With generations of consistent movement of people all around the globe and the ever-increasing globalization of society comes the transference of goods, foods, traditions, languages, music, and people. Cultures morph, combust, and combine. Almost every ritual, practice, and beloved tradition you have ever (or never) heard of comes from another. There is a sweetness and connection that comes from, say, lighting a candle in honor of your ancestors just as they did for theirs many generations ago, even if you don’t do it exactly the same way as they did. We can appreciate and honor the intention behind original traditions, while still making them our own for modern contexts.
What Is Cultural Appropriation?
However, because of the shameful global history of colonization, war, and the capitalistic focus of Westernization, many sacred traditions are appropriated rather than honored. Cultural appropriation is the process that takes a practice of cultural significance from one group (usually marginalized) and turns it into something that benefits another group (usually dominant) without giving credit, money, or even acknowledgment to the group of origin—ultimately erasing its meaning. Some examples of cultural appropriation include
- Urban Outfitters selling “Navajo” underwear
- Dressing up as any culture for Halloween
- Wearing traditionally Black hairstyles as a non-Black person
- Co-opting a sacred symbol for décor or jewelry, such as wearing a mala or rosary as a necklace
Now, you may ask, why is this harmful? Isn’t it wonderful to spread the word about a practice or ritual that is beautiful? About something that is meaningful or helpful? Wouldn’t all cultures and religions be proud to have their traditions shared and mainstreamed? No one “owns” a pattern, no one owns a way of doing something, right? Susanna Barkataki, yoga teacher, advocate, and director of education for Ignite Yoga and Wellness, explains, “The main difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is connected to: 1. Power [and] 2. Harm. So much depends on the intent, awareness and, most importantly, the impact behind connecting to and partaking in another culture. . . Cultural appropriation clearly harms the source culture in a variety of ways[:] 1. Material harm [and] 2. Disrespect or disregard to the values, practices, social, religious or cultural norms. Often that harm can span social institutions and political, economic, social, spiritual, cultural worlds.”
Patterns, symbols, and hairstyles have meaning: some are sacred, some keep records, and some tell stories. Many are not intended to be shared outside of a ceremony and people, especially by corporations, making money by selling products, or fashion lines, is not how most groups wish to honor their elders and lineage.
What Is Cultural Appreciation?
So, there is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. According to the Greenheart Club, which promotes international education, environmental awareness, sustainable practices, and citizen diplomacy, “appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally.” Though this is hardly a call for complete authenticity and exclusivity when it comes to rituals and traditions (that would certainly be impossible due to globalization and the hybridization of cultures that has always been), there are ways to work toward appreciation, reparations, and honoring, rather than appropriating, disrespecting, and disempowering people and traditions.
Here are some ways that we can do better.
Notice and note where you find your information and inspiration. Acknowledge out loud, in writing, on social media, or in other ways, that your practices are inspired by traditions from a specific culture. Name that culture and express gratitude to the people who originated it. If you’re unsure of the origins, educate yourself. You may be surprised by the histories you find. Notice how the cultural practices or symbols you’re working with are spoken about and what that says about how the culture is currently thought of in the mainstream mindset. For example:
- Are practices from indigenous American lineages spoken about only in the past tense? Why do you think that may be?
- What kind of impact does this “in the past” language and potential romanticization have on people who are alive today and identify as indigenous?
- What might it do to one’s psyche to have your existence and experience erased?
- How might acknowledgment help empower, honor, and invite reparations for a group of people who have faced oppression and genocide?
Your acknowledgment is the first step toward appreciation.
Pay homage and pay generously. This especially matters if people have been, or are now being, oppressed or punished for the practices that you are privileged enough to make your own. Donate to individuals. Donate to organizations. Support small businesses. Purchase from businesses owned by people who belong to and uphold the culture you’re interested in. Spread the word about the work being done to preserve cherished cultural practices. For example: Do you enjoy listening to or playing hip-hop, jazz, or R&B music?
- Do you know how these unique musical forms came to be?
- Could you be offering reparations to Black Americans who are currently creating arts and music?
- Could you be supporting the livelihood of one local musician or band?
- Could you be supporting the music program at a local elementary school?
- Could you be supporting a smaller record label that signs Black musicians?
- Could you be supporting the teaching of appreciation of Black music?
Your monetary homage is an important step in cultural appreciation.
Open your ears to the perspectives of marginalized groups.
- Are the aspects of a culture that you are intrigued by part of sacred ceremonies?
- Could you be paying a respected leader in the community to guide you?
- Are members of groups who practice this culture speaking out about how appropriation is harming them?
- Are there activists and advocates speaking out about environmental destruction caused by the popularization of this tradition?
Instead of “othering” a group of people and seeing yourself as outside, above, or not affected by an issue, seek understanding. As Barkataki suggests, share power, use your privilege to empower, and actively uplift the source culture and its people. Consider the context within which you are practicing or participating in this ritual and acknowledge your reasons, intentions, and impact.
It is necessary sometimes to say “I don’t know” or “I didn’t know” or “I’m sorry” when it comes to cultural appropriation. You may have unintentionally disrespected someone or their ancestors, been blind to your own privilege with regards to cultural practices, or created negative consequences for someone. It is your responsibility to educate yourself and commit to doing better next time. Listening is a powerful act of cultural appreciation.
In the book For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely Word, author Sasha Sagan explains that cultural rituals are inherently human and that they help us make meaning out of our experiences. Sagan encourages us to find rituals that may have held meaning for our ancestors, as well as to create new daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, and celebratory traditions of our own. Whether you’re creating a morning routine for yourself, holding space as a teacher or leader in your community, or designing a new line of patterns for your Etsy craft business, check that you are acknowledging, paying, and listening to better appreciate those who came before you.