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.