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Protect Your Magic: A Cautionary Tale of Witchcraft, Anti-racism, Activism, and Commodification

Featured image: A black and white illustration of two protestors performing a ritual in front of other protestors holding signs in the background. One protestor with black hair holds a bundle of sage in their left hand while raising their right hand in a clenched fist, the universal sign of political solidarity. Smoke from the burning sage wafts in the center of the image. The second protestor with a small Afro hairstyle holds a black candle in their right hand, and rests their left hand on their hip. Their left and right hands cross each other. Illustration by Kiki Lechuga-Dupont.

The term “occult” feels at times like a misnomer. Less than 20 years ago, “occult” might have still conveyed obscurity and intrigue, or operated as a tantalizing, almost mimetic term that teased exactly the mystery it defines. Occultism, the taxonomy that encompasses a wide and debated array of beliefs in the mystical and metaphysical, has in the last five years been dragged increasingly out of these mysterious shadows and into the light of commerce, capitalism, and social recognition. But this is what happens when things leave the niche world of sub- or counterculture and enter the mainstream.

Definitions and details change. Beloved characters get new names, combined, or, worse, axed altogether. Complex plots, categories, and systems are simplified; made digestible for wider consumption, easier identification, and commodification. Whereas once an occultist could make national and international headlines for disrupting the status quo of “polite society,” a particularly savvy social media star could become an overnight sensation for their “witchy” aesthetic. What once was radical and could endanger your reputation, livelihood, and even your life, might today accumulate ad revenue or at least get you a few thousand likes. The process of this conversion is multifaceted and arguably has accelerated with the growth in communication networks and instant brand recognition that are the mainstays of our contemporary zeitgeist. Digital information, once shared, is instant and forever. The trajectory of counterculturalisms like the occult and witchcraft mainstreaming historically relied upon word of mouth, journalistic, and audio-visual entertainment transmissions. From the 1960s to the mid-aughts, witches of all backgrounds, genders, classes, and creeds have danced across the big and small screen, book pages, video games, and more.

But as I wrote in 2017, the witch would have another renaissance that, if honed, could be empowering for queer people, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and other demographics of people who embrace the label but have historically been left out of its representation1. However, four years later, I am reflecting on how contemporary capitalism and its witting and unwitting agents have subsumed witchcraft and the occult rather than embracing it. That said, the occult is not alone in this. It is but a piece of a conversation that addresses how radical practices, namely activism and anti-racism as I am concerned here, are arrested by one of capitalism’s most powerful and insidious counterrevolutionary tools: the process of commodification.

As a practitioner and scholar of witchcraft and a Black queer man whose artistic and professional practices are built upon a foundation of activism and anti-racism, it is clear to me that similar methodologies as those that dilute the radicality of witchcraft are deployed to diminish these two principles as well. By considering the three in tandem, I hope to illustrate how commodification of the radical transpires, what we risk losing should radical practices be made mere aesthetic or commodity, and what we can do to protect them.

Four hundred years ago in America, behaving like a witch could get you hung. Cursing (at) a neighbor, whispering under your breath, being poor, old, unlikeable, or even just being in the wrong place at the wrong time could garner you a witch accusation. The idea of the witch has expanded and contorted significantly over the last four centuries, and “behaving like a witch” is naturally much different today than it was then. In the last half-century of American culture, being a witch, or at the very least perceived as or accused of being a witch, is generally far more aspirational. The grim realities of witchcraft accusations have been compressed in favor of a witch signifier that is recognizable and reproducible. And every twenty years, we land on the newest silhouette.

Until 1970 it would more commonly have been a crone with black robes and cats, long nails and hair, a pointed hat, and a broom; occasionally a well-coiffed blonde bombshell or brunette vixen a la Elizabeth Montgomery in her various Bewitched guises. In the 1990s, it could have been a teenage girl oscillating between pleasant, everyday schoolgirl like Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and rebellious goth girl per the cast of The Craft. In the 2010s and holding strong in 2020, the witch has taken many faces and forms, but the most mass-marketable witch silhouette remains The Eagles’ raven haired, ruby lipped “Witchy Woman.”

