Using Cross-Cultural Materials Responsibly (Without Cultural Appropriation)

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2020 was a year of reckoning that led many of us who are white to heed what people of color have been saying for many years: that racism is a persistent and deadly problem and that it will not be solved until white people learn, grow, and change. To that end, Sparkhouse has decided to run a series of blog posts throughout the late spring and early summer in which people of color write about racism and racial justice as they relate to ministry. We hope you will join us on this learning journey and contemplate what actions you, as a ministry leader, can take to further the cause of racial justice in your church and your community.

Cultural appropriation is a topic of conversation that emerges near Halloween, when the temptation for an “Indian” or “gypsy” costume may lead us into hurtful choices without realizing it. (Most of us know by now that Columbus got lost, did NOT land in India, and it is more respectful and accurate to say Indigenous or Native American person, rather than using the term “Indian” to refer to those people. “Gypsy” is a strong and harmful slur that Romani/Rom people have spoken out against for many years, which is why I use it in quotations.) The popularity of Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead costumes and décor based on the Mexican festival honoring deceased ancestors is another example we see near that time on the calendar. Other troubling stories splashed across media in recent years have included the use of blackface in school plays, mascots that turn Native Americans into primitive cartoon people, and an empowering Mexican freedom celebration (Cinco de Mayo) becoming a drinking fest defined by all-you-can-eat taco specials and sombrero selfies.

How do we celebrate the beauty and richness of other cultures in ways that educate our children and encourage a sense of universal connection as the diverse body of Christ without crossing the line into cultural appropriation—“the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society” according to the Oxford English Dictionary?

Aside from agreeing to throw out any fake dreadlock wigs/hats (dreadlocks are a sacred faith practice to practitioners of the Rastafarian religion) and understanding that unless we are Indigenous Americans we do not get to claim anything as our “spirit animal,” we can follow a few simple steps to avoid many cultural appropriation pitfalls that would disrespect other members of the body of Christ. Start by taking the time to learn not just the “what” of a culture, but the “why.” What does a particular style of clothing represent or why is a tradition practiced? True celebration of a culture comes from honoring the depth of its traditions, not simply enjoying its aesthetic.

Use cross-cultural materials written by the people they are about or ensure materials had multiple members of that culture on the leadership and development team. Use first-person videos or books, or have special guests visit your congregation who are members of the culture being explored—and be sure to fairly compensate them. Stories of actual individuals and specific cultures are always better than vast generalizations or generic representations.

Whether discussing the context or origin of a specific individual or cultural practice, we can make sure to emphasize the difference between appreciating those who are different from ourselves versus trying to BE those individuals. We cannot be, but we can learn from and appreciate those who are.

Originally published in May, 2021 for the Sparkhouse Blog. Using Cross-Cultural Materials Responsibly (Without Cultural Appropriation) (wearesparkhouse.org)