Appropriation or Appreciation?

5:11 AM

A Henna tattoo I had done in Malaysia

Headed off to prom

I wore a sari to my senior prom. It was beautiful-- black, gold, and red with elaborate embroidery and beading. I felt like a princess swathed in yards of the embellished fabric with intricate henna designs covering my arms. My hair had been arranged in a curly up-do and I had sparkling gold heels dyed to match the sari fabric. I posted pictures to Facebook and Instagram, and while I received no negative comments, I am sure that someone, somewhere looked at my outfit and immediately thought cultural appropriation.

Jezebel defines cultural appropriation as, “"Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission," (Baker). It is a topic often thrust into the limelight this time of year, as costumes with derogatory titles such as “Pocahottie,” or “Pow Wow Wow Woman,” hit the shelves at popular Halloween stores. Both of those costume names were taken off of the website of the Spirit Halloween store. It is clear that these costumes insult someone else’s culture and warp generations of traditions, but cultural appropriation is not always this easy to identify, particularly in the context of foreign exchange programs. These programs are designed to teach young people about different cultures. Cultural appropriation, much like the cultures in question, is never black or white. There is a blurry line between appreciation and appropriation, which gets only blurrier when discussing globalization and Westernization. Society as a whole should be called out for blatant misuse and abuse of another’s culture, but correctly pointing fingers at appropriation becomes challenging when you have a foreigner living as an exchange student in a foreign culture.

When I did make the decision to post my sari pictures on social media, I was sure to include a caption that described why I chose to wear a sari. The particular sari I wore was one that I picked out with one of my best Malaysian friends, Pooja. Pooja, her family, and I had taken a venture into Little India in my host city of Ipoh for the sole purpose of finding me a prom sari, two years before my actual prom. We went to at least four different stores looking for the perfect one before settling on the black and gold number. Pooja’s father helped me locate a tailor to get my sari blouse custom made, and her mother engaged in some fierce bargaining with the shopkeeper so I wouldn’t get slammed with the high foreigner price for such an item. Most meaningful to me, Pooja and another group of friends at my school pooled their money to buy me a beautiful set of golden bangles to match my sari. My sari and my jewelry had their own unique stories but were also smaller parts of my exchange student story as a whole.

The topic of cultural appropriation is very often discussed in relation to exchange students. The students with whom I went abroad are some of the most socially conscious and bright young people I have met, so they were naturally concerned about appropriating their host cultures. Yet in our orientations we were told to try as many new things as possible. If an exchange student does not partake in what may be viewed as appropriation, she will seem unwilling to integrate into her new home and almost seem condescending toward her new family and friends. When someone graciously provides you with traditional dress to wear to a wedding, it would be unthinkable to say. “No, I shouldn’t. That’s disrespecting your culture and I don’t want to do that.” Their feelings would be hurt, and they likely wouldn’t understand. To people trying to teach you about their way of life, a refusal is a refusal despite good intentions. Sometimes avoiding cultural appropriation can do more harm than good in the context of study abroad.

Everyday Feminism’s provocative article on the difference between cultural exchange and appropriation states the following, “[Wearing another’s traditional dress from a place of respect] is what cultural exchange can look like – engaging with a culture as a respectful and humble guest, invitation only,” (Uwajaren). This is true, and it’s also important to note that when one is overseas, seeking out opportunities to learn about culture will enrich one’s experience tenfold. If you engage with a place without learning about its culture, it’s almost like you do not care enough to find about how a country came to be that way. The idea of culture’s role in society is not one often discussed in The United States, because the culture here is as diverse as Americans themselves. But in other countries, culture is the basis of politics, familial interactions, and everyday social interactions. It is impossible to understand life in a different country without first understanding the underlying culture, and it is impossible to understand the underlying culture without first experiencing it.

What exchange students do that many tourists do not, is share their culture. Sharing culture is not a get out of jail free card when it comes to cultural appropriation but it contextualizes it in a way that makes cultural exchange mutually beneficial. Exchange students serve as ambassadors of their country and become physical representations of their home country to everyone they meet while abroad. Instead of basing their opinion of a country off of of pop culture and the media, those who interact with an exchange student have a much more authentic understanding of a foreign country.

Exchange students should not be accused of “borrowing” one’s culture without understanding its role in society because they do take the time to understand. In their homestays, they learn crucial lessons about the ideas of globalization and fragmentation. A woman who chooses to wear traditional dress as a means of modesty may be taken less seriously than a woman in a power suit because traditional dress can imply an old-fashioned mindset. These ideas are not on the surface of a culture, either. It can take months to puzzle out the intricacies of a place, and even then it’s hard to grasp the full picture. It’s a pretty fair guess that a music festival attendee wearing a bindi does not understand its spiritual significance.

But the problem with well-intentioned social justice bloggers calling people out for cultural appropriation is that you can’t tell someone’s interactions with a culture from a picture. They may have spent a year in India and wear bindis because their host family taught them about Hinduism. When I post photos of henna tattoos I do on clients, my Indian friends from Malaysia are excited to see me sharing their culture. However, to someone else it may seem like I am warping traditional Indian/ West African/ Middle Eastern art. At college, I do most of my advertising for henna tattoos on Yik Yak. It’s an app that allows students to anonymously post thoughts, ideas, events, etc. After posting one day that I would be in the dining hall from 4-6 doing tattoos, someone posted immediately after me, saying “Friendly reminder that henna is a form of cultural appropriation.” I replied to this post explaining my background with Indian cultures, and was sure to mention the fact that I try to share a little bit about my time in Malaysia with my clients so they can understand the cultural significance of henna in other parts of the world. I was not mad at the person who posted about cultural appropriation, but more so filled with a desire to teach them about how my views of culture have been shaped by my experience as an exchange student.

On that note, I’d say a pretty safe rule to follow when it comes to cultural appropriation is to think like an exchange student. Recognize that it is an issue, but recognize that without in depth experience you will not get the full picture. Don’t be quick to judge, but be quick to engage in conversation about the issue. It is only through discussion that the issue can be explored and corrected if it is true appropriation.

When exchange students are prepped to go overseas, they are bombarded with information about everything from homesickness to how to deal with food poisoning. The idea is to prep exchange students with as many tools as possible to guarantee success. Without a doubt the most important piece of advice I received, and the biggest piece of advice I pass on in my role as an orientation leader is, “Not good, not bad, just different” (AFS). Instead of being quick to jump to conclusions, people should learn to acknowledge and appreciate differences, but more importantly focus on their roots. I mentioned earlier that culture is never just black and white, and neither is appropriation. One should learn to understand a situation before they are quick to label it.

When it comes to cultural appropriation, think like an exchange student. Recognize that it is an issue, but recognize that without in depth experience you will not get the full picture. Don’t be quick to judge, but be quick to engage in conversation about the issue. It is only through discussion that the issue can be explored and corrected if it is true appropriation.

Works Cited

Baker, Katie. “A Much-Needed Primer On Cultural Appropriation.” Jezebel. Web. 25 Oct. 2015. <>
“Northeast Ohio Area Team.” AFS Intercultural Programs. Web. 25 Oct. 2015. <>
Uwajaren, Jarune. “The Difference Between Cultural Exchange And Cultural Appropriation.” Everyday Feminism. N.p., 2013. Web. 25 Oct. 2015. <>

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  1. I concur. Cultural exchanges provide the means to foster greater understanding and awareness of anothers' culture. The only thing that I find disturbing is when one tends to share about another person's culture, a handful of people will interpret it as the individual 'championing' that other person' culture. In some instances, they can go as far as thing that the individual is 'abandoning' his or her own's culture.


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