Cultural Appropriation vs. Assimilation: What’s the Difference?

Cultural Appropriation vs. Assimilation: Whats the Difference?

Jasmine Washington

Art, dance, music, clothing, hairstyles, architecture…the list goes on. There are millions of things that make up a culture. Each culture includes its own critical thing that separates them from another one. Even common American associations (or stereotypes) cause certain minorities to be separated. 

For example, hijabs are commonly associated with the Muslim religion. Braids or cornrows are connected to African individuals. Common dances, such as Bollywood, are a great staple of Indian culture, and ballet is originally a European concept. There are millions of things that create a culture and make it unique, however, society can turn these things against a minority. Some people can adapt to the part of another culture and be praised for it, while the person from that group is shamed for showing themselves. 

Cultural appreciation is when someoneseeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to have a larger perspective of the world around them. It’s basically the wish to learn about another culture in order to become a better person as a whole, gaining a full understanding of the differences others have and appreciating it. For example, celebrating traditional holidays associated with other cultures and not making fun of them is cultural appreciation. Doing these things, like honoring Day of the Dead, participating in Holi, or trying to understand the winter holidays of Hanukkah or Kwanzaa are also helpful.

Other forms of cultural appreciation include eating your meal with chopsticks. This isn’t decimating other Asian cultures, it’s appreciating them by participating in common things associated with Asian culture. Appreciating another culture is a harmless way of looking at culture. There’s really no sort of bad in it since it’s meant as a way of gaining further understanding of the world around you.

Cultural appropriation, however, is completely different. Cultural appropriation is taking some aspect of another culture and using it as a personal interest or a way to seem popular. It’s not meant to make the culture you’re representing look good, it’s done as a way to make that individual seem better in society and eventually get praised for it. For instance, if a white model has their hair in dreadlocks, they’re viewed as edgy and cool. However, if an African American does this, their hairstyle is “unprofessional” and “dirty.” If an American artist wears a sari, this is a “fashion statement” and it’s deemed as very cool. But if an Indian wears their culture’s traditional clothing, they’re “doing too much” and are being disruptive to others.

There are hundreds of examples of cultural appropriation in American society. A lot of these things are just parts of today’s society that everyone has decided to accept. These appropriations go further than clothing. It goes deeply into beauty, especially the kind that women are expected to have. Traditionally, people with African genes could be more likely to have a fuller lip shape. This is just part of their genes and something that can’t exactly be changed. However, with extreme celebrities such as the Kardashian-Jenner family began getting lip injections in order to have larger lips, it changed society. The 90s was a time all about how natural a human is. This all changed when Americans from the late 2000s to now decided that having full lips, a small nose, almond-shaped eyes, and a slim-thick body frame was the only way to be beautiful.

Though society will always have its desirable body shape and beauty standards for women, this doesn’t mean it’s alright for women who surgically advance their lips to be praised while those who are born with it are shamed. It causes a sort of insecurity to an entire race as if it’s their fault for the way their bodies were made.

Cultural appropriation can also be shown in foods. This is commonly seen on television shows that showcase classic American housewives. These women will sometimes create food from another culture that they aren’t a part of just to make themselves seem “educated” or “special.” They search for that praise from the group they’re surrounded in, negatively impacting another culture in the process. It’s an incredibly unfortunate way that many parts of certain cultures – such as African, certain European cultures, and Asian cultures have all faced some form of cultural appropriation, putting them in a greater danger for discrimination. 

This leads to cultural assimilation. It is the process in which a minority group/culture has to conform and change themselves in order to fit into society and survive. Basically, it’s the action of getting rid of your culture in order to properly be accepted – this makes things possible such as getting a job and providing for your family. It’s one of the most unfortunate parts of American society, and can ultimately prevent people from having a full expression of themselves and the culture they came from. This not only limits the diversity America is meant to have, it completely ruins how to further generations will interpret the world they live in.

One of the greatest examples of this in the United States is something that was highly popular during the 1960s. African-American women (or any woman who had curly/kinky hair) were forced to change their hair to either a wig or straight hair. They had to conform to society in order to live properly and make money. And though this is an issue from the earlier times of America, it’s still a high issue. Many African-American women can face discrimination for wearing their hair in a relaxer, weave, or for just straightening their hair. Though critics argue this is a way of cultural appropriation, it’s not this at all. Women or men with curly hair will often be criticized for their hairstyles and therefore judged much more harshly than someone with straight hair would be. Sometimes, in order to avoid being harassed, these individuals have to straighten out their hair or put on a wig.

The same can happen for people who follow a religion or culture that involves head coverings, and they can be a victim of cultural assimilation. Many Americans still believe that if a Muslim is wearing a hijab, they’re a terrorist. Others believe that if someone is Middle Eastern, they actually communicate with their own country to somehow plan the fall of America. Individuals who wear head coverings, unfortunately, can’t wear them without being harassed. They can face the same discrimination that African-Americans face for their braids or dreads and are at an even greater risk of being attacked due to society’s opinion of them. 

So why are cultural appropriation and assimilation so widely confused? It’s because many people can look past the differences if it doesn’t truly affect them. Many groups of people just assume, “Hey, if it’s not my problem, why would I worry about it?” Though this is true, it’s a horrible thought to live by. It may not affect every individual completely, but it does affect the society you live in, spreading itself to the economy, certain political powers, the way cities or towns are run, and how social classes are ranked. 

Cultural appropriation is the use of another culture for a purpose of personal gain. It’s making yourself seem better (and getting praised for it) while the cultural group that created it is shamed for representing themselves. Cultural assimilation is what happens when a minority group has to conform to society in order to further live in it. They’re two completely different things, and they greatly represent themselves in their own ways. It’s a great issue in society, and it’s something people of all ages should take seriously in order to make America the diverse place it was meant to be.


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