Cultural appropriation is a term that isn’t often heard in daily conversation, which means it’s inevitably misunderstood and can feel hard to get a handle on. Writer Maisha Z. Johnson states that cultural appropriation is a, “power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” To expand upon that, “culture appropriation” often occurs when others are lacking a real understanding of why the original culture took part in these activities or the meanings behind these activities. As a result, this act alters the value of culturally important “artifacts, practices, and beliefs” into pop-culture, which in return lowers the worth or significance of the importance these practices or object are to the culture. In this paper I will examine how the lack of education and ignorance of other cultures leads to harmful acts of cultural appropriation; this will be explained through the understanding of what cultural exchange is, and how this ignorance is shown today.
The history of cultural exchange and cultural appropriation is vital in understanding where appropriation is rooted from and how to make sure history does not more harmfully repeat itself. The problem resides with the fact that we are our past. Cultures overlap and interlace making it difficult to see the difference between sharing and taking. Our history is overwhelmed with war and brutality, which frequently resulted with usurping of another’s land. Because of this people and culture mix in a way and is one of the reasons that cultural appropriation is a hard concept to grasp, is that we Americans are used to shoving our own culture down other’s throats and taking what we want in return. Jarune Uwujaren, the author of the article, The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation states, “We tend to think of this as cultural exchange when really, it’s no more an exchange than pressuring your neighbors to adopt your ideals while stealing their family heirlooms.” To clarify, cultural exchange must be mutual. Many misinterpret this and question at what point do cultural exchange and cultural appropriation mix. However, there is a line crosses and it becomes a harmful and damaging act. This line between these two definitions is very thin and it twists, bends and loops making it difficult for some to clearly identify. But when you boil it down, it all comes down to one simple word: Respect. Uwujaren goes on to continue, saying, “so as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege” (Uwujaren). Cultural exchange is much different from cultural appropriation for cultural exchange is for example engaging with a culture as an invited respectful guest; unlike cultural appropriation where one is not invited and takes and steals instead.
Another way the ignorance of cultural appropriation is mis understood is through the lack of understanding of the difference between appropriation and appreciating.
This is similar to cultural exchange, but where as the ‘exchange’ in cultural exchange implies one must be able to give something in return for having taken something. The University of Utah, author Amerique Phillips describes cultural appreciation as, “honoring and respecting another culture and its practices, as a way to gain knowledge and understanding” (Phillips). To appreciate the culture is to have a genuine and authentic interest in learning about the history–both the good and the bad– as well as the people and their perspectives and views on the world and on life. If you have an appreciation for the culture it makes it more difficult to appropriate it, for you are more likely to recognize your actions as harmful or disrespectful. Similar to cultural exchange it all comes down to respect.
So then why does culture appropriation happen so regularly, one may ask? The author, Ashley Tuomi, of “Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?” answers this question quite blatantly by saying it is, “a by-product of imperialism, capitalism, oppression, and assimilation.” But most of all cultural appropriation is profitable. The objects and traditions of marginalized cultures are taken by the those of dominant cultures and are viewed as exotic, edgy, and desirable, which in return labels it as profitable (Tuomi). When capitalism over powers likes this, it causes diverse cultural identities to be stripped away, resulting in marginalized cultures to lose the aspects important to them and are then folded and diminished the dominant culture.
One example of how cultural identities are being used as a way for profit is in the context of Coachella, a music festival where it seems as if feather headdresses are a popular accessory to wear and create a certain type of ‘vibe.’ But these are tribal symbols of spirituality and status that don’t have anything to do with these festivals. An article from the “Guardian” pointed out that it is an individual’s right to dress like an “idiot at a festival,” but a cultures sacred object shouldn’t be a casual accessory.
Another way cultural appropriation is profitable is through Appropriation in Music. In the 1950’s, white musicians broken through to the black culture and adopted musical stylings that were not before popular. During this time, African American’s were not generally accepted in society in the United States, however their music was, but only through white artists replicating the sound of black musicians. As a result, white record labels made R&B, and then rock and roll music popular and culturally acceptable to listen to. Nadra Kareem Nittle, author of the article “” stated that soon after this happened, “music like rock-n-roll is largely associated with whites and its black pioneers are often forgotten” (Nittle). Similar to this topic, the New York Times published an op-ed titled “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation” where the author Kenan Malik tried to defend the indefensible act of cultural appropriation. Malik tried to argue that the question of “What would have happened, he argues, had Elvis Presley not been able to swipe the sounds of black musicians?” (Bradford). However, I argue, that just because it did happen in the past doesn’t mean it is okay now, or that it is not in any way acceptable, not wrong or not harmful to the culture the dominant culture took their music from.
