Break the SpellWitchcraft Is Capitalism’s New Trick

An offering from a witchy subscription box (Photo credit: Goddess Provisions)

In the era of relentless 24-hour news cycles, turning to earth-based ancestral belief systems is a reasonable response to a toxic, abusive culture. When reality feels destabilized by fake news and partisan distortion, witchcraft grounds us, provides insight and patterns to make sense of an uncertain world, and helps us heal and take back our power when we are rendered powerless. Witnessing the egregious violence of a racist patriarchy, the witch emerges in refusal, a figure that brings the toxic, abusive men of our moment to justice, and heals those most affected by their harms. The decisive cultural shift toward social justice discourses centering Black, Brown, Indigenous, feminist, and queer communities—each with their own history of spiritual traditions—has seen a concurrent rise in self-identified witches, with the largest growth in those reclaiming ancestral African and Indigenous forms of spirituality and witchcraft. Unlike the Eurocentric, culturally appropriative witch of the New Age, or the Hot Topic goth witch of the ’90s, the witches of our moment are here for vengeance: They are intersectional, activated, and invested in justice.

Witches are feared because oppressed people with power are feared. For centuries, African, Indigenous, feminist, and folk spiritualities have suffered violent persecution and suppression for the mere accusation of “witchcraft.” In the American spiritual lexicon, the witch is an amalgam of deep-seated misogyny and racism. A projection of all that is hated—sexually liberated, unmarried, aging, queer, asexual, embittered, racialized, primitive—she embodies the demonic, immoral forces that seek to tempt and take vengeance on the righteous. The witch is both the silenced, disbelieved, accused survivor and a terrifying threat to white male power—a symbolic identity that deeply resonates with women and marginalized people using platforms like Instagram to radically empower each other to live their politics, work for themselves, and share their knowledge with their communities.

As with any trend, this subculture has been swiftly co-opted and sanitized for mass consumption. Sephora didn’t want to be left behind in the flourishing #witch market, so they unveiled their now-infamous Pinrose Witch Kit ($42+tax!) in August. Social media quickly exploded in protest and critique. For some, the reckless mass-market commodification of sacred objects insulted their religious practice. For others, the appropriation and cherry-picking of “witchy” ritual objects from separate religious traditions—rose quartz, white sage, tarot, perfume “potions”—was an egregious faux pas for the supposedly progressive company. Still, others critiqued the lack of respect for the ceremonial aspects of magickal practice in the kit’s glib perfume names (“Pillowtalk Poet”) and tween-friendly pink and rainbow packaging (which inexplicably featured the Prince symbol on a witch’s robe). Sephora later pulled the Witch Kit.

While many critiques of the Pinrose Witch Kit are valid and well-argued, most fail to address the bigger issue: Witchcraft and New Age spirituality have long been a site of cultural theft, commodified and sold devoid of cultural context. For instance, the classic Rider-Waite tarot deck—a historical artifact illustrated by Black mixed-race artist and mystic Pamela Colman Smith—was patented by U.S. Games Systems in 1971 to be sold as a “toy/gag/novelty” item. The spirit board, trademarked as the “Ouija” board in 1890, outsold Monopoly in the ’60s and continues to be one of Hasbro’s best-selling products. Urban Outfitters sells its white sage smudge stick for $18, Anthropologie for $16, and Whole Foods for $14. And no metaphysical or occult shop is complete without a selection of crystals, singing bowls, dreamcatchers, and an offering of chakra healing and reiki workshops. Even GOOP sells tarot decks and $85 medicine bags full of healing crystals (although the unethical sourcing of such crystals has recently drawn human rights investigations and criticism).

