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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
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  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.
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
Much of the critical writing on multiculturalism in education
is really about intellectual racism as a specific form of cultural racism, 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." 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
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
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.
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
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.
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. 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," 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:
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.
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. 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
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" 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. 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.
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
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. This syndrome expresses itself as cultural arrogance and misappropriation as well as internalized oppression. Andy Smith, Martin Marty (and no doubt others) have already written about the wannabe syndrome, 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
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" 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.
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:
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
As early as 1965, sociologist George Kelsey argued that
racism is a faith. It is a form of idolatry, "an abortive search for meaning." William R. Jones, a few years later in his book, Is God a White Racist? 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
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.
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Tuesday, July 26, 2011.
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