Cultural Appreciation vs. Cultural Appropriation

If there’s one thing I always strive for in my travels, observations of fashion and appreciation of art, it’s discovering and sharing the cultural meaning behind my experiences.  Cultural heritage, as you’ve seen from my previous blogs, is an important aspect of everything I have done in life.  Whether it’s my latest jewelry project, sewing endeavor or world adventure, I’m always seeking the story and meaning behind what I’m doing.  As I’ve been reshaping my blog and focusing more on culture, one concept came across my path that had me thinking about my past actions: cultural appropriation.  What exactly is cultural appropriation?  As it turns out, the question is incredibly difficult to answer.  The clearest definition I had gotten was from About.com: “. . . [C]ultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups.”  The definition got me thinking: Was my childhood involvement with local Native American groups at Pow-Wows cultural appropriation?  Have the craft projects I’ve featured on my blog been disrespectful to the cultures I gained the skills from?  When was I showing appreciation?  Or was it appropriation?  In order to gain some insights into how to decipher my future actions, here are a few questions I’ve found from other bloggers to help guide me and others when it comes to travel and fashion choices:

#1 How do my style choices relate to this culture?  Am I part of this culture?  If I am not, what do I know of the historical injustices and struggles of this culture?  Knowing how something you’ve chosen to wear relates to a specific culture is important and respectful to their experiences and journey.  Misinterpreting the meaning behind fashion choices can lead to negative stereotypes of a culture.  One specific example of this situation is from Brown Girl Magazine who addresses the issue of people wearing bindis without really understanding the meaning they have for various cultures in Asia and the Middle East.

#2 What is my purpose behind wearing or creating a specific item?  Just wanting to look cool or picking up an item because it’s popular isn’t enough of a reason.  Really understanding the background of the culture, being invited to their celebrations or using something for educational purposes are all valuable actions to take rather than having something because everyone else has it.  Another step to show respect is sharing the story behind a specific craft piece, garment or item you found while traveling to inspire others to see the meaning behind the item.

#3 What do I know about the person who made the item and who sold it?  Since being involved in ethical fashion and travel practices, I think more about who made the items I purchase.  I’m becoming less timid about asking people at the marketplace who made an item I’ve bought and I’m finding the value of doing research ahead of time to find companies whom I know empower their artisans.  The more I know about the people behind the product, the better my decisions will be.

#4 Are the items I purchase and wear respectful and accurate to the source?  This is where the controversy can get very heated.  Most recently Mac Cosmetics came under fire for claiming its recent designs and products were not influenced by Native Americans, and celebrities including Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani, Rhianna and Miley Cyrus have all been criticized for music videos, fashion choices and dance moves that have offended various marginalized cultures.  Purchasing items made by a person of the culture and creating items with respect to their cultural roots will encourage others to appreciate and empower a culture, not wear Halloween costumes or festival attire without realizing the significance and challenges the culture has faced in society.

Where have all of these questions left me with the future?  To begin with, I’m finding that my actions from the past including joining celebrations when invited and admiring crafts-people during my travels were signs of appreciation and understanding that bridged both me and the local people I interact with.  I’ll continue with my research into fashion companies that value empowering their artisans and preserving their traditional craftsmanship.  I will also pick my travels based on where I can learn about, connect with and empower local people.  The one change I’m seeing in my future blogging, is no longer posting craft projects or style ideas in relation to my personal life.  Instead, the focus should be on the history of the craft, its connection to the culture and how it has an impact on my perspective.  Respect and understanding, after all, is the key to connecting and bridging cultures, a concept I’m constantly learning and sharing with others.

How do you view cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?  What actions do you suggest taking to respect cultures around you?

Give us your thoughts, comments, and opinions here!