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Cultural appropriation can be a little tricky to understand.

Even if you’re familiar with the term and know it’s something to avoid, you might have some lingering uncertainties as to where the line between appropriation and appreciation lies.

For example, you might recognize that cultural Halloween costumes and blackface are racist and never acceptable, but what about fashion influences? Multicultural food and art? Do those count as appropriation?

Ask different people, and you’ll most likely get a range of answers.

Wondering exactly what counts as cultural appropriation? Looking for guidance on recognizing when appreciation of another culture crosses the line?

Read on to get more insight, along with tips on how to avoid making potentially hurtful mistakes.

Culture refers to the traditions, customs, beliefs, and practices of any given ethnic, racial, or religious group. Key elements of culture include:

  • language
  • art, music, and literature
  • clothing
  • social norms, customs, and values
  • history and government
  • religion and holidays

To appropriate, in basic terms, means to take without permission.

Cultural appropriation, then, happens when another culture “borrows” any of these cultural elements, typically without asking permission or crediting the source culture.

Appropriation also tends to involve some misuse of cultural elements. In other words, people who appropriate generally pick and choose only the elements they consider appealing and ignore the rest, along with any important cultural context behind those elements.

Take henna art, or Mehndi, for example.

Henna was originally used to help cool the hands and feet in hot climates. Mehndi ceremonies also make up an important part of wedding traditions in the Middle East and South Asia. Traditional designs are used to symbolize prosperity, love, and health in Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim wedding ceremonies.

Getting henna body art might seem like a harmless way to appreciate something beautiful. But when you wear henna for nontraditional reasons and fail to acknowledge its actual meaning and importance, you’re appropriating, not appreciating.

Appreciation, on the other hand, means you have an interest in all elements of the culture, not just specific aspects that look pretty, prove financially lucrative, or offer other benefits.

If you do use any elements from that culture, you ask permission and give credit to the creator or source.

You also seek to understand people of that culture, as well as the culture itself, more completely instead of contributing to stereotypes.

For white people, this involves doing some potentially uncomfortable work. Acknowledging all elements of a culture extends to recognizing how white supremacy and racism have played a part in dismantling and oppressing other cultures.

All cultures have complexities and nuances that contribute to, but go far beyond, their art, clothing, and jewelry.

Appropriating these items for your own use without taking time to recognize and explore their significance diminishes, demeans, and disrespects that culture and its people.

You can’t truly appreciate without this deeper awareness.

Navigating the niceties of appropriation versus appreciation can, admittedly, prove a little challenging.

Here’s a good guideline to keep in mind: If you have permission to participate in that culture and use or share specific elements, you’re not appropriating.

Say you’re visiting a Japanese friend from college who invites you to celebrate the summer festival Tanabata. They encourage you to dress in a yukata — traditional Japanese summer clothing — and help you put it on properly.

Wearing the yukata is appreciative, since your friend invited you to participate and you’re wearing it in the right context.

But what about wearing the yukata around your house back home, saying, “Japanese people dress like this every day”? Since that misrepresents Japanese culture, it would become appropriation.

In short, appreciation involves learning and sharing with permission. Appropriation generally exploits other cultures and reinforces stereotypes.

The chart below offers some examples to help illustrate the difference.

AppropriationNot appropriation
sports teams with offensive and inappropriate namesnaming teams after animals, plants, or noncultural concepts
wearing a bindi as a trendchoosing body art that doesn’t carry cultural significance
presenting yoga as a wellness practice favored by white womenacknowledging yoga’s origin as an Indian spiritual practice
smudging, or the burning of white sage, by non-Indigenous people
burning other herbs, such as rosemary or bay leaves
getting tattoos or wearing accessories featuring religious symbols when you don’t practice that religion
researching a planned tattoo to make sure it doesn’t have religious or cultural significance
adopting a false or mocking accent
studying a language you’re interested in
purchasing inaccurate knockoffs of cultural designs and art, like “Navajo-inspired” blankets or clothing with “tribal” designs
buying household items, art, and jewelry directly from the artisans who made them
writing a novel that combines stereotypical elements of various cultures and rebranding it as a new culture
researching and writing a historical fiction novel that accurately represents any cultures included
sharing photos of private or sacred cultural traditions on social media
asking permission before taking (or sharing) photos of festivals or other cultural practices
food bloggers creating recipes “inspired” by cuisines of other cultures without acknowledging the real work or significance of the traditional dish
learning about the cultural significance of key ingredients or preparation steps before modifying traditional recipes

It doesn’t take much effort to find cultural appropriation in popular culture and on social media. Consider these examples:

The movie ‘La La Land’

In the movie “La La Land,” the white male main character, Sebastian, is depicted as a jazz expert. He even goes so far as to explain jazz, a music style created by Black artists, to a Black character and take on the role of “white savior” in his efforts to keep jazz alive.

