What Is… Cultural Appropriation?

When I was a senior at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania (which was in Fall 2015), a HUGE controversy erupted on campus. In short, there was an “Around the World” party at the college. At the party, a student posted on his Instagram account a photo of himself and a friend of his wearing sombreros. The photo had the caption “We swear we’ve got our green cards,” and the photo had the hashtags of #taco, #chihuahua and #tequila. In addition to the Instagram photo, there was a Facebook photo of a male student wearing a white flannel undershirt and a bandana posing with a female student at Dickinson who was wearing a sombrero at the party.[1]

To say that there was anger about the existence of the party, the social media posts, and the people involved in the party would be an understatement. The political climate in the United States was already tense at the time, with then-candidate Donald Trump surging in the polls with inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants, and particularly Mexican immigrants. Therefore, when news of this party and the social media posts from the party spread around the student body at Dickinson, there was an outpouring of fury. In particular, there was fury at the fact that instead of aiming for cultural appreciation, the party and all involved with it instead performed acts that were considered by many to be cultural appropriation.

But what is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, “The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”[2] Whether we realize it or not, cultural appropriation actually happens on an everyday basis. When, without acknowledgement, you use Arabic numerals to help you with your math, make food from other cultures, and wear a form of clothing design that comes from a culture not your own, you are performing acts of cultural appropriation.

However, it’s not those everyday instances of cultural appropriation—those instances where the cultures responsible for the numbers we use, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear are not acknowledged—that seem to get the most flack (either rightly or wrongly). Instead, it is making fun of or otherwise mocking a certain culture/group of people that gets the most flack. Such actions fit within the definition of cultural appropriation, but might also fall into the realm of another term I hear less often: cultural mockery. Cultural mockery happens when there is inappropriate misrepresentation, imitation, caricaturizing, or making fun of a culture. The “We swear we’ve got our green cards” incident at Dickinson would fall into the category of cultural mockery.

On the other hand, if we are “honoring and respecting another culture and its practices, as a way to gain knowledge and understanding,”[3] then it’s cultural appreciation. One common example I’ve seen of cultural appreciation is when someone makes the food of another culture (and not just food stereotyped as being from another culture) while explaining the history of the dish and how that dish became so important to the culture. Through that, something as simple as food can encompass not just food, but also the history of the culture (how the dish fits within the history of a culture), the types of crops that the culture relies on (the economy of the culture), and much more.

Some of us may unwittingly fall into cultural mockery—something that may happen with some frequency with the upcoming Cinco de Mayo. However, if we really want to aim to learn more about cultures outside our own, we should really strive for cultural appreciation, and for actually trying to learn more and understand more about the cultures we aren’t a part of.

[1] Click on the following link to learn about this controversy at my college, Dickinson: https://thedickinsonian.com/news/2015/09/15/photos-draw-anger-apology/

[2] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/cultural_appropriation

[3] https://attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/cultural-appropriation-or-appreciation/#:~:text=Cultural%20appropriation%20can%20be%20defined,to%20gain%20knowledge%20and%20understanding.

32 Replies to “What Is… Cultural Appropriation?”

  1. I have mixed feelings about cultural appropriation. While I think the idea of respecting other cultures is definitely a good one, when there are negative reactions to people having light-hearted fun, I think there’s a risk of alienating people from the cause. I also think it’s problematic to go back in time and chastise people for things they did back when, because this hyper-awareness of cultural appropriation is a very recent phenomenon. It certainly wouldn’t have been on people’s radar 20 years ago in my university days.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for commenting.

      I can see where you’re coming from, though my counterargument is that what might be fun for one group may also be insulting and hurtful for another (often historically oppressed) group (the green card incident at my college being an example). That being said, I agree that going back in time (like what happened a couple of years ago with Virginia’s Governor Northam with a blackface incident from the 80s I think) can be problematic, especially if people don’t “let up” after someone says that yes, in retrospect, what they did wasn’t wise.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I think for me it depends on the setting. College kids partying aren’t taking much of anything seriously, whereas something like sports team names are very deliberate and well thought out. I think the latter makes for a far better target for arguments for change, whereas targeting the former is more likely to elicit pushback for being overly politically correct.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Hmmm. Context is important. So is education. I think that it’s important for college kids to be educated that yes, you can have fun, but it’s also important to be aware that certain actions may be insensitive to other cultures. The problem though is that especially in this world of social media, a lot of us don’t give college kids the space to learn (and a lot of the kids don’t give themselves the space either in many cases).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Very good post. I’ve seen that cultural appropriation like with white people (mainly those in the hipster subculture) wearing Native American headdresses for Halloween or for random pictures. One example that made me furious was Disney trademarking the phrase “Hakuna Matata” which I find to be very insulting as it’s trivializing a common phrase from 90 million Swahili speakers and they can legally sue anyone who uses it the wrong way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmmm. I didn’t even realize “Hakuna Matata” was a product of cultural appropriation. The things you learn…

      But yes, Native American headdresses (among other things) are an example of cultural appropriation.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah, I didn’t know that until a couple of years ago with a news video presented by a Kenyan YouTuber. She was rightfully ticked off since that’s the main official language in her home country. That would be like a company trademark a super common non-English phrase that even English speakers know the meaning like “Que sara sara”, “Viva Mexico”, or “Mazel Tov”. Those things shouldn’t be IP for anyone. That’s not even getting into the facts of The Lion King literally using a plagiarized song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” which stole from the South African song “Mbube” as noted in the Netflix documentary The Lion’s Share or how most of the characters are ripoffs of those from the 60s anime series Kimba the White Lion. Yes, one could argue Disney stole from South Africa, Japan, and every country where Swahili has official language status (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo).

