Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?

A text on culture, respect, allyship, and racism

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the adoption or theft of icons, rituals, aesthetic standards, and behavior from one culture or subculture by another. It generally is applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture. This “appropriation” often occurs without any real understanding of why the original culture took part in these activities or the meanings behind these activities, often converting culturally significant artifacts, practices, and beliefs into “meaningless” pop-culture or giving them a significance that is completely different/less nuanced than they would originally have had.

Why does cultural appropriation happen?

Cultural appropriation is a by-product of imperialism, capitalism, oppression, and assimilation. Imperialism is the creation and maintenance of an unequal cultural, economic, and territorial relationship, usually between states and often in the form of an empire, based on domination and subordination. Imperialism functions by subordinating groups of people and territories and extracting everything of value from the colonized people and territories. In the case of cultural appropriation, culture is treated as a “natural resource” to extract from People of Color.

Cultural appropriation is profitable. Objects and traditions (but not the people) of marginalized cultures are seen by the dominant culture as exotic, edgy, and desirable, which translates to profits. Capitalism works best when people are not individual people with celebrated differences, but identical workers, cogs in the machine. Once diverse cultural identities are stripped away, the only culture left to identify with is capitalist culture.

This is one aspect of assimilation, in which marginalized communities lose their cultural markers and are folded into the dominant culture. The process of assimilation is sped up when culture markers are appropriated by the dominant culture. Once the dominant culture has access to the cultural markers of a marginalized culture, they are no longer markers of the marginalized culture, and the marginalized culture is gobbled up by the dominant culture.

Why is cultural appropriation so harmful?

Cultural appropriation is harmful because it is an extension of centuries of racism, genocide, and oppression. Cultural appropriation treats all aspects of marginalized cultures (also known as targets of oppression) as free for the taking. This is the same rationale that has been (and still is) used to steal land and resources from People of Color, particularly Native people. Put together, the theft of the lands, resources, and culture of a marginalized group amount to genocide.

The defense of cultural appropriation is based upon the misconception that race relations exist on a level-playing field, as though racism no longer exists. Systematic racism does still exist – white people have power and privilege in this society, while People of Color are systematically denied power and privilege in this society. There cannot be a truly equal and free flow of ideas, practices, and cultural markers as long as one group (white people) have power and privilege over another group (People of Color).

Spiritual practices of Native peoples are particularly prone to appropriation by the dominant culture. This is exceptionally ironic, given that after colonization, it was not until the passage of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act that Native people in the United States were legally permitted to practice their traditional spirituality. Since the colonization of this continent by white settlers, Native people have faced monumental obstancles to the free exercise of their spiritual practices, including boarding schools, forced relocation, endless broken treaties, “kill the Indian, save the man” policies, and forced assimilation. So it is particularly insensitive for white people to attempt to justify their/our use of Native spiritual practices when Native people themselves have often been brutally persecuted for the same.

Cultural appropriation is not an acceptable way to honor, respect, or appreciate People of Color. If you wish to honor, respect, or appreciate Black people or Black culture, then you should learn how to recognize, confront, and dismantle systematic racism instead of appropriating dreadlocks, a symbol of the wearer’s commitment to Jah Rastafari and Black resistance to racism. If you wish to honor, respect, or appreciate Native people or Native culture, learn how to listen to Native people when they identify very real problems (and how to confront them) faced by Native people today, such as astronomical suicide and alcoholism rates on reservations or the continued theft of Native lands by resource extraction companies.

Many well-intentioned and self-proclaimed anti-racists will engage in cultural appropriation in the name of “solidarity.” A prominent example of this is white pro-Palestinian activists wearing keffiyehs, Arab headscarves and symbols of Palestinian nationalism and resistance to occupation. But simply wearing a keffiyeh will not end Israel’s occupation of Palestine. There are many real, concrete steps one can take to support Palestinean liberation, such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. In addition, one must also take into account the very real climate of Islamophobia and Arab-phobia in the United States – people who are perceived as Arab and/or Muslin are treated with hostility, suspicion, and violence, and assumed to be terrorists. This is only aggravated when these people are seen wearing articles of clothing associated with Islam or Arab culture. For white people to wear keffiyehs is to wave around our/their white privilege – white people aren’t automatically assumed to be terrorists. White people wearing keffiyehs are seen as hip, fashion-forward, and worldly, whereas Arab- and Muslim-perceived people wearing keffiyehs are seen as dangerous, Others, and terrorists.