Image: A black and white illustration of two figures in a spiritual goods store. One figure with long braided hair holds a vessel with smoke billowing out and around another figure with a short white Afro standing in the middle of the room with their arms outstretched. Illustration by Kiki Lechuga-Dupont.

Ruby lips are just the tip of the iceberg though, as the business of selling “witchiness” is a booming one. In 2021, psychic and spiritual services clocked in with revenue as high as $2.2 billion with a secure rate of growth over the next five years. As impressive as this number is, it does not fully reflect the financial capital of selling witchcraft given that it only accounts for “services in the areas of astrology, aura reading, mediumship, tarot card reading and palmistry, among other metaphysical services.” Fashion and entertainment retailers want to throw their conical hats into the ring as well. The major backlash mega-retailer Sephora faced and retreated from trying to cash in on “witchiness” has been covered extensively. However, that coverage rarely addresses that other vendors and websites including Spencers, Spirit Halloween, Barnes and Noble and Shondaland offer the same highly decontextualized “complete” sets and accessories that supposedly give their customers “everything [they’ll] need to conjure up some spells and practice [their] witchcraft.” Rarely, if ever, do these vendors acknowledge that kits do not include, or recognize, the years of training and learning it takes to gain the footing and knowledge to traffic with spirits and other forces integral to these cosmologies safely and intentionally.

New tools are allowing for witchcraft to trend in a more widespread way than ever before: after all, tiktok’s popular hashtag #witchtok has over 20 billion views and #witch has over 16 million posts on instagram. The popularity of the concept alone is key to understanding why both social media personalities and larger corporations tap into it. As a market trend, witchcraft is fertile for access to consumer attention given that it is not a monolithic path. One of the greatest draws of contemporary witchcraft is its decentralized structure which allows adherents to practice with a degree of flexibility.

Though many sects of contemporary witchcraft are initiatory and can require periods of training, given that witchcraft is a spiritual practice rather than a singular religion, dogma, trappings, and modes of worship are defined not by a leader or spiritual text, but by the individual. Further, given that it draws upon a somewhat romanticized history of pre-Christian mythology and folklore, its eclecticism invites practitioners to engage with rich iconography in culturally syncretic ways. Though this often causes conflict within the subsections of witchcraft—including accusations of cultural appropriation of Native American ritual paraphernalia or the decontextualized use of terms like brujeria in non-Hispanic circles—contemporary witchcraft writ large invites adherents to construct their practice in a way that fits their spiritual needs. This is not novel, as the theological and legal underpinnings of late-Medieval and Early Modern witchcraft genocides and hysterias were a mishmash of inconsistent and at times contradictory sets of beliefs by men with the platform to offer their professional and philosophical musings. Many proponents of witchcraft have identified it as a site for freedom, autonomy, and a safe-haven for being oneself in a global culture that values conformity. So as this flexibility has been reclaimed by those interested in witchcraft today, corporations watch these audiences flock to this malleable cultural practice, and jump at the chance to make a buck off of exploiting, oversaturating, and aestheticizing the interest in “being unique.” To these global vendors, witchcraft is just a gothic palette swap for their products in order to meet their quarterly financial quotas, and a hungry public is happy to finally see their unique interests no longer derided but seemingly embraced. The embrace that is transpiring though is certainly not neutral, and arguably more akin to subsumption.

The hyper-democratization of the aesthetics of contemporary witchcraft without the historic ideals is certainly not new either though. I have practiced witchcraft for twenty years and it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that in my teens, before I was able to visit my local occult or spiritual goods store, the only way I could gain access to the witchcraft books and tarot cards that piqued my interest was my local Borders bookstore. A key difference then was that by the time I was 15 years old, I had already committed seven years to a practice of discovery that was equal parts experimental, curious, and rigorous, with some guidance from a trusted elder who frequently cautioned me “not to believe everything written in print” as I forged my personal spiritual path. Another difference: fifteen years ago, the market that provided me content was not a $2 billion industry that produces more content than can possibly be analyzed and vetted for quality.

