Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, their sons Hadrien and Xavier, daughter Ella-Grace, greet media in an Indian style of “Namasteas” during their visit of Sabarmati Ashram or Mahatma Gandhi Ashram in Ahmadabad, India, Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in India for a weeklong visit with his family and aimed at enhancing business ties between the two countries. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

Today’s youth are infatuated with the idea of “internet celebrity”. One young woman learned that “celebrity” isn’t always a good thing when she became the center of a heated debate over…

…her prom dress.

A Salt Lake City teen became the ire of the internet after she tweeted a prom picture with friends. In the photo the girl is wearing a Chinese-inspired dress as her and her friends pose in with their hands clasped in what seems meant to reflect a traditional pose of greeting or acknowledgement. Inexplicably, their male dates are all throwing up some kind of gang sign behind them.

Many people immediately accused the young woman of cultural appropriation.

The photo is stupid. The dress is beautiful, particularly considering some of the frocks modern parents allow their teenage girls to don these days. Given her age and naiveté I don’t believe this girl deserved the very public thrumping she received, but it did bring up a larger question.

What exactly is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?

This is a tough question. Like most developments of the modern social justice movement the goalposts are always moving. However, I don’t agree that the actual notion of “cultural appropriation” is just a millennial invention. Black Americans have experienced the phenomenon for decades (at least).


We’ve watched as white artists and inventors and public personalities have appropriated specifically black experiences to their great profit while their inspirations go unrecognized or at the very least fail to reach the same measure of popularity with their own creations.

Elvis Presley was certainly a talented and handsome man in his own right, but his “craft” was a direct result of imitating groundbreaking black performers before him – like, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

Vanilla Ice made a fortune and an entire brand by appropriating what until that time had been a genuinely “black” medium (that being rap, in case someone out there doesn’t know) and affecting inner city black culture in his dress, talk and expressions. More recently, Australian pop star Iggy Azelia did the same thing.

Fashion designers and white celebrities have appropriated “black fashion” and called it their own. Non-black teens have even begun to appropriate the manner in which many black Americans speak to each other, using the “N-word” as a colloquialism without acknowledgment of the historical struggles and experiences that have led to that word being used in private, casual conversation and expression among black people.

Having grown up in a variety of locations, I generally don’t claim such expressions for my own. I find the “N-word” vile and don’t use it in any context. I don’t feel the need to pretend to be something or someone I’m not and I feel perfectly comfortable in the skin I’m in. That being said, it sincerely does bother me when I see white people who try to “act black” or bite black culture. I find it offensive. It’s a costume. It’s as if they’re looking at zoo animals and saying, “Oh how cute!” when they really don’t have a concept of the cultural journey that those expressions have taken, and the cultural pride that they entail.


And this brings us to defining exactly what “cultural appropriation” means.

Appropriation is putting on a costume and pretending to be something you’re not. Appreciation is viewing something from another culture as beautiful or admirable and blending those qualities into one’s own choices.

The problem with the current discussion is that we’re ascribing foul motives to innocent people. Even in Elvis’ case, while he became famous by imitating black entertainers there’s no doubt he took on those qualities because of his genuine love for the style and expression. In his time period, Americans were more comfortable accepting such creativity from a white man than a black man. That certainly wasn’t his fault.

Americans in particular are skilled at blending various cultures. As we are often reminded, we are a nation of immigrants. Each culture represented in this country brings their own unique flavors, style, traditions. Some of those begin to blend into the flavors, style and tradition of other represented cultures – due to intermarriage, interaction or sheer proximity. What we often end up with is a unique combination of cultural pride and blended expressions to create what we call “American culture”.

It’s not for nothing that we’re called the “melting pot” of the world.

And that should be celebrated, not discouraged. In particular, it is vital that majority cultures feel open to partake in the beauties of minority cultures because it serves as a reminder that those minorities are a vital part of an open, thriving society. We shouldn’t be seeking to relegate our cultural pride to the fringes. When we do that we end up with the very things we complain about – like the normalization of “white beauty” or when we don’t see enough people of color in a film or television show.


However, the flip side of that is that we can too easily begin to view another’s culture as a “costume”.

We can all go out for St.Patrick’s Day and wear our “Kiss me, I’m Irish” shirts and drink Guinness, but if those of us who aren’t actually Irish insist on adopting Irish accents and using Irish slang, that is when we’ve moved from appreciation to appropriation.

Asian culture is rich and diverse. I’ve been been an admirer of many of it’s forms for a long time. My grandfather was an Air Force pilot and often trained in Asian nations. He’d always come home with beautiful art, traditional dresses and other items. It shouldn’t come as a shock that many women of different cultures love to model the beautiful garbs.

It isn’t beyond the pale to ask each other to treat our respective cultures with…well, respect. It also isn’t beyond the pale to allow those outside of our own cultures to partake of some of the beautiful and honorable traditions that make us who we are. After all, that is the American way.

What do you think? Is there a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? How do we tell the differences? I want to know your opinion on this issue, since at the end of the day it really is in the eye of the beholder for the most part. Drop your thoughts in the comments.



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