Be Better: A Guide to Avoid Cultural Appropriation

How to ethically and consciously interact with the world around you.

Soleil Ho
Soleil Ho
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Traveling and experiencing different cultures are amazing opportunities to learn more about the world, and there are lots of ways to do that respectfully. It can be difficult to adjust to another culture’s standards of etiquette because it often requires owning your ignorance and asking for help. But by showing respect and courtesy to other people’s cultures, you open up countless fulfilling interactions with the people around you. There’s no better way to connect with folks than showing just how good and gracious of a guest you can be.

On the other hand, you might feel hesitant to jump into things if you’re worried about perpetuating cultural appropriation, which is the usage or adoption of one culture’s aesthetics, artwork, or traditions by members of another. There’s been a lot of debate over the concept, with a lot of misinterpretations muddying its definition. To be clear, there’s nothing inherently bad or good about cultural appropriation: as writer Dakota Kim puts it, the unethical aspect comes in when you practice it without considering the context of your actions—without “a larger understanding or acknowledgement of the racial, ethnic, and cultural capitalist power structure.”

If you desire to interact with the world ethically and consciously, you might be unsure about how to join in as an outsider. Here are some easy examples of ways you can participate in cultural exchange as a welcome guest.

Visiting a place of worship and conforming to their dress code
You’ll often be asked to be dressed appropriately when you visit places of worship. That could mean wearing long-sleeved shirts, covering most of your legs (definitely no shorts), and removing your shoes. Some mosques in Muslim-majority regions may require women to cover their hair with a veil or scarf. Doing so shows respect for the locals’ traditions, and they’ll appreciate that. Some may ask for you to stay in the back as an observer, but others can and will encourage you to participate in gestural prayers. If you just go with the flow wherever you end up, you’ll be welcomed—though perhaps not without some mildly curious glances in your direction.

Cultural appropriation looks like: wearing a hijab only as a fashion statement.

Having a dumpling party with friends
Dumpling parties are the best sort of get-togethers, in this writer’s opinion. Just provide the wrapper—be it pasta, gyoza skins, or fried tofu skin—and have your friends bring fillings and dipping sauces they want to try. You can also do some research and base your ingredients on traditional recipes if you want. Ask your friends if they’d be willing to share a family recipe at the party, or check out some books or blogs about the cuisines you’re interested in learning about.

Cultural appropriation looks like: having a themed dinner where everyone dresses like geishas or samurai. (Or dressing up like some Yellow Peril caricature.)

Opening a food business that is welcoming and supportive of the community your cuisine came from
One of the best examples of this is Fausta Castillo Hernandez at Lonchería Dulce in Tijuana, a restaurateur who opened up her kitchen to Haitian refugees who were craving food from their homeland. Though Castillo had been making solely Mexican food before, she changed her menu in order to cater to the Haitian community in Tijuana. Haitian women taught her how to make their dishes, like boiled plantains and stewed chicken, and in exchange she gave their displaced community a place to indulge in familiar comforts while lingering with friends and family. Her restaurant is open to all, and it’s been a great place for locals to rub elbows with and learn more about their new neighbors.

Cultural appropriation looks like: serving “elevated” soul food in a gentrified neighborhood that has pushed out all of its Black residents.

Participating in your significant other’s family traditions
In my family, it’s common for non-Vietnamese partners to join in on our traditions, from performing a tea and gift-giving ceremony as part of wedding celebrations to playing the bầu cua cá cọp gambling game during Vietnamese New Year. In fact, we expect it! It’s really impressive to see an outsider throw themselves into our culture and have fun doing it; in a way, it makes people like my family feel more accepted. A lot of immigrants have to act assimilated in public in order to survive, but when they’re home with their families, it’s an opportunity to unwind and let down their guard. Showing an outsider this vulnerable side of us is a gesture of trust. As long as you come with an open mind and a willingness to be schooled by Grandpa in bầu cua cá cọp, it’s all good.

Cultural appropriation looks like: claiming to be an expert on a culture’s traditions because you dated someone from that culture once.

Eating what people offer you, and following their lead if you’re unfamiliar
One of the biggest faux pas you can commit as a guest, especially while traveling abroad, is rejecting their food. Embrace everything they offer—or at least taste it and smile politely. You can learn so much about people from what they eat and how they eat it, and being able to share in that experience is an honor and a privilege. Going to restaurants and markets owned and staffed by members of the community you want to learn more about is also a good way to educate yourself. And don’t just eat: talk to the staff or people at nearby tables, if they’re willing! I’ve never had a boring conversation at a restaurant, especially while dining alone. In the United States, supporting restaurants and markets owned by people of color is especially important since it is often more difficult for us to be approved for business loans by banks.

Cultural appropriation looks like: only going to markets and restaurants offering upscale “translations” or “interpretations” of minority cultures’ cuisines.

Learning a new language when traveling abroad
It’s great to always keep your ears open while traveling, especially if you’re eager to have some degree of independence when you’re out and about. At the very least, I try to come armed with the ability to order a drink and ask for directions. While it’s very useful to know transactional phrases, like “Check, please,” or “How much?” learning how to shoot the shit is the easiest way to get along and connect with locals. True cultural exchange is the ability to talk with someone about what they think or how they feel. That, and knowing how to crack a joke with your new friends.

Cultural appropriation looks like: using choice foreign lingo at home in order to make yourself sound more cosmopolitan or knowledgeable.

To reiterate: acting out cultural appropriation doesn’t necessarily make you a bad or immoral person, and not appropriating doesn’t necessarily make you a good person. As a concept, cultural appropriation is just one way we can describe the minute ways in which the white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy manifests in our lives. Like any struggle for justice, understanding how we fit into this scheme is a deliberate and slow process. You can begin by asking yourself a few questions. Am I taking on these cultural markers because I want to connect with people from that culture? Am I committed to learning more, and not just about the parts that please me or make me money? Is my appreciation only for aesthetics? Or is there room in my heart for people, as well?