Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation

When does cultural appreciation become cultural appropriation?

My son and I were talking about Will Smith yesterday when he asked me if I had ever seen Willow Smith’s “Kali Shoot”. He pulled up the picture above, and I lost it! No, I had never seen either Willow Smith’s “Kali Shoot” or Heidi Klum’s “Kali costume” before.

I experienced shock and disgust and anger in equal parts. I read a few articles and saw various discussions on cultural appreciation versus cultural appropriation. It’s a topic that’s often raised in our society today, so here are a few thoughts for your reflection and consideration.

When does cultural appreciation become cultural appropriation?

Cultural diversity inspires us to reach beyond our own histories and comfort zones to experience different perspectives, foods, music, ideas, traditions, and so much more. Each of us benefits immeasurably when we can learn from others who are different from us, and we benefit as a whole when each of us is open to realities that don’t mirror our own. Appreciating a culture different from our own is essential for creating inclusive societies. Still, to truly appreciate a culture, we must first reflect upon and understand the difference between appreciation and appropriation. Appreciation allows us to learn and grow; appropriation crosses the line from learning and growing to taking and using in a way that causes discomfort or harm for the people who live that culture every day.

Appreciation requires humility. Appropriation is rooted in arrogance.

Cultural appropriation is generally defined as the inappropriate, unacknowledged, misunderstood, or misrepresented adoption or expression of visual images, sounds/music, aesthetics, practices, ideas, etc., of one community by members of another typically more dominant community. The concept of appropriation cannot be removed from majority vs. minority communities, power dynamics, political dynamics, and other societal standards/norms/expectations that impact how we live in and negotiate social spaces in person and online.

So, Willow Smith and Heidi Klum in their Goddess Kali “costumes” definitely fit in either the “please diversify your personal network so someone can tell you this is not okay” or “if someone told you this was not okay, you should have checked your arrogance and listened” groups of cultural appropriators. If you are going to dress up as a Hindu goddess, you should probably check in with some Hindu people — not just one or two and not just people who work for you. Here are a few additional images of cultural appropriation for your reflection. As you look at each of these images, pay attention to what you see and how you feel. Ask yourself what appreciation feels like? Do these images feel like humble appreciation or arrogant appropriation?

There is no objective societal arbiter of appreciation vs. appropriation. But, if we want to be inclusive, we have a responsibility to acknowledge that we are not entitled to use what is not ours without humbly exploring the impact of our actions on others. If you are not a part of the culture to which something belongs, you don’t have a right — or creative license or artistic freedom — to use it however you want. So, if you want to say Namaste as a greeting or a thank you or goodbye, that is cultural appreciation. If you have a t-shirt that says “Namastay in bed today,” that’s cultural appropriation. If you are going to a Powwow organized by Native people, that is cultural appreciation. If you refer to meetings and general get-togethers as powwows, that’s cultural appropriation.

A quick shortcut to know when you are about to step into some appropriation shit: If the thought even crossed your mind that it may be cultural appropriation, it probably is.

Another quick shortcut: If it’s not a part of your culture, default to “DO NOT DO IT” until you have talked to several people who tell you that the world truly needs your vision to become a reality.



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Arin N. Reeves

a fierce advocate for justice, a geeky catalyst for smarter thinking on inclusion and equity & a firm believer that most rules were meant to be broken