Cultural Appropriation V. Cultural Appreciation: Knowing Where to Draw the Line
It seems the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is very fine. I’ve found recently that when I talk about the two, most of time I have to clarify to people what the difference is. So, lets start by defining the terms. If you google ‘define cultural appropriation,’ you will first see Wikipedia’s definition which states “cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture,” which is true, but incomplete.
The issue of appropriation isn’t this simple, the issue arises when a person takes something with cultural significance from another culture for their own use, but doesn’t respect or understand the cultural significance that something has.
When first hearing about cultural appropriation, the issues seem trivial. Why does it matter who wears what hairstyle or what kids dress up as for halloween? Why does anyone care? It’s just hair or it’s just clothes, right? Wrong. Certain elements of certain cultures have a very specific and sacred meaning and history behind them. For someone to take part in an aspect of a culture without understanding the significance of it is problematic.
Take hairstyles for example. The concept of laying edges has become the “latest beauty trend to hit catwalks” but it’s something black women have been doing all their lives. It’s nothing new to see white people wearing cornrows and dreadlocks, but many celebrities have been criticized for wearing these hairstyles lately. When Kylie Jenner got dreads and posted a picture to Instagram which she simply captioned “dreads,” she was praised for her ‘edgy and chic’ look. But when Zendaya wore long, beautiful locs to the Oscars, E! News’ Giuliana Rancic made a comment on Fashion Police that she feels like Zendaya “smells like patchouli, or maybe weed.” Rancic later issued a video apologizing to Zendaya, stating that she did not intend to hurt anyone. But that’s just the thing, most of the time when people appropriate cultures they don’t mean to hurt anyone, but intentions don’t matter here. Comments like this are continuously made because of stereotypes that we have grown up with and that have been ingrained in our minds, which is a form of internalized racism.
Now, some people may not a problem still, and that’s okay. I have come across many different viewpoints in my research and no, not all black people care if someone else wears their cultures hairstyles. It often depends on what people have experienced first hand in their own lives. I have read some very logical and valid opinions from both sides of the argument and I agree with different points from both sides and I don’t think it’s as simple as there being one right and one wrong answer to this. However, I do think that actress Amandla Stenberg made a very good argument when she called out Kylie Jenner via an Instagram comment that said, “When you appropriate black features and culture but fail to use your position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards your wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter.” This is an important message because while many celebrities do speak out on injustices in the world, the ones that are often accused most for cultural appropriation—like the Kardashian/Jenner family— do not use their platforms and their voices to assist in the fight for justice, when they are so influential to so many. Stenberg is right, though. White people love to adopt elements of black culture, because it is such an incredible and beautiful culture, but fail to realize the ongoing challenges and stereotypes that people of color face on a daily basis.
Allure Magazine wrote an article entitled “You (Yes, You) Can Have an Afro*” with the asterisk reading “*even if you have straight hair” in which they used a white model for the picture.
This is problematic because black people who have natural afros have a history of being made fun of and criticized for this style, but when a white women does it, it’s cute and “ballsy and powerful.”
Many people of color who have dreadlocks, cornrows, twists, braids or wear their natural hair are deemed unprofessional and dirty, and have been told that they are not able to style their hair that way in their particular career. That being said, it is not okay for white people to wear these styles and be praised and complimented when black people, who have these styles as a staple part of their history and identity, are criticized for it. It simply isn’t fair for white people to enjoy these things that we have gotten from black culture, and not face any of the backlash that black people face for doing the same things.
Amandla Stenberg has an awesome video titled “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows” in which she explains “a crash course on black culture” and leaves us with this piece of wisdom:
“What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?”
Learning How to Appreciate Rather than Appropriate
As stated previously, the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation is often blurred and can be hard to define. We know that cultural appropriation is when someone takes something from others cultures for their own use and doesn’t recognize the significance or meaning of what they are using. On the other hand, cultural appreciation is immersing yourself in another culture and learning about that culture with respect. This can be done by interacting with people from this culture and having an understanding of what certain elements of that culture mean.
For example, when Angeline Jolie visited Pakistan, she wore a hijab out of respect for the culture and the women that she was with, because they too were wearing a hijab, and Jolie was aware of why they do that and the meaning that the hijab holds in the muslim culture. This is cultural appreciation! It’s having enough respect for the people of that culture to take the time and learn about their traditions and practices.
When done correctly, appreciating others cultures is so beautiful and brings to so much fruit to our lives! This is when cultural exchange takes place and it’s wonderful, as long as we stay educated. Because it may be difficult to differentiate between cultural appropriation and appreciation, it is important for us as individuals to be aware of what we are doing and the people around us. If you are unsure of something or curious about some aspect of another culture, look it up. We have the internet, this incredible resource that can teach us so much if you know where to look. There is a lot of misinformation out there, but there is also tons of reliable resources at our fingertips that are eagerly awaiting to teach us so much about the world and people that may be different from us. Don’t take advantage of it! And don’t keep it to yourself either. Enrich others lives by educating people you encounter that are curious of others cultures. Knowledge is power, and education is key to understanding and appreciating other cultures, and we are all capable.