Why the Term Spirit Animal Is Problematic
The phrase superficially appropriates Native American customs. Plus, there’s a way better word to use.
By Samantha Gross, Concordia University
I would like to start out by saying out that I am a White Girl™, and therefore, while I can point out things that are problematic and/or racist, I will never be on the receiving end of that racism, nor will I completely understand the damage that it can do.
So, by pointing this out, I may be just shouting into the void from an outside perspective. But, there’s a vague chance I’m shouting in the right direction, so I can try to spread awareness, and thus, here we are.
Lots of things in today’s society are problematic. The words “politically correct” have been thrown around condescendingly by older generations in an attempt to understand the “youth of today,” but a lot of people are coming to the realization that we have been saying things we shouldn’t have been saying for a long time. And you’re all probably tired of them being pointed out, but let’s once again gather in the realization that’s they’re being point out because, hello friends, we’re doing something insensitive. And we need to stop that.
The term Spirit Animal has long been used by teens on the internet to describe how much they relate to something. And it was presumably a pretty decent way to do so, drawing on the idea that our spirit—who we are at our core—could be reflected in similarities with either an animal or a celebrity.
In fact, the first record of the term Spirit Animal being used to describe a celebrity as something akin to a representation was back in 2007, when Samuel L. Jackson made history by being the internet’s first publicly dubbed celebrity Spirit Animal. As are most things with the internet, this came about in a conversation while tripping. That means being extraordinarily high on drugs, friends, not falling down. (I expect all of you are wholesome individuals, so I felt the distinction had to be made.)
However, that way of thinking is highly problematic, as the term Spirit Animal, as used by young adults today, is a bastardized version of a Native American tradition.
Now, it’s bad enough that White People pillaged and destroyed and essentially stole America from the Native Americans, but we had to make it worse by ripping off their language and customs as well. Because we weren’t already terrible.
Cultural appropriation has long been an issue. However, most people don’t recognize how ingrained in our language it has become. The term Spirit Animal, specifically, qualifies as an unfortunate use of appropriation. This infringement on Native American beliefs may be seem harmless by the people perpetuating and remaining unaffected by the negative repercussions of the phrase, but that doesn’t stop it from being an issue.
“But everybody’s doing it!”
Stop. I’m going to sound like your mother and ask you if everyone was jumping off a bridge if you’d do it too. If the term continues to be popularized in its bastardized fashion, this New Age bullshit people are trying to pull will supersede the original meaning. The word’s loss of meaning would be damaging to the concept of tradition, especially one as regularly plagiarized and demeaned as the traditions of Native Americans. Religion and belief is something to be taken seriously, and when it’s corrupted by pop culture and turned into something it shouldn’t be, then that’s where the damage starts to set in. And we don’t need the internet ruining anything else.
I am nowhere near qualified enough to go into the importance of the term, and by no means do I want to generalize Native Americans as a singular identity, especially since Spirit Animal is not the same for every tribe. However, I do feel like the inappropriate use of the term is something that should be pointed out more, since most of the time people don’t know how problematic certain language can be.
Even celebrities, like Kerry Washington, who we all know lives a tier above us regular mortals, are getting schooled in misusing terms. The internet can be scary, but it can also be educational.
Luckily, there is a section of the internet not totally dominated by trolls, where the kind of experienced warriors of awareness and equality strive to use education as a way to point out mistakes. And trust me, everybody makes mistakes.
The 12-year olds raving about how Rebel Wilson is their Spirit Animal don’t know how harmful throwing around particular phrases can be.
Once you know something is problematic though, you can be part of the group of experienced warriors of awareness and equality, using education instead of insults to drive your point home.
We can be like those adorable children from Brazil who learn English and correct celebrities’ grammar on Twitter. They’re cute and nice and using education to help people! Be like the Brazilian children.
You may be asking yourself, “But how will I express my inexplicable connection with Anna Kendrick without using the term Spirit Animal? I have to let the world know how much I relate to her tweets on a personal level!” And, I mean, same.
Do not fear, friends! There are other words that accurately and less offensively carry the same intended meaning.
Solution: the word Patronus effectively carries the same intended meaning as the bastardized version of Spirit Animal, and additionally, is a rad reference, universally understood in its meaning and a non-offensive word. Triple win.
So think before you speak, folks. White privilege and cultural appropriation are real and unfortunately very much ingrained in our language. But if we can start small by cutting out things like the term Spirit Animal and dream catcher tattoos (please just google why that’s a bad idea; I don’t have the time to do everything myself), we can make headway toward living in a less offensive society.
Totally unrelated, but my Patronus is Chris Evans.
See how much cooler that sounds?