Cultural Appropriation
and Misappropriation




A.  Video - "White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men"


 Resources on the UUA website:

Cultural (Mis)Appropriation - Resources to Inform Practice

When Worship Becomes Cultural Misappropriation

"A Perspective on Music and Cultural Misappropriation" by Rev. Jason Shelton

Cornrows, Kwanzaa and Confusion: The Dilemma of Cultural Racism and Misappropriation

The Culture of Celebratory Worship

Considerations for Cultural Borrowing - Questions to Ask (and Answer)

 Wikipedia Article on Cultural Appropriation




"White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men"

Summary info for this from (

This can be a tough documentary for some UU folks to watch because we have borrowed from world religions for years and it may be shocking to discover that some indigenous peoples that we have borrowed from don't approve of our borrowing and may even consider it a form of cultural theft.

You can see parts of this documentary on YouTube:
        White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men - Part I

        White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men - Part II

(Description accompanying the YouTube Videos)
White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men
is a documentary dealing with the popularization and commercialization of Native American spiritual traditions by Non-Indians. Important questions are asked of those seeking to exploit ritual and sacred ceremony and of those vested with safeguarding sacred ways. This documentary is thematically organized, and deals with romantic stereotypes and copying, the impatience of new age practitioners contrasted to the fact that indigenous spiritual traditions are thousands of years old, and the proselytizing nature of these new age practitioners. The film represents a wide range of voices from several native communities, and speaks to issues of cultural appropriation with humor, righteous anger, and thoughtful insight.



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Cultural (Mis)Appropriation

Resources to Inform Practice


Can we ever honorably use resources from diverse cultures in Unitarian Universalist practice? How can we truly respect the cultures of origin from which those resources are drawn? Are there guidelines to help us negotiate that process? These are complicated questions and most of us need help in answering them. There are no blanket answers, but there are sage words and stories to guide us. The following resources are offered to inform us on the journey towards making respectful choices to honor all beings.

Cornrows, Kwanzaa and Confusion: The Dilemma of Cultural Racism and Misappropriation, by Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley. Originally offered in the Liberal Religious Education Journal. Fall, 1995: "Bridges to the Future: From Assimilation to Pluralism." It is reprinted here with permission. It can be copied for distribution and use within congregational settings.

This article opens a dialogue on the complex issue of cultural racism. How can we navigate cultural borders and boundaries in worship, programming, and religious education? Does diversity mean that we all join in celebrating many different traditions? Is it possible to honor the need and the right of each culture to affirm and celebrate its own heritage and traditions, while inviting others to join in?

Lessons from the Kwanzaa Candles, by Gail Forsyth-Vail. Originally offered in the REACH packet of the UUA, Fall 1999. It is reprinted here with permission. It can be copied for distribution and use within congregational settings.

How can a white Anglo-American Unitarian Universalist respectfully address Kwanzaa? This award-winning worship service addresses this question as well as the history and meaning of Kwanzaa. The author writes, "The Kwanzaa candles encourage me to learn what it means to be white in the United States, learn what my forebears exchanged for a place in the American melting pot. I must search for and claim the red, the past, my past, before I can truly envision a fair world, a world of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations."

Reckless Borrowing or Appropriate Cultural Sharing? by Jacqui James. Originally offered in the REACH packet of the UUA, Winter 2001. It is reprinted here with permission. It can be copied for distribution and use within congregational settings.

The author writes, "Since we as Unitarian Universalists seek to promote justice, equity, peace, and the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we must look at how the integration of rituals, symbols, and ideas of other traditions may be affecting those whose traditions are being "borrowed." It is important that we learn to differentiate between drawing from the wisdom and appropriating rituals, artifacts, and other elements of the spiritual traditions of other religions." Questions to guide decision-making are offered to guide practice.

Considerations for Cultural Borrowing: Questions to Ask (and Answer), prepared by the 2003 UUA Cultural (Mis) Appropriations Ad Hoc Committee, Judith Frediani, Chair. This document offers a comprehensive set of questions to consider when potentially integrating culture specific practices into Unitarian Universalist worship and teaching.

Last updated on Friday, April 18, 2008.

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When Worship Becomes Cultural Misappropriation

September 15, 2007


When we sing an African-American spiritual during worship does that act honor another culture or is it cultural misappropriation? Can we hold a Seder if we’re not Jewish? Can our children make Native American dream catchers in religious education classes?

As Unitarian Universalists we take pride in being open to many religious traditions and cultures and we often draw from them in our own worship. But when we do, it’s important that we be aware of how we’re using those words and symbols of other cultures, says Rev. Sofia Betancourt, Program Coordinator in the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) Office of Racial and Ethnic Concerns.

Cultural misappropriation is a complicated issue, says Betancourt, but one which we need to think about. “We talk about needing to become more multicultural if we want to attract people who are different from us. At the same time we have to have some understanding of what has value in different communities.”

Something as simple as changing a word in a song can have a deeper meaning than we might first think. Betancourt notes that Ysaye Barnwell, of the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock, has pointed out that changing the word “Master” to “Father” in an African-American spiritual might make some people feel more comfortable, but it disrespects the original meaning. “Having a group of enslaved people choose a god as their master rather than the slave owner is a hugely powerful theological statement,” says Betancourt, paraphrasing Barnwell. “To change Master to Father for our own comfort is doing a huge disservice to that community.”

Before using a piece of music, a reading, or an artifact from another culture, research it, she says. “Ask yourself how you are in relationship to that culture and why you are using it.” Include information about it in the service so people understand its original significance.

Rev. Danielle DiBona, first vice president of Diverse & Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries and a member of the General Assembly Cultural Appropriation Consultation Team, appointed in 2006 to monitor cultural appropriateness at General Assemblies adds, “If you’re getting ready to do something in your congregation and you wonder if it might be cultural misappropriation, then step back and think about it further.”

But make a distinction between education and misappropriation, says DiBona, who is descended from the Wampanoag Native American Nation. “There’s a difference between teaching children about a culture by making dream catchers or masks and using parts of a culture’s religious practices in our own worship services.”

It can take courage, says DiBona, for someone, especially a person of color, to confront misappropriation in a worship service or elsewhere. “If I do that, what I don’t want to be told is that I misunderstood what I experienced or that it was done as a way of honoring my tradition,” she says. “That defeats the conversation. What is helpful is to have a conversation about the meaning of ritual and how my people lost their language and way of life to genocide and now their religion is being taken too.”

“If you want to honor Native Americans or other groups then start by making a relationship with those groups in your community. It will enrich them, and we will benefit as well.”


·        For questions about what might constitute misappropriation, contact the UUA’s Identity-Based Ministries staff group or the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network.

·        Cornrows, Kwanzaa, and Confusion: The Dilemma of Cultural Racism and Misappropriation,” an article by Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley is available online.

For more information contact interconnections @

Last updated on Friday, April 18, 2008.


