Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel

Post originally Published February 1, 2024 || Last Updated February 1, 2024

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Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - The Fine Line Between Appreciating and Appropriating

Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel

When exploring new cultures as a traveler, it can be tricky to walk the fine line between appreciating and appropriating. Many well-meaning travelers want to immerse themselves in the local culture. However, there are right and wrong ways to go about it. Appropriation happens when travelers adopt cultural elements disrespectfully or without proper context. This can be hurtful to minority groups and perpetuate stereotypes. Appreciation, on the other hand, means thoughtfully learning about and experiencing a culture.

Intent matters. If your intent is to sincerely understand and celebrate a culture, you’re probably appreciating. If it’s to exotify or trivialize the culture, it’s likely appropriation. For example, wearing a sari as a costume is different than wearing one respectfully after being invited to a traditional ceremony.
Do your research. Learning about the history and meaning behind cultural symbols or practices shows appreciation. For example, find out the significance of a tribal tattoo before emulating one as a fashion statement.

Avoid caricatures. Appreciation sees people as complex, nuanced individuals. Appropriation resorts to stereotypes and caricatures. For example, it’s better to learn about actual Day of the Dead traditions than wear a Halloween “sugar skull” costume.
Credit the source. Giving credit to the culture you’re appreciating is respectful. For example, say salsa music has West African roots instead of passing it off vaguely as “Latin.”

What else is in this post?

  1. Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - The Fine Line Between Appreciating and Appropriating
  2. Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - Immersing Yourself Respectfully
  3. Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - Cultural Exchange vs Exploitation
  4. Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - When Admiration Crosses Into Offense
  5. Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - Honoring Traditions with Reverence
  6. Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - Ask First, Assume Later
  7. Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - Learn the History and Significance

Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - Immersing Yourself Respectfully

Immersing yourself in a new culture is one of travel’s greatest gifts. It allows you to gain perspective, open your mind, and make connections across borders. But it’s so important to do it respectfully.

The key is approaching other cultures with humility, not entitlement. Just because a practice is open to tourists doesn’t automatically make it right to participate. For example, just because you can easily join in on a religious ceremony doesn’t mean you should. Some rituals have deep spiritual meaning for locals that outsiders can’t fully understand.

That’s why it’s crucial to learn about the background first. Before diving in, educate yourself on the history and significance of the cultural experience. Speak to locals and ask their thoughts on outsider participation. If welcomed, proceed with care and deference.

For example, one traveler wanted to check out an indigenous music festival in Guatemala. She researched local attitudes about tourists joining these ceremonies. The consensus was that visitors were fine to respectfully observe, but not actually play the spiritual music. By learning the nuances, she avoided causing offense.
Another key is avoiding caricatures or costumes. When appreciating cultural dress, don’t just thoughtlessly emulate it as a costume or photo prop. Treat traditional clothing with the dignity it deserves. For instance, don full traditional dress after being invited, not just a fun hat. Or drape a sari carefully, don’t twist it into a mini skirt.
Cultural fusion can be amazing, but also sensitive. Instead of haphazardly mixing elements from different traditions, learn their origins first. For example, don’t just randomly combine Dia de los Muertos motifs with Japanese anime on a shirt design. Appreciate both cultures sincerely before attempting to blend them.

Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - Cultural Exchange vs Exploitation

The difference between cultural exchange and exploitation is a line that’s often blurry for travelers. Sharing and celebrating each other’s cultures can be profoundly rewarding. However, it can also turn into appropriation when travelers treat cultural experiences like disposable commodities.

For example, volunteer tourism programs seem like a great opportunity for cultural exchange. Participants can immerse themselves in a new community while giving back. However, some programs are structured more for the benefit of privileged Westerners than local people. Volunteers may swoop in, feel good about “saving” poor communities, and leave having learned little about them.

