Cultural Appropriation

Retrieved from

August 2010

Cultural appropriation, also referred to as cultural theft by its detractors or as a subset of acculturation by others, is the adoption of elements of cultural expression of one societal group, such as forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or behavior, by an external group, without regard to the underlying aspects of what is being appropriating. It is possible for a minority to appropriate from the majority, and vice-versa.

To many, the term has a negative connotation, due to perceived or actual superficiality, and 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 the theft of culture, without respect to its history and an ignorance of underlying cultural meaning.

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.

An example of this concept in the United States would be the stigma towards white rappers (sometimes referred to as “wiggers”) or towards assimilated blacks(“sometimes referred to as oreos”). Elvis is known by many for his cultural appropriation of black musical traditions. While some have claimed he has “stolen” black music, others, such as James Brown, refer to him as a “soul brother.” This debate raises questions over whether culture can be stolen.

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.

In some cases, appropriation can occur to the point to where the dominating culture will credit itself for the establishment of the expressive element. For example, some believe that Elvis invented rock and roll, which he did not.

What one group views as cultural appropriation, however, another may consider simply “borrowing” or an “influence”. Mutual adoption of external or foreign practices among people of disparate groups is a natural consequence of human interaction, particularly over time. There is a natural human tendency to mimic, adopt and adapt tools and behaviors which are admired, valued, or considered useful. But when a dominant or favored group copies and begins to assimilate certain cultural aspects of another group while marginalizing, rejecting, oppressing or otherwise devaluing the people whose culture they covet, resentment and sometimes open hostility can arise among members of the originating culture. Objections have been raised towards this resentment, as some claim that it holds all members of a dominant culture accountable for the actions of those in power, while devaluing the role of the individual.

In capitalist economies, particularly, commercialization plays a central role in the packaging and marketing of cultural expression of all kinds. When combined with cultural appropriation, particularly if the cultural expression in its original context has attendant religious or spiritual value, or is an important factor in forging group identity, some people may feel that the subject culture has been cheapened, co-opted, or made the appropriation a “meaningless” part of pop culture. Further, if the culture of origin does not receive proper credit, or its people receive little or no monetary recompense while others profit, there is often a sense of exploitation as well.

It has been argued that such action not only steals from the originating culture, but also devalues its people because it reduces the appropriation to a cliché—an act, image, phrase, etc.—devoid of any overarching cultural context. That said, others hold that some practices are transcultural, and that no culture has a right to claim them as exclusively their own or to assign a nontransferable status or meaning to them.

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 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.

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, [1] and Greco-Roman, innovations, respectively.

In Serbia, many foods and drinks had been appropriated from the Ottomans. For example, some consider Moussaka to be a Serbian national food, while in fact it was brought by a foreign influence.

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.

In Europe, techno music is often perceived as an original European music expression; Europeans are often unaware that it was initially developed by African Americans in Detroit, in what was then a racially segregated music scene. 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 the Republic of Macedonia, each side has accused the other of falsely appropriating the cultural legacy of Macedon and Alexander the Great.[2]

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 or by organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America. 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.” [3].

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.

Non-Arabs or non-Palestinians wearing a keffiyeh might be seen as appropriating a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, although in practice, the people “appropriating” the symbol are generally showing their support of the Palestinian causes.

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!” On the other hand, gay skinheads are sometimes seen as appropriating the ultramasculine skinhead subculture.

The use of the leprechaun mascot by the Boston Celtics basketball club could be considered by some Irish or Celtic people to be an example of cultural appropriation. Leprechauns appear in many Celtic fairy tales, and the reduction of this character to a small set of stereotypes and clichés could be seen as very offensive.