top of page

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural Appropriation

Updated: Jun 20


What Is Appropriation?


Cultural appropriation is the adoption of desirable aspects from a minority culture by a dominant culture, often rebranding them as a product of popular culture and done in ways that can be exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical. This separates the customs from their roots, which often leads to cultural erasure.


Rooted in an imbalance of power, appropriation mostly exists as a tool of colonization, whether or not it is intended. Anthropologist Simon Harrison identifies two important threats to any culture: identity pollution and identity piracy. Both can lead to identity erasure, which is the removal of a group’s or individual’s culture.


Identity Pollution


This is the influx of outside cultures into a space, suppressing the local customs. When we assess maps of European empires over the last several centuries, we see how much colonization has smothered the world.



An anachronistic map of British colonization. (Image Source: Wikimedia)
An anachronistic map of British colonization. (Image Source: Wikimedia)

 An anachronistic map of French colonization. (Image Source: Wikimedia)
An anachronistic map of French colonization. (Image Source: Wikimedia)

 An anachronistic map of Spanish colonization. (Image Source: Wikimedia)
An anachronistic map of Spanish colonization. (Image Source: Wikimedia)

Identity Piracy


This is the act of an outside culture depleting another of their privacy and customs by taking them and re-appropriating them. While Simon Harrison describes these threats as asynchronous, considering the areas of the world that have been colonized (identity pollution) and evaluating what peoples seem to experience cultural appropriation in the most harmful ways (identity piracy), we find that these operate more as a two-step attack on indigenous or culturally distinct groups.


Because the cultures of the European empires were so heavily enforced via global colonization, the descendants of those conquerors didn’t experience the harm of appropriation. Rather, we even learn to expect to see aspects of European culture worldwide.


Forms of Cultural Appropriation


Cultural appropriation manifests in diverse ways, often involving ignorance or apathy on the part of appropriators. A common form is when members of a dominant group face no consequences for adopting elements of a minority culture, while members of the minority group may face backlash for the same cultural expressions. An example is the phenomenon known as "blackfishing," where white individuals adopt elements of African American culture without facing the same societal repercussions as their Black counterparts.


Kim Kardashian wearing cornrows at the MTV Awards
Kim Kardashian wearing her hair in cornrows at the MTV Awards. (Image Source: Wikimedia)

Kim Kardashian


The reality star has faced criticism for appropriating black hairstyles, such as cornrows, while simultaneously receiving praise for popularizing them. This highlights the disparity in how certain cultural elements are perceived based on the cultural background of the appropriator.


Katy Perry


Perry has been accused of cultural appropriation for various instances, including her geisha performance at the 2013 AMAs and the "This Is How We Do" music video, which featured cornrows and caricatured baby hairs. Her actions reinforce the practice of tapping into Asian and black aesthetics for entertainment purposes without understanding the complexity of these cultures.


 Iggy Azalea at the ACL Music Festival in Austin
Iggy Azalea at the ACL Music Festival (Source: Wikimedia)

Other white artists try to lay claim to their cultural exploits. For instance, in 2013, Iggy Azalea once stated that Miley Cyrus copied her by twerking. Not only is this entirely inaccurate and misguided, but Iggy Azalea later tried to announce that twerking, which she appropriated from Black culture and which has existed for several decades in Black spaces, was “dead.” This shows us the expansive harm of cultural appropriation, particularly of the pop culture pipeline. Cultural appropriation not only submits slices of culture for mass uninformed consumption but also attaches these artifacts with an expiration date. So, when the “trendsetters” (appropriators) decide that something is dead, the people to whom that practice is significant are expected to abandon it and are ridiculed in public spaces if they don’t.


Appropriation vs Appreciation


Appreciation involves seeking to understand and learn about another culture to broaden one's perspective and connect with others cross-culturally. Appropriation, on the other hand, is the act of taking cultural elements without fully understanding or respecting their significance. Where appropriation is largely theft and easy to do unwittingly, appreciation is intensive and involved.


Tips for Avoiding Cultural Appropriation


Examine Your Own Culture


Reflect on the aspects of your own cultural background that are essential to your identity. Consider how you would feel if someone used these elements without understanding their significance.


Listen First


Understand and appreciate another culture by actively listening to those who are a part of it. Learn about the cultural implications of the elements that interest you.


Consider Context


Be aware of the meanings attached to cultural symbols and understand when and where it is appropriate to use them.


Share Your Own Culture


Engage in mutual cultural exchange, sharing aspects of your own language, food, customs, and traditions while learning from others.


TED Talk


This powerful talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie emphasizes the importance of understanding diverse narratives and avoiding generalizations.


Conclusion


With the rise of connectivity on social media, we see explicit clashes between members of cultures and those who seek to invalidate them by attempting to rob them of cultural significance. This exposes how useful appropriation is as a tool for colonization and how it is deteriorating space for cultural coexistence.


Navigating the complex terrain of cultural appropriation requires awareness, empathy, and a commitment to mutual understanding. By fostering a culture of respect and genuine interest in different cultures, individuals can contribute to a world where cultural exchange is enriching and inclusive rather than exploitative and harmful.



 

References


Acquaye, A. (2018, August 23). Madonna’s VMAs 2018 Outfit Is the Latest Example of Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation | Teen Vogue. Teen Vogue; Teen Vogue. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/cultural-appropriation-appreciation-kim-kardashian


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story | TED. (2009, October 7). YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg


Clifton, Derrick. (2014, August 5th) 5 things white people need to learn about cultural appropriation. Daily Dot. https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/5-things-white-people-cultural-appropriation/


Cultural Appreciation vs. Cultural Appropriation:  Why it Matters | Greenheart International. (n.d.). Greenheart International | Connecting People and Planet. Retrieved February 14, 2024, from https://greenheart.org/blog/greenheart-international/cultural-appreciation-vs-cultural-appropriation-why-it-matters/


cultural appropriation. (n.d.). Encyclopædia Britannica; Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February 14, 2024, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/cultural-appropriation


Harrison, S. (1999). Cultural Boundaries. Anthropology Today, 15(5), 10-13. doi:10.2307/2678369


Raypole, Crystal. (2020, September 16th). There’s a Big Difference Between Cultural Appreciation and Appropriation — Here’s Why It Matters. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/cultural-appreciation#appreciation-defined


Comments


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page