Sure, white people can appreciate, love, and create jazz music. But they should also take time to acknowledge its cultural roots.

It’s also worth considering why a movie about a key aspect of Black culture needed a white main character and a mostly white cast.

J.K. Rowling’s stereotyping, appropriation, and erasure of Native American beliefs

Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America” stories have earned plenty of criticism for the way they present Native American culture.

Her portrayal clumps together Native American beliefs and traditions from several different Indigenous groups, reducing these cultural traditions to stereotypes and fantasy instead of acknowledging them as actual cultural practices that are still part of Native American culture today.

She also uses the problematic white savior trope. In her stories, the founder of the American wizardry school is a white woman. Other white characters (not Native American characters) help her establish the school.

The school’s houses also feature Rowling’s “reimagined” versions of important beings in Native American mythology as creature mascots.

Kendall Jenner’s tequila brand

A number of people have criticized 818, a new brand of tequila created by Kendall Jenner.

Much of this critique focuses on her lack of recognition and respect for Mexican culture, the workers who actually produce the tequila but don’t see much of the profit, and agave shortages in Mexico.

Social media users have also pointed out the grammatical error on the bottle, which reads “blanco tequila” when it should actually read “tequila blanco.”

Anyone can make a grammatical error, particularly in a language that isn’t their first.

All the same, taking a little extra time to research and better understand a culture and its language, and communicate with people from that culture, could easily help prevent such mistakes.

Adele’s Bantu knots

Bantu knots are an African hairstyle with a long history.

Adele wore this hairstyle, along with a Jamaican flag bikini, to celebrate the canceled 2020 Notting Hill Carnival, an annual event originally created to share Caribbean culture and promote multiculturalism.

Not everyone criticized this look. Some people noted that since she grew up locally, her hair and outfit simply showed respectful participation.

Still, as several Black women have pointed out, the hairstyle goes beyond a celebratory look.

As a white woman, Adele can style her hair in any number of ways without facing judgment or criticism. Case in point: Many fans came to her defense, calling her hairstyle a sign of cultural appreciation. She wore Bantu knots as part of a costume, not as a daily look.

Black hairstyles aren’t costumes or fancy looks, though. They help protect natural hair, but they also represent identity and culture.

Yet many Black women continue to face stigma and discrimination when they style their hair naturally instead of using painful chemical straightening treatments to look more “professional” (in other words, white). Many schools and workplaces even ban or limit natural hairstyles.

White women who choose to wear Black hairstyles as a fashion statement contribute to cultural exploitation by failing to acknowledge this prejudice.

Also problematic was Chet Hanks’ response. He complimented the photo and asked Adele to call him — while speaking in Jamaican Patois.

The Renegade dance

Heard of the Renegade? It became popular on the app TikTok in 2020 — but that isn’t where it started.

Teenager Jalaiah Harmon created this dance and originally shared it on Instagram. TikTok influencers eventually began to share videos of themselves performing the dance, without crediting Harmon.

When the Renegade went viral, Harmon remained uncredited.

Food blog Half Baked Harvest’s recipe for ‘easy weeknight’ pho

A recent recipe on Half Baked Harvest, a well-known food blog, drew criticism from many followers.

The recipe, originally named “Weeknight Ginger Chicken Pho Ga (Vietnamese Chicken Soup),” presented a “fusion” version of pho that failed to acknowledge actual elements of pho, including key ingredients, the effort and time required to make it, or even the traditional presentation of the dish.

In short, authentic pho isn’t an “easy” dish that travels from pot to bowl in an hour.

While the title of the recipe has since been changed, many blog commenters feel retitling the dish falls short of an adequate response.

Many successful food bloggers are white. Among their recipes, you’ll often find “lighter” or “easier” versions of traditional dishes from other cultures.

There’s nothing at all wrong with wanting to prepare or enjoy food from another culture. In fact, this is a great way to appreciate that culture, when you go about it correctly.

That might involve finding a cookbook or recipe from a member of that culture, or at the very least, a recipe from someone who learned to prepare it authentically.

You can also make needed recipe modifications with an underlying understanding of the cultural context of the dish while still giving credit to that culture.

The problem lies in the fact that white food bloggers continue to rebrand and “fuse” dishes from other cultures. These changes fail to acknowledge the original cultures and render “authentic” recipes inauthentic.

