Cultural appropriation is defined as elements of a minority culture being co-opted by members of a dominant culture. This misappropriation is mired in an underlying power imbalance, and often implications of a colonial past.
This disparity is made all the more harmful when members of minority cultures are often actively dissuaded from engaging with or exhibiting their culture, being told to assimilate and appear ‘less ethnic’, while members of a dominant culture are deemed trendy for ‘borrowing’ elements of that same culture. It’s easy to dismiss it as a hyperbolised issue, to claim that it’s not ‘real’ racism, or even state that it ought to be encouraged because it promotes diversity. But stripping symbols and artefacts of their cultural context is consistently damaging.
The Swastika, for instance, is widely stigmatised in today’s Western world as an emblem of hatred, bigotry, and white supremacy. This delegation has everything to do with the fact that Nazis adopted the symbol in the 1930s, and nothing to with the symbol’s ancient role in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist iconography as an indicator of auspicious tidings.
In the United States, countless sports teams derive their mascots and names from caricaturing Native American culture and perpetuating harmful ethnic stereotypes, such as the Kansas City Chiefs, the Cleveland Indians, and the Washington Redskins – all of which capitalise on the Native symbols they have taken and reduced to props for their own franchises, which earn them millions.
No matter how much people insist this kind of hypervisibility is some sort of compliment to the culture from which a symbol is taken, the fact remains that cultural appropriation does little to benefit members of minority cultures, and often harms them. Native Americans themselves enjoy little to none of the financial gain borne of the flagrant disrespect of their culture – in 2013, only five players across the entirety of the USA’s National Football League were of Native American origin.
Those who argue that Native Americans should be grateful for the spotlight shone on their culture overlook the fact that the image of Native Americans being disseminated by these mascots is not an accurate one entrenched in any awareness of the culture, but rather one formed from a conflation of offensive ethnic stereotypes stemming from a history of racism and colonialism.
While dreadlocks have been adopted as accessories for white counterculture and the Hippie movement, the black communities from which the hairstyles originate must still contend with negative stereotypes and assumptions related to the hairstyle – often black people are banned from wearing their natural hair or dreadlocks in the workplace.
The Dotbusters were a hate group operating in America in 1987 who targeted South Asian immigrants, specifically women wearing bindis. Yet today, bindis are marketed as ‘festival face gems’ and worn as cheap accessories to festivals such as Coachella, with little respect for their role as Hindu or Jain religious motifs, as well as the violence and discrimination that South Asian women continue to face for wearing them.
The sharing and experiencing of other cultures is an invaluable tool in strengthening tolerance and diversity across communities, and is to be encouraged. But sharing implies something that is done on equal footing. It requires the consent of the minority community and must be done with an understanding that you are participating in something that is not your own.
To appropriate a culture is to approach a minority culture with a sense of entitlement, the feeling that the power you hold as a member of the dominant culture allows you to simply pick and choose elements of another person’s lifestyle as though it’s a dress-up box that requires no context, credit, or knowledge.
To appropriate a culture is to belittle it. Choose to appreciate different cultures instead. Try new cuisines, learn different languages, watch foreign films or listen to foreign music, buy handicrafts from fair trade shops so that your purchases benefit and credit their creators and their countries.
Just remember, when you copy work or don’t cite sources in an essay, it is plagiarism. When you illegally watch or download a film, it is piracy. Both plagiarism and piracy are, essentially, theft, and therefore so is cultural appropriation – the theft of respect and credit from communities and cultures who so sorely deserve it.