Cultural Appreciation and Appropriation

There is a difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation, and it matters.

It’s impossible to avoid cultural influences in our everyday lives.

Social media, television and film give us a glimpse into how other people around the world live.

Sharing culture is overall a positive thing. In a way, sharing our heritage, history, and way of life with others is a celebration of our cultural identity. It allows others to learn more about a culture different from theirs. This leads to a better understanding and appreciation of perspectives and traditions different from our own.

It’s important to understand that sharing and taking are two very different things. Similarly, appreciating another culture and appropriating aspects of that culture are also two very different things.

The global connectivity that allows us to experience other cultures can inspire genuine cultural appreciation. But experiencing another culture doesn’t automatically mean you understand it or that you should take elements of that culture and claim them as your own.

Cultural appreciation can very easily turn into cultural appropriation.

Instead of honouring another culture, appropriation demeans and dishonours.

It perpetuates harmful stereotypes and deepens divides between communities.

If we are mindful, there is a way we can honour and celebrate other cultures without unintentionally devaluing them along the way.

Appreciation vs Appropriation

There is a fine line between appreciating a culture and appropriating from it.

Cultural appreciation involves a sincere interest in exploring a different culture.

You listen, learn, and strive to understand the beliefs and traditions. In doing so, you honour the culture and its people.

Appreciating different cultures like this is a wonderful part of living in the 21st century, where information is readily available for anyone who wants to learn more.

It’s when we take aspects of another culture without really understanding or acknowledging its significance and claiming it as part of our own - that’s where things get problematic.

Cultural appropriation is the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of the customs, practices, or aesthetics of a social or ethnic group by people of another (typically dominant) community or society.

Examples of cultural appropriation are everywhere in our lives.

It is most visible in pop culture, music, art and fashion. But it doesn’t end there.

One of the most common instances of appropriation happens in language – specifically, the slang we use.

From "the bomb" to "holla", black slang words get adopted and popularized by mainstream culture (which is predominantly white) with a general lack of understanding of how its native speakers use these words. Often, the origin of these words isn’t even acknowledged. The same words considered “ghetto talk” when used in black culture automatically become “cool” when adopted into the mainstream culture.

Appropriation happens when a dominant group takes or borrows something from a minority group that has historically been exploited or oppressed. It involves a lack of understanding or appreciation for the historical context or cultural significance of what is being taken.

For example, taking an object that is sacred to a culture and wearing it as a costume is appropriation.

Why is this problematic?

Learning about a culture so you can better understand it is appreciation. This quickly turns into appropriation when you try to take parts of it and use that culture for yourself.

Cultural appropriation also refers to a particular type of power dynamic where a dominant culture takes elements from the culture of a people who have been systematically oppressed and marginalized by the dominant group.

That is the fine line between appreciating a culture and appropriating from it.

When we adopt aspects of a culture–– be it language, clothing, art, food, etc.–– without a proper understanding or acknowledgement of its significance to that culture or how the item should or should not be used, we fail to honour it.

Appropriation is harmful because:

  • - It trivialized historical significance; specifically historical oppression.
  • - It perpetuates toxic and racist stereotypes.
  • - It is disrespectful.
  • - It normalizes the idea that some cultures are inherently superior to others.
  • - It is exploitative. It robs oppressed groups of the credit they deserve and often the capital owed to them as well.

Unlearn and Relearn

In the 21st century, cultural influence is a fact of life. So it’s crucial to try to understand the fine line that separates cultural appreciation and appropriation.

It’s hard to always get it right. While it’s okay to make mistakes, the willingness to learn from the mistake and not repeat it is critical to avoid appropriation.

Make an effort to recognize cultural influences in the things you admire and use in your daily life. Consider how you can learn more about those cultures. By choosing to learn more, you can be mindful of avoiding appropriation.