I love learning about the world. I love helping my kids learn about the world. It is so fun delving into foods, holidays, the arts, and books from other countries and cultures. I find so much value in learning through both travel and global education at home, and I truly believe it inspires empathy, compassion, curiosity, and deeper connection. As we learn, however, it’s really important to me to ensure we’re coming from a place of cultural appreciation vs appropriation.
Appreciation signals that we recognize the value and worth of a different culture’s traditions. It means we are striving for a fuller understanding of its historical and cultural implications and ramifications. Appreciation means we’re using it as a learning experience to enrich our own perspectives, and to connect with PEOPLE of different cultures. It’s a way for us to center their voices and experiences, and use that to inform our own understanding.
Appropriation, on the other hand, cherry picks. It involves taking aspects of another culture out of context, and using it for personal interest, benefit, or financial gain. It exploits aspects of another culture for your own benefit. This is especially harmful to groups that have been marginalized, and whose cultures and resources have been attacked.
Cultural appreciation vs. appropriation can seem confusing at first, but in essence, it boils down to one thing: respect. Do you understand the meaning behind what you are doing, and do you respect it? Treat another culture/religion/history as you would want others to treat your own. Here are 11 tips for helping you do exactly that.
Tips for Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation
Educate Yourself & Listen
The first and most important way to appreciate instead of appropriate is to educate yourself. Learn the history, the positive and negative. Learn about indigenous people, and don’t just focus on history from the colonists’ perspective. When celebrating an aspect of another culture, do your best to find out its origins, and consider its positive and negative effects.
Once you’ve started your study, do your best to listen. Hear the voices of those who are willing to include you, and recognize yourself as a guest in their home culture. Refrain from being a savior and trying to modify right from the start, and instead seek first to understand. Do your best to seek information on nuance and significance of cultural practices.
Ask Questions and Check Your Biases
Don’t be afraid of not knowing! Be willing to ask. Be willing to be wrong or mess up in order to find out more. Whenever possible, try to ask questions of someone who is of a certain culture, or at least intimately associated with it.
Along with asking questions, make sure you check your biases before doing so. Are you assuming things about another culture because of your own? Are you going in with open questions or with leading ones?
QUESTIONS: How can I push past my fear of not knowing or asking the wrong thing? How can I de-center myself in order to focus on truth? Am I leading with bias or with openness and humility?
Be Aware of Power Differentials
While appropriation can happen between many cultures, it’s especially insidious when there is a power differential between those native to the culture and those who are borrowing it. When those borrowing the culture have more relative power/wealth/colonial impact, it’s especially important to compensate those native to the culture.
When cultures have been borrowed and changed and oppressed, we absolutely need to give back to them (including financially) when learning and benefitting from them. Always consider your relative power and wealth in terms of access and freedom. Think about people from the culture, and if they have the power to NOT share if they don’t want to. If aspects of that culture have been stolen or proliferated without consent, people of the culture are in a place of relatively lower power.
QUESTIONS: Where did these resources originate? Are those the same people who have power over them today? Are they able to control how these resources are used, and do they benefit from them? What is my relative position of power?
Be Humble, Accept Correction – Don’t be Fragile
Along with asking questions comes a willingness to accept correction. If you do make a mistake in your manner of getting to know another country or culture, do your best to not recoil from it. Try not to get defensive when someone points out when you haven’t gotten it quite right. Instead, listen and learn, and try to thank the person for taking the time to educate you.
Along those lines, consider who has the power. Are you the one with greater cultural/racial power? If so, go out of your way to release some of your power, either financially, through amplification, or other means.
QUESTIONS: Is someone from within the culture telling me something is off? If so, how can I reevaluate my actions? How can I open myself to their insights and incorporate their perspective? Am I signaling gratitude for their education?
Check Your Sources
Check your sources is a rule in journalism, and it’s important here, too. So much information is available online, but not all of it is created equally, or from reputable sources. As much as possible, seek out own voices, through conversation, books, videos, and articles.
QUESTIONS: Am I seeking out own voice perspectives, or is my information filtered through the lens of someone else who is a cultural outsider? Am I seeing a whitewashed experience?
Seek Multiple Perspectives
Just like one person’s viewpoint doesn’t represent your whole country, it doesn’t for another, either. Recognize that other cultures are as multifaceted as your own, and that different people might have polarized perspectives. Know that people from any culture or background are not a monolith. Strive to learn from a rich and well-rounded set of experiences.
