Cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It denotes acculturation or assimilation, but often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, may take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held. Or, they may be stripped of meaning altogether.


The term cultural appropriation can have a negative connotation. It generally is applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture; or, when there are other issues involved, such as a history of ethnic or racial conflict between the two groups.

To many, the term implies that culture can actually be "stolen" through cultural diffusion.

Cultural and racial theorist, George Lipsitz, outlined this concept of cultural appropriation in his seminal term "strategic anti-essentialism." Strategic anti-essentialism is defined as the calculated use of a cultural form, outside of your own, to define yourself or your group. Strategic anti-essentialism can be seen both in minority cultures and majority cultures, and are not confined to only the appropriation of the other. For example, the American band Redbone, comprised of founding members of Mexican heritage, essentialized their group as belonging to the Native American tradition, and are known for their famous songs in support of the American Indian Movement "We Were All Wounded at Wounded Knee" and "Custer Had It Coming." However, as Lipsitz argues, when the majority culture attempts to strategically anti-essentialize themselves by appropriating a minority culture, they must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not the perpetuate the already existing, majority vs. minority, unequal power relations.

Cultural appropriation may be defined differently in different cultures. While academics in a country such as the United States, where racial dynamics had been a cause of cultural segmentation, may see many instances of intercultural communication as cultural appropriation, other countries may identify such communication as a melting pot effect.

Cultural appropriation has also been seen as a site of resistance to dominant society when members of a marginalized group take and alter aspects of dominant culture to assert their agency and resistance. This is exemplified in the novel Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge when those who are colonized appropriate the culture of the colonizers. Another historical example were the Mods in the UK in the 1960s, working class youth who appropriated and exaggerated the highly tailored clothing of the upper middle class. Objections have been raised to such political cultural appropriation, citing class warfare and identity politics.


The history of almost every society that comes into contact with other societies is filled with examples of what may be described as "cultural appropriation", often learning from other cultures, taking parts that are useful, aesthetic, or agreeable, and incorporating them into their own. For instance, it is arguable that the Islamic civilization "appropriated" the cultural and intellectual heritage of the Greco-Roman civilization during the Islamic Golden Age. They then used this knowledge, combined with their own talents, to become the unquestionable world leaders in the natural sciences, mathematics, social sciences, engineering, arts, and philosophy from the time of the Hegira in ~622 CE, at least until the Fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in approximately ~1280 CE and were arguably more powerful than the West until perhaps the beginning of Modernity with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 CE. During this time of Islamic ascendancy, Greco-Roman works, cast off by the few civilized remnants of the Roman Empire, were translated into Arabic, and made part of Islamic civilization, which rose to a level of greatness comparable to the days of the Romans themselves.

Eventually, the West came to recognize the value of the works that it had discarded, and retranslated many of the great Greco-Roman works back from the Arabic into the Romance languages; the West also incorporated the great Islamic works of chemistry, biology, anatomy and physiology, astronomy, physics written by Arab scientists. Some notable Western appropriations from the Islamic world include works from famous scholars such as Avicenna (medicine), Rhazes (medicine, pathology, pharmacy), Geber (father of chemistry), Ibn al-Haytham (father of the scientific method, optics), Al-Khwarizmi (al-gorithms, al-gebra, mathematics), and Ibn Khaldun (history, sociology). Through this process of cultural appropriation, the work of the Greco-Roman civilizations was preserved and expanded upon by the Islamic civilization, whose works were in turn appropriated by the Western civilization, who also expanded upon them; all participants in this chain of appropriation built the world we live in today, along with all the other civilizations of the Earth.


Justin Britt-Gibson's article for the Washington Post looked at the appropriation of his African-American culture as a sign of progress:

Throngs of dreadlocked Italians were smoking joints, drinking beer, grooving to the rhythms of Bob Marley, Steel Pulse and other reggae icons. Most striking was how comfortable these Italians seemed in their appropriated shoes, adopting a foreign culture and somehow making it theirs. The scene reinforced my sense of how far we've come since the days when people dressed, talked and celebrated only that which sprang from their own background. For the first time in my life, I was fully aware of the spiritual concept that we're all simply one.