Many traditions that have been appropriated from Native people (such as sweat lodges and “medicine wheel ceremonies”) are performed by white people allegedly in the name of such lofty goals as world peace, spiritual mending, and mutual understanding. One of the things needed for world peace, spiritual mending, and mutual understanding to occur is an end to racism. But cultural appropriation is a form of racism, and as long as racism exists, there can be no world peace, spiritual mending, or mutual understanding. Many concrete steps to dismantle racism have been identified by many different people, including recognizing one’s role in perpetuating racism, confronting one’s own white privilege, and attacking the systems of oppression that give white people privilege in the first place. None of these steps require cultural appropriation. And it is unacceptable for white people’s healing to come at the expense of the cultural survival of People of Color.

Cultural appropriation of ceremonies and objects removes and distorts these traditions and things from their original contexts and into gross caricatures that are a slap in the face to the original practitioners of the ceremonies, with complete disregard for the history and present day reality of oppression (usually perpetrated by white people who feel similarly entitled to all aspects of these peoples’ lands, resources, and cultures) faced by the people to whom those ceremonies belong. Cultural appropriation is insensitive and ignorant at best, and blatantly and knowingly racist at worst.

Cultural appropriation often perpetuates inaccurate stereotypes about People of Color – what most white people think they know about Native Americans often comes from inaccurate stereotypes of a monolithic culture involving teepees, sweat lodges, and dream catchers. When these inaccurate stereotypes are perpetuated, they create a mold that white people demand People of Color fit into. When People of Color don’t fit those stereotypes, they are often ridiculed, attacked, dismissed, and marginalized for not fitting into a white person’s inaccurate idea of what it means to be a Person of Color.

People of Color – including Native Americans – still exist. Often, the justification used for cultural appropriation is something along the lines of “I just love the way these people lived! It was so simple and beautiful!”, as if they’re all extinct. This tells real life People of Color that they don’t actually exist. Being told you don’t exist is extremely hurtful, and it tells white people that there is no more need for anti-racism since if People of Color don’t exist anyway, then of course they can’t possibly be oppressed.

Even if you don’t understand why it is hurtful to see various aspects of one’s culture appropriated, or you think there are worse problems that People of Color should spending their time confronting (even though it is white people’s responsibility to confront racism), it is still imperative to listen to People of Color when they identify – and call for an end to – cultural appropriation. As targets of racism, People of Color are the experts in racism, and therefore anti-racist efforts should be directed by the needs identified by People of Color.

It’s complicated

Calling each other out for appropriating other cultures (or even navigating less confrontational discussions around cultural appropriation) can be tricky. As always, it’s really important not to assume anyone’s identity. Just because someone has light skin doesn’t mean they’re white. Treating “white” as the default race is one of the many aspects of racism, and assuming that everyone with light skin is white is racist and erasing. So for example, it’s not ok for me to immediately tell a light-skinned person wearing a beaded headband that they’re appropriating Native beadwork and need to take off the headband – that person could very well be Native. That’s why it’s important to talk about this stuff. If you think someone is being appropriative, ask them about it!

Sometimes we’re invited to take part in others’ cultural traditions, by members of that culture. It is an honor to be invited to do so, but we also must remember that being invited to take part in something doesn’t give us the right to perform said activity outside of that invited context. Even if you’ve done a ton of research and know all about some tradition you find really interesting, if you are not a member of the culture that practices that tradition, you still have the potential to strip that practice of its original meaning.

Where it gets really tricky is with traditions or symbols that have roots in several different cultures. For example, dreadlocks are found in Indian, Buddhist, Rastfari, African, and Celtic culture. Most recently, dreadlocks are known as a symbol of Black resistance to racism and Rastafaris’ commitment to Jah. When white people wear dreadlocks, we/they strip dreadlocks from their symbolism of resistance to racism and a commitment to Jah. But as a general rule of thumb, it’s not appropriation if it’s from your own culture.

So what about white people of Celtic heritage who wear dreadlocks? Dreadlocks are part of their culture, but someone walking down the street would not be able to tell that some random white person with dreadlocks is Celtic. I don’t have any quick and easy answers for this, but I think that context is really really important. I live in the United States, where dreadlocks are not widely recognized as a Celtic cultural marker. All white people have the ability to strip dreadlocks of their symbolism for People of Color, regardless of our ethnicity. Does this mean that white people with Celtic heritage living in the United States should never wear dreadlocks? I don’t know. I do think it means that the decision to wear dreadlocks must be approached very carefully, and with the knowledge that one must be prepared to engage in continual conversation about what dreadlocks mean for a variety of cultures.

