of all, and their presence will always support you in your quest for a wonderful life.
To better understand these wise, delightful beings, it is helpful to know where they came from. They have been with us for much longer than many of us think: and they tend to have come through at important, pivotal points in our personal or cultural history.
Some of them are from actual physical Earth locations, like Amara the Menehune, whose energy originates in Hawaii. The being in the card known as I am Kali is Hindu in philosophy, and from the vast empires of the Indian sub-continent. The beings in Faceless Ghosts are Japanese in origin. Others are from worlds between the worlds, and are like the energies and forces of nature herself: The Eclipse Mermaid is cosmic in nature, the Snow Angel is heavenly in origin (but not in attitude!) and others come from the Deep South of the United States of America, and have the most beautiful, courteous old-fashioned manners! The Winged Seer is from in between the worlds, and dwells in a realm where past, present and future have yet to be woven. They are all unusual and unconventional, and highly helpful and loving – even if they do seem a wee bit cheeky at times!
Okay, let me see if I got this right: Hawaii, India, Japan, and the Deep South of the U.S.A. are “realms” that are somehow like the cosmos, heaven, or “between the worlds.” There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between a goddess (Kali), a mythological people (Menehune), a mermaid, or an angel because the one and only thing that matters is that none of them is human. Am I the only one who finds this a little bit random and potentially insulting? (Besides the fact that it all sounds like Doreen Virtue for the emo crowd…)
But let’s take a better look at some of the cards I mentioned (by the way, most of the images – many of which are self-portraits – apparently have not been painted specifically for this deck – which might explain the awkward patchwork feel of the deck and the not-so-smooth interaction of the cards and the companion book).
Let’s start with I am Kali, because I have the biggest issue with her. If you have looked at the previous posts about this deck, you will have noticed that every single card character is massively cute. While this is perfectly fine with sweet and easy cards like the Candy Cane Angel, it seems really out of place to me with a card that is supposed to depict Kali. In case you don’t know, Kali (“the black one”) is a terrible Hindu goddess associated with death, annihilation, destruction, time and change (I believe we may safely assume this isn’t the gentle change of water that smoothes down stones), although some people also worship her as a mother figure. In images and statues, she generally wears a garland of heads around her neck, and is often depicted in a skirt of arms, too. She often holds up a severed head and a bowl to catch its blood in addition to various weapons and other symbols. Finally, most images of her show her with her tongue sticking out (there are various explanantions for why that is so, with shame over having stepped on her husband Shiva in a furious frenzy being one of them).
Conveniently, nearly all of the more gory aspects of Kali iconography have been left out in this card (the artist calls this “a more subtle approach,” as if the traditional iconography of deities was something we could take or leave as it suited us). The one thing that is left is her skull garland, which is as removed from creepy as it can possibly be (all of the skulls are smiling). Otherwise, she looks exactly like every other girl in any other card of the deck. But it gets worse. The companion book for the deck has a brief introduction into what is shown on each card, then a passage where the card character speaks herself, and finally a paragraph with divinatory meanings. The pages for Kali say this:
I am clearing all that is leeching off your energy, draining your strength, and abrading those relationships that cannot do anything but keep you stuck. Whether you realise it or not, you called on me, and I have come to clear the path, to destroy that you have longed to let go of.
Working with Kali is extremely powerful, but it is work we all do, and all must do.
Srsly? Kali has come to take all the bad things away even though I may not even realize I called her? And I don’t have to do any of the ugly work of setting boundaries or changing unhelpful habits myself? While I’m in no way a Kali expert, I’m still pretty sure that’s not quite how “working with Kali” looks. And we must all work with Kali, even if we have nothing to do with the Hindu pantheon in any way, shape, or form? Bwahaha, I’m sure that will go over great with your average Celtic reconstructionist, Kemetic neopagan, or Asatrú!
But let’s look at another quote: “Her necklace of severed heads represents the end of slavery of the over-thinking, over-analytical self who gets stuck when all that is needed is action.” Uh, no, that’s not what it represents. I had a hard time finding a halfway reliable source online, but there were several accounts saying the severed heads or skulls represented the 52 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, and thereby the repository of human knowledge and wisdom. Others said it was about the death of the ego and freeing the spirit from the body as a part of spiritual enlightenment. Others yet claimed it was about the inseparableness of life and death. It seems I’ll have to take myself to a good library to settle this issue, but I think we can safely say that the Hindu goddess Kali has very little to do with what is assigned to her here in this oracle. To put it very, very gently.
