Where Do We Draw the Line Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation?

Cultural appropriation has been in the news a lot lately. Kylie Jenner getting dreads, Selena Gomez wearing a bindi, and Pharell wearing a Native American headdress are just a few of the many cases of celebrities getting called out for cultural appropriation in the past few months. But what exactly is cultural appropriation? Can we appreciate a culture that isn’t ours without being offensive?

When Kylie Jenner posted a picture to Instagram showing off her new dreadlocks last spring, Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg called her out. Stenberg noted that Jenner shouldn’t steal black culture, especially when she isn’t using her power to help the oppressed community behind the culture. While Jenner was praised for her “edgy,” “urban” style, Stenberg was ultimately called an “angry black woman” by many -- a title that comes from harmful stereotypes and is given to too many African American woman for simply speaking their opinions.

Stenberg has spoken about the topic more since, including a video called “Don’t Cash Crop on my Cornrows” where she further explains the problem with cultural appropriation. She notes how cultural appropriation is rooted in stereotypes, but is seen as trendy when those belonging to more privileged groups being adopting those styles. A memorable quotation was her question, “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?” Jenner gave no response.

I’m fortunate that I’ve almost never experienced cultural appropriation to a point where I’ve felt that my culture and identity were being stolen and/or turned into a trend. While there’s no denying that I am a caucasian woman, I’m also culturally, and ethnically, Jewish.

While my hometown has a significant Jewish population, I’ve felt more connected to my Jewish identity since moving to New York since the majority of my family, and many other Jewish-American families, have roots in the city. On a bad day, I can walk a few blocks and find matzah ball soup, the food my mom always makes me when I’m sick, at several different restaurants. Not to mention the dozens of bagel places in my neighborhood alone. To me, this acceptance and integration of Jewish culture shows acceptance of my people on a wider level. To me, this is cultural appreciation.

Maybe the better question is to ask where we draw the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation. One thing that has made me uncomfortable lately is how popular the hamsa symbol has become. The hamsa, a hand with an eye in the palm, is symbolic of protection and a force of defense from the evil eye. It’s common among Jews as well as others from the Middle East and Northern Africa. It’s something I’ve always cherished as a beautiful symbol with spiritual meaning, but lately I’ve seen clothing, jewelry, and even tattoos with hamsas.

Hamsa wall hangings sold at a store in Jerusalem, Israel

A hamsa shirt sold a mass retailer

Maybe the people wearing the hamsas have an idea of its significance or maybe they don’t. I have many Jewish friends who wouldn’t be bothered by this, but to me, something feels off. Jews have historically been denied the privilege of outwardly displaying their beliefs -- many Jews around the world still can’t do so today. Yet suddenly it becomes a trend and people are able to wear this symbol, one that holds so much cultural and spiritual meaning to me, with no consequences. It’s the commodification and erasure of my culture, and the culture of so many others, that is the problem. As the world becomes increasingly diverse and cultural differences become more blurred, we need to remember to be respectful and self-aware. If someone says that the way that you have adopted their culture is offensive to them, you should listen and learn from them. If we’re interested in something from another culture, we should try to adopt it in more conscientious ways. If you want to hang a dreamcatcher in your room, try to educate yourself beforehand and buy it from one of the many Native American tribes that sell them.

As Stenberg says, “Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they’re partaking in.”