What is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation! Although the phrase and the practices it describes are familiar to most of us, they can feel ambiguous. And that’s primarily because inappropriate or offensive uses of other cultures are often quite obvious, the subtleties of the conversation are usually drowned out by protests. 

Background

The actual phrase cultural appropriation first appeared in print in 1945 and is attributed to the late Professor Arthur E. Christie. And it’s been a topic of very heated debate ever since, as a term cultural appropriation has its roots in the latter half of the 20th century, with its highest usage coming after 1980. 

Although the concept of stealing or misusing a culture was on our collective radar from the 19 century onwards, marginalized groups have been speaking up against cultural appropriation that either diminishes or sidelines the contributions of the people who created certain practices.

But at the heart of these conversations are three daunting and often amorphous concepts. First, what even is culture? How does power operate? Concerning culture? And what are the boundaries between participating versus appropriating another culture?.  So before we get into the debate of whether or not culture can be appropriated and misused, we should start with the basics namely, what is culture? 

What Is Culture?

According to 20th-century theorist, Raymond William’s 1976 definition of culture our modern use of culture exists largely under three main umbrellas.

Intellectual Realms of Culture

First, there are the intellectual and spiritual, and aesthetic development realms of culture that encompass shared ideologies and beliefs. This is probably the least tangible portion of culture; two good examples are the concept of shared faith or patriotism.

Both have a fixed set of values and ideas attached to them and can inspire cultural production. But they are also ideologies that exist even if they aren’t being actively enacted.

So you can feel patriotism even when you’re not actively performing a ritual that displays it just like you can experience shared faith even when you’re not engaging in religious ceremonies. 

Shared Way of Life

Then there’s a portion of culture that covers the shared way of life of a defined group of people. Meaning the way that a fixed group interacts and lives under their common ideologies. This can be very specific like the shared lifestyle of one finite group of people or extremely expansive, like a shared reality that extends between all of humanity.

So as far as we know, all humans share the earth. All humans to survive must eat, but the way we live on Earth, whether in a large city or a rural community is defined by the people we are directly engaging with daily. 

Creative and Artistic Productivity

And the third and final category of culture that Williams describes, and the one we’ll talk about the most today, is related to sharing creative and artistic productivity. This includes the art, literature, music, films, songs, and general representation of a given culture or group of people. 

What Is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the use of items or other elements of a non-dominant cultural tradition to reinforce the stereotypes or leads to discrimination and does not respect their original purpose or credit their origins.

Also, it includes the unauthorized usage of parts of their cultural heritage (their costume and dance routine.) without their permission. 

In this manner, the concept of cultural appropriation is a complex and nuanced issue that many do not understand and do not even realize they are taking part in it.

It is natural to blend and merge cultures when people from diverse backgrounds interact and mix. Indeed, many fantastic inventions and inventions were born out of the amalgamation of these diverse cultures (such as country music).

Elements of Cultural Appropriation

Moving backward What is the definition of the term “cultural appropriation”? It’s helpful to look at the meaning behind each term in the definition along with other related terms which are essential to know.

Culture

Culture refers to everything that is connected with a specific group of individuals that are influenced by their religion, ethnicity, geography, and social context. This could include the beliefs, traditions, language concepts, objects practices as well as customs, values, or other institutions. 2 It’s not unusual for culture to be seen as belonging to certain ethnic groups.

Appropriation

Appropriation means the taking of something that isn’t a part belonging to your family culture. In the context of cultural appropriation, it’s an exchange in which the dominant group acquires or “borrows” something from a minority group that was historically marginalized or abused.

In this way, the term “appropriation” refers to an inability to comprehend or understand the historical context which influences what is taken. The idea of taking a sacred object from an ethnically marginalized society and incorporating it into the design of a costume for Halloween is an instance.

Cultural Denigration

Cultural denigration is the practice of adopting an element of a particular culture with the sole intention of humiliating or degrading people from that particular culture.

The most obvious instance of this is the blackface, which was originally developed as a method to dehumanize and ridicule Black people, by perpetuating stereotypes of black people. 

Cultural Appreciation & Respect

Cultural appreciation, on the other hand, is the respectful borrowing of cultural elements and a desire to share concepts in addition to broadening one’s perspective.

Examples include taking classes in martial arts with an instructor who is aware of the art from a cultural point of view or eating Indian cuisine at an authentic Indian restaurant.

When done properly, appreciation of culture can bring greater understanding and appreciation for other cultures, as well as in the creation of innovative hybrids that bring cultures.

Context of Cultural Appropriation

Understanding the context behind cultural appropriation is crucial to understanding the reason it’s an issue. While some may not even think twice about taking a style that is of a different culture, for instance, the people from which the style was developed could have had a history of experiences that render the person’s behavior unresponsive to the group’s history and present experience. 

Consider, for instance, a White American wearing their hair in cornrows. Although Black Americans have historically experienced discrimination due to protective hairstyles like cornrows White Americans, as part of the majority group of the U.S., can often “get away” with appropriating the same hairstyle, as well as making them “trendy,” all the while not acknowledging or understanding the factors that led to its importance for Black society in the beginning.

