Cultural Appropriation Vs. Cultural Appreciation: How To Tell The Difference

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Native American woman

Cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation — the difference can be tricky. Let's talk about it.

Sometimes the line can be blurry when regarding both terms — and most people find themselves in hot water while trying to defend themselves against the former. 

Even though it can get a bit tricky to distinguish between cultural appropriation vs. appreciation, the two are vastly different things.

So, what exactly is the difference between cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation?

First, we need to examine cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is defined as the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that doesn’t respect their original meaning, give credit to their source, or reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression.

It’s a pretty dense, layered concept that people can often have trouble understanding. 

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Some notable examples of cultural appropriation would be of people wearing Native American headdresses and clothing as a Halloween costume. Native American culture is sacred and has a deep history and wearing it as a Halloween costume is ignorant and often offensive, and therefore cultural appropriation.

If someone is wearing something from Native American culture without education or referencing where that particular cultural piece originated from, that person is stealing a culture they have no right to steal, and making a mockery of it just for a simple Halloween costume.

Another common example of cultural appropriation is the wearing of braids, cornrows, or any other style that Black people/African-Americans have been doing for generations.

When Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, or any white celebrity/influencer rocks braids, it’s seen as something trendy, and usually put on the cover of a magazine. But the reality is, many Black people have worn braids years before they became a "trend" for white women to steal. Braids represent a style that Black people use to protect our natural hair.

More times than not, Black people have to defend the wearing of braids, cornrows, and even dreadlocks. When a white person walks down the street with their hair in dreads, that's a blatant sign of disrespect because dreadlocks are not something for white people to wear. 

When Zendaya wore her hair in dreadlocks at the Academy Awards in 2015, she was met with racist remarks made towards her, and more specifically, her hairstyle. 

It was during the show E! Fashion Police, where Giuliana Rancic made an offensive comment that Zendaya probably "smells like patchouli oil ... or weed."

And that is the reality for many Black people when we wear our hair in protective styles, like braids or dreads. We get offensiv comments like Rancic's — which she since apologized for. These comments also burn further because when white people sport dreads, they're often complimented and told they're making hairstyles “trendy.”

The list of cultural appropriation examples goes on and on. From the stealing the language of AAVE (African American English Venacular) to rocking hoop earrings that the Latinx population made popular (and were often ridiculed for.)

So then what exactly is cultural appreciation?

It’s pretty much the exact opposite of appropriation. Cultural appreciation is when you’ve taken the time to learn or explore a different culture. You take the time to listen and understand about said culture. You've honored the beliefs and traditions of said culture. Your appreciation of said culture is not for personal gain — it's to simply honor that culture and its people and history.

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But underline this: Cultural appreciation can easily become cultural appropriation the minute you try to use that culture for yourself.

Appreciation has you looking to others to guide the conversation. Appropriation is where you take from others and then put yourself in a position of authority.

Examples of appreciation is going to a new country, one that is rich in culture and traditions. Upon going on that trip, you let the locals and history teach you about that culture. You honor that culture for everything that it is worth and making sure to give credit where credit is due.

If someone wants to wear a traditional Native American piece of clothing, you ensure it’s not for something like Halloween, but maybe for a special day in Native American history — and before you embark on that journey, you ensure you’re doing the research, buying from the right Native American stores/businesses, and making it clear that you’ve done the proper research. 

But cultural appreciation also goes beyond just giving credit; it also involves bringing the people of the culture you’re trying to learn more about into the conversation.

A great example of cultural appreciation would be in 2016 when a group of twenty Christian pastors visited a mosque. The group of pastors committed to learning more about the Muslim faith and the appropriate behavior for being in a mosque.

Distinguishing between cultural appropriation and apprecation can be a rather sloppy slope, but the bottom line is to make sure you’re not doing anything without understanding the meaning and importance behind every cultural exchange.

It hurts more to see people take from your culture without even knowing what exactly they’re taking and how much it truly means to them.

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Nia Tipton is a writer living in Chicago. She covers pop culture, social justice issues, and trending topics. Follow her on Instagram

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