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

Updated Feb 24 2017
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.

  1. Here goes my diatribe of five cents! Oh, I'm not answering anyone's comments (although many of you make great points), I'm only discussing the post itself.

    Cultural appropriation – This is really interesting because we (Indians) do a lot of it. Think about an Indian wedding. You might see the bride and groom exchange rings, cut a cake, do a first dance, have a toast, eat cake, wear a white wedding gown. Those are all "western" traditions (i'm bucketing this so we don't starting arguing on which culture started which tradition, except that we know these are not really "indian" in origin).

    And cultural appropriation occurs within South Asia too. We might see Hindu brides wearing kaliras (dangling umbrella bangles) which is usually for Punjabi and Sikh brides. Muslim brides might wear choodas and a mangalsutra (jewelry that is typical to a Hindu bride). Or Indian Catholic brides wearing a jai mala (a garland).

    Our subcontinent, is an amalgamation of all its cultures on one hand, but has very strong sub-ethnic/cultural beliefs on the other. It's beautiful.

    On my blog, we encourage brides/grooms who have a South Asian wedding (whether in SA or in the diaspora) to submit their wedding to us and tell us what was important and what was cultural. We therefore learn a lot about what made them do what they did in the wedding events. And it's great to hear their stories!

    We also encourage couples who had an Indian event, but are not Indian, to submit their story. The most important thing is being respectful. If there were respectful and loving to the Indian /South Asian cultures, who am I to say what they did was wrong or weird?

    So, the question is, is there a line?

    There is. I find the line of cultural appreciation to appropriation (in a negative way) related to respect (i.e. execution of the event) and attitude by wedding guests.

    Let me elaborate. A couple who throws a wedding and puts their hearts and souls into (which probably almost everyone does) the details and events, means well. They probably did their research, spoke to friends, and purchased relevant items. They thought things through.

    Here's an example. A couple (be it Hindu or not) wants a statue of Lord Ganesh at their wedding. Awesome. Go for it. But, put him (Lord Ganesha) in an appropriate area of the wedding hall (this is usually an entrance way or main door). What will make you stupid and disrespectful is putting him next to your roasted pig at the buffet line, at a bathroom entrance, or near alcohol. That is really bad regardless of whether you're Indian or Hindu or not.

    Attitude by guests – It's SO important that the wedding party explains what will happen at a Hindu/Muslim/Jain/etc wedding when there are guests who might not understand the traditions. Print a booklet or make a webpage for people to read and understand. Help your guests out. What irks me is when I meet wedding guests who tell me they *love* Indian weddings but cannot stand the food. (Food is a big part of South Asian culture – so if you attend a wedding, you should probably like the food or you'll be starving and looking disrespectful.) Or they cannot understand why the wedding is vegetarian or alcohol free. "That's weird, it's a celebration! You should drink!", is what I've heard on several occasions.

    That's the sort of cultural appropriation in a bad way. You want to be at an Indian wedding but you want us to follow your rules, and if we don't, *we* are the weird ones. Or, I've heard wedding guests complain about the bride wearing something other than white (which is like, most south asian weddings!).

    My point is, we as South Asians do a lot of cultural appropriation and copycatting. Most of the time, it looks great, sometimes it looks tacky, and sometimes it's just a very bad idea. And as for the guests attending our weddings: come with an open mind. You will probably see events and traditions you've never seen before, and you'll eat food you may have never seen before, but enjoy it. It's different and beautiful.

    Anyway, thanks for reading this very long, probably off-topic, comment.

    PS – I love it when brides wear mehndi! Or anyone wear mehndi. It's soooooo pretty.

    • I think there is something about sharing within similar cultures (such as South Asians of Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Jain, etc descent) that wouldn't really classify as appropriative. Neither would South Asians using Western traditions- appropriation is about groups in POWER who take from disempowered religions. For South Asians to have things like cake cutting, and ring exchanges seems like something that has been impressed upon them by the dominant culture, or media.

  2. I'm super late to this conversation, but on the off chance that anyone is still around, I thought I'd post my question anyways.

    During my time in Shanghai, I was gifted a beautiful qipao from a close friend. After returning to the US, she's asked me multiple times if I've worn it and seems disappointed when I tell her that I haven't found an opportunity to yet.

