Cultural appropriation: Why it’s bad and how to stop doing it!

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Recently, a friend of mine posted a quick and simple status on her Facebook, simply asking: “why do so many hipsters appropriate Dia de los Muertos?” Interestingly, and to her merit, her friends (myself included) began to participate in this topic via comments on the status. What ensued was a status-discussion that revealed a lot of the misconceptions of what cultural appropriation is, why it’s bad, and what we can do to stop it (as well as the variety of other excuses that people tend to give when they’re being called out).

I found myself learning a lot from the comments and had my privileged well and truly checked for me.  This simple status-discussion actually pushed me to one of those important maturation moments, you know the ones where you really step back and have a good hard look at yourself and think, wow, I should change that!? Yes, that’s the moment I’m talking about. And, for the first time in my life, I checked my privilege (i.e. admitted that what I said/did was wrong) on a very public platform.

The first thing I had to do to allow for this change in me to happen was simple: I had to put my ego aside. I had to come to the realization that my ego had nothing to do with what we were discussing. Once I put my ego aside, there was no fear of it being bruised or damaged, and thus I didn’t get defensive. I came to realize that if someone is offended by having their privilege checked, chances are it’s because they are putting themselves in the center of the discussion, not those of the marginalized people, the people who are truly the ones we need to be thinking about. So if you’re really looking to be more sensitive towards other cultures and traditions, the first thing you need  to do is try to set your ego aside (I know, easier said than done, but try to remind yourself of this if you start to become angry/stubborn/annoyed etc when someone calls you out). Today, I hope to pass on to readers what I learnt in this status-discussion, and hopefully you’ll set aside your ego, check your privilege and move on in life as a better and more sensitive person. 

First of all, what is cultural appropriation? Scafidi, the author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, suggests that cultural appropriation consists of “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.”

This is simply a definition of it that you might find useful to clarify your understanding of the terminology, however, I find it clinical in its legal language and it does not suggest why or how it would be offensive. For me, this quote does more to tell about the damaging consequences of cultural appropriation: “Cultural appropriation is usually considered to be a majority group (usually Whites or otherwise Eurocentric folks) mining a minority culture for the jewels of its heritage for their own pleasure or benefit while the voices of that culture remain silent or silenced.” – From: http://www.mothersmagic.net/theology/CA.html

Thinking of cultural appropriation using physical objects goes a long way in helping one understand how damaging cultural appropriation can be. When we think of symbols, traditions, religion etc. we find it difficult to imagine the taking of it without permission, as there is nothing to physically take. Even with copyright we can envision the photo, writing, film etc. that has been taken and find that an easier concept to grasp. Thus, it is helpful to consider these cultural symbols as “jewels”, giving it value as you have been accustomed to giving such things, and thus helping you understand the consequences of cultural appropriation more fully. Cultural appropriation is the plundering of a culture, it may not always be physical plunder, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. So that’s my second tip: Imagine cultural images/symbols/traditions etc. as physical objects (like a jewel) in order for you to place a value on it that you may have not realized it held already.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t quite grasped this concept when I wrote my first comment on the discussion-status:

I get that it’s all about white privilege, I get that it can be offensive, but it seems that everything is so fueled with historical and cultural contexts that there’s a lot of tip toeing around things. I would HATE to think that I’m trivializing someone’s culture/tradition/religion etc. but at the same time, I find myself completely immersed by so many cultures and traditions, so many things that are interesting and beautiful, but told to keep my hands off them. After really stepping back and taking a good hard look at myself, I realized that I was acting like a spoilt child here: I want “pretty” things and I don’t want to be told I can’t have them. But then I stepped back for my “moment” and  really thought about what I’d be losing by being more sensitive towards other cultures’ symbols and traditions. I’d lose my dream-catchers on my wall. And I’d probably never get the sugar skull tattoo. I wouldn’t wear a bindi at a festival again. That’s it. Those are the trivial things that I was fighting for. And then it donned on me – It wasn’t trivial to them. There it was. The difference between me using these symbols and them using these symbols.

But what I really wanted to discover was why I was fighting so hard for these things when I was aware (even if it was subconsciously) that they were trivial. I couldn’t really grasp at it until I began to write this article, it always eluded me until I worked through it using writing. Not only do I not lose much by giving heed to another’s request to not appropriate their culture, but those cultures that I listen to gain a lot. In essence, if not reality, by accepting that their symbols are not mine for the taking, I also concede power to a marginalized people. I show respect and bow my head to their authority. If I do not, I repeat the vicious circle of white privilege – I take what I want with no fear of what it may cost to their culture.

