Why do couples borrow cultural elements for their wedding, and how can you do so respectfully?

Guest post by AreWeThereYet

Cultural appropriation is a perennial topic on Offbeat Bride — when does it feel ok to borrow a tradition from another culture, and when does it feel exploitative? Here's one perspective.

Mendhi! © by amy(mcd)lakhani, used under Creative Commons license.

I believe there is a reason behind the appropriation of traditions between cultures. It has been said that appropriation can only occur when a dominant culture takes from a culture that has been marginalized in some way.

The reason behind the desire for appropriation bears some investigation. Instead of simply condemning it, we may better be able to combat the negativity of it and turn it into an exchange of values, traditions, and ideals that fosters multiculturalism and celebrates diversity.

Many Anglo-Americans have such a mishmash of culture that they feel like they have few or no traditions that hold significant meaning for them. Some people are inclined to explore culture, symbolism, rituals, and traditions, and so may seek these out in other cultures because they don't feel like they have cultural traditions that they relate to. Keep in mind that mainstream Anglo-American “white culture” IS culture. It's not accurate to say “I don't have any culture” just because your culture is the dominant mainstream one… but what if you don't relate to that culture?

There certainly are some people seek to set themselves apart from a family or culture that they don't relate to, wish to be a part of, or want celebrate. For example, my fiancé is essentially estranged from his family as was his father before him. He has a name that his grandfather made up because his original last name “sounded French.” There aren't any identifiable family traditions… other than little-to-no family interactions.

My family is generations of Kentucky hill people. I asked my grandmother about traditions and she said, “Our kind's always been too busy making a living and keeping our men out of the bottle to ‘bide much by traditions. We marry quick, marry young, and do it forever.” My parents had a shotgun-style wedding in the back yard, my grandparents all either eloped or got married in someone's living room because they were pregnant teenagers.

Which of those cultural traditions should I pick?

On the other hand, my best friend's family is from New Orleans. I am really close to her family and they are steeped in old world etiquette and tradition. I call her parents “mom and dad.” I have been to all of her cousins' weddings and there are ten people at our 100ish-person wedding from her NOLA family that are coming. I feel very connected to their Catholic culture as well as their New Orleans traditions. I've spent over half of my life participating in New Orleans-style festivities and traditions.

We are incorporating a few things into our wedding simply because it wouldn't feel right without it. Things like a ribbon pulling, second line, and groom's cake are so steeped in what my idea of a wedding is that I never thought of not incorporating it. MANY New Orleans traditions stem from French or African traditions. I need to be mindful of the possibility of offending when I choose to incorporate traditions that don't represent my personal background.

I went to a Jewish wedding where the rabbi explained that the reason for crushing the glass was to remember the destruction of the temple of Israel. The purpose of this is (I am going to paraphrase, but use quotations as I am not a member of this group and the “we” and “our” wouldn't apply to me) “if even in our happiest of moments we can acknowledge and remember our saddest moments, then even in our saddest moments we may be reminded of our happiest.” This was a beautiful articulation of something I had been feeling for years. Because of this, I have a bouquet charm and my fiancé will have a charm tied in his laces. These charms represent to each of us the hardest and saddest times in our lives. We choose to acknowledge these things because, to us, it's important to remember — regardless of our cultural heritage.

I believe that what may be seen as appropriating to some can be seen as cultural exchange to others.

I think it's natural for people to foster deep connections and desire to be a part of traditions. Part of the process of immigration for many people's ancestors was a divorce from their culture. As a result, many of us don't know what our lineage is and don't have a string of traditions from a culture or family.

Obviously this doesn't give people the right to mindlessly usurp these treasures from the cultures of others. I believe, however, that if people who feel a particular bond or attachment to traditions that resonate with them, then they should be able to carefully and thoughtfully find ways to honor those pieces of a culture, and possibly create new cultures/traditions where there weren't any before.

I believe that what may be seen as appropriating to some can be seen as cultural exchange to others. I am lucky enough to have grown up in a fairly culturally diverse place and lived in even more culturally diverse places throughout my life. In my personal experiences, many of the people in other cultures love celebrating their traditions and sharing them with others. As a kid we had multicultural programs at school and once a month someone's parent would come in and teach us something about their culture and discuss their traditions. They also discussed things like eye contact, physical touch, and things that could be seen as a sign of disrespect. As a school we incorporated these holidays, cultures, and traditions into our regular activities.

