Think twice before appointing yourself cultural appropriation police

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Bliss just shut your eyes and be in the moment
Photo by Corinne Fudge Photography

This week’s most noteworthy comment thread on the Offbeat Empire was not an easy one, and it actually spans two weeks. You’ll need a little backstory.

Last week we published Krista & Colin’s multicultural punk island elopement. A day later, a comment was posted calling out Offbeat Bride for promoting a wedding that the commenter felt was culturally appropriative. “While I can’t claim to judge someone’s ethnicity based on their appearance, [the bride] clearly doesn’t resemble a person with native background at all. I’m sure we’ve all noticed that,” the commenter said.

[related-post align=”right”]The comment was moderated, and we immediately emailed the commenter to let her know that while we’re sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation, someone’s wedding profile is not the best place to have a meta conversation about a thorny cultural issue. Instead, we invited her to continued the discussion on our 2011 post dedicated to cultural appropriation, Why do couples borrow cultural elements for their wedding, and how can you do so respectfully?

The discussion was taken over to that post, and you can read the exchange between the commenter and myself here. Here’s an excerpt from the commenter’s concerns:

One wedding post that I saw incorporated a number of “native” practices into the wedding ceremony, seemingly without rhyme or reason…

Among other things, the wedding post which I will continue to refer to featured smoking a peace pipe, a practice which the bride claimed to be of a specific native origin (though I should be clear: she did not state if she is in fact belongs to that particular culture). Now, I’m familiar with a variety of native wedding traditions. There can be fasting, there can be certain ceremonies performed among the two adjoining families, there can be traditional colors or clothing articles worn etc. However, the bride made no mention of those things. Instead, she mentioned smoking a peace pipe – a practice which I’ve never heard to take place at a wedding. I feel it’s safe to say that some liberties were taken in that regard. Additionally, a quick search tells me that women of the particular tribal affiliation she mentioned have not ever traditionally smoked the pipe. Sounds like some additional liberties were taken there for the sake of her “native” fantasy.

Is the appropriation portrayed in this wedding acceptable simply because she claims to be part “Native American”? I certainly hope not.

The short version: she voiced concerns that Offbeat Bride was promoting the cultural appropriation of Native American traditions. I responded that my editorial priority has always been to support self-identification, so if a reader identifies with a culture, I don’t see it as my place to police how they choose to express that identity.

Then things got really interesting, because you know who commented next? Krista, the bride herself:

Sarah, I have thought long and hard about if I should even respond to your judgmental comments questioning my heritage and whether the traditions included in my wedding were cultural appropriation. Let me say that if anyone here is breeding racism and ignorance or cultural misappropriation, I would say it certainly is not me.

First off, if you had read the entire post about my wedding, you will see it says I am Lenape. Not every Lenape or “Native American Indian” happens to “look” the stereotypical skin color of what mass media says. I happen to have a father who is Scottish hence my pale skin, but you may be shocked to learn my Mother is Lenape.

Even more shocking is that amongst my tribe, I have never once been questioned about my skin color. No, honestly: no one has ever mentioned it. I jokingly just said to my husband, “Shall I get my tribal identification card?” but you know what? This is less about me and my wedding which you decided to use as an example and more about the world as a whole.

I live in Scotland with my now-husband and have done for 12 years. Since the day I have moved here, I have had to explain again and again about my race and culture. It’s not easy or even fun. In fact, I have even asked my tribal elders for support in trying to deal appropriately with the huge lack of education when it comes to tribal differences and cultural appropriateness here. For example, in the UK Native American Indians often are referred to as “Red Indians” which for me is inherently racist and is something I often address when I hear it.

Also, let me make it clear I have become accustomed to using the explanation of being Native American Indian here to try and address and hopefully change in a small way the misuse of the “Red Indian Label” But of course, I am Lenape and I identify with MY tribe and always explain I am in fact Lenape not just Native American Indian.

I could very easily get into all the aspects you have wrongly assumed about my wedding, such as saying it’s a “mish mash” of cultures. Yup, my husband is Scottish and our officiants are Pagan, so yes we included many different things. If you would like a cultural reference to the peace pipe thing (I mean, documented examples) then I would happily provide that. Our tribe always shared tobacco during any union.

Also, every feather I wore on the day was gifted to me by tribal family members — all sacred, all important. Not to mention I hand-beaded traditionally on a loom every piece of fans, and jewellery that was worn, just the way I was taught by my mother. (Who also sent me my moccasins, by the way.)

Yup I have a mohawk, yup I am bi-racial, and yup I am proud. So are my family, and tribe, and husband. But no, I will not explain myself to you any further.

I hope for you the best, and I hope that you have learned something about making assumptions based on appearance. In fact, I hope this teaches everyone something about assumptions.

I also want to thank Offbeat Bride for allowing us this place to speak. (Thankfully, not on our wedding feature. :D)

…And that’s just the beginning. You can read the entire thread here.

This situation was super interesting for me. I know that cultural appropriation is a pet peeve for many Offbeat Empire readers, and as an amateur sociologist, I absolutely understand why. As I mentioned here, it’s an issue my editors and I think about a lot when we edit posts.

That said, I’m also aware that it’s a complex issue, and that sadly, online social justice activism can all-too-frequently slip into dangerous territory. It doesn’t matter how well-intended your political agenda is… you have to tread thoughtfully when you get into this stuff. I know the commenter’s motivation was to encourage the respect of a marginalized culture’s traditional practices… but instead the result was deeply insulting to a member of the very culture she was trying to protect.

This, my friends, is why you should think twice before appointing yourself cultural appropriation police.

Comments on Think twice before appointing yourself cultural appropriation police

  1. You can’t identify a person of Native Heritage by looking at them. In my area, a large portion of “mixed” natives have blonde hair, blue eyes and peaches-and-cream complexion. They call themselves Blonde Indians. Are they any less deserving of celebrating either of their heritages? No!

    • Ditto. I actually possess some Cherokee/Blackfoot blood, but you probably couldn’t tell I was part Native by just looking at my white-skinned, sandy blonde, blue-eyed self. But I am also from Oklahoma where many, many white people have some Native ancestry as well.

      On a side note, my mom has a Hispanic girl in her 5th grade class this year, but she has told me that she doesn’t have the “typical” Hispanic look. Sometimes, you just never know about someone’s ethnic background unless they say so themselves.

  2. I am part Blackfoot, my husband is half Mexican. We both have strong Irish/Welsh family presence, as well. I am a ginger, with freckles, super curly red hair, blue-teal eyes…. and sky-high wide cheekbones. I tan very easily, to a point halfway down the foundation options from my winter skin color. My husband is more pale than me, and has green eyes.

    We have both had our heritage questioned by student loan officers, home loan officers, SBA representatives. Apparently, if you “can pass”, it is fair for people to tell you that you are lying about your family’s origins, or that you are so far removed that you should forget those ties. I suppose first generation legally born within the country is far enough removed to forget my husband’s culture, right?

    We are having a Dia los Muertos wedding (on the correct day, even) as a way to include both his heritage and the people from both families who would have been there beside us if they were alive to celebrate. It was something that meant a great deal to me when I chose the theme, in part because my favorite aunt died many years ago. It is my way of keeping her with me, and his way of including a family in which many will be unable to attend courtesy of a large fence. The end result of announcing this was an end to several old friendships.

    Some people decided that I was appropriating cultures, and that they could not believe I would be so crass. NONE of these people were Hispanic. Not one of them even identifies as anything except white.

    There is a difference between politely questioning someone about their interest in a culture, and deciding that the culture is yours to protect. In the conversation on cultural appropriation, I feel that this is a point that is tiptoed around or ignored:

    If you are not part of a culture, but have appointed yourself the guardian of that culture, you have committed the greatest appropriation of all. You’ve taken that culture as your own, for the purposes of moderating its use. That is a show of power over the culture itself, and implies that the people within the culture need your help. We do not, or we will ask. If you see racism, by all means, say something- but do not take it upon yourself to police all use of culture as racism. These are different-but-related concepts, and the lines get blurred. All I ask is that people make more of an effort to curtail the cultural lording, because you are taking our culture itself away from us, not just our outfits and traditions.

    That is not ok.

    • “If you are not part of a culture, but have appointed yourself the guardian of that culture, you have committed the greatest appropriation of all. You’ve taken that culture as your own, for the purposes of moderating its use. ”

      Um, whoa. That was really well said!!

