Is Wearing Leis at Graduation Cultural Appropriation?

Graduation day is a momentous occasion in the lives of students, symbolizing the culmination of years of hard work and academic achievement. It is a time of celebration, joy, and reflection on the journey that led to this milestone. One common tradition that has become increasingly popular in graduation ceremonies is the wearing of leis. However, amidst this celebration, a question arises: Is wearing a lei at graduation cultural appropriation?

Understanding the Significance of Leis

Before delving into the debate on cultural appropriation, it is essential to grasp the significance of leis in Hawaiian culture. Leis are garlands made of flowers, shells, or other materials, and they hold immense cultural value in Hawaii. They are not just accessories but symbols of love, respect, and aloha—a term encompassing love, peace, and compassion. In Hawaiian tradition, leis are given to show appreciation, mark special occasions, and honor individuals.

Cultural Appropriation: Definition and Context

Cultural appropriation is a term that has gained prominence in recent years. It refers to the adoption, often without understanding or respect, of elements from one culture by individuals belonging to another culture. This phenomenon has sparked debates across various domains, including fashion, art, music, and even graduation ceremonies.

Cultural Sensitivity in Graduation Ceremonies

The Hawaiian Lei: A Symbol of Aloha

While the sight of graduates adorned with colorful leis may seem festive and joyful, it is essential to recognize the deeper cultural significance behind these garlands. The act of giving and receiving a lei is a gesture of affection, representing the interconnectedness of individuals within a community. It embodies the Hawaiian spirit of aloha, fostering a sense of unity and love among people.

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation

The line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation can be subtle, and it is vital to approach the use of leis with sensitivity and respect. Cultural appreciation involves learning about and honoring the cultural origins and meanings of the lei. On the other hand, cultural appropriation occurs when leis are worn merely as trendy accessories, devoid of any understanding or respect for their cultural significance.

Arguments for and Against Wearing Leis at Graduation

Respecting and Honoring Cultural Traditions

Proponents of wearing leis at graduation argue that it can be a way to honor and celebrate Hawaiian culture. They believe that embracing these traditions fosters cultural diversity and promotes cross-cultural understanding. By wearing leis, graduates can show respect and appreciation for Hawaiian heritage.

Unintentional Harm and Disrespect

Critics of the practice argue that wearing leis without understanding their cultural significance may cause unintentional harm and disrespect. They express concern that reducing leis to mere accessories could trivialize and commodify an essential cultural symbol. This commodification may perpetuate stereotypes and lead to cultural insensitivity.

Tips for Culturally Responsible Graduation Celebrations

To ensure culturally responsible graduation celebrations, consider the following tips:

  • Educate Graduates: Encourage graduates to learn about the cultural significance of leis and the proper etiquette associated with receiving and wearing them.
  • Source Leis Responsibly: If choosing to incorporate leis into graduation ceremonies, ensure they are sourced responsibly, supporting local artisans and businesses from Hawaiian communities.
  • Involve Diverse Voices: Engage with students from diverse cultural backgrounds to get their input on graduation traditions, ensuring inclusivity and respect.
  • Emphasize Cultural Awareness: Integrate cultural awareness programs into educational curricula to promote understanding and appreciation of various traditions.

Embracing Diversity and Inclusion in Graduations

Graduation ceremonies should be a reflection of the diverse communities they represent. Embracing diversity means celebrating the unique heritages and cultures of all graduates. By fostering an environment of inclusion and cultural sensitivity, graduations can become moments of unity and shared celebration.


In conclusion, the question of whether wearing a lei at graduation is cultural appropriation requires thoughtful consideration. Leis hold profound cultural significance in Hawaiian traditions, embodying love, respect, and the spirit of aloha. When worn with understanding and respect, leis can serve as a bridge between cultures, promoting appreciation and unity. However, it is crucial to avoid commodification and tokenization and instead embrace cultural diversity with sincerity and sensitivity.


Graduates from all backgrounds can wear a lei at graduation, but it’s essential to understand and respect its cultural significance.

Leis can be made from various flowers, such as plumeria, orchids, or maile leaves, each carrying its unique symbolism.

While leis are most commonly associated with Hawaiian culture, similar traditions of gifting garlands exist in other cultures as well.

Yes, wearing leis with an understanding of their cultural significance and respecting their origins can be seen as a form of cultural appreciation.

Schools can promote cultural sensitivity by educating students about various cultural traditions and involving diverse voices in the planning of graduation ceremonies.

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