Many of the children were first generation immigrants and they felt good that they weren't a pariah and they didn't get laughed at when they did things differently. Over the course of my life I've seen kids get Mitvahed, have quinceaneras, or be confirmed in the Catholic church; I've folded cranes for a friend's sick relative, poorly danced Ceilidh, and humored a bride through hours of mehndi. For every one of these events there has been a warm, friendly person guiding me through the tradition of the process.

In my experience, if you want to have some kind of tradition of another culture at your wedding, seek out someone who is familiar with it, and do your best to learn from them about it. Really listen, and then talk with them about what their cultural perspectives mean to you, and ask how (or if) they feel you could honor your interest in that culture respectfully and in good taste. In my personal experience, people are more often than not interested in sharing their culture with those who approach them respectfully.

Essentially, I think it comes down to “Don't be a jerk about it.” I believe that the exploration of other cultures does not have to mean the exploitation of other cultures. If done carefully, with consideration, tact, and a heart of the intended meaning and purpose, using cultural traditions of others can be a nod of respect.

Readers who want to explore more about cultural appropriation should click here to read the Offbeat Empire's full archive of posts about the subject.

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Comments on Why do couples borrow cultural elements for their wedding, and how can you do so respectfully?

  1. Thanks for the great article. When my husband and I were married, we honored the multitude of mixed religions and people our two families were bringing together with a variety of traditions (including the breaking of the glass). This helped us further our connections to them. I say go for it, if it means something to you!

  2. Thank you. I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately, wondering how to toe the line. It’s nice to hear someone else’s thinking on these things.

  3. This is a topic I am very excited to see written about. I have had mehndi designs applied to my hands at many different culture fairs and festivals. I have asked woman who migrated from India for college and those who grew up in Iowa how they felt about my having mehndi designs. No woman has thought I was disrespectful or rude to have said designs,and yet Derrik is very aginst it. He is extremely respectful of other cultures. I hope to use this artical to help me address his objections to my having mehndi designs on my hands before our wedding. I shall do a lot of research and we’ll see how it goes.

    • I really wanted to have Mehndi done as well, because its just so breathtakingly beautiful. I was a little apprehensive of how people would receive it if I did decide to do it but now I feel alot better 🙂

  4. Thank you so much for bringing this discussion up.

    I grew up with Buddhist parents – a rather obscure sect that has continually been both attacked as a cult and defended against those accusations over the past hundred years or so. They adopted the religion in their teens – in some ways I think it began as an act of rebellion against their upper-middle class, privileged white parents. They had a Buddhist marriage ceremony. What I mostly took away from the experience was that my parents wanted to pretend that they didn’t come from where they actually came from. They have both since their late teens prayed for 1-2 hours a day in a language the don’t speak, and have been reciting prayers they don’t understand the translations of. To me, that’s the shallower side of cultural adoption – but that’s different from folding origami for decorations at a wedding or developing a collection of Japanese furniture.

    I agree with the article here that it’s important to create traditions that are right for you (as opposed to the living room shotgun weddings she doesn’t aspire to.) In my position, I was completely removed from the actual cultural heritage of my family, and have spent many years trying to reconnect with where my family actually comes from.

    So even if you aren’t proud of where you came from and find what feel like a better home in the practices of a different culture, don’t let it go so far as try re-writing your history. You might not be proud of it right now, but your imperfect or seemingly bland family might be the most beautiful thing children looking to understand their family.

    • Your parents are still doing it?

      I respect their dedication! To be following a religion most of your life like that seems to me to make it much deeper than appropriation, but of course I don’t know your parents.

      I’ve had a somewhat related experience. My parents joined a Hindu group that is sometimes considered a cult and still are deeply involved today. They actually have studied Sanskrit for the last 35 years, so they know all the meaning of every prayer they give.

      Because of them, I consider myself to be Hindu, though I have no Indian blood. I’ve been exploring that and writing about it for a few years now and I’m on the eve of having a very Hindu wedding.

      I worry a little about whether my children will feel disinterested in Hinduism and the Indian culture I practice and long to learn more about their Irish and Scottish heritage.

