Sometimes we all need a friendly reminder: your perspective of another culture based on travel or through social circles is just that – your perspective. And your perspective of a world culture is not always going to align with those native to that culture. What’s more, without proper introspection, attempting to borrow or co-opt traditional elements of another culture can deeply erode trust.
Cultural appropriation is when people from a dominant group or culture adapt or commodify elements from a marginalized culture, without fully respecting or understanding the meanings behind those elements. It is harmful because it allows people of the dominant culture to imitate the “exotic Other” without acknowledging the discrimination that marginalized people face for these same practices.
Last year, for example, a non-Chinese woman decided to open up a Chinese restaurant in New York City and claimed to do it better than Chinese people. This is damaging to the Chinese community because she took ownership of a culture that is not her own, as well as perpetuated the centuries-old prejudice against Chinese people in Western societies as being “dirty” with “greasy food.” Perhaps beside the point is that she alienated customers and potential employees because her inauthenticity did not promote a sense of trust. Take it from someone who is very proud of her heritage: cultural appropriation is going to hinder your ability to expand the diversity of your network because it causes direct harm to people of color.
The good news is that I know CultureWizard users are global citizens who aim to appreciate cultures, not appropriate them. Here are ways you can change the way you relate to other cultures respectfully through cultural appreciation.
Take the time to gather cultural and historical context
Ask yourself if you understand the cultural significance of the food, jewelry, or clothing you are about to purchase. Have you educated yourself on the meaning of this particular object? If the jewelry is considered sacred, for example, rethink whether it is appropriate to wear. Before traveling to a new country, we at CultureWizard refer to our Country Profiles, which include details on 160 countries. They provide a valuable frame of reference for intercultural communication. Another fun way to add historical and social context to your knowledge base is to watch television series and movies from that culture.
Participate in cultural exchanges
International food festivals such as the Ubud Food Festival in Bali celebrates cross-cultural cuisine and connects people of all different backgrounds through a shared love of food. Avoid falling into precarious power dynamics by engaging in equal exchanges that allow ownership of one’s culture to remain rightfully with its owners, while still allowing you to appreciate from a place of respect.
For example, my new colleague and I got to know each other by swapping our respective traditional recipes. Let’s just say her homemade Chinese dumplings were much more impressive than my attempt at apfelstrudel. Rather than feeling like she was taking my culture and heralding it as her own accolades, we were able to build a more meaningful rapport built on mutual respect.
Give credit where credit is due
If you really want to honor and appreciate another culture’s idea, then you must actively give credit and involve people from said culture in the process. Using the example of the non-Chinese woman who opened up a Chinese restaurant, she could have hired a Chinese staff, where Chinese chefs could conjure up Chinese meals and collectively enjoy the fruits of labor. In both home and work life, include diverse voices for a more well-rounded, productive conversation, and credit people when they contribute a unique perspective.
Remember that cultural appreciation is achieved through a global mindset
The only way to truly develop a global mindset is to explore the world with curiosity and humility. In addition to including both people and their culture in your global endeavours, it is imperative to enter diverse interactions with spatial awareness and lead with curious observation.
Cultural appropriation comes from a conscious or unconscious entitlement of another culture based on proximity or perceived authority of the culture. A lifelong commitment to learning, questioning our own biases, and acute awareness of power dynamics can transform even the simplest of conversations into authentic and valuable intercultural interactions.