Further resources

Native Appropriations: www.nativeappropriations.blogspot.com

My Culture Is Not A Trend: www.mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com

Feminist Intersection: On hipsters/hippies and Native culture

Answers for White People on Hair, Appropriation, and Anti-Racist Struggle

Hipster Appropriations: www.hipsterappropriations.tumblr.com

Special thanks to Dalya.

~

This was written in the spring of 2011 in occupied coast Salish territory, Olympia, Washington.

None of the ideas in this essay are original or new. Please copy and distribute at will. Take what you want, re-format it, add to it, I don’t care.

If I’ve made glaring mistakes in this essay or you want to talk with me about cultural appropriation (or anti-oppression and anarchy in general), please get in touch: vegetablesforbreakfast@gmail.com

(A downloadable, printable PDF pamphlet of this text is available at Zine Library)

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48 responses to “Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?

  1. Very well written and thought-through! I’m going to pass this on widely! Something even for us mutt-descendants! Glad to see such quality being shown here! Keep up the good work! And i look forward to meeting some of you in person some day the next time i can get back to MN.

  2. Cultural appropriation also is occurring in cities where gentrification is rampant. Alot of gentrifiers (mainly middle-class White people in many cases) cite the cultural “authenticity” of poor areas when they move in. I actually likened the process to imperialism in a paper I wrote. I also think cultural appropriation will thrive in this neo-conservative environment we’re in, because as it was mentioned, in the name of singularity, difference gets suppressed. Great article.

  3. Pingback: Selling culture as a disposable commodity “Part 1″ « Waterside Studios

  4. Where do you draw the line about what is ok, appropriate choices, and what would be true cultural appropriation? Gawd I would never do anything so stupid as to wear an obvious imitation of a 1st Nations headdress; I know that it is highly inappropriate (I grew up close to the res in a small town where because of immigrants from India, white people had actually become the minority).

    But I grew up equally influenced by many cultures, this includes local indiginous culture; these influences are to the point that it influenced who I am today and how I express myself. My blood heritage is basically mixed Celtic (which by the way is an innappropriate term, as it is a slang that once upon a time was as insulting as calling a Mohawk an “indian”, as “celt” is derrived from the name of the first tribe the Romans encountered called the Keltoi), but the culture I grew up in was a “cultural melting pot”. I did get some intense & wierd stares from a Mohawk (I am in Mohawk territory right now) fellow at a recent rock concert I went to when he saw I had my hair braided & had feather earrings in. To be fair, there are other cultures that use feathers and braids; some of which are part of my blood heritage. Feathers are sacred to me for many reasons. However, I would never wear an eagle feather because I know it’s inappropriate. So what I want to know is where do we draw the line? What of the child who is truly growing up in a multicultural environment, who’s friends are indiginous (it happens alot in Canada) and asian; is it not ok for that child to express the cultures it is surrounded by in the child’s sense of personal expression? Where do we draw the line?

  5. I may just be guessing, but I am feeling like the author is Native. So by using the internet and writing in a newspaper format it’s clear that they are appropriating culture and they are a genocidal horrible person. If they are not just yelling these views from their longhouse/teepee/yurt/wigwam then they are clearly appropriating culture and it’s bad. I do not think this way, but those who are working to ruin racial relations sometimes do like the author has done.
    The truth of the matter, among the non-racist people, is they can be open to new ideas. Some Native American ideas are better, and should be immersed into mainstream worldwide until everyone does them. Just as how native tribes should be inspired to connect to the other tribal functions worldwide on the internet and post cultural events in the originally European idea of a newspaper. I would help defend myself and say I am engaged to a Native, but I know I will just be attacked for appropriating her culture and mixing the bloodline. One day, people will come around about this and see that if they are not trying to attack all non-natives, they can get their support. As it stands, it’s almost too scary to be in a roomful of American Natives as many feel this sort of way. The fear of being assumed to be racist or if friendly appropriating means you will continue to be left out of things by non-racist people who just want to confide that they try to be good to people. I frankly am offended when people assume I am racist or stealing their culture just because I am white. That is why I stand with South American Natives more fiercely than Northern. They are more persecuted, shot at, hated and unwelcome, but they still can find a place in their heart to accept someone who comes with respect and an interest in their way of life.
    I assure if anything in this article came across as an attack, it’s not because you are native. It’s because the concept is ignorant and offensive to those trying to work towards equality by just being good to one another and counterproductive to the point when a Native actually experiences real racism, the whites who would have cared will just ignore it believing it’s another plea to make everyone racist just because they exist.