Well, as you can guess, the choice was pretty easy once I realized this. So I lay the Indian headdresses, the dream catchers, the sugar skulls down at their owners feet in a respect to their authority over how they should be used and by who. I tell myself, I am not the authority here. In one very small way, I am working towards equality. I’m working towards it by subduing what my privilege always encouraged, that I take what I want and ignore those who tell me otherwise. Instead, I tell my privilege that it is not right to take symbols from other cultures that we ourselves don’t understood or appreciate. It’s a hard thing to tell yourself, that you have been driven by the habits your privilege afforded you.

Now if you’ve begun to think somewhere along the lines of “But I didn’t mean to be mean, or trivialize it, I just wanted to show my appreciation for how beautiful their symbols were”­ stop it right now. Remember to not get defensive. It’s not about you. You were blindly following where your privilege took you, but now you can right it. Try to turn your thoughts to somewhere more along the lines of, I’m sorry, I’ll make a concerted effort to make sure that it won’t happen again”.

It’s important that we understand and discuss here the idea of “intention vs impact”. Now, this is quite important because many people seem to think that if they don’t mean to trivialize or disrespect that culture, then it’s a legitimate excuse for doing it. There is a dangerous myth circulating that it’s not cultural appropriation because the person donning those symbols respect and appreciate the beauty of what they’re wearing. Well, unfortunately just because you wearing a headdress isn’t meant  to be offensive, doesn’t mean it isn’t. Just because you don’t mean for it to be damaging and trivializing to that particular marginalized group, doesn’t mean it’s not doing that anyways. Okay, you’ve good intentions, but I’m telling you now that that isn’t going to stop any damage you’ll cause by continuing to do it. Just because you don’t intend to hurt someone by taking all their jewels, doesn’t make them any less poor. (Again, using actually physical comparisons are super handy when trying to understand the damage that’s being done).

Another aspect of my initial comment is that I voice a concern all my own. Again, I insert my own insecurities and desires into a discussion that really has no place for them.

It’s not mine. Stick to your own. But what the hell is my own? Am I supposed to walk around like an Irish stereotype? I realize there are other spaces to take inspiration from in terms of fashion etc. but they’re quite limited (Again, because EVERYTHING is so saturated in history).

In this, I inadvertently suggest that people who appropriate culture are doing so to compensate of a lack in their own authentic cultural identity. This may be true, but it still is not a reason to appropriate someone else’s culture! Again, it’s a rationalization that does more harm than good. If you feel that you lack a strong cultural identity, try to deal with it in a way that doesn’t leave damaging effects on a marginalized group of people. And in the end, doing this would only contribute to the trivializing another’s culture rather than solidifying your own. So stop with the faux-apology / excuse making, and just stop culturally appropriating!

There’s one more point I want to make, and it’s based on the excuse “well my friend is [insert religion, country, ethnicity, race etc. here] and they said they don’t mind it”. If your friend doesn’t find it offensive, that doesn’t mean that all people who share the same [religion, country, ethnicity, race etc.] with them will agree. Your friend doesn’t and can’t talk for the whole of their [religion, country, ethnicity, race etc.] and therefore it’s probably better to play it safe and just not do it. So to sum up in a couple of points:

  1. Cultural appropriation is bad.
  2. Being called out for it does not mean you are a bad person, just that you need to stop and really look at yourself and your actions (checking your privilege).
  3. If you are offended by having your privilege checked, chances are it’s because you are putting yourself in the center of the discussion, not those of the marginalized people who truly deserve our attention.
  4. Cultural authenticity is important to everybody but not an excuse to appropriate someone else’s culture.
  5. To be part of a privileged group does not mean you are a bad person but it is important to recognize, understand and address your privilege so that we can dismantle those privileges and work towards a more equal world.
  6. It doesn’t matter if you’re intentions were good, we’re talking about impact.
  7. Just because your friend from said culture doesn’t mind it, doesn’t mean that it’s okay. They don’t speak for the entire culture.

~ Sarah

7 thoughts on “Cultural appropriation: Why it’s bad and how to stop doing it!

  1. Im trying to understand this and am finding myself questioning certain scenarios that I would have originally thought to be acceptable, such as:
    – a symbol/tradition/item of sentimental value to a person not from that culture?
    – someone in some active way stereotyping a culture with the aim of their bold actions being to bring awareness to the culture in a positive way? an activist of sorts.
    – College intercultural day, where stalls are set up to represent different cultures and students eat,drink, learn dances and songs of importance in that culture?
    – people who appreciate different cultures by experiencing the culture, and maybe keep souvenirs as symbols of their appreciation?

    I think many parts of this world, the so called “developed” countries come to mind here, are seriously lacking in respect and compassion for so many things and now, as I am becoming aware of cultural appropriation, I am beginning to see how big a part it plays in the culture of the “developed world”. Fashion, in particular, springs to mind here. In order to rid ourselves completely of cultural appropriation such a huge change would need to happen, the way of the world would have to be rewritten and if we’re gonna do that then while we’re at it we might aswell address the other major problems poverty, hunger, health care, money, renewable energy and lots of others. There is so much to correct and some super power running the world seems to be ignorant to all of it, it leaves you feeling like all you can do is your own little bit and, although I think it is right to do your own little bit, I think this separates us into billions of people on a planet instead of one people on one world. We’re an intelligent bunch with the know how and resources to be one world where everyone is looked after and given an equal chance…I can feel myself going off on a zeitgeist tangent/rant here!

