Appreciation or Appropriation?


Om symbol that was turned into an earring for aesthetics. Courtesy of Kishore Kumar.

As unfortunate as it seems, every so often, we see another celebrity getting called out for a controversial hairstyle or outfit. Although they apologize, saying they were trying to appreciate a culture, in the end, it’s cultural appropriation. Sometimes, calling it out is classified as “sensitive” or “overreacting” and some people say the term “cultural appropriation” has been overused and misused. Has it?
There is a clear difference between appreciation and appropriation. Appreciation is when someone makes an effort to learn about a culture. One would purchase cultural goods that originated from the creators. Appropriation, on the other hand, is when someone uses an aspect of another culture for their own interest. This often happens without consent or a full understanding of the culture.
Cultural appropriation is most often seen in hairstyles and clothing. There are incidents of people who are not Black with hairstyles like dreadlocks or cornrows, which are offensive towards Black people. You might be wondering why. On the surface, it might just seem like “hairstyles” that shouldn’t have restrictions due to race or culture. However, many hairstyles are deeply rooted in the history of Black people.
These hairstyles often originated when slavery still existed. The lack of equipment (such as combs) led to hairstyles like dreadlocks, as stated by BBC News. When slavery was abolished, Black people felt pressured to fit into a mainstream society that was dominated by white people. This caused them to slightly change their hairstyles by making their hair more smooth and flat. This time period, sometimes called “the Great Oppression” was based on the lengths Black people took to have their hair fit into the mainstream hairstyles, which were set by a society that was white. By using hot chemical mixtures, they would comb their hair back to make it look more silky like the hairstyles of white people.
Cultural appropriation is also seen in fashion. The design and culture of a piece of clothing can be influenced by a culture. If someone designs clothing that has resemblance to a culture’s traditional clothing or style, it could be considered cultural appropriation. An example of cultural appropriation done by a celebrity would be when Kim Kardashian wore Om’s symbol earrings. Many fans were disappointed, saying Hinduism is not an aesthetic. However, one could also appreciate a culture in fashion. On the 2018 Vogue India’s cover, Kim Kardashian wore traditional clothing that was designed by top Indian designers. This further emphasizes the importance of purchasing cultural goods from someone part of that culture.
One could say that the difference between appreciation and appropriation is very small, and it really is just up to how people interpret it. And it’s not wrong. It is up to the people that are a part of the culture to decide whether or not something is offensive towards them. Just like how it is not someone’s right to accept an apology if it was not given to them, one cannot decide whether or not something is offensive unless they are a part of the culture. Before one prepares something that involves another culture, educating themselves on the history of other cultures and learning about the deep meanings in symbols could answer the question of whether it is appropriation or appreciation.