Today shown through many different celebrities there are recent and ignorant acts of cultural appropriation. The first example I will share with you is when non-black people wear black hairstyles– hairstyles associated with global black culture. Writer Kovie Biakolo explained this recent development clearly by stating, “from cornrows and Senegalese twists to Bantu knots and dreadlocks, which are all rooted in the African diaspora and many of which have been a part of African cultures’ heritage for centuries, black hairstyles in the current culture have been deemed “fashionable” by white or white-passing celebrities.” This happens time and time again, and only now is it starting to get understood as indefensible and wrong. Kylie Jenner is a clear example of a celebrity who attempted to physically embody black culture. When Jenner used the hashtag #WhiteGirlsDoItBetter on Instagram on a picture of her with her hair in cornrows, she was accused of cultural appropriation by another celebrity, extremely rightfully so. This is the reason Amandla Steinberg’s question “What would America be like if it loved black people as much as it loves black culture?” is still cited regularly today and is still a very relevant question, for this issue is not going away anytime and still continues to be harmful to all associated.
The second example–even though there are many more and more to definitely come –of culture appropriation shown by celebrities is the beloved Selena Gomez, Disney channel actress and pop-singer. In 2013 at a MTV movie awards she performed her single, “Come & Get it,” where she wore a red dress and a sparkling bindi on her head. She was criticized as being ‘culturally insensitive’ but this act is not just being insensitive to a culture, it is a harmful, wrong act of culture appropriation. Hindu statesman Rajan Zed told WENN, “The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance.” He goes on to continue later that “It is also sometimes referred to as the third eye and the flame, and it is an auspicious religious and spiritual symbol… It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed. Selena should apologize and then she should get acquainted with the basics of world religions.”
Another article discusses this same topic of Selena’s wrongful, ignorant act, but through the authors perspective of being Indian and how she grew up where kids made fun of her bindi and called it rude and offensive terms. How their family got a lot of hate and racism for being one of the only non-white families in the neighborhood. However, she then goes on to say, “Fast-forward to Gwen Stefani and Selena Gomez rocking bindis and to Beyonce adorned in henna, and suddenly my culture is cooler than ever. Or is it?” (Estrada). She ends on this question for she then goes on to explain how she was irked by how she was so hurt in the past, only for a celebrity to decide they liked parts of it — well, the parts they liked — made her culture and sacred historic religious artifacts mainstream “cool.” This is a clear relationship between the media industry, in particular social media where celebrities use the choices of what they put on their body to influence a large population of people and make these sacred cultural artifacts now a part of pop-culture. She continues and states how context is critical, “It’s important to ask yourself if the context in which you are adopting an aspect of a culture is appropriate” (Estrada), if not don’t do it. Just like other articles I have come across she accents the same point of respect, and without such respect it is very wrong and harmful.
Culture appropriation is very harmful indeed for, “it is an extension of centuries of racism, genocide, and oppression” (Tuomi). The misunderstanding of how harmful it is stems from the delusion that race relations have changed and became better, as though racism no longer exists. However, this is wrong racism is just hidden better. Systematic racism does still exist — white people have power and privilege in this society, even if people would like to deny it, people of color are constantly denied of power and privilege. Those denying it are once again just ignorant and wrong.
Meera Solanki Estrada says a beautiful point of how her non-Indian friends have begun to appreciate and respect her culture in enjoying the music, food and lively colors of her culture. But with this she makes a point to show the not-so exciting aspects of her culture as well including, “gender inequality, shadism, religious wars, elitist class systems and more. And while none of it is pretty to look at, it’s important to see the whole picture” (Estrada). I think it is easy for people who are ignorant to the problems people of cultures have faced and instead ignore these issues. But we must dive deep into understanding these cultures so that in the future we can steer clear of the obvious and hurtful acts.
