The Fuzzy Line of Cultural Appropriation

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The more I travel, the more I realize there is a very fuzzy line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation.

We heard the sounds of drumming even before we could see the drums. It drifted through the trees of Manito Park in Spokane, WA early one Thursday evening. A faint boom boom-boom, boom boom-boom in the distance. My husband and I were at the park taking a leisurely stroll through the rose garden, after a night out celebrating our anniversary.

“I can’t believe they’re still doing the drum circles at Manito Park!” I remarked to my husband.

As a teenager growing up in Spokane, the drum circles were notorious for being a place to get high. I never actually went to one since they were always on school nights, but had heard about it through friends, and even read about it in the newspaper.

So when my husband and I heard the drums at the park that day, I was intrigued.

African drummers drumming in a drum circle, a tradition that is affected by cultural appropriation
Drummers in a drum circle in Togo (2005)

Experiencing a drum circle

By the time we walked over to the drum circle, the sun had already set. We saw a circle of drums, and outlines of people beating out various rhythms. People sat on blankets around the drummers, and little children ran barefoot in the grass through the trees. A poi dancer danced off to the side, swinging her poi to the rhythm.

In the dimming light, I mostly saw outlines of the people, not the details. But even then I could see that the group was mainly composed of white hippies.

My husband and I took a seat on the grass to listen to the drumming. As we sat and listened to the drums, watching the people playing, a thought came to me.

Cultural appreciation versus cultural appropriation

“Do you ever wonder what the distinction is between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?” I asked my husband.

We took a closer look at the group, and began wondering about the appropriateness of this event taking place.

The drummers were playing African style drums, but not one person in the group seemed to be of African descent. The poi dancer was performing an art form originating from the Maori people of New Zealand, but it was difficult to see whether the light-skinned woman with dreadlocks in front of us had any Maori blood in her. In the American Northwest, Native American drum circles are a popular event, especially in the pow-wow circuit. But we did not see any Native Americans that night at the drum circle.

A Barong dance in Bali (July 2012)

Cultures reduced to entertainment

“It’s sad,” my husband commented, “that something so important to many cultures has been reduced to entertainment at the park.”

I agreed. In the past, I had attended many events like this. I even participated in them: drum circles, belly dance classes, meditation circles. At the time, I thought that it was great that different cultures were being exposed to people who may not have ever had exposure to those cultures. But what I overlooked until now was that the voices of those cultures were often absent from those experiences. More often than not, it was someone of a different culture who claimed to be the expert on the matter.

It’s not enough, these days, to feign ignorance. The adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture, also known as cultural appropriation, is a prevalent problem. It’s especially troublesome now, with the ease of information through globalization, travel, and the internet. Cultural appropriation can be as benign as having Taco Tuesday when the cook has no connection to Mexico. Or it can be more sinister, like when Caucasian women are lauded as “edgy” for wearing cornrows, while African American women are characterized as unprofessional for wearing the same hairstyle.

Is what you’re doing cultural appropriation?

So how do you know if what you’re doing is cultural appropriation rather than cultural appreciation? As I mentioned before, it’s a fuzzy line. It’s not always obvious. But there are a few questions that you can ask yourself, and if the answer is “yes,” you can bet that what you’re doing is cultural appropriation in some form or another.

Are you profiting from a culture that is not yours? Do you claim credit for doing something that originates from a different culture than yours? Have you excluded people from that culture in your activity? Are you showing irreverence for that culture?

My feet at a guest house in Johannesburg (August 2016)

Respecting the cultures we experience

As travelers, we are always acutely aware of how we are experiencing a culture. We want to make sure we are being respectful of the cultures that we experience. Sharing the things we love about the cultures we experience with others is one way to show respect. However, we also need to make sure that we are giving credit where credit is due. Cultural appropriation occurs when that credit is missing. When the voices of those cultures are silenced.

After about twenty minutes of watching the drumming, my husband and I decided to head out. Despite my feelings about the drumming, we still had a good time listening to the music and relaxing on the grass.

“You know,” my husband said, as we walked to the car, “I want to make sure that when we travel, we’re respectful of the cultures that we come across. I want to observe, participate, share, but not take.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

How are you sharing your appreciation for the cultures you experience?

The fuzzy line of cultural appropriation

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Hi, I'm Astrid

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I'm a travel-loving mom of three from Seattle. Join our adventures as we explore the Pacific Northwest and the world!

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Read about my adventures in Togo, where I served in the Peace Corps, in this journal style memoir.