A Fine Line between Appreciation & Appropriation

Tread carefully, for society has reached fresh – and fragile – new heights of sensitivity. Before you all begin grabbing pitchforks, hear me out.

Surely, sensitivity beats out its antonymous counterpart by a long shot – except we’re now the scorned thin-skinned snowflake generation. But can we really be faulted for being too careful?

Better safe than sorry, especially when it comes to modern-day culture – a decidedly delicate subject to broach. This is a fine line to define and walk, where cultural appreciation ends and appropriation begins.

Yet, at the risk of coming under fire, this is a topic, albeit controversially derided as a ‘first-world problem’, that warrants proper discourse.

For us avid travellers, an encounter with a different culture is undoubtedly an eye-opening experience, witnessing practices, clothing, customs that aren’t our own.

But what happens when you ‘borrow’ them under the guise of appreciation? Donning native traditional garb for that award-winning picture for the Gram or experiencing flamboyant pseudo-festivals void of their original significance?

In the words of an Internet-famous meme by Shannon Wright, if you don’t understand cultural appropriation, imagine working on a project and getting an F. And then someone copies you and gets an A and credit for your work. Aptly put – appropriation is by definition a theft of sorts.

Pharrell Williams on the cover of Elle Magazine with native war bonnet

From Pharrell Williams sporting a Native American war bonnet on the front cover of Elle to colourful faces against the backdrop of a loud Holi-inspired celebration empty of its original significance, are we too flippant about culture?

It is, after all, a treasured element of our identities. When is it, if ever, okay to ‘borrow’ an identity? Especially in this context of travel, cultural immersion is a sacred experience – putting on the lens of a different society for an appreciation of a disparate worldview.

Appreciation transcends a ‘test drive’ of a different cultural lifestyle in a fashion reminiscent of trying on clothing you don’t end up buying. Appreciation warrants a full understanding of the significance of customs, traditions, practices to the particular culture.

Image credit to Steven Gerner

The celebration of India’s vibrant and legend-laden Holi Festival, for instance, has permeated American streets (and beyond) of New York City, Utah, Houston and a great many others.

With thousands of people gathered (upon purchasing a ticket, no less) for a local rendition of Indian street food, loud contemporary music and cupfuls of coloured powder, Lord Vishnu and Krishna’s Holi tales fall on deaf ears.

Amid the empty mayhem, the true spirit of the Indian celebration is muddied into a simplistic, colourful event, the roots of which few participants concern themselves with. And the Color Run was born, taking only the colourful element of Holi people enjoy sans its real meaning. 

The Colour Run, that famously draws heavily on Holi Festival – Image credit to Jimmy Baikovicius

The Irish’s St. Patrick’s Day and the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) fall to the same fate as people all over the world use them as an excuse to drink a tad too much while decked out in green and overuse sugar skulls in fashion, makeup and souvenirs.

To all the colour-dusted, powder-flinging party goers, ask why the Festival of Colours is what it is. Ask for the story behind its quirky traditions and customs. Ask why the Indians celebrate it in the flamboyant way that they do. This is your first step into truly appreciating Indian culture.

Credit to Giuseppe Milo

To all the green-clad leprechaun-esque drinkers, ask who Saint Patrick really was. Ask why the Irish paint shamrocks and dye waters and food green in commemoration. Ask what St. Patrick’s Day really means to Irish families. This is your first step into truly appreciating Irish culture.

To all the painted sugar skull faces, ask why the Mexicans prepare joyful festivities, decorations and food at the cemetery. Ask why no cent is spared in Ofrenda building for Mexican families. This is your first step into truly appreciating Mexican culture.

Image result for day of the dead america

Festivals, practices, customs, traditions are not without their special meaning to a particular culture; ‘borrowing’ these for uninformed enjoyment crosses the line into cultural appropriation.

Enter worlds of rich culture, recognise its importance to their people and tread carefully – a snowflake generation or not, culture isn’t something to be taken lightly or out of context.

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