Arts & Culture

Respecting different cultures: appropriation vs. appreciation

Donovan Martin ’22
Deputy Editor

It is often stated that the enjoyment of culture has become impossible with claims of cultural appropriation proliferating in today’s society. Though true, more claims of cultural appropriation are coming to light, and their reasoning has merit.

Many times, a genuine misunderstanding of the key concepts has led to many people being accused of appropriation. Clearing said misconceptions can be done quite simply, first by defining the necessary terms.

The two main terms a person should know are the following: cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Cultural appropriation is the adoption of a cultural element from another culture with a lack of understanding of what is being presented, often for personal gain. Cultural appreciation is seeking to understand and learn about another culture to broaden one’s worldview. Simply put, appreciation is done to educate oneself while appropriation is done to take advantage of others.

In reference to attire, examples of cultural appropriation are often seen in costumes. Wearing traditional clothing and outfits such as an Indigenous headdress, coconuts paired with a Hawaiian luau skirt, a Japanese kimono with Geisha makeup, or African cornrows are express examples of cultural appropriation. Yet appropriation can go beyond cultural attire, including artifacts, food, religious symbols, makeup, hairstyles, tattoos, and many more.

A flagrant example of theappropriation of the traditional Indigenous headdress

This is not to say that other cultures cannot participate in cultural events. Cultural exchange is one of the most prominent ways to participate in cultural appreciation. Receiving a Maasai necklace as a gift after mission work in Kenya is different from that of purchasing one on Etsy because it looked ‘trendy.’

Dr. Khayree Williams, a director at Austin Community College, asks four things of people:

  1. Examine your own culture. Through self-reflection and evaluation, examine your own culture. If you would be offended or hurt if a person was to use a part of your cultural identity without fully understanding it, ask yourself how the appropriated feel themselves.
  2. Listen and be mindful. As Williams said, “The greatest way to become knowledgeable and appreciate another culture is by listening and being mindful to those who are a part of the fabric of that culture or society.” Here, he asks you to learn about the culture of which you are partaking, ensuring that you learn its history and significance, preferably from a member of that culture.
  3. Analyze the context. Ask what a symbol or outfit means to a specific culture and when and where it’s appropriate to use it.
  4. Be open to teach and share your own culture. The most important part of cultural exchange is the dialogue formed by the expression of culture. One of the best ways to establish a difference between appropriation and appreciation is to have a mutual exchange.

All peoples can make the mistake of cultural appropriation, intentionally or not. However, this should not discourage any person from learning about another culture. As long as people are mindful when learning about other cultures, respectfully embracing them rather than making a mockery of them, one is participating in appreciation, not appropriation.


Photo Credit: Ollie Millington/Getty Images