Oxford Languages defines cultural appropriation as: “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”
For many people, the difference between cultural appreciation, exchange and appropriation are difficult to navigate. There are many nuances, but here I will explain the differences, some examples, and alternatives.
Cultural appreciation is when you learn and understand another culture, broadening your knowledge and creating connections in those cultures. Good examples include reading about Africa from an African author or buying a piece of First Nations art from a member of the First Nations. Going to a Chinese restaurant run by Chinese people is also appreciation. Note that appreciation also means fair compensation for any goods and services.
Cultural exchange is when you give back something of equal value and where both parties are willing and benefiting equally from the exchange. There needs to be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true exchange. A great example of cultural exchange is a something like a street party where everyone brings food and drink to share with everyone else and where people try those foods and do not call them “exotic” or “weird”. It cannot be an exchange if the equality is not present, and this is very difficult on a society wide scale where the exchange is between members of the dominant culture and others.
Cultural appropriation is when one or more aspects of a culture are picked and mixed in with your own and used for your own self-interest. Very often these are aspects that are mocked or treated as suspicious when persons of that culture do them, but are “cool” or “alternative” when white people do them. Examples include ‘locs which Black people are routinely told look dirty, unprofessional and threatening, which they are forced to remove for work and school, but which white people wear to look alternative. In fact, the terms “dreadlocks” and “dreads” are based on the way they are seen as a threat (more on this specific example later).
When trying to work out whether something is appropriation or not, you can ask yourself these questions:
- Where is the money going? Is it going to the people to whom this aspect of culture belongs or originates with? Or is it going to white people/ the dominant culture? For example, “Indian Head massage” – is it really an Indian head massage performed by people whose cultural history is from the sub-continent? Or is it, in fact, just a head massage?
- Is this something that people from that culture can wear/ do without being criticised for being “scary” or “unprofessional” or “too ethnic” or for which they are fetishised. For example, Black people have been forced for hundreds of years not to grow their hair naturally, or to let it ‘loc naturally. Yet white people sport cornrows, fake ‘locs, hair forced to resemble locs, get tight perms, etc.
- Is what you are doing directly harmful? An example of this is white sage and “smudging”. Sage is a herb sacred to several First Nations, and white sage has now become so popular among white people that First Nations people cannot find it and it is now endangered. There is nothing wrong with burning herbs to cleanse people, places etc. the problems comes about when the herbs sacred to other cultures are bought up by white people for whom there is no history of this particular herb’s use. Also, call it cleansing, smoking or something else, “smudging” is a term specific to some First Nations cultures
“Appropriation isn't defined by your personal level of respect toward the culture or actions you're taking on. You can't study enough to be granted a pass on appropriation…because appropriation is a thing that happens when colonizers taking on a practice are given more respect (or more compensation) than when people of the originating culture do it. It's when white musicians can play venues that won't allow Black musicians. It's when Native people are still living with the aftermath of cultural genocide, murder, and violation of treaty, while white hipsters are wearing feathers. It's when Hindus displaying religious icons are imperilled while white yogis are showing off Ganesh statues for cred…. We speak up and say, "my culture/heritage is not a costume" because we live with the effects of the racializations and marginalizations and colonial imperialist harm, but outsiders can put the trappings on and off. And even if you live in those trappings 24/7…the impact you face is vastly different.” – Kat Tanaka Okopnik excerpt from working draft of Etiquette for Social Justice. https://www.facebook.com/kat.tanaka.okopnik/posts/10212367833970656
Some examples of cultural appropriation are below, and where possible an alternative is given. Please note these are a few examples that have come up at BiCon specifically, there are many more
- ‘Locs/ Locs (not dreadlocks as that is a term used to marginalise people with this natural hairstyle) – Much has been covered above, but it is important to address the “counter argument”. Various sources will say that Vikings and Celts had ‘locs. This has been disproven multiple times because European hair simply cannot form ‘locs. Our hair can, instead, become matted. It can be forced into matted ropes or coils, but it does not look anything like the beautiful hair of Black people; European hair is simply the wrong texture. Vikings were people who took a great deal of care about their appearance, we have found their combs, seen images of their hair. They would not have allowed their hair to become matted and dirty and no evidence has been found that they or Celtic peoples had ‘locs; they had braids, coils and other elaborate hairstyles.
- Yoga – Yoga is one of the six orthodox philosophical schools of Hinduism and has its roots in India, 4000-5000 years ago. Its origins are also to be found in Buddhism and Jainism. While seen as a way of exercising here, its origins are also meditative and spiritual. As such, Yoga classes should be taught by people of those cultures wherever possible (and always at BiCon), or at the very least those who acknowledge, respect and act appropriately to those. That does not mean you cannot participate! By all means practice Yoga, receive instruction, learn more about the rich culture and history that is part of it.
