Understanding Cultural Appreciation VS. Appropriation

Wearing Another Culture's Clothing Because You Find It Beautiful Is Admiration, Not Appropriation

Borrowing from cultures can be okay, but it's the motive behind it that can be wrong.


Growing up Gen-Z, I've experienced a world that is becoming highly progressive. I've been alive long enough to be able to witness and understand the gradual change of the world from being highly divided to more culturally embracing. I've seen a rise of more biracial and poly-ethnic children, but with this, a rise of resentment for the intermingling and blending of racial customs and traditions.

If anything, the most prominent is the hatred surrounding these factors, because the celebration of customs is confused with mockery. Case after case of worldwide backlash for an incident where the argument over whether or not a tradition or custom was taken in offense or is questioned. I've come to understand that tradition and culture run deep within ethnic communities and may be considered sacred art forms — customs that should be practiced by only those who belong to that selective ethnicity.

I can't help but wonder, why?

There is a rise in the hatred of social barriers and divisions, whether it be racial, sexual or economic. In arguing for the selectivity of racial customs, while also rallying behind the argument that we should all try to be "colorblind," are we not fighting ourselves? The issue that arises is that there is a thin line between wanting to celebrate our differences and embodying them.

Consider Halloween as an example. Does this mean that a white female is not allowed to dress up in an Indian sari because she finds the culture beautiful?

Some would argue yes, because in choosing to, she's insinuating that a traditional Indian custom is a "costume," to parade around for candy.

Others would say no, because if she had dressed up in a sari on any other day, she would be "stealing Indian culture" as her "white predecessors had done to other races."

By choosing to dress up in a sari on Halloween, she is showing that it isn't her custom but rather a form of expression she's choosing to show on a night people can dress as anything or anyone they desire.

For such instances, the answer is on a spectrum.

In a similar event, a recent backlash occurred on Twitter to Keziah Daum, when she decided to wear a traditional Chinese quipao to her prom because she found it beautiful. After posting the pictures, she faced harsh criticism for parading a traditional culture around rather than fully understanding its depth and meaning.

Would this be a case of cultural appropriation? The answer is no.

The argument behind why wearing clothes or sporting elements of other cultures is wrong stems from the standpoint that in doing so, it is harming that culture by slandering, belittling or making a mockery of their heritage. This sentiment understandable.

In the case of racial tensions, "blackface" was a common comedic trope taken on by white actors back in the early 1900s as a way to make fun of their looks, as well as portray Africans and African-Americans as "dumb apes," incapable of reaching the white man's standing. Thus, using "blackface" in any event is considered wrong, both socially and morally, because it represents a time when the black community was belittled for being deemed inferior.

Cultural appreciation on the other hand, takes the opposite stance. It goes into "borrowing" a culture, rather stealing and claiming, not to spark tensions or make a mockery thereof but rather to join in on the celebration of it.

Using a quipao as a prom dress isn't making fun of the Chinese culture. She never portrayed the dress in a "slutty fashion" as most Chinese-inspired Halloween costumes do (thus a case of appropriation) or tarnished its oriental sophistication. Out of awe, she chose this dress to wear, and thus, isn't crossing the border into appropriation territory.

On the other hand, the rise in the numbers of pop culture icons taking elements of the black culture is, and will continue to be, cultural appropriation at its finest. Only a decade ago, it would have been considered "ghetto" for the black community to have long nails or wear dreads, braids or wigs. Instead, now it is a common wear of fashion among prominent celebrities (who are most definitely not members of the same culture). These celebrities have taken cultural customs and made them into fads — elements of music videos and concert wardrobe — without understanding the ramifications.

That is taking part of a culture without giving credit and while continuing the belittlement and mockery of such tradition.

In all, coming to understand the notion of wearing others' cultural wear is key to understanding the difference between its appropriation and appreciation. Without jumping too fast, it's necessary to stop and think about whether or not the action is just before we continue the seen cycles of backlash and criticism against each other due to potential false accusations. Moving forward, I hope this information spreads, and we can move past a society furious with people who overstep cultural lines out of respect, understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity.

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