    • If you are not part of a culture, but have appointed yourself the guardian of that culture, you have committed the greatest appropriation of all. You’ve taken that culture as your own, for the purposes of moderating its use. That is a show of power over the culture itself, and implies that the people within the culture need your help.

      I see your logic, but I disagree. This is the equivalent of saying “If a woman wants you to open the door for her, she will ask. If she doesn’t ask and you do it, then you’re not helping her; you’re dominating and overpowering her.” Just like opening the door for someone, standing up for ANYTHING (a culture, a person, a project, etc.) can be less an act of power and more an act of courtesy.

      You’re assuming that when someone says or does something culturally inappropriate, there is a) someone around who is part of that culture and b) someone around who is willing to stand up for that culture. That’s not always the case. Too frequently people feel like they can’t stand up for themselves, that they’re wrong to do so. How can you tell a stranger not to stand up for them instead?

      Like anything else, making a statement about culture, especially when correcting someone else, should be done with understanding and respect of everyone involved. But a blanket statement that “If you’re not one of us, then STFU” seems to only increase the divide between peoples.

      • Cassie, I understand where you’re coming from, but I don’t know if that was what Destiny was trying to imply. As someone who is half-Taiwanese and half-European mutt, it really gets on my nerves when I see people with no Chinese heritage attack white people who participate in Chinese New Years or–I kid you not–cook Taiwanese food. While I know they mean well, I don’t appreciate them speaking on behalf of my mother’s culture like that. It looks more like they’re just trying to look cool and progressive.

      • I think privileged people need to be really, really careful when speaking for people from other cultures that we’re amplifying their voice, not taking it away. It doesn’t matter how good our intent is if our actual actions are still contributing to systemic oppression.

        In the particular instances mentioned here, it’s not self-identified white people telling other self-identified white people to stop cultural appropriation; it’s self-identified white people telling people who self-identify as part of that culture that they’re not good enough to speak for their own culture. That white people are the best/only judge of what is and isn’t part of a non-white culture. That’s icky.

      • “I see your logic, but I disagree. This is the equivalent of saying ‘If a woman wants you to open the door for her, she will ask. If she doesn’t ask and you do it, then you’re not helping her; you’re dominating and overpowering her.'”

        I’m going to somewhat disagree with your disagreeing by adding that, if she doesn’t ask you to, and you’re doing it just because she’s a woman, and not because it’s something polite you’d do for anyone in that situation, then yeah, it can be insulting.

        Part of my job is warehouse receiving, and I have a male coworker who repeatedly offers to move boxes for me, even though I have told him it is part of my job and I actually like the exercise I get from having a job where I move and lift things. (Moving boxes is not part of his job, and I don’t see him volunteering to carry things for the guys on the replenishment team.) Certainly not the worst thing in the world, but do I enjoy repeating this conversation with him? Not so much.

    • 1000x over, this is EXACTLY WHAT PEOPLE NEED TO HEAR!!!!


      I am so thankful that someone with intelligence and thoughtfulness wrote this down for me to share with people!

  3. Here, here! As someone who proudly ticks the mixed asian card, yet looks predominately white, I couldn’t agree more! My father is half Pakistani, a quarter Czech and a quarter Austrian and my mum is English with a bit of French- no box for me to tick! Genes do not always play out- my brother has darker skin and eyes whereas I have the darker hair and Asian eyes- if my (ginger) husband and I manage to have genetic children, who knows how they will turn out as whilst there are dominant genes, there are still throwbacks too!
    Celebrating heritage is important as belonging as a human being is in our very veins!

  4. This is such an important issue — thank you for bringing it up. I see this happen time and time again from well-meaning people who just take it way.too.far.

    (I hesitate to even post this comment with my normal user name + photo, worried that some of my more …socially concerned… friends will see it.)

    In many ways, living abroad has opened my eyes to some of the misconceptions that I (as a middle class, college educated, heterosexual, cisgendered, and extremely liberal white woman in Seattle) had about the world — especially about issues like racism and cultural appropriation.

    The primary effect that my revised global POV (plus older age) has had on me? It’s made me chill the fuck out and stop being so damned judgy all the time.

    While I agree (I think we all do) that there are definite issues with cultural appropriation, it seems that we’ve pushed it to a point where we no longer allow people to feel comfortable exploring cultural *appreciation*.

    People shouldn’t feel like they have to justify their appreciation of (in this case) Native American cultural traditions and art, lest they be called out by the cultural appropriations police — especially when those doing the calling out don’t represent the culture in question.

    If it is done from a place of sincerity, with respect and honor, and for non-commercial purposes, what is the issue? Who does it hurt?

    My Facebook newsfeed has gotten to the point where I hesitate to even comment on some statuses and photos because everything is hyper-analyzed and everyone is so damned holier-than-thou, as though they’re trying to get the Gold Medal in the PC Olympics, turning innocent comments and complete non-issues into total THINGS.

    • The primary effect that my revised global POV (plus older age) has had on me? It’s made me chill the fuck out and stop being so damned judgy all the time.

      I don’t want to make this an age thing, but I will say that often these kinds of complaints come from younger readers. I honestly don’t know if this is because younger activists have an enviable fire that us older liberals have lost, or if it’s that age can help us understand the nuances and complexities in a way that we didn’t when we were younger… but I can say that based on my anecdotal evidence, age can be a factor in these kinds of conversations.

      • For sure not all 20-somethings are misguided or ignorant or arrogant or whatever, but I can speak for myself when I say wholeheartedly and without hesitation: looking back now, SamanthaB in her early 20s was insufferable.

        An insufferable liberal with good intentions and her heart in the right place, but insufferable none-the-less.

        Current SamanthaB would definitely not invite early-20s SamanthaB to a dinner party.

        And who knows? Maybe the future 40-something SamanthaB will have similar feelings about present-day SamanthaB. 🙂

        That’s what makes life so awesome. Even when we think we’ve got it all figured out, we just keep growing and evolving.

        • So much to say, but I will add that it is easy to judge from the other side of the fence. Seems with time and experience, you realize that judgement is very painful for the one judging and the judged.
          When you have an experience in your life where, previously you might have judged someone for making the same decision that you are now, you realize that decisions are each persons and all relative.
          It’s like saying, “oh I would never do THAT.” Then you are in a situation where THAT is the best option.”

      • I think sometimes it is an age thing just in that when a white person learns about all the cultural advantages they had, frequently in college, in their early twenties, they frequently are horrified and want to do everything they can to make it right and to make the world better. I know when I was that age I thought most the effects of colonialism could be mitigated in a generation if we all just worked harder at understanding each other.

        There are many twenty somethings that are better informed and more worldly and more clued into nuance than I was. In addition, if twenty somethings weren’t showing up to protests and marches, the turnout at such events would be pretty dismal. I think part of learning about things like cultural appropriation involves a stage of not understanding some of the nuances of it, and of not understanding when to speak up and when to not speak up.

      • I have to wonder how much Tumblr culture plays into this. Not saying that to dis Tumblr; I’m on there myself and I’ve reblogged social justice posts in between Star Trek GIFs and Disney Princess fan art.

        • I totally agree. I think the age thing extends even further. My girlfriend’s 15-year-old sister was staying with us this month and kept using social justice buzzwords, but she didn’t understand some very basic concepts of things like feminism and racism. And she’s a Joss Whedon fangirl, it’s like Tumblr was made for her.

    • “If it is done from a place of sincerity, with respect and honor, and for non-commercial purposes, what is the issue? Who does it hurt?”


  5. Exactly. My husband is 1/4 Alaska Native (Aleut) and 1/4 Comanche but you’d never know it to look at him. He and his family identify very strongly with their Alaska Native side, and when you ask him what his ethnicity is, he doesn’t say white, he doesn’t say he’s part native. No, he says he’s native, end of story. You absolutely cannot tell what background a person is just by looking at them.

  6. I have so many feels about this! I’m white (super duper, Irish heritage etc.), but I have a degree in Native American Studies. I have conducted research on Native land, I’ve worked with Native youth, and I’ve attended cultural and ceremonial events becuase my spiritual beliefs are Native American Spirituality. I will have “Native components” in my wedding and I wont feel bad about it. What many people look at as cultural appropriation of Native American culture is not.

    Even if Krista hadn’t been Lenape culturally it wouldn’t matter as long as she felt a connection to that specific spiritual belief. No one gets upset if Native Americans have a Roman Catholic ceremony, or if someone in Africa has a Jewish ceremony.

