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Blurring lines in between appropriation and appreciation

I remember the days when my tiny feet were marching along with people who were dressed in saris, flamencos, kilts, kimonos, cheongsams, and all the other dresses representing the globe; my school called it appreciation of different cultures. I remember the days when my tiny fingers were flipping through pages of history books learning the stories behind the bindi on Indian women’s foreheads, the historical essence of tribal tattoos, the honor stringed tightly onto the feathered headdresses; and my teacher would call it learning. I remember the day I was being fascinated by the thought of wearing multi-braided cornrows the moment I saw an African-American woman wearing one; and I called it trying out another’s culture. I remember the day I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and saw a woman being bashed for wearing a similar cheongsam my classmate wore for United Nations Day before. People now called it cultural appropriation.

Growing up and being brought to see cultures as something beautifully shared makes me feel confused that we are now seemingly being restricted to it.

“My culture is not your costume,” this line has been circulating around the online community as famous personalities such as Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Gigi Hadid were accused of cultural appropriation when they were seen wearing traditional costumes in their performances. It caused a ripple effect as people across cultures have become more aware and sensitive of the concept. From hairstyle, makeup, clothing, expressions, and even food, some people would first ask those people belonging to a specific culture of whether or not they can practice their customs and traditions. The littlest things such as “Is listening to a rap song racist?”, “Is learning to dance Tinikling appropriating Filipino culture?”, “Is wearing henna offensive?” are now in the forefront of people’s minds—trying to make sure they are not crossing the line. All to be on the safe side, some would even choose not to learn and take part into a culture they are interested in, in fear of committing cultural appropriation. Many people are now wondering when is it appropriating and when is it appreciating.


It was confusing for me, too, until I delved deeper into the acts people labelled as cultural appropriation. On Instagram, I saw Kim Kardashian wearing cornrows and calling it as Bo Derek braids. In one of my classes, someone with a fake beard was sporting the iconic sombrero and maracas of Mexicans and making it look like a ‘funny costume’. On Twitter, some women who attended the famous Coachella were posting photos of them wearing a bindi on their foreheads and parading it as a of their fashion statement. The intention and context are noticeably different as compared to when Angelina Jolie wore hijab in Pakistan to show respect for the country’s practices. I then figured that the choice to be ignorant and impudent of culture is a clear line in between appropriation and appreciation.

If I saw a foreign person wearing a Barong Tagalog, I would not budge. I might appreciate it actually, considering that someone else wanted to immerse himself into my culture. The mere fact that he wore it is personally heartwarming. However, if I went to that person and asked him about the Barong Tagalog that he was wearing, and he would not acknowledge that it is from the Philippines; or if he merely used the clothing to mock Filipino culture, then that is when I would be offended. The Barong Tagalog carries historical and cultural significance, and must be held with high regard and appreciation.  

The same idea goes with the other cultures speaking about this. It is not about the hair, the clothing, the language, the dance itself. It is about the stories stuck in between strands and rhythms, the struggle cloaked in beauty and finesse, the prejudice fought along its curves and pauses, and the mere essence of using it and being able to proudly parade it. It is not about you experiencing a different culture, but your intention in doing so.

Yes, you are free to flaunt dreadlocks, cornrows, or Havana twists—for as long as in every tucking and twisting of strands, you acknowledge the Black community who got fired, kicked out, and looked down for merely having the same hairstyle you want. You are free to create your own song as inspired by different cultures—for as long as as its verses and melodies are harmonized with gratitude and respect. You are free to buy yourself your own cheongsam—for as long as its beauty, in your eyes, is not only defined by how the floral prints complement the silk, but how the Chinese community was able to preserve this beauty for a century. Yes, you are free to learn Tinikling—for as long as you recognize that Tinikling is not simply a bamboo dance; it retells the story of Filipinos’ rich agricultural past in every hop and step.

With the freedom to embrace and experience different cultures comes our responsibility to honor, learn, and respect it.

By Isabelle Santiago

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