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A Perspective on Music and Cultural Misappropriation

By the Reverend Jason Shelton



I.  Background

The question of cultural appropriation (sometimes called misappropriation) is a hot topic among ministers and other worship leaders in our time.  I first remember hearing about it couched in a story of worship leaders who had adapted certain First Nations rituals for use in Unitarian Universalist worship without the permission of the tribe or nation with whom the ritual had been associated.  The story raises complicated questions about ownership and rights, about race and race relations, and about who can legitimately participate in rites and rituals which have their origin in a cultural “other.”

As our congregations have begun moving into new musical directions in recent years, the question of cultural appropriation seems to be taking on a new shape.  Namely, should people be making use of musical traditions which have a cultural heritage other than that of the musicians (or congregations) involved?  It is a question that needs to be addressed carefully, especially as we welcome the wealth of diverse music found in our new hymn supplement, Singing the Journey, into our congregational worship experiences.

I would like to begin by questioning the idea that the rituals or musical traditions of any culture can ever really be “owned” by any person or group, no matter what their cultural background might be.  Cultural anthropologists have pointed out for many years that all cultures are profoundly affected and necessarily changed by interaction with the “other.”  Cultural exchange happens under both positive and negative circumstances, in peaceful trade relations as well as in situations of oppression and theft.

This is not to say that rituals and musical traditions cannot be traced back to particular peoples or cultures.  Rather, I am saying that the possibility that any one ritual or custom can be claimed by a people or culture as solely their own invention, without any influence from the cultural other, is remote at best.  True, there are moments when peoples express their particular genius in a truly unique and unaffected manner, but these moments are rare indeed.  More often, cultural traditions evolve over long periods of time through experiences of contact and exchange with others.

I want to make this point very clear not because I somehow wish to devalue the qualities that make our cultural traditions special, but because I believe that our tendency to guard those traditions with references to cultural appropriation or even accusations of racism (or at the very least insensitivity) cut off the possibility of dialogue and real learning that can come from the sharing and exchange of ideas and traditions which is possible in our world today as never before.

II.  Who Owns It? 

Who owns a particular musical or cultural tradition?  Who has the right to invite others to participate?  Once invited, must a person seek permission again and again in order to bring that tradition into her or his own life?

I once participated in a retreat which was focused on earth-centered spirituality and led by a Catholic nun.  She had ministered among a group of First Nations people in North Dakota for many years, and as she had gained the trust of the tribe she was, with time, invited to participate in some of their most sacred rituals.  After nearly twenty years she was reassigned to another ministry, and when she left the leaders of the tribe gave her permission to build, use, and invite others to participate in their traditional sweat lodge ritual.  What’s more, she was given permission to adapt their ritual so that it fit within a more traditional Catholic framework.  I had the privilege of participating in a sweat under her leadership, and it was a deeply transformative, life-changing spiritual experience.

However, when I have spoken of this experience with other persons of First Nations descent, I have been told that what the nun had done was totally inappropriate, that she had no right to build and use a sweat lodge, much less to adapt the ritual in any way.  Further, the tribe which had given her permission to do so, they said, had betrayed their heritage by their actions.

I have also participated in various workshops on singing in the African American traditions.  And I have seen non-African American participants in these workshops go forth from them and try to put into practice what they have learned—what they have, by all accounts, been given permission to use by the workshop leaders—and been reviled by some African Americans in their congregations who claim that the person had no right to lead or sing those songs.

Again, I recognize that these are extraordinarily complex issues.  They bring up questions related to personal cultural heritage, and our differing levels of comfort in sharing these traditions with others.  But we, as people of faith who claim to celebrate our diversity in all its forms, cannot afford to make assumptions about the legitimacy of a person’s participation in what seems on the surface to be a ritual or tradition which comes from a cultural tradition which is not his or her own.  We cannot know whether a person making use of a particular musical tradition or religious rite has come to that usage through respectful, disciplined study or through haphazard, careless conscription simply by looking at the color of their skin.

So how can we approach this issue in a way that is both respectful and invites full participation from the whole community of faith?  I would first look at the history of a truly great American musical art form—jazz.

III.  What is Appropriate?

The popularly accepted theory that Jazz stemmed from a simple combination of African rhythms and European harmony is in need of a little revision.  Both African and European rhythms were employed.  African music supplied the strong underlying beat (absent in most European music), the use of polyrhythms, and the idea of playing the melody separate from or above the beat. European music provided formal dance rhythms.  Combined, these rhythms give Jazz its' characteristic swing.  Likewise, the harmonies and musical ideas of both continents are present, the blue notes derived from the pentatonic scale, "call and response" and unconventional instrumental timbres of African music together with "conventional" harmonies and, most important, the formal structure of European music.  The multiplicity of ethnic, cultural and musical conditions needed to spawn Jazz was thus unique to the United States, and specifically to New Orleans.  The necessary philosophical impetus for Jazz, i.e., democracy and freedom of individual expression supported by group interaction, are also American institutions. [1]

What’s more, the history of jazz is rife with stories of ways in which racial barriers were broken down long before the Civil Rights movements made national headlines.  Integrated bands toured the country and confronted segregationist policies both directly and indirectly, often making dining or lodging decisions based on the maxim, “if we’re not all welcome, then none of us is staying here.”  Yes, racism is a part of jazz history, and that cannot be overlooked.  But there has also been an underlying sense among many jazz musicians—especially bandleaders—that the important thing was not the color of the musician’s skin, but whether or not he or she could play.  In jazz, if you can play, you’ll get the gig (until someone comes along who does it better than you—so you’d better practice!).

As jazz has spread throughout the world, it is impossible to know the ethnic or cultural heritage of the players one might hear on the local jazz radio station just by listening to them.  The music itself has transcended it particular cultural origins to become something in which dedicated musicians the world over can participate, regardless of cultural heritage.  To be sure, there are some who consider themselves “purists” who might say that persons of non-African American descent should not play jazz, and so we find ourselves revisiting the question of permission giving and who has the right to speak authoritatively on behalf of all persons of a particular ethnic heritage.  But the cultural norm which seems to be taking hold at this time is to say that the people who should be playing jazz are those who are dedicated enough to invest the time and effort to learn to play it well.

What if we were to apply this norm to our situation regarding what is appropriate when using the traditions of the cultural “other” in worship?

IV.  Conclusion

I have, on several occasions, gotten myself into trouble by using what seems to be a very small word—we.  We is a problematic term because it can be used to describe a group that is related in many ways, and yet is quite different in many others.  We are Unitarian Universalists, but we may have very little else in common.  Groups of people who share a similar tone in their skin are not necessarily of the same ethnic or cultural background.  And even if you and I did share this background in common, my experience of being a Jewish/Italian/Thai who is 1/8 Cherokee has most likely been vastly different from yours.

