Appreciation or Appropriation?

A close, personal examination of appreciation, appropriation, and the difference between the two.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

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By Nada Hameed

The Friday after Diwali, I found myself in a friend’s bedroom surrounded by knee-high piles of traditional Bengali and Pakistani clothing. We were heading to a Diwali party, my first experience with the Festival of Lights. My friends had offered to share their traditional clothing with me, and we were finally dressing up. After an hour of trying on dozens of colorful pieces, we found our outfits; I settled on a maroon salwar kameez, a bright red bindi, and my trademark purple Converse. I was ready for, in my friend’s words, my very first Hindu “cultural immersion session.” I was excited. I wanted to learn about the holiday, talk to the people who celebrated it, and finally try gulab jamun.

During the car ride over to the party, my excitement dissipated into apprehension. Was it wrong for me to wear the salwar kameez? Was I appropriating Indian culture? My friends reassured me that of course I wasn’t appropriating—I was appreciating the culture they had exposed me to. But what was the difference, and how would I know?

The answer to these questions lies in intent, specifically a person’s purpose or objective when engaging with different cultures. According to Grant Loveless at Austin Community College, appreciation is attempting to understand and learn about another culture to broaden one’s perspective and connect with others. Appropriation, on the other hand, is cherry-picking a particular characteristic of a culture and using it for personal gain or interests. Wearing the salwar kameez as a fashion statement or attending the party for social media “clout” would be appropriation; learning about a different culture and immersing myself in its traditions was not.

Yet, intent is tricky. There is a thin line between appropriation and appreciation—the two constantly overlap and remain intertwined despite our best efforts to label them. How do we wrestle with the idea that most of society is built upon “borrowing” from other cultures? How do we make our intentions clear to those around us?

Attending the Diwali party answered these questions for me. As I listened to Bollywood music and watched the candle lighting, I began to understand how our perceptions of appropriation can sometimes be misleading. We can never truly discern someone’s intent, regardless of what they may say or how they may act. Instead, each of us must hold ourselves accountable to our own intentions in order to build an accepting society.

There are a few ways to address and stop cultural appropriation. The first is to acknowledge and respect the origins of ideas, objects, and histories, remembering that the key to sharing cultures is mutual understanding. Appreciation means expanding our own perspectives by experiencing those of others—not using them for our own benefit. In a similar vein, it is important to remember that cultures are continuously evolving. No culture remains stagnant; fluidity allows for progression and modernization. This dynamic nature creates diversity—the ability to change increases exposure to new people who can appreciate different cultures. In a different time, someone like me never would have attended a Diwali party, and yet there I was. It’s crucial to listen to others, respect diverse viewpoints, and evaluate context when toeing the line between appropriation and appreciation.

My experience at the Diwali party left me with two lessons. The first is the importance of recognizing and distinguishing appropriation from appreciation. To build a society founded on mutual respect and understanding, we need to think about the impact of our words, actions, and choices. The second is to remember that a multicultural world allows us to expand our perspectives. Appreciating different cultures opens us up to a life rich with diversity, discussion, and connection.