Examples of Cultural Appropriation 

For instance, within the United States, the groups who are the most frequently targeted for cultural appropriation are;

  • Black Americans 
  • Asian Americans 
  • Hispanic
  • Latinx Americans 
  • Native Americans

Here are some instances of real-life examples of cultural adaptation that you can think about.

Rock ‘N’ Roll

The 1950s were the time when White artists “invented” rock and roll. However, the music style was adapted from Black musicians who did not receive recognition. 9 In fact, music executives of the time favored White artists in favor of Black performers, thereby confirming the notion that cultural appropriation has negative consequences for non-dominant groups.

Sweat Lodge

In 2011, the motivational businessman James Arthur Ray was convicted of three counts of negligent murder following the death of three members of his fake sweat lodge. 10 This is a shocking illustration of the culture-based appropriation and distortion of Native American traditions.

Voguing

Are you aware of the “voguing” craze made popular by Madonna during the 90s? Voguing is a dance that originated in the gay clubs in New York City and was developed by Black people in the LGBT+ community. Madonna defends her right to creative expression. But the question is: how many people still believe she was the first to invent Voguing?

Team Mascots

There’s a long time when major sports teams within both the United States and Canada were involved in the appropriation of cultural aspects of Indigenous traditions by naming their mascots and names.

The most notable examples are those of the Chicago Blackhawks, Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, and Edmonton Eskimos. (The Redskins and Eskimos have changed names since then.)

“Redskin” is a derogatory phrase used to refer to Indigenous indigenous peoples, and the word “Eskimo” has been rejected by the Inuit community.  

How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation

You can stop cultural appropriation by following some steps, for example:

  • Take a look at the questions listed above to discover the root motive behind what you’re doing.
  • Recognize the source of things you use or recommend from other cultures instead of proclaiming them as your original ideas.
  • Spend the time to learn about and comprehend a culture before deciding to use or adapt elements from it. Learn from the cultural members Visit the venues they run (such as restaurants) and take part in authentic celebrations (such as an authentic luau).
  • Help small-scale businesses owned by people who are part of the community instead of purchasing products manufactured by big box stores, which are designed to reflect an entire culture.

Cultural Appreciation vs. Cultural Appropriation: Why it Matters

It is crucial to recognize that there is a distinction between appreciation and the concept of appropriation. Appreciation refers to the time when a person is seeking to learn and understand the culture of another to expand their understanding and make connections with people from different cultures.

Appropriation, in contrast, on the other hand, is the process of taking a particular aspect of a culture different from yours and using that to further your interests. Appropriation can mean purchasing an item of clothing or jewelry that could be significant to that particular culture,

however, simply making an opportunity to show your style. It could also mean taking a photograph of a religious ceremony in the hope of getting more likes and likes on Facebook as you can.

Whatever the reason, being an aspect of a different culture without knowing the meaning behind it can be detrimental not only to the people whose they are a part of but also to the people who you are sharing it with.

How can you participate and explore society without exploiting the culture for your purposes? Here are some excellent methods!

1.  Study Your own Culture

With self-reflection, you’ll be able to better understand the differences and identify what is essential to different cultures around the globe. If you are aware that a particular part of your culture is a major part of your identity and is a source of offense should someone use the word without fully understanding what it means? Think about how other people around the world, who have different cultures than yours might feel the same as you do.

  • Consider: Do I feel offended by someone wearing an important symbol of religion from my culture and did not know what it means?

2. Listen First

One of the most effective methods to appreciate and understand the other culture is to listen to the people who are part of the society. Take note of their stories, consider the meaning behind the elements of their culture you are fascinated by, and then use the knowledge gained to broaden your perspectives.

  • Consider: I recently purchased an amazing piece of handcrafted jewelry. Did I take the time to listen to the person who designed the piece to find out more about their background and the significance of their work to them and how it is integrated into the local culture? If not, I could have been appropriating rather than taking note of.

3. Take into Consideration the Context

What does a specific symbol mean for a particular culture? Where and when is it appropriate to utilize it? Understanding the various aspects of culture and what they mean is essential. If you are truly interested in a desire to know more about the lives of people and culture, then they’ll be more than happy to discuss with you things that are important to them.

  • Consider: Did I just get a part of someone’s culture to my advantage without understanding its significance? Did I research the roots of the tradition, item, or even a symbol? This is crucial to comprehending and appreciating a culture.

4. Create your Unique Cultural Background

The most important aspect of cultural exchange and the main thing that separates its appropriation from it is the fact that it is reciprocal. Through exchange and appreciation, it’s possible to share something personal about yourself, gain knowledge about another person, and participate in the shared knowledge of the other’s background and culture.

  • Consider: Am I equally eager to share a few of my traditions, cuisine, language, and customs? The person you are sharing with is likely equally interested in learning about my tradition just as much as I am. This is an amazing aspect of exchange and appreciation for culture!

Wrapping Up

Cultural appropriation is the equivalent of plagiarism, with an additional dose of ridicule. It is a sin to avoid at all costs and is something you should be aware of. Alongside monitoring your actions, it’s also important to pay attention to corporate actions and be careful about how you spend your money as this is another method to support members of a culture that isn’t dominant. Take advantage of what you can, as you grow to be better.

 

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