So how can we do this one may ask? I think it is important to be aware of how we discuss this issue with others, for calling each other out for appropriating other cultures and be delicate and complicated. I think it is important to not assume anyone’s culture or identity, even assuming someone is white, for “white” should not be the default race. With that its important to understand that I cannot go up to anyone light-skinned wearing a beaded headband and assume they are white and tell them to take it off, for they are appropriating Native American culture, for they very well might be Native American background. That’s why it is important to talk about these kinds of things in a way that is not threating but in a safe and understanding way. It is also very important to become educated on other culture’s past histories and present issues as well.
Other times we are invited into other’s cultures to take part of their traditions and experiences by members of that culture, may that be a wedding or a dinner or whatever else. I believe that is an honor to be invited to do so, however we must understand that we cannot then take part in the same activity or wear a certain cultural artifact outside of that invited context. Even if one has done much research and does appreciate and understand the culture, I believe it is a slippery slope and may strip the importance the practice and its original meaning.
In conclusion, it is important to understand that culture appropriation is not in any way a tolerable way to honor, respect or appreciate people of color, Black culture, Native culture and any and every other culture. Instead one must learn how to identify, confront and dissolve any and all types of racism instead of appropriating cultural symbols such as dreadlocks, cornrows, bindis, Native American headdress. We should also be able to listen to the real problems cultures face and how to confront them, for instance Native American people identify real issues such as, “astronomical suicide and alcoholism rates on reservations or the continued the! of Native lands by resource extraction companies” (Tuomi). And even if you claim it’s your ignorance in not understanding why your actions are harmful to other cultures you are stealing from, you must then learn from your actions and chose to be aware of what you put on your body for Halloween, Coachella, concerts, festivals, or how you do your hair, for you can reflect years of oppression and culture identity and then turn it into meaningless. Educate yourself before you diminish others with your ignorance.
Belio, Michelle Elea. “Cultural Appropriation Project Outline.” The PRoblem with Ignorance, WordPress and Oxygen, 2 Dec. 2014, autumnexpenses.social.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/2014/12/02/cultural-appropriation-project-outline/.
Biakolo, Kovie. “What Makes Cultural Appropriation Different from Cultural Exchange.” Salon, Salon Media Group, 3 Oct. 2016, www.salon.com/2016/10/01/how-to-explain-cultural-appropriation-to-someone-who-just-doesnt-get-it_partner/.
Bradford, K. Tempest. “Commentary: Cultural Appropriation Is, In Fact, Indefensible.” NPR, Naational Public Radio, 28 June 2017, www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/06/28/533818685/cultural-appropriation-is-in-fact-indefensible.
Estrada, Meera Solanki. “The Fine Line Between Cultural Appropriation And Appreciation.” HuffPost Canada, HuffPost Canada, 24 Sept. 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/meera-solanki-estrada/the-fine-line-between-cultural-%20appropriation-and-appreciation_a_23004529/
Johnson, Maisha Z. “What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm.” Everyday Feminism, 26 Oct. 2017, everydayfeminism.com/ 2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/.
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. “Understanding Why Cultural Appropriation Is Wrong.” Thought Co., DotDash, 1 June 2018, www.thoughtco.com/cultural-appropriation-and-why- itis-wrong-2834561.
Phillips, Amerique, and Alexis Baker. “Culture Appropriation or Appreciation?.” TheU, The University of Utah, 30 Oct. 2017, attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/cultural-appropriation-or-appreciation/.
Sieczkowski, Cavan. “Hindu Leaders Demand Selena Gomez Apologize For Costume.”The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 7 Dec. 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/16/selena-gomez-bindi-mtv-movie-awards_n_3092129.html.
Uwujaren, Jarune. “What’s the Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural appropriation?” Unsettling America, Unsettling America, 22 Oct. 2013, unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/whats-the-difference-between-cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/.
Tuomi, Ashley. “Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?” American Indian Health & Family Services, AIHFS, 2011, www.aihfs.org/pdf/8-1-16 Cultural Appropriation.pdf.Wright, Colin. “Cultural Appropriation.” Let’s Know Things, 2018, letsknowthings.com/episode55/.