In my Sunday School Companion, each Lesson begins with official definitions, definitions that have the imprimatur of numerous Catholic officials. The Catechism asks, “How shall we know the things which we are to believe?” and answers “…from the Catholic Church through which G’d speaks to us.”
These words are strangely relevant to a recent experience: an eloquent speaker called out people who appropriate another culture – by wearing dreadlocks, for example, or, in my case, having a yin-yang tattoo, or even, also in my case, bearing a name from another culture. It seems I’m a cultural appropriator both by choice and by birth. When I got home, I realized even in this unorthodox Lenten journey I’m a cultural appropriator!
The speaker was angry and justifiably so. How often have sacred symbols been used to make money or cover over the destruction of the very culture they purport to hold up? Too often to count.
And yet, is it always harmful to cross, and mix and blend cultures? Is there a way to share culture in a world where culture changes constantly, sometimes through bitter force but also through chance and choice?
As with so many issues, power enters in. People of less power have been banned from partaking of the objects, places, and even the language of the more powerful, yet perversely, they’ve also been forced to partake of it. White people have been able to cherry-pick without permission and often in complete ignorance.
Yet I want to say something for cultural sharing, for each person’s right to individuate, to seek and find among the myriad offerings of the world that which, often for mysterious reasons, speaks to their souls. Haven’t important movements and groups arisen from such mixtures? The Black Muslims, for example, or Norteño music.
Is culture to be strictly fenced, walled, and patrolled so that petty thieves like me are kept out entirely? Where do the boundaries end? Is it possible to honor as well as appropriate? I’ve always felt a certain softness toward men who like to wear dresses and makeup, shave their legs, etc. as many women do in modern Western culture. Wow, I think, Even though we have less power, they want to join us and be like us. Well, go ahead. Welcome. Does it sometimes seem a caricature of femininity? Maybe, but even so, I can honor the spirit.
I wonder how I, as an impoverished American, could relate so strongly to a 17th-century French nobleman, Voltaire? Yet I felt him as a kindred spirit. I learned French, not “my” culture. I also studied Spanish and Hebrew. Come to think of it, even my English isn’t native. I should be speaking German, Norwegian, Swedish, and Russian. Sometimes, for mysterious reasons, people feel a strong and deep connection to an “other.” I’m reluctant to criticize all such connections. As my friend, Arlene, pointed out, Catholicism itself is a mixture, a combination and amalgamation of multiple traditions.
On the other hand, if everything blends into a mush, might we lose some important legacies? Maybe we need both: cultural magpies and cultural guardians.
Being Called Out for Cultural Appropriation
Once, my first response to anger and shaming would have been to cower and apologize whether I thought I was in the wrong or not.
Later, I responded with hurt feelings and resentment that someone did not recognize me for who I truly am.
Is there a third response? How can I apply faith, hope, love, and contrition here?
Maybe I have faith that if I really knew this speaker better, I’d see her suffering. Maybe I can have hope that what feels like antagonism can someday be healed or at least accepted. I can think of what I love about that speaker, for example, vocal allegiance to many causes I also support, the speaker’s important work with youth.
And finally, contrition. What can I amend? Can I bring more thought and awareness to the symbols I wear or display, and perhaps accept that no matter what I choose, others may have a different perspective from mine, maybe forever, and, even though at times it may be painful, it’s also important, and necessary.