Cultural Appropriation vs Cultural Appreciation: What’s the Difference?

cultural appropriation appreciation

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?

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander


16 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation vs Cultural Appreciation: What’s the Difference?

  1. I totally agree. The only thing that stopped me getting a dreadlock from my Rasta friend was how much people would judge me for it (as I would probably judge other white girls for doing it). I tried to explain cultural appropriation to him and he thought it was ridiculous and just said “but it would look cool so why not?” I think the difference is exactly what you said- are you taking on someone’s culture with no reference to it or are you sharing in someone’s culture with sensitivity and appreciation?

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! I think you’re totally right–it’s something you have to approach each time you travel with each culture you visit. Happy travels!

  2. As long as you don’t have any bad intentions and KNOW A LOT about the culture you’re appropriating and what the thing you’re appropriating means, I don’t think there should be a problem. Unless it is seen as disrespectful by the majority of the culture…
    I make African-American, African and Latino jokes ALL THE TIME and NEVER have gotten any bad comments from anyone (except for some white people who said that using CPT – Colored People Time – or African time, for example, was racist. It’s really not. You wouldn’t show up at a Mexican’s party on time, right? You’d be helping setting it up 😉 )

    1. That’s totally true about the idea of “white-splaining.” That’s another thing we need to figure out–it’s not up to us to decided what is cultural appropriation or not. Thanks so much for your comment and sharing your post with me. 🙂

  3. This is SOSOSO important to know! It’s sometimes hard to keep yourself in check when there are all kinds of souvenirs that people sell just because they have to make a living. Great article!

  4. What an insightful article! Exactly our point of view! Appreciation is the key! And since people started seeing the globe, there has been fusions and sharing of cultural aspects! Take spices for example, portuguese went to India and fell in love with them, and now they use spices in a lot of traditional desserts!

    1. Hey, there! Thanks so much for stopping by. It’s so true–this has been going on for thousands of years. Fortunately, we now have a better idea of going about it properly! Thanks for your comment and RT. Love your blog.

  5. This is such an important topic to tackle, so thanks for bringing it to traveler’s attention! I think the simplest solution that for some reason can feel taboo is to just ASK someone if they feel like you’re treating their culture with respect, ask if something would or would not be offensive, etc… because you’re right, no two cases will be the same and we have to always be striving for that self awareness 🙂

    1. I agree! I think that’s part of having a dialogue with other places too. It’s up to us as travelers really to know the difference and to share it with others. It’s a lot of responsibility, but it is necessary, you’re right. Thanks for the comment!

  6. This is such an important and infinitey complex topic, thank you for writing about it. My line is if something is being worn in a disrespectful manner (like Feather Headdresses at Music Festivals) and/or the originating culture has a problem with it then I don’t wear it, full stop. I think travelers are better and being culturally sensitive to these things but it starts to become more of appropriation when its things like ‘Slutty Geshia’ Halloween Costumes etc.

    1. I totally agree. I think you have to be sensitive in order to be a traveler. You know what it is like putting yourself in a situation where your culture is not the norm and how it can feel to be ostracized. It makes me feel lucky to be among such great company. Happy travels!

  7. I know personally I love when people ask about my culture and traditions. I love the country I was born in (Colombia), and I’m flattered when people want to know more about it. I could talk about it endlessly. And I think that’s one of the best things about traveling, you get to learn so many new things.

    I think as long as you’re learning about the culture, and understand the significance of the things you’re wearing or doing there’s no problem with it! I guess that’s the difference in my opinion. Travel is the anecdote to ignorance!

  8. Interesting post. I’m still unsure about what cultural appropriation is but the idea of getting into one’s culture as an outsider is always a delicate balance. I think there’s a spectrum where extremes exist. On one end, the idea of an outsider coming in and trying to immerse themselves is usually appreciate but then again with certain cultures it’s a no-go and seen with much skepticism. This is something I think many travelers think about but don’t discuss enough. Thanks for the thoughts.

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