    • Perhaps you didn’t really bother to read the text (“It generally is applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture”), but surely you can see the qualitative difference between a colonizer using, without permission (because when permission is given, it’s not appropriation), specific and even sacred cultural symbols, practices, etc. of those they colonize, and the colonized utilizing the means of communication of their colonizer (as your example), after such was forced upon them through assimilation and cultural genocide (as if indigenous people just appropriated the ways of the colonizers without having them forced upon them). Your analysis is short-sighted, shallow, ignorant, and in fact, inherently racist. Perhaps you think there’s no difference between declarations of “Red Power!” and those of “White Power!”, because you deny such inherently qualitative differences in the relations of colonizers and the colonized.

      • Who gives the permission and who can take it away? Let’s say a Cherokee Indian gives me some form of Cherokee clothing and asks me to where it every year on my birthday. Five years later,on my birthday, some Cherokee comes up to me, acts offended, and demands me to take said clothing off? Who do I tell to go pound sand? I think we can solve this delima by incorporating the very American idea of freedom and not assign rules to individuals soley based upon their ethnic background.

  6. I actually liked the definition you used in the beginning of your reply “Recovering” as it makes sense and makes me feel like it is a non racist point of view. I did read the article. There were attacks in general that did not include that small piece regarding having a cultural part given to you by the minorities instead of taking it without understanding it (however, I still believe proper research can service in place of a given accepted part. Especially in cases like Australians quoting North American Native words of wisdom when they have little contact, but are interested.”
    I might have attacked a bit too soon, but I was writing my view as someone who just interacted with people of other cultures was deemed racist because they have a dream catcher above their bed. That is how the article made me feel personally. The trying to preserve culture prevents proper growth and adaptation and all culture should be shared, evolved and evaluated.

    I think the author is silly if they feel that the people supporting a cause and wearing a middle eastern garb are offensive. They are supporting their fellow man even if it’s just from researched information and not given by hand by a brown person. For some, the cause of humanity is beyond simple color and will support in how they see fit. The author also attacks people frequently in power groups (where is my free monthly casino check and affirmative action? Who is really underprivileged. The answer is a non-minority from a dirt poor family with limited scholarship options like I myself am.)

    The article will remain an example of racist for me to show my friends forevermore unless it’s fixed heavily. Your comment however, was not racist and may put this poor article into a real thought provoking context. About 80% of my friends in my life are South American Native Americans and they don’t get too worked up about this stuff. We just share ideas as equals. We are different, but equals. In reality, I am blessed, as they do not consider me a colonista and they like when I show them the value of their own homeland, which is now my own as well.

    For me, it will still be racist to attack Caucasians. It doesn’t matter if they are the power class or not. Racism, is racism, is racism is racism and some of us are trying to work beyond this foolishness and listen to our brothers until it gets extreme and counterproductive. Then we let them know, like I am doing here.

  7. Great article. Gives a lot of food for thought on topics many don’t really consider in depth, and a new way of recognizing biases that are prevalent in the narrative we’re immersed in.

    I especially liked the last part where you admit to not having definite answers on some of these things. It struck me a couple times during the article that it’s a very fine line to try and draw between what’s disrespectful and what’s simply part of an individual’s identity, and I’m glad you mentioned that fuzziness. To me especially, the idea of labeling everyone who does a certain thing, even if it’s not of their “heritage,” as automatically appropriating it, seems too absolutist.

    Intention seems to be the most important thing, until you remember that most people who appropriate culture don’t “intend” to be disrespectful, they’re just ignorant of the impact of their actions. So yeah. It’s complicated. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be talked about.

