OPINION: Society must learn to appreciate culture, not appropriate it

A Oaxacan woman sells her traditional textiles in the state of Puebla, Mexico. People often sell the textiles in various forms of garment to tourists. Acaxochitlan, a traditional Nahua community, is known for the bright multi-colored birds and flowers on the textiles. “A racist notion found in neoshamanic circles is placing high value on indigenous wisdom but not on indigenous people,” author S. Kelley Harrell said in Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It’s all around you: in the food you eat, the music you listen to, the language you speak, the holidays you celebrate and so on. All of that and more is what culture is composed of. It’s a beautiful, intricate, never-ending thing thing. It’s something that should be appreciated- not appropriated.

In a time where there seems to be divisions everywhere -gender, sexuality, race, color, religion, political beliefs, and so on- it’s important to not overlook our differences but acknowledge and celebrate them. 

Appropriation and appreciation are two similar phrases but with wildly different meanings. Cultural appreciation is when someone respectfully learns and experiences a different culture than their own with good intentions. Cultural appropriation is when someone inappropriately takes certain aspects of a culture (often historically oppressed) without consent and uses them for their own profit. 

Unfortunately you don’t have to look far to find examples of cultural appropriation. Clothing, religious symbols, hairstyles, holidays, and such are common targets of appropriation. Another thing to consider is that more often than not, the appropriation is done by those who have more privileges or the majority.

A phrase I’ve heard often is ‘It’s not a big deal’ in response to when people speak out about their culture being appropriated. Don’t do this. It’s speaking over the people who have the right to be upset.

A specific example of cultural appropriation would be when in 2018, Kim Kardashian wore braids similar to Fulani Braids and called them ‘Bo Derek’ braids. She received criticism about her ignorance to the history of the braids but she never acknowledged her ignorance. It wasn’t the first time she’s been accused of appropriation and it certainly wasn’t the last either. 

The issue doesn’t lie in the specific hairstyle she uses, even if it wasn’t meant for her type of hair. Black women have been constantly mocked and called unprofessional for wearing braids or other protective hairstyles. Yet when Kim Kardashian, a white rich woman, wears braids, it’s suddenly fashion and just a hairstyle. See the irony? 

Another issue that often arises from appropriation is the perpetuation of stereotypes as well. ‘Ethnic’ halloween costumes aren’t uncommon. Native Americans are often portrayed similar to what Pocahontas wears in the Disney movies, with long headdresses made from cheap feathers. Some costumes meant for females were even inappropriately sexualized. What most of these ‘ethnic’ costumes have in common is that they all somehow chose the most stereotypical aspects of a culture and diminished it to just a tacky costume. It insinuates that that’s all the culture is- a cheap mass-produced headdress. 

Culture isn’t a costume. You shouldn’t pick and choose which parts of culture to don for a day and completely disregard the significance behind it and the people who live with the culture every day. 

Appropriation goes beyond using aspects of culture for trends or costumes. It also applies to people profiting off others’ culture. 

Venezuelan-American Carolina Herrera, head of the New York-based Carolina Herrera fashion house, was recently criticized for her designs in her 2020 cruise collection. In this collection, several textiles and patterns made by Mexican indigenous artisans were very present. 

Despite the indigenous communities being the creators of the patterns and textiles, they received no credit more significant than a quick mention in the description of an instagram post. There was no funds to the many already struggling artisans. In other words, it was plagiarism. 

It’s as if you had an original idea for a book that you were constantly told it was a bad idea. Then someone, with more money and opportunities, comes along, takes your idea, publishes the book and receives tons of praise for the execution of your idea. Then they give you no credit, no profits from the publication, nothing more than maybe a quick afterthought at the end. 

Carolina Herrera could have avoided being accused of cultural appropriation if they took a few more steps into actually incorporating the designs. If they could have collaborated with a designer or artisan of the indigenous community then the outcome could have been different. If they set aside some of the profit earned from their collection to donate it to the struggling indigenous communities then the outcome could have been different. See my point? In doing so, they wouldn’t be using that aspect of the culture for their own selfish profit.

Culture isn’t a costume. You shouldn’t pick and choose which parts of culture to don for a day and completely disregard the significance behind it and the people who live with the culture every day. 

Let’s switch things up now. Cultural appreciation is experiencing and learning about a culture in a respectful manner. An example would be a white woman wearing a saree to a Hindi wedding, if she was invited to. By having permission, wearing it respectfully, and understanding the significance behind it, this would be a perfect example of appreciation. 

A lot of people don’t realize that they’re already appreciating culture. A lot of every-day things we do involve all types of culture. Going out to ethnic restaurants and eating their food is appreciation. Listening to music in other languages is cultural appreciation. Of course, traveling to other countries is also cultural appreciation. 

And another thing that’s essential to cultural harmony is accepting that it’s okay to make mistakes. No one knows every little intricacy of every culture, it’s impossible. Part of the beauty in it is that you can always keep learning. So it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them.

What a lot of people these days do is focus only on what others do wrong. We focus only on calling out people for appropriating while failing to teach them how to do it the right way. We don’t take the time to recognize and celebrate whenever we do share our cultures. If we could all learn to be a little nicer, learn a little more, and teach a little more, maybe there’d be less prejudice and more union. 

Mariel Herrera is a columnist for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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