- Shamanism – many people do not realise that this name comes from Tungusic languages, in Siberia and China. The word was applied to the First Nations of the Americas by white colonisers and while in some parts of Alaska the word could apply, due to the migration of people from north Asia who brought it with them, for most of the First Nations it is showing ignorance to call their spiritual people “shamans”. The word has also been (erroneously) applied to African and Asian religions, and .
There are similar spiritual traditions in the history of Northern Europe, but the word has been so misused that applying this term to white people is something to be done with caution and you may want to clarify what that means. It should also not be used for people who are not part of that tradition/ faith. Some practitioners now avoid Cultural Appropriation and call themselves, for example, Animists or refer to the particular practice/ tradition they follow.
- Spirit Animals – many cultures have sacred animals or spirits, but the term “spirit animal” as such should not be applied unless you are part of the indigenous cultures that use the term. In pop culture it has come to mean anything you identify with – from a possum who has eaten all the doughnuts to a pizza! Avoid these references, and any online quiz that tells you your “spirit animal” and instead saying you relate to that, or it is your Daemon (Philip Pullman novels), or inner beast, or if you are speaking spiritually use words like familiar or guide, or whatever else is appropriate for your culture.
- Belly Dancing – the very term is a coloniser name for Raqs Sharqi, or Eastern dance as it is known in Arabic. It is important to several cultures, including Egypt and Turkey. Similarly to Yoga, it is something which now very often centres white dancers over those for whom it is culturally significant. This form of dance should only be taught and performed for pay by people from those cultures. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn and dance it, it means public performances in restaurants and the like should be left to others.
- Henna – using henna as decoration is not in itself cultural appropriation, however there are several provisos for this. Firstly, source your henna ethically, too many things important to other cultures are reproduced more cheaply (and often of poorer quality) driving the people who have traditionally made henna out of business. The second thing is, what are you applying and why? I went to an Indian friend’s wedding and was honoured to be part of her Henna night, in which we all had beautiful intricate henna drawn on us. It was absolutely appropriate within that context; what is inappropriate is to use symbols like Sahasrara or Om outside of that.
- Calavera/ Catrina Makeup (Sugar skulls) – Dia de los Muertos is a tradition dating back several thousand years and was practiced by the Aztecs, then the Spanish colonisers tried to force Catholicism on the Indigenous people and moved it from a month to a day, but the original elements are still very visible. It is not “Mexican Halloween” but a day to celebrate the belief that death is not an ending but a continuation of life. It is a time to visit (the graves of) loved ones, eat with them, and build altars. Sugar skulls are in fact actually made from sugar and are eaten. “It’s rough knowing that your ancestors died and were called savages for their practices and rituals, only to become a token.” – Nik Moreno
There are many, many more examples. If you are unsure whether something is cultural appropriation it is best to go and learn more about it. You could ask a friend who is from the culture, but remember that if you are in the dominant culture, they may very well not be willing to tell you honestly. In general entering “thing + cultural appropriation” into a search engine will bring up a range of articles. Read those by affected cultures and read more than one to get a better understanding of the issues.
Kat Tanaka Okopnik says “As long as your concern is for "what are white people allowed to do" rather than "how much access do POC in white-dominated spaces have to their own culture, vs assimilation pressure" and "how much abuse have POC had for doing the very thing white people want to do" and "how much did POC have to fight to preserve that thing white people want to do carelessly" and "how much do POC get credit as masters of their own works" and "how much do POC profit from this, as compared to white people"Until you think of everything *OTHER* than "how does this benefit white people"…it's appropriation….. And yes. I know you can find sourcelanders who delight in the way that you approach their heritage. They don't live with the impact of forced assimilation. Don't use their context to abuse those living in diaspora.
Does this mean you can't "appreciate" those things? Work on restoring sovereignty. Work on ending cultural genocide. Work on inclusion.” (excerpt from working draft of Etiquette for Social Justice)
Further Examples of Cultural Appropriation
The list below does not go into detail, and is by no means complete, but if you think it is something you may be appropriating, please do your own research.
- “Tribal” Tattoos.
- “Tribal” face lines as costumes.
- Ka Mate Haka.
- “Karma” as a form of wishing punishment on people.
- Tattoos of sacred imagery.
- Tattoos of non-Roman alphabet words without a close link to the other language.
- Cultural clothing as costume or for “likes”.
- “G*psy” aesthetics.
- Dream catchers.
- First Nations headdresses.
- AAVE – African American Vernacular English
- Cultures worn as costumes.
- Sacred/ taboo symbols as fashion
- Sports Mascots that mock indigenous people
- Music that borrows from other cultures without acknowledgement of that
- Adopting accents
- Stereotyping of cultures in media
- Blackface/ brownface/ bronzeface
Content warning for sexual violence mentions: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/180309