What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation describes when a privileged or dominant group of society adopts a piece of culture (e.g. fashion, food, customs, etc.) from a minority (that has often faced discrimination and systematic oppression), deeming this piece of culture more societally acceptable because it is adopted by a majority culture.
Cultural appropriation is a very nuanced topic, which can be hard to navigate because there are sometimes no right or wrong answers. The best way to avoid being culturally appropriative is to inform yourself, be open to new information and ready to change your perspective, and listen to others who may be offended by something you do.
What is wrong about cultural appropriation?
Put simply, it’s - at the very least - disrespectful. The dominant group in a society adopts pieces of a minority culture without respecting their original meaning, often reinforcing stereotypes, thereby perpetuating the oppression of this minority.
Members of a minority culture have been oppressed and discriminated based on certain pieces of their culture, and members of a majority culture mindlessly adopt a piece of this culture without ever having to deal with the same kind of oppression. Members of a minority culture had to hide certain parts of their culture, for instance refrain from wearing things that are sacred to them, in order to avoid discrimination. They were not able to live out their culture or religion because of the potential consequences, and then a white person comes along, adopting a sacred piece of their culture, without knowing the background and without facing the same kind of discrimination, simply because they belong to the dominant culture.
Examples of cultural appropriation:
a white person wearing their hair in cornrows, braids or dreadlocks
halloween costumes that stereotype an oppressed demographic or cultural minority
wearing Native American headdresses without being part of the culture
wearing hoop earrings as a white person
white chefs selling “asian-inspired” dishes
“smudging” your house with sage or palo santo*
…you can find many more examples if you search online.
How to avoid being culturally appropriative
Basically, if you’re not sure whether you are culturally appropriating something, don’t do it. If it’s a fashion-related decision for instance, you would make use of your privilege to wear something for a day and not be stigmatized for it, while members of a culturally oppressed group don’t ever get to wear the same thing because of the consequences they would face. It’s understandable that members of this group would feel angry when seeing this. If you are an artist or designer, you can refer to many helpful resources to help you avoid misappropriating other cultures, like this guide by the Simon Fraser University Vancouver: Think before you appropriate.
If you want to “borrow” from another culture, please stay away from religious or sacred pieces of the culture and make sure to inform yourself about the culture first, while being sensitive to the customs. Don’t wear anything that portrays or perpetuates stereotypes. Find out the origin and meaning of the piece of culture you would like to “borrow”, credit its source and understand the oppression that members of the culture faced because of it.
Ask yourself if you can financially support the culture you are “borrowing” from, for instance by buying directly from a member of the culture, as writer Rachel Kuo suggests. If you would like to wear Native American earrings even though you do not come from a Native American culture, you could do so by buying them directly from a Native American producer and honoring the meaning behind the pieces. Eating food from another culture is completely fine, but consider buying it from a member of this culture. Monetizing a food that is not part of your culture (for instance cooking “asian-inspired” dishes as a Western chef), can be considered cultural appropriation. Another sensitive topic are foods from another culture which seem strange or gross to you. Make sure to be respectful because it would be insensitive to ridicule or scandalize those foods only because they are foreign to you.
Something every one of us can do to reduce cultural appropriation is to inform ourselves and talk to others about the topic. Encouraging this conversation and reflection on cultural appropriation will sensitize society over time and hopefully reduce the overall amount of cultural appropriation in the future.
We need to accept that there is not always a prescriptive solution for every problem we face, and we need to learn to be okay with being uncomfortable and learning to do it better next time.
Where can you draw the line between appreciating a culture and appropriating? Especially when you’re not a for-profit entity (e.g. a person getting corn rows).
It’s not always about who is allowed to do what, but more about the matter in which things are done, which is where we enter the realms of cultural appreciation. If you respectfully celebrate and honor a culture, while doing your part in lessening its oppression, you run less risk of being culturally appropriative. It’s not only a matter of being well intentioned, but also about considering the impact of your actions.
The best way to go about it is to inform yourself well about the culture to understand which parts of it have been used to marginalize or oppress the respective communities.
Don’t make one person the spokesperson for a whole culture or minority - everyone is different and there might exist different views within one group. However, listen carefully to members of those minorities and respect their feelings if they choose to communicate them to you. At the same time, respect it if they do not have the energy to educate you about cultural appropriation - always do your own research first. A great place to start are these articles by Rachel Kuo and Maisha Z. Johnson.
Is it also cultural appropriation if someone from a minority culture borrows from another minority?
There is no clear answer to this question. It really depends on the case and the individuals involved. The topic of cultural appropriation is as nuanced as we are as individuals, but even if a member of a minority bothers from another culture, they should do so while respecting and understanding the culture.
What about a minority borrowing from a majority culture?
If a minority adopts pieces of the dominant culture (e.g. black women straightening their hair or people whitening their skin), this is called assimilation and is more often a means for survival rather than a choice. Minorities are assimilating in the attempt to lessen the discrimination they face.
As you can see, this is not an easy topic, and the majority of us still have a lot to learn. We encourage you to discuss this topic with other people and sensitize yourself to recognize cases of cultural appropriation in your daily life. Have you become aware of a culturally appropriative practice, which you weren’t aware of before? Let us know in the comments.
I am not an expert, I just researched this topic from a place of personal interest. If I used incorrect terminology or expressed something incorrectly, please feel free to let me know.
* Not only is it insensitive to use sacred practices like this without knowing the full background, palo santo trees are actually on the course of becoming endangered because the wood is being commodified in western cultures. If you choose to buy palo santo, try to buy it from sustainably sourced places like https://sacredwoodessence.com or https://www.ecuadorianhands.com/en/.
Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage Project, 2015. Think Before You Appropriate. Things to know and questions to ask in order to avoid misappropriating Indigenous cultural heritage. Simon Fraser University: Vancouver.