From the Minister, Thu Sep 28

From the Minister

I admit I've been slower on the uptake than many of my colleague Unitarian Universalist ministers in grasping the damage of cultural appropriation. It's a difficult area for many. For one thing, cultural appropriation is often ambiguous. Diffusion of cultural aspects (dress, cooking, music, technology, ideas, language, et al) into other cultures has been going on throughout human history, and cultural borrowing and cross-fertilization can be positive. Imitating some aspect of another culture may be encouraged by some members of the imitated culture, discouraged by other members, and meaningless to still other members. So it can be difficult to tell what is problematic and what isn’t.

The boundaries of respectful regard for cultural differences are not fully defined, and they are evolving. In negotiating this terrain, it’s helpful to keep our eye on two key factors: power and safety. Who is exercising the power here? And how is the safety of people as they seek to live their lives by their own lights affected? For instance, there is near-universal agreement that white performers in blackface is not OK, though the practice was common for about 100 years (1830-1930) and continued into the 1960s. It was a time in which whites dominated, oppressed, and (in the early decades of that century) enslaved blacks. Whites had all the power. And blackface performances served to maintain and extend their power by perpetuating powerfully denigrating stereotypes of black people. The prejudice reinforced by such performances included that blacks were not even competent to theatrically act out the very characteristics that supposedly defined them. Thus the safety issue was clear: people so denigrated could be freely exploited, oppressed, stolen from, beaten, or murdered.

When cultural elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, there’s an important power dynamic to look at. This copying can be felt as mocking, trivializing, or distorting a meaning that may be of central importance to members of the minority culture. When the dominant culture copies and distorts in this way, less dominant cultures cannot protect their meanings. They may feel stripped of identity and, without the protective functions of identity, unsafe. The power of the dominant culture is reinforced by taking from minority cultures whatever it might think is “cool” – saying, in effect, “whatever is yours, we can take.”

Cultural elements in their context fit together into an expression of the culture’s experience. Appropriating certain elements necessarily removes them from their full context, and, when done by a dominant culture, with its broad influence, that appropriation dismembers the imitated culture. When current or historical oppression is a part of a culture’s self-understanding, imitators who have no experience of that oppression, but who temporarily ‘play’ at that culture are redefining the imitated culture against its will. Imitations that remove indications of a culture’s struggle for justice (by, say, representing only the cheerfully exotic) thereby discount and make more difficult that struggle. This has negative implications for the safety of, among others, justice workers whose claims have been discredited (consciously or unconsciously) before they could be made.

It’s not always clear what celebrates, honors, and empowers a culture and what trivializes and disempowers it. Indeed, it’s not always clear just what a culture is. But by looking at who has and is using power, and whose safety may be in jeopardy, we can be more effectively compassionate.

There's something else, even more important, to look at: the eyes and the heart of someone who tells you that something you're doing or wearing or saying is hurting them. We may not understand why they should be hurt, but it's highly unlikely that they're lying about their feelings. Understanding how something is hurtful may be helpful to us, but it isn't necessary. What's necessary is simply that we care enough about them to stop doing it.

Yours in the faith we share,


Let's Chat

On Tuesdays, 3-5pm, I'm going to be at an area coffee shop for anyone who might find that a convenient way to get together with their minister.
In October, I'll be at the Starbucks in Rye: 51 Purchase St.
In November, I'll be at the Barnes & Noble Cafe, City Center, 230 Main St, White Plains.
Drop by if you can!

You can also make an appointment to see me at CUUC, or invite me to visit at your place. Call Pam at the church office (914-946-1660) to schedule either.


The "Yom Kippur" sermon (Sep 24) is now posted, in three parts:
What's Wrong with You?
Upsides of Failings
Called to Repair Relationship

List of, and links to, Meredith's past sermons: HERE.
List of, and links to, Meredith's other thoughts and reflections: HERE.

Practice of the Week

Don't Be Alarmed. Don't underestimate the amount of background alarm in your body and mind. It's hard-wired and relentless, inherent in the collision between the needs of life and the realities of existence. While this alarmism has been a great strategy for keeping creatures alive to pass on their genes, it's not good for your health, well-being, relationships, or ambitions. Threat signals are usually way out of proportion to what READ MORE...

Your Moment of Zen

Propinquity. P.G. Wodehouse's series of Jeeves novels revolved around genteel country estates and comedic romances engendered by the propinquity (nearness, proximity) of those staying under one roof for a significant time. Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), includes this conversation between Bertie and Jeeves, his butler:
“What do you call it when two people of opposite sexes are bunged together in close association in a secluded spot meeting each other every day and seeing a lot of each other?”
“Is ‘propinquity’ the word you wish, sir?”
“It is. I stake everything on propinquity, Jeeves.”
Twenty-two years later, Ian Fleming's Diamonds Are Forever (1956) included a character telling James Bond, "Nothing Propinks Like Propinquity." This expression became an oft-used aphorism of diplomat George Ball (US Ambassador to the UN during the Johnson administration), and was later dubbed the Ball Rule of Power.
We become what/who we are near. We become our habits and those we hang around. The little irritants are our great chance. Is not everything staked on propinquity?

Aitken's Case (Zen Master Raven)
The same evening that Gray Wolf appeared was also Cougar's first time at Tallspruce circle. Mole stayed underground throughout the zazen period that day, but poked his nose out for the discussion of karma.
After Raven's final response to Gray Wolf, Cougar asked, "Then is karma just cause and effect?"
Raven said, "Propinquity propinks."
Couger shook his head vigorously and said, "Sometimes it makes me irritated."
Raven said, "Your great chance."
Hotetsu's Verse
It's a murmuration of boomerangs
Doing what they are
Going around coming around
Less coordinated than starlings
They frequently bump
Leave marks and nicks
Work themselves pure
Previous Moment of Zen: HERE
Saturday Zen Practice at CUUC: HERE.

Other News This Week

RE News
Music News
CUUC Weekly News
This Week's e-Communitarian

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