More Thoughts on Cultural Misappropriation

Since the Interdependent Web quoted my previous post on cultural misappropriation, I've been doing some more thinking on the subject.

It's not that I don't think cultural misappropriation is to be avoided. We all should strive to be as sensitive to other cultures as possible. It's that I think a code of conduct, at this point, on the issue is not really possible. (And putting cultural misappropriation in our bylaws feels close to establishing a code of conduct on this issue and may, indeed, lead to one.) We haven't defined sufficiently what is and what is not cultural misappropriation. I was at a workshop on this issue at our General Assembly a couple of years ago in which it was seriously suggested that, essentially, if something is done well, it's okay, if a piece of music is done poorly, then it's misappropriation. I have significant disagreement with that rule, as one is who is not the greatest musician! Can I never, therefore, be using something from another culture appropriately, if I am a poor musician? If someone is a great musician, is he or she always appropriate? Frankly, it makes no sense.

The problem with trying to judge someone's appropriateness is that you're looking at the person's actions and trying to judge the content of the person's heart and the nature of the person's character. Did this person study this religion or culture enough? Has this person engaged the struggle of the culture that the piece is from? Is the person from the culture? Does the person have connections to the culture?

We can't know all these things. Nor can I, as a worship leader, spell it all out each time. When I use a song from our hymnal, take "Shalom Havayreem" (#400) for an example, you can't know whether or not I've engaged the struggle of the Jewish people enough that I'm allowed to use the hymn. And have I? I've taken only one actual class on Judaism, if you don't count a class on the Hebrew Bible. I've had some Jewish people who were close to me in my life. I've studied the Holocaust. I've gone to synagogue. I've talked with Rabbis. I've preached about issues related to Judaism (although this may be another sign of misappropriation). Is any of this enough? Perhaps not. It's all fairly superficial. I'm not currently engaged in the work of anti-Semitism in any significant way, beyond the occasional preaching about it.

But here's another side of it, for me: "Shalom Havayreem" was the first song I learned in church. For me, it carries that meaning, of a song I learned and loved as a child. And it's in our UU hymnal--it's part of, to me, what it means to be UU. Maybe that's enough. Maybe we should sing the song, and proudly.

I don't really think we should be in the business of judging the content of people's heart and character by the choices they make in leading worship. Maybe the only rule that is reasonable to put forward is, "Did they sound respectful when they introduced it?" Maybe the workshop was right, and the rule really should be, "Was it done well?"


Peter Larkin said…
Ironically, the fact that "Shalom Havayreem" has, for you, such strong UU connotations, rather than Jewish ones might indicate that it really is misappropriated.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Granted. Or it may be an example of how, after a while, it's impossible for any particular culture to "own" something that originated with them. At some point, perhaps, things belong to the human race as a whole? #400 probably isn't there, but something else probably is.
Karl Beech said…

I am a mere observer of this debate, but I agree with you, we are all human beings and sharing our culture enriches us all. There clearly exists an issue of sensitivity to the feelings of others; but to take the position of the cultural relativists whereby empathy for the 'other'is impossible because 'only a Ruritanian knows what it is to be a Ruritanian' ultimately denies our common humanity.
Lillie said…
Cynthia, it seems to me that the only people I hear talk about "cultural misappropriation" are the caucasians of the UUA. Perhaps, there are a FEW people of color in the UUA that agree with all this fuss about cultural misappropration. Until the UUA is genuinely inclusive and reflective of the U.S. diversity, I believe it is more important to explore why each of us in the UUA do not bring our friends to church. Oh, and maybe, just maybe, we have friends, real friends, who are diverse.

Lillie Henley, Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, DC

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