    In all honesty, I am worried that stateside, people will see me not as wearing a gift from a friend who means a lot to me, that represents a culture that I spent years studying, and instead assume appropriation on my part. I would hate for that to be the case. At the same time, the dress is far too beautiful to be left in a closet, and my friend would be sad if I didn't wear her gift with pride.


  3. I have to say my favorite part about this entire discussion is how Sarah never came back to it because her foot was so far in her mouth by that point that she was unable to type. I have to say that while I am an amateur sociologist I really dislike the cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation argument that so often evolves out of conversations on traditions. They seem to imply that culture is some sort of stagnant force and that it never grows, evolves, or changes – whether for the worse or the better. I do indeed recognize the need for respect when it comes to tradition but what I dislike is that more often than not the conversation turns into someone who has become 'a culutral appropriation officer' looking for a villain to blame for the personal slight they feel regardless of the context of the situation. The assertion that an individual can speak for an entire group of people or a culture (which really is a bit of an abstract concept in terms of what it includes and does not include) is also rather troubling. All in all its a very interesting topic I bring up these points as food for thought.

  4. I'm not a bride or a bride-to-be, I got dragged here by pretty shoes a few weeks ago and can't seem to stop reading. But I would just like to say I have spent the entire morning reading this thread inbetween the rest of my life, I am fascinated; and it has also made me very happy. It's a tough topic but this discussion is one of the most mature, well considered, and POLITE threads I have ever read on the internet. Kudos everyone.

  5. When I first heard about bridal mehndi, I knew right then that I had to have it for my wedding. The only things I had to have was: firetruck red hair and bridal mehndi. The woman who applied it had such good and sage marriage advice. It was a bonding moment. I guess I never explained it to my husband to be. I just went and did it. He never liked real tattoos. I thought temporary staining on the skin that was meaningful would be different. Once he saw the henna, he flipped and called it disgusting. I really should have saw the signs there.

    Now, I'm divorced and learning the art of henna myself.

  6. Kind of disappointed that Sarah never apologised. You'd think that if she was truly concerned about respecting people's feelings and positions, that'd be the least she could do.

  7. As a woman of colour, I'm a little off put by this article, and the comments on it. I know I'm late to the party, but there is a large difference between cultural appreciation and cultural exchange. I am Indian, and I understand that my culture is beautiful to many people. However, for someone to feel that they can use my culture for a moment in time, without being a part of my culture, seems off-putting. It seems as if my culture is something they can use for a day, and then take off again. Regardless of whether you appreciate my culture, the connotations behind using traditions that have been used for generations by one group of colour can be very sorely felt. If someone who wasn't South Asian wanted to incorporate henna into their wedding, it would seem like a show. There is nothing wrong with having henna done by a South Asian person, as that is cultural exchange, but there is something appropriative about making a decision on your own to use a tradition like henna. If it isn't a part of your culture, or of the person who you are marrying, it need not be used by you. One must realize that there are millions of people who cannot use and throw a culture away after a wedding day is done- my brown skin doesn't change when I am using henna at my wedding, or when I am in line to be checked by security when boarding a flight because my skin colour is the same as those involved in 9/11. Ask yourself whether you get the same treatment. To pick and choose traditions (regardless of how much you understand them) looks almost…. gimmicky. I'd rather not have my culture used as a show!

    • Well, I guess you'd better stop speaking English, wearing jeans, and listening to the radio, because those things weren't born in your culture, and you're therefore not entitled to use them.

      Does that comment make you bristle?

      It should, because that is exactly what you're saying to people who like something from your culture so much that they want to emulate it. But instead of encouraging it, you're getting mad. Shouldn't you be grateful that people outside your culture are open-minded enough to see something different and embrace it instead of reacting like a xenophobic monster and trying to wipe all trace of it from existence?

      This is the problem with the cultural appropriation police. They don't get the fact that there's no possible way to stop people from doing something from someone else's culture. It doesn't actually, physically, hurt anybody, so there's absolutely no reason to get emotionally upset by it. By forbidding people of a different race or culture from using "your" race or culture's traditions, you've just branded yourself as an ignorant racist. Sure, your skin may be brown, you may be a minority, but you're still a racist. Anybody can be a racist, regardless of the color of their skin, and by deeming people who are different from you "not worthy" of using "your" traditions, you have just judged somebody by the color of their skin, their ethnic background, etc. Congratulations.