OK, so that is not my heritage.  But you wouldn’t know by looking at me that my musical background includes being a jazz trumpet player, or that I learned most of what I know of the Gospel music tradition by singing and worshipping in predominantly African-American Catholic congregations for several years.  You wouldn’t know that I play bluegrass mandolin, either, or that I sing in a Renaissance vocal ensemble.  You wouldn’t know that I have been commissioned to write music for GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) choruses.  You wouldn’t know that I am a nut for old Stevie Wonder tunes and shape-note hymns, or that my current favorite song is the silly ditty I made up for my three week old daughter when she was in the hospital.  And it would certainly be a mistake to assume that anyone else who looks like me shares my particular combination of musical background and tastes.

So, when I use the term we, I have to acknowledge that I am making a certain set of assumptions about the group I am addressing which may or may not be correct.  We don’t sing very well.  We can’t clap on 2 and 4.  We have to read ahead to make sure we agree with the words to the hymn. Sound familiar?  How about this one:  we shouldn’t be singing African-American spirituals, or Venezuelan folk tunes, or Native American chants, because we don’t have the right to sing their music.  What assumptions are being made about who it is that is a part of the picture when we say we?

My experience has been that some people will start talking about “cultural appropriation” when what they really mean to say is that the musical offering or ritual just experienced was done poorly.  Many Unitarian Universalists, it seems to me, are not comfortable making a judgment about the quality of a presentation, but are somehow OK with raising cultural or racial issues instead.  I have been a part of numerous worship situations where the songleader has bounced and shimmied through a poorly sung African-American spiritual.  Do I think that what they did was cultural appropriation?  No—I have seen songleaders from many cultural traditions, including African-Americans, do the same thing (please do not assume that every African American can sing or lead spirituals well—stereotypes are very dangerous).  I think what happened was that a person who was not really familiar with a particular musical style tried to lead a congregation in something that was beyond his or her particular musical skill.  Such a situation is not only disrespectful to the musical tradition which has just been trampled upon, but also to the whole congregation, regardless of personal ethnic background, all of whom deserve better.

If I were going to conduct my choir in a performance of a Bach cantata, you can bet that I would spend an enormous amount of time researching the work, checking on stylistic and performance practice issues, so that I could present the piece is a way that was respectful and as “authentic” as I could make it.  If I didn’t, there would certainly people in the audience who knew better, and who would be very disappointed that I had not made adequate preparation for the performance.  They would not, however, accuse me of cultural appropriation, even though I am not of Germanic descent.  A reviewer might say that I should do more homework the next time I chose to present such a work.  Or perhaps I should listen to a recording made by a reputable ensemble.

This, I believe, is sage advice for the musicians in our congregations who have been moving in new musical directions (as evidenced by the incredible musical diversity in Singing the Journey).  Rare indeed would be the church musician who is equally well versed in Bach’s and Luther’s hymnody as they are in 60’s R&B and the music of the Salvadoran liberation movement.  But you will find such music within these pages, and much more, all composed and arranged by people who are leaders in their particular genres and who have given their permission to have their work included in this collection.

But for the collection to be used most effectively, our musicians must take seriously the music of the “other.”  Many of the styles of music found in this collection will be largely unfamiliar to the conservatory-trained musician.  To help, we have provided stylistic and interpretive markings which should be carefully observed.  And we have collected a list of recommended listening examples for further study and deepening familiarity.

All of this to say that while the question of cultural appropriation may never completely be resolved, our musicians can go a long way toward alleviating many of the most obvious concerns by committing themselves to respectful, dedicated preparation of all music that is to be used in worship.  Moving in these new directions with quality and integrity will speak volumes about our collective musical experience, and encourage more new music from our authors and composers.  This, in the end, is my greatest hope for Singing the Journey—that it will move and inspire us to create even more new music which reflects our diverse musical and experiential backgrounds while resonating across our communities as songs that speak to the heart of our faith.


1.       From “The Origins of Jazz” by Len Weinstock (Red Hot Jazz Archive)

Last updated on Friday, April 18, 2008.


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Cornrows, Kwanzaa and Confusion: The Dilemma
of Cultural Racism and Misappropriation

By Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley


Our first task in approaching another people,

another culture is to take off our shoes,
for the place we are approaching is holy.
Else we find ourselves treading on another's dream.
More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.

The baobao is an enormous tree found in many parts of Africa. I encountered it first in Senegal, then in Djibouti. More massive than an oak, its roots spread visibly in every direction, sometimes nearly a quarter of a mile. In addition to its central place as a living expression of nature and of God, the baobao is associated with conflict and the resolution of disputes. Elders and village chiefs are frequently seen sitting under the tree with parties of a conflict. Often members of the same family, clan, or tribe. Sometimes, when the parties emerge, there is a working peace. At other times, when they are unable to resolve the conflict, the result is tribal war.

A feeling of discomfort has been welling up in my soul in spite of our recent efforts (including significant anti-racism training) to move toward greater racial, ethnic and cultural diversity. I have encountered several situations in which well-intentioned Unitarian Universalists of European American heritage have sought to "lift up" the cultural roots and experiences of people of color. Many of these have been done with varying degrees of disrespect and what is, no doubt, non-conscious racism. I believe that it is time for Unitarian Universalists from different tribes to sit under the baobao.

This is part of an ongoing conversation I have had with myself, and occasionally with others, for several years. In a way, we are all feeling our way through a new minefield. I hope that expanding the conversation will help us to delve into a dimension of race relations that is sensitive, difficult, and important. This essay focuses on three aspects of culture: (a) racism and other forms of cultural bigotry, (b) developing greater sensitivity in how we honor the heritage, traditions, and work of racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups, and (c) the threat of cultural genocide and the need for cultural preservation. In these few pages we cannot capture the full scope of cultural racism, let alone analyze it. My purpose is simply to bring the issue to our attention as a religious movement, with the goa1 of opening up a dialogue between persons of European American heritage and those whose ancestry and heritage is in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands.

Undoing the social and cultural constructs that have led to racism is, for me, a theological task. It is a transcendent experience—one step toward breaking down the barriers that divide us from each other, from all creation, and from the Great Spirit of Life that some of us call God. It is taking one step toward building a beloved community.

Racism is a prejudgment based on race, coupled with the power to affirm that prejudice. It is the exercise of power and the presumption of the privilege to establish and proclaim one race, history, identity, and experience as superior to all other groups. As such, racism is systemic. It saturates every part of our social system economically, politically, and culturally. Racism, including enculturated or cultural racism, imposes the power of one group to institutionalize its values and norms over all other groups. In the United States there is a limited acknowledgment of institutional racism, but cultural racism is often minimized or overlooked. Cultural racism finds its roots in the legacy of White supremacy and in placing more value in imagination than in history or facts. Toni Morrison's book, Playing in the Dark [1] is a literary critique of one form of cultural racism which focuses on the White imagination. One of the most widespread assumptions of White supremacy within the system of free enterprise is that the images, symbols, rituals, practices, and/or religious expressions of any culture can be freely appropriated by another, with or without permission. Cultural racism carries with it an all-pervasive set of assumptions, a deeply rooted taken-for-grantedness that affirms the bastardization (including commercialization) of a culture by placing its cultural productions on the auction block, so to speak.

