ⓘ Cultural appropriation, at times also phrased cultural misappropriation, is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can be c ..


ⓘ Cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation, at times also phrased cultural misappropriation, is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures.

According to critics of the practice, cultural appropriation differs from acculturation, assimilation, or equal cultural exchange in that this appropriation is a form of colonialism: cultural elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context - sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of members of the originating culture.

Cultural appropriation is considered harmful by various groups and individuals, including Indigenous people working for cultural preservation, those who advocate for collective intellectual property rights of the originating, minority cultures, and those who have lived or are living under colonial rule. Often unavoidable when multiple cultures come together, cultural appropriation can include exploitation of another cultures religious and cultural traditions, fashion, symbols, language, and music.

Those who see this appropriation as exploitative state that the original meaning of these cultural elements is lost or distorted when they are removed from their originating cultural contexts, and that such displays are disrespectful or even a form of desecration. Cultural elements that may have deep meaning to the original culture may be reduced to "exotic" fashion or toys by those from the dominant culture. Kjerstin Johnson has written that, when this is done, the imitator, "who does not experience that oppression is able to play, temporarily, an exotic other, without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures." The African-American academic, musician and journalist Greg Tate argues that appropriation and the "fetishising" of cultures, in fact, alienates those whose culture is being appropriated.

The concept of cultural appropriation has been heavily criticized. Critics note that the concept is often misunderstood or misapplied by the general public, and that charges of "cultural appropriation" are at times misapplied to situations such as eating food from a variety of cultures or simply learning about different cultures. Others state that the act of cultural appropriation as it is usually defined does not meaningfully constitute social harm, or the term lacks conceptual coherence. Still others argue that the term sets arbitrary limits on intellectual freedom, artists self-expression, reinforces group divisions, or itself promotes a feeling of enmity or grievance rather than liberation.


1. Overview

Cultural appropriation can involve the use of ideas, symbols, artifacts, or other aspects of human-made visual or non-visual culture. As a concept that is controversial in its applications, the propriety of cultural appropriation has been the subject of much debate. Opponents of cultural appropriation view many instances as wrongful appropriation when the subject culture is a minority culture or is subordinated in social, political, economic, or military status to the dominant culture or when there are other issues involved, such as a history of ethnic or racial conflict. Linda Martin Alcoff writes that this is often seen in cultural outsiders use of an oppressed cultures symbols or other cultural elements, such as music, dance, spiritual ceremonies, modes of dress, speech, and social behaviour when these elements are trivialized and used for fashion, rather than respected within their original cultural context. Opponents view the issues of colonialism, context, and the difference between appropriation and mutual exchange as central to analyzing cultural appropriation. They argue that mutual exchange happens on an "even playing field", whereas appropriation involves pieces of an oppressed culture being taken out of context by a people who have historically oppressed those they are taking from, and who lack the cultural context to properly understand, respect, or utilize these elements.

A different view of cultural appropriation states the criticism of cultural appropriation is "a deeply conservative project", despite progressive roots, that" first seeks to preserve in formaldehyde the content of an established culture and second tries prevent others from interacting with that culture." Proponents view it as often benign or mutually beneficial, citing mutation, product diversity, technological diffusion, and cultural empathy among its benefits. For example, the film Star Wars used elements from Akira Kurosawas The Hidden Fortress, which itself used elements from Shakespeare; culture in the aggregate is arguably better off for each instance of appropriation. Fusion between cultures has produced such foods as American Chinese cuisine, modern Japanese sushi, and banh mì, each of which is sometimes argued to reflect part of its respective cultures identity.


2. Academic study

Cultural appropriation is a relatively recent subject of academic study. The term emerged in the 1980s, in discussions of post-colonial critiques of Western expansionism, though the concept had been explored earlier, such as in "Some General Observations on the Problems of Cultural Colonialism" by Kenneth Coutts‐Smith in 1976.

