Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation Tips for Travelers

by Sojourner

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How do you know the difference between cultural appreciation vs. appropriation?

Let’s Unpack That is a series where we process and unpack our baggage of social identities, travel privileges, and hot topics to understand how they impact our travel experiences. Each post focuses on a topic or social issue to dig deeper and reflect. We cover everything from travel privilege to the white savior complex. Whether in our own countries or abroad, understanding our impact can help us be more responsible and conscious travelers.

This post will be unpacking yet another hot topic: cultural appreciation vs. appropriation. Cultural appreciation vs. appropriation is an issue at home or abroad. What is cultural appreciation?  Cultural appreciation is being genuinely interested in learning about and seeking to understand another culture. Cultural appropriation is the opposite. Cultural appropriation is taking parts of a culture for your personal interest and exploiting it for profit and power.

This is always a hot, messy topic. It’s time to unpack these y’all!

Understanding differences between cultural appreciation vs. appropriation

Cultural appropriation is influenced by a power dynamic

From food to languages, cultures have overlapped and have done so for centuries. Thus some cultures share certain practices. However, the key word is share. Cultural appropriation is not sharing. The issue with cultural appropriation is the power imbalance. The culture that appropriates another becomes the face of that practice due to its wider reach. This leads to misrepresentation and a lack of credit to the culture a practice originally came from. Additionally, the practice loses its cultural significance as it becomes whitewashed and more palatable for popular consumption. Cultural appreciation is more of a balance of power, which can lead to meaningful cultural exchange.

Cultural appropriation ignores the original culture’s plight

To culturally appropriate is to profit off a culture that is not yours. That “profit” can be both financial and social capital. From a financial standpoint, cultural appropriation can mean making money off a culture that is not yours. From a social standpoint this means being complimented for a hairstyle or style of dress, while the people the aesthetic comes from are discriminated against. Normally, cultural appropriators do not have to deal with the stereotypes and repercussions associated with the cultural practices they co-opted. That disregard for the people of the culture you stole from ignores their struggle even though you profit off it.

Cultural appreciation de-centers you and your beliefs

If you appreciate a culture, you do not have to be the face of it. Cultural appreciation is about not only appreciating the practice, but the people. You can easily observe people participating in a cultural tradition without fully placing yourself in that practice. While immersion is helpful and admirable, sometimes it can be taken too far. Using some of the questions outlined later in this post can be helpful in being mindful of when it is too much. 

Examples of cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation in travel

Cultural appreciation examples while traveling

– Visiting the Vatican, or any religious institution, and abiding by their dress codes

– Being invited to a wedding of another culture and wearing the wedding attire appropriate for that culture

– Living abroad and taking classes to learn the language of the host country, converse, and better understand the culture of the community you now call home

– Going to museums while you are traveling to learn about the history and arts unique to a destination

A personal example of cultural appreciation

During my study abroad experience in Spain, I observed my first Semana Santa. I did not participate in any of the processions. I went to a few of them to see what they were all about with my host family. I am not a super religious person and I am not Spanish. Thus, I did not feel the need to engage beyond observing. Sometimes to appreciate a culture is to know you do not need to be the center of its cultural experiences. You can simply observe and admire from afar. 

Cultural appropriation examples while traveling

– Getting henna tattoos because they are fashionable or cute, not acknowledging nor honoring the cultural significance

– Refusing to abide by the country’s cultural practices (you do not have to like them, but if you are asked to dressed a certain way to visit a destination we have to respect it)

– Using someone else’s cultural dress or garb as a costume 

– Buying a souvenirs and reselling them in your home country because they are deemed “exotic” and not giving proper credit and profit to the original culture

A personal example of cultural appropriation

I got henna tattoos all the time! I even got a henna tattoo set for Christmas in college. However, despite all of its cultural appropriation, it is not an arts and craft. Through my own unpacking of cultural appropriation, I learned of henna’s origins in countries such as India, Pakistan, and Egypt for wedding traditions. This is an example of cultural appropriation because I was taking the practice out of its cultural context. I would get them because they were cute and did not fully appreciate its meaning. It would last for a bit on my hand, disappear, and I would forget about it. 

How does cultural exchange and cultural assimilation fit into all of this?

Cultural assimilation is a survival tactic

Cultural assimilation is the process in which a minority group changes themselves to appeal to society’s dominant culture. This can be through clothes, language, beliefs, behavior, and all the other components that create a culture. Given that whiteness is treated as the dominant and superior culture, cultural assimilation is common and also brushed off.  Yet, comparable to the “reverse racism” tactics, “reverse cultural appropriation” is not a thing. 

Let’s take the U.S for example. Black and Brown people adapting to standards of whiteness is what it means to survive in a world that was not designed for us to thrive. Many Black and Brown people have their cultural traditions and practices scrutinized or dismissed. Black and Brown people have been told for generations that our practices are barbaric or not the right way, then co-opted for white consumption. It is very ethnocentric via eurocentric standards. 

