Written by: Emily Chen, Edric Huang, Jenny Dorsey
Edited by: Lesley Tellez, Nanya Sudhir
Last Updated: 2.15.21
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The word appropriation is defined by Merriam Webster as “to take or make use of without authority or right” and can be used in a variety of contexts, such as referring to the appropriation of funds, nature, and culture. In this post, we specifically explore the appropriation of culture as it relates to the exploitation and profiting of a culture’s identity, traditions, and elements.
Our working definition of cultural appropriation is:
the adoption of elements of one culture by another, especially in cases where a dominant culture exploits aspects of a minority culture outside of its original cultural context and/or at the expense of the original culture for personal gain.
While discussions specifically using the term cultural appropriation are (relatively) new, the concepts of exploitative and/or harmful cultural interactions are certainly not. In this piece, we will:
Examine the etymology of the words cultural appropriation as a foundation to better understand its relationship with power.
Trace how power imbalances from systems such as colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and consumerism have continually allowed dominant cultures to benefit from the objects and traditions of marginalized cultures.
Outline the harmful effects that cultural appropriation has on marginalized groups.
Analyze the familiar arguments defending cultural appropriation as a type of cultural exchange, appreciation, or assimilation.
Offer examples of cultural appropriation across fashion, dance, and literature, with a case study in the food industry.
Provide suggestions to address and combat cultural appropriation in your spheres of influence.
Ultimately, cultural appropriation will be able to exist as long as there are systems in place that sustain the power of dominant cultures. As the American mainstream increasingly desires to consume culture in “approachable” ways, capitalism will continue to fuel the commercialization of cultural traditions and objects while stripping them of cultural context. It is on us as consumers to push back against the exploitative exchanges that may occur as a result, and instead encourage more thoughtful, regenerative, and community-based practices when engaging with and learning about aspects of other cultures.
Table of Contents
An overview of the evolution of cultural appropriation, how it differs from other forms of cultural exchange / appreciation, and how it’s been shaped by capitalism and consumerism
Understanding the ways in which cultural appropriation is harmful to marginalized groups and how / why marginalized individuals can engage in cultural appropriation themselves
An analysis of the common critiques made in defense of cultural appropriation
Ways for individuals to recognize and take steps to prevent cultural appropriation
An in-depth dive on the ways in which cultural appropriation manifests in the food industry
Additional examples of cultural appropriation
Relevant resources to read and learn more about cultural appropriation
We define cultural appropriation as: the adoption of elements of one culture by another, especially in cases where a dominant culture exploits aspects of a minority culture outside of its original cultural context and/or at the expense of the original culture for personal gain.
In the next few sections, we will examine the origins of cultural appropriation, the societal structures which allow cultural appropriation to exist, and how it manifests in modern culture today.
Cultural appropriation is often falsely conflated with, or assumed to be synonymous with, other forms of cultural exchange, such as cultural assimilation, multiculturalism, acculturation, and/or appreciation. However, an examination of the etymology of the word "appropriation" offers clarity: appropriation emphasizes an active form of taking. The Latin verb appropriare means "to make one's own", ad meaning "to", and proprius meaning "own or personal". As Kathleen M. Ashley and Véronique Plesch describe,
"Beyond the simple acknowledgment of borrowing or influence, what the concept of appropriation stresses is, above all, the motivation for the appropriation: to gain power over."
While the use of the term cultural appropriation has grown in popularity in the past decade, the act of appropriation has existed as long as culture itself. The main type of appropriation discussed here — of primarily white, North American and Western European peoples engaging in harmful interactions with other cultures — has been ongoing for centuries through trade and mercantilism, generally in tandem with colonialism and imperialism. Most notably, Black and Indigenous communities all across the world have been subject to colonization and forced assimilation over the years while their cultural practices and objects are appropriated for profit.
Cultural appropriation may perhaps be best understood within the umbrella of cultural diffusion, a term credited to cultural anthropologist Edward Tylor in his discussion of culture change in 1865. He proposed that cultural diffusion — the process by which cultural elements are transferred between societies — occurs by three mechanisms:
Direct diffusion refers to the exchange of culture based on geographic proximity;
Indirect diffusion refers to the exchange of culture with the involvement of an intermediary, such as merchants;
Forced diffusion refers to a dominant group subjugating a weaker group into adopting its culture (e.g., white colonizers forcing Natives to adopt their religion)
The exchange and/or taking of one’s culture has also been described in cultural research and theory using terms such as influence, postmodern hybridity, syncretism, and strategic anti-essentialism. Many of these concepts are seen as positive processes for human advancement, which hints to why cultural appropriation — generally understood as a negative exchange — has been, and continues to be, a highly contentious topic.
By the early 20th century, critics of this unfettered “exchange”, as it was then characterized, began to surface. New Negro and Harlem Renaissance writers in particular expressed worry over the caricatures made of African American voices and folk traditions in popular shows and stories of the time, such as J. C. Harris's Brer Rabbit stories. Similarly, minstrel shows portrayed caricatures of enslaved Black people by white actors in blackface performing song-and-dance acts drawn from Black culture. While today we see both of these examples as extraordinarily appropriative and racist, at the time there were conflicting opinions. Some writers such as Alain Locke welcomed the interest and enthusiasm around African American culture and art; others suggested these shows embraced Black culture and illustrated popular interest in learning more about Black culture at the time.
By the late 20th century, wider discussions of cultural appropriation had surfaced in post-colonial critiques of Western expansionism. For example:
In Some General Observations on the Concept of Cultural Colonialism (1976), Kenneth Coutts-Smith discusses the Marxist idea of “class appropriation” whereby a dominant class appropriates and defines high culture as well as “cultural colonialism”.
In Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), sociologist Dick Hebdige examines how style in (then) Great Britain borrowed cultural aspects and symbols from other marginalized groups, particularly those with less social or economic power. For example, punk style took elements from both Rastafarian and working-class youth culture.
In The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature (1994), Michael North discusses his concerns regarding voice appropriation and linguistic imitation in the 1920s by white modernist authors such as Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound who mimicked the dialect of so-called “racial aliens” as a rebellion against standard language. This stood in direct contrast to the Black writers such as Claude McKay and Jean Toomer who struggled to free themselves from the very dialect that these white authors appropriated from Black linguistics.
From there, cultural appropriation moved from academic discussions to popular culture, gaining widespread attention in the early-to mid-2010s with the growth of social media and cancel culture. These days, acts of cultural appropriation seem to trend on social media almost daily, from the yearly Halloween costumes and the whitewashing of Mahjong to white women pretending to be BIPOC. This has been especially evident among celebrities and companies given their high visibility, such as Karlie Kloss wearing a feathered headdress at the Victoria Secret’s Fashion Show, Scarlett Johansson agreeing to play Asian roles in film, Katy Perry performing as a geisha in powdered face and kimono, and Awkwafina partaking in Black aesthetics and AAVE.
Viewpoints have grown increasingly polarized on these incidents of cultural appropriation. On one side, some see no wrong in what the individual, group, or company may have done; on the other exist those who condemn these acts for exploiting and profiting from power imbalances between dominant and marginalized communities. In particular, social media has provided a channel for those who may not previously had the ability or platform to speak up against these acts of cultural appropriation. As professor Krishnendu Ray tweeted in 2019,
“The quarrel over cultural appropriation is a sign of the entry of a professional middle class of color that has the capacity to talk back.”
When instances of cultural appropriation are pointed out, generally by the group being appropriated from, those from the dominant culture may counter these claims by championing the necessity or “beauty” of cross-cultural exchange and “cultural appreciation” as a way to negate, minimize, and gaslight the affected group. However, cultural appropriation differs significantly from any kind of beneficial cultural exchange or appreciation because:
The two groups in question have unequal power and control over the situation, especially when the marginalized group is not privy to the same successful outcomes as the dominant group
The appropriative action benefits the dominant group at the expense of the marginalized group, especially in the case of stereotyping, minimizing, or removing important cultural context from the marginalized group
Unlike positive cultural exchange, cultural appropriation is a by-product of systems of power differentials, including imperialism, capitalism, consumerism, exploitation, and oppression. In these scenarios, the dominant group has a history of extracting value from the subordinated people—starting with natural resources and labor, then migrating into aspects of their culture. Meanwhile, the marginalized culture finds themselves lacking power, control, and/or resources over how its culture and people are represented or exploited by the dominant culture. Just as labor exploitation directs resources from the weaker culture to the dominant one, appropriation also funnels wealth to the dominant culture.
Terms like cultural assimilation and acculturation point to how these imbalances in power dynamics result in the adoption of certain beliefs, values, or practices of the dominant culture by the marginalized group. For example, American assimilationist policies from 1860 to 1978 included boarding schools for Indigenous tribes that specifically encouraged Native children to “abandon their traditional languages, cultures, and practices” while adopting the “habits and arts of civilization” of their Christian colonizers (The Atlantic). Over time, these boarding schools became more extreme: Indigenous individuals were discouraged or disallowed from contacting family and community members, forbidden to speak their Native language, and prohibited from maintaining their long hair and traditional dress. As a result, many Indigenous children died under the “care” provided by these boarding schools.
With this context, the appropriation of Indigenous ideas and objects can be understood to be extremely harmful. For example, a prominent cultural object for many Indigenous tribes is the headdress, a symbol of power, rank, and status. For white-owned retailers like H&M and Urban Outfitters to offer headdresses as fashionable costumes or accessories not only strips the headdress of important cultural context, but directly continues the cycle of using Indigenous people and culture for the gain of non-Indigenous settlers.
Given that the U.S. still has not addressed or remedied the centuries of violence it has inflicted upon Indigenous people, the headdress being appropriated is not “just” a headdress. It is a reminder of how Indigenous populations are still exploited and mistreated. In the U.S., Indigenous communities suffer from higher rates of poverty and mortality, and they’ve received little to no support from the federal government in battling COVID-19, or the high numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, not to mention the lack of access to and acknowledgement of their own tribal lands.
There are situations where cultural assimilation happens more organically, such as the cultural assimilation of American immigrants. In these scenarios, the underlying motivation lies in the belief that adopting and integrating into the dominant culture is key to economic and social success. However, even “successful” cultural assimilation does not mean all assimilated groups command the same power. In the case of Asian Americans, for example, the model minority myth purports that all Asian Americans have successfully integrated into American society and achieved socioeconomic success. As a result, white people and companies find it permissible to appropriate Asian culture without acknowledging the reality that Asian Americans still do not have the same sociocultural power, access, and resources as their white counterparts. The power differential is abundantly evident in the bamboo ceiling within the professional realm, and the historical exclusion of Asian Americans from the political process. (Read more about this in our Unlearning Scarcity, Cultivating Solidarity Toolkit for the Asian American Community.)
