You see it in clothing, dance, mannerisms, vocabulary, accents, behaviors, makeup, hairstyles, trends, and more. You encounter it in the workplace, at music festivals, at parties, and even just walking down the street.
Cultural appropriation, also known as cultural misappropriation, is a term that encompasses a range of behaviors and attitudes toward other cultures and beliefs, but really it boils down to stealing an identity from another culture and using it as your own, without understanding or recognizing the meaning and true value behind it.
What does this idea really mean, where does it come from, and how can you spot and avoid it? Here is what you need to know about cultural appropriation.
Definition of cultural appropriation
Adopting or assuming something from a culture that is not one’s own is the short definition of cultural appropriation. This broad category may encompass areas like clothing, ways of speaking, makeup and hairstyles, and many others.
Cultural appropriation draws on stereotypes about a culture, often one that includes members who have faced oppression by the dominant culture, or the one exploiting elements of the minority culture. For example, white Western cultures, who have a long history of oppressing black cultures, also have a history of appropriating elements of black culture, such as wearing cornrows, using a “blaccent”—imitating the dialect of African Americans, and adopting music genres such as jazz and swing, among many other examples.
Essentially, cultural appropriation is the borrowing (stealing) of the intellectual property of an entire culture and using it as one’s own without recognizing or understanding the history, meaning behind, or correct usage of it.
As a term, cultural appropriation first appeared in the latter half of the twentieth century. It may have first been used in academic writings concerning colonialism and Western expansionism as early as the 1960s. Kenneth Coutts-Smith discussed the concept without using the terminology in "Some General Observations on the Problems of Cultural Colonialism.”
The act of cultural appropriation, however, has been around for centuries. Western cultures often “discovered” elements of other cultures through colonialism and expansion, as well as trade and mercantilism.
Cultural appropriation is related to cultural looting, the act of physically stealing cultural property from people. For example, in 1897, the British invaded the Kingdom of Benin, now southern Nigeria, killing many of its inhabitants and stealing artifacts including bronzes, ivory, and chests. These looted artifacts have been sold and traded in European markets, despite their belonging to the Benin people. Today, many people equate the “borrowing” of cultural elements with the physical looting of property—especially since many cultural elements are discovered through such thievery.
But cultural appropriation in history wasn’t limited to looting. In the 17th century, Western travelers adopted articles of clothing including the necktie and silk waistcoats from Croatia and the Middle East. American cowboys began wearing hats modeled after sombreros—cowboy hats—after exposure to the Mexican hat style during the Civil War. (And you are likely to see a sombrero or two at the occasional party today.) Elvis Presley is often accused of being a cultural appropriator of black music. Did you know, for example, that “Hound Dog” was a cover of Big Mama Thornton’s record? Likewise, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was not originally the Tokens’—it was recorded by Zulu musician Solomon Linda as “Mbube” in 1939, and he never received royalties for the former. (In 2006, Linda's heirs reached a legal settlement with Abilene Music company over past payments and future royalties for the song.)
In the twenty-first century, particularly the 2010s, the term has spread and gained usage in mainstream vernacular, with many people discussing the concept and recognizing that it is inappropriate. Still, some argue that the sensitivity toward cultural appropriation can go too far. Oxford added the term to its dictionary in 2017.
Examples of Cultural Appropriation
The world is rife with examples of cultural appropriation—in business, the media, pop culture, and everyday life. Many people engage in cultural appropriation without even realizing that they are doing so. Here are just a few examples:
In Business and the Workplace
• Sweat-lodge retreats
Self-help guru James Arthur Ray practiced incorrect procedures for ceremonies adopted from Native American rituals in Sedona, Arizona, including covering the lodge with plastic tarps. Three people died in one of his ceremonies in 2009s, and he served 20 months in prison.
• Aboriginal art in Austalia
Many non-Aboriginal artists copied and sold pieces of Aboriginal artwork, claiming the copies were authentic.
• Tortilla recipes from Mexico
Kali Wilgus and Liz "LC" Connelly studied and “borrowed” the recipes of women in Puerto Nuevo, Mexico to create and sell handmade tortillas out of their Kooks Burritos food truck. There is some debate as to whether their actions actually qualify as cultural appropriation; some say learning food-making techniques from other cultures is not the same as stealing that cultures ideas to use as one’s own, while others believe the originators deserve credit and compensation for their recipes.
In the media and pop culture
• New York Fashion Week 2017
Predominantly white models displayed Marc Jacobs’ line while sporting hand-dyed wool dreadlocks. Jacobs later apologized for the “lack of sensitivity” in his initial response to the controversy, an Instagram comment in which he stated, “I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race—I see people.”
• American Music Awards 2013
Katy Perry put on a “geisha-inspired” performance wearing an altered kimono and white powder on her face.
• Burning Man and Coachella
Attendees of these festivals are notorious for wearing culturally-appropriated items such as headdresses, war paint, bonnets, bindis, and more.
• Video Music Awards 2013
Miley Cyrus was criticized for twerking, imitating a dance style that has African-American roots, in her VMA performance.
In everyday life
Wearing headdresses, blackface, kimonos, and other clothing, symbols, and facets of other cultures as costumes is a form of cultural appropriation since these styles often have significance in other cultures and are worn for specific occasions (or, in the case of blackface, are just plain wrong). (Try these ideas instead.)
Trends like cornrows and wearing chopsticks as hair accessories “borrow” from black and Asian cultures, the latter being inappropriate and inaccurate. (Chopsticks are for eating, and putting them in your hair is like doing the same thing with a fork.)
• “Spirit animal”
Many people will refer to an animal, thing, or even another person as their “spirit animal.” Spirit animals are actually meaningful ideas with roots in Native American cultures.
• Borrowed accents
Some people take on the speech patterns and dialects of other cultures, such as black culture.
Many of the foods we eat, clothing we wear, habits we have adopted, and behaviors we model do have origins in other cultures. This is the basis of much of the backlash against the concept and critique of cultural appropriation; some people wonder where we are supposed to draw the line. After all, eating a plate of spaghetti and wearing a silk dress are not forms of cultural appropriation.
The distinction comes when rather than celebrating, acknowledging, and upholding diversity and other cultures, people are actually mocking, disparaging, ignoring the history and meaning behind, or misusing the intellectual property of another culture. When you eat Chinese food, whether or not it is the most authentic recipe, you recognize and embrace that it has Chinese roots. When you wear a religious symbol whose meaning you do not know or believe, that is cultural appropriation. There's a huge difference between appreciation and appropriation.
The following behaviors are always cultural appropriation, and you should avoid them:
• Using sacred symbols for non-spiritual reasons
The Native American headdress, for example, is reserved for respected elders in the community and a spiritual symbol.
• Borrowing ideas without paying proper homage or respect to their originators
If you don’t know the history of something and where it first originated, do your research before using it. And give credit where credit is due.
• Perpetuating stereotypes or being patently offensive
For example, it is never, ever okay to wear blackface.