The Key Differences Between Cultural Appreciation and Appropriation

The differences between cultural appreciation and appropriation may seem subtle, but they're crucial to understand. As you seek to understand other cultures, make sure you're doing so with empathy, respect, and care. With openness and sensitivity, you can gain a deeper appreciation for cultural traditions that aren't your own. But appropriation seeks to adopt the aesthetics of other cultures while lacking real understanding, and that's where the trouble starts. There's a way to honor cultural traditions that aren't your own without appropriating them. Let's explore how.

Understanding the Nuances: Defining Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation

Understanding the difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation is key. Cultural appreciation is respectfully learning about and taking an interest in aspects of a culture. It recognizes the value of diversity and promotes understanding between groups. Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, involves taking or using aspects of culture in disrespectful or trivializing ways, especially by those from the dominant culture.

The key difference comes down to intent and impact. Appreciation fosters mutual respect and understanding, while appropriation marginalizes groups and promotes harmful stereotyping. Educating yourself on cultures different from your own, listening to marginalized groups, and being mindful of the impact of your actions are all important steps toward building appreciation and avoiding appropriation.

Examples of Appreciation: Respectfully Engaging With and Celebrating Culture

Culture is meant to be shared and celebrated. When done respectfully, appreciating cultural elements like food, dress, music, and traditions is a great way to broaden your mind and bring people together.

Respectful Curiosity

Asking thoughtful questions about cultural practices shows your interest in learning and understanding. They will likely appreciate your respectful curiosity.

Do Your Research

Rather than make assumptions, look into the cultural elements that interest you. Read about their origins and importance. Understanding context will allow you to appreciate the culture more deeply.

Give Credit Where It's Due

When you share or promote cultural elements, always credit and acknowledge their origins. For example, if you organize an event featuring cuisine, music, or dance from a particular culture, recognize them and consider inviting representatives to participate.

What Constitutes Appropriation: Identifying Harmful Use of Cultural Elements

Cultural appropriation occurs when elements of a minority culture are used by members of the dominant culture, particularly if it is done without consent and in a way that disrespects or misrepresents the original culture. It often involves taking or using aspects of culture in disrespectful or trivializing ways.

Using Sacred Cultural Elements Inappropriately

Certain cultural elements, like religious symbols, ceremonial dress, and ritual objects, should not be used outside of their intended context. For example, wearing a Native American headdress as a fashion accessory or using a Buddha statue as decor trivializes and disrespects the cultural and spiritual significance of these items.

Cherry-Picking Parts of a Culture

Rather than truly engaging with and understanding culture, appropriators pick and choose isolated aspects to adopt, often the most superficial ones. They ignore the deep meanings and complex histories behind these cultural elements. 

Benefiting from a Culture You Help Oppress

Members of groups have historically oppressed minority groups and their cultures. Therefore, appropriating elements of these marginalized cultures for personal gain or entertainment is unethical.


So there you have it, the key differences to understand between cultural appreciation and appropriation. Ultimately, it comes down to respect, understanding, and consent. Appreciating another culture means learning about it with an open and humble mindset, honoring its complexities, and seeing its members as human beings. Appropriating a culture, on the other hand, involves taking aspects of a culture out of context and using them however you like without regard for their meaning or importance.

Contributed by Debby Star