    One thing though, in terms of constructive criticism: the line “Capitalism works best when people are not individual people with celebrated differences, but identical workers, cogs in the machine.” It’s absolutely correct that capitalism is often the driving force behind modern day appropriation (all those “secret native spiritual remedies” being sold by new-age folk make me want to break something). However this representation of capitalism is kind of off. Capitalism would collapse fairly quickly if it was true… in fact the only way capitalism actually works effectively is when differences are celebrated and individual’s thoughts and ideas are given space to grow. What you’re referring to is the efficiency boost ANY operation gets when its workers are all aligned, but it’s a short term and flimsy boost at best that doesn’t reflect the reality of true growth markets. In addition, the same could be said in ignorance of communism: what makes it easier for everyone to work the same amount and get the same out of their work than utter conformity and de-individualization?

    Just wanted to mention that in the spirit of open education. You’re probably still going to hate capitalism regardless, but at least now you’ll be better informed about it so that people won’t dismiss your arguments against it off-hand.

    Thanks again for the great article.

  8. Wow! Congratulations on a highly intellectual, well thought out, and incredibly ignorant racist article.
    When will we realize that it was not a skin color that oppressed peoples for generations, but it was a racist and supremacist mindset. I know it is hard to look beyond skin color and appearance and see that the true enemy is not the pigment of someones skin but the bigotry in someone’s mind. We are all born into this imperfect world with no fault of our own. We must learn to see that the enemy is not someones genealogy but their ideology.
    Saying that a person cannot dress or celebrate certain holidays because of the color of their skin is nothing but blatant racism. As hard as this article tries to hide and intellectualize its racism its still just that, racism. As a Christian, I cannot help to point out that Christ commands us to pray for those who persecute us and to love our enemy. I’m not trying to convert any people of different faith by quoting Christ but I’m trying to spread some wisdom. I would love to hear the wisdom others have learned in their respective religions. We cannot expect the impossible. In this case expect that people dress and act in manners that we find appropriate at all times. If we expect this we will surely live very miserable bitter lives, but we must learn to forgive and love everyone regardless of their race. If I can quote the apostle Paul, that there here is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in God. The sort of otherness talk that this article engages in, as good as its intentions may be, can only lead to more hate.

  9. If it bothers you so much perhaps you are harboring too much hate. I’m white but if I saw a person of color “appropriating” something from “my” culture and it bothered me, I would be wise to questions if my reasons stem from racism. I mean, if white people using things from other cultures bothers you so much, it may be because you hate white people.

  10. I think cultural appropriation is great if it’s done with the same constraints as the original cultural article. I.e. “I wear moccasins on my feet, but I don’t wear a chief’s headdress, because as far as I know any person can wear moccasins but not any person should wear a headdress”. Dressing up as Pocahontas for Halloween may indicate “Native Americans are fictional” which is totally different from learning traditional dances and wearing traditional clothing while doing so, which definitely indicates “Native Americans are fact”. This article had no insight into how “white” is not a race, that people who are “white” come from many nations and have their own cultural heritage and they also face the challenge of being displaced from this heritage. It could be this displacement that draws them to appropriate more intact cultural articles. Rastas promoting black power shouldn’t forbid “white people”‘s involvement unless you don’t think groups can work together. What about smoking marijuana? What about Italian dishes that contain tomatoes? Are they marginalizing South Americans? Should “white” North Americans be barred from eating tomatoes? Is it worse to eat them in novel ways or is it worse to appropriate traditional ways? What about eating bagels? At the Jewish Bagel shop the history was given that they were originally for teething babies. I’m not Jewish or a baby but I sure love bagels. You can build cultural respect without throwing out everything you like for breakfast, all your clothes, and all your favourite songs. You can just try to do things respectfully when you are treading on other cultures and enjoy them for their beauty and insight, and their delicious, delicious foods.

    • please actually read the article, or re-read it if you already did but somehow completely missed the point. i would simply point out the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. the former is, just as it says, an appropriation, meaning taking what is not offered, or worse, taking even after explicit requests or demands to not do so. but generally, what is most problematic is the appropriation of culturally specific sacred items, typically appropriated by dominating, colonizing, and enslaving (etc.) cultures, and are appropriated from those they dominate, colonize, and enslave. in this context, the appropriation is also part of cultural erasure and assimilation, which is part of cultural genocide.

