Travel is one of the best tools to bring people and cultures together. Participating in other countries’ customs and traditions can be an enriching experience, and for most, these types of exchanges are the reason we travel to other places. However, as the world becomes more globalized, and as more people interact with foreign cultures during their travels, the distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation can be a hard line to draw, but it’s one that all travelers should be mindful of. After all, it’s only possible to build bridges and truly celebrate culture when people come together respectfully and act sensitively.

People walking in a ceremonial parade in Bali, Indonesia
Photo by Ruben Hutabarat

What is cultural appropriation?

The Oxford English Dictionary added “cultural appropriation” to its database in late 2017, which highlights the fact that this pressing issue has only recently been brought into public debate, despite its relevance throughout history. The OED defines the term as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.” On paper, this definition seems relatively straight-forward, but in practice, cultural appropriation has infinite complexities and gray areas. In order to better understand this hotly contested issue, let’s use this definition as a starting point.

One key word to take away from the OED definition is the phrase “unacknowledged.” Borrowing from a community or culture that is not your own is a kind of cultural plagiarism — always give credit where it is due, and only borrow from something you fully understand. As an outsider encountering another group’s culture, always be conscious and respectful of communities’ traditions, taking the time to learn about and understand the cultural and historical context. Despite the adage that “imitation is the best form of flattery,” taking from another culture without recognizing it is not a way of appreciating that culture, but appropriating it. Negative examples of this include circumstances of people wearing Navajo headdresses at music festivals or white pop stars using “blaccents,” forms of misappropriation that reduces an oppressed culture to a single stereotype. Even still, simply acknowledging the cultures from whom you’ve borrowed can still leave you in regrettable territory, especially if the acknowledgment is given after you’ve ended up in hot water — as we’ve seen in the fashion industry time and time again. As a rule, if you plan to borrow from another culture, whether it’s food or fashion, be sure that you comprehend the significance of the tradition and acknowledge the source-culture in a respectful manner — it should never be an afterthought.

Colorful skirts of women dancing
Photo by Sydney Rae

One of the reasons cultural appropriation is so hard to define is that discerning when borrowing is “inappropriate adoption” is just as difficult to pin down. For example, wearing a head covering while visiting Istanbul’s Blue Mosque — even if you are not Muslim — is a way to respect, appreciate, and assimilate into that culture without (mis)appropriating it. But wearing that head covering as a costume is an inappropriate adoption of Islam, and the same goes for wearing any other costume that makes light of an important historical figure or traditional aspect of a culture that is not your own.

The final — and perhaps most important — aspect of the definition pertains to who is doing the appropriating. The OED specifies members of a “typically dominant” group, but perhaps the better way to view the issue is from the perspective of those whose culture is being appropriated. As Fordham University Law professor Susan Scafidi told Jezebel in a 2012 article, “[Cultural appropriation is] most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.” Scafidi’s explanation offers more insight into when borrowing from another culture is particularly offensive, stating that it’s crucial to take historical and systematic oppression into account and to be conscious of your own privilege at all times.

Hands serving rice
Photo by Chanikarn Thongsupa

How to culturally appreciate (and not appropriate) while traveling

When traveling, real-world situations may arise where you’ll want to engage with another community’s culture — this is when it is critical to be aware of whether you’re appreciating or appropriating. So, before you don a dashiki, cornrow your hair, or decorate your hands with henna, ask yourself some guiding questions:

  • Do I understand the significance of this attire/tradition/custom?
  • Am I honoring this culture, or simply imitating it?
  • Will my participation result in a cultural exchange, or will it perpetuate stereotypes and hurt people who belong to this culture?
  • Am I doing this as a personal opportunity to interact with and experience another culture, or am I doing this for the photo I’ll post on Instagram later?

Unfortunately, we can’t give you the answer to every situation you may find yourself in, so you’ll have to make the final call and decide for yourself. But if you embrace another community with respect for its traditions, history, and culture — and remain aware of your own privilege and intention — you can become a more mindful and compassionate traveler. After all, traveling is all about engaging with people from other cultures, hearing their stories, learning their language, understanding their traditions, and exchanging invaluable aspects of what it means to be a global citizen.

Women in traditional dress walking down a street in Kyoto, Japan
Photo by Andre Benz

Ready to learn more about other cultures? Check out our article explaining who Indigenous peoples are and our web roundup of influential Native American writers.

Header image by Pablo Heimplatz
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Hope Allison
Hope is a photographer and writer based on Cape Cod, MA. An explorer by nature, she loves trying unfamiliar foods and visiting new places. When she's not taking pictures, Hope can be found reading plays, baking bread, and planning her next adventure.