On the other side of the spectrum, cultural appreciation is typically discussed in the context of learning from and honoring other cultures to gain understanding. Cultural appreciation has been treated as a way to “right” an act of cultural appropriation, yet it falls far short of actually addressing or dismantling the power structures that allowed appropriation to happen in the first place. For example, rock ‘n’ roll was born in the 1950s out of elements of rhythm and blues repurposed for white audiences. In contrast to rhythm and blues, prolific within the Black community, rock ‘n’ roll was popularized by white-owned radio stations and producers who had the resources and power to bring it mainstream. White rock stars such as Elvis Presley soared to fame despite questions of their appropriation and exploitation of Black music. In response, Elvis Presley would publicly credit Black music and artists without truly acknowledging or acting upon the ways in which he profited and benefited from Black culture.
The work of cultural appreciation lies in championing cultural aspects of a marginalized group to be recognized and celebrated — even when white and dominant identities are not included in these cultural practices. It also necessitates proper credit to those from marginalized communities whose cultural aspects are the origin.
Cultural appropriation is often thought of as a culmination of individual decision-making and action. However, a discussion of appropriation must first take into account the systems that keep dominant identities in power. Below, we call particular attention to capitalism and consumerism.
Capitalism is a system based on the private ownership of property and exhausting available resources for profit. When these resources come at the expense of marginalized groups — be it appropriating cultural elements or exploiting individuals for their labor — capitalism encourages dominant identities to exploit through force. Given the pre-existing inequalities along the axes of race, class, gender, etc., in our society, marginalized groups often find themselves unable to stop this exploitation.
America is a capitalist society where the wealthiest 1% hold 40% of the country’s wealth. One only has to turn to America’s history of slavery to understand how we have continually exploited marginalized individuals as means to build the country’s economy. While slavery is now illegal, labor exploitation continues. For example, the agricultural industry has deliberately loose labor laws in order to attract workers, especially undocumented immigrants or migrant workers from Central America in recent years, without granting them proper legal protection or citizenship status and thus making them more vulnerable to harm (read more about the impact of U.S. Immigration Laws on marginalized communities here).
To continue the cycle of capitalism, American consumerism peddles the idea that more of everything is “better”. As consumers, we are inundated with advertising encouraging us to buy a myriad of products and services as a way to express our individuality. As a result, cultural objects and practices become increasingly commodified and marketed to fit mainstream appeal. Companies recognize there is an immense desire to consume culture in “approachable” ways, often by removing surrounding context if it inhibits a product’s ability to be commercialized and mass produced, or appointing a white spokesperson for a traditionally non-white practice.
The recent boon in superfoods such as goji berries and matcha, and the practices of smudging, gua sha, and yoga in the wellness industry, showcase how cultural practices and food can be stripped of cultural context in an effort to achieve mass commercialization and profit. In order to capitalize on popular trends, publications such as Vogue publish articles titled “How to Energetically Clear Your Space With Sage” while failing to acknowledge the practice’s roots in the article. Indigenous people consider the white sage sacred, yet its newfound popularity in the wellness market has led to overharvesting and poaching of the plant (the same variety of sage mentioned in Vogue’s article). Cultural appropriation not only exploits the marginalized community’s culture, but endangers the very resources that the marginalized community relies on.
In fact, diversity itself has become a commodity and brand aesthetic. Because many see “diversity” as a solution to racism itself, engaging and consuming in appropriative products, services, and campaigns are often marketed as a step towards equality. However, this only succeeds at a superficial level: marketing campaigns today emphasize providing an inclusive product or service, often highlighting individuals of diverse backgrounds to suggest their company is diverse and “woke”, and therefore can’t possibly be racist. While it is important to showcase diverse individuals, the optics that signal diversity and inclusion do not equate to actual change or equality. Companies must look inward to their hiring and promotion practices and examine the structures in place that better serve white individuals over people of color.
Cultural appropriation has been, and continues to be, harmful to marginalized groups because:
1. Cultural appropriation exploits the culture of marginalized groups, turning it into a commodity that dominant groups feel entitled to freely enjoy, use, and profit from.
For example, white people who have started businesses performing Native traditions such as sweat lodges and Medicine Wheel ceremonies in the name of spiritual healing and world peace — often without input or support from Indigenous communities — completely overlook the continued harm of Indigenous people at the hands of the U.S. government. Similarly, bindis are divorced from their cultural context (including their significance to class and marital status in South Asia) and their emotional weight, when they become an exotic red dot employed for fun.
“Everyday objects like saris, bindis and cosmetics — not to mention humans or even stories — are all tools toward achieving, as well as subverting, beauty. But these materialities come up against various affects like longing, rage, pride and happiness… This is precisely why beauty cannot be said to be fleeting or inconsequential.”
Likewise, queerbaiting is a phenomenon that queer sociologist Professor Amin Ghaziani describes as “using aspects of queer cultures or queer political support to signal hipness, coolness, political correctness, tolerance or open-mindedness.” Queerbaiting can come in the form of implying ambiguous sexual preferences to intrigue fans; for example, the kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears and the 2019 Grammys performance by Dua Lipa and St. Vincent. At best, these instances provide “representation”, but at worst perpetuate negative stereotypes of the queer community, reducing queer people and culture to a commodity to be commercialized and politicized.
2. Cultural appropriation reinforces negative stereotypes and/or oversimplified caricatures of the marginalized group, further widening the gap in power dynamics.
For example, many schools and workplaces have racist codes against afros and dreadlocks that target Black Americans, but white celebrities who have appropriated dreadlocks are viewed as trendy and face minor long-term consequences. The dominant group does not suffer from the weight of negative stereotypes, or the burden of being racially typecast due to their hair choices. Instead, they are able to adopt another culture’s elements when it suits them, and quickly discard it once its appeal wears off.
