Is cultural appropriation bad?
- Cultural appropriation is defined as “...the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context”.
- The term ‘cultural appropriation’ was first used in 1980’s academic circles.
- Fashion utilizes the idea of novelty as a source of inspiration for designs, pulling from other cultures, as well as art, literature, etc.
- The difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation is that the former doesn’t ‘cherry-pick’ aspects from another culture for the purpose of trends.
In the melting pot of global culture, there exist many gray areas of morality and social acceptance. Cultural appropriation is not one of them. It is a seizure of unique cultural elements from a disadvantaged community as a show of social power. Often in the guise of healthy cultural exchange, it is anything but. In the era of late-stage capitalism, cultural symbolism has become an inspiration for mass-produced cheap replicas. The respect for these exploited cultures may be a pipe-dream, but recognizing why cultural appropriation is wrong is a hopeful beginning.
The sharing of material elements has existed among different cultures throughout history. These ‘borrowings’ involve financial components — not power — and imply free-market forces doing business based on equality.
Oppression comes into play when a prevailing social group overtakes aspects of the non-dominant culture and uses them for financial gain and social mockery. Denigration, exploitation, and embarrassment are the motivational forces behind cultural appropriation, according to various studies. The malicious intent behind this is not befitting a civilized society. Cultural appropriation reinforces an imbalance of power by taking away freedom of expression and adds to stereotypes faced by non-dominant cultures.
Cultural appropriation can work the other way as well, but it is more a means of conforming to the dominant culture for acceptance rather than economic or social exploitation. Ethnic minorities are prosecuted and eschewed for using their cultural expressions where the socially dominant groups are lauded. This is inherently unfair to the marginalized groups.
If “appropriation” means “taking something for one’s own use without the owner’s permission,” how does that apply to culture? Who “owns” culture? Is there a finite limit? Does it run out when someone “uses it”? The term “cultural appropriation” does more to induce fear of backlash than to produce a respectful desire for one to engage with other cultures.
Wearing an iconic wardrobe and participating in traditions that aren’t native to oneself is a way people appreciate other cultures. Dressing in another cultural style isn’t stealing from that culture. It’s highlighting and celebrating a piece of it. Though mockery can happen by anyone in any situation and in reference to any culture, religion, and art form, does dawning a kimono, for example, stop Japanese women from wearing them? No. Is putting a Native American dream catcher in a child’s room suddenly wrong? No. Think of children on Halloween. Little girls of all ethnicities dress as Moana, Pochahontas, Mulan, Elsa. As children embrace the wonder of culture. So can adults. This is not abuse, but partaking in the beautiful uniqueness of culture.
A blind spot in this debate is how most of the world have participated in the “appropriation” of Western culture - everything from dancing hip-hop and wearing baseball caps to enjoying modern technology (airplanes, electricity, phones, computers). Should people in the East stop using these things immediately just because they weren’t born in the West? Absolutely not. This is the beauty of cultures. They intermingle and blend. Influence and exchange constantly occur. This is authentic diversity and it’s open to all who wish to enjoy it respectfully.