Exploitative “voluntourism” relies on tired stereotypes. Participants aren’t encouraged to understand complex root causes of poverty. Instead they may paint a house for a week then leave feeling like heroes. This ultimately perpetuates a cycle where visitors gain while communities lose agency.
An example of cultural exchange done right is how one family approached learning about Native American culture. Instead of just visiting a reservation as tourists, they developed a meaningful friendship with a member of the Ojibwe Nation first. He mentored them on their shared history over many months. Only then did they visit his reservation at his invitation. Their experience was educational rather than transactional.
Another positive example is shopping local craft markets with care. Instead of haggling artisans down to bargain prices, pay fair wages. Seek quality over quantity. Ask craftspeople about their work and commission custom pieces. This creates an enriching exchange where local artists are empowered, not exploited.
A huge factor is where your money goes. Prioritize tour companies and hotels owned by local people, not foreign corporations. Do they treat staff equitably? Tip service workers generously. Redistribute privilege through your economic choices.
Important perspective also comes from listening to people from within exploited cultures. In the US, Native Americans have spoken against inappropriate use of headdresses at music festivals. People from India have criticized Westerners thoughtlessly wearing bindis. Honor their voices.

Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - When Admiration Crosses Into Offense

When does sincere interest become problematic intrusion? This question haunts many culturally-curious travelers who want to connect with locals authentically. It’s frustrating realizing your well-meaning admiration has caused offense. However, these missteps present invaluable chances for self-reflection and growth.

Take, for example, Miriam, who joined a week-long homestay program in rural India. She was delighted to fully immerse herself in a new community and lifestyle. However, in her eagerness, Miriam didn’t realize her constant photo-taking and questioning was tiring for her hosts. While they were too polite to say anything, she was monopolizing their time and treating them like exhibits in a human zoo.
Upon returning home, Miriam saw her behavior through their eyes and was mortified. However, she took this as a learning opportunity about boundaries. She educated herself on more mutually beneficial ways to engage with local people. The next time Miriam volunteered abroad, she let the community lead and set the pace.

As another example, Ryan was enthralled by indigenous art while traveling in Australia. He got a traditional-style tattoo by a local artist as a memento. Though Ryan saw this as honoring the culture, local Aboriginal groups politely educated him this misappropriated their sacred body art. Ryan then volunteered with an indigenous-run organization to redeem himself.

Well-intentioned gestures like Miriam’s photo spree or Ryan’s tattoo often seem harmless in the moment. However, upon deeper reflection, travelers may realize they subconsciously viewed locals as exotic curiosities or public spectacles. They commodified culture rather than seeing people’s full humanity.
The key is maintaining empathy and realizing people’s lives exist independent of your tourism. Be careful not to treat human beings like attractions put there for your entertainment. Make sure to give back and listen more than insert yourself. Stay regularly mindful of your privilege and assumptions.

No harm in making mistakes, as long as you apologize and learn from them! Changing deep-rooted attitudes takes time. The goal is steady progress through experience. Keep questioning yourself and unexamined biases. And remember, different cultural norms means offense won’t always be overt. Tune into subtle cues from body language and tone. When in doubt, politely ask how you can engage respectfully.

Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - Honoring Traditions with Reverence

Reverence goes hand in hand with cultural appreciation. When appreciating traditions, you must approach them with the utmost care, humility and respect. Travelers who barge into sacred spaces or ceremonies without invitation or consideration cause deep offense. However, those who educate themselves on the meaning behind rituals and treat them accordingly earn the privilege of observation or participation. You honor a culture by acknowledging traditions’ significance before engaging with them.

For example, one traveler was amazed to learn he could attend a Navajo blessing ceremony during his trip to the American Southwest. However, he made the crucial mistake of treating it like a tourist spectacle for his entertainment. He brought his camera and snapped photos obnoxiously, not realizing photography was prohibited in this sacred space. The traveler only thought of satisfying his curiosity, rather than deeply meditating on the experience. His self-centered behavior showed immense disrespect.
In contrast, another visitor prepared extensively before attending such a ceremony. She knew that Navajo blessing rituals hold profound meaning about restoring harmony. Therefore, she observed solemnly and silently. The woman participated only when invited to approach the altar. Her quiet reverence was noticed and appreciated by elders. They gifted her a blessed turquoise stone necklace for showing such care.
Honoring a place’s customs also means dressing appropriately and following etiquette rules. For instance, cover bare shoulders when visiting temples and mosques. Take shoes off before entering homes and holy sites in some Asian cultures. Don’t eat or pass items with the left “unclean” hand in parts of the Middle East and India. Research and respect taboos around topics like politics and religion.