But let’s move on to the next card, shall we? The Angel de los Muertos, which, according to the artist, was originally painted “in celebration of the Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead,” shows “a beautiful angel with a lot of the traditional Dia de los Muertos imagery. Decorated sugar skulls, bright carnations, harvest corn, tropical banana offerings, the flag of Mexico, blankets, all sorts of colours.” The companion book goes on to claim that the jobs of this angel are “to take the fear out of death” and to “gently collect and gather souls to take home, where they will rest a while, before incarnating again.” While I’m certainly no expert in Mexican beliefs surrounding the Día de los Muertos, I’m pretty sure that reincarnation in that sense is not a regular part of them.* I have also never heard about an “angel” like this in this context (and a quick Google search doesn’t bring up anything that would suggest otherwise, not even in Spanish). Which strongly suggests that at least the author of the deck, Lucy Cavendish, really doesn’t have much of a clue about the cultures she has chosen to integrate into her deck. Which then immediately leads to the problem in taking just one aspect of a culture that seems interesting without any regard for its context, aka cultural appropriation (you didn’t think I could do without that term, did you?).
[Not to mention the fact that my hackles raise at the attempts to completely de-scarify death with this image and the accompanying text. While death often does seem to become the less scary the closer you get to it (if reports from my fellow hospice volunteers are any indication), I find it highly irresponsible to tell someone who has lost a loved one that death isn’t scary, or tragic, or even that it doesn’t really exist. This attitude basically negates the reason for feeling grief, rendering grief itself something to do away with as soon as possible. But that’s a topic for another post sometime.]
It’s basically the same with all the other cards, only worse. The text for Amara the Menehune quotes every imaginable stereotype about Hawaii you can imagine. Paradisic warmth, sensuality, relaxation, and holistic medicine (“Aloha healing,” which is a Western construct in itself) abound, as if no one on Hawaii ever felt unsexy, stressed, or sick. The artist calls the Menehune “a Polynesian / Hawaiian type of fairy creature” but, like the author, fails to mention their reputation as exceptionally good builders and craftspeople. Again, as a sole representation of an entire culture, this seems at best superficial and willfully ignorant at worst. Especially since there is at least one folklorist who attributes the appearance of the term Menehune to contact with Europeans, and there are also theories that suggest the Menehune mythology may be based on actual human beings of low status (read the beginning of the Wikipedia article for a bit more on this).
I’ve briefly mentioned the Japanese noppera-bō ghosts from Faceless Ghosts and the Haunted Girl already (you can see an image of the card here). Once again, the actual myth and the meanings assigned to this card seem to be only very distantly related. From what little Wikipedia tells me about these ghosts, they are human-looking (except for their blank faces) and mostly just scare people without doing any actual harm. The companion book, however, speaks at length about people who have no personalities of their own and therefore have to steal away the energy, power, joy, and warmth (and sometimes the ideas and work) from others. This is at best a very clumsy attempt to fit a meaning to an existing image, with the not-so-harmless complete disregard for the culture that is referenced therein.
I’ll just say a very little bit about Voodoo in Blue. The only thing “voodoo” about this card seems to be the doll held by the bat-winged scowling girl. The artist’s website as well as the book mention sticking pins into the doll as a way to cause harm – which shows that neither of them have researched voodoo, vodou, or hoodoo even to the point of glossing over some Wikipedia articles. I just did that, and found out that not only does the Haitian Voodoo religion (aka vodou or vodun) not even have “voodoo dolls,” but New Orleans Voodoo, which is related to the folk magic practices called hoodoo, uses such dolls (or effigies) representing a spirit (not a person) to bring blessings (not harm). Oh, and let’s just hammer home the association of voodoo with something scary and strange again, shall we? (On a side note, I wonder if this is one of the cards where the “beautiful, courteous old-fashioned manners” of the Deep South are depicted…)
Onward to Pink Lotus Fairy, who apparently was inspired by a visit from a person who is into yoga. Of course she is “ethereal” and “very mystically enlightened and at peace.” You know, like these yoga people are (and if they aren’t, they’re probably doin’ it wrong). The companion book once again manages to mash together a crazy mess of references: “It would be very helpful for you to take up yoga, pilates or a physical exercise that has a spiritual practise attached to it […].” Excuse me? Pilates is nothing but a physical fitness system named after its creator of Greek ancestry, Joseph Pilates. While it may indeed be beneficial, there is no trace of spirituality anywhere near it. But it gets even
better worse. The part with the “divination message” starts like this.
