There are countless moments of cultural appropriation, whether on city streets, high-fashion runaways, or company websites. A white model with chopsticks threaded through her hair, Kim Kardashian draped in long, thick cornrows, or festivalgoers dressed in traditional African headdresses or Indian henna.
As people become more aware of their interactions with other cultures, cultural appropriation is further recognized and condemned. These new strides of respect, however, have left a gray area of confusion, blurring the lines between cultural appropriation and appreciation.
Appropriation stripped down is ignorance and theft. It’s when someone steals aspects of another culture for personal gain or interest, ignoring its significance and importance. Or when someone mocks another culture, whether through fashion, art, jewelry, and other modes.
There’s a hierarchy of power involved in appropriation, mainstream cultures taking aspects from marginalized groups without consideration. For example, white celebrities are praised for braids while Black women are shunned for them. The braids themself are not the issue, but the condemnation of them with one race and not another. Appropriation speaks to larger issues of social inequality.
On the other hand, appreciation is precisely as it sounds. Appreciation is curiosity, the desire to broaden one’s horizons and gain new perspectives. Where appropriation produces disrespect, appreciation removes it. It is learning the significance of something, recognizing the importance of some fashion or custom.
“Cancel culture” and mainstream media are quick to incriminate people for even the slightest bit of appropriation, resulting in an atmosphere of fear. Fear of interacting with other communities. Fear of not knowing what’s disrespectful and what’s deferential. Some have become discouraged from engaging in critical cultural interactions, and society must be reminded that appropriation and appreciation are antonyms, not synonyms. Take the drama with Adele that happened a few years ago.
In 2020, Adele posted the photo above on Instagram of her attending the Notting Hill Carnival in London and received intense backlash for her traditional African hairstyle. Adele’s comments quickly flooded with hateful messages, trying to cancel the singer for “appropriation.”
Yet these commenters don’t understand that Notting Hill Carnival is the annual Caribbean festival that invites people to celebrate those oppressed. It’s a significant event for the Black British community – a moment where they can fully embrace and share their cultures with others. Adele was not profiting by attending the event and wearing the hairstyle but paying her respects.
The Notting Hill Carnival is cultural appreciation in its purest form. A place where people from all over band together to celebrate other cultures and learn. Are we supposed to deny someone from joining the celebration? Condemn them for wishing to learn what they don’t know? Progress is understanding. It is placing oneself in the shoes of another, learning, and growing because of it.
Diversity is power, and homogeneity will creep in without cultural interactions, leeching humanity of its beauty. If we start to criticize these interactions and remove some from events like these, we actively sever the path to progress. There can be no unity without understanding, no progress without communication.
It is essential to be conscious of respect and even more necessary to maintain these cultural reactions. If people approach cultures with respect and genuine curiosity, there should be no fear of appropriation. It is not a crime to learn about those who are different courteously. If anything, it should be encouraged.
To understand one another, even if just knowing about the history behind one clothing item or dish, is to appreciate another identity. In a way, it shows that the culture and characteristics which have shaped them matter. And in a world so precarious and divided at moments, everyone could be reminded that they matter.