QUESTIONS: Am I focusing too much one one person’s experience, even if it deviates from a majority opinion? Am I looking past the majority to hear dissenters’ voices? Do I recognize that cultures are multifaceted with vastly varying experiences?
Consider your Setting
The surroundings matter a lot when it comes to cultural appreciation vs. appropriation. Are you wearing a sari just to post selfies on Instagram? Or are you doing it to show understanding and respect for a culture? Are you wearing a fancy one to show off to friends? Or are you attending an Indian ceremony, and humbly doing your best to understand the origins of the clothing, its purpose, and why it’s a good fit for that setting?
Accept the Whole
As I mentioned at the top, when we appropriate, by nature, we cherry pick the most savory or favorite parts of a country or culture. We often ignore the unsavory or unfulfilling or un-fun aspects, and just participate in the parts that are interesting and exciting to us. By contrast, when we truly appreciate, we accept the good and the bad, the fun and the challenging. We recognize the imperfection, accept it, and consider it in our appreciation.
QUESTIONS: Am I cherry picking my favorite parts of a country or culture and leaving the rest behind? Is my understanding and participation superficial?
Do you remember that old Saved by the Bell episode when Zack Morris dressed as a caricature of an indigenous person? That’s exactly what NOT to do. When we celebrate other cultures, we should be as specific as possible in honoring individuals instead of a general stereotype of the culture.
For instance, while it may be okay to dress up as Moana, it would be completely inappropriate to dress as a “Polynesian girl.”
QUESTIONS: Am I honoring the lived experience of specific individuals? Am I learning their stories and sharing them?
Consider Who is Profiting
Are people from the culture benefiting financially from your celebration? For instance, are you purchasing red envelopes for Lunar New Year from a Chinese store, or are you buying them in bulk off of eBay, where you’re unsure of either the seller or the symbols? Are you learning about Black culture from a white Instagrammer to build her following, or are you supporting a Black creator? If you’re benefitting from someone’s effort at explaining and educating you on their culture, do your best to support them in some way – and financially whenever possible.
QUESTIONS: Who is benefiting from my appreciation? Is someone profiting financially or through exposure and popularity? If so, is that person native to the culture? Does that person have an interest in building that culture, and have they researched it and have they made efforts for a sincere, deep understanding?
Gain Consent, Give Credit, and Compensate
When sharing someone else’s work or cultural insights, gaining consent shows a degree of appreciation instead of appropriating the knowledge as your own creation. Show respect by seeking consent and giving clear credit whenever possible. Acknowledge your inspirations right from the start, and share the sources for your imitations. Pay honor and give credit where it is due.
This includes financially compensating those from a culture that you are appreciating. When we benefit, we should seek to give back to those from the culture. This may look like purchasing a BLM shirt from a small Black-owned shop instead of from Target, or donating to an organization educating girls in India. Consider how you can shift your resources to support those whose culture is benefitting you.
QUESTIONS: Have I asked for consent? Am I giving proper attributions? Have I thanked those who are helping me in my journey toward cross-cultural appreciation and connection? Have I used my financial resources to compensate those who are including and educating me?
Share Others and Yourself, But Don’t Center Yourself
Be willing to be open and share your learning journey, but do it authentically. Don’t claim to be an expert in something you’re not. Instead, direct people to original and own voice sources so they can learn from experts and those who are immersed in a culture. Consider where the power dynamics fall – who is benefitting? Who is leading, and who is learning? Who is being centered?
Be open and generous with sharing! Lift, highlight, and amplify those who have provided you with resources to educate, inform, and enjoy yourself. Sharing is a wonderful way to show gratitude for their work.
Additionally, be willing to share your own culture! Appreciation works best when it is mutual instead of one-directional. Make it an exchange whenever possible, and be willing to give and not just take.
QUESTIONS: Am I centering myself in this learning, or am I centering those who have provided resources? Am I claiming to be an expert? Or am I directing others to original and own voice sources? Am I reciprocating by sharing my own honest cultural experiences?
I hope these were helpful tips on determining when you’re engaging in cultural appreciation vs appropriation. If you’re looking for additional information, here’s an excellent podcast on the subject!
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