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.