We all swim in a soup of multicultural influences, all the time, often without being aware of it. On a typical day we might say “hola!” to each other on the way to a qi gong class after which we bow our thanks to the teacher, wrap a pashmina around our shoulders and head to the nearest café for an espresso – small actions that all originated in faraway places and are now just part of life.
But what happens when, as travelers, we pick up the customs, fashions, foods, and gestures of other cultures? Is it ok to use aloha or kia ora as a greeting when you’re holidaying in Hawaii or New Zealand? To get a traditional Polynesian tattoo in Tahiti or Tonga? To visit a sweat lodge in California, wear your hair in cornrows in Jamaica or rent a kimono in Kyoto?
To find the line, if there is one, between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation we first need to understand what cultural appropriation is, why we do it, how it might be problematic, and how we can be culturally aware as travellers.
It's a slippery term, says cultural tourism researcher Bobbie Chew Bigby, a Cherokee woman based in Oklahoma. “Cultural appropriation has become a really hot topic in the context of wider social issues – including multiculturalism, diversity, social justice issues and the #MeToo movement – and as a result there are a lot of diverse views in the literature on what it actually is.
“I’ve heard it defined as simply taking [elements] from cultures that are not your own as well as benefiting from aspects of cultures that are not your own – both of which seem rather broad to me. I personally define cultural appropriation as the use of or engagement with different aspects of culture in a way that is contrary to the perspectives, views, or wishes of the people to whom that culture belongs.”
Jim Butcher from the University of Christ Church in the UK and the author of The Moralisation of Tourism takes the broader view. “There is nothing really new here. The Grand Tourists of the 18th century, the sons of the aristocracy sent abroad to become cultured, returned with new fashions and ideas. In fact the meeting of cultures has been a focus for progress in ideas, art, and society throughout history. Look at the great cities built on trade routes, such as Venice, where its growth as a maritime and trading power from around the ninth century through to the Renaissance exposed the city to new ideas and styles that shaped its architecture and history, giving Venice its unique and worldly beauty.”
Why do we like to imitate other cultures? Because “we enjoy them, find them aesthetically pleasing, or because we want to pay homage to them,” says Butcher.
It’s also part of human nature, says Bobbie Bigby. “I think as humans we’ve always been curious and fascinated by other cultures and wanted to experience and connect with them by engaging with various aspects of those cultures. But now, in the modern era, globalization, the internet, international trade have all blurred these boundaries [so] I’d say that where those lines are clearest is in more traditional communities – they’re holding the boundary lines. And alongside this has been a growing awareness of social justice issues in recent years.”
Embedded in this concept of marking out one’s cultural territory is a sense of “ownership, pride and identity” in one’s culture, she adds. “For example when we talk about Native American communities in the US, different Tribal groups have different ‘regalia’, as we call our clothing, and there are particular family designs too. So even within a particular Tribe, one family can’t copy another family’s design. I’m Cherokee so I can’t wear a specific design from Seminole, Cheyenne, or Osage clothing, for example. That would just be wrong.”
Connecting with other cultures is one of the joys of travel, but it can become problematic when picking up elements of a culture flows in one direction, as it often does in tourism. “It’s generally more well-off tourists that have the means and resources to visit a place where the people who live there don’t always have equal access to resources,” says Bigby.
Cultural appropriation has even been described as a form of neo-colonialism, reinforcing historical inequalities by reducing customs that have deep meaning for one culture to exotic curiosities for another.
Jim Butcher thinks otherwise, suggesting that focusing on cultural differences can prevent real connection between individuals. “Cultures are too often defined by their differences, with common, human struggles and aspirations ignored… [and] cultural transformation viewed as an external threat,” he says.
“I don’t see many problems with imitating elements of other cultures,” says Butcher. “In fact I think the placing of cultural identities on a pedestal through the invocation of ‘cultural appropriation’ demeans culture. There are, of course, economic injustices. There is also the suppression of cultures by authoritarian regimes. But cultural appropriation in its contemporary usage [within tourism] is most often aimed at benign, and sometimes exciting, cultural encounters. Far from being offended, people often like to see their culture adopted, even in a playful way, by others.”
We’ve all experienced this on our travels. A few years ago, I did a walking safari in Kenya with my father. It was a private trip and we had our own Maasai guide and cooks, all of whom wore traditional red robes called shuka. One morning, Dad decided to take the red blanket off his camp bed and drape it around his shoulders, Maasai style. He wasn’t entirely sure this playful gesture would be well received, but when he emerged from his tent, the Maasai men leapt from their seats by the fire, visibly delighted, and rushed over to shake Dad’s hand. One simple act had bridged the cultural chasm between us and the Maasai men.
Bobbie Bigby has three tips to improve the likelihood that something we want to do, say or wear will be seen as appropriate by the people we’re visiting:
It can help to do some research before participating in cultural experiences, says Tara Kennaway, senior product manager at Intrepid Travel, “to understand the nuances and cultural significance for the community you’re visiting”. Listening to “cultural insiders” such as local guides is also a good idea, as is traveling with tour operators that, like Intrepid, ensure their guides do regular cultural awareness training.
Each of us has a personal line we won’t cross, too, arising from our own values, experiences, and ideas about culture – and what we feel comfortable doing. “At the end of the day, if you feel uncomfortable doing something, it’s ok to say no,” says Bigby. “Listening to your gut feeling is often a good way to navigate your way through a tricky cultural situation.”
This goes for the keepers of the culture too. While studying cultural tourism in Broome, Western Australia, earlier this year Bigby noticed non-Yawaru people using the Yawaru greeting Ngaji gurrjin (hello) around town “and everyone seemed ok with that. But there are always individual differences. If you said wado (thank you in Cherokee) to me I would welcome that, but maybe other Cherokee people wouldn’t. So it’s complicated – and context-specific.”
Besides, we learn by making mistakes, says Jim Butcher. “We may get it wrong now and again, but this is a part of being human and discovering the world for ourselves. To me, culture is less a set of things owned by a group of people and more of a fluid process. Think of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers – each river goes its own way and has its own origin, but they are joined and the water that flows in and between each belongs to neither.”
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