Power of the Dominant Culture

The power of the White majority to decide what is valued as "normal" or acceptable, and to impart subtle and often unconscious messages about what is "right" and what is not, is especially critical when we consider children. Kenneth Clark found that, by the age of three or four, children develop opinions about their own racial groups based on socially prevailing ideas and other expressions from the dominant culture—in spite of the fact that the child may have had no direct experience with another racial, ethnic or cultural group.[2]

Much of the critical writing on multiculturalism in education is really about intellectual racism as a specific form of cultural racism,[3] but it has not been so named. Leonore Tiefer's article, "Intellectual Racism," is one of the few that begins to name the issue, but the challenge of cultural racism is multi-layered. Tiefer points to the necessity for European Americans to read the writings of people of color "widely and deeply" and to examine "ideas and models for their roles in perpetuating racial hierarchies."[4] If we are to improve race relations within the Unitarian Universalist Association and in the country at large, it is also necessary to examine a multitude of values, norms and assumptions of mainstream culture just as partners in a business enterprise would examine the values, norms, and assumptions of a foreign culture in which they were seeking to do business.

Language is one of these assumptions, and it is a primary construct of racism that shapes cultural norms. I recall the exercise undertaken by Malcolm X in the early 1960s, in which he investigated the words "black" and "white" in the dictionary. Thirty years later, we still find "black'" too often associated with negatives and evil and "white" with goodness and purity. Assigning terms like: "nude" to nylon stockings or "flesh" to Band-Aids(TM) or crayons, for example, is based on Caucasian skin tones as the norm. Several years ago, the Crayola Company introduced a set of "multicultural" crayons reflecting a wider spectrum of colors, the new palette ranging from alabaster shades to dark chocolate. Several friends report that while they have had no problem finding these crayons in neighborhoods where people of color are the majority, they are less available in European American neighborhoods. Market research may have driven this outcome, but it suggests yet another false cultural assumption: that European Americans neither need nor want "multicultural" crayons.

Another example of cultural racism, driven by an institutional partnership, is the term "third world." Thanks to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), commonly known as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), this term has now become a linguistic norm. More than twenty years ago, these two multilateral institutions divided the world in a way that was suited to their needs—according to their own economic formula. The "first" world was the industrialized Western capitalist countries (the United States and Western Europe); the "second" world included the Communist-bloc countries (the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe), and the "third" world represented most of the former colonies in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean and Pacific Islands judged to have the potential for development with help from the West. There were even "fourth" and "fifth" world terms applied to those countries believed to have little or no potential for development due to climactic limitations or a lack of natural or human resources. This hierarchical arrangement of nations has multiple implications for how people see themselves and how others see them.[5]

The media is another example of how an institution expresses cultural racism. The immense power of media to name "reality" subjectively seems apparent. Since I have written elsewhere on this subject, I shall not dwell on it here.[6]

In spite of the tremendous power of language to influence cultural norms, the attempt to discuss linguistics in terms of race (or gender and sexual orientation) seems to spark a lightning rod. Too often, linguistic challenges are dismissed as "pandering to political correctness." Cultural racism is not about political correctness; it is about who gets to define language and establish and sustain cultural norms. It is about who gets to sit at the table and set agendas. It is about the need and the right to claim one's full humanity instead of accepting disrespect and varying degrees of dehumanization from others. It is about racist patriarchal supremacy. It is about power and freedom and justice.

Cultural Appropriation

There is probably no such thing as a pure religion or a pure culture. To some extent we all appropriate culture. Since time immemorial, religions have borrowed from each other. Judaism was shaped in part by encounters of the ancient Hebrews with the Sumerians, the Babylonians, and the Egyptians. Similarly, Christianity is rooted in the Jewish tradition, Islam begins with both the Jewish and Christian traditions, and so on. In these modern times, with international tourism and media connecting people throughout the world, there is now a greater opportunity for cultural misunderstanding and misrepresentation, and hence, the concern about misappropriation and cultural preservation of indigenous cultures.

How can cultural appropriation be defined? First, it is most often a form of racial or religious prejudice, or in the most general terms, cultural appropriation is a form of plagiarism. It is consciously or unconsciously seeking to emulate concepts, beliefs or rituals that are foreign to a particular framework, individual or collective. It is incorporating language, cultural expressions, forms, lifestyles, rituals or practices, about which there is little basis for direct knowledge, experience or authenticity, into one's being. It is also the superficial appreciation of a culture without regard to its deeper meaning. And finally, cultural appropriation is acting in ways that belie understanding or respect for the historical, social and spiritual context out of which particular traditions and cultural expressions were born.

The second principle of Kwanzaa, kujichagulia (or self-determination), provides a framework from which to examine cultural misappropriation as one dimension of cultural racism.[7] From a political standpoint, self-determination means that people have the right to determine how they will be governed. Dr. Ron Karenga, who gave birth to this ritual, says that self-determination is the right "to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves instead of being defined, named, created and spoken for by others,"[8] I would extend the definition further to say that self-determination is a basic human right. In a Unitarian Universalist context, it also means the right to interpret one's culture and theology.

It has been argued that Unitarian Universalism, particularly our approach to religious education, represents a "creative integration of cultures," with an acknowledgment that the new creation is just that—new. Such a critique raises important questions, among them these:

·        How does "creative integration" of cultures honor and respect the root culture that sparked the development of the new? Is the new simply a cheap imitation?

·        Who are the teachers and transmitters of racial, cultural and religious identity? Can or should such traditions be taught or transmitted only by a "native" of that tradition? If not, what is the standard of measurement by which authenticity should be measured?

·        What is the source of racial or cultural identity? Is racial and cultural identity reserved only for those whose birth, history, or religious experience is firmly rooted in that culture? Or can one acquire an authentic identity from outside one's own culture of origin?

·        What is appropriate and what is inappropriate cultural "borrowing?"

·        What is the motivation for cultural borrowing? What is being sought, and why?

·        How can cultural traditions that are not our own be honored, respected, appreciated, affirmed, and respectfully shared?

Instead of providing answers, I offer several scenarios to consider, around which discussions can be framed about the implications of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is problematic, in part, because it is rooted in the existing system of White power and privilege, and is based on the assumption that indiscriminate intercultural borrowing, transfers, or outright stealing are okay. Referring to the trend of the past twenty-five years to market a distorted brand of "Indian spiritual wisdom" to White middle class consumers, Vine Deloria, Jr., a respected American Indian scholar, suggests that cultural appropriation is rooted in a deeper, albeit unconscious, motive:

White people in this country are so alienated from their own lives and so hungry for some sort of real life that they'll grasp at any straw to save themselves... (H)igh tech society has given them a taste for the "quick fix." They want their spirituality prepackaged in such a way as to provide instant insight, the more sensational and preposterous the better. They'll pay big bucks to anybody dishonest enough to offer them spiritual salvation after reading the right book or sitting for the right fifteen-minute session. And, of course, this opens them up to every kind of mercenary hustler imaginable. It's all very pathetic, really.[9]

If a sports team misappropriates a name that is clear negative reference to Native Americans, for example, "Redskins," it is as disrespectful as referring to an African American by the "N" word.[10] If a North American manufacturer offers a new line of clothing inspired by patterns, styles, or fabrics created by the Andean people, it is plagiarism to name the new line "Andean." If a European American woman believes that the cowrie shell is reminiscent of female genitalia, it is dishonest to place it within a West African context if that interpretation bears no relationship to that culture.