      • Yes, what is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange? “Taking what is not offered” frankly makes no sense. Who consents for a culture? Who has the right to speak for an entire culture? Must every culture elect a leader to speak on their behalf? What if the people don’t agree? The comparison that has been restated above, but you seem to not understand is that no one has the exclusive right to a specific idea, icon, ritual, aesthetic standard or behavior. Even if I got everyone who was culturally English to agree that the use of that language by anyone else is not okay and that they would like everyone to stop using it (the exact definition you just gave of cultural appropriation) THAT WOULD NOT MEAN that everyone else is somehow offending or appropriating their culture by speaking English. I will comment below with a further list of similar situations that simply make no sense. The point here is that (1) No one has the right to consent for an entire culture, and (2) Even if an entire culture agreed to something, they do not have the right to claim things that are not property such as ideas and behaviors.

  11. Whoa. No. Goodness no. Sorry, this is wrong and shortsighted on so many levels. A subject worthy of thought to be sure, but I am on the opposite side of this issue from this article. I can’t even deal with it all at once. Let’s take it piece by piece. First let’s see what their definition of “cultural appropriation” includes (1&2). Next let’s try to understand the good that has come from cultural appropriation by this definition (3). Finally we’ll look at how frightening this static view of culture is (4).
    (1) So here’s the definition “Cultural appropriation is the adoption or theft of icons, rituals, aesthetic standards, and behavior from one culture or subculture by another.” What does that include? Icons: so you can’t use the peace sign unless you are British, unless you’re Egyptian you can’t use the scales of justice, and as a Greek, I don’t think I’m going to let you use pi anymore (I guess you won’t be finding the area of a circle anytime soon). Rituals: you can’t celebrate April Fool’s Day unless you are French, Valentine’s day or Halloween unless you are pagan (technically appropriated by the Catholic church), you know what, unless you’re Roman, stop using the modern calendar altogether. But Terry, those are all white ritual appropriated by white people so it’s okay. First, don’t forget that not long ago, Mediterranean people were not considered white. Second, don’t worry it gets better.

    (2) Aesthetic standards, I take this to mean general styles of art created by a culture. Well by that rule no one can have jazz as it’s a medley of multiple cultures, coincidentally so is Rock and Roll, and most any music made in the last century. These combined traditional African rhythms with western instruments. Either culture using it would be an appropriation of some other culture. I could list more types of art that only could arise through the appropriation (by this definition) of cultures, but I think you get the point. I consider the last inclusion especially disconcerting: behavior. You are telling me that if I come from a culture that is hostile and violent, I discover a culture that is calm and peaceful I CANNOT try to adopt their ways because that would be appropriation?!? I can’t do Yoga because I’m not Indian, you can’t engage in Socratic discussion unless you are Greek, and no one can really do science unless they’re French (Descartes and the scientific method).

    (3) I could offer a very strong attack on the excessive use of hyperbole present in this article and the comparison of a white person wearing a headdress to GENOCIDE which does nothing but diminish the importance of actual genocides that are taking place in the world today. However I feel that I have been negative enough for these posts. Let’s look at the good things that have come from “cultural appropriation” by your definition. Beyond all of the above mentioned icons, rituals, aesthetic standards and behaviors, let me add: understanding. By trying on the cultures of others we come to better understand them. It is through living next to and becoming immersed in other cultures that we learn to appreciate them and they learn to appreciate ours. We do not mine them to extract “culture” for some financial profit but rather we take spiritual and philosophical pleasure in the sharing and acceptance of the ways of others. We are forced to step outside our small world and see what other believe. We learn about others by walking a mile in their culture.

    (4) Finally what I find most concerning about this article is its treatment of cultures as static entities that cannot change and cannot intermingle. This seems to me to be just blatantly incorrect. Let me explain this with the primary example in the article: “Native” peoples. There are currently more than 560 Native American tribes in the U.S. To lump all of these together seems to signify that cultures can meld and change as time goes on. It surely wouldn’t be cultural appropriation to take something from ones’ own culture. We in the US exist in a melding for cultures from all over the world formed into one American Culture. If you are taking from another aspect of American culture, then are you truly appropriating another culture? Can I count Socrates as part of my culture if my ancestors actually came from Sparta instead of Athens? I cannot see a clear distinction. One way or another this article seems to get a lot of things wrong and include way too much in its definition of cultural appropriation.

    • Thank you, and a thousand times yes.

