Monday, November 28, 2011


I've seen a lot of talk about cultural appropriation lately. From the ubiquitous sugar skull costumes around Halloween, to posts about wedding traditions including a discussion of mehndi, chuppas, and jumping the broom, to a discussion about smudging with sage on a shelter blog. There seem to be two views on all of these things: a) that we're all members of the "human race" or "human culture," and thus all traditions are to be shared, and b) that we should be careful--especially, that people with certain types of privilege should be careful--to not use the traditions of other cultures in ways that might be insulting, hurtful, of just plain incorrect to their cultures of origin.

I'm pretty solidly in group b, which was solidified not ten minutes ago, when a blog I frequent used the term for the most sacred rite in the religion I was raised in, to signify something that, while I know she meant no offense, was comparatively trivial. And it kind of stung.

Now, due the fact that the rite was baptism, as practiced by Baptists (Southern ones, even!) I'm trying not to get all bent out of shape. Christians in general have done our share of appropriation--look almost every tradition surround Christmas, for a timely example. Not to mention that the Christian experience in the States is so widespread that you can't help but absorb some of it, or even a lot of it, and the dominant culture really has nothing to whine about. But the most important act in a young Baptist's life, one preceded by prayer, meditation, and pastoral guidance, one performed publicly in front of one's entire faith community, laden with tradition and one on which the very state of one's soul may rest? is not the same as falling out of a canoe on a chilly day.

So, I have my little taste of what it's like to be on the other end of things. And I would like to apologize to anyone I've stolen culture from, in ignorance or in a misplaced sense of "sharing." And I'll try to do better.

A quick note: one of the blog posts that got me thinking--the wedding one, on Offbeat Bride--had a sort of solution to the urge to borrow culture in it. The writer and her husband, inspired by the meaning behind the glass-breaking in a Jewish wedding, invented their own tradition to honor the meaning without appropriating the act. In their case, this was adding a small charm to each of their outfits, as a  remembrance of hard times during their joyful time. And in the smudging discussion, several commenters recommended Western traditions with similar intent, instead of borrowing an act the OP was obviously unfamiliar with--for example, cleaning the house thoroughly and lighting new candles, or rearranging furniture to make a space seem new and cleared of bad memories. Perhaps USians need to remember that we do, in fact, have our own traditions, and we need to find ways to honor those and rediscover our own meaning in them.

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