        Glad you agree. I was so annoyed when people did that and I’m not even Native American. Nothing wrong with appreciating other cultures, but others shouldn’t do whatever they want with said cultures.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. It really is shocking, but in this day and age I’m sadly not surprised. I remember a few years ago when Disney tried to come up with that Princess of North Sudan project that involved a real life family from Virginia making a “Kingdom” near the Sudanese/Egyptian border. The fact that it was going to be a white girl potentially being the first African human princess (so far Disney’s only African princess is Nala only from a geographical standpoint, let that sink in) was insulting and Mickey Mouse got a ton of backlash for it and rightfully so. Thank you for checking out that comment and learning about those issues.

        The Lion King was something I used to love when I was a child, but I got so disillusioned finding out about Kimba the White Lion, the trademark issue, watching The Lion’s Share, and even realizing how the hyenas played up racist undertones. I wish more people would realize that not everything is so innocent over at the House of Mouse for example.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks. I had to use some humor even though I have strong feelings about that issue and other things. It frustrates me how apparently “acceptable” trademarking that phrase is no matter what the situation or limitations are for making it intellectual property for Disney or any company when they wouldn’t do that when it comes to other cultures, not that they should anyway. Then again, it seems like Disney gets a free pass for anything because the company is synonymous with childhood and nostalgia for so many people. Especially finding out about the other unsavory things about The Lion King much less the Disney corporation, it certainly shattered my childhood. Funny enough, I mentioned one example of blatant thievery on one of my blogs with one of the characters: https://iridiumeye.wordpress.com/2021/04/06/top-7-characters-that-fans-are-reluctant-to-call-blatant-ripoffs/

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Very much so and I’m glad you agree. Disney has this innocent facade which people don’t question or challenge more often than not. When other companies do something similar, they get bashed and rightfully so. Going back to the trademarking issue, Disney even enforced it against a Chinese company. Think about it: an American company is suing a Chinese company over a Swahili phrase. I’m not defending either company, but the fact this IP enforcement happened is facepalm-worthy. Some people have freaked out at me when I would tell them these things about that particular movie.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Sure thing, Brendan. I fell like Disney seems to get a free pass for these things. What does frustrate me more is the double standards with the trademark issues. Notice how they’ve never trademarked “Ohana” when it comes to Lilo & Stitch. They haven’t done anything similar with let’s say Chinese for Mulan or Arabic for Aladdin even though they did get backlash for the original line in “Arabian Nights” which goes “They’ll cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey! It’s home!” and the Arab-American community gave Mickey Mouse that work to change the line in the video release. I remember when Disney tried to trademark Day of the Dead for Coco and they got pressured to not do so. It seems like the House of Mouse is inconsistent when it comes to treating certain ethnic groups certain ways.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Brendan, for posting this. I try to be very sensitive to cultural appropriation and I refuse to acknowledge Cinco de Mayo for that reason. Most people don’t even know why that’s a holiday, which ironically mostly is an excuse to party in the United States. I try to learn what I can about other cultures, including learning some of the languages… right now it’s French. Stereotypes of any culture are another form… like berets to symbolize French culture. Not that wearing a beret is wrong, but it is when it’s making fun of French people. My daughter-in-law has Native American ancestry and she started collecting Native Art and encouraged me to do so too… while I learn more about Native History and her genealogy. You’re right, it’s using culture to make fun of others that is the problem. May I reblog your article to my own blog?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. To reply to your comment some more, yeah, looking to make fun of other cultures (or caricatures of other cultures, which is something I’ve also seen) is rather unwise and ventures into the territory of not just appropriation (though that too), but mockery.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. When my children were in first grade they had a couple of weeks of studying other cultures( as deep as a first grader goes) and it culminated in a day when they were all asked to bring in one or two dishes that represented their ancestry. I realized that it was the parents that did it, but the students were required to explain the dish and why it was chosen then a big picnic lunch was enjoyed by all including the parents. I thought it was a great way for the kids to see and appreciate the differences as well as the things they shared. Their ancestry was being celebrated not made fun of.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s pretty cool. It’s also similar to what some of the people at my grammar school did for our annual “International Day.” It was pretty neat, and an opportunity to learn about the cultures of different countries. In many ways, I would say it was cultural appreciation at its finest (especially for that level of school).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Is it cultural appropriation when black Americans take on “African” cultural symbols. After all, most black Americans have no more to do with Africa that I do (2nd generation European). Are people confusing skin color with culture. One is a genetic trait, the other a learned system of values. Is it stereotyping to suggest that black Americans, because of their skin their color, have a right to “appropriate” cultural symbols of Africans? This is one area where I sit on a fence. Does the culture of mu ancestors 2 generations ago really give me the right to claim that no one else should be able to use the symbols of that culture? I admit that I find these controversial ideas about who gets to decide “culture” as trivial. Culture changes constantly.There s no such thing are a “pure” culture set in stone at some time or place. Cultural diffusion has always been the norm, not the exception. Reminds of the black kids who were accused of “being white” by some of my black students because they chose to not be stereotyped by skin color. Were they “appropriating” white culture. Was that wrong of them to do? Food for thought, I hope.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely good food for thought, Joseph. Appropriating is often associated with people appropriating from cultures that aren’t even related to them ancestrally. The examples you talk about here are less discussed (probably because said examples are maybe a little murkier in certain cases, or have complications that don’t fit within a typical cultural appropriation narrative).

      The question of who gets to decide culture is probably something that whole books have been written about, but is also food for thought.

      Liked by 1 person

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