Cultural Appreciation vs. Cultural Appropriation: Why it Matters

Cultural Appreciation vs. Cultural Appropriation:  Why it Matters

By Kelsey Holmes, Greenheart Club Program Assistant

Cultural exchange and appreciation are the core values of Greenheart Club.  Learning to understand a culture that is different than your own is so important in becoming a global citizen and leader.  Through our participants, we’ve heard so many wonderful stories of people of different backgrounds coming together to exchange ideas through service.

It is important to understand, however, that there is a difference between appreciation and appropriationAppreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally.  Appropriation on the other hand, is simply taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest.  Appropriation could mean of purchasing a piece of jewelry or clothing that may have important cultural significance to that culture, but simply using it as a fashion statement.  It could be taking a photo of a ritual ceremony simply for the sake of getting as many likes on Facebook as possible.  Regardless, taking a part of another culture without understanding what it truly means can be harmful not only to those whose culture you are using but also to those with whom you share it.

So, how can you explore and take part in a culture without exploiting it for your own use?  Here are a few great ways!

  1. Examine your own culture. Through self-reflection, you will be better able to understand differences and determine what is important in cultures across the world.  If you realize that a specific aspect of your own cultural background is central to your identity, and it would offend you if someone were to use it without understanding fully what it means, consider that people all over the world, in cultures other than your own, may feel exactly the same way.
    • Think about: Would I be offended if someone wore an important religious symbol from my culture without understanding what it truly means?
  2. Listen first.  One of the best ways to understand and appreciate another culture is by listening to those who are a part of the fabric of that society.  Listen to their stories, understand the implications behind the aspects of their culture that you are interested in, and use that understanding to broaden your worldview.
    • Think about: I recently purchased a beautiful piece of handmade jewelry.  Did I listen to the artist who created the piece to learn more about his or her background, what their work means to them, and how it fits into the culture of that place?  If not, I may be appropriating instead of appreciating.
  3. Consider context. What does a certain symbol mean to a particular culture? When and where is it appropriate to use it? Understanding what the various aspects of a culture are and what they mean are so important.  If you truly have an interest in a person’s life, more than likely, they will be happy to share with you the things that matter to them.
    • Think about: Did I just take a piece of someone’s culture to use for my own benefit, without knowing the significance behind it? Did I ask about the origins of the custom, item, or symbol?  This is so important in understanding and appreciating a culture.
  4. Share your own culture. The most important part of cultural exchange – and what best distinguishes it from appropriation is that exchange is mutual.  Through appreciation and exchange, you are able to share something about yourself, learn something about someone else, and partake in a mutual understanding of one another’s background and culture.
    • Think about: Am I equally interested in sharing a piece of my own language, food, customs, and traditions? Chances are, this person is just as excited to learn about my culture as I am about theirs.  What an incredible part of cultural exchange and appreciation!

Still unsure?  Use the infographic below to check yourself and make sure that you are respecting and appreciating other cultures in an appropriate way!


At Greenheart Club, our participants are actively engaged in mutual exchange and cultural appreciation.  What are some ways that you show your appreciation of other cultures?

24 thoughts on "Cultural Appreciation vs. Cultural Appropriation: Why it Matters"

  1. Tara says:

    Trying to learn here. Interesting that, if I wear a piece of jewelry with cultural significance, my INTENTION is everything. If I got to know the artist, heard her story, etc. that is appreciation. But how does anyone else know my intention behind wearing the piece? They could assume I’m appropriating instead of appreciating.

    Also, being of Irish ancestry, I’ve always taken offense at the celebration of St. Patrick. What a farce. An excuse for people to get drunk and act inappropriately. But have I ever stated this in this way? No. People would tell me I’m a party pooper.

    1. Nicole McCarthy says:

      Hi Tara- thanks for sharing your thoughts with us! We agree that there is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation and that we each interpret our cultural identities in different ways. I think that we have all experienced people crossing that line at times, but the important thing is to talk about it and keep learning. We encourage you to keep exploring these ideas along with us! Thanks for reading! – Greenheart

      1. L.Orris says:

        I am of Scot/Irish/Dutch and German decent. I completely agree with you about St. St. Patrick’s Day.

        I was at a store that had shot glasses attached to green beads. Earrings with tiny beer mugs attached. There were buttons, “Irish for a Day.” That wasn’t Cultural Appropriation, that was Cultural Disrespect. No, you cannot be Irish for a day. It portrays the Irish people as a bunch of drunkards. I called the corporate offices to express this.

        I would be equally offended if Sombreros, and more necklaces with Shot glass came out for Cinco De Mayo. A Caucasian wearing a Sombrero, not cool at all. Thankfully, the stores have enough sense not to do this practice.

