How to find the fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation

Dr. Rachel Zellars is a lawyer with a PhD in History who teaches at McGill University. Zellars helps you navigate the nuances on how to enjoy another culture without crossing the line into appropriation.

Navigating the lines between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is often confusing. Where do you begin?

For some guidance, Tapestry host Mary Hynes spoke to Rachel Zellars. She's a postdoctoral fellow in history at the University of Vermont and a lecturer at McGill University, and she said that appropriation is about history and power.

Dr. Rachel Zellars

"I teach my students that if we're willing to acknowledge a world that's been ordered in these very particular ways by histories of colonialism, and settler colonialism, then necessarily we have to better pay attention to how that ordering has trickled down to the level of culture," Zellars said. 

But the answer isn't to avoid cultures that aren't your own.

"Being fearful is not the right response, because what it prevents is this opportunity for us to sit down and learn about something together," she said. "We don't need to be shying away from each other. We need to be learning, reading different things, and being in community — real community — with people who are not like us."

So how does a well-meaning person engage with another culture without getting it wrong? Here are some things to consider.

Do you know the full historical context?

Cultural appropriation often happens in a knowledge vacuum, where the history isn't fully known.

Zellars' son attends French public school in Montreal. When he was 10-years-old, he was learning about historical trade routes between New France and France. The textbook spoke about the economic benefits of the sugar trade, but made no mention about an important part of that history: slavery.

"As a historian, what infuriated me was the half-truth," said Zellar. 

"The fact, most simply, that he would walk away from that lesson knowing nothing about the brutality and the systems of slavery and the labour of black people that made that financial system possible."

Zellars points to EDM (electronic dance music) as an example of cultural appropriation where history has been erased:

"Broke, very poor DJs in Baltimore mastered a particular sound, which we call Baltimore club, that pays young white boys now a million dollars a night," she said. "So not only are the names of these originators nowhere to be found in our popular culture … these creative geniuses have been erased from the genealogy of EDM and, importantly, the wealth of their brilliance has never been properly compensated. It never will be."

If you don't know about a culture, take the opportunity to learn

Mary offered this example: "A friend of yours has spent 20 years working in Nigeria. He brings something back for your kids: dashikis - colourful, traditional shirts. Your children love the shirts, but your family isn't African and you don't want to offend anyone, so you hide the dashikis in the back of the closet." Is that the right call?  

"I wouldn't stash them away," Zellars said. "What I would want is to have some kind of lesson about where this fabric came from, what area of the country, what village? ... For me that's a moment that a really beautiful kind of conversation could unfold, with effort on both sides."

When in doubt, defer to that community

Mary asked about a situation described by Shain Jackson, a Coast Salish artist from Sechelt, B.C.:

"Earlier in the show, we heard about a man who was adopted by an Indigenous community. He married into it, he's raising his children in it and he makes Indigenous art. However, he is not Indigenous. Where's the line? When can you safely say this is mine, too?"

"I want to be careful here," Zellars said, "because I want to listen to and let the voices of Indigenous artists and community members who've had very formed opinions. I want those words to be the final word on the subject.  And this for me really ties into a larger point about how cultural appropriation works. The people who get to decide these questions ultimately are the ones that have the most to lose."