Cultural exchange and immersion is the goal

In spite of all of this, cultural exchange and immersion is what travel should be all about. As travelers who are going to other people’s countries, we should be traveling to learn from them. No destination “owes” us an explanation of their culture per say.  However, through genuine conversations and interactions, the hope is that exchange occurs. And if we are in a destination for longer, the end goal is immersion. Whether for a weekend or for months, cultural appreciation can lead to the deeper connection of cultural exchange and immersion. 

Questions to ask yourself before participating in cultural activities

Travel can be be full of adrenaline and excitement. Yet sometimes, it only takes a few minutes to think and realize we should or should not do something. Here are some questions to use to guide that reflection process before engaging in a cultural activity or practice.

1. Do I understand the cultural significance of what I am about to wear or do? 

2. Do I have permission to participate in this cultural practice? (And even if you do be mindful of the power dynamics between tourists and locals)

3. Will what I do erase or diminish the cultural meaning behind it?

4. Is what I am about to do playing into a stereotype of someone else’s culture?

If you answered no any of these questions, please re-evaluate what you are about to do. 

Things to remember about cultural appropriation vs. appreciation

– Do your research and self-education prior to your trip to gauge a deeper understanding of what is appropriate or not.

– If you are still unsure, ask someone from that culture. However, be aware that even within cultures there is a variance of opinion on what is appropriate or not. Just because one person says it is ok, does not mean everyone will agree.

– What may be appropriate in your country can be harmful or offensive in another country. Do your research and be aware.

Key takeaway: we are more than the mistakes we make

The reality is no one is perfect. I am not perfect. You reading this is not perfect. It is inevitable that we will make mistakes. However, it is how we learn from those mistakes that impacts our character. Will we continue to harm someone and their culture when we know it is wrong? No, we should not. Remember that we are human and embody all the messiness that comes with that. And in the same breath, we should all be willing to learn and change. Growth – it’s necessary for us all to thrive and evolve. 


This is like homework, but better!

You don’t know what you don’t know. But now that you know, learn more! Check out the following resources to learn more about cultural appreciation vs. appropriation, what is cultural appreciation in travel, other cultural appreciation examples, etc.

– Greenheart Travel: This is an organization that focuses on responsible travel. They wrote a blog post that does an excellent job at unpacking the difference between cultural appropriation vs. appreciation. The post also includes cultural appreciation examples and tips for travelers to be responsible while traveling.

– Alpaca My Bags Podcast: I’ve mentioned them before, but Alpaca My Bags Podcast is another great resource. They have an episode on understanding cultural appropriation at home and abroad. The episode offers an even deeper look into cultural appropriation and appreciation.

– Decoded: Franchesa Ramsey always brings the heat. In this episode on YouTube, she breaks down the difference between cultural appropriation, assimilation, and cultural exchange. She also uses examples that are not explicitly related to travel. Thus, you can understand examples outside of travel too.

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Hannah January 30, 2021 - 12:07 pm

What an important and insightful post! Thank you so much for opening up a conversation on such an important topic! I have to be honest, it isn’t one that I had considered much in the past. I always try to respect the customs and practices of the country that I am visiting, but I have no doubt I have made some of these mistakes in the past. Thank you for opening my eyes to the differences between cultural appreciation and appropriation and the reminder that we can all strive to be better travelers.

Sojourner January 30, 2021 - 4:29 pm

Thank you so much! And no problem. I have definitely made mistakes too. We just gotta always strive to be better!

Anja January 30, 2021 - 2:00 pm

Really interesting post! I love buying fabric on my trips and make something as a souvenir so I probably practiced cultural appropriation many times. Which is a shame because I used to love to wear some of my creations but mostly stopped doing so. Absolutely agree on the appropriate dress bit as a traveller. It should go without saying that as a traveller outside a resort you observe people around you and dress and behave accordingly but I see big bloopers all the time.

Sojourner January 30, 2021 - 4:31 pm

I think making something as a souvenir may be a bit different tho! Especially if it’s more for you to remember your trip vs. selling it for profit, you know? I think it’s just a very thin line and depends on the context. Also yes, observing is keyyyy!

Jamie Sharpe January 30, 2021 - 6:30 pm

This is a hot button issue for a lot of people but agree with your point about observation. I try to examine each situation separately.

Sojourner February 1, 2021 - 8:54 pm

Yes! Observation is key.

Shafinah January 31, 2021 - 11:32 pm

I love this series and can’t believe I’m only JUST chancing on it now! LOVE ALL THE TOPICS!

Sojourner February 1, 2021 - 8:49 pm

Thank you so much!!

chichi August 28, 2021 - 10:07 pm

This is a well informed and intentional article. I really enjoyed reading it and I have also shared it with a could of people who confuse cultural assimilation with cultural appropriation (“then Black women should stop wearing their hair straight, or bleaching their hair blond, or wearing wigs”). How could a minority group over power the practices of a majority group. Even though minorities tried to, the dominant powers extend and live within the walls of the institutions (schools, housing, organizations, offices, law, etc.) There are so many people I know today that would eat and dine with a Black person but would never vote yes for that Black person to aspire to a position of power. So thank you for clarifying these different contexts and approach.

Sojourner August 30, 2021 - 5:41 am

That’s a great distinction to make! People often use Black women’s hair as an example of reverse cultural appropriation and it is indeed cultural assimilation. Thanks for contributing your thoughts!


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