Pinrose witch kit (Photo credit: Pinrose)

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This fairly typical spread is where myriad religions are painfully conflated with the witchcraft of Western capitalism. Since the ’60s, white, upper-middle class counterculture has rebelled through the New Age appropriation of Indigenous and Eastern spiritualities—a fact that has been the source of rigorous critique—around the time that Wicca, Satanism, and other esoteric traditions also came to prominence. As a a result, Indigenous, Asian, and Black spiritualities, long subjugated as witchcraft, became associated with the “eclectic” practice of white witches. Today, Instagram is filled with feeds selling ritual items from culturally distinct traditions—Santeria candles surrounded by crystal grids; palo santo and white sage bundled with citrine; hands in a mudra position framing a tarot spread; a white woman in dancer’s pose with a dreamcatcher hanging from her big toe. With this kind of content defining demand, the creators of the Pinrose Witch Kit did what white capitalists do best: They replicated the existing models of spiritual and cultural theft in order to capture demand in a lucrative, trending market, demanding access to every culture’s sacred tools without regard for their history.

In upper-middle-class liberal cities and rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, witchcraft has been claimed by the appropriative mysticism of white wellness culture and its entrepreneurs, savvy in the art of social-media marketing. The aesthetic of white, minimal, rustic spaces goes hand-in-hand with richly filtered photos of yoga poses and tarot cards framed by crystal grids consistently posted at peak traffic times. Witchcraft, once esoteric and dangerous, is made anodyne to attract likes and drive business, focusing on a message of self-love, self-care, attraction, and prosperity through intention-setting, meditation, and visualization. When brought out of the shadowy margins and tailored for public consumption, #Witchcraft becomes classed, ahistorical, and unrecognizable. The same “Ven a Mi” love spell candle, sold for $1.99 at a struggling botanica, will sell for $10 in a white-owned occult shop, online store, or Instagram post. In the gentrification and Whole-Foods-ification of the ritual objects of different spiritual traditions, “witchcraft” becomes just another version of self-help, meant to manifest the promises of capitalism into your life.

It’s no surprise that capitalist appropriation of these practices continues to rise, but witches will continue to empower the refusal of its abuses and healing from its traumas.

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The more arcane aspects of witchcraft such as animal sacrifice, sex magic, blood magic, necromancy, demonology, and possession are largely absent from the #WitchesofInstagram target market. Seen as “dark” or “black” magic, these practices remain taboo because they are racialized, exoticized, or Indigenized as backward and morally reprehensible. Even the language of “black magic” is deeply entrenched with canonical anti-Blackness, conjuring racialized images of the pre-colonial primitive who harbors anger and vengeful feelings toward whiteness, such as Caliban or Tituba. The #WitchesofInstagram community largely practices a #GoodVibesOnly craft, absent of baneful magic and focused more on attracting “positivity” into their lives—the high horse of spiritual moralism that generations of privilege, Christian conditioning, and racism affords.

But despite recent efforts to diversify the faces of witchcraft, the Black and Brown witch is still an othered entity in the American racial imaginary, rarely ever seen as more than a foil to a white narrative—the vengeful “Voodoo Queen” stereotype as seen in American Horror Story’s interpretation of Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), Prudence Night in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Tati Gabrielle), or the unnamed “shaman” or “witch doctor” that facilitates healing and enlightenment. Rarely are witches of color seen practicing their respective traditions for themselves—Beyoncé’s Lemonade was the first time many people of color saw Orisha or Yoruba imagery depicted in pop culture. Even the Latina witches in this year’s Charmed reboot still practice a white-washed Neo-Celtic magic rather than a far more likely Afro-Indigenous tradition like Lucumí, Candomblé, or Curanderismo. The special-effects images we see in these shows don’t look like the homegrown, intimate magic of Black, Indigenous, and Caribbean spiritualities, closed practices passed down through oral traditions for fear of persecution.