    A larger social problem I see in this is that people don’t equate Native American spiritual practices as a “real religion” but as a cultural construct that no one but Native Americans can ascribe to.

    • Even if Krista hadn’t been Lenape culturally it wouldn’t matter as long as she felt a connection to that specific Spiritual belief.

      Thank you for bringing up this larger issue! From an editorial perspective, the issue for me was less whether Krista was indeed Lenape… and more that it wasn’t my place to police how she expresses her beliefs.

      • This is actually a real stumper for me.
        There’s no question to most people that Christian, Buddhist or Pagan practices are open and waiting for anyone to participate. But there seems to be some grey area regarding spiritual practices that are less widely-known or more seemingly tied to the culture of their origin, especially when cultural artifacts are involved.
        The items used in the ceremony are both spiritual and cultural. For instance, since the feathers were presented to the bride by Lenape people, that seems to me more like a cultural tradition than an expressly spiritual one. (I am certainly not an expert and I might be totally misinterpreting it!)
        Since the bride in question definitely identifies Lenape, it’s a moot point, but if it had been a bride that expressly identified as a member of a Native American spiritual tradition but not a member of the culture? Does anyone get access to Native American spirituality or any other culturally-tied spirituality? Do people who identify with a spirituality automatically get access to that spirituality’s origin place’s cultural artifacts?
        I realize this is a Very Big, Really Complicated issue that lives in the land of hypothetical, rhetorical questioning, but I think I’m just mentally wrangling with–where does spirituality end and the actual cultural appropriation begin? Is it an issue of respect to the tradition or is there a definite stopping point? And can spirituality ever be untied from the culture that it came from (ie. is adopting a culture’s spirituality always appropriation if you’re not a member of that culture?)

        • I’m Jewish. Its pretty universally accepted to be a culture and a religion. Despite the Diaspora, we’ve still held on to that tribal mentality. Andyou know what? We still allow converts. Its a hard process, but it happens – and not infrequently. But unlike becoming Methodist, which seems to involve little more than going to church (and possibly a babtism if you neverhad one), converting to Judaism requires a board of Rabbis giving their stamp of approval. Basically, you have to join the tribe, not just convert to the faith.

          The above poster has worked with tribes, taught their youth, and attended their ceremonies. I assume this was done with the approval and inclusion of tribal elders. I imagine any wedding she has would include members of those tribes. Like the bride in the article who had specific native customs enacted BY the people whose customs they were. If the tribe has recognized your inclusion in their community, that is their right as a people. It doesnt matter, at that point, what you genetics say.

          I intend to adopt my next child. This will make her Jewish. Even if I dont adopt her until she is in her 30s. 😉

        • It’s actually something I wrestle with and face, a lot – I mean, aside from the fact that my aunt is Yupik and thus my cousins and their children are, as well, or that my nieces are Chinese (even tho I’m a pale-ass white chick). While I was raised Roman Catholic, I’m a practicing Tibetan Buddhist these days – and seeing people appropriate Buddhism (either for fashion/art or yes, weddings) can get really… irritating. And I’ve caught myself sort of rolling my eyes occasionally, at larger WIC websites, when I see people who were “so influenced by Buddhism” and “had a totally Buddhist wedding”…and that means they had a Buddha statue or lotus flowers or the dishes on their menu had transliterated based-in-Sanskrit names, even though they were meat-based.

          There’s a really uncomfortable line to walk between inspiration and appropriation, and it gets weirder and thinner when you throw in converts to a religion.

          As a whole, though, these days I come down to saying “if you do not have a deep cultural tie, or are not X religion, please don’t do it, because you won’t know if what you’re doing is disrespectful.” Mostly, I see it like this: few people would even think of offering communion at a non-Christian wedding, because communion is a very specific and defined ritual. The same respect should be extended to other cultures/religions.

          But, and maybe this is just that whole Buddhist thing cropping up, while I hold this belief and share it with those asked, when I see people appropriating Buddhism – or even doing downright offensive things – I just sigh, shake my head, and move on. Because ultimately, there’s a time/place to make it about myself/my religious beliefs… and I don’t think that pictures around a wedding that has already happened is that place.

        • “And can spirituality ever be untied from the culture that it came from (ie. is adopting a culture’s spirituality always appropriation if you’re not a member of that culture?)”
          I believe that Culture, Place, and Spirituality are intimately linked and can’t really be separated one from another. But, as a Northern European Pagan living in the US, I will sometimes ‘borrow’ local Native practices without considering myself part of that culture or adopting the religion wholesale. Because Paganism is so closely tied to the land, the Place part of the equation is just as important for me and I want to do what’s right for this Place.
          For whatever it’s worth, my white-as-fuck Irish self has never felt unwelcome when I’ve shown an interest in Native American culture and spirituality, nobody has asked for my credentials before sharing with me. In fact, when/if cultural/ethnic background does come up in conversation, it often seems to be the case that I’m talking to somebody with Irish (or Scottish, English, Welsh, also my background) ancestry, and they’re most interested in that connection.

        • In general, I’ve looked at it this way: Do prominent members of, teachers, elders, and important organizations within that religion expressly invite participation by people of any race? Of white people? If so, it is not appropriation. Appropriation is the non-consensual taking of cultural markers from a group that experiences oppression, by the oppressor group. It is not consensual sharing. Consensual sharing, when it is freely chosen, is an act of power.

          However, I see some ways that some activists/talkers on this subject don’t follow that guideline– saying, for example, that white people have no right to participate in Indian mysticism, when some traditions and lineages have explicitly invited the participation of white people and set up ashrams for the express purpose of outreach and conversion.

          I think the conversation around appropriation really derails when it becomes a message of “White people just stick to white traditions only.” It should be “white people don’t take things that you have been told not to take.” In general, native american spirituality has not been offered to white people; it has been presented as closely tied to being a Native person. The questions of whether a certain thing is “cultural” or “spiritual” is not important. What is important is that many Native traditions have not been offered to whites to use. Certain native items (the war bonnet, for example) has been expressly reserved for its proper Native context.

          However, when Native people choose to share their culture, that is NOT appropriation, and to call it such is to deny the possibility of Native agency and the authority of Native people to know what is best for them. Where Native people offer items made by themselves, for sale, to white people, it is not appropriative for white people to buy and use and proudly display these items.

    • What you’re talking about kind of reminds me of my wedding. It was in Hawaii. My husband was paddled into the ceremony on an outrigger, there were Native Hawaiian chants, conch shell blowing, lei exchange, and lots of other Native Hawaiian details, even though my husband and I are not Hawaiian.

      Only… we didn’t actually plan any of that stuff. A friend of ours — an Hawaiian cultural practitioner — arranged all of the traditional Hawaiian elements for us as a gift. And it was awesome. Because although we aren’t Hawaiian, we feel deeply connected to the islands and the culture. Especially having been included in some cultural ceremonies that haven’t been experienced by many “haoles.”

      We’d probably and have probably been accused of cultural appropriation. But is that so if someone of the culture you’re “appropriating” is offering to include you in their practices? What if you’ve made some of it part of your daily practices — from slang, to spiritual beliefs (in our case)? What about if you love and deeply respect that culture like you do with your Native American Studies and community work?

      All that to say, I totally agree.

      • You are completely right. Your wedding ceremony was offered to you by a member of that culture (if I’m understanding correctly). It was not appropriation. Appropriation is a non-consensual act. Years back, I was invited to participate in a native ceremony, by native people from my area, as a guest. That was also not an appropriative act. The dynamic of overpowering and taking is what is central to the concept of “cultural appropriation.” When those elements are not present, it is not a racist act; it can be quite the opposite.

  7. As someone who has studied religious practices, colonialism, post-colonialism, historiography, anthropology and a host of other related theories and fields, I find myself both more relaxed about supposed cultural appropriations, and frustrated by the more blatant romanticizing or othering of another culture (and I wrote about it before). Post-colonialism is a fairly complicated theory that includes the issue of cultural appropriation but I think our societal awareness and understanding of what that means and how to live it is still developing. We have only recently, in the viewpoint of history, gone from admiring the exotic, adopting it and adapting it to fit what we want in a fairly wholesale fashion (see Buddhism in Victorian England or British India or British Africa for some obvious examples) to throwing our arms up in a Kermit flail of dismay at seeing anyone include what could possibly be a cultural element that may not “belong” to them in their life, practice, rituals, or celebration. Neither one is overly helpful, to be quite honest.

