What You Need to Know About Cultural Appropriation Before You Travel

Cultural Appropriation and Travel

Cultural appropriation is a widely-debated topic that seems to be creating a lot of buzz lately. The term, however, is by no means new. It first entered discussion by the academic world in the 1970’s, as a critique of Western expansionism and colonialism.

Let’s start by defining the term cultural appropriation.

“Cultural appropriation is 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.”

I’m not going to pretend to be the final authority on what’s right and what’s wrong. Like with any ethical issue, there’s a big, murky, gray area. Almost nothing is black & white. My only goal is to plant the seed of consciousness (which may or may not have been there before) so that you can do your own research (if you feel called to). Then you can go out into that big wide world a little more informed and more aware of your impact.

Examples of Cultural Appropriation

Halloween is quite possibly the biggest and baddest example of cultural appropriation. Sorority girls dressing up in revealing costumes involving feathers and headdresses and calling themselves “Nava-hoes” is a pretty clear-cut example of what not to do.

Other examples that pervade our culture are fast-fashion companies like Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters taking ethnic designs from indigenous peoples, mass-producing them, and profiting off of them. With no compensation for artisans involved. I would argue that a better term for this would be “cultural plagiarism” because that is precisely what it is.

Native American Rugs
photo of Native American rugs from Heard Museum in Phoenix, AZ

Then you have other, more controversial suggestions of cultural appropriation. Like the claim that Elvis Presley stole from the African American musicians of Memphis, putting a white-boy spin on it, and achieving ultimate glory and stardom. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that one.

Once you’ve become familiarized with the topic of cultural appropriation, you’ll start noticing things you never noticed before. This can be both a good and a bad thing. It’s good to be aware of the issues surrounding social justice, but it’s also easy to get carried away.

There seems to a trend recently, where people try to turn absolutely everything into a case for cultural appropriation. And I find that this is actually harmful. Especially in America, which has such a potpourri of different cultures. The bulk of America is made up of immigrants from all over the world, and their sons, daughters, and grandchildren. And when they came to this country, they brought with them their spiritual beliefs, their languages, their fashion, and their foods.

Being open-minded to trying different things, whether it’s an ethnic restaurant or an acupuncture session, is a good thing! It allows for greater understanding and acceptance between different cultures. I don’t like when people start pointing fingers at others who are interested in other cultures, and accusing them of being “appropriative.”

There are a lot of examples that I feel are more fitting with the term cultural exchange.

What is Cultural Exchange?

According to Oxford Dictionaries, cultural exchange is:

“a temporary reciprocal exchange of representatives, students, or artists between countries, with the aim of fostering goodwill and mutual understanding.”

In trying to draw the line between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation, I like to use the following two factors: invitation and context.

Cultural exchange is mutually beneficial and generally leaves both parties or both societies feeling uplifted and more open to one another. Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, has an air of mockery and degradation.

So ask yourself this:

Are you being respectful and honoring a different culture?

Are you mocking or making fun of another culture, or attaching to the idea that your culture is superior?

Are you stealing from someone else’s culture for personal profit?

Is a native person inviting you to take part in a cultural experience or tradition?

What Does All This Have To Do With Travel?

We need to first acknowledge what a privilege it is to be able to see the world. You don’t see many Laotians riding the Maid of the Mist in Niagara Falls, or Mongolians road tripping through the Grand Canyon. But more and more of us in the western world are making our way to places that, one or two decades ago, were considered “off the beaten path.” (Newsflash: there’s no such thing anymore. You are not Anthony Bourdain in the 90’s. All the paths are beaten).

Being a socially-conscious and responsible traveler entails acknowledging the privilege you hold, being conscious of the impact you create, and taking responsibility for leaving things the same way (or better) than you found them.

If you’re about to embark on a journey overseas, and you’re worried about offending people back home, here is my advice to you.

Wait for an invitation to engage in a cultural experience.

If a native invites you to practice something that is unique to his or her culture, whether for spiritual reasons or simply to welcome you to their country, then, by all means, oblige! I have found in my own travels, that most people around the world are very proud of their culture, and very eager to share that with you. Maybe that’s because they haven’t suffered years of oppression by living amongst white people. Or they can’t relate to growing up being mocked for the food they eat or the clothes they wear, as minorities in America often do. But I promise you that in most cases, locals will be more offended by you not taking part in their customs and traditions than the other way around.

Support Local Artisans.

I would so much rather you buy an item of clothing from a local artisan on a trip abroad than to buy the Americanized knock-off version from Urban Outfitters back home. Tourist art is a huge source of income in other countries, and many families and communities have come to depend on that money. Don’t forgo buying an ethnic pice of artwork or clothing from a local artisan, for fear of offending someone back home.

At the same time, out of respect for Earth and its natural resources, don’t buy things that you don’t love or need.

Bali Handbag

Familiarize yourself with local customs before your trip.

I always try to read up on local traditions and customs before I travel to a new country, to lessen the chances of my offending any locals once I get there. It’s good to know that in Japan, wearing shoes in people’s homes is not acceptable. Or that tipping at restaurants in South Korea is frowned upon. Or that burping at the end of a meal in China is considered a compliment. Becoming acquainted with a new culture before traveling somewhere new serves as extra insurance that the exchange will be respectful and mutually beneficial.

Don’t be a jerk.

This is pretty self-explanatory. Being in a foreign place, you will encounter things that feel weird and unnatural to you. And that’s okay. Accept that we all grow up and exist according to unique social and societal norms. Don’t mock or make fun of other people just because they’re different. Practice the golden rule, wherever you go.

In Conclusion

I’ll be honest with you, when I first started hearing the term cultural appropriation being tossed around with regularity, my gut reaction was something along the lines of:

Wait, so I can’t eat sushi or tacos or wear clothing made by ethnic artisans or practice yoga… for fear of being accused of cultural appropriation?

But when our initial gut reaction is one of defensiveness, it usually means there’s some digging to do. So I dug. And as it turns out, there’s a lot there to unpack. Especially for those of us who are keen to travel the world, to immerse ourselves in different cultures, and to do so in the most respectful way possible.

Cultural appropriation is something to be aware of, but I don’t think it should intimidate us away from exploring or engaging with other cultures. Nothing makes me more disheartened than to hear people say that they were afraid to do “X, Y, and Z” while they were abroad, because they feared they would be judged by their peers back home. If you’re not immersing yourself in other cultures, you’re just not getting the full experience.

There are a lot of really informative books and articles on the topic that I encourage you to read, if you’re interested. I will post a few of them below.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Resources & Further Reading

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Cultural Appropriation Travel

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