Differentiating Between Appreciation and Appropriation

On Tuesday of my last school spirit week in high school, my peers and I celebrated ‘Heritage Day’ by donning pieces of attire symbolic of our cultural backgrounds. As a member of the student government at the time, I had helped brainstorm the concept behind this particular spirit day. It was intended to be unifying in the sense that everyone would be able to celebrate his or her personal heritages on a single day, together. Unfortunately, some students missed the celebration memo and decided to sham the cultures of others.

I didn’t notice the looming issue until after the school day had ended and I was at track practice. Drexlar, my good friend and one of the most easy-going people I know was noticeably upset. As it turns out, there were a few white girls who had come to school wearing dashikis, which are traditional African tops. Though they are home to Africa, dashikis emerged on the market in America during the 1960s as a symbol of combat against social disrespect towards African Americans. The girls from my school wore African dashikis, but they did not display honor for the historical context that exists behind the fabric. Instead, they headed to social media, posting their photos in their dashikis with ignorant captions mentioning “jungles.”

Seeing my friend’s culture being appropriated and the effect that it had on her opened my eyes to the severe problem that exists in our society. Today I’m writing in attempt to help differentiate between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation.

The line drawn between these two terms is definitely a fine one. According to Merriam-Webster, appreciation is defined as “a feeling or expression of admiration, approval, or gratitude.” That definition makes me feel warm and happy inside. Appropriation, however, is defined as “the act or instance of taking exclusive possession.” This definition makes me feel susceptible and powerless.

Perhaps the finest confliction of appreciation and appropriation exists as the dreadlock debacle. If you are not familiar with this issue, refer here for a quick and concise synopsis of both sides of the conflict.

After learning about the dreadlock debate, many people might inquire, “Then why are perms on ethnic individuals not appropriation?” Well, the concept behind a perm is to reform the natural shape of someone’s hair, making it more tame and manageable. Before someone can go ahead and pin this as appropriation, however, some logistics need to be considered. As established by many research studies including this sociology study concerning the role race plays in employment, a minority struggle is still present in the workforce. The rate at which employers display preference of white employees over black employees ranges from 50% to 240%. To ease this statistic and enhance their marketability for employment, black individuals often seek out perms in order to appear more professional. The point here, however, isn’t to dwell over hairstyles. The dialogue regarding hair is just a tangible example that lends to the larger, underlying problem: widespread acceptance of casual cultural appropriation.

For example, did you know that in 2016 the brand Emmaatan attempted to market a spray “tan” that touched hues far darker than tan? The controversial product was manufactured so that white women could artificially dye their skin dark shades of “chocolate” and “onyx.” This product literally opened a portal through which people could decide to change their skin color with the spritz of a can without adopting any of the other attributes that come with belonging to a specific race.

Similarly, cultural war bonnets or headdresses were created by Sioux American Indians to demonstrate reverence for courageous warriors and tribal chiefs. In fact, the honoree wearing the headdress acquired its feathers one at a time, receiving a new one with each demonstration of courage. When people wear imitations of this deeply rooted traditional artifact as a Halloween costume or to go to a festival because it looks “hipster,” they are ignorantly implying that an ordinary individual without any ties to Native American culture is equivalent to a celebrated, selfless tribal leader.

Undeniably, however, there are some instances in which people truly recognize the value of another culture and would like to observe it in their own lives in a respectful manner, which I find to be beautiful. When it comes down to pinpointing the location of the line that separates appreciation and appropriation, it’s all about evaluating intentions.

Instead of placing the major focus on how we style our hair or the clothes with which we cover our bodies, we should hone into what inspires us. For example, if a girl is born into a Spanish family but finds herself growing up in Istanbul, she is immersed in Turkish culture and of course she should accept and embrace Turkish customs. If a white boy has a large group of Indian friends who invite him to attend a garba event, he should accept the offer with respect and seize the opportunity to learn more of his friends’ culture. There is no need to deny inspiration from other cultures so long as it is accompanied with respect.

So before you wear a dashiki to school or borrow your best friend’s saree, educate yourself on the historical aspects, both good and bad, that are enrooted in these cultural clothing items. The same goes for other displays of custom: hairstyles, makeup, rituals, activities, social gatherings, art, or music. Just because something may appear beautiful does not mean that it has always been so. I have found that more times than you’d believe, cultural components are linked to historical hardship that needed to be overcome. If you want to take part in something that is symbolic of a culture other than your own, be sure to represent the culture wholly and honestly while also reaping its fruits.

