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.

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

  1. As a white bride who wore Middle Eastern & Indian textiles for her wedding, I think it comes down to a) know what you’re borrowing (ie, not just ’cause it looks pretty), and b) don’t assume you’re entitled to be immune from criticism. I did so because I am a dancer and the theme of my wedding reception was lotsa dance– my dance partner and I even performed at the reception… a bellydance piece that incorporated elements of Indian blessings. Had that not been the case, I would have gone with other clothing. I don’t just walk down the street in a bindi just ’cause, and I wouldn’t have walked down the aisle that way, either. I did my best to borrow respectfully, but in no way expect everyone else to agree with my decisions. I recognize that as a white person, there will always be many perspectives on what is appropriate for me when it comes to cultural borrowing. The best I can do is treat others’ viewpoints with respect and learn from them.

  2. Depends on what the cultural item is. You can’t steal a cultural thing unless by using it means the creating culture can no longer claim it or do it. But one should be sensitive to traditions that are very sacred or super meaningful to a peoples where they don’t appreciate ‘borrowing’.
    We’ve seen trouble from borrowing and playing cultural dress up with the hobo wedding, but some of the hew and cry there was over the top. As a Black woman I would raise an eyebrow if a white couple decided to incorporate the jumping the broom in their wedding.
    For myself I think cultural dress-up or borrowing from somewhere unrelated makes your wedding less about you, unless you make a regular habit of playing dress-up or borrowing.

        • And gay and lesbian couples use this tradition as well. The tradition links back to slavery days in the U.S. when slaves could not get legally married. Now GLBT couples use this tradition as a way to say, “yes, we too will one day be able to legally marry as well”.

          • As a white queer person, I still consider this appropriation. I’m glad to be able to legally marry my partner in a few months, and I’m deeply grateful for all of the people who fought for marriage equality (I came out in 07 and then moved to MA, so I wasn’t particularly actively involved in marriage equality organizing, though I’m a queer organizer). That all being true, I don’t think it’s respectful or accurate to compare the lack of marriage equality for LGBTQ people to hundreds of years of slavery; and I think appropriating broom jumping treads that line in ways I’m uncomfortable with.

    • “one should be sensitive to traditions that are very sacred or super meaningful to a peoples where they don’t appreciate ‘borrowing’.”

      Yes, yes, YES.

      Jumping a broom is definitely something that’s got multiple histories in different cultures, but I don’t want that as an example to take away from the importance of what you just said… I think approaching everything with respect and caution is the way to go, but even though I can’t think of a concrete example, I also don’t want to close off the idea that there could exist certain symbols that are not welcome to be borrowed at certain points in time.

      Some of the other amazing advice in this article in the second last paragraph begins with, “Really listen…”

  3. What a great post! This is an important conversation to have and I think Arewethereyet approached it thoughtfully and meaningfully.

  4. this is a timely post for me.
    my son recently married (YAY!) and the Indian side of the bride’s family hosted a mehndi – so much fun! I wore an Indian inspired dress but not a sari. when the bride’s father asked who organized my costume, I wasn’t sure how to take it. was he approving because I dressed in the spirit of the occasion (you don’t wear surgical scrubs to the opera, so dress for the occasion) or did he see me as a white woman who was mimicking – possibly mocking – his culture? I responded honestly that I had chosen the outfit but he gave no clue to his perspective. I later asked my now DIL, and she reassured me that he was approving (WHEW!) but as someone who tries to be respectful of other cultures, I was genuinely concerned.

    while we are all too often excessive with being politically correct, if you show sincere respect for other people and their cultures most are very happy to share their traditions and even explain them. if something about a tradition touches you and you want to include that in your wedding, what greater compliment could there be?

