Understanding Cultural Appropriation

By SoFe Travel Editors
Posted on

In the last few years, you have probably heard of cultural appropriation. But do you really understand what this debate is all about? From Victoria’s Secret models walking the runway wearing Native American headdresses to you wearing a piece of traditional jewellery acquired from your most recent trip overseas, where can we find the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t? 

If the basic concept is quite easy to understand, the difficulty in grasping what it really means lies in the details, and even more, in the context. You are not entirely certain how to navigate this sensitive issue? You want to make sure you’ll be able to avoid any pitfalls during your next trip? Here are a few things you should know about cultural appropriation.

What is cultural appropriation?

man dressed in kimono with fan

If this photo makes you cringe, then we are off to a great start! Let’s start with some definitions. The Oxford Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as: “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

If you want to be thorough, here are a few more definitions which will help you understand the whole debate:

  • Cultural exchange: a mutual exchange or sharing of some elements between two cultures.
  • Acculturation: a process during which a person or a group of persons adjust their own culture/traditions/beliefs by adapting or borrowing traits from the dominant culture.
  • Assimilation: when a person absorbs elements from the dominant culture, to a point where this person is indistinguishable from the dominant group. It is the most extreme form of acculturation.

In the end, in order to know whether borrowing an element from another group’s culture is acculturation, exchange or appropriation, you need context.

According to Maisha Z. Johnson, cultural appropriation refers to a “power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group”. In other words, to understand cultural appropriation, you need to understand the power dynamic at play.

Cultural appropriation vs. acculturation

To understand the difference between cultural appropriation and acculturation, let’s take an example from the same author, about the use of the English language “When the last living survivors of massacred Indigenous tribes are fighting to save their language before it dies when they do, and Native students are suspended for speaking in their own Indigenous languages, mirroring the abusive US boarding schools that tried to wipe out Native American cultures up until the 1980s, it’s clear that not every person who speaks English does so by choice.

Usually, when elements of the dominant culture are absorbed by minorities, it is seldom by choice.

cultural exchange vs. cultural appropriation

Cultural exchange becomes cultural appropriation when the people whose culture is being “borrowed/appropriated” is left out of the discussion. 

For example, it’s when Valentino uses traditional African hairstyles for their new collection, while having no black model on the runway. It’s when Urban Outfitters uses Native American inspired designs, without any regards to the significance of such designs, and without giving credit to the people who originally created them. 

Basically, it boils down to taking without asking, dismissing the possible meaning of the elements being appropriated, and most of all, forgetting the creators.

Why is it such a big deal nowadays?

woman wearing Native American headl dress

According to PBS, “The concept of cultural appropriation may seem, at first glance, like yet another way we are constructing barriers between people at a time when we desperately need to be building bridges. But, as we look more closely at the entrenched inequality in the history of cultural exchange, it becomes clear that the term “cultural appropriation” is simply giving a name to the exploitation that has always existed and continues to this day”.

Cultural appropriation is about naming a phenomenon that is not at all new, but has been going on since colonization. Whether we are talking about objects stolen and now displayed in European museums or aspects of the culture, the logic behind it is the same.

Nowadays, discussions about power dynamics (whether it’s about gender, class, race, etc.) have left the sole reign of the academic world and made their way into the public debate. Basically, it’s become a mainstream issue. Nowadays, more and more people get called out for doing something that has always been done, but has now stopped being acceptable.

How to avoid cultural appropriation

woman dressed in Mexican clothing

When you’re travelling things can get a little complicated. Because you are immersed in another culture and you probably want to engage in that culture. Therefore,  it might seem hard not to borrow, and thus, appropriate from this culture. But you need to be mindful in order to appreciate, and not appropriate.  

Here are a few practical situations which can seem sensitive:

I want to take part in a celebration or cultural tradition:

Taking part in a traditional or religious celebration can be acceptable depending on whether or not you were invited to join. If you were invited to participate by locals, then by all means, take part! Many people you meet throughout your journey want to show you their culture and traditions, and it can sometimes be rude to refuse.

But just because you were invited doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want. You might not know the rules, and you definitely don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. So, engage as a humble guest, with respect for the traditions and never as a joke. And if you want to take a few pictures, it is essential that you first ask for permission.

I want to buy a souvenir:

First of all, try to only buy from local artists or artisans. You want to support the local population and not big corporations making money using traditional symbols without giving back to the communities they originated from. If you want to be respectful and support locals, then spend your money accordingly!

Be mindful of what you want to buy. You want to buy a traditional outfit to wear as a costume? You want to buy a sacred object to use as decoration? You might want to rethink those choices!

I want to engage in the culture:

If you truly want to engage with the local culture, then first, try to learn as much as you can before your trip. This will allow you to understand a few rules and avoid offending anyone. You want to be as respectful as you can be, and you can never guess what the cultural rules are going to be. If you engage respectfully, then you have the possibility of having  an equal exchange.

Outside of these practical examples, there is a risk of cultural appropriation in many other situations. In order to appreciate without appropriating, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Has the culture I want to borrow from been exploited? Have the people from this culture been discriminated against, been at a disadvantage because of their ethnicity? Are there stereotypes about this culture?
  • Before using an element of another culture, try to understand it first. Learn about its sacredness, its history, etc. The more you know the more respectful you can be.
  • Consider your motivations: if you want to use something from a culture that is not your own, consider whether or not you are going to benefit from it. Are you honoring or are you perpetuating stereotypes?

If you are able to ask yourself the hard questions, then you will be able to navigate cultural exchange without appropriating. And when in doubt, either ask, or just refrain. Avoiding cultural appropriation doesn’t mean that you can only experience your own culture, it means you respect others and their traditions enough to view things from their perspective, and yes, sometimes, abstain from doing certain things.

If your first instinct is to be defensive whenever you hear mention of cultural appropriation, that’s probably a sign that you should question your motives. Most people have already made at least a few mistakes along the lines of cultural appropriation, I know I have! 

The main advice that I can give you is, learn and next time, do better, because in the end, it’s never been about you. According to Maisha Z. Johnson, “It’s about a centuries’ old pattern of taking, stealing, exploiting, and misunderstanding the history and symbols that are meaningful to people of marginalized cultures. The intentions of the inadvertent appropriator are irrelevant in this context.”

So let’s educate ourselves, and eventually, we will collectively manage to do better!