A Love Letter to White Unitarian Universalists Regarding Cultural Competence and Appropriation


We need to have a talk. It may be a bit uncomfortable, and that’s ok. As a UU religious educator, I covenant to engage in this conversation with you in a loving, patient way with the assumption of good intentions. Likewise, I hope you will covenant with me to receive this moment together with an open heart and mind and believe that my intentions are good as well.

Beloveds, I love our commitment to accessibility. I love how eager some of us are to find meaning wherever we can, including in traditions and cultures that may or not be personal or resonant to us. I love how deeply we care for one another and the Earth, and how much we want everyone to be included in ways that work for them, and how we are so sensitive to the fact that many of us know intimately what it feels like to be left out or othered. 

But here’s the thing, (which is something my pastor says to me when I know she’s about to lay down a nugget of truth I may or may not want to hear) – sometimes we take it too far, and sometimes in our intention to make everything accessible and inclusive of everyone, we cause harm.

So often in our explorations together, we over-explain that it’s ok if the God talk doesn’t work for everyone, we encourage one another to translate things into words that resonate with our own journey, we minimize the religious undertones of our sermons and stories, or we change the words in a hymn just so slightly so they’re gender and religion-neutral. I’ve done this too, certainly more times than I’ve realized. But in doing this, we are centering our own experience and comfort in the context of traditions that are not our own – and whitewashing and decontextualizing the practices of other traditions and cultures in the process, rather than respecting and learning about them from a place of reverence and humility. 

Beloveds, this is the part where I need your fullest, most honest, open, and vulnerable attention – white UUs, those of us of the global minority, need to radically accept the fact that not everything is or should be for or about us. When we try to smooth the perceived edges of the religious traditions we learn from to make them more digestible for our own consumption and less triggering for our congregations, we are actively participating in white supremacy culture. 

Often it seems that we think we are “making things more accessible and inclusive” or “exploring other traditions” when we are actually appropriating other traditions. We do this with the loving intention of expanding access to and understanding of spiritual ideas and practices within the container of our liberal religious tradition. Unfortunately, we often try so hard to make the material resonant and digestible to us that we fail to pause and consider if the material is supposed to be resonant and digestible for us. 

In the absence of that pause, we often end up participating in 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.”

Unitarian Universalists are overwhelmingly white, and we live in a society completely based on the white colonization and genocide of Black and Brown bodies and cultures, and the theft of their lands, lives, and freedom. When we try to shrink theology and practices from these rich, vast traditions into something that is digestible for us, we are saying clearly that our comfort and desire for access to cultures that are not ours is more important than the harm we cause by appropriating them. 

Now take a breath.

That may be a lot to take in. I bet some of you have never thought about it that way, and that makes sense. We’re all on this journey together, and none of us have it all figured out. 

It is not in the nature of the white supremacy culture we all live in to consider the impact of our actions on Black and Brown bodies and cultures, and certainly not to center their experiences over our own experiences or comfort – but when we choose to center the needs and lived experiences of our Black and Brown neighbors, we are actively disrupting white supremacy culture. 

There is a certain humility in radically accepting that we are not entitled to anything, least of all other peoples’ cultures, and it is a critical part of decolonizing our minds. Regardless of if our ancestors had a direct hand in the oppression of Black and Brown bodies and cultures, we have inherited a legacy of trauma and harm inflicted upon others for the sake of our own power, privilege, and comfort. So much like climate change, we can simultaneously know that we didn’t make the whole mess and that none of us are going to survive if we don’t clean it up.

This is hard work. None of us have all the answers, and none of us have to. We can start with being open, we can start with acknowledging this is real and knowing we can do better, we can start by listening to our Black and Brown neighbors.

May we strive to replace cultural appropriation with cultural competence – “a range of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills that lead to effective and appropriate [engagement] with people of other cultures.” May we take the time to pause and discern if we are participating in cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation, and consistently err on the side of centering our Black and Brown neighbors. 

And here’s the thing (in a gentler way this time) – the immense, Divine beauty and depth of all spiritual and religious traditions deserve to be admired in their fullness. Multireligiosity does not mean non-denominational or neutral enough to apply to any religion – it means there is space at God’s table for the Fullness of every single tradition, perspective, culture, and practice. Perhaps all we need to do is try softer, let others be bigger, and learn to be culturally competent enough to appreciate what belongs to our neighbors without coveting or taking it for ourselves.

Thank you so much for your courage and showing up-ness for this conversation. I know it may have been uncomfortable, as important work so often is. As we continue this journey towards collective liberation together, may we dare to bless the world with love and hold reverence for the profound, Divine fullness of each person, culture, tradition, and moment.

In Love and Beloved Accountability,

As a DRE and minister in formation, of course I wouldn’t just leave you hanging. Use these resources to continue your free and responsible journey towards cultural competence. You’ve got this! I believe in you.

UUA Resources
UU Allies for Racial Equity Resources
PBS Documentary – “What is Cultural Appropriation?” (Video)
22 Pop Culture Examples of Cultural Appropriation from FairyGodBoss (Article)
What is Cultural Appropriation” by Arlin Cuncic for VeryWellMind (Article)
“How to Decolonize Your Mind” with Kehinde Andrews (Video)

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