    Here I will interject that the travel of rituals, ideas, practices, beliefs, symbols, etc, is a normal part of human interaction. We move, we interact, and we influence the people we encounter. So it’s pretty difficult these days to say that one ritual or symbol or anything belongs solely to those people over there. That’s leaving out the whole issue @Destiny so clearly articulated that appointing yourself a moderator of someone else’s culture is a power issue.

    I’m also in the field of education and have just been dipping my toes into theories of anti-oppressive teaching. Let’s just say that that particular set of theories, practices and expectations can teach us a lot about just how complicated the situation actually is and how hard it is to actually practice without becoming oppressive in unexpected ways. It’s freaking hard and if you think it’s easy, then I recommend spending some time researching and thinking carefully because the experts adamantly say it’s hard. So I personally try to be really, really careful before I consider telling someone that I am concerned that what they are doing may be part of a negative power dynamic because I don’t necessarily have all the story. Slapping someone on the wrist and telling them they are bad is not nearly as useful as having a discussion about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and giving everyone the opportunity to learn.

  8. This is so topical for me right now. Someone recently looked at the display of children’s portraits in my classroom and made the comment that my group was not very diverse this year. When I asked for clarification they said something to the effect of noticing that all my kids were white.

    I got to respond, “well, those six have Asian mothers, those three are Hispanic, the twins were born in Australia, the blonde girl has a black father, that boy was born in Italy, that one was born in Germany, and that one was born in South Africa, that girl’s parents are from India, etc etc.”

    It was mind blowing to me that someone could glance at some photos and determine “diverse” or “not diverse”…and to end up with such a skewed perspective!

    • I once sat in a volunteer meeting once where someone sighed, wishing that the committee “had more diversity”. I wanted to say, “Wow, I didn’t realize you could tell all of our sexual orientations, religions, cultures, classes, and physical and mental abilities at a glance! With a talent like that you should open a booth at a carnival.” (But I kept my passive aggressive comment to myself.)

  9. I responded that my editorial priority has always been to support self-identification, so if a reader identifies with a culture, I don’t see it as my place to police how they choose to express that identity.

    This summed it up beautifully. I respect the editors so much for not judging brides’ identities, but rather allowing couples to share their unique cultural background – adopted or not. This world is becoming more and more unified as people from different cultures meet and have babies. Personally, I self identify as Mexican, although I do not look “stereotypically” Mexican. My mom is Mexican, my dad is not. It is my choice to identify with that part of my heritage, and I am proud of it. Identity is a deeply personal issue. If the original commentator has such strong opinions about the appropriation of Native American culture, she should be boycotting in front of the Red Skin stadium in DC….not nitpicking the wedding traditions of complete strangers…

  10. My husband to be is part Cherokee. He has many physical characteristics of a Native American but skin tone is not one of them. His daughter has porceline skin and platinum blonde hair, but she still shares that heritage. I’m part moroccan but never knew until late in life because previous generations hid the fact because they didn’t want to be “black.” I don’t look Moroccan, I barely look Italian. My partner and I plan to use a lot from our heritage in our wedding. Mendhi, a trend that gets a lot of flack for couples adopting it for their wedding, is actually a Moroccan tradition as well. If I used that and got slammed for it I would be furious. I spent most of my life not knowing where I came from and then someone comes to tell me I don’t have a right to celebrate my culture? I’d be mad as hell. If someone told my partner or his daughter they didn’t look Cherokee enough, when that part of him is so deeply important to him, i’d be enraged.

    And we do things from other cultures all the time. We can learn martial arts from all over the world, pick up salsa dancing or even learn traditional hawaiin dancing. We wear clothes influenced by other cultures, eat food from other cultures….all the time! Why is iit bad to borrow? America was called the melting pot because of all these cultures coming together and my future husband and myself have a plethora of cultures in our bloodline to prove that. If you’re respectful and learn the history or a cuustom or culture I don’t see why it’s so bad to do so. Whole historical and artisticc movements have occured because one culture had a boner for another culture’s stuff. Good and bad has come from that, but I don’t think wedding trends are going to cause a civilization to be conquored. And with Native American culture, I rarely meet full blooded Native Americans and I live a stones throw from actual reservations. Are we just limited to “American” traditions now? What is that? Throwing tea in harbors and really digging colorful explosions (which came from China)?

    I just don’t understand why it’s so offensive in the first place. A month of school every year was dedicated to gearing up for multicultural day, where we all celebrated each other’s heritage and learned traditions. It was awesome and I was always jealous of my Asian friends because their culture seemed way cooler. I thoughht thinking other cultures were awesome was part of being tolerant.

    • It’s not necessarily bad to borrow culture – but borrowing ritual without understanding it can lead to a lot of offense. (In other words, no one is going to be offended if you salsa badly. But having a faux communion because you think Catholicism is neat or you feel close to the religion without being the religion opens up room for LOTS of insult and offense.)

        • Trust me, I do enough watching of SYTYCD and DWTS and uh, *cough* public access ballroom championships *cough* that I’d be ALL over the bitching, but I’m just sayin’ – not QUITE the same level of offense. 😉

  11. Most of us are mongrels. I think I am pretty hip and I didn’t even know this was an issue! I better get with it. I did not know you had to prove your DNA to put beautiful touches into your celebrations.

  12. I have such a hard time with the boundries of this issue. I personally love SO MANY cultures, their traditions, foods and clothing. I myself have no culture, I am a typical WASPY american mutt. I’m mostly anglo-welsh-german, but not enough to have any traditions, special foods etc.

    My wedding was steampunk picnic, and very american (perhaps a little english??) but if I had chosen to wear a sari, because I feel beautiful in one, or have henna because my sister and I have been doing mendi since we were kids, or if we’d had a big curry dinner…. because I LOVE all of those things, would that be wrong?

    I don’t really get this, because I feel like as long as you are not delving into the sacred or holy (such as having a traditional hindu wedding ceremony, and not being hindu) if you simply just love the food, the look, the culture… why is it so wrong to celebrate?

    I am honestly asking, and perhaps this would be better asked on the thread which is referenced, because I really have trouble understanding where the line is as a very white, culture-less woman…

    • “I myself have no culture, I am a typical WASPY american mutt.”

      You absolutely have a culture. Or, if you prefer, you have a heritage. England, Wales, and Germany (I am all three, plus eight others) all have distinct cultural values and traditions that you can easily find out about with a quick library trip or google search. And most likely you were raised in the Anglo-German-Welsh cultures, even if it was an Americanized version of them, because immigration and attempted assimilation do not make one’s culture disappear; merely change.

      Culture =/= exotic or different. We have an American culture, a local culture, and the cultural heritage that was handed down to us, whether we are isolated in one ethnicity, or are mixed-race. Just because I am pasty-pale doesn’t mean I have no culture. Just because I am “used to” being raised in an Irish/German/Italian-American context doesn’t mean I am cultureless, or that other people’s cultures are inherently better/more interesting.

      Now I’m not Governor of No Appropriation Land, but I want to illustrate why it *might* be problematic for you to wear a sari. Historically India has been oppressed and exploited by Western nations. During the period of colonization, it was common for elements of Indian/Hindu culture to be shipped west, adulterated to be palatable for a Western audience, and sold commercially, with none of the money being reinvested in Indian people and communities, and with racism against Indian people still rampant. In other words, we in the 21st century have been given access to saris not through free trade, and not with education on the original context and meaning of wearing any particular sari, but through exploitation and with ignorance. And moreover the consequences of those exploitative actions still reverberate with many people living in India. Wearing a sari not because one is Indian, has ties to India, or was gifted one by an Indian friend, but merely because one wants to, sends a message–whether it is intended or not–that you are not concerned about these issues. It’s a statement–again, whether intended or not–that you feel entitled to take a cultural element from a people and repurpose it for your own ends, even if the original owners have objections to it…same colonial mindset, different haircut.

      If a non-Indian person really wanted to wear a sari for their wedding, it would behoove them to think about *why* they want to. Are they (part-)Indian? Students/lovers of Indian culture? Travel to India a lot, or live in an Indian community? Are they marrying into an Indian family? Or do they just want to look like an “exotic beauty” (a very cringeworthy phrase, indeed), while not having to suffer the sexism/racism that real “exotic beauties” face? And if they truly felt right about wearing a sari, it would probably do well to order one from India, perhaps via one of the numerous organizations that bring income to disadvantaged women by helping them sell their stock of traditional garb and objects, rather than buy a mass-produced one from a typical commercial enterprise that may or may not have gotten any voluntary input from an actual Indian person. Doing so is a way of saying “I understand that your culture exists, has merit, and is worthy of respect beyond my desire to look beautiful. I admire this element of your culture, and with regards to it, want to reach out to you in a compassionate, respectful way.”