3. Marketing tactics falsely equate appropriation with diversity or being in solidarity with marginalized groups.
Allies or activists may claim an act of cultural appropriation is their way of “being in solidarity” with a marginalized group, without acknowledging the discrepancies in privilege between themselves and the marginalized group.
For example, white and white-passing pro-Palestinian activists have been criticized for wearing keffiyehs – symbols of Palestinian nationalism and resistance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whereas Arab and Muslim people wearing keffiyehs have been perceived as dangerous, outsiders, and/or “terrorists”, white people wearing keffiyehs are characterized as “hip” and “worldly”.
4. It is harmful, even traumatic, for BIPOC individuals to see members of the dominant group profit off cultural objects and traditions that may have been a prior source of discrimination.
For example, many immigrant and non-white children who experienced the “lunchbox moment” at school — or even still at work as adults — then see white chefs and restauranteurs achieve success and fame for cooking the same foods they were once shunned for eating. Similarly, immigrant and non-white restaurants may struggle to stay in existence for years, or field complaints about their menu items being “too expensive” when a white-owned business is able to (and be celebrated for) offering the same food at higher prices.
Cultural appropriation is not only harmful to marginalized communities when done by white people; individuals from marginalized communities can also cause harm to other marginalized individuals through appropriation. Marginalized individuals are able to appropriate other cultures because power dynamics still exist among different marginalized groups.
A consequence of systemic oppression is that marginalized groups often engage in oppressive behaviors against other marginalized groups through financial, social, or cultural means as a way to acquire special privileges through white adjacency. This can include appropriating other cultures for their own benefit. The marginalized groups who do so often hold power in other ways — such as cultural, racial, financial, and political power — given the resources they have.
When a marginalized individual does appropriate another culture, they may justify or rationalize their actions and the harm it causes with reasons such as:
The shared experiences of marginalization equate to an understanding of another’s cultural aspects or elements
They also experience marginalization and thus, are entitled to profit from other marginalized identities
Growing up alongside (or within) the marginalized culture entitles them to profit off of said culture
It is necessary to borrow from other cultures as means to achieve success
Regardless of an individual’s experience with marginalization, this form of cultural appropriation is equally as harmful to the marginalized group being appropriated when it reinforces negative stereotypes and allows others to profit from the culture in question.
A notable example of this form of cultural appropriation is Awkwafina and her rise to fame through the use of Black aesthetics. She has used AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and adopted a “Blaccent” as it benefited her (e.g., in films such as Crazy Rich Asians, and Oceans 8) while quietly shedding these aesthetics when it did not (e.g., in films such as The Farewell). She is not alone — Eddie Huang, Liza Koshy, and Lilly Singh have similarly treated Blackness as an identity to be worn when convenient. These instances suggest the need for a broader discussion on how marginalized individuals can fight for representation in media without exploiting other cultures.
Marginalized individuals also have conflicting views around cultural appropriation and the ways in which it manifests. In his show, Ugly Delicious (an arguably questionable name already) Chef David Chang has said that, “What makes America great is that we culturally appropriate better than anyone else”. However, this is a reductionist view of what appropriation is and how it works — representation, success, and cultural exchange can all happen without the exploitative power dynamics of cultural appropriation.
Most critiques that condemn the concept of cultural appropriation stem from a lack of clarity around its definition, or redirect from the impact and consequences of appropriation by arguing that ending cultural appropriation would curtail our individual freedoms. While there are no steadfast rules of who can or cannot do, wear, or behave with relation to different cultures, we find that by focusing on the power dynamics at the heart of cultural appropriation, we are able to set better contextual boundaries and respond to statements dismissing or diminishing the consequences of appropriation.
1. “Culture is universal … culture is everywhere.”
This first critique comes up perhaps most frequently, and often evokes the merits of “diversity”. In The Hill, for example, philosophy professor Jason Hill writes: “To begin with, culture belongs to the world. It is universal…Cultural traits, traditions, customs and experiments in ways of living are consciously and subconsciously absorbed through osmosis by all those who inhabit the public space.” By this argument, if culture is universal, then acts of “borrowing” from other cultures would not be classified as cultural appropriation.
As we addressed in prior sections, anthropologists, sociologists, and other scholars have long studied the fluidity of cultural exchange. Even before the contemporary era of globalization, cultures have traveled all around the world for millennia through trade routes, gift economies, imperial offerings, and more. However, much cultural exchange has not happened on equal footing; museums are perfect case studies of colonial enterprises rooted in the looting of artifacts, belonging to peoples that saw their heritage seized at gunpoint and sent to institutions such as the British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In other words, while culture is indeed “everywhere,” not everyone has had the same access to culture — including their own — due to imperialism, colonialism, and their modern day manifestations. Thus, the ways in which people with power are able to obtain and utilize culture is worthy of scrutiny and being held for further responsibility.
2. “No one owns culture.”
Critics of those who call out cultural appropriation will often argue that no one owns culture; therefore, who is anyone to tell them that they cannot wear, use, or appropriate these cultural artifacts?
First, claims to cultural ownership are complicated and have been the source of ongoing debates in the halls of museums, at UNESCO heritage sites, and around the preservation of “intangible” cultural forms (including ideas, food, and language). However, when it comes to cultural appropriation, ownership is less relevant than the power dynamics at hand. Critiques of cultural appropriation are not projects of claiming or enforcing an individual or group’s ownership over cultural items or processes but rather advocating for cultural representations that fully consider the rich historical and current usage of the cultural forms at hand.