        Now, if we could get them on board for St. Patrick’s Day. Shamrocks, fine, earrings, the same. Please wear green as to not be pinched. I’m ok with this also. Promoting that Irish people are drunkards. I’m not happy with that at all.

        Thank you for allowing this dialogue.

  2. Brenda Simmons says:

    Good morning
    A colleague of mind and I was exchanging thoughts and she sent this to me in confirmation of my conclusion of years of experience as a “community leader” over the past 30 years. And as Executive Director of the Southampton African American Museum located in the heart of the village of Southampton aka “Da HAMPTONS” I personally have Always loved learning and embracing other culturals and also proudly sharing mine. We MUST tell OUR story.

    Our mission is “to promote and an understanding and appreciation of AFRICAN American culture by creating programs that will preserve the past, encourage learning and enhance the life of the community. Southampton African American Museum will research and collect local history, produce media events, create expand community celebrations.
    The Southampton African American Museum will TREASURE the past, TEND to the present, and TRANSFORM the future.”
    I appreciate you and will like to keep in communications.

    1. Julia Rabin says:

      Hi Brenda,
      Your mission sounds admirable and we’re so glad you came across our organization! Thanks for sharing – we agree that it is SO important to learn, embrace, and promote cultural exchange and understanding!

  3. L. Orris says:


    I just stumbled upon your amazing site. This is my question? I am Scot/Irish/Dutch and German.

    In the 1970’s it seems everyone wore everything as a fashion statement. A good example was Turquoise jewelry in silver. Our late Mother had several pieces our late Father purchased for her as gifts. They were purchased at department stores.

    To my knowledge they do not have Native American symbols. I know the Turquoise is real, as is the silver. Were they crafted by Native Americans? This is unknown.

    Would it be considered cultural appropriation to wear a bracelet or a necklace every once in awhile? These are bold pieces. Does Turquoise have a special meaning to Native Americans?

    I would simple like to wear it in honor of our late Mother. She passed away when I was 23 years old. However, I know times have changed and I certainly do not wish to offend Native peoples.

    Thank you for your answer.

    1. Julia Rabin says:

      Hi L. Orris,
      What a great and thoughtful question! As someone who is not a member of the Indigenous community – I cannot answer this! I think another important aspect of understanding cultural appreciation and the difference between appropriation is also exploring the resources you use, and working hard not to make generalizations about a community, or asking someone to speak on behalf of a whole community. I’d encourage you to do a bit more research into the meaning behind turquoise in jewelry for the Native American community and to look for resources that come from the community.

      Good luck! And we’d love for you to comment back if you have found some more information on this!

      1. David says:

        From the culture of Christianity. What is it when Christ Jesus or Christian symbols are used in (IN SO CALLED ART OR ART) in a demeaning way? Does that count in your organization and the continued learned path for all of us. Or do you not consider that a culture even though you acknowledge religious symbols and leaders of other cultures? Please do not give the same single generic answer as all the previous ones given. Thank you.

        1. Olivia Havens says:

          Hi David, we understand this is certainly a difficult topic, so we’d just like to clarify that this blog is to serve as a platform in welcoming and acknowledging varying opinions and comments. We thank you for offering your input, as conversation is necessary here. As an organization acknowledging the differences between appreciation and appropriation, we have found that it’s commonly misunderstood, since it is not a topic often considered in daily conversation. Unfortunately, we have all experienced this line being crossed in inappropriate ways. It goes back to the question of where do we draw the line between “appropriate” forms of a given culture and more damaging patterns of cultural appropriation? We appreciate your perspective and example, and we encourage you to continue exploring these ideas to bring increased awareness and clarity to this topic. Thanks for reading! – Greenheart

    2. Karen says:

      Hi, I live in New Mexico and Pueblo, Navajo, and Hopi people here are artisans. A huge amount of their income comes from selling traditional jewelry, rugs, pottery, etc. If you were not meant to wear it (proudly) they would not be selling it. I also make jewelry and incorporate turquoise and other stones into it. At the end of the day, this is how people make a living. If people stop wearing it for fear of offending, they stop getting an important source of income. When I was a kid I visited the Indian Cultural Center in Albuquerque with my good friend and her Mescalero Apache mom. They encouraged me to purchase jewelry that I admired there. I’d say, don’t worry about it. Really.

  4. Taylor says:

    I’m curious as to white people and non black people of color wearing dreads. Is it ok for them to really be wearing it even if they know the pain other people go through because they wear it. I as a black man wouldnt wear another cultures garb or hairstyle that has a history of discrimination. And also do white people have culture?

