Traveling with Respect: Authenticity vs. Appropriation

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Traveling with Respect: Authenticity vs. Appropriation

Most travelers (thankfully) are no longer satisfied with the typical superficial, overdone tourist attractions and activities. 

Travelers want an authentic experience of their destination: to immerse in the local culture, sample traditional food, take in what makes a place unique. It’s a refreshing change amidst the monoculture effect that’s made commercial globalization so whitewashed and bland at times.

Johor by kal_mare

But when does our appreciation of authenticity in foreign cultures cross the line and become cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the taking of another culture’s traditions from their historical and cultural context, and using those traditions/traditional objects in a way that misrepresents, exploits, or exoticizes the culture and its people.

The question is, is cultural appropriation always a bad thing?

If you visit a foreign country and purchase a beautiful piece of clothing made by a local artisan or indigenous tribe, is it wrong to take it home and wear it or display it at home with pride?

Seamstress Shop in Bangkok, Thailand

What is authenticity, really?

Of course, experiencing a culture different from one’s own is the point of traveling. Authenticity is a slippery term, but when we think of an authentic travel experience, we think of exploring off the beaten path and engaging mindfully with people of other cultures. Dealing with the locals directly and respectfully, supporting local small businesses wherever you go, and avoiding the tourist traps are all great ways to go. But it’s fair to acknowledge that even with the best intentions, the search for authenticity isn’t without ethical complications. It can easily be conflated with exoticism, a form of objectification against people of a culture other than one’s own.

Penang by Marek Kalhous

Penang by Marek Kalhous

What tends to bother people the most about cultural appropriation is the implicit tokenism behind the act. To take a culturally significant item out of its original context, as a superficial statement of inclusion of a minority group, is one example of tokenism. For example: wearing Native American headdresses at Coachella, or wearing keffiyehs as stylish winter scarves.

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Hanna tattoo ate Street Market

Appreciate vs. appropriate

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but how can we “borrow” from other cultures without disrespecting or disrupting them? For lack of a definitive, clear-cut answer—because it is by nature a subjective issue, for perspectives vary amongst a world’s worth of diverse cultures—cultural sensitivity is the clearest guideline. If the people of a certain culture have been oppressed, at war, or subjected to prejudice (for just a few examples), then cultural appropriation is bound to be a sensitive subject. That’s why, for example, some people take issue when a white person comes back from a trip to the Caribbean with their hair done in cornrows. It makes a statement that will inevitably be taken out of context, even if the appropriator has the best of intentions.

That said, of course it’s not inherently bad to bring souvenirs back with you from the foreign cultures you visit. The treasures we take from other cultures serve as a physical analog to our cherished memories, and reminders of all that we’ve learned and gained from our experiences. If done in a thoughtful way, so as not to exploit the people of that other culture, then cultural appropriation can actually be beneficial. It can provide an influx of money and increased exposure to what makes their culture so beautiful and unique. 

Copy of _DSC0118_Singapore.jpg

When fashion designers or celebrities practice cultural appropriation, the public backlash is typically centered around the exploitative, or the problem of tokenism. What is this act of appropriation doing to benefit the culture from which they’ve taken? There are sustainable brands, on the other hand, who sell authentic items and give back to the local communities. That might mean fair-trade agreements, donating proceeds, or employing the locals to produce the objects that make their culture so special.

Los Angeles-based textile brand Block Shop, for example, offers scarves, blankets, and other vibrant wares that are printed with hand-carved wood blocks and dyed in rich indigo, all in the Bagru, Rajasthan region of western India. Staying true to the traditional, natural, sustainable processes while fairly employing the artisans who’ve had a lifetime to master these techniques, the female co-founders behind the brand created their own business based on a form of cultural appropriation while consciously avoiding the pitfalls.

Lemlem clothing is handwoven by Ethiopian women to empower them by providing fairly paid work and independence. A percentage of sales go directly to the lemlem foundation, “a non-profit organization with the mission to help women artisans in Africa thrive by connecting them to healthcare, education, and pathways to jobs.” The airy, modern cut caftans, tops, jumpsuits and dresses make perfect summertime or resortwear, beach coverups, or even chic pajamas to wear around the house—and all for a good cause.

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Handmade Leather Goods by Local Artisan

Las Bayadas makes beach towels and bags inspired by traditional Mexican textile designs using 100% recycled cotton; 10% of proceeds from their sales are donated to a local Mexican high school. The vibrant stripes are reminiscent of a Mexican blanket, but the material is lightweight enough to tote in your beach bag and soft enough to wrap up in after a swim.

Local store with traditional handmade Mexican Blanket

Local store with traditional handmade Mexican Blanket, Mexico

Of course, you can just as well buy handmade traditional items while you’re traveling—that’s the most direct way that touristic “cultural appropriation” can benefit the people whose culture is being borrowed from. If you want a Mexican blanket or other textiles, buy it directly from local vendors on your next vacation in Oaxaca. If you want a rich indigo-dyed Maasai blanket, buy it directly from the tribal vendors on your next trip to Tanzania. Ironically, even if you try to go the most authentic route when purchasing traditional cultural souvenirs in your travels, what you find may, in fact, be mass-produced by a company for tourists anyway, not the idyllic pastoral image that’s conjured by the term “local artisans.” The important thing is that you’re giving money directly to local people who are selling these goods for a living.

Everyone has different ideas and standards for what authenticity means to them. In any case, a little tact in how you honor those other cultures can make a huge difference.

Natasha Young
Los Angeles, United States
Marek Kalhous
Photographer & Videographer
Prague, Czech Republic
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