Cultural appropriation is a hot topic among the internet masses. I’m willing to bet any money (exactly no money, because I don’t have any) that you’ve come across the term at least once. So what is it? Why is it so damaging? And how can you avoid becoming a culturally appropriative arsehole?
Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture adopts/uses elements of a different culture in a negative, exploitative and damaging way. You’ve probably seen it floating around – so-called spiritual folk with “Namaste, b*tches” in their Instagram bios, that one friend who has a plastic Buddha in every room (including the bathroom), that one time your main man Gary went to a fancy-dress party as a “Red Indian” and made everyone there super uncomfortable.
This is damaging for a number of reasons – the main one being that people from these cultures are shamed and mocked for “standing out”, but the practice suddenly becomes acceptable and cool when a white person does it (and, unfortunately, it is usually white people). It also exoticises customs and traditions which are a part of everyday life in their home culture. It’s incredibly degrading for a non-Native person to dress up in a traditional Native American warbonnet for Halloween because it’s “weird” and “funny” – the feathered headdress is a highly symbolic item of ceremonial importance, not a fashion accessory. I accept that we do share our culture; however, the non-consensual claiming of traditions, customs and practices – without thought for the meaning and significance of such concepts – is not sharing.
So how can you avoid appropriating other cultures? It’s not wrong to appreciate another culture, but, first and foremost, think about why you like it. If you think it’s pretty/cute/exotic/mysterious or you think you’ll have some kind of life-changing spiritual experience driving past native people living in poverty, then basically don’t do the thing. But if you’re genuinely interested in the history, the architecture, or even the language, that’s positive. Here are some ways you can immerse yourself in a culture without denigrating the people it belongs to.
- Learn the language. Rather than gracing us with your ability to get a wildly incorrect tattoo in Chinese, why don’t you try and learn the language? If you’re so into Indian culture, you’ve got your choice of 447 languages and dialects, according to Ethnologue. Personally, I’m fascinated by the Basque Country (Euskal Herria). Guess what my intention is? To learn the language, with a nifty little website called Memrise. Google it.
- Give something back to the places you visit. Avoid businesses/products that exploit the local people. Sponsor a family so they can adopt a goat and start a business. Get yo’self some local art.
- Make sure you understand a tradition/custom before you engage in it. Cultures are far more complex and nuanced than you think they are. No matter how much reading you do, remember that you are not the expert.
- Don’t wear/use sacred symbols unless you have explicit permission and you are in an acceptable social context. I know, I know – I’m not your mother and I can’t tell you what to do. But I’ve seen enough Christians getting tense about the inverted cross (of my old pal St Peter) being associated with Satanism; I don’t see why the symbols of other religions shouldn’t be perceived in exactly the same way – as too valuable and sacred to be used in such a manner. (Not that Satanism is wrong or bad in any way. You do you, babes.)
- Most importantly: STUDY THE CULTURE. Make sure you do so from firsthand accounts and original sources. Ensure that you are knowledgeable, open-minded and respectful when you discuss the culture.
Ultimately, enjoy! It’s a wild, wide world out there and it’s so diverse. Experiencing other cultures is a good thing, as it can widen your scope and give you a new perspective on your own life. But your exploration of another culture should not be at the expense of the people it belongs to.