    1. Julia Rabin says:

      Hi Taylor,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us! We agree that there is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation and that it can be difficult to come up with a definitive answer to many of these questions, especially since we each interpret our cultural identities in different ways. Many of us have experienced people crossing that line at times, and perhaps the example you cite is one of those times.
      I encourage you to continue learning and exploring – what defines culture? What might make up culture for a group of people? And what might inform other’s decisions to make a cultural choice that could be seen as offensive? Good luck – we are all always learning!


  5. Mitra Lujan says:

    I’m sorry, but you all make this so complicated. I’m Apache and Pueblo.
    If you buy a necklace from me. I expected when I sold it you would be wearing it. If I sell you something at “Indian Market” with thousands of Native people around it does not have ceremonial significance.. If a Native Person sells you something “holy or Ceremonial” it will not be $300. People, please have common sense. You don’t buy a piece of clothing, weaving, pottery, jewelry, etc. and replicate it and sell it. It is the same with all art. I just think many people love our art and think they can make money off it. THAT, my dear is Cultural Appropriation.

    1. Julia Rabin says:

      Hi Mitra,

      Thanks for weighing in and sharing your opinions! It’s true that some people find this subject a bit more complicated than others. It’s an important conversation- and we appreciate you adding your perspective so our community can continue to share and learn from one another! – Greenheart

    2. Leslie Thomas says:

      Thank you so much Mitra. I am Caucasian and live in the Pacific Northwest. We have purchased some pieces from Northwest indigenous artists, and display them in our home. Each one does have some cultural significance or symbolism, and we take the time to learn what it means, but primarily, we enjoy our art for its beauty and what it represents of our local history. Lately, though, I’ve been reading a lot about cultural appropriation, and wonder if we’re guilty of some kind of exploitation. On the other hand, I prefer to support our local artists (who are relying on sales) . Any thoughts? (None of our art wasn’t made for sale)

  6. anon says:

    If my friend, a POC raised in a house of black women, wanted to do my (quite white) hair, would that be okay? My friend sees it as cultural exchange (like her mom). How would people react? is this still appropriation if I have enough respect to just wear a hair style and not profit off of it?

    1. Olivia Havens says:

      Hi there, thanks for weighing in and sharing your thoughts with us! We do believe that there is a major benefit in asking questions and openly addressing these important topics, though there may not be a definitive answer here. To better interpret varying perspectives we should ask ourselves what defines culture? What might make up culture for a group of people? And what might inform other’s decisions to make a cultural choice that could be seen as offensive? We encourage you to continue exploring these ideas that build a community of conversation. Thanks for reading! – Greenheart

  7. Mattie5 says:

    Very interesting article.
    I wonder though — if I wish to learn Yoga, is it only appropriate to attend classes that are taught exclusively by Asian men or women? How about meditation?
    Is it cultural appropriation if the instructors (in America or Europe) of Yoga, meditation, or Buddhism are white men or women because they are ‘selling’ and profiting from their classes?
    Also, I consider myself a secular Buddhist. I often wear a mala bracelet and always wear a silver pendant with the Om symbol. I know what they mean. I wear them with intent and respect. They are not merely a fashion accessory for me.
    But I’m a white woman. So, anyone seeing me with my mala and pendant might think “cultural appropriation”, but in reality, they reflect my (true and heartfelt) beliefs.
    I never came across a single book, video, or real-life Asian teacher of Buddhism or mediation that assessed my ability to be taught and advance in those subjects based on my cultural origin being Asian – or non-Asian. My very first basic introduction to Buddhism was from my friend’s Japanese mother, whom I met when I was a teenager. She never hesitated nor implied Buddhism wasn’t appropriate for me because I wasn’t Japanese, or Chinese, or Tibetan, etc. She taught me chants, how to set up an altar, use the bell & Dorje, etc. Granted that was many, MANY years ago, but are things so different now that this would be viewed in a different light today?
    I find it all very confusing (sometimes) because I often see the most strident calling-out of cultural appropriation done by people who aren’t even of the culture they claim someone is being offending. If that makes sense…

    1. Olivia Havens says:

      Thank you so much for your comment! You offer some great insight to the questions we must always ask ourselves. It’s important that we continue to openly discuss the topic of cultural appropriation with one another, especially in this world of transformation and in times of confusion or discomfort. We encourage you to continue learning and sharing your thoughts with us and others in your network. Thanks for reading! – Greenheart

    2. SisterSmiley says:

      Yoga has been done in many different cultures and heritages for thousands of years. To gain spiritual insight through a daily practice such as yoga could never be cultural appropriation.

  8. Gabriel says:

    If I were to carve and create my own totem pole to act as a sort of family crest/storyteller, which according to my research, should be in line with a family or house pole(although I live alone, so it wouldn’t serve an entire family or clan), would that be appropriation? Most of my culture comes from the UK and northern Europe, (although I do embrace the Scottish and Irish aspects, that I know of) so branching out is very interesting to me

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