Updated: Oct 19, 2021
It is important to note as the author of this article that I am white and therefore don’t experience the harms of cultural appropriation and am more likely to consume appropriations of cultures unwittingly. Please let this inform how you evaluate the information I have presented below.
What Is Appropriation?
Cultural Appropriation is the theft of desirable aspects of a culture that separates the customs from their roots, often rebranding them as a product of popular culture.
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 of these can lead to identity erasure, which is the removal of a group’s or individual’s culture. Identity pollution, he explains, 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.
The second threat, identity piracy, is the act of an outside culture depleting another of their privacy and customs by taking them and reappropriating 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. In fact, because the cultures of the European empires were so heavily enforced across global colonization, the descendants of those conquerors don’t experience the harms of appropriation. Rather, we even learn to expect aspects of European cultures diffused throughout the world.
What Is Appreciation?
Appreciating a culture primarily comes from multi-faceted interest that involves learning about a culture continuously and for a significant length of time.
This is probably common in the marriages or partnerships of people with different cultural backgrounds, adopted children/adoptive parents, or people with similar associations to a culture. However, it’s still possible for anyone to appropriate regardless of the most respectful intent. Where appropriation is largely theft and easy to do unwittingly, appreciation is intensive and involved, and the two can’t be earnestly mistaken for each other.
What Are The Harms?
Appropriation is often solidified by uninformed individuals who believe they are taking part in current trends and want to feel how they perceive the other person feels. A common occurrence in the United States is for white people to appropriate language, hairstyles, attitudes, and more from almost every culture that they are not a part of and heavily from black culture in particular.
When you begin to examine white artists, you find that association with blackness is profitable.
When examining Katy Perry’s ‘This Is How We Do’ music video, journalist Derrick Clifton remarked that Katy Perry adorned not only traditionally black braids and other hairstyles, but she also took on a “blaccent” and black mannerisms and inappropriately combined them to portray an attitude commonly placed onto black women in a white-palatable way that ignores the discrimination that black women face.
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 an expansive harm of cultural appropriation, particularly of the pop culture pipeline, that not only submits slices of cultures 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 is not just carried out by ignorant people.
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.
Harrison, S. (1999). Cultural Boundaries. Anthropology Today, 15(5), 10-13. doi:10.2307/2678369
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/
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