  5. Beautifully written!

    I particularly like the focus on learning what the ritual is really about. In my opinion, appropriation becomes particularly problematic when it is done “because it looks cool” or based on a very shallow understanding of the meaning. Your charms were also a lovely example. I could see some couples being impressed by that one meaning of the broken glass ceremony but missing the rich historical and religious significance, so just using it as it is.

    I also wonder about the importance of having a connection to a culture or a tradition prior to the planning of a wedding. Again, I think it gets back to really knowing something and valuing it instead of picking something lovely out of a wedding magazine.


  6. This is an excellent post! I haven’t seen anyone address cultural appropriation in terms of weddings this way before.

    In the end, everything really does come down to following Wheaton’s Law, doesn’t it?

  7. This is a topic I have often read about, considered, and discussed, during literature studies and in everyday life. However, what I notice is the emphasis on lineage. In a society that (mostly and ideally) condemns racism, I think culture should be about experience, not where on the planet your DNA came from. A genuine question, why should a child adopted from, for example, China, want to connect with a cultural heritage that might have little to do with their bloodline, but not necessarily their home and day-to-day experience of culture? That said, I think traditions are very valuable, and as an Anglo-Canadian don’t feel that my bloodline bequeaths me too many interesting ones. There aren’t any traditions from “other” cultures that I plan on incorporating into my wedding, but it’s just funny to think that any sort of social practice can be considered “stealing” from another group, because that group has different DNA or came from a certain place. We should be a little more colourblind than that.

    • With respect, “colorblindness” isn’t really all that great. When many people claim to be colorblind, they are also, in a sense, not looking at a lot of the institutional privileges that white people have, and that the cultures they’re borrowing from lack.

      White nations have colonized a LOT of non-white cultures, and exploited those cultures for the sake of fashion, style, and trend. We do have to be careful when we borrow from other cultures that we do not do so in a way that is disrespectful to those cultures– which I’m sure you agree with! But just adding my two cents that “colorblindness” is not all it’s cracked up to be, because those without white privilege do not have the option to be “colorblind.” While I remain committed to respect and tolerance, I would rather see the full spectrum of colors for all their beauty than claim to be “colorblind.”

      • Agreed. As the author points out, what is ‘appropriation’ to one is ‘cultural exchange’ to another – though generally the ‘cultural exchange’ is the dominant culture’s perspective, while the minority/disadvantaged group has been appropriated. As the above commenter points out, there are huge issues of privilege here.

        The thing about culture is that when you live it in, are completely embedded in it, without notions of individual choice and independence, you can’t just pick and choose which bits you like. The very essence of culture is that one is steeped in it, generally from birth. This might explain why there is a sense of not having a culture – because when it is all around you, it becomes invisible (see comment below, from Emily).

        Culture is distinct from tradition; the family ‘tradition’ might be shotgun weddings, but that’s not necessarily your culture. I think it’s preferable for one to look deeper into their own roots, rather than elsewhere into someone else’s.

    • I think it is extremely important to be aware of our privilege (particularly white privilege) and acknowledge how reality due to white privilege is completely different that what many others may experience. This is a really good list of the daily effects of white privilege that was really eye opening for me http://www.amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html#daily

      White privilege is very related to cultural appropriation. The Municipal Cultural Planning Project defines it as “the process by which members of relatively privileged groups “raid” the culture of less powerful or marginalized groups, and removing [sic] cultural practices or artifacts from historically or culturally specific contexts.” I don’t think it’s acceptable to claim colour blindness when our actions can have a negative impact on an oppressed group group.

  8. Lovely post! I definitely feel it all comes down to your respect for those traditions, and ultimately fully understanding why you want them included in your ceremony. We all have our own mental constructions of our traditions, and none probably fully match anyone else’s variations. And I think that’s wonderful – we are the weavers of our own traditions.

    And Wheaton’s Law is awesome.

  9. I think it comes down to Don’t Be A Jerk, and Know The Meaning. If you want to borrow some cultural traditions remote from your own, you absolutely should. What you shouldn’t do is borrow them with no mind to what they represent or how they can quickly become inappropriate paired with something else. Not only do you free yourself from potential negative comments but you can learn a bit more about the world, and that’s always a good thing.

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