Cultural and racial theorist George Lipsitz has used the term "strategic anti-essentialism" to refer to the calculated use of a cultural form, outside of ones own, to define oneself or ones group. Strategic anti-essentialism can be seen in both minority cultures and majority cultures, and is not confined only to the use of the other. However, Lipsitz argues, when the majority culture attempts to strategically anti-essentialize itself by appropriating a minority culture, it must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not to perpetuate the already existing majority vs. minority unequal power relations.


3.1. Examples Art, literature, iconography, and adornment

A common example of cultural appropriation is the adoption of the iconography of another culture, and using it for purposes that are unintended by the original culture or even offensive to that cultures mores. Examples include sports teams using Native American tribal names or images as mascots; wearing jewelry or fashion with religious symbols such as the war bonnet, medicine wheel, or cross without any belief in those religions; and copying iconography from another cultures history such as Polynesian tribal tattoos, Chinese characters, or Celtic art worn without regard to their original cultural significance. Critics of the practice of cultural appropriation contend that divorcing this iconography from its cultural context or treating it as kitsch risks offending people who venerate and wish to preserve their cultural traditions.

In Australia, Aboriginal artists have discussed an "authenticity brand" to ensure consumers are aware of artworks claiming false Aboriginal significance. The movement for such a measure gained momentum after the 1999 conviction of John OLoughlin for selling paintings that he falsely described as the work of renowned Aboriginal artist, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. In Canada, visual artist Sue Coleman has garnered negative attention for appropriating and amalgamating styles of Indigenous art into her work. Coleman, who has been accused of "copying and selling Indigenous-style artwork" has described herself as a "translator" of Indigenous art forms, which drew further criticism. In his open letter to Coleman, Kwakwakawakw/Salish Artist Carey Newman stressed the importance of artists being accountable within the Indigenous communities as the antidote to appropriation.

Historically, some of the most hotly debated cases of cultural appropriation have occurred in places where cultural exchange is the highest, such as along the trade routes in southwestern Asia and southeastern Europe. Some scholars of the Ottoman Empire and ancient Egypt argue that Ottoman and Egyptian architectural traditions have long been falsely claimed and praised as Persian or Arab.


3.2. Examples Religion and spirituality

Many Native Americans have criticized what they deem to be cultural appropriation of their sweat lodge and vision quest ceremonies by non-Natives, and even by tribes who have not traditionally had these ceremonies. They contend that there are serious safety risks whenever these events are conducted by those who lack the many years of training and cultural immersion required to lead them safely, pointing to the deaths or injuries in 1996, 2002, 2004, and several high-profile deaths in 2009.


3.3. Examples Fashion

Cultural appropriation is controversial in the fashion industry due to the belief that some trends commercialise and cheapen the ancient heritage of indigenous cultures. There is debate about whether designers and fashion houses understand the history behind the clothing they are taking from different cultures, besides the ethical issues of using these cultures shared intellectual property without consent, acknowledgement, or compensation. In response to this criticism, many fashion experts claim that this occurrence is in fact "culture appreciation", rather than cultural appropriation. Companies and designers claim the use of unique cultural symbols is an effort to recognize and pay homage to that specific culture.


3.4. Examples 17th century to Victorian era

During the 17th century, the forerunner to the three piece suit was adapted by the English and French aristocracy from the traditional dress of diverse Eastern European and Islamic countries. The Justacorps frock coat was copied from the long zupans worn in Poland and the Ukraine, the necktie or cravat was derived from a scarf worn by Croatian mercenaries fighting for Louis XIII, and the brightly colored silk waistcoats popularised by Charles II of England were inspired by exotic Turkish, Indian and Persian attire acquired by wealthy English travellers.

