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

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Cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation — the difference can be tricky. So, 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 and appreciation, the two are vastly different things.

But what exactly is the difference between cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation? First, we need to examine what each term means individually.

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What is 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 or give credit to their source, and reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression.

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

Some notable examples of cultural appropriation would be people wearing Native American headdresses and clothing as Halloween costumes.

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, Adele. or any white celebrity/influencer rocks braids, it’s seen as something trendy, and usually put on the cover of a magazine. You'll see these cultural influences everywhere from magazines to music festivals to social media.

But the reality is, many Black people have worn braids for years before they became a "trend" for white women to steal. Braids represent a style that Black people use to protect their natural hair.

More times than not, Black people have to defend the wearing of braids, cornrows, bantu knots, 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 offensive comments like Rancic's — which she has 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 of the language of AAVE (African American English Vernacular)to rocking hoop earrings that the Latinx population made popular (and were often ridiculed for.)

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What is cultural appreciation?

Cultural appreciation is pretty much the exact opposite of appropriation.

Cultural appreciation is when you’ve taken the time to learn, understand, or explore a different 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.

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.

An example 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 make sure to give credit where credit is due.

If someone wants to wear traditional Native American 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, crediting original creators, 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 20 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.

Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation

Distinguishing between cultural appropriation and appreciation 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.

Appropriation is when you use anything other than the mainstream culture for your own selfish and personal gain, while appreciation is doing the research, helping the community be heard, and understanding why they do things a certain way.

Appreciation is when you seek out a specific culture to understand and learn about it in order to expand your perspective and connect with others. Appropriation is taking one aspect of a culture (hairstyle, language, accent, fashion) apart from your own and using it for your own personal agenda.

That is the rule.

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.

How To Appreciate Without Appropriating

1. Understand your own culture first.

To appreciate another culture, you first must understand what yours is. What makes it special? Is there any part that you feel is strongly connected to your identity?

Self-reflect and see if there are certain aspects of your culture you would feel offended by should someone else use it without fully understanding it.

This will help you understand the differences between cultures, as well as figure out what is important to you, which will, in turn, show you what is important to cultures across the globe.

2. Listen.

The best way to make sure you aren't appropriating a culture is by listening to the people within that community.

Listen to their stories, their legends, and their passions for their work. Doing so helps you understand the culture a bit better and expand your worldview.

For example, if you go to an ethnic store and buy an item, ask the creator what inspired them and why they do what they do.

3. Consider the context.

Before using something from another culture, make sure it's appropriate to do so.

Are you supposed to wear a specific item during certain times? Is this item okay to be worn in certain areas? Does this mesh with the historical context of the culture?

For instance, you wouldn't wear a Native American headdress if you haven't earned the feathers like it is done within the culture. Also, in modernized Native American culture, headdresses are only worn for special ceremonies like weddings or pow-wows.

If you aren't attending a ceremony or haven't earned your feathers, then don't wear them.

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Nia Tipton is a writer living in Brooklyn. She covers pop culture, social justice issues, and trending topics. Keep up with her on Instagram and Twitter.