Cultural Misappropriation

My dear friend and colleague, Rev. James Ishmael Ford, wrote a wonderfully clear blog on the inclusion of a sentence in the new proposed by-laws for the UUA.  The sentence reads, “Grateful for the traditions that have strengthened our own, we strive to avoid misappropriation of cultural and religious practices and to seek ways of appreciation that are respectful and welcomed.”   It sounds innocuous enough, right?  His concern is that someone will take it upon their shoulders to become the misappropriation police and begin an inquisition. 

However, I think it is a real concern especially since we as a movement have yet to come to consensus of what we mean by Cultural Misappropriation. It is a discussion that is only now beginning to filter into our congregations awareness even though segments of our faith have been talking about this topic for decades.  Is it simply when an all white congregation seeks to sing an African American spiritual?    The Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network  has adopted the definition as defined by the UUA Task Force on Cultural Misappropriation – September 2006.   You can read the report by this task force here.

“Cultural misappropriation is the term given to the set of injuries marked by:

  • using music, reading, symbols, ritual, or iconography of a group without a willingness to engage in their struggle and/or story and connecting their struggle and/or story with our own (UU and community).
  • the use of cultural practices as bait rather than an as organic part of our cultural experience
  • an unwillingness to respect the community of origin or dishonoring the refusal of a community to share
  • disrespect or casual engagement with a practice, or
  • unwillingness to share the pain caused by intentional or unintentional misuse.”

So it isn’t simply a white congregation singing an African American Spiritual, it involves the education and appreciation of the culture that developed African American Spirituals.  There is more to the struggle for freedom that is behind the words and music of these songs.  There is more meaning to “This Little Light of Mine” than just a wonderful children’s hymn by which we send the children off to their religious education classes.  Based on the definition above, when we sing it as a wonderful children’s song, we are denying the context in which this song was originally sung.  The original composers sung it in defiance of the slavery and the cruelty they faced by their task masters.  No amount of abusive infliction of pain and suffering was going to take away from them their integrity and dignity as humans.  “This Little Light of Mine”  no longer sounds like a cutesy children’s song, does it? A white congregation could then sing this African American Spiritual in recognition of the resilience of spirit and soul under harsh conditions and perhaps even in repentance of their ancestors abusive behaviors to attempt to destroy the spirit of a people.

There is another difficulty regarding this issue.  We are relational beings.  We are influenced by the networks and clusters we come in contact with on a daily basis.  We are always incorporating various things into our perceptions and into our behavior repertoires.  It is one of the ways that families suffering from severe dysfunction begin to heal towards healthier ways of being.  It means incorporating another family’s culture into ones own and thereby shifting the dynamics of that culture towards health.  Families are the microcosm of this example but it also extends out to communities such as congregations, villages, states, countries and even global communities.  

The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are filled with examples of how a conquering nation incorporated the traditions of the people conquered to sway control over them perhaps, but appropriation of their cultures was the result.  The reverse is also true and found in these texts where the conquered people assimilated into the prevailing culture.  Is it misappropriation for Americans with its increasing interaction with Latino/as cultures to begin celebrating Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead as the cultures begin to merge?  Or is it misappropriation for the Latino/as communities in America to begin to assimilate into American culture and celebrate Thanksgiving.  Or is it misappropriation for the entrance into the English language some Spanish words.  In the border communities of our country, this is more pronounced.  Yet this happens with every cultural exchange of people.  In the northeast, especially in New York City, one is apt to hear a Yiddish word thrown into the conversation and have it understood by all its listeners regardless of cultural background.

We are relational beings.  There is no way one could keep a culture or even our religion “pure” even if it was desired.   Stating this in this way smacks me with an image of white supremacy, the thought that white culture is superior to any others and the desire to keep the race pure.  Are we by including this sentence in our by-laws advocating for a Unitarian Universalist supremacy where we keep pure what is culturally and specifically Unitarian Universalist? 

I don’t think this was the intent by the Commission on Appraisal when they wrote this sentence into the proposed by-laws.  Yet, there are those among us who may want us to return to an earlier version of Unitarian and Universalist spirituality.  And this sentence would give them the go ahead to begin to enforce this desire.  I concur with my esteemed colleague, James Ishmael Ford, that the inclusion of this sentence is a dangerous cliff to be on.   Blessings,

Postscript:  I just read in Wikipedia that “This Little Light of Mine”  while long considered to be an African American Spiritual, it is in fact not.  It was written in the 1920’s by Harry Dixon Loes.  It was however ‘appropriated’ as an anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s, so my point above is still valid in more ways than one.



  1. I’m so glad you and James Ford weighed in on this so thoroughly and thoughtfully. I’ve thought, since learning about Kenneth Patton and studying worship at Meadville, that it is crucial to honor and incorporate some expressions from other religions and cultures as a way to understand the common human impulse to worship.

  2. Sorry, Fred. You have to do your homework. I find your essay thoughtful and rewarding, but the center does not hold when you make a point using the wrong example. In the Baptist church I attended as a child in the ’50s, we sang “This Little Light” and there’s no way it was attached to the civil rights movement in that church.

    Don’t stumble over yourself trying to make the misappropriation point when there’s plenty of other and much more current material out there to talk about. Talk about first-American spirituality, sweat lodges, etc. if you want to address this in a current context. Talk about pagan UUs or UU Buddhists.

    Of course, carried to its logical extreme, no (mis)appropriation, no assimilation means no growth — either personally or as a community. That’s not the way Emerson worked or Thoreau.

  3. Bill: Thank you for making another point to the argument. However, I am correct in stating that ” ‘This Little Light of Mine’ was ‘appropriated’ as an anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s.” This fact is well documented. One reference is given here;

    My stating so does not mean that other churches, even your childhood Baptist church, did not sing it from a different context. My postscript, corrected my original assumption that it was an old African American Spiritual instead it was written in the 1920’s by a Moody Bible graduate. So the context in which your childhood church sang it was most likely this one, as a Baptist written song. They owned the song culturally. And the civil rights movement ‘appropriated’ it to support their cause. The example is a perfect example because it is a song so well known and beloved. I wouldn’t be surprised if some members in your ol church were shocked or even dismayed to see their beloved song sang in a manner to represent the civil rights struggle. Actually you seemed shocked and dismayed because culturally the song belonged to your Baptist Church first. And that is my point, or rather the impact of cultural misappropriation on the original culture.

    I did do my homework, Bill. Thank you for helping me expand and clarify my closing words where I stated, “so my point above is still valid in more ways than one.” Blessings,

  4. Fred, I found this post so thought-provoking, and helpful for framing my own thoughts around the COA’s revisions. (It was, I’ll also say, a stroke of genius to include that photo of Gwyneth Paltrow. I remember the first time I saw one of those ads, and thinking, “Huh???”)

    All of this is to say that tomorrow’s sermon will be the richer for my having stumbled onto your blog. I’ll be back!

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