How to avoid cultural appropriation while travelling

An easy guide to understanding the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation while travelling abroad. 

People travel for a variety of reasons. Whether you’re driven by the desire to see a new city, photograph a particular landscape, explore a culinary scene, learn a new language, or simply be somewhere else and relax, one thing is for certain: you’re going to encounter a different culture. Social customs, traditions, laws, history, geography and economic conditions all come together to create a unique cultural identity. Within each identity, there are objects, garments, practices and behaviours that are significant and representative of a culture. It is commonly these elements that fall victim to cultural appropriation, and it’s up to responsible travellers to ensure their actions fall upon the right side of cultural appreciation, rather than cultural appropriation. 

Sara King, GM of Purpose and Responsible Business at Intrepid Travel, says the most common mistake people make when travelling overseas is failing to research the cultural norms and customs of their destination. “A lack of public behaviour etiquette is a large issue, especially for younger tourists, and it’s an issue we’ve seen in destinations such as Bali, where religious customs aren’t respected,” says Sara. “We live in a digital age, and one of the most common examples of appropriation is the use of, or engaging in, actions or costumes that imitate a culture for the use of social media content.”

Open-air restaurant in Bangkok.
Open-air restaurant in Bangkok. © Unsplash/ Syed Ahmad

What is cultural appropriation? 

The Oxford Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as ‘the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society‘. However, travellers should research their destination and its culture if they want to understand the nuances of appropriation versus appreciation in a particular place.

“Cultural appropriation is about taking an element of another culture and benefitting or profiting from it, without giving credit to its source or origin,” says King. “There is no clear understanding on the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation as it’s constantly moving, and arguably, depends on the circumstances.” Another way to tell the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation is to remember that cultural appreciation honours a culture, while cultural appropriation dishonours or demeans it. 

Women wearing kimonos in Kyoto, Japan
Women wearing kimonos in Kyoto, Japan. © Unsplash/ Sorasak

Examples of cultural appropriation

King says that henna is a good example of cultural appropriation as it was originally used to help cool the hands and feet of people in hot climates. “It’s also an important part of wedding traditions in the Middle East and South Asia, however many tourists who pay for this fail to acknowledge its actual meaning and importance, and thus can be seen to be appropriating the culture,” says King. “Another example is Aboriginal souvenirs and artwork. Unfortunately, many of these are not authentic and are made in countries outside of Australia. When purchasing such items, ask the seller for information about the artist. Who are they? Where is the artist from? What community is the artist from?”

Henna hand paint.
Henna hand paint. © Unsplash/ Vitaliy Lyubezhanin

How to avoid cultural appropriation while travelling

Self-education is the key to avoiding cultural appropriation while travelling, says King. “Many businesses offer traditional experiences, but understanding the culture and meaning behind it is imperative to really allow appreciation. Best practice is to have a person from that culture deliver the experience and explain the cultural protocols to visitors,” says King. “It’s important to seek permission for anything that engages a community’s heritage. For example, painting Indigenous Australian art requires an understanding of the forms, colours and meaning behind each, otherwise, it is considered cultural appropriation.”

An approach that Intrepid Travel supports is for individuals to always ask themselves ‘am I participating in a tradition, or wearing traditional clothing, out of honour or imitation?’. “If the latter, we should take the time to ask questions, to understand the meaning behind the tradition before engaging with it, and seek permission to do so,” says King. 

A woman feeds cows in India.
A woman feeds cows in India. © Unsplash/ Monthaye

Ask yourself these questions to ensure you are appreciating, not appropriating, a culture.

  • Am I participating in a tradition, or wearing traditional clothing, out of honour or imitation?
  • Am I behaving appropriately and respecting cultural traditions?
  • Do I understand why a culture engages in a particular behaviour, belief or event?
  • Am I eating or drinking in a community where it is not allowed?
  • Do I understand the importance and significance of this cultural activity?
  • Am I participating in this practice or using this object for personal, financial, or social gain?
  • Do I have permission to take photographs of the experience or site?

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