Understanding Cultural Appropriation & what it means to be a Respectful Traveler

Updated: Oct 14, 2018



Cultural Appropriation has been a much talked about topic and viewed as evil denounced by soi-disant social-justice warriors. As globalization soar and more and more people are traveling, these topics become even more important to address and how we can become a more democratic society especially one that honors and respect indigenous cultures and give credit where credit is due.


Although, cultural appropriation has long existed in our society before we even begin to coin the term. First coined by sociologists in the early 1990s, the phrase was only put into its official lexicon last year by Oxford Dictionary and defines it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University and author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defined cultural appropriation as: “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.” (Nadra Kareem Nittle, 2017).


It is important to note the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. Yoga, for example originated from India, developed by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India over 5,000 years ago. The word yoga was first mentioned in the oldest sacred texts, the Rig Veda. The Vedas were a collection of texts containing songs, mantras and rituals to be used by Brahmans, the Vedic priests. It is a practice that is adopted by almost every country in the world without loosing its essence and all due respect is giving to its country of birth. Although, the yogi’s and yogini’s of today will argue that we are doing it all wrong in someway especially how we use it as if it is just another verb. The core issue with cultural appropriation is that, unlike cultural exchange, in which there is a mutual interchange, appropriation refers to a "particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group."


It is really important to honor and appreciate where a practice comes from, or we risk appropriating it. For instance, we have seen the rise of the African fashion scene that is taking the world by storm. More and more high end fashion brands are embracing African fabrics into their collections. While all the hype may be going on, we tend to forget about the indigenous people and the artisans and creative geniuses who bring about the creation of those very things. The way something is made or sourced matters especially the people behind all aspects of it, and therefore should be treated with dignity and respect. Stella McCartney’s Spring 2018 runway show, became under fire for its incorporation of ankara prints for multiple reasons; firstly, the prices were too high and secondly, the fabric long associated with Africa wasn't sent down the runway on models of African descent, which made some people very unhappy. McCartney by the way has long been championed for sustainability and animal rights in the industry. McCarthney still stood by its design and presentation choices.



Another incident worth mentioning is Gucci’s recent collaboration with the Harlem designer Dapper Dan (real name Daniel Day). Some accused the Italian label of copying Day, who made a name for himself in the ’80s and early ’90s by repurposing designer goods into new garments. In response, Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele said Day was among his inspirations, and later made him the face of a Gucci campaign. Gucci and Day also collaborated on a store in Harlem to sell made-to-order garments. “Giving credit is one thing, but being included from the onset is also important,” Manigault-Bryant said. At the very least, when brands are called out for crossing the line from appreciation to appropriation, they need to own up to their mistakes and offer a sincere apology and also find ways where inclusion is encouraged and implemented.


Culture plays a special role in our society. Not only does it help us to understand the importance of diversity, inclusion, globalization, cultural nuances and appropriations but also safeguarding, preserving and promoting heritage. It encourages creativity, foster understanding through dialogue and guides us to practice compassion and exercise universally recognized human rights, social cohesion and respect for our shared values that goes far beyond our differences, differences that often times leads to conflict, ignorance and misunderstanding. The fact is that, “better knowledge and recognition of our respective differences leads ultimately to better mutual understanding, with particular regard to those objectives we hold in common,” as stated in the UNESCO World Report, Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue.


The question becomes, how can we be Respectful Travelers while simultaneously be Aware of Cultural Appropriation? “Accusations of cultural appropriation raise important and complex questions about the nature of culture. The reality of human experience is that borrowing and cultural mixture are widespread. This is evident in language, religion, agriculture, folklore, food and other cultural elements,” states Scafidi. Here are few things to keep in mind:


Do it right - Consider the 3 S’s:

Scafidi suggested we take into consideration the 3 S's: source, significance (or sacredness), and similarity. Has the source community either tacitly or directly invited you to share this particular bit of its culture, and does the community as a whole have a history of harmful exploitation? What's the cultural significance of the item — is it just an everyday object or image, or is it a religious artifact that requires greater respect? And how similar is the appropriated element to the original — a literal knockoff, or just a nod to a color scheme or silhouette?" The way something is made or sourced matters. Fashion for example is the second most polluting industry in the world after energy. So embracing social impact and how we consume should the new norm. With the rise of online shopping and consumers crave for instant gratification and faster deliveries, most people go for convenience. That’s why we suggest buying directly from local artisans when you travel to a new country. Besides it is way more cost effective and you will be contributing to helping local artisans earn honest living for their creativity and standing for social justice and sustainable travel. Or better yet, buy from sustainable fashion brands who actually source and make their materials that aims to directly impact marginalized communities. Brands such as; Studio 189, Brother Vellies and Tongoro are few fashion brands to consider.


