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A Blurred Line Between Cultural Appropriation and Appreciation


In the midst of the pandemic, nestled in the Hudson Valley, my family launched  “Quarantine Wars.” In a Master Chef-inspired fashion, we would cook a variety of meals throughout the week — fried tofu bibimbap, pineapple upside-down cake, meatball subs oozing with marinara sauce — and every Sunday night, a vicious scoring system would analyze and rank each dish. One evening, my mother, the most experimental of the three contestants, presented a new dessert. In a tall glass overflowing with artificial colors, she presented “Halo-Halo,” a Filipino dessert made up of crushed ice, condensed milk, and a variety of sugary toppings. The dish was created roughly one hundred years ago when the Philippines began to receive large shipments of ice, and the name “halo-halo” translates to “mix-mix.” It was created to invite experimentation, and as the Filipino chef Yana Gilbuena wrote in her Halo-Halo recipe, it is “endlessly customizable.” However, we later discovered that the Bon Appétit recipe my mother had used was widely criticized for its nontraditional use of popcorn and gummy bears. Many users labeled this take on the recipe as “cultural appropriation.”

This is just one example of what seems to be a frequent issue arising in online, classroom, and social settings. A native community in Spokane defines their interpretation of the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation. Cultural appropriation often includes the use of certain items or regalia from another culture without education, credit, or cultural context. While cultural appreciation involves respectful effort and engagement with another culture leading to positive cross-cultural interaction. It acknowledges the history and values of a culture and engages with simultaneous understanding of its meaning. While it is important to distinguish between cultural appropriation and appreciation, the fear of appropriation should not hinder the celebration and engagement with diverse cultures.

Cultural understanding is crucial for fostering empathy, developing global awareness, and not repeating mistakes throughout history. Our society is so interconnected that having an appreciation and understanding of diverse communities is important for navigating multicultural environments; it allows us to see the world from different perspectives, challenge stereotypes, and avoid conflicts. “Teaching about culture is important to do,” said Director of DEIB Erika Freeman. “Understanding other people’s cultures, ethnicities, and identities is important for us as a community to do.” Every year, hundreds of thousands of students worldwide participate in Model UN, a program that simulates the United Nations General Assembly. Students represent different countries from across the globe, engaging in diplomacy, understanding cross-cultural dynamics, and developing leadership skills. While this program is a political simulation, meaning it doesn’t represent every side of the cultures involved, it allows students to develop a diverse understanding of the world. 


In 2017, Indian-British writer Kenan Malik published an op-ed in The New York Times in defense of cultural appropriation. “Campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal the changing meaning of what it is to challenge racism,” Malik said. “Once, it was a demand for equal treatment for all. Now it calls for cultures to be walled off and boundaries to be policed.” Unfortunately, in 2024 the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation remains unclear. Historically, fights against discrimination advocated for equal rights for marginalized communities, and  the dismantling of systemic barriers. However, as the discourse around cultural appropriation has become increasingly rigid, the focus has shifted from challenging structures of power to enforcing strict cultural boundaries. While the intent may be to prevent cultural harm, this new approach actually reinforces essentialist, stereotypical perspectives on identity and creates division rather than inclusivity. Often, engagement with other cultures is seen as a sign of great respect. In Japanese culture, for example, it would be considered more offensive to arrive at an event in a tuxedo than in a kimono. Engagement with others cultures is not inherently harmful, and as Ash Sarkar, an Indian-British journalist writes in a 2019 article published by The Guardian, “Not everyone who participates in a misguided attempt at cultural borrowing is a colonizer in disguise.”

A number of years ago, History Department Chair Virginia Dillon, worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the southern region of Azerbaijan. During her stay, she bought a pair of traditional Azerbaijani earrings. “They’re beautiful earrings,” Dillon said. However, she worries that wearing them publicly may be interpreted as cultural appropriation, as they are a style of jewelry that is of a different culture than her own. “To me, I bought them from a person in the country I was living in at the time, with a culture that I know, love, and appreciate,” she explained. “But that is a part of my personal history that would not be obvious to someone that saw me wearing the earrings.” So the question becomes, how do we establish a clear line between cultural appropriation and appreciation? Is it easier to just avoid engaging with cultures other than our own in order to protect ourselves from being accused as appropriators?

There is certainly no clear answer to these questions. We continue to err, tiptoe, and cancel one another because of the complexity of this topic. Instead of trying to establish a clear line between cultural appropriation and appreciation, we need to become more comfortable having difficult discussions. Whether inside or outside of the classroom, students and teachers alike need to feel safe asking uncomfortable questions. In truth, even the most progressive individuals have blind spots, and instead of reprimanding someone for a cultural misstep, we need to use mistakes as vehicles for education. “I really don’t avoid these kinds of conversations in the classroom,” said History Teacher Beth Eby. Last October, in the weeks leading up to Halloween, a student approached Eby asking if dressing up from the movie Avatar was potentially appropriation. “In truth, it could be interpreted as appropriation because of the colonial presence in the movie,” Eby said. “But I appreciated that the student felt comfortable enough to ask me that question. I get a lot of questions that definitely highlight ignorance, but it’s due to lack of education.” 

Every misunderstanding—having to do with culture or not—needs to be worked through with mindfulness and respect of others’ experiences and viewpoints. In addressing cultural appropriation, we as the Poly community and we as a society need to strive for cultural competency rather than resorting to punitive measures like cancel culture. From a very young age we are taught to learn from our mistakes. “The classroom is a place where you should be able to make mistakes,” said Freeman. “In Lower School mistakes are expected, inspected, and respected. That’s really how they learn in the Lower School until Middle and Upper School where that learning goes out the window. You have to make mistakes in order to learn how to grow.”

I acknowledge that as a white female attending a prep school, I am speaking from a privileged point of view. However, I am a student who wants to learn, grow, and engage with other cultures, and I’m worried that these conversations are not happening. Instead, I see people being slammed for asking uncomfortable questions or making uneducated statements. Cultural appreciation and education build a more inclusive society. I identify as a left-wing liberal, and I strive to be as progressive as I can be. However, I also notice that when everything is labeled as appropriation, the progressive intentions become more conservative. Society becomes more divided. There needs to be a shift away from fear-based approaches and towards cultural exploration and understanding. Malik summed it up best back in 2017: “Seventy years ago, racist radio stations refused to play ‘race music’ for a white audience. Today, antiracist activists insist that white painters should not portray black subjects. To appropriate a phrase from a culture not my own: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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About the Contributor
Eleanor Brown is the current Features Editor for the Polygon. She began writing articles since her sophomore year, and served as the Features Editor as a junior. Her passion for journalism often leans creative, as she particularly enjoys profile writing and, of course, co-writing the Devil’s Advocate, the school advice column. In addition to her time on the Polygon, Eleanor co-founded The Poly Record, Poly’s literary magazine and co-leads Women’s Affinity. Outside of school, she enjoys tutoring and playing piano, sitting on Ticketmaster presale lines, and making lists upon lists of restaurants in her Notes app.

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