Essentially, appreciation requires seeing traditions as sacred. Don't just see them as fun opportunities for tourist photos. Pause and consider “Should I really be doing this?” Treat traditions as you would wish outsiders to approach your own valued customs. Always err on the side of restraint out of reverence.

Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - Ask First, Assume Later

Asking before assuming is a simple yet profound act of cultural appreciation. Travelers who plunge into traditions without permission can commit deep transgressions. You must first learn rules around outsider participation in rituals, cuisine, dress, music and more. Never assume a cultural door is open just because you, the tourist, want it to be.

For instance, Benjamin was amazed when he stumbled on an intricate Tibetan sand mandala under construction. He eagerly started snapping photos of the meticulous work. However, a monk politely stopped him, explaining photography was prohibited until after the mandala was consecrated. Benjamin had incorrectly assumed that because he could see this sacred art, it was fine to photograph. He immediately apologized.
You must also ask before appropriating traditions like folk dances or religious garb as costumes. Kristina was enthralled watching Māori performers during her New Zealand trip. She wanted to join but restrained herself until given permission. The Māori later honored her respect by teaching Kristina their haka war dance. Through asking, she showed her sincere interest in understanding, not exploiting, their culture.
Asking locals directly shows your interest in learning. However, also do secondary research beforehand around cultural sensitivities. Locals may feel pressured to invite you even if they’re uncomfortable. So combine research with asking.

For example, when I visited India, I researched local attitudes on Western women wearing saris before asking about participating in ‘sari school’. The research showed that most Indians resent ‘sari tourism’ as disrespectful costuming. I learned why the sari is such a revered garment imbued with symbolism. So I did not ask my hosts to arrange a photo-op ‘sari session’. Showing that prior knowledge demonstrated respect.
Asking also means listening, without argument, to “no.” Regional differences exist within cultures, so one community may welcome what another rejects. Respect each community’s preferences. Just because one person says a tradition is open to you does not mean all will agree. Honor the group consensus.

Exploring Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation in Travel - Learn the History and Significance

Understanding the history and significance behind cultural traditions is crucial for appreciating them respectfully as a traveler. Too often, we trivialize what we do not comprehend. Making assumptions rather than researching a custom’s roots can lead to superficial appropriation. However, learning the deeper meaning behind practices brings empathy and insight.

For instance, many tourists are enthralled by geisha culture when visiting Japan. They assume based on pop culture stereotypes that geishas are glamorous entertainers and casually try to snap photos with them. However, learning the nuanced history reveals geishas are highly-trained practitioners of traditional Japanese arts. During years of apprenticeship, they master skills like music, dance, conversation, and tea ceremony. Their role is to embody and preserve important cultural ideals, not amuse tourists. Knowing thiscontext prevents misunderstandings.
As another example, traveler Megan grew curious about the intricately painted dia de los muertos sugar skulls she saw in Oaxaca. Instead of carelessly buying them as Halloween decor, she researched their significance. Megan learned sugar skulls represent deceased loved ones and are offerings to honor them during this solemn Mexican holiday. Understanding their spiritual meaning helped her appreciate them profoundly.
Travelers may also mistakenly exoticize unfamiliar traditions from indigenous groups. For instance, Emily was astonished observing a Lakota Sioux sun dance ritual in South Dakota. Without grasping its original purpose, she assumed it was merely a performance for tourists. However, learning the history revealed the sun dance's deep spiritual roots. It was meant to give thanks, pray for prosperity, and ritually connect dancers to the life cycle. This knowledge transformed it for Emily from spectacle to sacrament.

Essentially, avoiding assumptions and investing effort to uncover origins shows respect. It expands one's perspective, leading to mindful appreciation rather than shallow appropriation. Before participating in or observing unfamiliar traditions, ask yourself, "Do I fully understand what this practice or object means to the originating culture? Why was it originally created? How has its role evolved over time?" Even basic online research can provide enlightenment where ignorance breeds insensitivity. Suspend judgment until you grasp the tradition's essence.

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