    Im learning. Cultural appropriation is bad. I’ll admit I had to read it twice to let it all in and open up to it.

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    • The examples you mention are largely grey areas that are really left up to the individuals involved. I was talking about owning a item from another culture the other day actually, and it’s a hard one. I’ve dream-catchers which I use to keep nightmares away (totally psychologically embedded in my head, I’ve used them since I was 6) and I appreciate and understand the history and culture behind them completely, but I think what is harmful is the pictures I took of them and posted on instagram because others will see it and not realize it’s significance, so that’s where they may take it out of context and just use the image flippantly etc. So yes, that’s just an example of how I reconcile the two things, but I guess it’s up to you to figure out as you approach it. I guess in general, you can appreciate a cultural, tradition etc but to be just aware that if you appropriate them in particular ways, it’s significance may dwindle for other viewers/audiences (i.e. wearing a bindi at a Hindu ceremony that you understand, appreciate and take part in is fine, but Selena Gomez wearing it on stage is just “cool” and thus, not fine! – if you get me? I’m not sure if I’m explaining it very well, sorry!)
      And yup, you’re totally right Amy. There are so many things to fight for / talk about / worry about, and it is about doing your little bit, and a bigger bit if you can. For example, I wanted to write this blog in the hopes that I could spread some more understanding, and the fact that you’re being so open to it and thinking about it (and even just talking about it) raises awareness that might not have happened if it weren’t for the blog (and the status-discussion I partook in likewise did this for me). I guess it’s about being verbal about these things and hoping that’ll it’ll be passed on, talked about etc. rather than being ignored and left be as it is. Change can happen from little things, so I guess we’re being optimistic that it might make a difference, but you just never know! Thanks for being awesomely open-minded and sound! 🙂

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  2. I feel this is a poorly-written article. Sure, I can understand “appropriation” if you’re a nation that’s *actively* invading another country, but in the context of today, where we are *not* actively invading other countries, your so-called “appropriation” is a bridge-builder, and by taking down your dreamcatchers and so on, you’re not making yourself “more sensitive” to other cultures, you’re taking down a bridge-builder that can make dialogue, as well as additional beauty from your life. Culture is meant to be shared.
    In Asia, where I live, people here share a lot of culture. They borrow bits of white culture, while us whities borrow their community-minded culture. They wear our t-shirts, eat our food, and we do the same. It builds bridges, and can create an understanding where getting rid of everything from another culture cannot.

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    • Firstly, just because you don’t agree with the sentiments in this article, doesn’t make it poorly written.

      Secondly, dreamcatchers are a more trivial example as they don’t hold the same cultural/religious significance to aboriginal people as say, the sugar skulls does to Mexican culture. The issue with appropriation is *not that you’re simply appreciating another culture, it’s that you’re taking a significant symbol of an oppressed culture and displaying it with very little understanding or appreciation for its significance, and this trivialising it.

      It’s not about wearing western or Asian clothes, it’s about taking another culture’s valuable traditions and wearing it like a prop.

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      • You’re fighting a battle that doesn’t really need to be fought, making problems where there are none. These blind social justice issues over shaddow real issues by making people angry at each other for trivial things such as the sugar skulls you mentioned. If you look through history, you’ll find that many traditions we now think of as ours were appropriated too at one stage or other.

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    • Whoops, you replied but I accidentally deleted it. I’ll try answer what I can from memory.
      I am the author of this article, I am also an English teacher and a TEFL teacher, and I can also tell you that you’re reading a subjective experience of cultural appropriation, not a definitive one so please stop with the over-analytical/hyper-critical beak down of this piece. My views on dreamcatchers have changed since I moved country, hence the apparent contradiction. Also you’d have to look into some sociological studies for definitive proof of the effects of cultural appropriation because as I’ve said, this piece is clearly subjective and does not claim to be otherwise. However, from my experience, I think it can be harmful to less privileged cultures identities.

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      • Hi there, I didn’t realize you were author of this article. I’m not carrying on this debate because you don’t want to, but it gets interesting because I’m an ESL teacher too 😉 Being an ESL teacher, you have probably seen these things in reverse, because the host country is always the “privileged” country. And please be more careful in deleting comments, I spent a lot of time crafting my side of the debate.

        Anyways, which country do teach ESL in? I’ve lived in Korea and Indonesia. BTW I’ve got my own blog started….feel free to post in it and get real technical if you want. I love debating…http://fossilworkscomics.wordpress.com/

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