They then earn credit, praise, and income for those recipes, while people of color continue to struggle for the same recognition and success.

The end result? Continued exploitation of people from other cultures.

Cultural appropriation causes harm because it contributes to ongoing oppression and exploitation of other cultures.

By contributing to misleading and harmful stereotypes, it prevents opportunities for true understanding and cultural exchange.

People who appropriate cultural elements don’t recognize or honor the true meaning or purpose of those elements. They also fail to give credit where credit is due.

This misrepresentation leaves people of color in a marginalized position where they lack the same opportunities for recognition, success, and profit.

Consequently, white people continue to benefit and hold positions of power.

By “not everyone,” we mean “white people.”

Appropriation affects people from exploited, marginalized cultures.

So, when someone called out for appropriation counters by saying that people of color who wear Western clothing and hairstyles, speak English, or eat fast food are also “appropriating,” know that these statements are both grossly insensitive and completely inaccurate.

This notion fails to take into account that people of other cultures are often forced to assimilate, or adopt aspects of the dominant culture, to thrive, if not survive.

Failing to assimilate can carry heavy consequences, including fewer opportunities for work or career advancement and racist violence or threats.

To sum up: “White culture” can’t be appropriated.

Why? Because white people have long been the oppressors denying other cultural groups their language and traditions and forcing them to assimilate and conform.

Plenty of people have been guilty of cultural appropriation without realizing it. Many trends stem from elements appropriated from other cultures, so you might not realize your actions have passed the point of appreciation.

It’s OK to make mistakes, but it’s also important to inform yourself so you avoid further appropriation going forward.

Here’s the first clue: If a person of color says your behavior is culturally appropriative, take that criticism at face value.

Asking yourself the following questions can also help you make sure your actions stay in the realm of appreciation:

  • Am I using this item (or clothing, word, practice, and so on) to learn more about the culture?
  • Does my use amplify and support the voices of people of that culture, or does it prevent them from being heard?
  • Have I given credit to the creator and the culture it came from?
  • Would a person of that culture see my actions as respectful?
  • Does my use contribute to stereotypes?
  • Can people of this culture freely use this item without discrimination?

Note: Some people disagree on whether some behaviors are appropriative or simply culturally insensitive.

It’s worth keeping in mind that you can certainly say or do insensitive and racist things without necessarily taking anything from a culture.

Taking time to learn more about specific cultures and keeping the questions above in mind can help you work toward anti-racism and greater sensitivity across the board.

When someone points out an instance of cultural appropriation, what should you do?

First, apologize. Then immediately stop what you’re doing. Change your clothes, take the accessory off, scrub the phrase from your vocabulary.

If you don’t understand how you messed up, do some work to understand why so you can avoid it in the future.

Do not:

  • insist it’s fine because you have a friend from that culture
  • challenge them because “they can’t speak for every member of their culture”
  • explain you didn’t mean to cause any harm or tell them they’re being too sensitive

When a person from a specific culture explains that your actions are harmful, they’re harmful. Full stop. The only good option is to listen, learn, and change your behavior.

Be prepared to do your own research. Someone you’ve offended may offer an explanation, but you shouldn’t expect them to fully educate you on what counts as appropriation and why.

If others happened to witness the appropriation — maybe they saw your outfit or read your social media post — consider touching base with them on what you’ve learned.

This might feel uncomfortable, but it’s worth it, since it could help them avoid appropriation, too.

There’s a lot of heated debate about cultural appropriation and what actions belong in this category.

When you witness a friend or loved one appropriating someone else’s culture, you might wonder whether it’s best to keep quiet. If it’s not your culture being appropriated, is it really your place to say anything?

Yes, you should definitely bring it up.

Appropriation is already a microaggression against people of color. Adding to the burden by leaving it to members of that culture to call out the appropriation and explain why it’s wrong only makes matters worse.

Still, shaming someone or criticizing them publicly usually doesn’t have the best impact, so try calling them in instead of calling them out.

Pull them aside privately or send them a quick text or DM explaining what you noticed and why it could cause harm.

For example:

  • “Hey! I noticed your T-shirt had [X] design on it. You might not realize, but that design comes from a stereotype about [Y] culture. I just wanted to let you know people from that culture might find it offensive and hurtful.”

Your willingness to engage in compassionate and respectful discussion with others can help encourage them to seek out more information themselves.

You can appreciate and share cultural elements without appropriating. Just know that true sharing requires permission, acknowledgment, and respect.

These resources offer more information:

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.