We Need To Talk About Cultural Appropriation Versus Cultural Appreciation

by Rashelle Chase
A child playing in front of a tent made indoors

Every fall since the advent of Facebook, it’s the same thing: September ends, October begins, and too many people start planning Halloween costumes that strike fear in the hearts of the culturally conscientious: Geisha, Indian Princess, Sugar Skull-Face-Wearer.

It is at that point that the debates commence.

In one corner, you have the PC contingent, who understand that culture is not a costume. In the other corner, you have those whose aspirations to appreciate culture — well-intended though they may be — are misguided. Their justifications of costume choice range from “I’m not just any Indian Princess, I am Pocahontas” to “Hellooo, it’s just a costume.” And then there’s the classic “I am not appropriating. I am appreciating.” To quote the great Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Cultural appropriation is one of those terms that has become almost vulgar to those who are over political correctness and feel like you ‘just can’t say anything anymore’. People become immediately defensive when presented with the fact that getting a dreamcatcher tattoo may not be the best choice, or that purchasing “cultural artifacts” from Urban Outfitters is not actually a thing, responding to these suggestions in a tone akin to Sean Spicer on a hot mic the Monday after a new SNL episode airs.

So what is a lover of other cultures to do? How can you show your appreciation in a way that won’t offend your ethnically endowed compatriots? Fear not: You are not doomed to twin sets and J.Crew, I promise. And so it is in the spirit of unity that I offer to you a simple lesson in how to appreciate without appropriating, in three easy steps:

1. Put your money where your appreciation is.

At its most basic, cultural appropriation is about profiting off of a culture that is not one’s own. If you love African jewelry, purchase it from actual African people or fair-trade businesses who purchase it from actual African people. Support the labor of the craftspeople whose work you admire. It’s the ethical thing to do, and it is exactly how to appreciate without appropriating.

One thing companies that want to produce diverse materials can do is partner with Mexican designers on sugar skull designs, for example, or Native American designers on those “Southwestern” patterns Target is so fond of, combined with some acknowledgment in their marketing materials about the cultural significance of their designs. With a little extra thought and care — voila! — appropriation becomes appreciation.

2. Do your research.

So you love dreamcatchers. That’s great! Do you know which First Nations people they originate from?Because it’s not an “Indian” thing; it is an Ojibwe thing, traditionally. Look that shit up, dude. Learn about them before you buy them so you really understand who makes them and what their cultural significance is. And then, when you do buy them, buy them from a legitimate Native American human being and not from Spencer’s in the mall.

Don’t decorate your nursery in a tipi theme. Because…why would you? Think really hard about why you feel the impulse to do this. Do tipis bring to mind a simpler way of life? The Noble Indian, guardian of the land? Chances are, the love you feel for a tipi-themed nursery is rooted in stereotypes of First Nation peoples. And that’s not your fault — you were acculturated in a racist-ass society, as all Americans were, and we have to unlearn how to exoticize and romanticize people who are different from us.

The people who Europeans and Americans stole from, enslaved and slaughtered, in the name of capital, continue to be exploited to this day, under the guise of “appreciation.” You can appreciate diversity without fetishizing it, and without contributing to the ongoing financial exploitation of the art and culture of colonized peoples.

3. Love without lust.

Appreciating does not mean taking. Again, it’s the American way, but frankly, it represents the worst of America. You can love the way something looks without feeling entitled to it. I don’t feel entitled to Justin Trudeau’s sexy ass (I know, he’s a disaster for the environment, but let a girl dream). But he belongs to Sophie What’s-Her-Name, and I can’t claim him — even without the interference of those pesky Mounties, or whatever the Canadian equivalent of the Secret Service is.

If your hair doesn’t love to loc, don’t force it. If your hair doesn’t sustain braids, just let it be. Let black women enjoy their hairitage, and enjoy the hair your DNA gave you. If you really want to appreciate, just tell the beautifully coiffed women whose hair you admire how stunning they look (but do not touch anyone’s hair — don’t even ask). If you’re in a hiring position, hire black people with natural hair, rather than discriminating against them for it. (Yes, this happens. Just ask Chastity Jones.)

And before you start talking about Vikings and dreadlocs, just hush, honey. Hush. We all know that the styling choices of our university’s horticulture club had more to do with Bob Marley than Sven the Red. Ganja as our witness.

In conclusion: There is nothing wrong with appreciating other cultures. However, the very best way to appreciate other cultures is to learn about them, and then to be intentional and respectful in how you demonstrate that appreciation. Consider the fact that your attempts to show your appreciation through the adoption of cultural practices that are not your own may seem benign, but very likely carry the lingering specter of colonialism, exploitation, and racism.

You can do your part to change the way Western culture commodifies black and brown people in some really simple ways: Don’t buy mass-produced “ethnic” garb — buy from the source. Be aware that cultures aren’t costumes. If you are not Latinx, don’t strive for the “chola” look. Learn all you can — read, travel, and develop relationships with people who are different from you. Then demonstrate your appreciation by working for equity and justice in your community, rather than by aspiring to be the Nebraskan Frida Khalo, or demonstrating your inclusive spirit through the permanence of needle, ink and flesh.

Finally, learn more about your own culture and find the meaning and significance that doubtless lies in your own heritage — without converting to the cult of white nationalism. Discover something to claim that honors what is unique in yourself, rather than inadvertently devaluing what is sacred to someone else.