For far too long, only certain people have been the gatekeepers to certain knowledge, representations, and usages of culture — often at the expense or exclusion of the living people who practice those cultural forms on a daily basis. Dangerous stereotypes and cultural one-dimensionality — from the media-fueled ideas of yellow peril and Islamophobia to the military’s reduction of culture to role-plays and simulations — grow when those in dominant positions of power control the entire narrative.
3. “Nothing would be possible without cultural appropriation”
This argument relies on an oversimplification of history that glosses over what cultural appropriation is. The mere act of imitating or even adopting elements of a culture does not always cause harm or lead to exploitation: arguments that non-Christians “borrowed” Christmas from Christianity or that tomatoes came from the Americas deflect from the larger issue, which is that while we can (and should) recognize the past, few things remain constant over time. It behooves us to examine the processes underlying these changes and determine whether these exchanges were symbiotic or parasitic.
In the example of hip-hop (which we explore in more depth under Additional Examples), the genesis of both the music and dance form is one of amalgamation and exchange across various Afro-diasporic forms from across the Caribbean and Africa within multicultural neighborhoods. For TikTokers, celebrities, and other non-Black/Brown folks who engage in elements of hip-hop, however, it’s worth examining if these same modes of cooperation and respectful exchange are core tenets of their work.
A derivative of this argument is that BIPOC in America (or marginalized folks in any context) appropriate from the oppressor all the time, or engage in “reverse cultural appropriation.” This ignores the power dynamics that control the situation. When Whiteness is the norm, BIPOC are continually asked to conform and adapt into the ideals of whiteness — this can be in the form of codeswitching, for example, in order to be seen as professional.
4. “I was inspired by or just appreciating other cultures.”
In multiple instances of appropriation we describe under Additional Examples, creatives will claim that they drew inspiration from other cultures when accusations of cultural appropriation begin to mount. Their defensive non-apologies are typically qualified with the idea that their intent was to uplift, champion, or elevate a culture, such as the case of Julien d’Ys using cornrows in a fashion show (see more under Additional Examples) or three white women creating The Mahjong Line.
First, the evoking of nostalgic pasts often displaces or erases the context of the situation and smoothes over the realities of racial domination. (For example, Gone With the Wind and La La Land.) Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo describes this as “imperialist nostalgia.” By engaging in this nostalgia, we not only confine cultures to a past tense, defined by our own limited understanding of them, but also elude our own complicity in the destruction or dissipation of important sociocultural context.
Second, in these incidents, inspiration largely takes place in Western, capitalist settings that center the figure of the singular, often male “genius” with endlessly — and often ruthlessly — creative ideas. As a society, we’ve often heralded artists as visionaries and given them unlimited domain, forgetting that our celebrity culture, cults of personality, and algorithms only allow certain names to rise to the top. In contrast, in Indigenous and non-capitalistic societies, anthropologist Theodoros Kyriakides points out that “creativity is embedded in social relations of reciprocity, responsibility, hierarchy, and knowledge transmission.” That is, the concept of inspiration is a group effort that requires thoughtful intimacy in its exchange.
Critiquing a style of inspiration that blurs into appropriation is not meant to limit imagination or freedom of press, but rather scrutinize the power dynamics within this supposedly fruitful exchange. In the fictional novel American Dirt, for example, the white author received great praise (and publishing dollars) for writing about a Mexican mother and son fleeing to the U.S. without having such a lived experience or having cultivated intimacy with actual Mexican or Mexican American refugees to tell their stories on their terms (we explore the implications of American Dirt in further depth under Additional Examples).
As Hannah Giorgios wrote about the now-famous Harper’s Letter championing the free exchange of information and ideas: “There’s something darkly comical about the fretfulness of these elite petitioners. It’s telling that the [censorship] they identify as a national plague isn’t the racism that keeps Black journalists from reporting on political issues, or the transphobia that threatens their colleagues’ lives. The letter denounces ‘the restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society,’ strategically blurring the line between these two forces. But the letter’s chief concern is not journalists living under hostile governments, despite the fact that countries around the world impose draconian limits on press freedom.”
The most difficult aspect of addressing cultural appropriation is recognizing that it is merely a symptom of larger inequities. The cries for justice should never stop at cultural appropriation, although it is often a relatable entry point. Our capitalist society has allowed rampant consumerism to reduce the complexities of human history, relationships, and culture into stereotypes and commodities of self-expression.
To tackle cultural appropriation, then, is to be willing to dive deeper and consider the impact of centuries of colonialism, imperialism, and systemic violence against marginalized communities on our lives. Much of the work behind cultural appropriation is not merely being open-minded and passively receptive to new or challenging information, but actively taking steps to learn more about the cultural forms you are engaging with and build genuine relationships with the communities behind them.
In one complicated example, Maria Grazia Chiuri (the creative director of Valentino in 2015) received criticism for featuring fewer than ten Black models in a show meant to be a tribute to Africa. She did a complete 180 in Dior’s 2019 show in Marrakech from employing an expert on African textiles, to branding the outfits with the name of the Ivorian studio that produced them, to including benches with cushions embroidered by local weavers for guests to sit on. In the lead up to the show, Chiuri told press that she hoped to promote the idea that “‘couture’ should no longer refer simply to the work of an atelier in France, but was really about culture: about know-how and history, human labor and the touch of the human hand, all of which applied to African wax prints as well as any woven jacquards” (The New York Times).
While Chiuri did improve significantly in five years by doing the research and finding opportunities to engage and uplift local voices, questions remain: Who really profits from this work? Did Chiuri do enough to educate her audiences and potential buyers about the artifacts, symbolism, and people behind the show? (And how much of that responsibility lies with her, versus the audience themselves?) Is it even possible for her to truly enact this sort of mindset change among the audience of a highly capitalistic fashion industry?
