What Is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation refers to the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that doesn't respect their original meaning, give credit to their source, or reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression.

In this way, cultural appropriation is a layered and nuanced phenomenon that many people may have trouble understanding—or may not realize when they are doing it themselves.

It may be natural to merge and blend cultures as people from different backgrounds come together and interact. In fact, many wonderful inventions and creations have been born from the merging of such cultures, such as country music. However, the line is drawn when a dominant cultural group makes use of elements of a non-dominant group in a way that the non-dominant group views as exploitative.

In this way, cultural appropriation can be most easily recognized by asking the question of the non-dominant group: Does the use of this element of your culture in this way bother you?

Defining Cultural Appropriation

Taking a step backward, how do we define cultural appropriation? Let's first consider what is meant by each of the terms in the phrase as well as some related terms that are important to understand.

Culture

Culture refers to anything associated with a group of people based on their ethnicity, religion, geography, or social environment. This might include beliefs, traditions, language, objects, ideas, behaviors, customs, values, or institutions. Most often, culture is thought of as belonging to particular ethnic groups.

Appropriation

Appropriation refers to taking something that doesn't belong to you and most often refers to an exchange that happens when a dominant group takes or borrows something from a minority group that has historically been exploited or oppressed.

In this sense, appropriation involves a lack of understanding of or appreciation for the historical context that influences the act of what is being taken. For example, taking a sacred object from a culture and producing it as part of a Halloween costume.

Cultural Denigration

Cultural denigration refers to when someone adopts an element of a culture with the sole purpose of humiliating or putting down people of that culture.

The most obvious example of this is blackface, which originated as a way to put down people of color as having certain undesirable personality traits.

Cultural Appreciation & Respect

Cultural appreciation is the respectful borrowing of elements from another culture with an interest in sharing ideas and diversifying oneself.

Examples would include learning martial arts from an instructor with an understanding of the practice from a cultural perspective or eating Indian food at an authentic Indian restaurant.

When done correctly, cultural appreciation can result in creative hybrids that blend cultures together.

Context of Cultural Appropriation

Learning about the context of cultural appropriation is important for understanding why it is a problem. While you might not think twice about adopting a style from another culture, such as wearing your hair in cornrows, the non-dominant group has historical experiences that make your actions insensitive to their past and current suffering.

Although it is just one example, the history of racism in America, that has been codified into law, means that there are still artifacts of racism that exist to this day.

A person of color might be discriminated against because of a hairstyle that relates to their culture, while you as part of the dominant group can get away with appropriating that same hairstyle, making it trendy, and never understanding the experiences that contributed to the invention of the hairstyle in the first place.

In other words, you've jumped on a trend because it seems cool, but in doing so you show insensitivity to the people for whom that trend is their life and not the latest fad.

Examples of Cultural Appropriation

What are some examples of cultural appropriation? First, let's consider the types of items that tend to be the target of cultural appropriation.

  • Intellectual property
  • Artifacts
  • Dance
  • Clothing and fashion
  • Language
  • Music
  • Food
  • Religious symbols
  • Decorations
  • Medicine
  • Makeup
  • Hairstyle
  • Tattoos
  • Wellness practices

Now, let's consider the groups that are typically targeted in terms of cultural appropriation in the United States. They include the following groups of people:

  • African Americans
  • Asian Americans
  • Hispanic Americans
  • Native Americans

Finally, what are some examples of cultural appropriation from popular culture? Below are some to consider.

Rock 'N' Roll

In the 1950s, white musicians "invented" rock and roll; however, the musical style was borrowed from black musicians who never received credit.

Music executives chose to promote white performers over black performers, reinforcing the idea that cultural appropriation involves impacts on a non-dominant group.

Sweat Lodge

In 2011, motivational entrepreneur James Arthur Ray was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide after the death of three participants in his pseudo sweat lodge. This is an extreme example of the cultural appropriation of Native American traditions.

Voguing

Do you remember the "voguing" craze made popular by Madonna back in the 1990s? Voguing as a dance actually had its roots in the gay clubs of New York City, and was pioneered by the Black and Latinx communities.

Madonna defends her right to artistic expression but the question remains—how many people still think Madonna invented voguing?

Team Mascots

Major sports teams in the United States and Canada are involved in cultural appropriation because of the names of the teams.

Past and present team name examples include the Chicago Blackhawks, Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, and Edmonton Eskimos. (The Redskins and Eskimos are both undergoing a name change as of the time of this writing)

Redskin is a derogatory term for indigenous people and the term Eskimo has been rejected by the Inuit community. Once again, if you aren't sure if something is cultural appropriation, you need look no further than the reaction of the group from whom the cultural element was taken.

How to Know If Something Is Cultural Appropriation

Are you unsure how to decide if something is cultural appropriation? Here are some questions to ask yourself in this situation:

  • What is your goal with what you are doing?
  • Are you following a trend or exploring the history of a culture?
  • Are you deliberately trying to insult someone's culture or being respectful?
  • Are you purchasing something that is a reproduction of a culture or an original? (e.g., artwork)
  • How would people from the culture you are borrowing an item from feeling about what you are doing?
  • Are there any stereotypes involved in what you are doing?
  • Are you using a sacred item in a flippant or fun way? (e.g., headdress)
  • Are you borrowing something from an ancient culture and pretending that it is new?
  • Are you crediting the source or inspiration of what you are doing?
  • If a person of the original culture were to do what you are doing, would they be viewed as "cool" or could they possibly face discrimination?
  • Are you wearing a costume that represents a culture? (e.g., Geisha girl, tribal wear)
  • Are you ignoring the cultural significance of something in favor of following a trend?

Explore these questions and always aim to show sensitivity when adopting elements from another culture. If you do realize that something you have done is wrong, it's OK to accept that as a mistake and then work to change it and/or apologize for it.

How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation

How do you avoid cultural appropriation? Below are some steps to take.

  • Ask yourself the list of questions above to begin to explore the underlying motivation for what you are doing.
  • Give credit or recognize the origin of items that you borrow or promote from other cultures rather than claiming them to be your own original ideas.
  • Take the time to learn about and truly appreciate a culture before you borrow or adopt elements of that culture. Learn from those who are members of the culture, visit venues run by actual members of a culture (such as restaurants), and attend authentic events (such as going to a real luau).
  • Support small businesses run by original members of a culture rather than buying mass-produced items from big box stores that are made to represent a culture.

A Word From Verywell

Cultural appropriation is the social equivalent of plagiarism with an added dose of denigration. It's something to be avoided at all costs, and something to educate yourself about.

In addition to watching your own actions, it's important to be mindful of the actions of corporations and be choosy about how you spend your dollars, as that is another way of supporting members of the non-dominant culture. Do what you can when you can, as you learn to do better.

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