      One’s life is not only one’s own. Everyone’s actions affect other people in some way, even if we’re not aware of it. “Just because I like it” is often not a good enough reason to do something, and NEVER a good enough reason to do something un-mindfully.

      (For the record, the closest I get to being “Asian” is one known ancestor from Saudi Arabia, but my fiancee and I are both wearing furisode–long-sleeved kimono–for our wedding. This is because my partner is half-Japanese, lived in Japan as a child, feels very strong cultural ties to Japan, wants to raise our kids bilingual in English and Japanese, and enjoys dressing me up in kimono XD Personally I feel these are good enough reasons, and if they weren’t true I’d be wearing a white wedding dress as WASPy brides are wont to do. And yes, we ordered our furisode from Japan, via 🙂 )


        We have an American culture, a local culture, and the cultural heritage that was handed down to us, whether we are isolated in one ethnicity, or are mixed-race. Just because I am pasty-pale doesn’t mean I have no culture. Just because I am “used to” being raised in an Irish/German/Italian-American context doesn’t mean I am cultureless, or that other people’s cultures are inherently better/more interesting.

        • This is a great reminder. Sometimes, I think, the reason that people might be inclined to ‘borrow’ from another culture may be partly that they do feel like any American, Europen, or ‘white’ cultural practices/items are boring. While appreciating diversity, I think it’s nice to also appreciate our own heritage and culture(s), and the family/community members who handed them down to us … Even if (if only by virtue of the fact that we are surrounded by it!) it doesn’t seem so exciting to us.

          • Yeah. It’s also been pointed out that treating white/European-American culture as the flavorless “default” setting is itself very racist, because it holds up white/E-A culture as the standard by which all other cultures are judged. It also makes it highly tempting to look at other cultures as novelty items and amusements, rather than real entities whose norms and values other people live in and with every day.

          • Yes! Anytime there is a discussion of race and someone says “I’m just white” or some such, it is like they are holding that up as the standard or as boring or even as substandard in some cases. I’m a German/Scottish/Irish/English/Cherokee mix. Some of those cultures have been oppressors, some of them have been oppressed – I’ve never been either (I hope). Just because I’m more used to them doesn’t negate that there is a rich culture to each one and just because my lineage has resulted in making me a short, white, blonde with gorgeous green eyes doesn’t make ME boring or less my linage lesser. I think that is the rush to not be racist, many have elevated other cultures and backgrounds and dismissed their own as “normal”. In other parts of the world, I would be “exotic”, I just happen to live here.

        • It kind of reminds me of meeting this one American girl while I was travelling in Europe (I’m Australian). She told me she thought my accent was awesome and that she wished that she had an accent!
          Ha! Her accent to me was as thick as anything!
          I can say that even coming from a country with a culture with similarities to America – Americans still have their own culture, but just like their own accent it is so normal that they don’t always recognise it.

          • Very much agreed. Traveling is a remedy against the feeling ‘ i have no culture’. Every time you meet people doimg ‘weird’ things, you can discover something about their but also YOUR culture.

      • I really appreciate your reply. I understand what you are saying, and really I agree with you. I guess most of my confusion stems from where the line is.

        I try to be conciencous about how/where I purchase non-american items like clothing and food. I like to support immigrant markets in my city for such goodies.

        I suppose my confustion still lies (and probably always will) at where the line is. Is it ok to beg and borrow other’s cultures into our daily lives, but not at a public event? Is that was makes it so… controversial? Because I know so many people (white and WASPy like me) who wear salwar kameez or kimonos in their daily life, have native american art in their home, or eat nothing but vegetarian indian food with homemade paneer (true story)

        Is it because we’re not making public display of our love? Or is it all kind of on the wrong side of this issue, and just less noticeable?

        • This is something I also struggle with- what is respectful and a compliment, and what is appropriation? I’ve always thought of appropriation as claiming something as your own that didn’t originate with you. So I think some people see it as appropriation and some people see it as sharing, but you can’t tell how your actions and preferences will be interpreted by different people.
          I apparently grew up very sheltered or just naive. I wasn’t exposed to many different cultures growing up where I lived, but I wasn’t exposed to the negative stereotypes, either. Now I realize that this complete inexperience with race/culture/racism IS part of being privileged. I know I don’t have to deal with a lot of crappy feelings and lost opportunities based on other peoples’ actions on a daily basis. I have experienced classism and sexism, but I don’t pretend to know what racism is like. The classism I’ve experienced makes me cringe when I get called “privileged,” because I’m not 100% privileged in all areas of my life. Which is the whole bigger point is that you can’t know anyone just by looking at them.

          • “what is respectful and a compliment, and what is appropriation?”

            Maybe a good thought experiment is this: “I’m a guest in [the country/place where the element in question comes from]. I go to participate in this element (i.e. I eat this food, perform this dance, participate in this worship service, etc). Are the people living there offended or uncomfortable by my participation?”

            If you don’t know, look it up. If the people wouldn’t be, it’s not appropriation, or at least not offensive. If they would be, it’d be appropriation AND offensive.

          • “I apparently grew up very sheltered or just naive. I wasn’t exposed to many different cultures growing up where I lived, but I wasn’t exposed to the negative stereotypes, either. Now I realize that this complete inexperience with race/culture/racism IS part of being privileged.”

            This is very much me! Interesteing to think about that as I did grow up poor and don’t consider myself particularly privelaged. Thank you for the POV.

        • Life’s a funny thing, in that “lines you don’t cross” are contextual, just like anything else. XD

          For me, a good rule of thumb would be “Is this foreign-originating thing I want to use a Big Deal to the people it originates with? Would taking it out of its original context be considered, by the aforementioned people, blasphemous/morally wrong/faux pas? And is the meaning of this particular thing REALLY universal, or is it culture-specific?”

          Like, I don’t feel bad about ordering take-out Chinese, because it’s just food, and most of the Chinese restaurants here are run by Chinese immigrants in any case. Likewise, as someone who’s very Irish-American, I wouldn’t care if a Chinese person ate colcannon. That kind of stuff, afaik, starts and ends with filling your belly with tasty food. A universal trait if there ever was one.

          But…I’m not sure of the culture surrounding saris, so lets switch it to bindis. Bindis DO have distinct spiritual and cultural implications in Indian/Hindu society. A white chick sticking a shiny object to her forehead and taking “~*so exotic*~ pictures for Tumblr is cultural appropriation and very disrespectful, no matter how pretty she finds bindis to be. Bindis go beyond pretty, and if you don’t respect that, you’re appropriating, not appreciating.

          (Just an aside that I find it quite strange that any WASP would be wearing a kimono in daily life…most *Japanese* people today don’t use them as everyday wear, and honestly they’re a hassle o.O Mari and I wore yukata for a cherry blossom festival in April…yukata are the most casual of all kimono, and they still took 10-20 minutes for two people to put on properly, and involve at least 7 articles of clothing. There are youtube videos on how to properly wear these things, ffs. Those people you know are either seriously dedicated–in which case I admire their commitment–or they’re not wearing actual kimono…or at least, not wearing real kimono properly XD)

          I do think the privacy vs. the publicity of your actions does make a difference. For instance, I’m an interfaith minister, and part of the “phases” of building my identity as such was trying on different spiritual beliefs and practices. I do have an altar that is filled with icons, prayer cards, and the like from multiple religious sources that I’ve collected over the past 9 years or so. In hindsight my actions were probably heinously appropriative, at least by some people’s standards, but I know I’ve found personal meaning in what I did. However, that starts and ends with me. My altar is not for public viewing. And I’m certainly not going to use my collection to bill myself as an expert on any of the religions represented thereby OVER the people who actually strictly adhere to them.

          Ultimately, I think it comes down to mindfulness and respect. I can’t recreate a temple, but I can give a place of honor to my statues of Ganesh and Lakshmi. And I can ever increase my awareness of what certain cultural elements mean to the people they hail from, and let my actions reflect this understanding.