During the Highland Clearances, the British aristocracy appropriated traditional Scottish clothing. Tartan was given spurious association with specific Highland clans after publications such as James Logans romanticised work The Scottish Gael 1831 led the Scottish tartan industry to invent clan tartans and tartan became a desirable material for dresses, waistcoats and cravats. In America, plaid flannel had become workwear by the time of Westward expansion, and was widely worn by Old West pioneers and cowboys who were not of Scottish descent. In the 21st century, tartan remains ubiquitous in mainstream fashion.

By the 19th century the fascination had shifted to Asian culture. English Regency era dandies adapted the Indian churidars into slim fitting pantaloons, and frequently wore turbans within their own houses. Later, Victorian gentlemen wore smoking caps based on the Islamic fez, and fashionable turn of the century ladies wore Orientalist Japanese inspired kimono dresses. During the tiki culture fad of the 1950s, white women frequently donned the qipao to give the impression that they had visited Hong Kong, although the dresses were frequently made by seamstresses in America using rayon rather than genuine silk. At the same time, teenage British Teddy Girls wore Chinese coolie hats due to their exotic connotations.

In Mexico, the sombrero associated with the mestizo peasant class was adapted from an earlier hat introduced by the Spanish colonials during the 18th century. This, in turn, was adapted into the cowboy hat worn by American cowboys after the US Civil War. In 2016, the University of East Anglia prohibited the wearing of sombreros to parties on campus, in the belief that these could offend Mexican students, a move that was widely criticized.

American Western wear was copied from the work attire of 19th century Mexican Vaqueros, especially the pointed cowboy boots and the guayabera which was adapted into the embroidered Western shirt. The China poblana dress associated with Mexican women was appropriated from the choli and lehenga worn by Indian maidservants like Catarina de San Juan who arrived from Asia from the 17th century onwards.


3.5. Examples Modern era

In Britain, the rough tweed cloth clothing of the Irish, English and Scottish peasantry, including the flat cap and Irish hat were appropriated by the upper classes as the British country clothing worn for sports such as hunting or fishing, in imitation of the then Prince of Wales. The country clothing, in turn, was appropriated by the wealthy American Ivy League and later preppy subcultures during the 1950s and 1980s due to both its practicality and its association with the English elite. During the same period the British comedian Tommy Cooper was known for wearing a Fez throughout his performances.

When keffiyehs became popular in the late 2000s, experts made a clear distinction between the wearing of a genuine scarf, and a fake made in China. Palestinian independence activists and socialists denounced the wearing of scarves not made in Palestine as a form of cultural appropriation, but encouraged young white people and fellow Muslims to buy shemaghs made in the Herbawi factory to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian people and improve the economy of the West Bank. In 2017, Topshop caused controversy by selling Chinese-made playsuits that imitated the pattern of the keffiyeh.

Several fashion designers and models have featured imitations of Native American warbonnets in their fashion shows, such as Victorias Secret in 2012, when model Karlie Kloss wore one during her walk on the runway; a Navajo Nation spokesman called it a "mockery". Cherokee academic Adrienne Keene wrote in The New York Times:

For the goal is to preserve Native American dance and heritage through the creation of dance regalia, dancing, and teaching others about the Native American culture."


4. Gender and sexuality

Some people in the transgender community have protested against the casting of straight, cis-gender actors in trans acting roles, such as when Eddie Redmayne played the role of artist Lili Elbe in the film The Danish Girl and when Jared Leto played the role of a trans woman named Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Some in the gay community have expressed concerns about the use of straight actors to play gay characters; this occurs in films such as Call Me by Your Name straight actors Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet, Brokeback Mountain Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, Philadelphia Tom Hanks, Capote Philip Seymour Hoffman and Milk with Sean Penn playing the role of the real-life gay rights activist, Harvey Milk. Jay Caruso calls these controversies "wholly manufactured", on the grounds that the actors "are playing a role" using the "art of acting".


5. Other uses

In some cases, a culture usually viewed as the target of cultural appropriation can be accused of appropriation, particularly after colonization and an extensive period re-organization of that culture under the nation-state system. For example, the government of Ghana has been accused of cultural appropriation in adopting the Caribbean Emancipation Day and marketing it to African American tourists as an "African festival".

