Fiona Benjamin of Modern Fortune Teller and I talk traditions, race, and cultural appropriation in the tarot community.
This is the first of many more conversations I’m having with people in the occult and tarot community. The idea is that everyone has a unique story to tell, that as we move forward in creating spiritual practices that are meaningful to us, we need to be in conversation with people who practice in very different ways. These conversations are long form because these people are fabulous and you’ll want to read it all.
Tell me a little bit more about yourself.
I’m a first generation Chinese-American and also an anchor baby. In the 90’s, immigrants would come to the states and have a baby so they may remain in the country- that’s me! I grew up with a lot of Chinese folk practices (Shenism/Buddhism) such as ancestor veneration, which is something I thought everyone did.
Growing up in NYC meant that I was always surrounded by the occult. It was a total melting pot so it made sense that it became a part of my life.
Today, I am a mom of two little boys and the wife of a Marine, which works out because I get to take my tarot reading and business mentoring business with me wherever we go.
What made you decide to go pro?
I was in a lot of debt and just had my first son. I was also living in Okinawa so it was difficult for me to get any work. I decided to take the plunge and try something out on Fiverr (at this point, I was also a freelance writer on oDesk and took on odd virtual jobs). Weirdly enough, people liked my readings and I transitioned to doing hotline work and eventually my own business.
After a few years I found that my audience was changing. People were booking me for readings only to see how I did the reading, rather than for guidance. Thing is, there is plenty of business coaching and advice out there in the world wide web already, but there is a lack of representation when it comes to the occult industry. I wanted to fill that void.
If tarot isn’t a part of your upbringing, what brought you to tarot?
Haha. So, I was in middle school and there was this boy that I liked but of course, I would never say anything to him. I ended up in a Borders (do they even exist anymore?) and picked up my first tarot deck. It may have been Morgan-Greer, I can’t even remember.
My friends and I would sit on the floor and I would do readings on boys we liked. After years of doing this, I got pretty good at predictive love readings and that’s actually where the bread of butter of my business was- predictive love readings!
That sounds a lot like how a lot of people come to tarot! Except you kept at it, where a lot of people who find it that way drop it. How did you keep the momentum going?
People told me that my readings came true. I would predict how dates were going to go and who would ask us to dances, things like that. I picked up the tarot to learn fortune telling, even though I know counseling is popular right now. I think that when I became more prominent in the tarot community, there was a lack of readers who owned fortune telling so as long as I remained true to that, I was able to keep going.
Plus, I love the tarot. It’s more of a lifestyle than just a ‘thing’ I do.
How has race influenced your tarot network?
I guess I always moved through life like there was nothing different about me, and it always shocked me when people treated me differently than anyone else. So this question doesn’t resonate as much.
What kind of racism have you felt within the tarot/pagan community?
You know, even if you think you’re in a space that should be more open, you would be surprised.
I’ve had horrible experiences with racism. That myth of the “Oriental woman” is particularly nasty. People expect me to be docile and dainty, not like the swearing, whiskey drinking witch that I am. I’ve also had some terrible in person experiences with racism.
One time I had won an award. A middle aged white woman who I considered a close friend came up to me and “congratulated” me, but also that it was in her karma to help other people succeed and never receive recognition. She honestly took credit for all of my hard work and my award!
I met her at a conference later that year. I was dressed up like the Page of Cups and had a crocheted fish purse (like the card!) that a friend made for me. I asked a male friend to hold it for me while I washed my hands in the bathroom. She had approached him and inappropriately suggested that there was flirtation because “Asian woman do things like that. They manipulate men to doing things for them and pretend to be sweet.”
Holy shit. How did you respond to that?
I didn’t even know until I was already home in Japan but this definitely opened my eyes that the tarot industry is not as love and light as one would think.
Let’s talk about cultural appropriation in the pagan and tarot community. We both use practices from traditions that aren’t strictly our own. How can we learn from other cultures without appropriating from them?
It’s important that we are not cherry picking from these cultures and practices and meshing it all together and calling it our own. Sometimes we feel that we want to work with things that resonate with us but not acknowledge its history, the people that practice it, or the traditions that it comes from.
Always remember that everything is tied to something else and has some sort of context that it cannot be taken out of. Stay away from the impulse to put everything on the same plate and draw parallels with everything. Practices cannot be interchanged and considered “all the same thing.” For example, karma and the threefold law are not from the same cultures or “the same thing.” To say that they are is a form of whitewashing, dismissive, and really fucking disrespectful.
As an outsider, I ask a LOT of questions. It is hard to not take it personally when someone says, “That’s none of your business,” or checks me by telling me I’m speaking out of line. It is humbling and I must constantly remind myself that some of these practices are not mine; I am a guest. I am grateful for those who allowed me to be part of their history, their traditions, and their families and I try my best to respect them.
On the other hand, I have had a white woman demand that I teach her Chinese and went as far as to tell me I was discriminating against her because I refused to share my cultural practices with her.
People of their respective traditions always have the last say when it comes to what they want to share and who they want to share it with. If someone gets offended because someone said, “No,” then too bad. I’ve been told to piss off before so I thanked them for their time and respected their decision.
Right – you want to make sure that if you practice, you’re practicing authentically. As an ally.
What about practices like burning sage? I know that this particular practice isn’t in my heritage, but sage IS a plant that’s connected to the land here – and I feel very connected to the land. What would you say about that?
I personally don’t burn sage because my nose is sensitive to the smoke but I don’t come from a practice that burns sage anyway. I feel that yes, there are cultural ties to burning sage that one should be aware of and then you should also understand why you want to burn sage. What is the act of burning sage doing?
I was talking to a black friend of mine who explained to me that in his culture, they would bury their enemies’ personal concerns beneath a weeping willow to ensure that the enemy continues to weep. However, in Chinese lore, willow is sacred to Kuan Yin. She uses a branch of the willow to soothe our pains and bring relief to our suffering.
That’s why culture and context is so important when it comes to working outside of our traditions.
Bamboo is considered good luck and symbolizes endurance and prosperity in Chinese folklore. However, the number 4 is death. Sometimes I will pass by stores that are selling 4 stalks of bamboo wrapped together in an oriental looking pot and it’s disorienting. Doing this is to literally wish death upon the person you are gifting it to.
It seems like ultimately, you can learn from other cultures and even incorporate those cultures into your practice if you honor them. If you’re smart about it.
Not so much if you’re smart about it, but more if you are willing to put your ego down and learn from others. Also, be honest about your intentions. Honor the people and the culture, and never try to whitewash or take their history away.
Fiona Benjamin is a boss who works with her fellow occultists to help them create strong, sustaining businesses without compromising their spiritual practices. Fiona has been building her business since 2012. You can visit her website and check out her services here.