The general notion that the industry has expanded to include more voices and experiences is laudable. And while visibility and community engagement rely on marketing content as discoverable, accessible, and safe for consumption, the rampant commercialization into a multi-billion dollar industry exploits the need for service and good exchange, and ultimately decenters and depowers the counterrevolutionary aspects of witchcraft and other spiritual cultures closely tied to acts of radicality. Further, it wrenches these powerful tools out of the hands of the practitioners themselves, and into the hands of those with the power to market these practices to their benefit. While practitioners still have agency, the legacy and trajectory of these practices is forever changed by corporate agents with no grounding in these spiritual praxes.

Commodification, namely the decontextualization and voracious marketing to a middle-class, 18-to-30-year-old audience that skews white, can separate these spiritualities from the histories that shape them: empowerment in the face of racial and economic subjugation, joy and community building both in their homeland and new homes following enslavement and displacement, and survival and enlightenment in the face of genocide. Commodification compresses the history of contemporary witchcraft that draws upon an albeit romanticized history of genocide enacted to eradicate heretics and infidels believed to be in league with infernal unsanctioned powers. It replicates historic colonial violence like the conflation of spiritual traditions with different modalities, goals, and perspectives — like Lucumi, Macumba, and Candomble—for the sake of profit. And it attempts to dilute cultural anchors like Haitian Vodou iconography and ritualization, and cleave them from what should be an inextricable role in the Haitian Revolt of 1791-1804 whereby the onset of the revolution of enslaved West Africans was prefaced by them ritualizing for liberation. I call out these examples as capitalist agents have been responsible not only for confusing these histories but also stoking discontent between practitioners of different spiritualities who see their crafts being conflated by greedy corporations, irresponsible fadists, or those without access to leaders and teachers, and must settle for corporate-provisioned cosmologies.

The widespread growth and development of witchcraft, magic, and diasporic spiritualities on American soil aligns with feminist, queer, and racial justice movements. That each of them were informed by those seeking place and power in a disenchanted, capitalistic world with identifiable cultural, social, and financial inequity—all of which have increased in the intervening decades—is what made them radical. How rich traditions or radical movements then end up as memeable and gif-worthy scenes of Angela Bassett quipping about the retribution paid to a sociopathic white murderer through Louisiana “voodoo”, or as kitschy turns of phrase like “witch bitch autumn”, is best explored by acknowledging the need for occultural production as a means of survival, community building, and engagement without falling into the maw of capitalistic production that transforms counterculture into capitalistic-culture.

I want to end this piece on an upward note given that the landscape of critical pieces on these topics is expansive and growing. However, before I do so, there’s a detour that, given my position as a Black cultural heritage worker, I have found purchase in: drawing parallels between the subsumption of witchcraft and a similar phenomenon regarding anti-racism and activism in institutional, corporate, and systemic structures.

Thirteen years ago, some of America prematurely labelled itself a “post-racial society.” The presidential candidacy and election of Barack Obama and a larger group of BIPOC household names seemed to convince many, though predominantly white, Americans that racism was over. In an article about the myth of racial transcendence, focusing on the treatment of Prince by consumers and critics of his artistry, I have addressed how the notion of post-racial icons actually functions as an ironic reification of racist stereotypes. The supposition that a well-loved Black person, who is not like the other Black people, is so exemplary that they have transcended their Blackness into the “mainstream”—aka an unspoken honorary whiteness—illustrates clearly that not all racism is vitriolic in its virulence. This transcendence is tenuous and permanent only so long as the recipient does not disrupt their beloved persona with displays of personal or political opinion. It is akin to the kind of “benevolent racism” which Luigi Esposito and Victor Eduardo Romano describe as “condemn[ing] the devaluation of Black lives… in ways that further reinforce attitudes and practices that perpetuate racial inequity and Black disenfranchisement.” 

