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Jul8FriThe dangers of borrowing from other traditions. July 8, 2016 by Captain Mark Braye
When Justin Bieber attended the iHeartRadio Music Awards in Los Angeles this past April, his appearance created quite a stir. Why? He was wearing his hair in dreadlocks. The question arose: was this cultural appreciation, or an offensive form of cultural appropriation? In a multicultural society, where do we draw the line?
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture—ideas, symbols and artifacts—by members of a different culture. Some views distinguish between “appropriation” and “misappropriation”—when cultural elements are used outside their original context, in a disrespectful way. It's a form of cultural theft.
Was it offensive for Justin Bieber to wear dreadlocks, or is it just hair? CBC reporter Lauren O'Neil outlined criticisms of Bieber's choice: “It's not just hair to those who wear dreadlocks for cultural, political or religious reasons. Rastafarians in Jamaica for many years faced discrimination based on their appearance, for example. It's not 'just hair' for men and women who've been fired, sent home from school and even physically assaulted over what's on their own heads, either.”
It's not clear to me that wearing dreadlocks is outright (mis)appropriation. A clearer example would be when white people wear “black face.” The historical struggle faced by people of colour is diminished when their appearance is used for fun and amusement. For me, this is disrespectful and offensive and has no place in society.
We need to be aware of how cultural appropriation can creep into our lives in small ways, in the jokes we tell or laugh at, in the things we say or don't say
Consider also the names of the following sports teams: Edmonton Eskimos (Canadian Football League); Cleveland Indians (Major League Baseball); Chicago Blackhawks (National Hockey League); Washington Redskins (National Football League). I believe these team names, and their logos, are belittling and offensive to our Indigenous neighbours and friends. The last two, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Washington Redskins, present an interesting case.
The Chicago Blackhawks take their name from an infantry division that fought in the First World War. The division was named for Chief Black Hawk, a Sauk leader and an important figure in the history of the state of Illinois. Some argue that this name is not offensive because it's based on an individual, not an entire community. I'd like to know how the Sauk community feels about the name. If they are offended, I would side with them.
Washington Redskins is an offensive team name, period. It dehumanizes an entire community of people. I've read that some sports magazines will not print the word “Redskins,” referring to the team as solely “Washington.” This past season, Phil Simms, a former NFL quarterback and current broadcaster with CBS, refused to use the word “Redskins” when working a game featuring Washington. We would never accept a professional sports team called the Washington N-words or the Washington Whiteys. It's time to change the name.
Cultural appropriation has theological, spiritual and practical implications. As Christians, we believe everyone is created in the image of God. We need to reflect carefully on how our attitudes and actions impact other people. We need to be aware of how cultural appropriation can creep into our lives in small ways, in the jokes we tell or laugh at, in the things we say or don't say.
Perhaps there are positive ways to appreciate other cultures. For example, singing a spiritual to commemorate Black History Month; celebrating a seder meal in solidarity with Jewish friends; or creating an Indigenous craft in Sunday school to learn about our First Nations. In each instance, it's important to take our cues from others who “own” these traditions. Even in writing this article, I'm aware that, as a white male, I'm coming from the perspective of the dominant culture, and I have much to learn.
As The Salvation Army, we need to ask ourselves if we are sensitive to other cultures and ethnicities in our church congregations and as an organization. Are there times when we belittle or offend other cultures without knowing it? How can we acknowledge, encourage and respect cultural differences without stereotyping people? How do we make room for people to express themselves in their own way? Where do we need to change?
Captain Mark Braye is the corps officer at Sarnia Community Church, Ont.