The definition of cultural appropriation is the inadequate or unacknowledged adoption of ideas, customs and practices of a group of people by members of another group, often resulting in the commodification or misuse of cultural elements without the necessary understanding or respect.
The definition of cultural appropriation
Cultural appropriation occurs when someone takes elements from a culture they don’t belong to and uses it in a way that might be regarded as disrespectful or stereotypical. This is what is generally viewed to be considered cultural appropriation meaning that cultural elements from a marginalized community are used without proper understanding or permission.
What is cultural appropriation in the context of cultural identity?
Using an ethnic, religious or racial culture’s elements or ideas in a way that perpetuates stereotypes, or fails to acknowledge their origins and significance, can be seen as a disrespectful appropriation. It undermines the cultural integrity and contributions of the marginalized group and perpetuates a system of inequality and discrimination.
Acts of cultural appropriation may include the unauthorized use of sacred symbols, traditional attire, artistic expressions or rituals that misrepresent the cultural practices and beliefs of the appropriated culture.
Cultural appropriation often occurs without people realizing that they are doing it. It is frequently the byproduct of cultures blending and being influenced by each other. In this sense, cultural appropriation is a nuanced and complex idea that may be difficult to understand for many.
The definition of cultural appropriation
Exactly what cultural appropriation entails will tend to vary, and the definitions are often subject to debate and interpretation.
Here are some ways in which cultural appropriation is defined and perpetuated:
- Financial or social profiting from a non-dominant culture: When a person (or group) benefits from the cultural practices, traditions or artifacts of a marginalized group, it is considered cultural appropriation. For example, a non-Indigenous artist creating and profiting off Indigenous-inspired artwork without permission or fair compensation.
- Wrongful interpretation or separation of cultural elements from their original significance: When a person (or group) uses a cultural element from a minority’s traditions without understanding or respecting its original significance, it is considered a form of cultural appropriation. For instance, wearing religious symbols as fashion accessories without understanding their value.
- Oversimplifying or mocking a minority culture: When a person (or group) simplifies the complexity of a minority culture, or treats it as a joke, this is considered cultural appropriation. One common example is wearing a costume to a costume party that makes fun of a certain culture (often a minority).
What are the negative effects of cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is regarded as a negative thing by many communities who want to preserve the cultural legacy and intellectual property of their people. The complexity arises from the fact that cultural exchange, appreciation and borrowing can indeed coexist with harmful instances of appropriation. There is ongoing discourse surrounding the boundaries of cultural exchange and appropriation, taking into account factors such as power dynamics, intent, respect, and consent. The unacknowledged use of a minority culture’s ideas, traditions and elements can lead to the erasure of marginalized voices.
By taking certain items or elements of another culture, we may inadvertently be contributing to the discrimination of historically marginalized communities.
Examples of elements of cultural appropriation
When examining instances of cultural appropriation, it is useful to explore the specific items and elements that tend to become targets:
- Clothing and fashion (bonnets, (bonnets, kimonos, headdresses)
- Dance (performing traditional cultural dances, such as hula or flamenco, without being part of the respective cultural community)
- Food (profiting from the adoption of traditional recipes or cuisine without acknowledging their cultural origins)
- Hairstyles (appropriating hairstyles associated with specific racial or ethnic groups, such as cornrows, dreadlocks, or afros, without understanding their historical or cultural importance, using them as a mere fashion trend)
- Language (adopting specific words, phrases, or linguistic features from another culture without understanding their cultural context)
- Music (profiting from or imitating traditional musical styles or instruments, such as Native American flutes or African drums)
- Tribal tattoos (getting tattoos of culturally specific tribal designs without understanding their cultural symbolism)
- Religious symbols (using religious symbols, such as Buddhist prayer beads or Hindu bindis, as fashionable accessories)
- Literature (appropriating or imitating the narratives, storytelling techniques, or literary styles of marginalized cultures)
- Wellness practices (adopting and commercializing traditional wellness practices, such as yoga, meditation, or acupuncture, reducing them to selfcare trends)
Cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation
Cultural appreciation is the opposite of cultural appropriation. It is about learning to understand and value the culture of others without appropriation or exploitation. The key difference lies in the manner in which we engage with other cultures. This involves genuine respect and curiosity, honoring the origins, traditions, and contributions of the studied culture.
Appreciation promotes cross-cultural understanding, inclusivity, and dialogue, whereas appropriation can reinforce harmful stereotypes when cultural elements are used without proper understanding or acknowledgement. The key distinction is in the approach, sensitivity, and ethical engagement with the cultural practices of minority communities that foster cross-cultural understanding and collaboration.