by Jennah Owda
The beauty that comes with understanding a new culture and being able to share the traditions of your own is a perk of living in a country that is known as the melting pot. Understanding the differences and similarities between cultures is what brings us closer together as a society, which then allows us to conquer the multiple prejudices made towards people of color (POC), lessen the microaggressions (indirect discrimination), and become more inclusive. While this is a process that contains many advantages, sharing each other's cultures can also lead to a person adopting the cultural traditions as a way to benefit from them which is known today as cultural appropriation. With that being said, in the past year, we have witnessed a countless number of celebrities and influencers being “canceled” due to appropriating cultural traditions. As a teen who is just scrolling through TikTok, it can become confusing as to what exactly cultural appropriation is and how to avoid offending others. Here are some answers to some of your questions regarding cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation.
So what is the difference?
Learning to understand another person's culture and recognizing the impact their culture has left on our society is a form of cultural appreciation. An example of cultural appreciation would be if a person who is not within the specific culture wears a piece of jewelry at an appropriate event and follows the traditions that come with the piece of jewelry while recognizing the culture it came from. There is nothing wrong or cancelable about being educated and properly appreciating a culture. Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, is when a person from a dominant culture (for example, white culture) takes a tradition from a disadvantaged culture (Black culture) and claims it as their own while also benefiting from it.
With freckles becoming a large trend on TikTok, people have resulted in using henna to stain fake freckles on their faces. Henna is a tradition in Hindu, Muslim, and Seik culture that is usually done for weddings. When a person on TikTok uses it for anything other than its sacred meaning, it can become offensive to the communities, thus becoming a form of cultural appropriation. However, it is definitely okay to wear traditional henna designs to a Hindu, Muslim, or Seik wedding. This would be considered cultural appreciation because you are wearing henna as a form of celebration, thus understanding the importance of the traditions' meaning.
There are multiple examples of celebrities who have been exposed for cultural appropriation. Katy Perry is one celebrity that seems to never quite understand when to stop using cultural traditions for music videos. Within her “Dark Horse” music video, Katy is dressed in ancient Egyptian attire and burns an Islamic Necklace. Muslims were angered and demanded YouTube pull the music video for its offensive use of Islamic jewelry. Nick Jonas on the other hand, has become a great example of cultural appreciation. Nick, who is married to Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, wore traditional Indian clothing for their wedding. This is cultural appreciation because Nick is wearing it at a traditional Indian ceremony and wearing it correctly.
How can I appreciate a culture without exploiting it?
The first way this can be done is by simply listening to the people within the culture. By listening to the history of a certain tradition and recognizing the importance of the tradition, appreciation will grow and the element will be taken seriously. This also includes listening to a person within that culture when they say they are not comfortable with the traditional piece being worn by a person outside of their community or when they feel like it is not being used correctly. Being aware of context is also key. If you find yourself using a tradition to gain likes or to make a fashion statement, that is not a form of appreciation. Questions that should be asked when examining context include “Is this an appropriate time to wear this item?” and “Does the time and place correlate with the meaning behind the tradition?” If not, then do not wear the item or practice the tradition at that moment.
What is so harmful in practicing other’s traditions?
Practicing other people's traditions becomes harmful when the tradition is used by celebrities and high-end fashion brands as an item to profit off of. This can lead to⸺and has led to⸺ many cultural traditions becoming fashion trends and TikTok trends. An example of this would be the traditional wear of the Palestinian keffiyeh being appropriated by Louis Vuitton. The Palestinian keffiyeh is a checkered black and white scarf that Palestinians wear as a sign of resistance against the occupation of their land. The embroidered olive leaf pattern represents strength and resilience, the fishnet pattern represents the connection between the Palestinian sailor and the Mediterranean Sea, and the bold lines represent the trade routes going through Palestine (which includes cultural exchange). Louis Vuitton created a stole that was inspired by the Palestinian keffiyeh. Palestinians, including myself, took this as a way of profiting off of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Clearly, Louis Vuitton did not analyze the context. Louis Vuitton took a traditional keffiyeh that represented the resilience of Palestinians and made it into a fashion trend., and by making it a high-end fashion piece, the brand has desensitized the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Clearly, this is a way that practicing other’s traditions and benefiting from them can become harmful to a community.
As mentioned earlier, there is nothing wrong with learning and understanding the traditions of a culture that is not your own. To become a more inclusive society that contains representation for all, we must become educated and appreciative. While sharing your culture and learning about other cultures, it is important to be mindful and sensitive. Remember to listen, analyze the context, and not do anything you would not want to be done with your traditions.