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The fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation

Learning to appreciate, respect and understand a different culture is a necessary attribute for any global citizen. However, the line between appreciating the culture of another country and appropriating it could be a fine one.

In 2018, an American high school student was accused of cultural appropriation for wearing a qipao to her senior year ball. This post of accusation elicited hundreds of thousands of likes, shares and comments online. One commented, “I am proud of my culture, including the barriers marginalized groups trying to overcome. As such, letting our culture serve American consumerism and white population, is like promoting colonial ideology”. On the opposite side, one commented, “What a fantastic world we live in, where one can share cultures from all over the world, including their clothes and design.” For you, which side are you on? Were some commenters too sensitive or was the student's behavior really unacceptable?

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appreciation is the attempt by an individual to understand a different culture, broaden horizons and establish interactions with people of different cultural backgrounds. Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, refers to the improper adoption of cultural customs, practices and ideas by a member of a different community – usually a dominant one.

Let’s see some examples. It is considered “cultural appropriation” when one participates in a ceremony just to take pictures and publish on social media to collect likes, or when one wears accessories from a foreign culture simply to feel fashionable.

Halloween is one of the occasions when you could find examples of “cultural appropriation” a lot, as some people choose cultural elements, such as clothing and accessories, make-up and handicrafts from another culture for their outfits. Some elements, as seem quite frequently during Halloween, include Sikh turbans, Native American headdresses and Bindhi adorns, are considered to reinforce existing stereotypes without considering their cultural significance.

In 2011, a group of students from Ohio University initiated a series of events to combat this type of discrimination. Their slogan “My culture is not a costume” could often be cited during Halloween by different groups, to alert people of their acts of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is a controversial concept

Does this mean that if we wear clothing from another culture, we are appropriating its cultures? In several tourist cities, such as Kyoto in Japan, Guilin in China and Seoul in South Korea, there are stores for one to rent traditional costumes. Even in Macao, there’s a store renting out traditional Portuguese costumes for those who would like to try on. Is it inappropriate for foreigners to wear traditional Chinese clothing during Chinese festivals?

Let us then analyze the concept of cultural appropriation, starting with its definition. The phenomenon includes the premise that marginalized groups, whose culture is a victim of appropriation, do not have a voice. Members of the dominant community borrow an element of foreign cultures for entertainment or fashion purposes ignorantly, without any intention of better understanding the significance of this element to one’s culture.

Appropriation is considered harmful when it feeds the marginalization of minority groups and reinforces stereotypes, ignores the origins and takes advantage of cultural elements by obtaining social or economic benefits (benefits that are not acquired by the marginalized group). Following this definition, if stores offer traditional costumes and explain the history or meanings behind them, the negative impacts mentioned above should not have presented.

We can also ask ourselves, "Would I be offended if someone wears something symbolic of my culture without understanding its meaning?" Through self-reflection, we could understand an important factor in the cultural context and its connection to an individual's identity. If we feel offended when someone appropriates part of our culture without any knowledge of it, then we should avoid causing the same discomfort to others too.

Cultural appropriation is not unreasonable outrage, but by making accusations casually, we risk creating opposition to the concept. If someone has taken ownership of our culture, it is important to calmly review the matter and try to understand the person's motives, before alerting them to the fact that their behavior may cause discomfort to members of the culture in question. It is necessary to create cultural harmony through mutual understanding, cultivating cultural appreciation and not appropriation.

This article is also published on Plataforma, released on 2021/10/29: (Please switch language preference to view the Portuguese version)

Translated by Wawa

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