I want to start this discussion by acknowledging that I am a white woman. Additionally, as opinions on what constitutes appropriation will vary within cultures and between individuals, I am only speaking on behalf of my experience. I recognize and appreciate that experiences and perspectives may differ. Finally, I am still on my learning journey and acknowledge that I still have much more to learn, this writing reflects where I am currently at on my journey.
My awareness of cultural appropriation started years ago when social media infographics began to acknowledge wearing cultural attire as Halloween costumes as inappropriate. However, my understanding and education regarding the difference between appropriation and appreciation started during my Aboriginal Spiritual class that I took during my undergraduate degree. I was a white woman being taught how to make a ribbon skirt by an Indigenous teacher to wear to a sweat lodge. I was feeling apprehensive of the idea of wearing attire from a culture that I was not a part of and participating in one of their ceremonies wearing it. Everything I had seen and heard in my young adulthood prior to this, taught me to be incredibly cautious when experiencing things from other cultures to avoid being offensive or appropriating someone’s culture. I was almost becoming so fearful of coming across as offensive to other communities that I began to distance myself from learning and participating in things outside of my own culture due to that concern. So, I expressed my discomfort with my teacher, and he chuckled. He expressed what I was doing was the opposite of appropriation, what I was engaged in was appreciation and education. Since then, I have been realizing that my fear of offending comes from ignorance, and that the more awareness and education I receive, the more I can be an ally to non-dominant communities.
There were three key things that separated what I was doing from what appropriation is. Firstly, ribbon skirts are not a sacred item, anyone is allowed to wear them. They are, however, an item with meaning and a story. That is the second element. I was learning the importance and story behind the ribbon skirt and was using it in a context that respects the cultural significance of the item. Thirdly, I was not making money off the culture or claiming it for my own, nor was I receiving the skirt from someone who was not a part of the culture and benefiting from it.
So, what is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? Appropriation is using something from a culture that you do not belong to, in a way that does not benefit that culture, disrespects the intention of that item, and/or you do not have the knowledge of the meaning behind the item. Appreciation is supporting a non-dominant culture by purchasing and/or learning from individuals who are a part of that culture. So, how do I know if what I am doing is appropriation or appreciation? Here are some questions you can ask yourself or reach out to and learn from those in that culture.
Is it sacred in that culture? If the answer is yes, and I have not received what is necessary to use that item, then it is appropriation.
Do I understand the cultural meaning behind what I am appreciating? Did I listen to the voices of those in the community? Do I have their permission to share and/or wear this part of their culture? If the answer to all three is yes, it is appreciation.
Did I directly support the culture that it is from? Am I benefiting from a culture that is not my own? If the answer is yes to the former and no to the latter, it is appreciation.
These questions highlight why wearing sacred cultural attire for Halloween is inappropriate. The attire was not made to be used in a costume setting. If it was made by a box store, then the item is not supporting the cultural community and there is no understanding of the meaning of the attire. It is being worn to benefit the person in looking a certain way at a Halloween party when those from the non-dominant community may have experienced oppression for wearing the same attire. Now compare this example to someone who purchases moccasins from a local Indigenous maker, who can share their culture and benefit from it. The person gets to appreciate and educate themselves on the culture and use the item in a way that respects the culture and the maker. This is what I have learned through those in non-dominant cultures regarding the difference between appropriating and appreciating their culture.