Cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation: we must learn the difference, fast

Ava Mac ‘21, Editor-in-Chief

In the past couple of years, we have seen several controversies bubble up in the media over certain hairstyles, clothing, and trends, regarding the concept of “cultural appropriation.”  As we—a Western society still considered a white majority—become more aware of the racist microagressions that have existed in our culture for centuries, we have begun to be more critical of the media we consume and the trends that take place. But what exactly does cultural appropriation mean, and how can we appreciate another culture without appropriating it?

According to the Greenheart Club, an international cultural exchange program, “Appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally.” Taking the time to learn about a culture different from yours is important, and should not be discouraged, but this appreciation becomes appropriation when you take “one aspect of a culture that is not your own and [use] it for your own personal interest.”

 Whether that personal interest is fame or capital gain, taking an idea from another culture of which you have little understanding or no intention of understanding, you are taking part in cultural appropriation. This is especially damaging for people of color (POC), as their fashion, customs, and language are often adopted by white people in the media and considered trendy or cool, while the marginalized group whose culture it belongs to are continually disrespected.

As author Maisha Z. Johnson said, “A white person who listens to hip-hop, uses AAVE (African American Vernacular English), or wears traditionally black hairstyles still benefits from white privilege, while I’d be treated poorly if I did the same. Pop culture provides endless examples of this double standard.”

From Kim Kardashian wearing Fulani braids to Danielle Bregoli, better known as Bhad Bhabie, using AAVE frequently, many of these white celebrities profit off of black culture while still having the societal benefit of being white. They may not have the intention to harm people of color, but their lack of awareness is a product of their privilege. These celebrities will never face the same experiences of black people, whose vernacular and hairstyles are wrongfully considered “unprofessional” but seen as trendy or as a joke when they are used by those who are white. 

“We as a society are still reluctant to frankly address the fact that black people still experience a penalty for expressing their own culture themselves,” journalist Afua Hirsch said. “These experiences are real and have a history which we as a society do not acknowledge.” 

So, how do we begin to address this? What are ways we can appreciate a culture without appropriating it, and what are ways we can act as better allies to marginalized groups?

“Being a supportive ally means listening to us and learning about our struggles,” Johnson added. “Which also means you’ll learn about the double standards, stereotypes, and discrimination working against the black community.” If we take the time to educate ourselves, recognize our privilege, and actually listen when people of color are sharing their perspectives, we can have a better understanding of what those who are different from ourselves experience and figure out the best ways to appreciate their culture without causing harm.Cultural appreciation is something that takes work, and requires having an open mind. If you truly wish to honor a culture and not appropriate it, not only do your research but also reach out to others. Take advantage of social media and follow a diverse group of voices, ask them questions, and engage in discussions respectfully. Cultural exchange is called an exchange for a reason; it is about starting a conversation, and ultimately, bridging the divide.

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