Appreciate, Don’t Appropriate
Thanks to Hollywood, Halloween, fashion magazines and music festivals, many social media users have succeeded in plucking out single aspects of different cultures and sporting them as laughably shoddy fashion statements. Those unfortunate enough to post selfies online are then bombarded with a backlash of angry tweets, blog posts and Facebook commentary armed with the hashtags #culturalappropiation, #microracism and #acculturation. If the skirmish continues, defenders step in and attempt to call the act “cultural appreciation,” which seemingly justifies disenfranchising a heritage symbol of its original historical, religious and, well, cultural value. The screams of cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation along with the logical fallacies and misnomers go on for days and even weeks, until both sides either tire out or stumble upon a new act of cultural appropriation to rage about – whichever happens first.
To help end this fruitless cycle, I’m going to explain when it is and when it is not okay to adopt parts of another culture. Certain adoptions that warrant the response I’ve detailed above do so because they’re offensive and constitute cultural appropriation. When someone appropriates a culture, he or she picks parts from it and uses them in ways that aren’t okay. But as I (a Chinese girl) sit in my room decorated with Korean 21NE posters and write this essay preaching for cultural preservation, I wear a hoodie emblazoned with a large Abercrombie logo and Forever 21 jeans (both American). And just last month, I got my first henna during my high school’s International Day. So, why haven’t I been hit by a siege of malicious Instagrammers?
For starters, it’s important to understand that there’s no definitive line between cultural appropriation and acceptable cultural exchange. But as much as that line thins out, bends, and squiggles in ways that make politically correct bloggers (myself included) furious, we can be thankful that there’s at least one unambiguous aspect: respect. Going back to the henna example I mentioned earlier, perhaps two contradictory reasons that make it okay for me to post pictures of my henna tattoo are 1) I wore it with respect to Hindu culture and its terms and 2) The henna has long since been used in South Asia for solely cosmetic purposes. Native American headdresses, bindis, furisodes and hijabs, however, all hold special religious, ceremonial and or spiritual significance and thus shouldn’t be commodified. Doing so would make these items mass-marketable, and eventually render them void of the value they used to possess.
On the other hand, people have found perfectly respectable and non-inflammatory ways to express genuine interests in cultures aside from their own. Through language, clothing, art and even pencil boxes, several of my peers have demonstrated that cultural exchange isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. If anything, they claim, their ability to appreciate and admire another culture’s traditions has broadened their worldviews and made them more accepting of other cultural norms. My best friend, for example, shows off her love of Japanese culture by drawing manga.
“There’s plenty of variety in manga styles, so there has to be room for mine,” she said.
Similarly, a dancer-friend of mine draws inspiration from Korean choreography. But because he’s Taiwanese, several people have ridiculed him regarding his love for Korean culture.
“My dances aren’t cultural appropriation,” he said. “I don’t incorporate any offensive elements, instead, I take it as it is, in the dance’s original form.”
So, instead of accusing individuals who find non-offensive ways to enjoy other cultures of cultural appropriation, bloggers and instagrammers alike should learn how to accept others’ unorthodox interests and differentiate between indirect racism and sincere cultural appreciation.