Image: An image of Kevin Whiteneir, Jr. dressed in a golden robe sitting within a circle of pink flower petals holding a sword in his right hand and a brass bowl filled with a smudging bundle. Pink light shines from the top left corner and refract light into rays across the image. Surrounding Whiteneir is a deer skull, chalice, and white candle. Photo by Fay Nowitz (originally published in Venefica Magazine issue 3)

As the notion that we are living in a post-racial society became cognitively, practically, and sensibly untenable—especially in the wake of several publicly visible and condemned police killings of Black people across America, rampant civilian Sinophobia and anti-Asian xenophobia in the wake of COVID-19, ongoing Islamophobia, disproportionate murders and disappearing of Indigenous and Native women and Two-Spirit people, and other racially charged atrocities—the last three years have seen “benevolent racism” take the form of increased institutional and corporate anti-racism and brand activism.

Though founded in 2013 after the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer George Zimmerman, Black Lives Matter (BLM) became a national household name arguably in 2016. Fuelled by unquelled calls for social justice, police reform, and political advocacy for dismantling voter disenfranchisement and inequity, BLM mobilized Black and allied people to challenge the status quo of institutional racism in America. In 2020, following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, BLM took the streets again. But this time, they were joined by droves of institutions with ostensibly politically-liberal public faces claiming to “stand in solidarity” with Black people. Activism quickly became more than just the tool of the disenfranchised, but rather a tool by which certain organizations could solidify their brand and appeal to their customer bases. BBC journalist Fernando Duarte defines this brand activism as “a trend driven by consumer behaviour, as more and more people expect companies to make a positive contribution to society.” 

Brand or corporate activism by definition creates a close relationship between activism and capitalism whereby humans marching in the street and risking their lives and livelihood for social reform have their messages co-opted by multi-billion dollar industries measuring the interest of their customer base. Ultimately, one of the greatest dangers in brand and corporate activism is the relationship it creates between capital and social justice, given that money is among the most recognizable and coveted resources globally. That the goal of societal reform and equity isn’t a reward in and of itself, but rather deserves monetary or capitalistic recompense, risks changing the motivation of activism altogether. It is “deeply dangerous,” stated activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham as she discussed activism nearly becoming just another opportunity for primetime entertainment on CBS’s supposedly retooled reality tv show The Activist. By turning activism into something that can be capitalized upon, we risk deepening hierarchies of plight: those deemed ready for consumption and those that are overshadowed. We risk exploiting traumas to generate income, transforming pain into profit. These issues are by no means novel—the witchcraft industry capitalizes off the genocide of 40,000 people in Europe from the fourteenth to seventeenth century, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge that European and American colonialism inform the contemporary witch hunts that claim the lives of thousands in South America, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa today. 

The commercialization of witchcraft began with the social, personal, and political iconization and identification with the figure of the witch, delving into its histories, the violence perpetuated against those labeled witches, and the cultural archetypes and facets of witchcraft made known to us by contemporary practitioners, historians, and others vested in these narratives. Between the beginning of contemporary witchcraft and today, the witch was an identity that gave people power and purpose in a world they broadly felt disenfranchised or outcasted them. In only sixty years, millennia of spiritual belief, social history of gender, race, class, and identity have been streamlined into an aesthetic that can now market $300 wands to any demographic who find affinity with the image of the witch as it has been constructed. Capitalizing upon the plight of Black Americans or upon the social activism meant to interrupt the ongoing nature of racial violence and trauma is by no means comparable to this. However, the process by which the genocide of witch violence and a contemporary movement to find power in this history have been thoroughly transformed into a monetized aesthetic is a powerful warning and omen of how capitalism threatens these radical archetypes.

