For a while I wondered what the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation was and why it was so important. I was truly ignorant about the topic and had to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of research in order to feel educated on the subject.
Until recently, I didn’t understand why people found it extremely inappropriate to wear a Native American headdress to a music festival, or why wearing traditional Geisha makeup on Halloween can offend some people. In order to respect each other’s cultures, it’s incredibly important to understand the difference between appreciation and appropriation.
I’ve always been interested in sugar skulls. I’ve been collecting them for several years and have never thought of my interest as disrespectful. Last October, I read something that said it isn’t polite for people to dress up as a sugar skull for Halloween when they don’t understand the significance behind it. After reading this article, I began to educate myself on the meaning and purpose of the sugar skull. That Halloween I attended a Day of the Dead festival in Austin. There was traditional food, dancing and music and, of course, sugar skulls. The thing that surprised me the most was that anyone could have his or her face painted like a sugar skull. It wasn’t considered inappropriate because we were at a festival that was appreciating that culture. If somebody hadn’t known how much time I spent studying this sacred celebration and how much I truly appreciated it, they probably would have judged me for wearing traditional sugar skull makeup.
To be clear, appreciation of a culture is good. Showing respect for another culture in a polite way is good. Using sacred symbols of cultures other than your own to give your Tumblr or Instagram the right “aesthetic” is not good. Many cultures whose traditions and objects our society finds desirable have been oppressed and, sadly, we often don’t recognize it. However, I do think it’s important to learn about different cultures and to respect and appreciate them. If something about a culture interests you, by all means, go learn about it but be sure to do so respectfully.
Furthermore, I ask that before you decide to attack or demean somebody who seems to be appropriating another culture, ask them about it. See if they can tell you anything about what they’re doing and if they can teach you something about a culture you might not currently understand. With that being said, there is a clear difference between appreciating something respectfully and being blatantly offensive, so use good judgment. If you wish to take part in a tradition that is not of your own culture, educate yourself to ensure that what you’re doing is accurate and courteous. Ask someone of that culture if they can show you and help you understand what a certain holiday or tradition is about and why it’s important. There is a difference between genuinely appreciating something for its history and significance, and turning another culture’s tradition into your fashion statement.