A Guide to Understanding and Avoiding Cultural Appropriation

Questions to Consider About Cultural Appropriation

ThoughtCo. / Hugo Lin

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of certain elements from another culture without the consent of people who belong to that culture. It's a controversial topic, one that activists and celebrities like Adrienne Keene and Jesse Williams have helped bring into the national spotlight. However, much of the public remains confused about what the term actually means.

People from hundreds of different ethnicities make up the U.S. population, so it’s not surprising that cultural groups rub off on each other at times. Americans who grow up in diverse communities may pick up the dialect, customs, and religious traditions of the cultural groups that surround them.

Cultural appropriation is an entirely different matter. It has little to do with one’s exposure to and familiarity with different cultures. Instead, cultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups. Quite often, this is done along racial and ethnic lines with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience, and traditions.

Defining Cultural Appropriation

In order to understand cultural appropriation, we must first look at the two words that make up the term. Culture is defined as the beliefs, ideas, traditions, speech, and material objects associated with a particular group of people. Appropriation is the illegal, unfair, or unjust taking of something that doesn't belong to you.

Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, told Jezebel that it’s difficult to give a concise explanation of cultural appropriation. The author of "Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law," defined cultural appropriation as follows:

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a ​minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects."

​In the United States, cultural appropriation almost always involves members of the dominant culture (or those who identify with it) “borrowing” from the cultures of minority groups. African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans generally tend to emerge as the groups targeted for cultural appropriation. Black music and dance; Native American fashions, decoration, and cultural symbols; Chicano style and fashion; and Asian martial arts and dress have all fallen prey to cultural appropriation.

“Borrowing” is a key component of cultural appropriation and there are many examples in recent American history. However, it can be traced back to the racial beliefs of early America, an era when many whites saw people of color as less than human, and the federal government codified that ideology into law. Society has yet to move completely beyond those gross injustices. And insensitivity to the historical and current sufferings of marginalized groups remains apparent today.

Appropriation in Music

In the 1950s, white musicians borrowed the music their black counterparts invented. Because racism relegated African Americans to the sidelines of U.S. society, record executives chose to have white artists replicate the sound of black musicians. The result is that music like rock-n-roll is largely associated with whites and its black pioneers, like Little Richard, are denied the credit for the contributions that they deserve.

In the early 21st century, cultural appropriation remains a concern. Musicians such as Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and Miley Cyrus have all been accused of cultural appropriation. Madonna's famous voguing began in black and Latino sectors of the gay club scene in New York City, and Gwen Stefani has faced criticism for her fixation on Harajuku culture from Japan.

In 2013, Miley Cyrus became the pop star most associated with cultural appropriation. During recorded and live performances, the former child star began to twerk, a dance style with roots in the African American community. 

Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus perform during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards at the Barclays Center on August 25, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke perform during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Appropriation of Native Cultures

Native American fashion, art, and rituals have also been appropriated into mainstream U.S. culture. Major corporations have reproduced and sold indigenous fashions for profit, and eclectic religious and spiritual practitioners have adopted indigenous rituals.

A well-known case involves the sweat lodge retreats of James Arthur Ray. In 2009, three people died during one of his adopted sweat lodge ceremonies in Sedona, Arizona. This prompted the elders of Native American tribes to speak out against this practice because these "plastic shamans" have not been properly trained. Covering the lodge with plastic tarps was just one of Ray's mistakes and he was later sued for impersonation.

Similarly, in Australia, a period occurred when it was common for Aboriginal art to be copied by non-Aboriginal artists, often marketed and sold as authentic. This led to a renewed movement to authenticate Aboriginal products.

Cultural Appropriation Takes Many Forms

Buddhist tattoos, Muslim-inspired headdresses as fashion, and white gay men adopting the dialect of black women are other examples of cultural appropriation. The examples are nearly endless and context is often key.

For example, was the tattoo done in reverence or because it's cool? Would a Muslim man wearing the keffiyeh be considered a terrorist for that simple fact? At the same time, if a white man wears it, is it a fashion statement?

Why Cultural Appropriation Is a Problem

Cultural appropriation remains a concern for a variety of reasons. For one, this sort of “borrowing” is exploitative because it robs minority groups of the credit they deserve and often the capital owed to them as well. Many of the pioneers of rock music died penniless, while the white musicians who ripped them off earned millions.

Ultimately, art and music forms that originated with minority groups come to be associated with members of the dominant group. As a result, the dominant group is deemed innovative and edgy, while the disadvantaged groups they “borrow” from face negative stereotypes, implying they’re lacking in intelligence and creativity.

When singer Katy Perry performed as a geisha at the American Music Awards in 2013, she described it as an homage to the Asian culture. Asian Americans disagreed with this assessment, declaring her performance “yellowface.” They also objected to the song choice, "Unconditionally," for reinforcing the stereotype that Asian women are passive.

The question of whether this form of "borrowing" is an homage or an insult lies at the core of cultural appropriation. What one person perceives as a tribute, others may perceive as disrespectful. It's a fine line and one that must be carefully considered.

How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation

Every individual can make the decision to show sensitivity toward others. On occasion, someone may not be able to recognize a harmful appropriation unless it's pointed out. This is why it's important to recognize why you're buying or doing something associated with another culture.

To behave responsibly and sensitively toward other groups, ask yourself a series of questions.

  • Why are you "borrowing" this? Is it out of genuine interest? Is it something you feel called to do? Or, does it simply look appealing and trendy?
  • What is the source? For material items such as artwork, was it made by someone from that culture? Has that individual given permission for the item to be sold?
  • How respectful is this work to the culture? Would people from that group object to the piece of art or to it being sold to outsiders?

The sharing of ideas, traditions, and material items is what makes life interesting and helps diversify the world. A genuine interest in other cultures is not necessarily wrong, but cultural appropriation raises questions that should not be ignored.