Cultural influences abound in the food you eat, the music you listen to, and perhaps even the clothing you wear or the decor in your home.
Sharing culture is generally positive. Someone who chooses to share parts of their culture can spread information about their beliefs, history, and way of life.
You, in turn, get the opportunity to learn more about another culture and share yours as well.
This exchange can lead to a better understanding of and appreciation for perspectives and traditions different from your own.
But as you probably learned in your kindergarten days, sharing and taking are two different things.
Similarly, appreciating another culture and appropriating aspects of that culture are also two very different things — though many people aren’t quite sure where one ends and the other begins.
Appropriation happens when members of one culture adopt specific aspects of a different culture without consent.
Often the people doing the appropriating belong to a privileged group, while the people they take from belong to an oppressed or marginalized group.
Cultural appropriation leads to a narrow look at other cultures and often exploitation of those cultures.
In contrast, appreciation involves a desire for knowledge and deeper understanding of a culture.
People who truly want to appreciate a culture offer respect to members of that culture and their traditions by participating only when invited to do so.
Appreciation provides an opportunity to share ideas and cultural awareness.
Appreciating another culture involves an interest in learning about that culture.
You share your knowledge only with permission and always credit people who belong to that culture. Cultural appreciation also involves fair compensation.
If you do purchase art, clothing, or other items, you buy directly from creators. Plus, you take the time to learn the significance behind the item and how it should or shouldn’t be used.
For example, buying a set of chopsticks to eat with is perfectly acceptable. Using those same chopsticks as a hair accessory is not.
In general, you’re probably appreciating a culture if you:
- have permission to use cultural elements
- use them only as intended
- share those items in order to help others learn more about that culture
- emphasize that you’re not an authority on the culture and avoid taking space from members of that culture who might not otherwise be heard
What are a few examples?
Imagine that during a trip to China, you learn a delicious recipe from your hosts. At home, you make the same dish to share with your loved ones, and you explain the differences between Americanized Chinese food and the food you ate on your trip.
Or perhaps you receive an invitation to a Muslim wedding, so you do some research on traditional weddings to learn what to expect and how to dress. Based on your research, you bring a scarf and cover your head to show respect during the wedding.
The difference between appropriation and appreciation can get a little complicated.
In short, if your use of cultural items or practices exploits that culture in any way, you’re appropriating — whether you realize it or not.
Other markers of appropriation include presenting elements of a culture in ways that:
- give a skewed or inaccurate perspective of that culture
- reinforce stereotypes
- conflict with the intended use of those elements
- take credit or compensation from the original creators
What are a few examples?
Buying mass-produced dream catchers, moccasins, headdresses, or other “Native American–inspired” items from tourist shops doesn’t teach you about their significance.
It presents a false perspective that all Native Americans are the same. In reality, the history, culture, and art of different tribes vary widely. What’s more, the non-Native companies that produce these items are the ones profiting.
If you’ve learned that wearing another culture’s traditional clothing in daily life is problematic, you might wonder why. After all, it’s freely available for purchase, and people who live in other countries regularly wear Western clothes.
Here’s the problem: Wearing another culture’s traditional jewelry or clothing may get you some admiration or positive attention.
But when someone from that culture wears the same thing, they might receive more negative attention than positive.
Others might call them “primitive” or “old-fashioned” or mock them for failing to conform to social norms.
Worst case, their clothing could make them a target for hate crimes.
Even yoga and martial arts can be appropriative when the practices center on white participants and don’t acknowledge their Eastern roots.
If you practice yoga, you should know it’s a Hindu spiritual practice and consider doing some further exploration. You may not realize, for example, that certain mantras have spiritual meaning, and mala beads are tools to help you focus your attention during meditation — not jewelry or decorations.
Context matters when it comes to telling appreciation and appropriation apart.
Say you’re an exchange student, and your host family invites you to wear traditional clothes to participate in an annual celebration. This is perfectly fine. Your participation helps you learn more about their culture, a key reason behind your desire to study abroad.
