I’ve often wondered about the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. I have a deep love and appreciation for things from other cultures, especially historical artifacts and designs (my inner archaeologist does a happy dance lol). I love being surrounded by textiles and art from around the world, it moves me deeply and makes me very happy. I love supporting native artists and having a home that visually reflects the diversity of my heart. But not all ethnic items are appropriate to wear or decorate with.
So which are ok for outsiders to use and which aren’t? What counts as cultural exchange and what is adopting another culture’s icons without their ok? It’s a grey area, but here’s what I personally think:
If the people from that ethnic culture aren’t happy about how those items or styles are being used, then we shouldn’t use them.
Listen to the people who created the styles or symbols. Are they ok with us using them? Were they exploited so we could have them in our homes, do they represent us conquering them? Do they have the power to say no to us using them? What’s the context of use, respect and honoring their heritage and culture, or belittling it as a Halloween costume or “edgy trend”? Did we buy that plastic Native headdress to honor them, or to look cool? Probably the latter. And it’s just not worth it.
It sounds complicated, and we’re all going to mess up at times, but the important thing is that we’re actively thinking about it and are open to changing if someone points out that we’re appropriating their culture.
I recently discovered that the term gypsy is incredibly offensive to the Romani people, it’s a derogatory term others gave to them. I no longer use that term and I don’t purchase artwork or items that say gypsy on it anymore. Native Americans have often spoken out about their Chieftain headdresses being used as costumes, and black people are upset when their ethnic hairstyles are copied by white people who don’t have to deal with the stigma that normally comes with those hairstyles. Ethnic styles are often used as a sexual fetish instead of being simply appreciated.
I tend to gravitate towards fair trade items, since the native people are gaining revenue from the sales and they’re ok with selling us these goods. I try to avoid replicas of things that have current religious significance to people, such as statues of gods or Native spiritual symbols that I don’t understand or have respect for. Not everything that is beautiful should be taken for ourselves… sometimes it’s best to admire it from a respectful distance.
This article had some great things to say about cultural appropriation and how grey of an area it can be.