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Building Awareness of the histories, traditions, practices, symbols and many touchstones of another culture is an important step in broadening one’s perspective and connecting with others. But there can be a blurry line between appreciating another culture and appropriating various aspects of it without regard to their significance. How can you take part in and celebrate another culture without risking being offensive?

Consider the example of a graphic symbol you want to use as a decorative item. Before you do, ask yourself if you know what it means and check if the way you intend to use it might be inappropriate. For example, the symbol may be associated with a particular religious or ceremonial tradition, used only by certain individuals or under particular circumstances. Or it may be fine to use in appreciation of its beauty, history and symbolism.

Most experts agree that there are no definitive right/wrong approaches that cover every possible scenario. For example, there can be an inherent gap between someone’s intention and another person’s perception. If you have a tattoo of the Hindu Om symbol, there’s no way for those who see it to know whether you selected it merely because it was pretty or because you have an understanding of what the word and sound mean and how it is applied in meditation and yoga practices and how it represents an important aspect of your philosophy of life.

In addition, we each interpret our cultural identities in different ways. Someone who is Irish may resent the many stereotypes that crop up every St. Patrick’s Day, while another person fully embraces every shamrock and leprechaun. One African American hair stylist may want to share her talent for dreadlocks and braids with anyone, Black or white, who finds them beautiful, while another may refuse such service to anyone outside her culture.

A good rule of thumb is to recognize that cultural appropriation typically perpetuates negative stereotypes, is overtly insulting or disrespectful or is exploitative. Ultimately, the most important thing is to keep learning and listening to others in an effort to understand the implications behind the aspects of another culture that interest you. Consider context.

Ask about origins of different customs. Use this understanding to broaden your own world view. Finally, be a willing participant in cultural exchange, sharing pieces of your own traditions as you appreciate those of another.

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