By: Leia Oh
It’s a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, a delicate
situation, sparking vicious debates up to many contrasting opinions and perspectives. The
technical definition of cultural appropriation, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is “the
act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without
showing that you understand or respect this culture.” So, in every situation, the matter of
whether that culture is being respected, admired, and understood, or being abused,
disrespected, and used for profit is very uncertain. Opinions on what is cultural
appropriation change from person to person, and because that line is so undefined, because
every situation is different, there is an ongoing state of confusion and misunderstanding.
So here’s what qualifies as cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Think of
it as a checklist: look for these things, check off what applies, and then you can determine
which it is.
Cultural appropriation is when the culture is being taken advantage of and
disrespected. It’s being used for profit, and there is no effort put into truly understanding it.
The culture is being used as merely a trend, and much of its meaning is thrown away as it
just becomes “something pretty.” Cultural appropriation is people wielding their power over
another culture by picking and choosing, taking what they want, and skipping straight to
the “good stuff,” while the people who are actually of that culture are subjected to racism,
prejudice, bullying, and harassment–just for embracing who they are.
Cultural appreciation is a true admiration of the culture. Respect is demonstrated by
showing knowledge. The person acknowledges that they are not actually of that culture, but
rather that they are fond of that culture and are interested in learning about it. They don’t
use the culture for profit or for their own purposes, they don’t disrespect it, and they show
they are truly educated about the culture, the people, and the issues the people of that culture
face. To show appreciation of the culture, and not cross over into appropriation, it’s
important to keep these things in mind. You can’t pick and choose–cultures do not exist for
bits and pieces to be taken by those who have the privilege to do so. That diminishes their
Some examples of cultural appropriation versus appreciation: A person goes to
Korea, visits, a cultural site, such as Gyeongbokgung palace, and wears a hanbok (traditional
Korean clothing) to immerse themselves in the culture and truly appreciate it. An example
of appropriation would be altering a hanbok, turning it into a clothing item to be sold,
stripping it of its meaning, and creating a pretty trend out of it, as if it’s a page of a book you
can tear out without bothering to read it.
Something else important to keep in mind is that, while intentions matter, it does not
change the outcome. For example: someone may not mean to bump into someone else and
knock them onto the floor–but that doesn’t change the fact that the other person got hurt.
So even if someone didn’t intend to cultural appropriate, their ignorance still has a negative
effect; it still harms that culture and the people who are part of it.
So how is cultural appropriation even harmful? Cultural appropriation takes the
meaning out of a culture. It’s a form of oppression because it’s used by those who have
privilege to abuse it and disrespect it. By turning a culture into a trend, or by extracting
pieces of it and ignoring the whole, the culture’s meaning is lost. It’s a mockery; it’s a display
of power. This is why, while cultural appropriation may seem insignificant, it’s actually a
real issue because it degrades a culture and oppresses it by erasing bits and pieces, leaving
behind a warped version of what it once was. Cultural appropriation is not a quick,
catastrophic event that’s easily pinpointed as being part of the problem. It’s gradual, and
often up for debate, so its harm is therefore easily dismissed. We need to pay attention to it
because, even though it doesn’t seem like a big deal, it does harm, oppress, and erase the
people and the culture.
Another blaring red light of appropriation is when someone acts as if they are part of
that culture. For example, a white person pretending they are Asian, or Black, or Latino. In
this case, the white person has the power to use that culture for their own purposes, whether
it’s an aesthetic, for money, or just because they feel like it. Yet they still get to bask in the
benefits of white privilege, which includes getting to try out other cultures like trying
different flavors of ice cream. This sort of appropriation is a blatant show of power. The
appropriating person gets to prance around as if they are of that culture, yet they don’t face
the struggles that the people face who actually come from that culture. It’s a prime example
of privilege, and that is why you need to learn about the oppression faced by people of the
culture you’re interested in. Then you can show you truly care and try to speak out for
them, be a voice for that culture and its people, instead of contributing to their oppression.
Cultural appropriation is becoming more and more common. It’s important that
these differences between appropriation and appreciation are recognized, as well as how
harmful cultural appropriation can really be. It can be hard to identify whether appreciation
has crossed over into appropriation, but it’s important that we all take the time to educate
ourselves. While learning about another culture, everyone has a responsibility to do proper
research and truly educate themselves about it because, whether someone realizes it or not,
whether they mean to or not, ignorance is harmful, and ignorance oppressive. In order to be
responsible and respectful, we all must be aware of our privilege.
I am asking everyone to call out appropriation when you see it. To properly educate
yourself on a culture if you truly are interested in it. To use your privilege responsibly, and
to have respect. To you, it may be “no big deal,” but to the people being disrespected? It’s
humiliating, and it’s oppressive.
Image credit: Unsplash