Is astrology becoming whitewashed?

The conversation about astrology and race is long overdue.

February 27, 2019

Last month, I received some big news: my boyfriend’s cat is a Capricorn.

As one of those queers who loves astrology, this was wonderful news. Astrologically speaking, it confirmed my oft-repeated claims as to our innate compatibility. As a Cancer and Capricorn, respectively, me and she (the cat, that is) might have our occasional squabbles, but we are fundamentally travellers along the same paths, riding the same celestial waves.

For a lot of people, astrology is far from new and the practice has deep cultural roots. The earliest sources we have of Chinese writing are from astrological rituals from 1198 BCE, and Mesopotamian astrology has been dated back to the 3rd millennium BCE. Throughout its history, astrology has been an important intellectual connection across vast geographical and chronological expanses. In the medieval Middle East, astrology was an application of advanced mathematics, attracting practitioners and experts from Central Asia, India, and the wider Mediterranean world. For hundreds of years, the development and transmission of astrology has been an incredible cross-cultural project that has inspired related disciplines like astronomy, mathematics, physics, and chemistry.

I put a lot of stock in astrology, but I don’t really know why. I have no real claims to astrological authority, and I didn’t grow up with it as a big part of my life. Judaism has its own little-known astrological tradition, but astrology never came up for me or my Jewish peers in solving practical matters of faith and community life. For me, astrology is new — a way to make sense of complicated human behaviour, justify my mood swings, and break the ice at parties. But beyond my personal interest, astrology is enjoying a period of collective hyper-popularity. It’s easy to spot the evidence of astrology’s current spread: there are Netflix specials about it, marketing campaigns built around it, countless astrology meme accounts on Twitter or Instagram, endless explainer articles, and even the standard astrology column is going strong in every major paper. In other words, people dig astrology. But because it’s also something of a fad, the actual practice of astrology is prone to occasional moonlighters and opportunists.

For many who work as astrologers, and put a lot of care and time into their practice, it’s hard to watch the successes of those who might not take it so seriously — especially if those success stories come from already privileged backgrounds. In particular, there are clear racial and cultural divisions in terms of who has the opportunity to thrive as an astrology practitioner, and how they might make use of traditions that come to them from communities they hold social power over.

I brought this up with New York-based astrologer Lohla Shannan Jani, who runs the practice Sitara Didi. Jani considers her relationship with astrology to be partly cultural for as long as she can remember. “A lot of people of colour—people whose families and ancestors were colonized, and people growing up in diasporic environments—come from cultures where religious practices never lost their connection to what we now think of as ritualism, mysticism, magic, etc.,” Jani told me via email. Growing up, astrology was commonplace in her house. She described watching her mother go over intricate birth charts with her family, explaining how and why people moved in concert with the stars and planets.

Whereas Western critics have insisted that astrology recommends taking life advice from pseudoscience, Jani argues an alternative position: instead, astrology helps encourage critical thinking. According to her, astrology is a form of spiritual practice that lends itself well to critical reflection — a set of tools that help her make sense of the world and the interactions and perspectives around her. Rather than viewing horoscopes as prescriptions for how to act, she likes to see them as providing an organizing framework for ideas and choices.

Many people of colour may have grown up feeling otherized because of how Western dismissal of these [spiritual systems] in our cultures played into racialized tropes that propose we are somehow less rational or whole.

Lohla Shannan Jani

“Many people of colour may have grown up feeling otherized because of how Western dismissal of these [spiritual systems] in our cultures played into racialized tropes that propose we are somehow less rational or whole,” said Jani.

Jani contrasts her more critical approach with what she identifies as a colonial image of astrology as an irrational practice by uncivilized mystics from backwards cultures. In her view, the result of this perception is a devaluing of knowledge about spirituality when it comes from non-white sources, and the  simultaneous celebration of spirituality or mysticism when performed by white practitioners.

My friend Dolly Sparks is an astrology practitioner, and they expressed concern that, as a Black queer person in an industry where white people are more inclined to trust other white people, their insights may be taken less seriously. “Many white people have found a way to cash in on it and treat it as a novelty the way they have with crystals,” they told me via email. “Buy some rose quartz, a pair of yoga pants, and throw your birthdate into cafeastrology-dot-com, and suddenly you have a lot of the people who post their prices for a reading.”

Sparks doesn’t have an immediate cultural connection to astrology, and they don’t think that having that baseline connection is necessary to be a skilful practitioner. But they do recognize that in those cases where a particular culture has a unique approach to astrology — for example, the Hindu ritual astrological practice of Jyotiṣa — then the practice requires more care.

“I think astrology is for everyone,” they said. “But I do worry about the people who aren’t going to take the time to dive deeper into learning more about it aside from plugging in a date and stating characteristics of a [planet’s] placement [in someone’s chart]. If you’re using a form of astrology that’s from a specific culture, what do you know about it? I think it’s important to know answers to that question.”

The uneven power relations that exist between different communities can make the business of cultural exchange more tricky, and often highly political.

Another Black queer astrologer, Jasmine Renaé, shared a similar concern over commitment to the craft. “I’ve been seriously practicing astrology for almost a year. It took me months to even begin to fully understand each aspect of it, and I’m still learning more everyday,” they told me via email. “I find that with spiritual practices, white people just sink their hooks into them and claim it as something that’s theirs, when it’s more-so something they’ve been a witness to.”

These responses to astrology reflect a similar debate over the racialized connotations of witchcraft, and what many people of colour have characterized as an exploitative fascination with it by white people. It’s not uncommon to see collections of spiritual items on sale—Voodoo artefacts, sacred plants and practices used by the Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island (like sage, burnt for purification), Orientalized totems and objects like incense, amulets, healing broths, and, yes, astrology from African and Asian cultural traditions—all picked, mixed, mismatched, repackaged, and sold by white retailers for white audiences.

It’s true that astrology has been practiced across cultures and continents throughout history. But in this current moment, the uneven power relations that exist between different communities can make the business of cultural exchange more tricky, and often highly political. Knowledge of the planets and stars and their cycles could be shared and deepened through cultural exchanges and technological advancements. But freely borrowing from various cultural histories without providing their indigenous or traditional communities with financial support or social autonomy is a different ballgame. Astrology may be for everyone, but some people can succeed as practitioners more easily than others because of structural differences in power and access that aren’t accounted for in the transit of celestial bodies.

When the evidence of such spiritual theft is right in front of us, it’s more than reasonable for people to be apprehensive about white astrology practitioners. In spiritualism, as with medicine, food, and fashion, people of colour often encounter their own traditions spun and sold back to them under new names or with new connotations. Meanwhile, it’s far less likely that these same communities are given the space and support to deepen their knowledge of those same existing cultural practices. Non-white and non-Western spiritualities are to be assimilated and consumed, not to be respected and practiced within non-white and non-Western cultural contexts. Is it any wonder that astrology practitioners worry about the same thing happening to them?

No one has asked me to stop caring about astrology, or even to stop treating it with my weird mixture of over-seriousness and casual flippancy. But I don’t pretend to treat it as a spiritual practice, and if I wanted to, I would seek out a learned practitioner with a sense of history and context. As fun as it is to say that my boyfriend’s cat is a Capricorn, I’m still messing around with something that’s existed far before and will exist far after me — that requires some respect, and a recognition of my personal place within a history that I’m lucky to be a witness to.

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