      • I don't think I'd call her a racist. I've tried to understand people with opinions like this, and I've noticed a common thread. I don't know whether this particular poster lives in India now, but a thing I've noticed is that a lot of people with feeling this strong were brought up another country. Often it's a country with a majority of whites, where people of other ethnicities are made to feel less-than, either by overt racism or by being excluded and underrepresented in society/media. Feeling a connection with their heritage is understandably important to people in that position, it's special to them, and it's hurtful when white people invade even that space (especially in a cavalier manner).

        I myself have had this feeling about other cultural things that weren't ethnic/nationality-based, because I'm part of subcultures that are very closely tied to my identity. I didn't like it when it became "cool" in the mainstream, and you had people dipping their toe into it without any real understanding or commitment. I didn't mind when people truly connected with it and became part of it, only when my identity was taken on as a disposable fashion statement. People took it as elitism, but it was really about commodification of identity. It is no less integral to my identity as other types of cultural identity are to others. So I understand the feeling of invasion when people co-opt culture/identity in a thoughtless way, but I don't really think it should be applied to everyone and everything. I can only explain it by talking about my own experiences.

        The friends I made in India (I basically lived in New Delhi for 2 months) had a completely opposite viewpoint from the view expressed by the above poster. They took me salwaaar kameez shopping, and gave me gifts of bindis and bangles. I always wore salwaar kameez (and wore them properly), and I was accorded more respect by men than the other western women I knew were. My female friends are from various social strata and vary in how traditional they are, but they're all proud of their culture and history. I went there for reasons other than tourism, but I quickly fell in love with India, and learned everything about it I could. I really admire India. One of my friends went to Jawaharlal Nehru University, and I'd visit her there. I was amazed by how much political action the students were engaged in. It was more like the mood at US universities in the 1960's than anything that exists in the US now. I read the newspaper every day and looked up anything I didn't understand, especially about the political system. It might sound like I'm digressing a lot, but my point is that my love for India/it's culture/people/aesthetic wasn't based on some cheap, shallow thing or a fashion statement.

        I haven't ever worn my salwaar kameez or bindis since I've been back in the U.S., though, and it's because I don't want to be criticized for it. I don't think it ever occurred to the friend who gave the bindis to me that I ever would be criticized for wearing them. It doesn't seem right that they're gathering dust in a drawer.

        My other problem with the cultural appropriation thing is something I posted somewhere else in this thread a long time ago. I'm of Native American descent , and have a blood quantum that would qualify me for tribal membership (not a member though). More than than some prominent members of tribal government. I have light eyes/skin, but no one is surprised when I tell them because of facial traits that I have. People would come up to my dad and ask him things like whether he wanted to join the local Cherokee softball group. My Grandma was very clearly visibly Native American, but was raised to think of herself as white because her family were trying to downplay it and write it off as being "Black Dutch".

        I'm originally from Oklahoma, where it's very common to be Native American or of some Native American descent. It's just normal and not considered "exotic". I wouldn't have felt uncomfortable about celebrating or expressing that part of my ancestry at all when I lived there. I've lived in California for 10 years now, where most people have never met a real, live Native American. I never would express it in any way or even talk about it now, because of the assumptions that people would make. I feel kind of robbed. Not so much by hipsters wearing feathers, but by the (mostly white) people who appointed themselves judges. I've read some pretty ignorant conversations in which people assume that anyone with light eyes who claims to be of native descent must be one of those people who think they're descended from a "Cherokee princess". I have no idea how many people actually have fake family legends about princesses, but in the minds of some Cultural Appropriation judges, they're all over the place. I never met anyone who claimed it, though.

        People can feel however they want about it, but I just think that a member of a culture should be careful not to present themselves as representing everyone from that culture. I think people not of a culture/background should be exceedingly careful about judging who has a right to it and who doesn't. Anyone who wants to adopt something from another culture should ideally research it and consider it carefully and with sensitivity before they do it. Everywhere I've ever been, I've felt really moved by the commonalities of humanity. All the variations of cultures that humans have created are astonishing and wonderful. They should be nurtured and kept alive, and shouldn't be killed by encroaching westernization. Western culture homogenizing the world and causing the death of these cultures is a bigger concern to me than Westerners adopting some aspects of those cultures. Most people think of ancient Greco-Roman culture being the inheritance of mankind, and I'm not sure than any of the fruits and beauty of human endeavor should be classified "this is for me, and not for you". We're a tiny population of a (probably) very rare species in the universe…I don't have the writing skill to put into words the way I feel about it. I just think the flowering of human cultures is a very special thing.