There are no clear-cut answers to these questions, especially within the confines of capitalism. As cultural appropriation continues to take on new shapes, it’s best for all of us to think more holistically and engage more critically with our own patterns of behavior.
1. As a consumer, ask yourself why you’re buying, wearing, or utilizing objects or ideas that have strong, or specific, cultural linkages. Some questions to consider:
Why is this meaningful to you? What are you trying to express about yourself?
Is proper credit being given to the people making the items, or the originator of these ideas? What is the surrounding context and/or education about this product?
Who benefits or profits from your consumption? Is it the communities with the strongest connection to the artifacts or ideas in question? Do these communities want these items and ideas to be commercialized?
What are other ways you could potentially engage with these items or ideas? (For example, perhaps consider other elements from the source/maker, or consume at a different part of the supply chain?)
2. If you are engaging with a specific group (e.g., starting a company based on a culture you may not belong to), learn to build reciprocal and genuine relationships with that community. Some questions to consider:
Have you truly done your research? For example, the Australian Council for the Arts developed a set of protocols for working with Indigenous artists that lays out how to approach Aboriginal culture as a respectful guest, who to contact for guidance and permission, and how to proceed with your art if that permission is not granted.
Why are you the right person to take on this position? Are there already organizations within this community doing the work you’re aiming to do? Would your efforts be better served as support for those organizations?
What are ways you can continue to uplift this community in your work? What does this look like in terms of financial investment, or creating new opportunities for the people in the community? How can you use your time, energy, and resources to give more power to this community?
How can you thoughtfully integrate into this community while being conscious of the privileges and power dynamic that you inherently bring? What are ways you will continue to build relationships with the people within this community?
3. When encountering instances you believe to be appropriation, find ways to deepen the conversation beyond just appropriation into larger issues around systemic oppression. Some questions to consider:
If you have a relationship with the individual, group, or organization in question: how can you better understand their point of view and test their assumptions? What are ways to encourage them to do more research on the objects, ideas, communities they may be appropriating from?
If you do not have a relationship with the individual, group, or organization in question: how can you hold them accountable in a way that highlights the root problems behind their appropriative action? How can you use the resources and influence you have to shift the trajectory of the power dynamics that enabled this appropriative action in the first place?
While discussion of the act of appropriation is important, calling out (or in) appropriation does not create change in and of itself. As the inevitable debate around appropriation builds steam, what are ways you can highlight the deeper issues at heart like labor exploitation, the policing of Black and Brown bodies, colonialism, etc. and bring them into the spotlight?
4. Conversely, if someone claims that you have transgressed into appropriation: Can you take a step back to breathe and listen? What questions can you ask to unearth their understanding of cultural appropriation, and offer space for you to better understand their lived experiences? How can you understand and address the harm that is being done? How can you unravel your own intent versus actual impact?
5. Cultural appropriation is just one symptom of larger issues around power dynamics. The question remains: What are ways you can contribute to building more equitable systems of power in the future for marginalized communities?
Ultimately, slow down. Be vulnerable and recognize you simply cannot know how much you do not know. Reject the idea that power, creativity, influence should be concentrated in one person’s hands and ruminate on ways it can be regenerative and circular. Consider who should be centered in the conversation around appropriation, versus who should be held accountable.
Food is a particularly touchy topic when it comes to appropriation, given how intricately tied it is to cultural history and context. In addition to being a necessary source of sustenance for humans, food plays an instrumental part in shaping the structure of our societies — from developing a social hierarchy to influencing national economic priorities. In particular, food is a significant way to exert control. For example:
One of the major differentiating factors of the Dalit (the lowest caste) in India is that they eat the meat and other parts of animals — even from cows, which is considered sacred by Hindus, who generally make up the upper castes. This is a result of economic necessity, yet has also become a point of social ostracization.
The use of sugar — an extremely laborious crop to harvest — was not common until slavery became widespread in Central and South America. This “white gold” rush solidified intercontinental trade structures and incentives: “enslaved people from Africa; sugar from the West Indies and Brazil; money and manufactures from Europe.” (NYT)
As part of the U.S. government’s effort to inhibit the food sovereignty of tribes of the Great Plains, ads were put out rewarding settlers to shoot as many buffalo as possible, given the animal’s importance to the diets of Indigenous communities there. As one colonel said, “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” (The Atlantic)
In addition to being essential to shaping culture and structure, food is also extremely personal and emotional, given its importance in continuing and maintaining a group identity. Across history, food is often one of the few cultural objects people are able to bring with them when resettling in a new place permanently. Especially when this resettlement is not voluntary — e.g., Jewish people fleeing genocide in Nazi-occupied Europe, the forced movement of Indigenous tribes to different lands allocated to them by the U.S. government — preserving food culture becomes an irreplicable way to continue ancestral practices and solidify traditions cohesive to that group.
With the American population shifting to become more diverse than ever, individuals who have seen their food cultures suffer the negative effects of history are, unsurprisingly, carefully scrutinizing the power structures of who is able to obtain popularity, success, and profit cooking foods from the same cultures that have already been exploited, marginalized, and erased by dominant groups. Especially when the food experiences of BIPOC often involve past trauma due to social rejection or ridicule by the same dominant identities now helming businesses based on foods once seen as “foreign”, “low class” or “disgusting”, the questions around expertise and ownership are innately also about equity and access. In particular, the subject of appropriation tends to arise in the food industry when:
There are unequal socioeconomic, cultural, and political power between the main subject (e.g., chef, restaurateur, person who proclaims themselves as an “expert”) and the community being spotlighted. This results in opportunities being granted to this person — be it capital to open a restaurant, or mainstream publicity in food media — that is otherwise unavailable to members of the original community, even if those members are contributing the same output.