Our Multicultural Missteps

  1. We concentrate on the color of one’s skin.

    What do you envision when you hear the word “multicultural?” More often than not, the word evokes the image of a group of people intertwined by race. Or maybe it’s a large collection of hands, each displaying a different skin tone. However, a multicultural group is one that contains more than just an array of races. 

    First let’s quickly take a look at the definition of the word “culture.” Most typically, culture is defined in two ways. Both of these definitions have been obtained from Oxford. The first definition provided is “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” In other words, this is the common, current culture that a certain group of people, such as teenagers, are enjoying during a certain time period, such as the 2000’s. This culture can take many forms including music, tv shows, movies, books, magazines, and games. The catch with this kind of culture is that it’s dynamic. It’s constantly evolving as time moves forward and as an age group’s interests change.

    The second definition provided is “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.” This is the kind of culture that we carry with us throughout our lifetimes. It does not waver, for it is rooted in traditions and oftentimes, it is rooted in our family trees. For example, someone who is born from Swedish descendancy will continue to be Swedish throughout the span of his or her lifetime. Although, our individual cultures do not necessarily need to be the result of blood. A boy of European descent who was born and raised in America and moves to Chile when he is nineteen will likely maintain some of his American culture in his new country of residency, however, he is also more than likely to adopt aspects of Chilean culture as well. In this scenario, the boy himself has become a work of multiculturalism.

    Thus, the word implies much more than simply someone’s skin color. This is not to say that race is not a significant component of multiculturalism. After all, it is one of the only defining cultural characteristics that we can witness with only our eyes. But culture embodies one’s values, customs, beliefs, and traits of all sorts. To truly understand these more personal aspects of one’s cultural, we must branch out from our own cultures, which brings me to our next point.

  2. We maintain an outside point of view.

    When approaching multiculturalism in today’s society, it appears to me that some people are afraid to become educated about and engaged in cultures besides their own. This can only be done when we burst our protective bubbles and branch out to embrace another’s unique culture. Okay, sure you can’t jump into another person’s body to grasp an understand of his or her background. However, you CAN play an active role in promoting a multicultural society by actively interacting with people who belong to different groups than you. Far too frequently, people believe that they can be welcoming to all without actually recognizing all. 

    Let’s look at a few examples of unique cultural customs and the internal satisfaction that they allow the groups of people who practice them…

    The Swastika is most well known for the hatred that it represented throughout the Holocaust. However, when it is translated to Sanskrit, its native language, it means “well-being.” In Indian, Viking, and Greek culture, the clockwise Swastika (the original one) symbolizes positivity and prosperity. In fact, I have a friend from Indian who wears a bracelet with the Swastika on it. People who are unaware of the culture from which it descends probably often assume that he is a Neo-Nazi and disapproves of Jewish people. 

    Another tradition that may go unknown by some is the Eskimoan ritual for loved ones who may be suffering death or elderly age beyond functioning. The custom is to set these individuals afloat on an iceberg all alone. Though it may sound sad to some and may even receive harsh criticism, the tradition exists because Eskimos have a strong belief in an afterlife. By sending their disabled loved ones out to sea on an iceberg, they are displaying a respect for the individual’s dignity that they will not be a burden on the family.

    A special tradition in my Polish household is to bless the house each year on the Feast of the Epiphany in January. We use chalk to write a symbolic combination of the current year and the initials of the three wise men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, over our front door to bless anyone who passes through. This year the scripture over our door reads “20+C+M+B+18.” 

    These customs and beliefs are unique to specific cultures, but there is no reason why they should not be shared. Multiculturalism is manifested when we do share and embrace the cultures of others, and this can only be done effectively by taking an active and inside role in other people’s cultures. Who knows? You may even find that you establish an intrinsic rooting in the cultural customs of others and you adopt them for celebration as well. Do not be afraid to do this based on what others may assume of you. It only means that you are becoming more multicultural as well as demonstrating genuine respect for the values of others!

  3. We pretend to understand.

    This one is much less complex than the others. The phrases “I know” or “I understand” have no relevance or necessity when attempting to console or comfort another. Oftentimes, people are faced with hardship or discrimination due to their cultural differences and may turn to someone of another culture for help. By using these insubstantial phrases, we are unintentionally simplifying an issue that should certainly not be simplified. If you come across an instance in your life in which you are in a similar situation, avoid these common phrases. If someone is coming to you seeking relief, they are asking you to listen, respect, and empathize to the best of your abilities. For more details on why we need to stop saying that we “understand” and “know,” visit the Odyssey