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Understanding... Cultural Appropriation

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:

  1. Examine the etymology of the words cultural appropriation as a foundation to better understand its relationship with power.

  2. 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.

  3. Outline the harmful effects that cultural appropriation has on marginalized groups.

  4. Analyze the familiar arguments defending cultural appropriation as a type of cultural exchange, appreciation, or assimilation.

  5. Offer examples of cultural appropriation across fashion, dance, and literature, with a case study in the food industry.

  6. 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

What is Cultural Appropriation?

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

The Harm of Cultural Appropriation

Understanding the ways in which cultural appropriation is harmful to marginalized groups and how / why marginalized individuals can engage in cultural appropriation themselves

Addressing Critiques of Cultural Appropriation

An analysis of the common critiques made in defense of cultural appropriation

Recognizing & Addressing Cultural Appropriation

Ways for individuals to recognize and take steps to prevent cultural appropriation

Case Study: Cultural Appropriation in the Food Industry

An in-depth dive on the ways in which cultural appropriation manifests in the food industry

Additional Examples of Cultural Appropriation

Additional examples of cultural appropriation

Further Reading

Relevant resources to read and learn more about cultural appropriation

What is 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.

The Evolution of Cultural Appropriation

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.”

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exchange

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:

  1. 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

  2. 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 in the Context of Capitalism

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.

The Harm of Cultural Appropriation

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.

As anthropologist Rajat Singh writes in his review of Vanita Reddy’s book, Fashioning Diaspora:

“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.