Language and Culture:

With regards to language, Language and culture are very closely related. According to some people they are actually the same category: sharing a language (or dialect) means sharing a culture. The argument about cultural appropriation almost always applies to endangered languages rather than the most popular world languages. No one will accuse you of cultural appropriation if you learn Chinese for business/economic purposes. However, doing something unrelated to be seen as cultural appropriation. I suppose you could also do something that misrepresents the culture. For example, many (maybe even most) college students in Japanese classes seem to be there because of anime. That approach may be annoying for people in Japan seeing their language interpreted as just a tool for anime and not related to their culture otherwise, separated from the many other things they value and associate with the language. Another thing to be mindful of is mockery of other people’s dialect and their accent. Trying to copy the accent of a dialects can came across as offensive in other cultures. Therefore, efforts should be made to understand the language, its lineage and the accent. Tech giants such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook for example are making African languages more accessible on the internet, helping towards reducing the dangers of most of the indigenous languages dying out, but also giving opportunity to learn most if not all aspects of the language or dialect. So there are resources available to us that has made it easier to learn and understand other cultures.



Clothing and Hair:

Moreover, there is also the need to take into consideration the way a certain culture dresses; their attire and how they dress their hair. It can be considered offensive when one choose to dress themselves or their hair the way a particular culture does just for fun or just because one want to, without knowing and understanding the reasoning behind it. In some cultures and tribes such as the Ashanti, Kete from the Ewe and Gonja cloth from Northern Ghana who wear the kente fabric, are some of the most recognizable and well-known textiles that represent traditional Ghanaian dressing. These fabrics and their prints or designs are more than just vibrant colors. They represent a wealth of history, heritage and culture. Its distinct patterned design and vibrant colors can only be replicated perfectly by the weavers who have the knowledge of the craft passed down through the generations. Genuine kente cloth can be spotted by the thick nature of the strips of cloth that comprise it, as well as the symmetrical geometric shapes of color. Each color block has a distinct meaning and is combined with the pattern to be worn on specific occasions including festivals, funerals and weddings.



Food and Etiquette:

Exploring food is such a huge part of travel and it is even more important to learn the dining etiquette of each nation that you are traveling to. Every country is different and they all differ greatly in terms of etiquette however, one can argue that the basic common thing is respect and appreciation for the food. If you are traveling to China for example it is likely you will be invited to a “banquet.” Typically conducted in private rooms at restaurants, the meals are served at round tables and the events are steeped in ceremony. Your hosts will be watching you for multiple reasons; understanding and appreciation for Chinese culture, and also, to see whether or not you play along well and attempt to adapt to their culture. In many areas of China it’s considered a compliment to burp after a meal, however, in other cultures this can be viewed not etiquette and some will give you a side eye or ask where are your manners if you do not excuse yourself quick. Also, in China it is considered a compliment if you leave some food on your plate. Viewed as a good gesture. Leaving your plate empty is a sign to the host that you’re still hungry, which may be an insult. On the other hand, in most African cultures, leaving your plate empty is viewed as you love the meal and a good gesture to your host that not only did you enjoy the food but also that they cook well. Where as leaving food on the table may be viewed disrespectful. The Japanese and Indians also consider it rude to leave food on your plate. In a lot of Muslim countries such as the Middle East and in almost most parts of Africa, folks share meals in communal plate, and generally eat with their hands. Of course men and women eat on separate communal plates as in, all men eat together and all women eat together. The most important part is to make sure you wash your hands first and secondly, you eat with your right hand.


As tourism and travel grow, it is important to educate ourselves and try to understand the many issues regarding cultural appropriation and how best we can exchange cultures respectfully without belittling or insulting other cultures. Tourism and travel are industries that borrow heavily from the cultural treasures of other countries. As we live in a globalized and multicultural society it’s understanding to be fascinated by and have the desire to copy foreign cultures, to experience and even participate, however, we ought to have understanding and respect.

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