Cultural Appropriation vs Cultural Appreciation
Are you a little confused by the topic of cultural appropriation? It can be quite perplexing; constantly teetering between what’s allowed and what isn’t, what will cause problems, and what will be offensive? Although the concept of culture itself and cultural appropriation may appear to be overwhelming and complex, it doesn’t have to be. It just takes awareness, an open mind, and a little information and the best way to achieve that is through discussion. Here we’ll explore cultural appropriation, appreciation, and all the things in between in hope of allowing for better understanding and help contribute to a productive conversation.
What is cultural appropriation?
Most will define appropriation along the lines of adopting elements of one culture by those from another culture. This definition may sound more in the realm of a cultural exchange; a back and forth that we all do, or are capable of, and not like anything that could elicit anger or outrage. When we delve deeper, we understand the importance of context and how it’s integral to the distinction in how cultural appropriation is used in modern times.
The “outrage” exists because of racial and social dynamics. Cultural appropriation, in its modern context, is when members of a dominant culture take or adopt i.e. “appropriate” aspects from a minority culture, normally an oppressed or marginalized community, and then are allowed to take ownership of them. In this, it becomes a form of colonization. Please note: THIS is the definition we will go by.
We’ve seen plenty of examples of this idea of “Columbusing”, the claims to a “discovery” of something already in use, in gentrified neighborhoods. Like when recent New York residents stated they discovered chopped cheese when it’s been a neighborhood staple for years. This inherent arrogance suggests that only one world experience exists, and anything outside of that is only valid when that person encounters it; then it is something deemed worthy. Yes, it angers people because it invalidates them and their culture and says that it’s only special when someone not of that culture recognizes it. But these people and cultures are beautiful and valid and special, in and of themselves.
Along with this comes direct smack to the face of “taking credit”. Taking credit can come from someone trying to sell something on their own or being known as the person that popularized it. Imagine having a hairstyle or style of dress that was deemed ugly or “ghetto” by the rest of the world, and then someone from that “world” decides to wear that style and becomes applauded for it and then given credit for it. It causes demoralizing pain. Treating culture as a trend makes it temporary and disposable, but long after the trends pass, these proud people and cultures still exist.
Under the bright print patterned umbrella of cultural appropriation is cultural disrespect. Examples of this are when parts of a culture are used as props, costumes, and/or in a mocking fashion. This is where the phrase “my culture is not a costume” comes from. This includes blackface, indigenous headdresses, cultural Halloween costumes, and also when people travel to developing countries and use the people and poverty as backdrops for IG photos. People and their cultures deserve respect and dignity.
Why do people get so angry?
Because people are protective of their cultures. These cultures and traditions have centuries of history behind them - they are sacred and people from that culture want to treat it as such. A wave of deep anger is going to develop if you see the same person who made fun of your patterned clothing and food you brought to school, then get celebrated for cooking your abuela’s recipes, or being called cool, hip, and sexy for wearing what you were called “slutty” for wearing. Something that has significant cultural meaning and is central to someone’s identity will be protected fiercely at all costs.
Some of these “trends” are, in fact, ways people have reclaimed their culture and reaffirmed themselves in a world that constantly told them their cultural markers were “less than”. Everything from slang to hair color to large gold hoop earrings that were deemed “ghetto” by the same magazines calling it sexy and chic a few years later. There is a privilege in being allowed to jump in and out of cultures to take all the good, cool, and stylish while not enduring the ridicule, stereotypes, and negative association. People will rightfully take issue with that and they will call that out.
Disney made a misstep, but perhaps created a very teachable moment in 2019 with the premiere of their first big budget film with an all Latino cast showcasing Mexican heritage and tradition. In the beginning, excited moviegoers were interrupted with a short film with the characters from Frozen going door-to-door “collecting traditions” which ended up being the perfect example of what happens - outsiders collecting traditions.
How can I show appreciation?
Easy - don’t do anything of the problematic actions listed above. Once you remove the disrespect, disregard, and lack of consideration you are better able to see these beautiful cultures as what they are and able to interact with them in an open and receptive manner. This is where cultural exchange and respect exist. A few simple ways to show appreciation:
Ask sincere questions
Engage from the heart
Be open to learn and listen
It doesn’t have to be complicated and too deep. A simple and classic “I love the craftsmanship. I thought this was beautiful, so bought it and wore it” is all you need. The truth is, vendors and artisans, want to spread their culture. All the colorful patterns and prints, knits, and crafts - they want you to buy them and wear them and have them in your homes. It’s how they support themselves and it’s how they express themselves - through their culture. They just want to have their work and their cultures given the proper respect they deserve - and that’s not too much to ask.
So, what are some ways we can improve cultural awareness and exchange? How can we begin to break these barriers and construct a culture of appreciation and understanding to lessen all the tension that plagues us? How can we connect better to build something beautiful that benefits us all?