Cultural appropriation: what it is, and how to avoid it

The phrase “melting pot,” used to ascribe the various mixing of cultures in the United States, is, unsurprisingly, not a perfect portrayal of the American body politic. The concept of the melting pot is the goal for all cultures to be reflected in one common culture, however, this is generally the culture of the dominant group.  What results from advocating this construct is the appropriation of minority cultures by the dominant group.

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 (borrowing being the operative phrase, here).

African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and indigenous peoples are largely the groups who are subjected to cultural appropriation. Black music and dance, Native American fashions, and cultural decorations and symbols are examples of this.

Susan Scafidi, Fordham University law professor and published author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, explained how difficult it is to give a concise explanation of cultural appropriation.

She defined cultural appropriation to Jezebel.com as the following: “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 essence, Americans have a ferocious habit of taking something that holds value within a culture and treating it as a valuable.

Well, then, what isn’t cultural appropriation?

There are many examples of appropriate practices that incorporate international influence: Cooking or eating another culture’s food, listening to that culture’s music, watching that culture’s movies, reading that culture’s books, studying that culture’s art, and so on.

Regarding dress, opinions columnist and blogger Ashley Crossman, mentioned that it’s only appropriate to wear a culture’s clothing if in a setting where that culture is prevalent and if people are comfortable with your participation.  This may also be the case if it is necessary to blend in and not starkly stand out (i.e. It’s common for visitors of Pakistan to wear a Shalwar Kameez so that one wouldn’t stand out as an American tourist.

Or if one were to visit a specific temple or religious setting, you may need to adhere to specific dress forms. If you’re invited to a wedding, for example, they may invite you to wear their cultural dress to participate in festivities).

Well, what is cultural appropriation?

Wearing specific items of clothing that may (and probably do) have deeper meaning than as a costume (Halloween) and wearing traditional items of clothing as a fashion ensemble. A small caveat: It may be best to avoid producing music videos that fetishize other cultures.  This is seen in Igloo Australia (Iggy Azalea), Katy Perry, and Avril Levigne’s music productions (as well as a handful of other Western artists).

So, why is this wrong? Nadra Kareem Nittle, race relations expert and columnist of AboutNews.com, states in her column how cultural appropriation remains a concern for a variety of reasons.  She mentions how this sort of “borrowing” is exploitative because it dispossesses minority groups of the credit.

Art, music, and other traditions that originated within minority groups are then associated with members of the dominant group.  In addition, when members of a dominant group appropriate the cultures of others, they often reinforce negative stereotypes about minority groups and results in trivializing their history.

There are a few subjects that remain ambiguous, however, regarding whether if something is appropriative or not.  Again, these are often instances in which a symbol of one’s culture is adopted as fashion or decorative.

Styles that often divide the debate include trends such as dreadlocks, moccasins, feather earings, etc… à l’allure Garçonnière is run by “garçonnière,” a fashion critic and social activist blogger.  She discusses the confusion surrounding appropriation in her column, “A Critical Fasion Lover’s Guide to Cultural Appropriation.”

She writes,  “The biggest problem with the concept of cultural appropriation, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t set out any explicit black and white rules for people to follow.  As you can see […] people are genuinely confused as to what the ‘right thing’ to do in these situations are, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  You can’t get answers if you aren’t asking questions. My advice in these situations is largely about context, intention, and education.”

Cultural appropriation has little to do with one’s exposure to and familiarity with different cultures.  It typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups—often with little understanding of the latter’s experiences and traditions.

The difference between ‘sharing’ and appropriating is how one chooses to participate in a culture that isn’t inherently theirs.