I do accept that many of the goals of those who support cross-cultural borrowing, as far as I can discern, are completely honorable. Often the motivation is simply appreciation for some element of a culture. In fact, sometimes the goal is to honor diversity and serve as a means to help break down barriers. In general, I do not believe there is an intention of malice or ill-will. However, naiveté seems to characterize the actions of many who find themselves in a delicate place relative to intercultural relations. At other times, as Deloria suggests, the motive is less clear, or more self-serving. Regardless of motive, when cultural borrowing becomes cultural racism, the result is often disrespectful and can be painful to those whose cultural expression was borrowed.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are indeed unique in our approach to embracing other religions in worship, programming and religious education. We intentionally seek to learn about world religions and to share other cultural rituals and traditions. We lack depth, however, in our understanding of the historical, racial, cultural and religious context, as well as sensitivity to these contexts. At worst, our approach is assimilation, a combination of voyeurism and thievery, which in effect seems to say: from the distance of time and space, we have permission to take a myopic look at whatever culture we choose, and to beg, borrow or steal whatever we like, and make it our own.

An issue worthy of contemplation and extended dialogue is that cultural appropriation is based on the assumption that culture can or should be universalized—that anyone can become a part of any cultural or religious tradition—rather than culture arising out of (and remaining within) a particular social, racial, religious or historical context. Two examples win illustrate the point.

I invited a friend, Shoshana Kaminsky, a Reconstructionist Rabbi, to attend a service for the Days of Awe (the Jewish High Holy Days) at a Unitarian Universalist church. Her response was quick and sharp. She flatly refused the invitation. "The High Holy Days," said the Rabbi, "are an observance of the Jewish community as a whole, and are a way of expressing religious unity in a place of Jewish worship. The liturgy is entirely in the plural: 'We have sinned.' Worship in a non-Jewish setting seems to dilute the whole ceremony if non-Jews think that the 'we' means them," the Rabbi said. She is asking us to honor the historic, religious, and cultural context out of which the High Holy Days come. The Rabbi asks us to honor her tradition and culture in ways that she defines, and she challenges our unfounded assumption that we "honor" Judaism by celebrating Jewish holidays in a Unitarian Universalist context. The Rabbi's position is only one Jewish opinion, but it questions the very heart and soul of our approach to religion, which has multiple implications as we continue to struggle with the question of how to honor other religions and cultures. My question is: if Rabbi Kaminsky's view has any validity at all, how do we honor Unitarian Universalists for whom the Jewish heritage and tradition are important?

The celebration of Kwanzaa in our congregations presents a similar, yet different, concern. Although many of the principles of Kwanzaa are rooted in what I believe can become universal values, Kwanzaa is unique and particular to the experience of African Americans. Indeed, it was born out of the experience of struggle and redemption. It is a remembrance of how African Americans have been beaten down throughout centuries, and the ritual is designed to lift their spirits: "to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, speak for ourselves"[11] and so on. Like the "we" in the Yom Kippur service, Kwanzaa's reference to "ourselves" (African Americans) becomes irrelevant if the pronoun refers to anyone and everyone present. For this reason, congregational celebrations of Kwanzaa need to be rethought. A radical position would be that Kwanzaa should be celebrated only by African Americans. A more liberal position would say that Kwanzaa cannot be celebrated authentically without African Americans leading the ritual, and that Whites who wish to participate as an act of solidarity can honor African Americans by substituting the word "yourselves" for "ourselves." In either case, it needs to be stated clearly that Kwanzaa's historical context is the suffering of African American people, and that the ritual is designed to affirm their commitment to self-renewal, self-reliance, self-determination, and self-redemption.

Though I have found ways to reconcile some of my own conflicts about this sensitive subject, I acknowledge that it is extremely complex. It is a tough issue. Just as we have assumed that we honor Judaism by celebrating Jewish holidays in a Unitarian Universalist setting, we have made the same assumption about Divali, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, and special holidays and holy days of other traditions. As an American of African heritage, I have participated in many Seder meals and have felt perfectly comfortable doing so when invited. What has been uppermost in my mind in such settings is that, in spite of the common experience of oppression of both Jews and African Americans, Passover is a Jewish story.[12] Therefore, I look to Jewish people for guidance and for leadership of such a celebration. Similarly, I occasionally fasted during Ramadan, not because I consider myself to be celebrating this Islamic tradition, but because it reminds me of my childhood and what I learned about fasting in a strict Christian environment: the value of cleansing, self-sacrifice, thankfulness, and refocusing one's energy toward the Most High. My Muslim friends who are aware that I sometimes join in this ritual at Ramadan seem to welcome the spirit of my intention.

Freedom and Rights

The dimensions of cultural appropriation are further complicated by questions of freedom and rights. Who is to say what practices cross the line between appropriation and misappropriation? Danielle Gladd, a student at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, offers this perspective on some dimensions of the subject:

I don't have the right to assume that any symbol, custom, clothing, ritual, literature, art or idea is mine for the taking, or critiquing and appropriating (or misappropriating) to meet my wants and desires. Every culture has value and meaning. They may seem primitive to the untrained eye, but the context and background from which these traditions emerged must be understood, respected and appreciated before making them our own.[13]

From my perspective, there is nothing inappropriate about a Kenyan wearing an Indian silk blouse or a Guatemalan woven belt, or a German wearing a shirt with a Mandarin collar or a Ghanaian Kente stole. These cultural creations are beautiful and have practical value. For a person of European American heritage, however to wear clothing reminiscent of a particular indigenous culture in an attempt to be African or Native American is typical of the wannabe syndrome—the notion that a particular racial or cultural group can actually become another ethnic or cultural group simply by learning the rituals and dressing the part.[14] This syndrome expresses itself as cultural arrogance and misappropriation as well as internalized oppression.[15] Andy Smith, Martin Marty (and no doubt others) have already written about the wannabe syndrome,[16] so I need not comment further.

When I was in seminary, I met a woman from Wisconsin of Dutch and Swedish heritage, who for five years had dated only Black men. She sometimes wore African style clothing and once told me that she felt that she must have been born with "an African soul." We became friends because of our mutual interest in urban ministry. She took seriously the issue of being a white ally with oppressed communities. For example, she was a nurse in a poor urban area and over the years worked tirelessly with religious and secular organizations to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. She also joined a Black United Methodist church. She went further. One day I came to class utterly amazed to see that my friend had gone to a black hairdresser to have her hair cornrowed in an African style. Later that year, a Nigerian friend invited her to visit his homeland. I was glad that she accepted the invitation. However, I realized while she was away that if we were going to remain friends, I must engage her in a conversation about my concern. The cornrows apparently moved other Black students to talk with her as well. Within six months, she had cut her hair very short. This was the beginning of reclaiming her identity as a European American woman from Wisconsin.

