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.