Cultural appropriation: What you need to know

Rachel Young / Contributing Writer


According to Oxford Reference, cultural appropriation is “a term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another.” The conflict and malice comes when the culture being appropriated is one that was oppressed or continues to be oppressed.

Cultural appropriation, instead of cultural appreciation, is more present in today’s society given how easy communication has become through social media usage, as well as how easy it is for common people to be misinformed via the internet. Cultural appreciation occurs when the person makes an effort to learn about and respect a certain culture, as opposed to simply taking bits and pieces of the culture that appeal to them. Unfortunately, many people are appropriating cultures when they should be appreciating them.

On the bright side, many people are learning from others’ mistakes. When television celebrity Kylie Jenner posted a picture of herself with cornrows on Instagram, it immediately caused a fuss on Twitter. Amandla Stenberg, an influential voice on social media, confronted Kylie because she was appropriating a culture that didn’t belong to her. Amandla previously elaborated on the appropriation of black culture in a video she made with a classmate of hers for a school project titled, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows.”

Artists like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry have also been targeted for exhibiting elements of cultural appropriation in their work.  The bottom line is, when incidents like this happen, almost everyone hears about it in some way.

Marina Watanabe, a writer for the popular feminist media site Everyday Feminism, said “Despite the fact that people of color are being imprisoned, deported, evicted and murdered at atrocious rates, contemporary media often tries to imply that the US is post-racial and politically just.”

Although she is referring more to the racial issues present in the US, she highlights the impact that the media has on the public’s interpretation of the human condition. Cultural appropriation, just like race, is affected by contemporary media.

It is important to be aware of how one’s actions can affect another person, especially when it affects them negatively.

Unfortunately, babies don’t come out of the womb socially aware; it is a process. A process that requires asking questions, remaining open-minded and overall respecting all cultures. For example, there are high schools that plan out spirit weeks and include Native American and Mexican themed days as part of the celebration. These themes only enforce stereotypes that, unfortunately, are already in place. To have kids roam school halls in sombreros and feathered headdresses is a problem because the majority aren’t aware of the harm they are causing.

When thinking about cultural appropriation in action, I always think back to the trips I’ve taken to Guatemala. Meeting indigenous families and visiting communities where the culture is alive and well really resonated with me. I visited museums, took tours and really immersed myself in the culture. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the term “cultural appropriation,” but I was soon introduced to the concept. When I looked into it more, I felt a range of emotions because there was so much I didn’t know, and I couldn’t help but believe I must have offended someone in the past without even realizing the harm I was causing.  

Being aware of cultural appropriation does not mean a culture cannot be appreciated. As I mentioned before, there is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation – that distinction is what I hope people can take away from this. Cultural appreciation is when someone of a given culture educates themselves about another culture and supports the appreciation of that given culture by buying art or informing others about the culture instead of modeling themselves after it for personal gain.

Drawing the line between appropriation and appreciation is difficult because one can’t label someone as a member of a certain culture just by looking at them. For example, if someone who was not Jewish was gifted a hamsa by a person of the Jewish community, it would not be considered cultural appropriation, but appreciation,  if they decided to display it. For those who aren’t familiar with the Jewish religion and culture, the hamsa symbol, or hand of Fatima, is thought to bring good luck and happiness.

These distinctions are difficult to make for people who aren’t familiar with the concepts of cultural appropriation and appreciation, but society is slowly on its way to awareness. I am proud to be a part of a generation that is working toward becoming more socially and politically aware. All cultures deserve respect and nothing less.


Photo credit

Be the first to comment on "Cultural appropriation: What you need to know"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.