        • Wear what you want, and to Hell with people who judge you for it. Don't let your clothing gather dust in a drawer if you actually want to wear it. It is never inappropriate to like something from another culture and adopt it as your own. NEVER. EVER. EVER.

  8. I am somewhat hesitant about making any presumably outside-my-culture type choices for my wedding because of the risk of its making anyone uncomfortable. It is really just one thing I really want at my wedding: A traditional solje style Norwegian Bridecrown for the ceremony, with the beautiful charms on it that jingle and make lovely music (in folk tradition, this was to ward off trolls and bad spirits from the bride on her wedding day). I am not Norwegian, although being an American mutt I probably have Scandinavian heritage (on like, a Cambro-Norman viking-descended sort-of level). But I love the tradition and the aesthetic of the crowns, which today are much smaller and simpler than they were in say the 1800s. But is it appropriate to wear one if I am not Norwegian? Or marrying into a Norwegian family? The crown isn't part of a religious custom so much as a folk one (as far I have knowledge), but it's still very much a recognizable symbol of that culture, and I wouldn't want to do something someone might find disrespectful. I just love the bride crown, which really was something historically popular in most cultures, esp. in Europe, in lieu of the modern veil & tiara.

    • You don't have to ask anybody's permission to do something at your wedding. It is YOUR wedding. Do what makes you happy, and to hell with anybody who gives you shit about it. None of their reasons are valid, ever, unless they are the person you are being married to. Nobody else's opinion matters. Anybody who gets all pissy about people "stealing" their culture needs to get the stick out of their butt and realize that we live in a global culture, where everything belongs to everyone. There is no such thing as an isolated culture or civilization anymore. Such is the modern world. Culture is only going to to get more and more mashed together as technology shrinks the gaps between continents, so getting heated about somebody doing something that they weren't born doing is pointless, and in another generation or two, will be completely irrelevant anyway.

  9. The most useful thing I ever heard about appropriation was at a workshop on the subject of cultural accessability/competency/relevance/etc.

    "You can't take the good & fun parts of our culture without also being there for the sorrows & hard times & struggles."

    So much of what makes appropriation so problematic is that it is taking things from a culture that is already marginalized & by definition, experiencing some sort of struggle because of that — whether that be genocide, access to resources, land rights, historical or generational trauma that gives way to violence &/or drinking &/or eating disorders, etc., criminalization, immigration struggles, lack of portrayal in the media & resulting self-esteem issues, etc.

    Marginalized cultures typically have already had so much taken from them — it's fascinating to hear it expressed as "sharing" & an obligation to share without complaining when they've already lost so much, & truly get nothing from the "exchange."

    Whenever I feel tempted, I consider the above & how I am supporting in the culture's struggles — & if I'm even aware of those struggles… I almost always end up deciding not to do whatever it is I was considering that feels like appropriation or on the edge of appropriation, and usually end up more authentically allied with the culture I was feeling motivated to "appreciate" in the first place.

  10. Interesting Read about culture borrowing…You are very right when you say if its good no harm in borrowing the beautiful culture , traditions or rituals of some others as it will only help to make any ritual or wedding look more beautiful. And yes you are right when you say it’s like giving a big nod of respect to that culture or tradition , Imitation is the best form of appreciation and why not!

  11. I'd like some thoughts from individuals familiar with hinduism/ jainism. I'm a melting-pot of the USA-raised white girl getting married to a small town white guy. We both were raised by christians and are now agnostic. I'd say my ultra-religious upbringing left a rancid taste in my mouth. We're planning our wedding and not connected with the western rituals apart from writing our own vows, lifting the veil for a kiss, and ring exchange. I didn't realize 2 years ago when i went to visit a close friend in India for a month that i'd come back interested in spirituality again. Now i've found myself laying out a cultural hindu ceremony – S India- follow me. I'm talking to my friend and her mom (practicing hindus) throughout planning but they are nothing but the sweetest people who I don't know would speak up if there was an issue. Because my fiancé and i do not believe in god(s), we are omitting the fire, offerings, and chants. For example, instead of lighting a sacred fire for the saptapadi we are going to make sindoor (combining turmeric and a base to turn it bright red) and walk around it to the 7 vows before he applies it. I'm also planning to have a sangeet with mehendi ceremony the a couple days before the wedding. I think the root question i have is- is it inherently appropriating to go without the homage to the gods? If you have any Qs let me know!

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