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Before the program started, I participated in meaningful conversations with fellow Duke students through DukeEngage Academy. Along with core values and tips from previous years, we extensively discussed and acknowledged the dangers of developing a “white savior” mindset and experiencing DukeEngage as “voluntourism.”[1] A virtual DukeEngage lacks the physical interaction with the community, which largely prevents “voluntourism” from happening. However, the online environment can lead to another pitfall: cultural appropriation. Communicating solely through Zoom screens and emails, students tend to develop a less holistic and empirical understanding of a foreign culture.

It is challenging to define a blurred and indistinct concept such as cultural appropriation. Rivka Galchen and Anna Holmes’s article, “What Distinguishes Cultural Exchange from Cultural Appropriation,” from the New York Times suggests that cultural appropriation is often identified by a “gut feeling,” a negative hunch. It is hard to prove it, but you just know it when you see it.[2] During one of our reflection sessions, some of the DukeEngage in Ahmedabad program students said that cultural appropriation is about the “intention,” for instance, someone may be said to be appropriating if they are solely taking parts of culture without a mutual exchange. On the other hand, one could claim that someone is appreciating a culture if they are selling clothes inspired by that culture while spreading awareness about a dying tradition and sharing profits with original artisans.

While these identifiers are useful, they are not complete. Even with good intentions and mutual exchange, cultural appropriation is still possible. For instance, a company might want to promote traditional, hand-made shoes of a certain culture. To do so, they produce a cheaper, manufactured version of those shoes to sell to international consumers. The company might be successful in increasing awareness of the traditions through a high number of sales and brand recognition. However, their market presence has most likely led to decreased sales and profit of the local shoe artisans who lost international and perhaps even local customers. Furthermore, the cheap materials may have misrepresented the original shoe-making art. Therefore, appropriation is an equation of both intentions and outcomes. Even with good intentions that are widely acknowledged, a cultural appreciation can ultimately become an appropriation if the outcome is undesirable and harmful for the community of the original culture.

Readings and reflections on cultural appropriation have guided me in my work with R-Weaves, a social enterprise under the aegis of Saath NGO (Ahmedabad, India) that aims to revive the dying arts of handloom weaving, namely, Tangaliya and Patola, by supporting fair trade for the artisans. When I was asked to create marketing strategies to increase the international visibility of the organization and corresponding fundraising project, my immediate concern was about attracting more customers. I thought I should promote and appeal to the R-Weaves mission. However, I knew it was unlikely I would catch the eyes of consumers if I described the entirety of the weaving traditions, the maze-like structural problems faced by the artisans, and the diverse works of R-Weaves. Hence, I simplified the campaign to an entertaining social media challenge, “#Weave4Friends,” starting on International Friendship Day. In this challenge, participants would weave friendship bracelets, tag their friends who would receive them, and donate to R-Weaves. Although the challenge would raise immediate funds to support the artisans and ultimately attract more international customers, I was not sure what its impact would be on the culture it is supposed to represent. I had good intentions—I wanted to increase cultural awareness of weaving arts in India as well as promote sales for the artisans—but could my work become appropriation if I misrepresented the rich cultural context of weaving arts in Ahmedabad? To mitigate this problem, I discussed my concerns with my Saath mentor, Ms. Bella Joshi, a program manager of R-Weaves, and thought of ways to center the challenge on spreading awareness. First, I wrote down a short explanation of the challenge and the mission of R-Weaves that participants could copy and paste into their posts’ descriptions. Second, I designed introductory posts for R-Weaves for the challenge that described the weaving styles. Lastly, I created a handbook with further details to distribute via link to the donors. Because I did not have direct, first-hand knowledge of R-Weaves and the community, Ms. Joshi provided resources throughout the process to make sure that all information published was aligned to the organization’s desired effects.

Nonetheless, these efforts may not have been enough to fully encompass the rich traditions and culture that I was trying to represent through a mere social media challenge. Indeed, cultural appropriation is not a one-time solution—it is  a continuous journey of abatement and mitigation. It follows that solutions are not universally applicable. While discussing the social media challenge with my mentor was an important step to avoid cultural appropriation in one instance, there could be other chances of appropriation that could arise as I approach the end of DukeEngage that cannot be addressed by discussing with my mentor. Solutions to upcoming challenges might require a wider perspective from the community, expert opinions, or further research. As I move forward, I am determined to continue to work towards cultural appreciation and to be mindful of both intentions and impact.

-Suzie Choi, DukeEngage in Ahmedabad 2021 Participant


[1] Merriam-Webster defines “voluntourism” as “the act or practice of doing volunteer work as needed in the community where one is vacationing.” However, specific to DukeEngage, “voluntourism” can mean the act of viewing and approaching volunteer work as part of a “tour.” The white savior complex doesn’t have a formal definition. But it is commonly understood as a mindset that involves a fantasy that one can “save” those who are poor and in need.

[2] Galchen, Rivka and Anna Holmes. “What Distinguishes Cultural Exchange from Cultural Appropriation?” New York Times, 8 June 2017.