For some members of the South-Asian community, the wearing of a bindi dot as a decorative item, by a non-Hindu, or by a woman who is not South Asian, is considered cultural appropriation.

A common term among Irish people for someone who imitates or misrepresents Irish culture is Plastic Paddy.


6. Celebrity controversies

In 2003, Prince Harry of the British royal family used Indigenous Australian art motifs in a painting for a school project. One Aboriginal group labelled it "misappropriation of our culture", saying that to Aboriginal people, the motifs have symbolic meanings "indicative of our spiritualism", whereas when non-Aborigines use the motifs they are simply "painting a pretty picture".

In the Victorias Secret Fashion Show 2012, former Victorias Secret model Karlie Kloss donned a Native American-style feathered headdress with leather bra and panties and high-heeled moccasins. This was said to be an example of cultural appropriation because the fashion show is showcasing the companys lingerie and image as a global fashion giant. The outfit was supposed to represent November, and thus "Thanksgiving", in the "Calendar Girls" segment. The outfit met with backlash and criticism as an appropriation of Native American culture and tradition. Victorias Secret pulled it from the broadcast and apologized for its use. Kloss also commented on the decision by tweeting "I am deeply sorry if what I wore during the VS Show offended anyone. I support VSs decision to remove the outfit from the broadcast."

Avril Lavigne was cited by some as appropriating Japanese culture in her song "Hello Kitty". The song and music video depict Asian women dressed up in matching outfits and Lavigne eating Asian food while dressed in a pink tutu. Lavigne responded by stating "I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video. specifically for my Japanese fans, with my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers and a Japanese director in Japan." Feedback for Lavignes song was favorable in Japan, but non-Japanese."

When Selena Gomez wore the bindi during a performance, there was debate on her reasoning behind wearing the culture specific piece. Some viewed this as "casting her vote for Team India" but it was also viewed as misuse of the symbol as Gomez was seen as not supporting or relating the bindi to its origin of Hinduism, but furthering her own self-expression. In 2014, Pharrell Williams posed in a Native American war bonnet on the cover of Elle UK magazine, after much controversy and media surrounding the photo Williams apologized.

Actress Amandla Stenberg made a school-related video called "Dont Cash Crop on My Cornrows" about the use of black hairstyles and black culture by non-black people, accusing Katy Perry and Iggy Azalea of using "black culture as a way of being edgy and gaining attention". Stenberg later criticized Kylie Jenner for allegedly embracing African-American aesthetic values without addressing the issues that affect the community. The African-American hip hop artist Azealia Banks has also criticized Iggy Azalea "for failing to comment on black issues despite capitalising on the appropriation of African American culture in her music." Banks has called Azalea a "wigger" and there have been "accusations of racism against Azalea" focused on her alleged "insensitivity to the complexities of race relations and cultural appropriation."

Activist Rachel Dolezal made headlines in 2015 when it was discovered that she was not African-American, as she had claimed. She is an American former civil rights activist known for being exposed as Caucasian while falsely claiming to be a black woman. Dolezal was president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, from February 7, 2014 until June 15, 2015 when she resigned amid suspicion she had lied about nine alleged hate crimes against her. She received further public scrutiny when her white parents publicly stated that Dolezal was a white woman passing as black.

In 2017, in an interview with Billboard regarding her new image, Miley Cyrus criticized what she considered to be overly vulgar aspects of hip hop culture while expressing her admiration for the song "Humble" by Kendrick Lamar. This was met with backlash from people who felt Cyrus has a history of appropriating hip hop culture.

