Appropriation vs. Appreciation: A Story About Culture

What pops into your mind when you hear the word “Culture”? Is it certain acts? Or is it clothes? Is it your family, friends, and people around you who influence you? What is culture and what does it signify to you? It is very important to understand what culture means to you, even if the concept of any given culture is difficult to analyse.

I remember one time I was having a conversation with a dear friend, and I noticed he was wearing a rather distinctive shirt; it was a short-sleeved, beautifully coloured and patterned, so many colours to the point I got lost in their vibrancy. When I expressed my admiration towards the shirt, he then proudly told me: “My mother made it for me.” I was astonished, to say the least! Not because of how well-crafted it was, but because of how much love, thought, time and effort must have been put into it. How much it must have meant to him. My friend continued explaining how these patterns and colours have a lot of significance to his culture and origins -a Northeastern African country. And unlike several fashion houses, brands and even online shopping sites, these patterns and colours actually mean something to him and his people. It is authentic.

This conversation made me think about many things, most importantly how common it is to find a unique colour combination, or an interesting pattern, and not think about what could have inspired it, and what it could possibly mean to certain people. That drove me to research more about what could define a culture, from art, all the way to the people. And so I was led to explore the concepts of cultural exchange and cultural appropriation, and the importance of differentiating between them. My research made me realise how easy it is for people to blur the lines that distinguish exchanging cultures from appropriating them, causing many conflicts to arise. So, allow me to elaborate:

Culture exchange, also known as appreciation, is about learning from and about different cultures and their traditions. It is much more than being just a product of globalization, it is to become more open-minded in the sense of understanding and embracing the truths about other cultures; to listen to the people’s stories and work to truly embrace their essence and significance, all the while maintaining a respectful approach; and to broaden your view of the world by exposing yourself to more cultures, giving priority to learning more about minority cultures.

Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, is a form of ethnocentrism; it is the selection and denial of certain aspects of a certain culture’s origin or original significance. That could be for several reasons including personal use, or even belittling purposes such as depreciating that aspect’s value or even setting it as a trend. That, of course, causes conflict to arise occasionally, as people easily usually confuse the two concepts and end up appropriating mainly oppressed and marginalized cultures.

Unfortunately, we see many examples of cultural appropriation to this day, and sadly, many do not recognize how problematic it is. It is considered a form of disrespect to the people of its original culture. Needless to say, it becomes very evident at art and music festivals, as well as around the month of October, when it is Halloween season; where people prioritize looking for the most unique, creative, and trendiest of costumes; ending up overlooking the cultural significance of said inspirations. For example, the incorporation of culturally significant patterns, colours, types of accessories, make-up/body paint applications. Think about every time you saw someone wear a Palestinian Keffiiyeh, a Native American headdress, paint some sugar skulls, etc… How would it feel if any of those culture signifiers were your culture’s, yet were worn or used by someone who is not of said culture and do not understand how much it means to you? Not very nice, right?

Of course, no one is without faults, where some people do this unknowingly, others take advantage of the minorities’ cultures in an attempt at cultural imperialism. As in dominant cultures’ eyes, objects and traditions of minority cultures are seen as exotic, edgy, and desirable, which translates to sales and profits. It has the potential to disrupt society’s social peace, as well as infringe minority group’s rights.

Therefore, we should practice solidarity by raising awareness towards such topics. As one of the many things I have learned from WYA, and especially in my time taking the Certified Training Program and reading its manual, is that culture is an expression of spirit, and that is reflected in every aspect of our surroundings. That in itself is beauty that must be appreciated, as we see pieces of ourselves displayed in the most peculiar of places. So a word of advice, next time you are buying something that might be of significance to another culture, especially a minority one, kindly acknowledge and respect that significance, do not try to undermine it.  And remember to try to educate yourself more on other cultures, and to perceive your culture and others’ equally with respect and dignity; that way you can avoid unknowingly exploiting the culture of a disadvantaged group. And of course, my dear reader, you can understand more about culture, art, and much more by applying for the Certified Training Program, and joining our WYA family.

Published: July 15, 2021
Written by Dina Khaled, WYAMENA Online Regional Intern from Egypt.