I have no credentials in psychology, but it is experiences such as this that led me to believe that Vine Deloria's critique has validity, and to believe that owning one's story, history, culture and identity is what many "generically White"[17] people may be longing for when they engage in cultural borrowing and appropriation as a matter of course. My friend is still in what may be a long process of finding her own story, but I respect her willingness to struggle with her conflicts, to maintain her commitment to active engagement with African heritage communities, and to help improve these communities through advocacy and service. We are still good friends.

Justice-Making in Cross-Cultural Relationships

What can we, as Unitarian Universalists seeking to become an anti-racist, multicultural religious movement, do to keep justice-making at the center of our practice vis-a-vis cross-cultural relationships in worship, programming and religious education? Most importantly, there is a need for greater dialogue and engagement between European Americans and people of color as well as with those in and out of our congregations who practice many world religions. In addition to questions already raised, it may also be time to consider more tough questions:

·        How can the dominant thinking about history be transformed from an emphasis on self-interest and conquest to new learnings and appreciation of different cultures?

·        How can a culture maintain its meaning and authenticity if its traditions are thrust into the public arena—the free marketplace of ideas?

·        Does diversity mean that we all join in celebrating many different traditions, or does it mean that we honor the need and the right of each culture to affirm and celebrate its own heritage and traditions, while maintaining the option of inviting others to join in as participant-observers?

·        How do we support and affirm group identity and at the same time respect individual rights?

·        How do we navigate cultural borders and boundaries in worship, programming, and religious education?

·        Is there a line that can be drawn to say that it is okay to cross X boundary, but not Y boundary? Who decides?

Consensus on the above questions will be difficult. Certainly, there is no list of right or wrong answers, and it may be that these questions have no answers at all. Facing the reality of cultural racism and cultural misappropriation will be spiritually challenging for many Unitarian Universalists because it calls for a willingness to engage in some difficult relearnings accompanied by an awareness of the need for a deeper degree of personal humility.

As early as 1965, sociologist George Kelsey argued that racism is a faith. It is a form of idolatry, "an abortive search for meaning."[18] William R. Jones, a few years later in his book, Is God a White Racist?[19] argued that the primary image that has shaped and sustained Christianity is rooted in racism. I am convinced by Kelsey, Jones, and my own experience, that racism does indeed function as one of this nation's highest values (although it may be unconscious), and to that extent, it functions as a secular religion. If we wish to disassociate ourselves from those who practice this religion; if we are seeking reconciliation with those who have been and continue to be the victims of racism, and if we are interested in risking the next steps in justice-making with regard to cultural racism and misappropriation, we might begin by actively acknowledging that cultural formations and traditions come from the organic experience of a people and are sacred; and that many religious and cultural traditions have been historically violated. If we are to be one nation, undivided, we must heal the chasm between and among the many different racial and cultural groups. That was dramatically revealed following the O. J. Simpson verdict. Acknowledgment of those things that have separated us can be a beginning.

Do these starting points mean that Unitarian Universalists should not embrace or participate in different cultural or religious traditions? No, it simply means that we need to think more deeply about how to embrace other traditions, how to honor and respect the cultural and religious contexts out of which they were born and continue to live. Reconciliation is a religious task, but it has a political dimension. It requires moving beyond first steps to completely dismantle the institutional and cultural practices that have sustained the power of one group over another in determining cultural norms, equal opportunity, equitable laws, and policies of governance.

How we respond to racism, in all its forms, is fundamentally rooted in how we answer larger ethical, religious, and political questions. What does it really mean to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person in terms of their culture or religion? How is that Principle made manifest in our approach to religious education, programming, worship, and even our personal lives? Will you continue to borrow pieces of my culture simply because you like it, or will you stand in solidarity with me against oppression? As a religious community, a community of justice and hope, if we are to err, let it be on the side of caution. Let it be in our dialogue rather than in our action. Let it be on the side of equality and justice.

Upholding European American ideas, values, and assumptions as the norm are as much a part of sustaining racism as segregation, scapegoating, or the lack of equal opportunity. Dismantling racism begins with saying that we can no longer do business as usual. A spiritual discipline for Unitarian Universalist religious leaders and laity might be to find a baobao tree (or other sacred place) and contemplate the wisdom of a maxim that sprang from the pen of one we may never know: Our first task in approaching another people, another culture is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we find ourselves treading on another's dream. More serious still, we may forget, that God was there before our arrival. How we respond to this maxim as people of faith will be our religious ethic.


This article was originally published in the Fall 1995 edition of the Liberal Religious Education Journal entitled: Bridges to the Future: From Assimilation to Pluralism.

At the time this article was published, Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley was Affiliate Minister at the Community Church of New York and Extension Minister for Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity in the Metro New York District of Unitarian Universalist Congregations. She held a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in International Development and Communications.


1.       Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,  1992).

2.       Kenneth B. Clark, Prejudices and Your Child (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). Also see Clark's 1952 findings indicating that black girl children showed a preference for White dolls over Black dolls. Is there any wonder why? White was the only acceptable norm at the time, a factor that was reinforced by every mediated message.

3.       There is a host of literature about multiculturalism from K-12 through college level in both the academic and mainstream press. Among these, I find particularly stimulating George Gheverghese Joseph, et al., 1990. Eurocentrism in Social Sciences. Race and Class, 4 (April-June): 1-26.

4.       Leonore Tiefer, 1994. Intellectual Racism. The Communicator (Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation, September/October): 6.

5.       A number of groups from poor countries have embraced the term "third world" as a way of making a political statement that acknowledges their status as inferior –that they are, in fact, third (or lower) on the international agenda. This does not imply tacit acceptance or complicity with the IBRD/IMF construction of reality.

6.       "What You See Is What You Get: Content and Context in Mass Mediated Culture," a sermon delivered at the: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington (New York), October 8, 1995.

7.       Kwanzaa is an African American ritual based on the Nguzo Saba or African American value system. It has been practiced in the United States since 1966. Using the East African language of Kiswahili, each day between December 16 and January 1, one of the following principles is observed: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujama (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).

8.       Maulana Ron Karenga, The African American Holiday of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of the Family, Community, and Culture (Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1989).

9.       Ward Churchill, 1990. Spiritual Hucksterism. Z Magazine (December): 94.

10.   This subject has already been addressed more adequately by several Native American writers, including Russell Means in "For the World to Live, Columbus Must Die," a speech given at the University of Colorado, Denver, Apri1 27, 1992; and George Tinker, 1991, "For All My Relations." Soujourner (January).

11.   Karenga, op. cit.

12.   Though I honor the historical tradition out of which Jewish holidays come, I am not a linguistic purist. I do not believe, for example, that the word "holocaust" should be limited exclusively to references of Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe. Similarly, the word "atonement" need not be restricted to Yom Kippur since the concept of atonement exists in Christianity, in Islam, and other religions of the world.