There has historically been misrepresentation, lack of representation, and/or problematic representation of a certain food culture (e.g., Chinese food being described as “cheap”). Much of this damage is difficult enough to reverse (e.g., the ongoing distrust of MSG despite zero evidence), but BIPOC individuals often also lack the ability to control the future narrative themselves, because food media is still predominantly white.
At its core, cultural appropriation in food is another avenue by which dominant identities are able to utilize the cultural capital of another group for their own gain. While the fluidity of food culture over time does mean that many aspects of food culture today are inherently a fusion of tastes, ingredients, and cuisine traditions from across the world, the power dynamics that have evolved food culture over time are not all equal. There must be nuance in examining how these acts of transference and cultural cross-pollination took place — and what consequences still play out today.
As we’ve mentioned, one famed example is the arrival of New World crops like tomatoes, sugarcane, chilies, and potatoes to Western Europe, which from there spread to the Levant and Asia. The resulting cultural staples come to mind easily: Irish bangers and mashed potatoes; a plethora of Italian tomato-based pasta sauces; spicy nam prik from Thailand. But often missing in this conversation, however, are stories like the resulting explosion of slave labor to fuel the international sugar trade, uprooting African peoples from their families and traditions (including food), or the violence of the Spanish in overthrowing the Aztec empire (and disseminating Indigenous populations, resulting in huge losses of culinary traditions).
The realities of centuries of colonization, imperialism, genocide, enslavement, and exploitation have had a lasting impact on the lens in which we view (or are able to even learn about) different cuisines, and by extension, the communities of people they embody. Consider, for example, that enslaved people were forbidden to read and write, thereby limiting their ability to pass on culinary knowledge across generations. This lack of written documentation is then used to justify the dominance of cultures with robust written accounts of food and detailed recipes, such as the French.
Next, we’ll examine a few key ways cultural appropriation in food plays out, and why.
1. “I’m Improving This”
As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is quoted in The Language of Food, “taste...is first and foremost...negation of the tastes of others.” The foods of lower status groups, then, generally are portrayed in a negative light. For example, European elites rejected the use of flavorful spices imported from the Middle East and Asia after they had become too accessible to the general public.
“When serving richly spiced stews was no longer a status symbol for Europe's wealthiest families... the elite moved on to an aesthetic theory of taste. Rather than infusing food with spice, they said things should taste like themselves.” (NPR)
Professor Krishnendu Ray calls this the “hierarchy of taste” — or how our willingness to pay for a certain cuisine of food is correlated with how positively (or negatively) we view that culture, often influenced by our geopolitical relationships with that country. He gives the example that Japanese food “is doing very well in terms of prestige” because of “the rise of Japan as a major economic power” while “status of Chinese food remains held back by many Americans’ perceptions of the country and its economy.” Because many Americans still associate China with “cheap and crappy stuff” that bleeds into ideas about its food. In concrete terms, the difference in “the average check at a Zagat-listed Japanese restaurant for a meal for one (including a glass of wine and a tip) was $68.94, while the average price for the same thing at Zagat-listed Chinese restaurants was $35.76.” (The Atlantic)
The negative connotations associated with foods and people do not end at price, however. Modern ideas of clean or healthy food is one harkening back to the spiceless foods of European nobility. As dietician Jessica Wilson recounts, “in her dietetics program at the University of California, Davis, [she] was the only Black student. A single day was devoted to what the curriculum called “ethnic diets.” “It was not, ‘These are interesting and awesome,’” she recalled. “It is, ‘These are why these diets are bad. Next class.’” Mexican food was dismissed as greasy. Indian food was heavy.” (NYT)
It is these implicit insinuations of inferiority that then wrongly empowers often white restaurateurs and chefs to “elevate”, “clean up”, or “modernize” the foods of other cultures, without recognizing these negative stereotypes exist because of the harm done by their affluent white predecessors. Two particularly overt recent examples were Lucky Lee’s in NYC, where a white woman advertised her fare as a healthier alternative to “greasy” Chinese food that makes you feel “icky”, and Lucky Cricket in Minneapolis, where celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern vowed to save the Midwest from “horseshit” Chinese restaurants (referring to Chinese American fare, which arose as means of appealing to white audiences) with his own “authentic” offerings.
The throughline between these two restaurants is the juxtaposition of white elevation, prestige, and profit at the expense of the community they are supposedly inspired by, and taking from. As Shreeta Lakhani writes in Gal Dem,
“This coded fancy talk about “elevating” or “making over” non-European cuisines, is a rhetoric that brings to mind the civilizing mission the British took on to justify violent takeovers of the countries from which the very same cuisines originates.”
2. “I’m Spreading Awareness”
It is important to note that public sentiment towards food does change over time — particularly when it is complemented by socioeconomic mobility of the wider group. In his book The Ethnic Restaurateur, Ray offers the example of Italian food, which rose to the prominence (and price) it commands today “after the descendants of...poor Italian immigrants began rising in American society…As Italian Americans’ associations with poverty faded gradually over the 20th century, the cuisine they brought with them was restored to the heights it had occupied in the 19th.”
However, this reassessment is one that can only be undertaken by those with the monetary and social means to influence wider perception — typically white men with the access and capital to establish expertise (and physical restaurants) of the cuisine in question. Rick Bayless, for example, has become the poster child for making Mexican cuisine more accessible and mainstream in the U.S., and Andy Ricker, northern Thai cuisine. (For the less well-capitalized, many food makers — especially BIPOC ones — sell their food on the streets, which is often subject to law enforcement crackdowns and portrayed as detrimental to the aesthetic of public spaces.)
