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Navigating Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation: A Nuanced Conversation

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The world is becoming increasingly interconnected. We share recipes from different continents over social media, borrow fashion elements from cultures other than our own, and draw inspiration from artistic traditions that originated far from home. But where’s the line between appreciating diverse cultures and harmful cultural appropriation? This is an important question in a world grappling with respecting cultural heritage, promoting representation, and dismantling harmful stereotypes.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation involves taking elements from a marginalized culture and using them for your own profit or enjoyment, without understanding or respecting their context and significance within the origin culture. It often involves power dynamics, where members of a dominant culture profit from, distort, or make light of traditions and symbols that hold deep meaning for the historically marginalized culture they’re taken from.

Examples might include a non-Indigenous person profiting from selling dreamcatchers they haven’t learned how to make properly, wearing a culturally significant headdress as a fashion accessory, or a sports team using a caricatured Native American mascot. These exploit, trivialize, or distort the cultural elements, causing genuine harm.

It’s important to recognize that not every instance of borrowing elements from another culture is harmful. There’s a difference between respectfully learning about a traditional dance form from a skilled teacher of that culture and appropriating those moves for a TikTok trend without any understanding of their meaning. Buying handmade jewelry directly from an artisan in another country is far different from mass-produced knock-offs sold by a large corporation with no connection to the origin culture. Context matters.

“The key issue isn’t simply using something from another culture; it’s about whether it’s done in a way that’s exploitative, disrespectful, or that erases the originators,” explains a cultural studies professor.

Why This Conversation Matters

Cultural appropriation isn’t just about individual items or symbols; it’s connected to larger systems of marginalization and exploitation. Too often, cultures disrespected through colonialism or oppression then see their traditions packaged and sold as trendy or exotic, while they themselves receive no respect or economic benefit. This perpetuates harmful stereotypes and further fuels inequities.

The goal with appreciating elements from other cultures shouldn’t be rigid self-policing or a fear of engaging with cultures different from your own. Instead, it involves a shift in approach and a willingness to do the work. Here’s how:

  • Education: Learn about the history and meaning behind cultural elements that you’re drawn to. Who are the originators? What significance does that symbol/practice/artform hold within their culture?
  • Give Credit and Compensation: If you profit from something with roots in another culture, ensure the originators benefit too. Share credit, collaborate directly, and make sure profits flow back to the source community.
  • Respect: Are you using a cultural element for a silly costume or in a way that distorts its meaning? That’s a red flag. Treat cultural expressions with the same respect you’d give beloved elements of your own heritage.
  • Listen to Marginalized Voices: Crucially, pay attention when people from historically marginalized cultures express that something feels appropriative or harmful. Their voices are the ones that matter most in this conversation.

“True cultural appreciation stems from humility and a desire to learn,” says a cultural educator. “It’s about celebrating and uplifting other cultures, not using them as a trendy aesthetic for your own gain.”

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