13.   Danielle Gladd. "Cultural Borrowing or Appropriation." Panel discussion sponsored by the African American Unitarian Universalist Ministry, UUA General Assembly, Spokane, Washington, June 18, 1995.

14.   The term wannabe (want to be) is a good example of how an expression that was rooted in a particular culture transcends that culture. I believe I am correct in saying that this term originated in Black American lingo before the Black Power era as a reference to what has now become called "internalized oppression," among African Americans who fully embraced European American norms, values, and culture. In other words, it was a reference to those who wannabe White and in the past decade has more generally come to mean those who want to be something other than what they are.

15.   Internalized oppression is partial or total acceptance of history, belief in the superiority or adoption of cultural or religious norms as defined and interpreted by an oppressor group. One of its expressions is denial of one's own culture substituted by immersion into the oppression culture. Internalized oppression runs counter to self-determination. For one person's struggle against internalized anti- Semitism, see The Invisible Thread, Diane Bletter, Ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publications Society, 1987).

16.   Andy Smith, 1991. For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life. Ms. Magazine (November/December): 44-45. See also Martin E. Marty. 1994. Impure Faith: Borrowers and Wannabes. The Christian Century, (June 1-8): 561-564, and Ward Churchill, op. cit.

17.   Those who think of themselves as "White" rather than English, German, Irish, Scottish, or American.

18.   George Kelsey, Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man (New York: Scribner, 1965).

19.   William R. Jones, Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology. (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1973). Jones, a Unitarian Universalist minister has given many workshops at Unitarian Universalist Association General Assemblies and other Unitarian Universalist settings, including his current work in the Florida District. He is chair of the Department of African American Studies at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Last updated on Friday, April 18, 2008.


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The Culture of Celebratory Worship

General Assembly 2007 Event 4039

Presenters: Rev. Sofia Betancourt, Rev. John
Crestwell, Rev. Jason Shelton, Rev. Leslie
Takahashi Morris


This workshop focused on cultural appropriation and misappropriation, especially as seen from the perspective of minority cultures. The Rev. Sofia Betancourt began by defining the words.

Cultural appropriation happens when a group of people use customs, folklore, or traditions from another group of people. This definition is neutral; it carries no judgment.

Cultural misappropriation happens when there is a danger of the appropriation being misrepresented, or is done without a willingness to engage in the struggles or pain that may lie behind the custom.

The panelists emphasized this is a complex issue. Incorporating different traditions is complex and making sense of them is never easy. Furthermore, there are important differences between the dominant culture and minorities, between the privileged and those who are less so. For example, when someone misunderstand or misinterpret Bach's music, the pain caused will be relatively small, even to lovers of Bach. However, when the dominant culture misuses music that is rooted in the pain of slavery, it can evoke far more intense pain. A key test is: are people willing to engage the issues? And even if people are, the result can still be a painful experience for people who have felt oppressed.

There are no easy answers; questions lead to more questions. People may have good intentions, and then someone says "Ouch!" At this stage people need to stop, acknowledge and understand the pain they have caused, and learn from the experience.

The Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris described two experiences, one successful, one less so. A year ago, she led a Shinto New Year service, and in doing so felt deeply connected to her Japanese roots. Furthermore, she felt she was honoring her father who, when he emerged from an internment camp at the end of World War II, felt he should deny all things Japanese.

A less successful experience occurred when a committee adopted a slogan that was apparently a quotation from the Hopi. Was this misappropriation? In order to know, she would need to know the context of the original quote. Was it sacred? No one seemed to know.

The Rev. Jason Shelton described a similar experience with using a traditional Muscogee (Creek) Indian song. He did some research and found a complex history full of ambivalence. Finally, the issue was settled for him when a choir member said she was a Creek Indian and wanted to sing the song because it would help her connect with her own roots.

The panelists agreed that it would not be helpful if every UU church phoned the Hopi elders to engage them in long dialogs of cultural understanding. Hopefully, those of us who know can share the relevant information with others. For this purpose, UUA staff are considering the possibility of a Wiki site that could be used to share this sort of information.

The Rev. John Crestwell pointed out that misappropriation of music is especially sensitive because music has a way of stirring up emotions. He admitted that, like most of us, he occasionally misuses African-American songs; nevertheless he feels angry when an all-white church misuses an African-American song, especially when no context is provided and there is little attempt to understand the context.

Shelton told of an occasion when he casually started to play "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah." Then, when ministers of color began to look at him uncomfortably, he realized he had not established the sort of relationship with them that would give him the right to evoke such painful associations. He realized that one cannot just assume that everything in a new place is "just like it is back home." Crestwell responded, "At first, I did not know Jason, I did not know if he understood. Now I know him, I feel differently." Music, he said, is emotionally powerful.

In response to a question from Rev. Fred Small, the panelists re-affirmed that the issues are complex and we are all going to make mistakes. We need to be humble and do the best we can to raise our own awareness. Nobody is suggesting we should avoid the issues.

Crestwell summarized as follows. "We should engage the issues until we master them; then Unitarian Universalists will be an example for all the world to see."

Reported by Mike McNaughton, edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

Last updated on Friday, April 18, 2008.

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Considerations for Cultural Borrowing

Questions to Ask (and Answer)



·        Why am I doing this? What is my motivation?


·        What is the goal?

·        Why do we want multiculturalism?

·        Why this particular cultural material or event?


·        What is the context in which I will use the cultural material?

·        What is the cultural context from which it is taken? The history?

·        What are the controversies/sensitivities surrounding this material?

·        What are the power relationships in this context? The privileges?


·        What am I willing to do to prepare for this experience?

·        Have I done my homework on this material?

·        What sources/resources have I used?

·        Have I asked people from the culture for feedback/critical review of my plans? The history?

·        Have I asked people from the culture to create or co-create the material?

·        Did I invite people from the culture to participate? To speak for themselves in this plan?


·        Am I in relationship with people from this culture?

·        Am I willing to be part of that community's struggle?

·        What is my relationship with the source of the material?

·        What can I give in return? What do I offer?

·        With whom do I ally myself with this usage?

·        Am I working alone?


·        How does this work nurture self-identity and group identity?

·        How does this strengthen UU identity?

·        How does it help UUs be religious?

·        What does this say about UU faith?

·        How does it relate to UU spirituality or spiritual practice?

·        What can UUs learn from other traditions?


·        With printed material, who holds the copyright?

·        Have I received permission to use the material?

·        Who has the right to adapt? Why?

·        Who will be insulted/offended by this adaptation?

·        With whom do I ally myself with this adaptation?

·        What is the difference between symbolic and real ritual, and how am I using this ritual?

·        If I am using a translation is it accurate, authentic, and current?


·        Am I using current, authentic language?

Last updated on Friday, April 18, 2008.

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Cultural Appropriation

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

October 8, 2009


This article is in need of attention from an expert on the subject. WikiProject Sociology or the Sociology Portal may be able to help recruit one. (November 2008)


Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It denotes acculturation or assimilation, but often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture.[1][2] It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, may take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held.