Spiritual quest, travel, calm, relaxed yoga pose, self-love and self-acceptance. Third eye and crown chakra activation, chakra awakening, connection to all, crown chakra connected to the universe, receiving Universal Love messages, self connected peacefully to the earth, peaceful flowing energy in the body, tranquil, sublime spiritual moments of connection, blessings showering upon you due to correct relationships with body and soul.
Huh? What’s that?! A list of search engine optimization terms for a yoga school? The author’s freewriting about the card image that was accidentally left in the final manuscript? Or is this really meant to be here, and if so, what does it mean? Otherwise, I’m not sure why we are suddenly shown a blond, white fairy when yoga originates in India. I just know that I really can’t bring myself to believe this is an attempt at breaking up the stereotypical depictions of non-Western cultures and ethnicities.
But wait! Western people have ethnicities, too! Enter the Fairy of the Highlands in her red hair and tartan coat. (Admittedly, this is a somewhat different case, since the real-world power relations are a wee bit different than with the other cultures, but it’s a stereotype nonetheless.) The poor thing originally was a commission, and this is supposed to be an actual MacMillan tartan pattern – which the artist has gotten wrong!!! Note that the red lines in the original pattern run over the green background, not the blue one as in the card – and no, this isn’t just artistic freedom (google “MacMillan hunting tartan” if you don’t believe me). And what’s with the association of bravery and the Highlands? Am I the only one thinking of Connor “There can only be one!” MacLeod here? Why else would this frightened girl (she wins the “Hugest Eyes” title) even be associated with being brave?
And just in case my point hasn’t been made clearly enough already: My problem with all of these images is that they take exactly one stereotype from a (usually) non-Western culture and use it completely without context – and embarrassingly often without even having read the damn Wikipedia article, let alone having done any actual research. Longer-time readers of this blog might remember how little tolerance I have for such shoddy practices. So let’s repeat it for everyone: cultures you weren’t born into and apparently know practically nothing about are not part of a huge pool of costumes and accessories to pick from. What isn’t okay when it comes to Halloween (or carnival) costumes, also isn’t okay in your spiritual practice. And don’t tell me you’re “eclectic” because that’s still no excuse for perpetuating the colonialist traditions of (most of) our ancestors in appropriating whatever seems interesting, exotic, or “unusual.” (And be grateful I haven’t added an analysis of all the problematic messages about being female this deck and book contain!)
“But, Cat, isn’t this all a bit too much to expect from a cute little oracle deck that is apparently aimed at misunderstood teenagers of every age? Aren’t we allowed to have some harmless fun?”, I hear you ask. No, it’s not too much to expect. No, it’s not harmless fun. Popular culture is one of the biggest influences on what we think and believe, which is why we should examine it especially closely for all the undercurrents and subtexts and hidden messages it carries while being oh-so-entertaining and thus slipping under our conscious defenses a lot of the time. Cute packaging does not make cultural appropriation and lack of research about the appropriated cultures any less harmful.
And if avoiding racist stereotypes because you think they’re wrong (or at least incomplete) isn’t reason enough to keep you from protesting such imagery and writing, just remember for a minute that the actual, real-life users of this oracle may not all be white/of European descent… How do you think people of Japanese, Indian, Hawaiian/Polynesian, Mexican, or Haitian descent (not to mention people living in Japan, India, Hawaii/Polynesia, Mexico, or Haiti, fully immersed in the respective cultures there) feel when they see yet another tired old stereotypical and (yes, I’ll say it again) racist reference to their culture? And what about that claim that the Oracle of Shadows and Light was for “the lost and lonely, the broken-hearted and the orphans and misfits”? That this oracle “embraces those who have long felt they have no home”? Or doesn’t any of that apply to people of color? And isn’t that a bit ironic when they most likely have a lot more experience not feeling at home and being misfits in mainstream Western culture(s) than all of us white girls?
* = To translate the somewhat biased wording of the article linked above: the survey quoted has found that 78% of the people in Mexiko believe in a higher being. 40% believe in an afterlife, and less than 13% believe in reincarnation. In other words, reincarnation hardly is a mainstream belief in Mexico that would be suitable for the sole representation of anything Mexican in the entire deck. Wikipedia’s article on reincarnation also doesn’t mention Mexico even once. However, a source linked there offers the number of 24% of Americans who believe in reincarnation.
19 March 2012, noon-ish: Minor edits for grammar and spelling mistakes I didn’t notice yesterday.