In June 2019, Kim Kardashian West was accused of cultural appropriation after announcing her shapewear line KIMONO, a pun on her first name. Critics argued that her goal to trademark the term was disrespectful to Japanese culture, as her filing for the international trademarking of the term "kimono" would prevent Japanese people from selling their traditional garb under the same name. The issue sparked the emergence of a Twitter hashtag, #KimOhNo, where Japanese people - both native and diaspora - tried to explain the cultural significance the kimono has in their culture. Additionally, a petition was started on Change.org, hoping to prevent West from gaining the trademark. The petitioner, Sono Fukunishi, argued that allowing West to obtain the trademark would allow foreigners to begin associating the original kimono with underwear. West later received a letter from Kyotos mayor, Daisaku Kadokawa, asking her to reconsider trademarking the name. Kyoto is considered to be the kimono capital of the world. West has since announced to rebrand her shapewear under the name SKIMS.


7. Responses

In 2011, a group of students at Ohio University started a poster campaign denouncing the use of cultural stereotypes as costumes. The campaign features people of color alongside their respective stereotypes with slogans such as "This is not who I am and this is not okay." The goal of the movement was to raise awareness around racism during Halloween in the university and the surrounding community, but the images also circulated online.

"Reclaim the Bindi" has become a hashtag used by some people of South Asian descent who wear traditional garb, and object to its use by people not of their culture. At the 2014 Coachella festival one of the most noted fashion trends was the bindi, a traditional Hindu head mark. As pictures of the festival surfaced online there was public controversy over the casual wearing of the bindi by non-Indian individuals who did not understand the meaning behind it. #CoachellaShutdown has been used in conjunction with #ReclaimtheBindi in order to protest against the use of the bindi at music festivals, most notably the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Reclaim the Bindi Week is an event which seeks to promote the traditional cultural significance of the bindi and combat its use as a fashion statement.


8. Criticism of the concept

John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University, has criticized the concept, arguing that cultural borrowing and cross-fertilization is a generally positive thing, and is something which is usually done out of admiration, and with no intent to harm, the cultures being imitated; he also argued that the specific term "appropriation", which can mean theft, is misleading when applied to something like culture that is not seen by all as a limited resource: unlike appropriating a physical object, others imitating an idea taken from one groups culture dont inherently deprive that originating group of its use.

In 2016, author Lionel Shriver gave a speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, asserting the right of authors to write from any point of view, including that of characters from cultural backgrounds other than their own – as writers "should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us." She also asserted the right of authors from a cultural majority to write in the voice of someone from a cultural minority, attacking the idea that this constitutes unethical "cultural appropriation". Referring to a case in which U.S. college students were facing disciplinary action for wearing sombreros to a tequila party, she said "The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: youre not supposed to try on other peoples hats. Yet thats what were paid to do, isnt it? Step into other peoples shoes, and try on their hats."

In 2017, Canadian clinical psychologist, author, and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Jordan Peterson stated in a Q&A session from a speech entitled Strengthen the Individual, "The idea of cultural appropriation is nonsense, and thats that. Theres no difference between cultural appropriation and learning from each other. Theyre the same thing. Now, that doesnt mean that theres no theft between people; there is. And it doesnt mean that once you encounter someone elses ideas, you have an absolute right to those ideas as if theyre your own. But the idea that manifesting some element of another culture in your own behavior is immoral is insane. Its actually one of the bases of peace."

Upon winning the 2019 Booker Prize, Bernardine Evaristo dismissed the concept of cultural appropriation, stating that it is ridiculous to demand of writers that they not" write beyond your own culture.”

Ethics columnist for the New York Times, Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote that "Specific instances of what people criticize as cultural appropriation may well be wrong, but the term encourages us to call out a property crime when something else is going on. If I take a practice that is freighted with significance for some group and mock it or trivialize it, that’s contempt. The key question in the use of symbols or regalia associated with another identity group is not: What are my rights of ownership? Rather it’s: Are my actions disrespectful?"

Others criticize it as a stumbling block for the adaptation of differing cultural elements or even discussion for fear of being labeled "racist" or "ignorant".

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