Brand activism and its corporate agents are not alone in this. Cultural heritage institutions fell over themselves to strike while the iron was hot with the same message: “we stand in solidarity with…”, to tell press and news cycles that they are committed to anti-racism and activism while the same news cycles report that employees at museums like The Getty, The Tate Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago have signed open letters decrying the racism at their institutions and demanded action from their directors and administration. The COVID pandemic has illustrated inequities in our cultural institutions that make clear that BIPOC staff with lower wages were disproportionately responsible for front-facing duties that potentially exposed them to a novel virus with ramifications that are still yet to be seen. Simultaneously, the protests surrounding violence against Black Americans that were sometimes made opportunities for looting by bad agents illustrated that predominantly BIPOC staff too were charged with protecting and maintaining the physical sites of cultural institutions. What both of these situations indicate is that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are more often than their white colleagues exposed to biological, social, and situational violence, yet receive less compensation or opportunities for occupational and social advancement through their work.

As a Black cultural heritage worker who was recalled to work at the Art Institute of Chicago before vaccinations were widespread, these are not new or secondhand concepts to me. In fact, they are both my area of expertise as a professional, and issues where I personally advocate to see change. In 2020, I presented in conference sessions for the Art Librarian Society of North America on achieving diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI) in galleries, libraries, archives, and museums, simultaneously held a position as a co-chair of an Art Institute of Chicago equity working committee, and co-organized an extensive movement to unionize the museum’s employees. The former were both in line with the messaging of academics and institutional leadership that discourse and sanctioned methodologies of institutional change help our institution combat the inherent biases of its leaders, workers, and constituencies. The latter was an opportunity to mobilize rhetoric into community action, considering that the American Alliance of Museums confessed in 2018 that “we are still having those same debates and conversations” as we were 20 years ago.

Highlighting that “[w]e all have a stake in DEAI” and that “[r]ecognizing our unconscious biases is a meaningful first step”, the museum industry especially has increased its discourse on racial, class, and other social identity justice in the workplace. In my tenure as a voluntary co-chair, I facilitated and reported on staff-level conversations surrounding the challenges of an institutional culture where leadership selectively communicates information and withholds power for its senior administrators. This came after years of personally advocating for transparency in administrative decision-making and increased agency for staff surrounding their individual and departmental needs. After sixteen months, the perspectives I collected and shared from staff members about immediate needs that would alleviate minor and major workplace burdens and improve working conditions had not materialized into tangible changes. As a result, I resigned from my leadership in the working groups with the awareness that they were not institutionally empowered to create the change they were marketed as. I acknowledged that I was in an environment of “recognizing our unconscious bias [as] a meaningful first step,” but that the subsequent steps were being defined by leadership, the same class whom staff identified as being responsible for allowing the type of workplace culture we had to flourish. Shortly before my resignation, AIC leadership released external “updates” on our internal DEAI efforts, naming a handful of Black figures installed in museum leadership roles as indicative of our purported commitments.

The installment of BIPOC staff, without question, is worthy of praise. Black people have gone unacknowledged for their excellency for centuries in most American industries and disciplines, especially intellectual and cultural ones. However, for an institution of this size to do so is not neutral, and is—to use a term I’ve heard innumerable times at my museum by director James Rondeau—“strategic.” With news, reports, and quantitative documentation swirling constantly about the inequities in museums and stratification of leadership roles favoring white employees, the installment of Black leaders will never be neutral. The strategy is to deploy these leadership changes as indicative of progress and as exemplary of the forward-thinking leadership of predominantly white directors. It is to do so without acknowledging that it is also to the benefit of the institutional brand, and part of a well-known, unwritten rulebook on how to weather the storm of cultural diversity advocacy that, by the AAM’s own admission, has been at least 40 years in the making. I speak to this with experience. 

In April of 2021, the Art Institute named Denise Gardner as the incoming chairperson of its board of trustees. News quickly swirled about Gardner becoming “the first Black person and first woman chairperson of the governing body for the museum and the School of the Art Institute.” This came shortly after a March press release that Veronica Stein, a Black woman, would become the museum’s new Woman’s Board Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement, and a February press release that Norissa Bailey, another Black woman, would become senior vice president of their newly-created People and Culture department. I have spoken at length about the absence of Black people, especially women, within leadership roles in my profession, and this news was both frustratingly long-overdue and accompanied by a sigh of relief that finally Black women were being properly celebrated for the work they have done with aplomb. Further, in a July announcement, the Art Institute also named Grace Deveney, a Black woman, as their David C. and Sarajean Ruttenberg Associate Curator of Photography and Media, indicating that this recognition extended beyond executive level positions to our curatorial staff. 