          • Wow thank you very much for the effort to answer me, I did find a lot of help in your reply. (It’s true, my friend wore kimono-styled items, my bad)

            This has helped me immensley as I am sure I am guilty of doing some of these not ok things. I hope to be much better about it, because my facination and love of all cultures comes from a place of love and curiosity and appreciation, and I’d never want to offend or marginalize. I think it really comes from growing up pretty naive about such things.

            Thanks for all the replies I really did learn so much.

  13. I’m a mutt. There’s some Lakota, Mexican, Irish, Scottish, Cherokee and who knows what else. I look Lakota, and that’s the box I check on the census forms. My father is as Mexican, and genetically I guess that’s what I am most. But I was raised by my mom, who immersed me in “her” cultures. She strongly identifies as Lakota and Irish so we went to pow wows and Celtic music festivals, she built sweat lodges and built her garden for wee folk. I have an uncle by marriage that is half Chinese, and is the patriarch of our family, so we follow a lot of those traditions too. I would be mighty ticked if anyone tried to tell me those weren’t my cultures because of the way I look…

  14. What an interesting post. I’m the mom to a 15 year old who is at least 1/16th Charokee. He’s blond-hair, blue-eyed, and currently stands at 6″2″ and rising. He hasn’t been brought up in a household steeped in any particular set of traditions. We pick and choose….we’re culturally loose like that. Someday he may grow up and want to identify with that heritage or he may never explore it.

    I think i have a bit of a problem with anyone appointing themself to be the cultural appropriation police. Maybe it’s because i’m in my 40’s. I’ve lived lots of groovy and crunchy ideals. I’ve been in the military (more punchy than crunchy), put myself through college twice, lived at an FEC (federation of egalitarian communities) ol’ skool income-sharing commune, had a home water birth, eaten veggie/local/organic for the last 22 years, reduced/reused/recycled since before it was a “real” thing, and co-parent with my ex. Over time, i’ve discovered that lots of “mainstream” people assume i’m one of those self-rightous liberals who wants to tell them how they “should” live and they are actually surprised that i’m not preachy or judgemental.

    Also during the coarse of my adventures in liberal-land, i’ve discovered there seems to be a lot of people who like to be “right” and there are a lot of people who inexpicably feel guilt. Those two groups have some pathological co-dependent dating scene happening.

    I think one of the truths behind a liberal perspective is an authentic desire to evolve to be a more compassionate person, to recognize and appreciate diversity, and just respect the world around you. Maybe my privleged bias is that i honestly believe we should be free to choose the traditions that feel true to us. Perhaps that comes from having grown up in a home particularly void of tradition which, i guess, made me a tradition tabula rasa.

    It has to be a particularly problematic wedding/theme for my feathers to get ruffled. Generally, i assume that whatever wedding someone creates has a specific meaning to THEM. It doesn’t even bother me to see weddings/ceremonies where the couple chooses to do something simply because they “like it” or the aesthtics of whatever “it” is. I don’t think most people set out to have a thoughtless, same-o-same-o wedding. Everyone is looking for meaning, tradition, and connection to something larger than themselves. Sometimes we have a firmly established tradition of our own to call on and othertimes you’re putting it together from elements that speak to us in a way that resonates. In some strange way, i suppose the mainstream adopting cultural elements from newer subgroups is the new “american melting pot”….except they aren’t melting. We’re pulling the delicious parts out of the pot to have a taste.

    I agree that there has been a fair amount of liberal trolling lately. The conspiracy theorist in me can’t help but to believe perhaps there’s an army of electronic agent provocateurs who are tirelessly working to cultivate disharmony amoung the liberal-at-heart.

    Plus, wouldn’t it come off a lot better to just ask someone about their wedding elements rather than assume they are co-opting someone else’s culture? Generally, people have good hearts. See that first.

    • Had to come back to comment and say how much I love this:

      Also during the coarse of my adventures in liberal-land, i’ve discovered there seems to be a lot of people who like to be “right” and there are a lot of people who inexpicably feel guilt. Those two groups have some pathological co-dependent dating scene happening.

  15. I am 1/16 Cherokee Indian, and the whole rest of me is basically Welsh and Irish, meaning that I look like the lily whitest person in nearly every group I find myself in, but that does not by any means disallow me from appreciating the culture of my great-great-grandmother. For anyone to simply look at me and tell me what culture they think I have a ‘right’ to celebrate or not celebrate based upon the shade/color of my skin… Well gee, that sure sounds a lot like that thing… What’s it called? Oh yea, racism.

    In fact, a much better example of this holier-than-thou ‘social justice’ attitude gone wrong is my best friend, Matt. I actually can’t even count on one hand how many times he was ‘called out’ for wearing a full-size traditional Native American head dress as part of a costume a couple of times by people who assume that he was Mexican American.

    I suppose they assumed this because his dark skin is more yellowish than reddish in undertone, or perhaps it was his curly black hair that made them believe they knew ‘what’ he was, I’m not sure… But the look on those people’s faces when he and/or I explained that he is a genuine Native American Indian [almost full-blooded, actually] and could do as he damn well pleased with HIS cultural history and representations of it was priceless.

    If no one is being hurt or offended, and we really don’t have any reason to believe that any harm was intended, sometimes we just need to shut up and let it be. Assumptions make you look like an ass. That’s how it goes, right?

  16. My mother is Chicana, my dad is white. I got all my coloring from my dad, I identify as both (I really, really hate the “white, not Hispanic” box in surveys) but I am always read as white. People are surprised whenever my identity comes up, but I’ve never had anyone who is Latino disbelieve me the way those who aren’t do. It’s so uncomfortable to have people find out my identity and then look me up and down while squinting at me (like I’m a Magic Eye and the Mexican part of me will appear if you focus).

    • Oh, I am soooo with you on the ethnic background surveys! Those are such a pain in the ass to deal with. You can’t always just fit someone into an ethnic box!

      • I always check “two or more races” if it’s available, because though you can’t see the Blackfoot, Algerian, and Saudi Arabian in me, they’re there and I do want to to acknowledge them.

        If that’s not available I pick “white” just because culturally and biologically I’m primarily Irish, German, and Italian.

  17. This is such an interesting conversation! To me, being of what my grandfather calls “Heinz 57” heritage (aka a little bit of everything and based out of Pittsburgh), my husband and I focused more on traditions that will mean something to us. We both have a Celtic background, removed in various degrees, so using a color-coded handfasting as part of our Christian ceremony only vaguely made sense culturally. To both of us, however, it was about finding a way to make our siblings (6 total) be an important and integral part of our ceremony.

    At the same time, being from Pittsburgh, I could have easily included certain traditions that are now regional but have their roots in Polish and/or Italian traditions (which we are neither). I didn’t, out of personal preference, but having certain traditions because they mean something to me doesn’t make me a bad person.

    This may sound a bit “we are the world,” but one of the things I love about this interconnected world is that we are all global citizens and I learn things about new cultures, viewpoints, and ways of life on a daily basis (thanks in no small part to the Offbeat Empire). Does “borrowing” or finding influence from an outside culture make me guilty of cultural appropriation? That’s the story of human history! Granted, there’s a lot more physical invasion and conversion in history, but you get the point. To me, the bottom line is that if the intention is respectful, mindful, and celebratory, self-identification (or a lack thereof) should be a moot point.

  18. This is such an interesting topic. One of my many hobbies is belly dancing – the belly dancing world is very rich and full of crossing cultural boundaries. I have yet to meet a dancer who does not appreciate the culture that we pull so much of our art form from. My original teacher is all about educating people on this art form and the culture it comes from. At Renn Faires, we often portray the Ottoman Empire. Even back then, any ethnicity could show up in the trading caravan as they were constantly traveling. There was a possibility that someone might join the Caravan from every place they visited.
    People could say that most of the belly dance world is appropriating the middle eastern culture it originates from – but I have yet to hear a complaint from anyone about it.

    • Oh, I’ve absolutely heard people complain about bellydancing as cultural appropriation. In fact, when we once wrote about a tribal bellydance headdress on Offbeat Bride, we totally got called out for cultural appropriation for using the word “tribal.”

      Actually, we’ve been called out several times for using the word “tribe” in several contexts:

      • NOT BELLYDANCE!!!…it’s an artform that’s so universally female that i can’t even imagine it’s loss into the abyss of “cultural appropriation.” I’ve loved belly dance since the first time i heard the album “Let’s belly dance with Gus Vali.” I think it was about 1976. I was mesmerized by my stepmother’s zills and knew i wanted to “do THAT!”. I would have to “agree to disagree” if someone decided to confront me on bellydance.

