Cultural appropriation is the adoption of certain aspects of one culture by another culture.
Cultural appropriation is, in itself, inevitable. Any cultures living in contact with one another will affect one another and individuals will pick up dialects, habits, dress, dietary preferences, artistic styles, etc. from the other. Cultures collide, blending occurs, though the term cultural appropriation implies that the flow of cultural information is going one way, rather than an equal blending of the two.
When most people use the term “cultural appropriation” in modern, common language, they are describing the more sinister practice of the exploitation of the particular features of a minority culture by a dominant culture.
It can be difficult to define where simple adoption of cultural practice ends and exploitation begins because it is often a matter of opinion. One person’s exploitation might be another’s homage. The “exploited” group might not feel exploited, the “white man’s burden” to protect them may create a problem where there isn’t one. Or if they do raise objections, they might be seen to be over-sensitive and over-reacting. There can also be disagreement about whether a practice is specific to one culture, or universal, or who did it first. And is there a statute of limitations on cultural appropriation? Does it become okay when the culture being exploited has effectively died out?
The problem arises when there is a difference in power between the groups- when the dominant culture takes intellectual property, wisdom, knowledge, artifacts, forms of expression, etc. from the minority culture, without permission, and uses it for the gain of the dominant culture and/or to the detriment of the minority culture.
Some examples commonly cited include:
- Taking sacred herbs from Native American cultures and using them in unsacred ways (i.e. Tobacco), or mimicking sacred customs out of context in order to sell products (smudge sticks) and using Native American iconography and stereotypes to sell products (Certain sports teams, many products featuring Native American images, the costuming industry).
- Many white performers have become quite wealthy and famous by repackaging traditionally African American and Latino music and dance styles.
- The recovery and subsequent sale by non-ethnic entities to collectors of historic and prehistoric cultural artifacts. Those we are most familiar with have occurred in the Americas and the Middle East, but this occurs all over the world on a regular basis. Indeed the practice has been glamorized by media, including the Indiana Jones series, the Tomb Raider series and other romantic and heroic “Treasure hunter” icons through history.
- Halloween costumes. About half of them.
- The Media using Voodoo, Santeria and other traditional spiritual practices for shock and horror value in just about any story that needs a little shock and horror value, or to demonstrated how “backward” or “dangerous” a group of people is.
Extensive discussion has taken place on this topic in many forums. You are encouraged to explore further on the sites listed below and discuss it here in the comments section, of course.
- What is Cultural Appropriation on About.com
- Cultural Appropriation at Wikipedia.com
- What is Cultural Appropriation and Why is it Such a Big Problem at Quora
- The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation at The Atlantic