  5. I got married earlier this year, and this was a large consideration for me, personally. I am white, and agree with most that understanding the meaning behind a tradition is very important. Cultural appropriation is a topic that actually comes up a lot at my work place (a university), and as such, I really find myself taking other white folks to task, sometimes a bit too harshly, for appropriating. However, I really like the author’s idea about taking the essence of the glass breaking ceremony and re-working it. I myself have always found chuppahs really beautiful, but I resisted trying to have one of my own because I felt it was something that I was doing because it was pretty, not because I wanted to honor God by way of Jewish tradition. But I like the symbolism of the tradition as well, and opted to have a beautifully decorated arbor that evoked a similar look without being a blatant appropriation. That said, we also served chicken and waffles at the wedding because it was a brunch theme and is delicious, which you could also make the argument is an appropriation of black culture. It’s a hard road to hoe, but ultimately I think being honest about one’s privilege and having an honest accounting of your reasons are important. Similarly, I would have never had a religious ceremony because we are not religious and it would have been disingenuous to do so, not only for us, but for folks who do follow those beliefs.

    • Thank you for not opting for the chuppah on purely aesthetic reasons. I have seen people do it and it makes me uncomfortable. Personally, I identify a chuppah with a Jewish wedding and when what’s going on is clearly not it feels like appropriation. It feels worse when the couple then sits down to a meal of whole, roasted pig.

      There is also the possibility that multiple cultures have similar conditions. A former co-worker expressed her annoyance at my “appropriating” the South Asian tradition of wedding henna because she had no clue that many cultures, including Sephardic Jews, have the tradition as well.

  6. I’m of a rather diluted irish heritage, and my boyfriend is African-American and Cuban. In spite of the misgivings I have, as these are traditions that neo-pagans have adopted, we will be having a handfasting (with every person at the wedding tying our hands together) and a broom jumping as part of our christian ceremony. I’m more worried that these things will be seen as being associated with paganism(not that I have anything against pagans) rather than being associated with our cultural heritage (mine and his), and a symbolic joining of mixed origins.

  7. Frequently I hear folks online and off brush off concerns about cultural appropriation (or sexism, or classism, or…) with things like,

    “well some people will be offended by anything”

    … and I know no one is saying that here, so maybe it’s a weird thing to bring up, but I hear it SO constantly that I’m just SO relieved and think it’s really awesome that a different and much more constructive conversation is happening in this space instead.

    I think this is a really fantastic article, and thank you for writing it.

  8. I am one of those people who don’t have any real culture to draw from. Nearly all my mother’s ancestors have been in the US or Canada since the 1800s from all over western Europe. On my dad’s side, I’m technically Dutch, but we have no traditions or anything associated with it as I’m 3rd generation.

    Sometimes I feel rather left out that I don’t really have any meaningful traditions that come from my ancestry and I’m tempted to appropriate some. It’s nice to think that it can be done respectfully, if you do it with respect and intent.

  9. I appreciate that people are trying hard to think about being sensitive, but I think the idea that Anglo-Americans and white people generally have so little culture “of their own” is kind of a red herring. I think we have a tendency to look at “culture” as something divorced from everyday life, and something that comes from pre-modern and non-Western contexts, rather than the way we live out American modernity in our everyday lives. I would say that the wedding trends and traditions many of us on this site define ourselves against as “offbeat” ARE Anglo-American culture and tradition. (Just because someone don’t feel personally connected to them doesn’t mean it’s not part of their culture, culture isn’t always something that makes everyone feel full of unity and belonging.) Shopping for ideas from cultures other than your own is a way of trying to individualize your own wedding. I’m not saying that’s bad, but saying that you don’t HAVE culture or tradition is simply ignoring what you do have.

    • Yes, I totally agree with this. (I’m actually agreeing with a lot that everyone is saying – as someone said above, this is a great discussion.)

      As an English person, I do sometimes find it interesting that very rarely on this, or any other, site do American readers seem to talk about making a nod to “English” heritage. Scottish, Welsh, Irish, sure – but never English.

      I think Emily may be right, that people don’t think of their everyday life as necessarily containing culural traditions, though of course all ways of life do. As a result, the “onbeat” traditions of English and American culture are not seen as cool and meaningful traditions that others might want to borrow for their weddings. And when they do (e.g. Indian brides of my acquaintance wanting a white wedding dress), it can sometimes be seen as giving in to the dominant culture, rather than them expressing *their* individuality by using something meaningful to them. Which is kind of a shame, perhaps – sensitive cultural borrowing should be allowed in all directions.