It is worth noting that these announcements of Black leadership and excellency were not common before 2021. While Black and other POC colleagues of mine have profiles that can be found by navigating the Art Institute’s Authors microsite, press releases about their assumption of key roles is a new phenomenon. Though in many ways it appears to signal a transition toward mindfulness, it is unfortunately not consistent nor does it seem to extend to roles that are not conventionally visible in the museum or those that can be leveraged for social capital. 

In 2020, I became the Art Institute’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries’ first Black librarian. Despite their internally and externally stated commitments to institutional equity and staff recognition, this fact went unacknowledged by Art Institute leadership, nor was it shared throughout its communications channels. 

Internally, this fails staff members as it creates inequities whereby identities and accomplishments held by multiple members are made moments of celebration for some, and unremarkable about others—at best showcasing a dangerous and troubling clumsiness, and at worst establishing a hierarchy of workplace significance that betrays a commitment to equity. What it always illustrates, however, is that opportunities for highlighting progressiveness perceived as beneficial to institutional and directorship reputations can be commodified and employed for capital. Much like brand and corporate activism, the goal is ultimately to stabilize credibility with their audience and reap the financial benefits of that social capital—in the case of cultural heritage sites, this can be tickets, donations, membership fees, and other byproducts of a healthy visitor base. Further, the inequities this form of commodification creates risk diminishing the social altruism of anti-racism and activism by disillusioning those either negatively impacted by these performative gestures, or those who witness them secondhand. 

The commodification of Black people, and Black women especially, as signifiers of social activism and progressivism acts out a performance theatre that has contributed to the degradation and diminishment of concepts like DEAI and institutional equity. Ultimately, what this performance theatre does is co-opt, oversaturate, and diminish in order to generate social and financial capital for institutional directors to mobilize for their next production, while provoking disillusionment with concepts like DEAI. This capitalist usurpation feels insurmountable as it encourages a community to make themselves or their needs known and advocate on behalf of their own visibility. To withhold this, though, is to subjugate one’s selfhood, affinity, or needs—instead running the risk of allowing stigma and invisibility to inform one’s identity. Thus the greatest double bind to witchcraft, anti-racism, activism, and other radical social practices is that obscurity and exploitation are equal threats.

The same commodification of anti-racism that I’ve identified here also threatens witchcraft and other radical spiritual praxes. While different in many ways, the process follows a similar unspoken rulebook of exploitation or aestheticization to gain social capital. And it’s taking place right now because they are concepts centering around personal power or social progressivism. With more voices willing to critique and challenge hierarchical systems of power and their officers, signifiers of individual agency grow in legitimacy. Consequently, they make great opportunities for commodification as attention begets profit in a capitalistic system.

Image: A photo of Kevin Whiteneir, Jr. kneeling before an installation for his show “Queer Heretics: Black Mass.” Whiteneir’s written piece titled “Black Salvation Conjuration” is framed and hung on the wall beside an altar Whiteneir built and filled with candles, sculptures, and magical tools. White candles line the wall that is illustrated with swirling line work and an Afro-spiritual symbol called a vèvè he designed for the installation. Photo courtesy of the artist.

It is critical here to look at the intersections of political and spiritual identities. Botanicas have been selling spiritual wares long before Spencer’s and Urban Outfitters offered tarot and smudge sticks to their catalogue. Activists and leaders in social reform too have been able to utilize their advocacy as a means of financial security before corporations shared their virtue signalling black squares on Blackout Tuesday of 2021. And while looking to the past can be a critical action, the more substantive offering here is not reminiscing on romanticized bygone days, but rather analyzing the intentions of the players involved. Botanicas serve their community as sites of support: a combination of vending ingredients and wares; as well as insight into spiritual praxis that could heal loved ones, deliver retribution for wrongs, achieve connectivity with ancestors and divines, and preserve ties to our cultural lineages. In the foreword for the Fowler Museum’s 2004 exhibition Botanica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels, former director Marla C. Berns described botanicas as “sites for spiritual advice, alternative healthcare, community building, and distinctive artistic expression.”2 This is a legacy that continues today. 