A scene from Beyoncé’s Lemonade (Photo credit: YouTube)

The spellwork in recent big publisher spellbooks co-opts the language of activism and mental health to reinvent a sleek, 21st-century intersectional witchcraft. While these “woke” witches don’t hex-shame, the practice of “baneful magic”—hexes, love spells, reversals, bindings, curses, and general harm—while less controversial than demonology or necromancy (and even collectively practiced to bind Trump and hex Brett Kavanaugh) is usually met with a warning of the “threefold law”—what you put out comes back to you times three. But this concept doesn’t really exist as such in the Afro-Indigenous traditions of historically disempowered groups. Hexes and curses were often the only avenues for seeking justice and processing the traumas of colonization and dispossession. It is an ahistorical addition to spellwork that makes little sense in the wider scheme of capitalism and global neoliberalism—U.S. witches are still the witches of empire, and people who come to witchcraft seeking empowerment, healing, and justice in the face of abuse may be steered away from processing trauma through hexing and find themselves  buying a $80 rose quartz water bottle instead.

Most millennials I know, including myself, are stressed beyond their limits, in debt, working multiple jobs while trying to follow their dreams or finish a degree with no guarantees they’ll be hired, much less have a career, while being called “entitled.” Witchcraft’s appeal among millennial entrepreneurs and their followers makes sense in the gig economy: It offers therapy, a built-in community, and seemingly ethical self-sustenance outside of the nine-to-five.

It’s not hard to see how Sephora’s witch kits, and the resulting backlash, are a result of this intersection. But if we are to truly critique the systems that enabled this kit, we have to start at the beginning—by recognizing the New Age colonization of myriad spiritual traditions, and redefining the boundaries and limits of ethical practice. Witchcraft will always be a site of religious syncretism, overlapping systems, and shared tools because of its history of suppression among oppressed groups. The violences of Christianity and colonialism have caused many systems to splinter or disappear into new figures—Black spiritualities survive in American hoodoo; Oshun survives in La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre; La Virgen de Guadalupe contains Tonantzin; and Mexican-Indigenous curanderismo is practiced through Catholicism. That these traditions still survive through the beauty and mystery of simple kitchen table magic speaks to the resilience spiritual practice gives to the marginalized. It’s no surprise that capitalist appropriation of these practices continues to rise, but witches will continue to empower the refusal of its abuses and healing from its traumas.

A post for a goddess course (Photo credit: Goddess Provisions)

The reclamation of such practices must come from embodied and inherited histories and communities, not decontextualized subscription boxes. Modern witchcraft’s fuzzy spiritual landscape recklessly grabs language and tools from different traditions meant to cope with the brutalities of empire, and reinscribes these materials with rootless woo. White (and privileged people of color) witches must deconstruct why their magical systems are “eclectic”—what traditions do these candles, herbs, and crystals belong to, and what do they tell us about the suppression of lost knowledges? What are the real, historical uses beyond what the internet says about their power to effect control over everyday American life? Is it ethical to continue to use white sage to “cleanse” spaces despite Native erasure and harm? There is nothing wrong with seeking, or making mistakes while sifting through problematic New Age material on your spiritual journey, so long as you and the practitioners you follow are conscious of these histories. Native scholar Adrienne Keene says it best: “Find out what your own ancestors may have burned for cleansing, and use that. Unless you’re Native, it probably wasn’t white sage. Sorry.”

If you’re called to a practice, more power to you. My family’s Curanderismo has been a source of healing, ritual, and connection to the dead throughout my life, and has most recently given me the strength to survive a devastating personal loss and upheaval. At the height of grief, friends sent me care packages of crystals and tarot cards, while others performed limpias, tarot readings, and chart interpretations. The appearance of these gifts in quick succession invited me to reconnect with my spirituality and deepen my practice. But the materials I grew up with—bundled herbs, eggs, copal, glass novena candles—are sacred artifacts connected to intimate childhood memories of my maternal ancestors and the violences they endured, as well as centuries of resilience and survival. Use any tool that arrives to you in times of trauma, so long as you’re informed, intersectional, and invited to use it.

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by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal
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Vanessa Angélica Villarreal is the author of the collection Beast Meridian (Noemi Press, Akrilica Series, 2017), winner of the John A. Robertson Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Boston Review, The Academy of American Poets, BuzzFeed, Epiphany, PBS Newshour and elsewhere. She lives with her son and her dog in Los Angeles.