An important, but complex and controversial question, is who exactly can practice various African traditional religions and Afro-diasporic traditions without culturally appropriating them? There’s no unified consensus on the answer to this. I’ve seen some black people who feel that all ATRs should be completely closed to everyone who doesn’t have any recent black ancestry. I’ve seen many practitioners of ATRs say that they feel these religions are universal to practice regardless of race.
Having considered both sides of the aisle on this topic, I’ll share my personal opinion on the impacts of various peoples practicing ATRs. Ultimately, it’s always going to come down to the discretion of initiated priests and priestesses in any ATR who chose to welcome any given individual into their lineage or not.
The vast majority of African religions and Afro-diasporic traditions are initiatory (semi-closed), meaning that you cannot fully engage with and practice the religion without being initiated into it or at least joining an in-person community of initiated practitioners who can guide and teach you. Some of these religious communities will choose to initiate people regardless of their ancestry or race and some will not.
So it is possible nowadays to find many legitimately initiated nonblack practitioners of ATRs, but I personally do not advocate for or support it. The two many reasons for this aren’t related to the process of initiation itself, but instead to their lack of ancestral connections that are required for basic practices and the overall harmful impact to the religious traditions themselves.
The Issue of Ancestry
Across almost all African and Afro-diasporic religions, venerating and working with one’s ancestors is an essential and fundamental part of the tradition. In Yoruba traditions, for example, to even begin to communicate with the Orishas and work with them, any godparent in will first teach you how to work with your ancestors. Skipping this step in the process would be like trying to walk across a river without a bridge or trying to call someone long-distance without a telephone. The ancestors can help practitioners form relationships with the Orishas and build one’s connect to them.
That’s because some of the Orishas are believed by the Yoruba people to be their oldest ancestors and the creators of humanity. While this justifiably applies to black people in the diaspora who likely or definitely have ancestral ties to the Yoruba people and therefore also the Orishas, it most certainly doesn’t apply to those without any African ancestry whatsoever.
So black people regardless of their nationality can call on their African ancestors to connect them with related African spirits… but if you don’t have that connection, who are you calling on to connect you with those African spirits? The answer lies in the fact that these religious traditions were never meant to be practiced by anyone without ancestral links to them. Kemeticism, which was historically shared with foreigners and others outside of the culture, is the only exception to this that I know of.
Impact on the Religions
One of the reasons that I highly discourage folks without African descent from seeking to practice any of these traditions or religions is because of my own practical experience with the impacts that this can have. Time and time again, I have witnessed first-hand the harmful effects of people without ancestral connections to these traditions being initiated into and practicing them.
I have seen countless messages from black folks around the world sharing about how uncomfortable they are with trying to join any of the ATR houses near them because there are white people in them. The presence of white practitioners when it alienates any of us from what are meant to be intimate spaces of black spirituality should not be welcomed or encouraged.
I have heard many stories of colorism and racism from houses where white people are usually the leaders and are comfortable with letting racist ideologies intertwine with their teachings. I’ve read books, websites, and blogs about ATRs from white practitioners who spread racist, Eurocentric, and colonial ideas throughout their representations of the traditions. I’ve seen whitewashed portrayals of African spirits and deities. Not only is this inaccurate, it’s downright insulting.
I’ve watched white people water down African religions and spirituality, spread misinformation, scam those who do not know, and carelessly jump over and around essential aspects of the traditions. Many of them try to peddle their fraudulent practices not just to anyone, but even specifically targeted them at black folks.
I’ve called out mostly white people in these examples because frankly…. most nonblack practitioners of ATRs tend to be white rather than people of color. However, let me be clear that I do not think that it is problematic just for white people to practice ATRs. No matter what they try to do to uplift black voices or black practitioners within their communities, nonblack practitioners of ATRs open the doors for irreparable damage to the religious traditions in all these different ways because it sets an example that ATRs are open… and that opens the doors to the individuals who are racist. It also opens the doors to the individuals who regardless of their level of wokeness still make black practitioners uncomfortable to be around in black spiritual spaces.
Even just the risk of that damage through whitewashing and racism is detrimental for African traditional religions and Afro-diasporic traditions. Consider for a moment that these are indigenous practices and diasporic practices forged in the unfathomably horrific conditions of slavery. These are extremely marginalized, heavily persecuted religions that have quite literally been demonized, outlawed and used as a justification for the dehumanization of black people throughout history.
We are already fighting a very long and hard battle every day to push back against all of that, heal from it as best we can, and reclaim our ancestral heritage for the many rich, beautiful traditions that it contains. The best way for folks without African ancestry to join that fight and support these religious traditions is to help uplift the voices of black folks about it and leave those traditions for us to practice, preserve, and reclaim.