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The Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Appreciation

Cultural appropriation: “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

If anyone were to tell me they haven’t heard this term before, I would immediately think they:

a) somehow haven’t had access to the internet for the last five years

b) know too much about it and have gotten tired of trying (and failing) to explain it to others. 

It would be an ideal world if the public’s perception of cultural appropriation was reduced to those two very simple, black and white options: either you know about it or you don’t.

Sadly, that isn’t the world we live in, for there’s always something in between that will make any issue more complicated to deal with than it should be, which leaves us with option c) you have heard about cultural appropriation, you’ve even read a bit about it… and since this forced you to face an uncomfortable truth – aka privilege and white supremacy – you decided it didn’t have anything to do with you and refused to read another word about it.

Now, believe it or not, the majority of people out there belong in the third category. It isn’t always out of malice, but it is true that the phrase “ignorance is bliss” resonates with too many young (and older) people, who would rather stay ignorant than educate themselves in what is, seemingly, a tricky and complex issue. However, we’re here to remind you all that learning about cultural appropriation is not rocket science! It all comes down to asking yourself who benefits from your actions, whether you truly understand the implications and the history that come with cultural wear, and how does society’s reaction to certain minorities and their culture differ from society’s reaction to, say, a white girl wearing a bindi to Coachella.

Still confused? Don’t worry, after reading this post on how to differentiate cultural appropriation and appreciation, you’ll find out that it isn’t exactly rocket science! So let’s get this started and you’ll proudly stop belonging to option c).

1. Context is Everything

First thing one needs to consider when it comes to drawing the line between appropriation and appreciation is context. Before rushing to Amazon to buy a bindi, or Googling where to get henna done because you find it pretty, ask yourself whether the environment you’re in justifies your actions. “Why?” You may ask, “It’s just a tattoo”. Eeehhh not exactly. This is the part where you, as a good ally, must do your research and educate yourself (you can’t really expect poc to do that for you) about the culture you’re interested in. That’s how you’d find out that henna is used by different cultures from south Asia, the Middle East and northern Africa as a way to represent celebration and femininity, usually used during weddings or celebrations. It isn’t a fashion statement, it has a meaning and a purpose. In more basic terms, getting henna done on your hands because you want to look like some random girl you saw in Coachella is appropriating, whereas doing the same at your Indian friend’s wedding is appreciating. Context, you see?

2. History Matters

History plays a key role in the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation. Say we’re talking about cornrows, a hairstyle that is mostly associated with the black community. The source community in this case is a minority that has been oppressed in the past (and still is today, but we’re not going there now) and historically has had to put up with too much bullshit and criticism aimed at the way they decide to wear their hair.

Yes, cornrows are gorgeous and they look great, and it’s understandable you might even want to try and see how they look on your own hair… but if you are going to try, remember that’s all, you’re trying. You can go to a salon during your week-long holiday in Cape Verde and have your hair braided, because this way you’re also ensuring it’s someone from the black community benefitting from it, but when you’re back home, it’s time to take it off. And why? Because you don’t need that hairstyle, you can take it off and return to a position of privilege… whereas others who do need it get rejected at job interviews because of these same looks.

3. ALWAYS Check Your Privilege

Lots of people get defensive when the subject of privilege is brought up. Our advice is: don’t. The thing with privilege is that you cannot help it, but you can be aware of it and act accordingly. One way of doing this is acknowledging the existence of double standards, particularly in the world of fashion. Let’s take black hairstyles as an example, since we’ve talked about them a second ago: a black woman wearing cornrows or bantu knots is still deemed “ghetto” or unprofessional by lots of businesses, whereas Marc Jacobs using dreadlocks on white models is suddenly high fashion. See what I mean by double standards?

4. Good Intentions Sometimes Are Not Enough

One of the issues regarding cultural appropriation is that people are surprised when they get called out for it, because it wasn’t their intention to offend or harm anyone. And I mean, that’s totally fair, but in situations such as this, remember Louis C. K.’s wise words: “When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.” Perhaps you didn’t mean to offend people from that culture that you really, really love, but if they tell you they find you wearing their traditional clothing disrespectful… it just isn’t up to you to decide whether they’re being over sensitive about it. Instead of getting mad: listen, learn, you’ll get to understand the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation better and, who knows? You might even make new friends!

5. Not Everything Can Be Turned Into a Fashion Accessory

Bindis are beautiful, dashikis are beautiful, qipaos are beautiful… but that doesn’t mean they can be reduced to mere fashion statements! See how we said the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation lies mostly on how well informed you are? That is because if you are informed, you’ll know the meaning and the purpose behind traditional clothing, headgear or accesories, meaning that you won’t make the mistake of wearing a Native American headdress, for example, only because “it looks cool and Lana Del Rey wore one”, that’s appropriation son, I’m sorry. Appreciating, on the other hand, would be going to the country where the culture was born and wearing traditional gear as a way to show respect.

Article written for Society 19 UK – Read here!

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