Throw Mama From the Train…..Cultural Misappropriation Try #3

I don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to what constitutes cultural misappropriation and what doesn’t. I do think that sometimes though, we UUs set up straw-men (please don’t knock me for not using inclusive language on that word), thinking we’ll be able to show somebody out. And I think that has just happened to me.

mloustau poses the following scenario:

A queer couple wants to get married in a Roman Catholic church, because they were both raised Catholic and they feel a deep connection to their faith. They would like to adapt a Roman Catholic ritual – the marriage ceremony – to fit the circumstances of their wedding – between two people who chose identities of the same gender.

Is this cultural misappropriation? After all, the queer couple, in the eyes of Roman Catholic Church, are no longer members in good standing of the Roman Catholic community, by virtue of their being in a same-gender intimate relationship. Under your guidelines, it would seem that, as non-members, they would not be entitled to adapt the ritual for their own needs. Nor would they would have a way of challenging a Roman Catholic priest who might decide that, as non-members, they are not allowed to have their wedding in a Roman Catholic church.

The point that I am making is that there is a crucial question that is left out of your analysis of cultural misappropriation: Who gets to define “membership” in a group? If we say that membership is the criterion for “owning” a ritual and thus for being able to use it and adapt it, are we not giving too much power to the traditional arbiters of group membership, like the clerical hierarchy in the Roman Catholic church?

Straw man! Straw man! Straw man!

Why do I say that? Because in this scenario, both people had been RAISED  Catholic. Just because they are no longer members of a Catholic church doesn’t mean that they aren’t culturally Catholic and aren’t Catholic now. Of course they can adapt the ceremony as they will (Catholics do do this you know). Membership isn’t everything. If membership were everything, then reform movements in any religious group would be considered outsiders (yes I know they are considered outsiders in many cases). Doesn’t mean that they can’t use the rituals that are culturally relevant to them.

This scenario is totally different from the what I am talking against……syncretistic UUism that says that because it’s out there we can use it with no real understanding of the ritual or the tradition that it comes from.

Alright, class is over. Time to get off the computer.

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2 thoughts on “Throw Mama From the Train…..Cultural Misappropriation Try #3

  1. I don’t think it’s an intentional setting up of straw men, though I suppose it could be.

    I think a lot of us are just plain confused on this topic. I wrote about watching an African-American friend get angry over seeing a white guy sing “Ol’ Man River” and how I could see a justification for his view that it was “our music” (the “our” here not including me), yet at the same time the song was written by a New York Jewish guy whose family was from Russia.

    I honestly didn’t present that as a trap, just an indication of how confusing these issues are. Someone on my blog made the (I think) reasonable point that there’s a big difference between a song from a culture and a religious ritual, but I can assure you that my friend didn’t see it that way and I’m not sure that the UU musicians network sees it that way.

    This is an issue where I think a lot of people are disinclined to say “We’re never going to culturally miasppropriate” or even “we’re really going to try not to culturally misappropriate” because there are so many different views on what that means even within cultures and no one wants to get to a point where we can’t learn from each other. (And I realize that last point is a bit of a straw man, maybe, but I think people’s heads do tend to take things to extremes.)

    CC

  2. I don’t think that the example I offered is a “straw man.” It is intended to be very realistic. Isn’t this exactly the kind of situation in which our queer friends who are fighting for justice in the Roman Catholic church find themselves?

    In the end, the example is intended to show that certain consequences follow from the way we have been talking about cultural misappropriation. And that we would find these consequences unacceptable.

    We need to use more precise language in our debates about cultural misappropriation. We need language that will disaggregate the examples that you have cited and the example that I cited. Because, at the moment, the language that we have been using would be applicable in both situations.

    Here is another instance in which we need more precise language: My example is not “totally different” from the ones that you have offered: (a white, Euro-descended American with no connection to a Native American community leading a sweat-lodge). These examples are similar and different in very specific ways.

    The examples are similar insofar as we are dealing with people who want to adapt rituals associated with a culture. The examples are different in that, on the one hand, white people are centrally situated within a dominant culture and they are adapting rituals associated with a colonized culture. On the other hand, the queer couple are an embattled minority and they are seeking to adapt the rituals of a dominant culture – Roman Catholicism.

    Thus, we need language that captures our entirely appropriate judgment that it is morally problematic for a white person with no connection to Native American communities leading a Native American sweat-lodge. But this language must also be able to explain how we feel that a queer Catholic-raised couple should be able to adapt the Catholic marriage ritual.

    “Membership,” “ownership,” and “ritual” are very imprecise terms. My purpose was to show that they do entirely too much work in this situation, which puts us in the awkward situation of saying one thing and then contradicting ourselves right afterwards. Case in point: Your post from September 13th: “It [cultural misappropriation] is about organizing that ritual when no one who will be participating in it is a member of that group.” But now I think you are arguing that membership isn’t really what cultural misappropriation is about. It behooves us to avoid contradictions like these in our debates about cultural misappropriation.

    Regardless, I like the way you shift from talking about membership to talking about “cultural relevance.” The concept of cultural relevance captures an important nuance: Every culture has “outsider insiders” and “insider outsiders.” That is, different people are situated differently within every culture. Moreover, “culture” and “group” are not the same thing. Cultures do not function like groups, with memberships, boundaries, entry and exit policies, etc. When cultures do function in this way, it is usually because a sub-group within the culture is making a power play. That group wants to define some other group out of relevance so that the latter group’s claims need not be acknowledged. I think this is exactly what is going on in the case of the Roman Catholic Church and the queer community.

    To return to the “straw man” issue: Our theologies are only as strong as the way in which they help us deal with real-life examples. My example may be a “straw man,” i.e. designed for the purposes of mounting a critique. But I don’t think that this really weakens my argument, because this is how examples are supposed to function in a theological debate, right? If the example were unrealistic, then that would be a problem. But simply saying it is a “straw man” and that therefore it is bad doesn’t seem like much of a critique.

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