If your host family gifts you those clothes, you might bring them home and treasure them, but you certainly wouldn’t want to wear them as a Halloween costume.
But what if your school asked you to give a speech about your homestay at an upcoming culture night? Could you wear them then?
Here’s where things can get a little confusing. You want to share your experiences in another country, but not at the expense of someone who belongs to that culture.
Perhaps you decide to wear the clothes but include in your presentation some photographs of your host family at the celebration to help illustrate when traditional dress is typically worn.
If your intent is to learn and share cultural knowledge without benefiting yourself, you’re most likely appreciating. You’re also in the clear if someone from that culture asks you to participate, as long as you do so with respect.
When in doubt, it’s best to steer clear of any cultural elements you haven’t been explicitly invited to share.
When people take elements of another culture for their own use, they often adopt certain aspects and reject others that don’t interest them, instead of trying to understand the culture as a whole.
This belittles the significance behind cultural items or practices.
Many American sports teams use totem poles, headdresses, “native dances,” and “war cries” that mock Indigenous practices. This appropriation ignores the fact that white settlers forced many Native Americans to give up their culture, and they criticized as “heathen” and “savage” the sacred traditions that are now misrepresented for profit.
Since appropriation tends to romanticize or sexualize certain cultural elements, it can perpetuate stereotypes and racism. It also drowns out the voices of people who belong to a given culture by giving outsiders who’ve appropriated it more space.
If you’re concerned you might have mistakenly appropriated cultural elements in the past, these tips can help you do better in the future:
- Choose books, music, art, and food that originate from and accurately represent specific cultures, instead of “culturally inspired” experiences.
- To amplify cultural voices, look for books, essays, or other creative works written by members of the culture, instead of works by outsiders looking in.
- Purchase art and other cultural items from the creator.
- When studying other cultures, take the time to learn how to correctly pronounce names of people and places.
- Skip terms taken from other cultures, such as calling your friends your “tribe” or saying you have a “spirit animal.”
- Avoid adopting false accents.
Appropriation can still happen when you don’t intend to cause harm.
If someone calls you out, the only good response is to apologize and adjust your behavior immediately.
You might disagree, but do some research of your own before making excuses or insisting on your right to use the item, wear the clothing, or say the word.
Though the person calling you out might have an explanation about why something is appropriative, you should always be ready to learn on your own instead of looking to others to educate you.
Say you find a fancy candle holder at a thrift shop. You aren’t Jewish, so you have no idea it’s a menorah, a special candelabra that has deep significance in Judaism.
You bring it home and fill it with candles, but one day a friend notices it and seems very confused. “I didn’t know you were Jewish,” they say.
You reply that you aren’t, and they explain what a menorah is. You realize you shouldn’t be using it as a candle holder and decide to take it back.
Certain behaviors are never appreciative.
- dressing up as someone from another culture as a costume
- wearing blackface
- wearing clothing or jewelry with religious or spiritual significance when you don’t practice that religion
- any behavior that stereotypes or puts down members of another culture
These actions don’t benefit anyone but you, and they can be deeply offensive.
If you see others doing these things, you might have an urge to call them out — but first consider your own biases. Keep in mind you may not always recognize who belongs to a specific culture and who doesn’t.
It’s a little easier with friends and family.
If your white friend talks about wanting locs, you might explain this style for natural hair often earns Black people stigma or discrimination that white people generally don’t experience.
Your friend sees it as a trend, but a Black person might receive criticism for having natural hair instead of conforming to white ideals.
Here are a few additional resources on cultural appropriation:
If you aspire to appreciate instead of appropriate, you’re already on the right track.
Also essential is a willingness to acknowledge your errors. It’s OK to make mistakes, but it isn’t OK to keep doing something offensive once you know it’s problematic.
To truly appreciate, make an effort to recognize cultural influences in the things you admire and use in daily life, and consider how you can learn more about those cultures — instead of offering a token appreciation not unlike the mass-produced facsimiles found in souvenir shops.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.