Cultural Appropriation

By Lindsay Wong

Image credit: Bustle

The onset of globalization has led to an increase in social awareness and consciousness. The issue of cultural appropriation has prompted debate and led to more people getting called out for toxic behavior. Cultural appropriation refers to members of a more dominant society inappropriately adopting the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of another (usually less dominant) culture. Though many people have turned a blind eye to it in the past, cultural appropriation happens more often than you think. As times are changing, more people are becoming aware of why cultural appropriation is wrong and are educating those who engage in it.

Cultural appropriation is wrong because it reduces a culture to a mere trend and works to oppress the less dominant culture. Taking an important custom, practice, idea, or object instilled with symbolic meaning from a less dominant culture and presenting it in a way that may be considered inauthentic or caricatured is disrespectful to members of that culture. Borrowing from another culture without being educated or aware of the meaning behind what is being borrowed takes away the voice and credit of the less dominant group. It strips them of their autonomy and further marginalizes them. Cultural appropriation highlights an imbalance in power and has inherent links to colonialism. Not only does it oppress the less dominant group, but it also feeds into existing stereotypes and perpetuates them.

Although they are often mistaken for one another, cultural appropriation is different from cultural appreciation. Appreciation involves learning about and understanding the other culture for the purpose of cross-cultural appreciation while appropriation involves borrowing from another culture from a position of ignorance. Appropriating culture for the sake of looking trendy is different from actually being aware about the context and history of the other culture. For example, wearing henna for a music festival could an example of cultural appropriation, but wearing henna for an Indian friend’s wedding is an example of appreciation and respect.

There have been instances in recent years that have gained media attention because of acts of cultural appropriation. A common occurrence is wearing feathered headdresses at music festivals like Coachella, which reduces Native American culture to a single fashion statement. Headdresses are worn in Native American culture as a sign of strength and bravery, usually by the most influential members of the tribe. People who ignorantly wear headdresses only do so because they think it looks fashionable and it could spice up their Instagram feed. Another example is when Chanel tried to sell a $1000 Chanel-branded boomerang as part of their spring-summer 2017 collection. The luxury brand appropriated Australian indigenous culture for the sake of fashion and essentially tried to make a profit from it. Likewise, at the American Music Awards in 2013, Katy Perry dressed up as a Japanese geisha, portraying a stereotype of Asian women as exotic purely for a stage performance. These examples demonstrate appropriating less dominant cultures as a trend and ignores the history and meaning behind those cultures.

However, there are ways to prevent cultural appropriation. We can research and educate ourselves about the other culture so we do not unintentionally appropriate culture. Avoiding sacred symbols or icons is vital in making sure we do not conduct offensive behavior. Instead of stereotyping or perpetuating existing stereotypes, we should promote diversity and cross-cultural knowledge by being open-minded to different cultures and engaging with them respectfully.

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