That sense hasn't left me. Everywhere I look, I see young people -- such as my two younger brothers, a Japanese-anime-obsessed 11-year-old and a pastel-Polo-sporting 21-year-old -- adopting styles, hobbies and attitudes from outside the culture in which they were raised. Last month in a Los Angeles barbershop, I was waiting to get my trademark Afro cut when I noticed a brother in his late teens sitting, eyes closed, as the barber clipped his hair into a "'frohawk", the punk-inspired African American adaptation of the mohawk. Asked why he chose the look, the guy, without looking up, shrugged, "Something different." Immediately, I understood. Minutes later, his "different" cut became my new look.


A common sort of cultural appropriation is the adoption of the iconography of another culture. Obvious examples include tattoos of Hindu gods, Polynesian tribal iconography, Chinese characters, or Celtic bands worn by people who have no interest in, or understanding of, their original cultural significance. When these artifacts are regarded as objects that merely "look cool", or when they are mass produced cheaply as consumer kitsch, people who venerate and wish to preserve their indigenous cultural traditions may be offended. 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 has gained momentum after the 1999 conviction of John O'Loughlin for fraud, for the sale of works described as Aboriginal but painted by non-indigenous artists

Looking back in history, some of the most hotly debated cases of cultural appropriation occur in places where cultural exchange is the highest, such as along the trade routes in southwestern Asia and southeastern Europe. For instance, 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, and Greco-Roman, innovations, respectively.

A more subtle example is brass band music (trubaci). While this kind of music is almost exclusively performed by Romani people, who may not consider themselves Serbs, many people of Serbian origin will consider this to be their own style.

On the other hand, when the middle-class Slovenian band Pankrti adopted the style of London punk music rooted in unemployment and other issues specific to the UK, it was seen in Yugoslavia as the spread of British culture and its adaptation to the local setting.

In some cases, groups may agree that a particular tradition has been culturally appropriated, but disagree as to which group is the authentic heir to the tradition, and which is the appropriator. For example, in the ongoing dispute between Greece and F.Y.R.O.M., each side has accused the other of falsely appropriating the cultural legacy of Macedon and Alexander the Great.

African American culture historically has been the subject of aggressive cultural appropriation, especially elements of its music, dance, slang, dress, and demeanor. (See blackface.) For example, artists such as Eminem, a white American who adopted a traditionally African American music and style, may be perceived this way.

Another prominent example of cultural appropriation is the use of real or imaginary elements of Native American culture by North American summer camps, by organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America, or by New age spiritual leaders (see Plastic shamans). Many summer camps, and many age-segregated groups of campers within summer camps, are named after real Native American tribes (Mohawk, Seminole, etc.); tipis are common at summer camps (even at an enormous distance from the Great Plains); and rituals often evoke Native American culture, using phrases like "the Great Spirit", for example. The Boy Scout honor society is called the Order of the Arrow.

In some cases, a culture usually viewed as the target of cultural appropriation can become the agent of appropriation. For example, the government of Ghana has been accused of cultural appropriation in adopting the Caribbean holiday of Emancipation Day and marketing it to African American tourists as an "African festival"..

A bindi dot when worn as a decorative item by a non-Hindu woman could be considered cultural appropriation, along with the use of henna in mehndi as a decoration outside traditional ceremonies.

The metrosexual fashion is often seen as a form of cultural appropriation of gay culture by straight men. This view is parodied in the South Park episode "South Park is Gay!"

Controversy has arisen concerning the usage of the leprechaun mascot by the Boston Celtics basketball club and the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. Some people of Irish ancestry see the usage as an example of cultural appropriation and even racism. Leprechauns appear in many Celtic mythological motifs, and the reduction of this mythological figure to a set of stereotypes and clichés may be perceived as offensive. A common term amongst the Irish for someone who appropriates or misrepresents Irish culture is Plastic Paddy.

See also

Notes and references

  • Reckless Borrowing or Appropriate Cultural Sharing? by Jaqui James

External links

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