As chef Jocelyn Ramirez said in a recent panel Studio ATAO hosted about appropriation, it is not that the work of Bayless in highlighting regional Mexican cuisine is problematic in and of itself, but rather that he became the chef of Mexican food when so many Mexican and Mexican American talents were never highlighted in food media, nor mentioned or credited by Bayless: “Growing up, I always thought that food was something that I was really passionate about, but never thought that it was a career choice for me. Because I didn't see a space for myself there.” The fact that white faces were able to profit from cuisines that American consumers formerly would’ve been hesitant to pay more for, or described with negative connotations, demonstrates how deep the halo effect of whiteness resides in our personal preferences. As writer Ahmed Akbar tweeted, “Like many things, a white face is often a good Trojan horse for introduction to new cultures.”
Conversely, BIPOC are not given the same flexibility in the scope of food they are able to cook and profit from. As Khushbu Shah writes of Sohla and Ham El-Waylly’s (both BIPOC chefs) upscale diner concept, “People frequently walked into the restaurant looking for foreign or exotic ingredients because of the couple’s cultural backgrounds. The El-Waylly’s went so far as to pacify the most stubborn of customers with small fibs. ‘Sometimes, depending on the clientele, we just lie and say that there is cumin in our burger because that is what makes them happy.’” (GQ)
Relatedly, writer Navneet Alang asks a poignant question of Alison Roman’s, a popular white female recipe developer for the New York Times, viral recipe “The Stew”: “If a South Asian or Middle Eastern person put forth that mix of ingredients, could it have merely been #thestew, with no other descriptors attached, or would whiteness have forced it to have a name?” (Eater)
There is also great consequence in our mass uplifting of a sole — or only a few — disseminators of information about a cuisine. With a field as vast as food, it is impossible for any one person to know the intricacies of a cuisine, and a great danger to purport one opinion as representative for all. Vietnamese and Vietnamese American readers of Bon Appetit, for example, were outraged at the now-removed video on “proper” ways to eat pho, dictated by a white male chef. (Shortly thereafter, Bon Appetit published a recipe for halo-halo that drew fury from the Filipinx and Filipinx American community for its disrespectful recreation of a beloved dish).
While not exactly appropriation, it is also worth noting that when mainstream media and its celebrities hold so much clout in shaping popular understanding of dishes and cuisines — and by extension the culture and people behind them — the way foods and people are presented when receiving positive press is also important. For example, the ever-popular “Cheap Eats” type column or list is often the only time non-white restaurants are profiled in major publications; the main focus in articles about non-white foods tend to circle around if the food is “authentic” or not, a bar never set for white foods; popular chefs, writers, food talents that are BIPOC are often repeatedly asked to make foods from their cultural backgrounds while their white counterparts are given free reign over all types of foods. Due to a pervasive system of scarcity that only allows certain tokens to succeed, even “good” press and exposure may come at a cost.
3. “I Discovered This”
Utilizing food for one’s own gain — whether that be an organization or a person — without offering proper history, origins, or nuances of that food, also threatens to erase important context of a cuisine and culture. For example, culinary historian Jessica B. Harris explains how the origins of gumbo being thickened with okra is a technique adapted from “soupikandia, a Senegalese soupy stew slave cooks prepared in plantation kitchens for both themselves and their owners.” However, as gumbo and okra are increasingly represented as American Southern cuisine, “the true narrative of the plant is at risk of disappearing.” (National Geographic)
Once erased, the same items, dishes, and techniques already existing in marginalized communities are often then “rediscovered” by white figureheads, or even presented as a “solution” to another problem that whiteness has created. This extends throughout the entire food supply chain; for example, critics of the film Kiss the Ground (a film about soil health and regenerative agriculture) pointed out how it is “yet another attempt to rebrand age-old growing traditions and Indigenous practices that pre-date the ‘conventional’ farming that regenerative agriculture advocates claim they are disrupting” without mentioning the long histories and practices of Indigenous and BIPOC communities already doing this work. (Civil Eats)
Similarly, the mainstream wellness and vegan movements in the U.S. regularly ignore inconvenient histories such as vegetarian and veganism being widespread and practiced in BIPOC communities around the world, from Korea to Jamaica, and rarely highlights BIPOC vegans in broader messaging. “Foods most associated with vegan meals — crumbly blocks of tofu, fluffy quinoa, pots of chia pudding, ‘wraps’ made from collard greens instead of tortillas, pulled-pork sandwiches made from jackfruit — originated in communities of color who have been eating these items for hundreds of years before they were plucked and reclothed as ‘superfoods’ or clever meat alternatives, stripping of them of their identities.” (Thrillist)
When a singular attribute from a cuisine is commodified by mainstream white culture, it often undergoes a transformation for approachability. Haldi doodh, for example, became “turmeric latte” or “golden milk”; paratha and malawah became “flaky bread”; jerk became an all-purpose seasoning for rice. Not only does this obscure rightful origins and context, it allows these newfangled “discoveries” to be diluted into another object that can be used when needed, and discarded when not. Bon Appetit’s (since-removed) Pho Is the New Ramen video, for example, indicated how an extremely culturally important dish like pho is seen as replaceable in the eyes of white food media.
(Relatedly, a Chicago poke chain owned by white men even tried to trademark the word “aloha”, presumably deeming the term something that they should be able to own at will, despite its storied history in the islands.)
This does not even be