Culture is not fashion. Image from lucidityfestival.com.
When you’re a world traveler, you tend to encounter a variety of cultures, environments, and languages that are totally different from your own. Not only is this a good thing, but it’s often one of the best parts of travel, especially when you are indelibly changed by one of these meetings. However, as we travel, we also become inescapably aware of the fact that not all encounters are the same, and not all cultural acquisitions are a good thing. In fact, at times, the development of our cultural smorgasbord can be considered appropriation and contribute to the current global trend of cultural homogenization.
So what’s a Go Girl to do when trying to balance cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation? Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. Here’s a list of suggestions, though, that can help you begin to suss out the solution for your particular situation:
Do remember that every cultural artifact and ritual has a wealth of history and context behind it.
What you see and want to participate in, may come with unexpected rules or boundaries. Be careful to learn and respect these rules and histories. Be okay with the fact that you may be corrected, rejected, rebuffed, or ignored. Someone else’s culture is not about you.
Do understand that you aren’t always welcome.
Certain practices and rituals are considered exclusive, or are only undertaken with certain people, or are simply too private to the individual involved to explain, and this boundary needs to be respected. Being a tourist or a visitor isn’t a magic wand granting you access rights to or allowing you participation in every single event that you find intriguing. Nothing personal.
That being said, however, do take someone up on their invitation to participate.
An invitation indicates that the person or people involved want to share an event, item of clothing, or ritual with you, and also indicates that this person is likely prepared to walk you through doing the thing properly. Remember, though, that this invitation does not mean that you get to adopt the practice for your very own for the rest of your life.
Do keep in mind that you don’t travel in a vacuum.
Whether you like it or not, you are part of a global system of power dynamics. A lot of the things that are culturally significant around the world have historically been – and continue to be – dismissed for being “ethnic,” “unprofessional,” or “primitive.” As Jarune Uwujaren puts it, “People of all cultures wear business suits and collared shirts to survive. But when one is of the dominant culture, adopting the clothing, food, or slang of other cultures has nothing to do with survival.” There is a long history of colonization and marginalization on this planet, and this continues to impact cultural interactions to this day. You are part of them.
On that note, do consider the circumstances in which you’re being invited to participate.
Are you visiting a tourist trap where insiders are selling off cultural history in order to survive in a cutthroat world economy? That’s a pretty clear sign that your invitation is coerced, not freely given.
Do, of course, take the time to learn about the symbols and rituals that you are encountering…
and try to learn without requiring an insider to explain them to you. There are plenty of people who are sick and tired of explaining the bindi to non-bindi wearers, for example, and plenty of books, ‘zines, and blogs that can give you enough information to be a respectful tourist. Other possible common examples of appropriated symbols or practices? Dreadlocks, yoga, chopsticks, earlobe gauging, numerous American Halloween costumes…the list goes on and on.
And finally, do enjoy the opportunities you have to participate and engage.
The more we can approach each other with respect and mutual engagement, the closer we come to losing the power dynamics that turn cultural exchange into cultural appropriation.
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