  19. This is one of the best comment threads I think I have ever stumbled across on the vast interwebs.

    I’m a 27 year-old “WASP,” born and raised in Los Angeles (“WASP” is in quotations because, though my family is Protestant, I have never identified as Christian and remain an avowed agnostic). Growing up, I was exposed to many different cultures and had friends of a vast range of ethnicities and heritages (one of LA’s many benefits)–Armenian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Western European, Eastern European, Middle Eastern, Indian, Hawaiian, you name it.

    It wasn’t uncommon for us to all take part in each other’s cultural traditions, including Shabbos at my Jewish friend’s house, Armenian weddings (which are amazing), Buddhist meetings, and something as simple as leaving out a straw ram at Christmas with our Swedish friends. We’ve done our best to learn some phrases from each other’s languages as well, looking at the meeting of our cultures as an opportunity to learn and expand our world views.

    My ethnic and cultural background is primarily German, and I’ve actually come up against a phenomenon on the opposite end of the spectrum from cultural appropriation: cultural shaming. White privilege is real, and that isn’t debatable, but I’ve even seen in the comments above that many white people (the phrase itself eliminates the possibility that we may come from various ethnic backgrounds) don’t feel they have a culture to celebrate.

    I’m not in any way saying that white people are told they cannot practice their culture (as that would be an absurd, outright lie), but I have noticed that showing pride in my German heritage has led to a great deal of name-calling and discomfort, as though being proud of my linguistic heritage and cultural past somehow means I also support the actions of Germany while it was under Nazi control.

    The same extends to my Russian friends, who are frequently called “communists” (as though that were a profane term) for choosing to express their culture, and are still being made to feel as if they’re somehow responsible for the actions of the USSR during the Cold War.

    Any culture guilty of hailing from a country that has done something horrific in recent history seems at risk for this sort of shame, and I feel it leads many people to hide their heritage, or attempt to find other cultures to cling to in order to appear accepting in the face of a disturbing historical event.

    The meeting and blending of cultures has always been problematic, but as someone else previously said, I believe there is a huge difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. The history of the world is a history rich with the marriage of various cultures.

    Of course, it also has to be said that it is rich with the attempted (and occasionally successful) annihilation of cultures as well. It is one thing to borrow an element of another culture for personal use. Identifying with a heritage other than your own is a highly personal experience, and nobody should have the right to police that.

    It is an entirely separate thing, however, when companies, corporations, or other money-making entities rely upon appropriating icons, images, terminology, and the like simply to increase their profits. THAT is appropriation.

    Choosing to include a Lakota prayer in a wedding ceremony because the couple happens to identify with the message in that prayer is appreciation, and nobody should be made to feel wrong or ashamed because of it.

    I occasionally wear a sari that my father bought me while he was in India. While some people have given me flak for wearing the traditional clothing of another culture, my dear friend from Mumbai has asked if I would wear it to her sister’s wedding in India this upcoming winter. In fact, I will likely be wearing it when I swallow swords as part of the evening’s entertainment, which is one of the ways by which I make my living.

    And yes, just to be clear, sword swallowing originated in India. I appreciate the Indian culture for what it is now, and what it was thousands of years ago. If that makes me an appropriator in the eyes of some, so be it, but as long as things are based in respect and admiration, I find it difficult to condemn them as wrong.

  20. This is a great conversation!

    As a Life-Cycle Celebrant, I am often called upon to help couples create interfaith or multicultural ceremonies or to incorporate cultural elements that couples find personally meaningful . A lot of thought goes into helping my couples incorporate these elements in a meaningful and respectful way. When it is possibly inappropriate for them to incorporate the element, I help them find an alternative using universal symbols.(This is part of my training as a Life-Cycle Celebrant.) I also make sure that every element is explained in the ceremony so that everyone understands what it means to the couple and their connection to it. That way everyone feels included in the meaning of the ceremony.

  21. Neither my husband or I have Native American roots, but we included an extended version of the “Apache Wedding Blessing” among our readings. (I have since learned that its origins may not be from the Native American Tribes.) This is the first time I have ever heard that doing so may have been dishonorable.
    I am surprised that anyone would think that including a poem, or other cultural elements, in a wedding, recognizing its beauty and truth, would be a negative action.

    • It’s not. It was from a soap opera in the 80s (One Life To Live, I think). Still, it’s beautiful and the sentiment it expresses is amazing and universal. It was meaningful to you and used in love, so even if it were actually an Apache blessing I think anyone would be hard pressed to tell you it was offensive to use it in your ceremony.

        • Actually, I was told that it may have been adapted by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the 1800s. : )
          The extended version we used:

          Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be a shelter for the other.
          Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other.
          Now there will be no loneliness, for each of you will be companion to the
          Now you are two persons, but there is only one life before you.
          May beauty surround you both in the journey ahead and through all the years;
          may happiness be your companion and your days together be good and long upon
          the earth. Treat yourselves and each other with respect, and remind
          yourselves often of what brought you together. Give the highest priority to
          the tenderness, gentleness and kindness that your connection deserves.
          When frustration, difficulties and fear assail your relationship-as they
          threaten all relationships at one time or another- remember to focus on what
          is right between you, not only the part that seems wrong. In this way, you
          can ride out the storms when clouds hide the face of the sun in your
          lives-remembering that even if you lose sight of it for a moment, the sun is
          still there.
          And if each of you takes responsibility for the quality of your life
          together, it will be marked by abundance and delight.

  22. As a WASPY lady who felt I didn’t have much culture (compounded by the fact that I’m adopted, and at my wedding prep only vaguely aware of my heritage) I did research. I knew I was Scandinavian by blood, so I researched and incorporated Scandinavian traditions into my wedding. I wore a red sash around my waist to symbolize the St. Lucia girls (which happens to be my birthday and we were married in the winter), a crown on my head (not because I really like princess stuff) and gave away Norwegian fir saplings as a favor (because it was a fertility ritual, though they use pine trees planted on sides of couples doorsteps). It might have been ‘cooler’ to find symbolism other places, because many of my guests didn’t know all the elements of my wedding were ‘cultural,’ but I really enjoyed feeling connected to my roots…

    • My fiancee and I have 13 different ethnic backgrounds between us, and it’s been a project of mine to include them all in some way in our wedding ceremony. 🙂

  23. My father’s family are Catawba indians. Where I grew up, because there was historically a high concentration of Cherokee and Catawba, many of whom intermarried with Irish and Scots, “Indians” look a certain way. (Some of them look white, my father’s ancestors passed for white for a long time.) Where I live now, there are different tribes who intermarried with different races of settlers and have different physical characteristics. There is no one special way to “look” Indian, and to presume that you can define someone’s entire heritage based on their physical appearance is frankly pretty insulting and presumptuous. I have an Irish mother and my brother has freckles and green eyes; my best friend is married to a Cuban ginger and they have a blonde child with a Hispanic name. I mean, really.

    In general I find internet call outs pretty distasteful. I understand that some people mean well, but overall it seems more “look at me! look at how socially aware I am!” and I think it causes more division than justice. I stick by my “If you wouldn’t say it to her face in the bar, don’t type it in the comment section” rule.

  24. I find the conversation of cultural appropriation a very interesting one. I’ve read a lot here on OBB, tell me are there any pieces/can you point me to any pieces on the topic on OBM specifically regarding Halloween? Honestly I find myself thinking that people get overly sensitive regarding Halloween, especially with kids.

  25. I lived in American Samoa for several years as a child. I was one of the only white, blonde haired girls on the island, or at least that I saw. I got to participate in a cultural program, learning arts and dances of Samoa and while there I met another white, blonde girl – who turned out to be half Samoa and a chief’s daughter. She spoke Samoan, already knew most of the stuff being taught, and really didn’t like being lumped in with the white kids who were a mix of Americans, Australians, New Zealanders… and probably some others I’ve forgotten in the last 20+ years. I also remember that the other “white kids” and I had very little in common – we were all from completely different cultures and backgrounds and could barely understand each other half the time – but we got stuck together because we looked similar. I’d already learned by age 7 that you can’t make assumptions based on how someone looks.

    Something else about living there – I remember the Samoans being very prejudiced against Hawaiians and Tongans. Most people who aren’t Samoan/Hawaiian/Tongan wouldn’t be able to tell them apart in a lineup. A lot of Americans act like this is the only country where racism is a problem – a quick look at world news can remind you it’s not.