In an interview with HuffPost, Jessyka Winston, proprietor of Haus of Hoodoo in New Orleans, while describing the work she does as a businesswoman and Mambo, states:

“It’s important for me to continue spreading light and truth about Vodou, hoodoo, and anything that has to do with African traditions. Anything that comes from the grandmother land, I call it the grandmother land because my motherland is Haiti. It is important to me that people are educated… And I do want people who are strong in these traditions to feel comfortable enough, and step forward and educate and work on removing the misconceptions and removing the misinformation and removing the taboos and the ugly that has been attached to anything Black for so many generations.”

Again, while Vodou, hoodoo, and witchcraft are distinct traditions that can never be conflated despite the ongoing (neo)colonial violence that attempts to flatten their difference, what can be drawn from Winston’s perspective is that the botanica or the spiritual goods store is more than a site of commerce. It is a site of education, of spiritual access, growth, and discovery, and of potentially reconnecting to one’s ancestry and selfhood. Department store vendors, while providing physical assets, do not aspire to these aims when selling crystals, palo santo, or other “witchy” wares. 

Commodification relies upon us to put capital before all else, to believe that complete cosmological knowledge can be gained from a box set or that “consumers [should] reward firms which they see as engaged in some kind of activism.” It encourages us to believe that familiarity and knowledge can be gained merely through aesthetics, or that virtue signaling is synonymous with social reform. In 2004, ethnographer Patrick Arthur Polk wrote that “the distinction between fitting in and selling out is a fine one, as is that between cooperating and co-opting” as he described boutiques in Venice Beach, Silver Lake, and Melrose Avenue appropriating the wares and styles of botanicas to sell to their clientele, and botanicas populating their shelves with secular self-help books beside their more esoteric offerings. It brings a necessary resource cashflow into the door, and even more fullingly, it brings in new aspirants who may have found a calling that changes their life for the better. But that line between fitting in and selling out, cooperating and co-opting, feels so necessary to tread, if only because it can be the difference between our politics challenging systems of exploitation or being subsumed by them.

To argue for a world where these practices, as radical as they are, are not opportunities for remuneration is an unnecessary hardship. Compensation and exchange are means of survival, both of people and ideals. Nevermind that the exchange of spiritual and political expertise and services is a bedrock of human socialization. Community healing is often in the hands of a leader whose day job is the salvation of the physical and spiritual body, and who possibly has been entrusted with advocating on the behalf of their congregation when it comes time for social reform. With money functioning as one of our global society’s most recognizable and easily exchanged forms of capital, the question thus cannot be how do we excise the spiritual or the identity-political from capital, but rather how do we protect it from exploitation and dilution.

Works Cited:
1 Whiteneir, Kevin Talmer Jr. et al. “Queer Heretics : Case Studies in the Convergence of Witchcraft and Queerness in Contemporary Art .” School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2017. Print.
2 Botanica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels, Fowler Museum, 2004, p. 7.


Kevin Whiteneir Jr. is an interdisciplinary artist and art historian whose work discusses the relationships between gender and queer experiences as they relate to race, the effects of (neo)colonialism, and its parallels with magic, religion, and witchcraft. Whiteneir holds a Master’s in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Master’s of Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. As a performance artist, Whiteneir builds altars and creates large scale worship spaces that draw upon myths and rituals of witchcraft and magic to illustrate their connection to queer identities and experiences. These rituals comment upon the consequences of colonialism that continue to impact contemporary communities, and the evocation of desire and intention through choreographed ceremonies. His creative writing practice utilizes the mythology of witchcraft to create fictions set within a contemporary setting which propose reflection, introspection, and methods of addressing anxieties of the present-day. He currently works as the Director of Archives for the non-profit Black Lunch Table.