I’ll be the first to admit, I love wearing harem pants. And living in Granada, Spain for the past few months has made it impossible not to simply slip into wearing the loose-fitting, comfortable clothes that are sold here. They’ve also been incredible for travel—especially to Islamic countries where I am less likely to get looks than when I am wearing shorts and a tank top. However, any time I adopt a new style, I am always wondering what the line between cultural appropriation and cultural diffusion is. How much am I adopting that it is okay and a testament to the things I love about a certain culture, and how much of it is disrespectful and ignorant.
This is not a new issue travelers have had. And, not surprisingly, it’s one that has plagued white travelers more than any other. This follows in line with my post on travel and privilege. I’m in a much better place to take aspects of another culture for my own than many in a different position. My privilege allows that to be an option in the first place. If I did not have this option, then I would be forced to wear or act as however the men in my life or more restricting culture I lived in would require. I wouldn’t have a choice to slip on harem pants or practice yoga and meditation or eat sushi or learn Spanish songs on the guitar (like I do).
However, this issue is much more complicated than you might originally think.
I remember seeing a young woman from Britain in Japan wearing the traditional outfit of a geisha. My first thought was to immediately jump to hatred and accuse her silently of cultural appropriation. “How ignorant of the culture and what the role of the geisha was in Japanese society,” I thought.
I was shocked when some young Japanese women asked to take a picture, laughing and trying in basic English to make friends. They didn’t seem bothered by the fact that this young woman was wearing their traditional costumes and, quite honestly, seemed to be enjoying it. I’ve since encountered similar situations like this numerous times on my travels. From Moroccans encouraging me to wear a turban in order to block the Sahara sun to Peruvians giggling at my attempts at salsa, many want to share their culture with visitors.
When some of my friends came to Montana from the East Coast, I was happy to take them to Glacier National Park and go with them to buy cowboy boots—just as they were thrilled to teach me how to properly flag a cab and order a “caw-fee.” After all these instances, I learned the main difference between cultural appropriation and culture appreciation is the mutual understanding that you are adopting certain aspects of a culture—and that this is accepted. If it had bothered my Moroccan and Spanish friends to wear harem pants, I would have stopped. If my Italian friends had told me it was disrespectful to use my hands to speak, I would have tried to be more considerate.
Cultural appreciation (and diffusion) has been going on since the very idea of cultures existed. As our world becomes more global, it can be hard to know that line of whether you’ve taken it too far or not. On the other hand, being open to other ways of doing things and perspectives is what will, in reality, make our world a better place. I don’t have a clear answer for anyone about cultural appropriation and how to know when you are taking things too far. That is for each individual to be aware of when they travel and the ideas, rituals, food, and clothing when he or she travels.
What do you think? What’s the line between cultural appropriation/cultural appreciation for you?