  26. So I want to say a HUGE Thank you to Ariel and OBB for allowing this entire conversation to take place. It is so obviously close to my heart as I am the bride who was initially the topic of this conversation. I feel so reassured, and proud of the world we live in with the amazing, open minded and intelligent and kind conversation that has transpired on this thread. We all have a right to be who we are regardless of if our skin color matches up with what people “think” should equal our racial background. Thank you all for encouraging me to stay positive in this regard. And again I reiterate that there is nothing wrong with expressing love in anyway you feel you need to, regardless of cultural difference or not. If it means something to you and your loved one or loved ones then I say go for it!!! Just MHO.

  27. So I have a question to ask. I’m not sure if it’s a judgey question and I’m trying to word it carefully because it’s really not meant to be, I’m genuinely curious, so bear with me here, please.

    I’m half Indian, half Brit, living in Scotland. There’s a lot of stuff going on there – even as an English person living in Scotland, the potential for “faux-Scot” bullshit is huge. Let alone the whole British-Indian, oppressor-vs-oppressee thing. Personally, I skim fairly lightly over the whole lot. At my wedding (I married a Scot), I had mehndi, because that’s what my family do. We had a handfasting, because it speaks to both Celtic and Hindi traditions. I didn’t wear a sari, because they’re a pain in the ass to wear, even if they look amazing. Lots of people wore kilts. Interestingly, the only part of any of this that people seem to have found odd is that of my non-Scottish relatives wearing kilts.

    Anyway, my question is this: Throughout all of this and my whole life, I have never heard the phrase “cultural appropriation” used by a non American. I hang out with some pretty activist-heavy groups, so I would have expected to. Am I just sheltered? Is this something that is felt more strongly in the US? Do we just use different words for it here? Have other people experienced different things? All thoughts/education appreciated.

    • I don’t have a global perspective on the issue, but I can say that every reader complaint I’ve received about cultural appropriation has been from a North American. While I think it’s well-worth being aware of, I don’t think anyone outside the US should feel bad if they’re unfamiliar with the phrase. The topic is definitely trending in the American social justice scene right now, mostly fueled by discussions on Tumblr.

  28. I am pretty sure very, very few Indians would take offense at the wearing of a Sari by a non-Indian woman.

    I am from an Indian family and my grandmother would be delighted to see such a thing. She loves Indian culture and would be thrilled if more people “appropriated” it in a non-degrading way.

    No Indian person I know would be even slightly offended by a non-Indian wearing a Sari, and I know a lot of them.

    Indian cultures have LOTS of superstitions, lots of cultural taboos (homosexuality is extremely frowned upon in most Indian cultures, for example), and lots of codes of conduct that might seem strange to Westerners.

    But I can’t think of a culture (speaking mostly about Punjabi Hindus) that’s less “this is my stuff, not your stuff”.

    PS: Colonialism happened. It’s not as if westerners had some kind of monopoly on atrocities and therefore must atone by walking on eggshells around other cultures, and I get tired of this idea. In a way, in fact, it pushes non-westerners (almost all of whom come from cultures whose bigwigs have committed atrocities) into the stereotype of the noble savage.

    The dozens and dozens of kingdoms on the Indian subcontinent were slaughtering and torturing people for centuries before the Europeans even got there.

    I thought I’d also add a few things about India that a lot of people might not know.

    1. India has the highest rate of vegetarianism in the world.

    2. India has consistently produced staggering wheat surpluses, year after year. The extensive hunger many Indians face is primarily due to corruption and an inefficient system of food distribution that leaves millions of pounds of food to rot.

    3. Indians are not a monolithic ethnicity–in fact, “India” as a country pretty much exists due to the consolidation of little kingdoms into a big monolith by the colonists.

    These are some interesting things that a lot of people might not know about India.

    • Thanks for your persepctive, R! I live on Long Island, where there is a decent sized Indian community not too far from my neck of the woods. Anytime I drive by the shops selling Indian clothing, I practically lick the car windows with lust for how beautiful sari fabrics are. I’ve always been too timid to go into the shops, because I worry that my presence (as a white girl of Italian decent,) in them would be odd or unaccepted. It’s nice to know that, if one day I work up the courage to go in, I might not be met with a proverbial record scratch.

  29. What everyone is failing to address is the game “cowboys and indians” in itself
    is promoting colonialism and hatred. The cultural appropriation ensues as society continue sto diminish the ideals of one group so another group can succeed. Why are we teaching our
    kids to get the bad guy or that one group is better than the other? Stop playing “cowboys and indians”, period.

  30. The way I see it, appointing yourself the cultural appropriation police and challenging/questioning the way someone is interpreting a certain culture or cultural aspect are two different things. Telling someone that they are appropriating a culture is down right rude and is making so many presumptions!This kind of behaviour can only perpetuate offense, prejudice and negative feelings. Where as challenging or questioning someone, when done in a genuine open way, actually helps to perpetuate knowledge and sharing. Its about ackowledging that there are gaps in your knowledge and asking that person to share their experience/perspective with you. Why do so many people seem to loathe admitting that maybe there may be factors that they do not know?!

    And dont forget that one cultural umbrella can still have many different interpretations and versions living under it. I am part Maori, as both of my parents are part Maori. We are the ‘rich relations’, having grown up very differently from many of my cousins and other family members. What they identify as being part of their Maori culture are not the same as what I identify as being part of my Maori culture. This doesnt make me or them wrong. Its simply reflective of the different experiences we have grown up with. We look different, we talk differently, we hold different attitudes and beleifs, and we are still all Maori at the end of the day.

  31. Where does cultural appropriation begin and end? Maybe I feel a bit thick about it.

    I recently started on a half sleeve coverup. I saw what my tattoo artist was loving and realized that I loved the Day of the Dead tattoos I’ve seen before which would work with my coverup and what he was sketching. I loved it and I loved the meaning of it. My brother saw the tattoo and said it fit me perfectly. After I got it, I realized: did I just culturally appropriate it? I think it’s beautiful and lovely art but then I feel the immense guilt that I may have did a bad thing.

    Also, I got mehndi before my first wedding. Of course I should have saw the signs then when my ex criticized it the entire time saying it was tacky and wouldn’t let it be in the wedding photos. I’ve known about mehndi since a teen and loved the idea of it That was one of the things I had to have other than fire truck red hair. So are people not allowed to appreciate other cultures when they find it beautiful and meaningful?

  32. Hello Everyone! I have to admit that I’m a bit confused about the whole cultural appropriations thing. Probably because it has to to with a specific, many years long activity of mine AND my 17 year old daughter who spends a LOT of time in the Tumbler community. I would honestly like to hear what all you you would have to say about my ‘culturally appropriative’ activities (which I have been severely taken to task about by my 17 year old).

    When I was a Junior/Senior in high school, I met a wonderful, kind, loving woman, named Sharada. We worked for the same company & Sharada quickly became my mentor, pseudo-mom, best friend. I absolutely adored her and her beautiful saris. Sharada taught me how to properly fold a sari and wear it with pride. She moved back to India near the end of my Senior year and I lost touch with her.

    Before she moved she gave me several 25 year old, 100% silk saris that she was going to throw away. I asked her if I could re-purpose them and use the fabrics in a fashion show I was being featured in. She was delighted that the gorgeous fabrics wouldn’t be going to waste and excitedly agreed. She also told me of a sari distributor near where we lived where I could purchase sari lengths brand new. I have NEVER purchased a sari from anyone other than a native seller and not once have I been looked down upon or criticized for making something beautiful from sari fabric.

    I have a collection of vintage saris because I am a fabric junkie and gorgeous fabric is my addiction. Sometimes I re-purpose the vintage saris that I purchase from Indian sellers into skirts or blouses or whatever. Also, none of the saris that I re-purpose have religious symbols on them. I’ve also been given saris by other Indian women, over the years, and NONE of them have ever judged me because I don’t want to see something beautiful thrown away, so I re-make the fabric into something else, usually clothing, to give it extra life and save it from the garbage bin.

    I guess my question is really this, Should I be ashamed of re-purposing saris that were going to be thrown away, or being sold for that purpose (by Indians)? or should I be proud that I remember Sharada and her kindness, caring & support AND ever other Indian woman who has given me her old saris & delightedly encouraged me to re-work them, every time I re-work an old sari into something beautiful I’ve made? I’m literally crying over this. I welcome your comments & education.

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