      • These comments about offbeat brides of Anglo-Saxon American heritage really resonate. I LOVE the wide array of multicultural wedding traditions I have learned about on this site, and Offbeat bride helped me recognize how important it is to me to have a wedding that suits my family’s traditions. Thanks to Offbeat Bride, I’m actually planning a much more “conventional” wedding than I thought I would.

    • WOAH! YES! And the categories that go unmarked like this (in this case, unmarked culture) also tend to be the ones that coincide with privilege.

    • I agree. I think that often, people who come from the Anglo-American tradition fail to realize that the “typical” wedding most of us think of as traditional is strictly from their culture. The order of the ceremony, the bride being walked in by her father, the incorporation of readings and/or songs. These are all part of an Anglo, Christian wedding. That’s culture. None of those elements will be in my Jewish wedding!

      • Its also interesting that many elements of what we consider a ‘traditional’ white-people wedding were adapted from Italian and Greek cultures. 100 years ago most anglo people (especially non rich ones) didn’t necessarily make a deal of their wedding, wear fluffy white dresses, have a three tiered wedding cake, etc. Much of this was actually adapted from Italian and other similar wedding cultures, but slowly such that its not even noticed, and people don’t think of themselves as having an ‘italian-style” wedding.

        • Actually, the big white dress in particular is Queen Victoria’s fault. Before her wedding, the upper classes would more likely wear a gold or coloured gown to their wedding, not white. The lower classes would wear their best dress (of any colour). After Queen Victoria shirked the usual royal wedding tradition, white became more popular and the trend for bigger, fluffier dresses was only perpetuated by Princess Diana in the 80s.

          In Britain, at least.

  10. No.

    The tone of this article seems to imply that cultural traditions are somehow owned by that culture. That those cultures have somehow been given (by god?) or are entitled to particular things. When the fact is that they’ve all been made up by humans. For millennia humans have been sharing, appropriating, and creating different aspects of their cultures with other groups. We are not, nor have we ever been separate.

    Even something as specific as say Christmas is a bundle of traditions.

    The idea of a savior or messiah – Jewish
    Birth of a god to a virgin – Greek or even more ancient
    Having that birth around the winter solstice – Roman
    Celebration of the solstice – Ancient Pagan
    Christmas Tree – Germanic, appropriated by Queen Victoria to the English, then to the US
    Santa Claus – Christian, German, Pagan, Dutch, Scandinavian, and for the visuals Coca-Cola.

    There’s only one culture: HUMAN.

    • All that is true, but all those historical/cultural ancestors to modern day traditions happened before things like the holocaust, witch-burning, colonialism, slavery, and so on. I feel like it’s on the same level as saying “in a thousand years no one will care.” Of course it’s true, but that still doesn’t mean you should do something that’s disrespectful.

    • …actually, Queen Victoria couldn’t appropriate anything from the Germans. Aside from the fact that her father’s family descended from German cousins of Queen Anne who came to the English throne due to succession rules designed to keep out the Catholic Stuarts, and were therefore not English to begin with (although by Victoria’s time they had more or less adopted/adapted to English culture/tradition as their own), her mother AND her husband were both German-born. Many of her companions growing up were German ex-pats, chosen by her mother (who didn’t like England very much). So by the logic of appropriation, that the borrowing or theft of a cultural tradition/concept is done by a person who is not connected to the culture in any way, Queen Victoria cannot be accused of appropriating Christmas trees. It is not reasonable to accuse European royalty of appropriating other more-or-less contemporary European traditions, because most of them have an ancestry that links them to virtually every other European nation. For 300 years, every Romanov except one married a German (including a granddaughter of Queen Victoria). If the Romanovs wanted to have Christmas trees, it’s not exactly stealing. If you want to talk about the Elgin marbles, or the Hope Diamond… there would be a valid argument there.

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