In a rapidly globalizing world, understanding and appreciating cultural differences are important. And so is understanding what Cultural Appropriation is.
As kids, we were made to understand the difference between sharing and taking. The difference between Cultural Appropriation and appreciation boils down to the same thing. Cultural appreciation seeks to learn and foster cross-cultural understanding. On the other hand, cultural appropriation is aggressive and preys on a power dynamic. Cultural appropriation occurs when a group feels entitled to pick things from a different culture and mold it to their needs and wants, without understanding its significance or background, usually to make profits or some kind of gains.
What is Cultural Appreciation?
Culture is basically everything around us. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, and even how we decorate our houses. When a person is proud of their culture, they share it with the world, spread information about their beliefs, history, and everyday way of life. And others in turn get the opportunity to learn more about another culture and share theirs as well. This exchange of ideas can lead to a better understanding and appreciation for perspectives and traditions.
What is Cultural Appropriation?
It is the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission For example, three Western women earlier this year decided to give a redesign to the tile collection game Mahjong. The Chinese game has been around for more than 200 years. Each of the 144 tiles is emblazoned with Chinese characters or symbols imbued with cultural significance, such as the red 中 tile (meaning “center”) symbolizing passing the imperial exam, hitting the target in archery, or the virtue of kindness.
The three women who called their product “The Mahjong Line” gave it a “stylish update” and erased bamboos and feng shui coins and replaced them with bubbles and bolts of lightning The move was highly criticized by people in general and the Chinese in particular. There have countless similar incidents of cultural appropriation. Even Elvis Presley was and is criticized for appropriating Black culture. Similarly, there have been celebrities who like Adele has been criticized for appropriating culture but actually being supported by the apparent “victims”. When Adele posted a picture of herself wearing Bantu knots and a Jamaican flag bikini top, a lot of people were angry. But the wrong people were angry. Hundreds of Caribbean people had flooded the comments section, defending and praising Adele.
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How to differentiate between the two?
The line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation can sometimes get a little blurry and it’s of utmost importance to understand the difference before we actually try to appreciate some culture or even criticize someone who we think is appropriating it. It all boils down to context. For example, wearing cultural clothes given by a friend can be perfectly normal. But wearing them on Halloween or for some kind of joke is not good. Three things should be taken care of, respect, acknowledgment, and understanding of cultural significance. If your intent is to learn and share cultural knowledge without benefiting yourself, you’re most likely appreciating it.
Why is this important?
When elements from a culture are adopted by someone, it usually means that they pick a thing that they like and is appealing to them and reject things they do not like. This belittles the significance behind cultural items or practices. This can also lead to stereotyping and racism as only a few things without their actual context may be popularized by a group of people who do not relate to it. An example is the Swastika sign made popular by the nazis. The nazis did not know the significance, they just liked the sign and made it their own. Today Indians everywhere are subjected to racism and hatred if they are seen with that symbol. The symbol is important for Hindus and they have to be mindful of using it outside India.
The bottom line is that one should always try to understand a cultural aspect before actually using it. Understanding and appreciating is the right thing to do. Even if you want to criticize someone, you need to understand what context the person is using it in and what significance that symbol or aspect has. This can be done through reading about the culture as a whole or at least about the specific thing you want to use and appreciate. Choose books, music, art, and food that originate from and accurately represent specific cultures, instead of “culturally inspired” experiences. Similarly, accusing someone of cultural appropriation is not recommended if you do not the context in which they are using it. Because by doing that you may be suppressing an attempt to spread awareness about someone or something.