The term cultural appropriation can have a negative connotation. It generally is applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture; or, when there are other issues involved, such as a history of ethnic or racial conflict between the two groups.

To many, the term implies that culture can actually be "stolen" through cultural diffusion.

Cultural and racial theorist, George Lipsitz, outlined this concept of cultural appropriation in his seminal term "strategic anti-essentialism." Strategic anti-essentialism is defined as the calculated use of a cultural form, outside of your own, to define yourself or your group. Strategic anti-essentialism can be seen both in minority cultures and majority cultures, and are not confined to only the appropriation of the other. For example, the American band Redbone, composed of founding members of Mexican heritage, essentialized their group as belonging to the Native American tradition, and are known for their famous songs in support of the American Indian Movement "We Were All Wounded at Wounded Knee" and "Custer Had It Coming." However, as Lipsitz argues, when the majority culture attempts to strategically anti-essentialize themselves by appropriating a minority culture, they must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not the perpetuate the already existing, majority vs. minority, unequal power relations.

Cultural appropriation may be defined differently in different cultures. While academics in a country such as the United States, where racial dynamics had been a cause of cultural segmentation, may see many instances of intercultural communication as cultural appropriation, other countries may identify such communication as a melting pot effect.

Cultural appropriation has also been seen as a site of resistance to dominant society when members of a marginalized group take and alter aspects of dominant culture to assert their agency and resistance. This is exemplified in the novel Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge when those who are colonized appropriate the culture of the colonizers. Another historical example were the Mods in the UK in the 1960s, working class youth who appropriated and exaggerated the highly tailored clothing of the upper middle class. Objections have been raised to such political cultural appropriation, citing class warfare and identity politics.

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Justin Britt-Gibson's article for the Washington Post looked at the appropriation of Jamaican culture by Italians and of other cultures by African-Americans as a sign of progress:

Throngs of dreadlocked Italians were smoking joints, drinking beer, grooving to the rhythms of Bob Marley, Steel Pulse and other reggae icons. Most striking was how comfortable these Italians seemed in their appropriated shoes, adopting a foreign culture and somehow making it theirs. The scene reinforced my sense of how far we've come since the days when people dressed, talked and celebrated only that which sprang from their own background. For the first time in my life, I was fully aware of the spiritual concept that we're all simply one. That sense hasn't left me. Everywhere I look, I see young people -- such as my two younger brothers, a Japanese-anime-obsessed 11-year-old and a pastel-Polo-sporting 21-year-old -- adopting styles, hobbies and attitudes from outside the culture in which they were raised. Last month in a Los Angeles barbershop, I was waiting to get my trademark Afro cut when I noticed a brother in his late teens sitting, eyes closed, as the barber clipped his hair into a "'frohawk", the punk-inspired African American adaptation of the mohawk. Asked why he chose the look, the guy, without looking up, shrugged, "Something different." Immediately, I understood. Minutes later, his "different" cut became my new look.[1]

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A common sort of cultural appropriation is the adoption of the iconography of another culture. Obvious examples include tattoos of Hindu gods, Polynesian tribal iconography, Chinese characters, or Celtic bands worn by people who have no interest in, or understanding of, their original cultural significance. When these artifacts are regarded as objects that merely "look cool", or when they are mass produced cheaply as consumer kitsch, people who venerate and wish to preserve their indigenous cultural traditions may be offended. In Australia, Aboriginal artists have discussed an 'authenticity brand' to ensure consumers are aware of artworks claiming false Aboriginal significance [3]. The movement for such a measure has gained momentum after the 1999 conviction of John O'Loughlin for fraud, for the sale of works described as Aboriginal but painted by non-indigenous artists [4].

In history, some of the most hotly debated cases of cultural appropriation occur in places where cultural exchange is the highest, such as along the trade routes in southwestern Asia and southeastern Europe. For instance, some scholars of the Ottoman empire and ancient Egypt argue that Ottoman and Egyptian architectural traditions have long been falsely claimed and praised as Persian or Arab, [5] and Greco-Roman, innovations, respectively[citation needed].

A more subtle example is brass band music (trubaci). While this kind of music is almost exclusively performed by Romani people, who may not consider themselves Serbs, many people of Serbian origin will consider this to be their own style.[citation needed]

On the other hand, when the middle-class Slovenian band Pankrti adopted the style of London punk music rooted in unemployment and other issues specific to the UK, it was seen in Yugoslavia as the spread of British culture and its adaptation to the local setting.

African American culture historically has been the subject of a good deal of cultural appropriation, especially elements of its music, dance, slang, dress, and demeanor. (See blackface and cool.) For example, artists such as Eminem, a white American who adopted a traditionally African American music and style, may be perceived this way.

Another prominent example of cultural appropriation is the use of real or imaginary elements of Native American culture by North American summer camps, by organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America, or by New age spiritual leaders (see Plastic shamans). Many summer camps, and many age-segregated groups of campers within summer camps, are named after real Native American tribes (Mohawk, Seminole, etc.); tipis are common at summer camps (even at an enormous distance from the Great Plains); and rituals often evoke Native American culture, using phrases like "the Great Spirit", for example. The Boy Scout honor society is called the Order of the Arrow.

In some cases, a culture usually viewed as the target of cultural appropriation can become the agent of appropriation. For example, the government of Ghana has been accused of cultural appropriation in adopting the Caribbean holiday of Emancipation Day and marketing it to African American tourists as an "African festival".[2].

A bindi dot when worn as a decorative item by a non-Hindu woman could be considered cultural appropriation,[3] along with the use of henna in mehndi as a decoration outside traditional ceremonies.

The metrosexual fashion is often seen as[who?] a form of cultural appropriation of gay culture by straight men. This view is parodied in the South Park episode "South Park is Gay!"

Controversy has arisen concerning the usage of the leprechaun mascot by the Boston Celtics basketball club and the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. Some people of Irish ancestry see the usage as an example of cultural appropriation and even racism. Leprechauns appear in many Celtic mythological motifs, and the reduction of this mythological figure to a set of stereotypes and clichés may be perceived as offensive. [6][7] A common term amongst the Irish for someone who appropriates or misrepresents Irish culture is Plastic Paddy.[4]

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See also

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Notes and references

  1. Race Isn't a Factor When My Generation Chooses Friends.
  2. Jennifer Hasty, "Rites of Passage, Routes of Redemption: Emancipation Tourism and the Wealth of Culture", Africa Today, Volume 49, Number 3, Fall 2002, pp. 47-76. Indiana University Press. PDF available on subscription site
  3. Salil Tripathi, Hindus and Kubrick, The New Statesman, 20 September 1999. Accessed online 23 November 2006.
  4. Arrowsmith, Aidan (April 1, 2000). "Plastic Paddy: Negotiating Identity in Second-generation 'Irish-English' Writing". Irish Studies Review (Routledge) 8 (1): 35–43. doi:10.1080/09670880050005093. 

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