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.
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.