    • I am actually flabbergasted at your flimsy excuses to argue that its appropriate for people to adopt Native American icons if they are part of the ‘melting pot’ of North American culture. Seriously?! Of course cultures can intermingle but some things are sacred to different cultures – and Urban Outfitters calling items of clothing ‘navajo’ is not because of their appreciation for cultural exchange. You’re looking at a North American context here (which is limiting because cultural appropriation takes place in Europe too) People from the Med may have been looked down upon at one point, so were Irish people, but ultimately we have been disseminated into North American culture. Our traditional forms of ritual (I refer to Catholicism here) have lost their relevance somewhat in mainstream N. American culture. The representation of Native Peoples on film, television has always been based on negative stereotyping, perpetuating the myth that Native heritage is backward looking – why then can a white person sail in and adopt symbols of their heritage because ultimately, they’re an acceptable, peace loving white person, who are part of the race who pillaged their land, culture and people. Ridiculous statement. Check your privilege.

  12. Singleness of purpose goes a long way if you want to draw in listeners. You had me until you decided to throw in the Palestinian issue. They are separate culture, separate religious customs, separate period. Why pit Native cultures against Israelis? They seem to resemble each other more culturally and historically than those who wish to drive them into the sea?

    • Uh, WOW: “those who wish to drive them into the sea” – that is one hell of a way to reduce an entire culture into a monolith…you do realise the majority of Palestinians do not wish to drive all Israeli Jews into the sea, right? You do also realise, I hope, that this is just hasbara rhetoric from the Israeli governing elite to maintain western financial and ideological support? And, please, the Palestinian case, with the theft of their land, being gradually forced into ghettos, the racial segregation, the denial of access to healthcare and education and the institutionalised racism of the Israeli state much closer resemble the colonisation faced by American Indians and First Nations peoples than anything faced by Israelis (I guess you haven’t noticed, but they’re the ones gaining land every year).

      Please also note that Israeli culture has only existed for about 65 years, there is really not much to appropriate! Otherwise Israeli “culture” is a melting pot of a number of different Jewish cultures, such as Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi etc and appropriated Arab culture (look at pretty much any Israeli menu and you will see such “traditional” dishes as tabouleh and falafel) and of course the government is a driving force behind making the IDF, compulsory service and militarism a key component to the culture, which both reinforces Israeli Jewish unity by creating a somewhat universal cultural experience and rites of passage into adulthood, and further others and oppresses the Palestinian population.

  13. I find it a little ironic that this piece ended on the note that it did. I was just having a facebook conversation about this the other day. I’m from Seattle, where people are very sensitive to political correctness, and try very hard not to use offensive speech. However, Seattle is also a very white culture dominant city. Minority culture populations generally live to the south of Seattle, where white people generally do not live. There is a white Seattle, and an extremely diverse south Seattle – they very rarely converge.

    My frustration however, stems from being placed in the white box. It probably has to do with others’ sensitivity over appropriation, though I haven’t heard anyone use that term outright. Sometimes an artifact or style is pleasing on an aesthetic level. Or maybe you go to a street fair and buy a beaded headband that was hand made by a native women – if you’re a white girl and wear it, then technically you fall under the appropriation category.

    I want to be a sensitive, listening person who is aware of her privilege and can maybe use it from time to time to help speak up and act in an anti-racist way. But I also refuse to only do white things. Dress white, act white, speak white. There is a value to defining normative behavior for certain groups of people – white versus people of color – but also I think taken too far that sort of delineation is no longer helpful. If I’m put in the white box and you’re put in the black box, how likely is it that true friendship, reciprocity, exchange, and dialog will be possible? Also, to move into the next century, not only do we need to examine the root and cause of white privilege and dismantle it, but we also can’t continue to say that people can only behave relative to the norms of their ancestry and street address.

    This is a global society fueled by cross-pollination, and I feel very grateful to be born in this time where I can be exposed to so many different value systems and ways of understanding the world. I think at the end of the day it all comes down to the intention of the heart, and opening your ears to someone else’s story. Relating to each other can produce understanding and relationship. With the addition of hard-earned trust, maybe eventually solidarity can form.

    On the note of gentrification – I get it. I’ve seen it. But there are ways of living as a white middle-class person in a diverse neighborhood that are still respectful and inclusive. The problem with gentrification is that a lot of those housing structures encourage isolation. They are tall, they don’t offer much of a yard, but they do have garages. This allows the inhabitants to drive to and from home, and makes it so that if they are outside, they’re behind a tall fence and don’t need to talk to their neighbors. But if you as a white person move into an existing structure, such as an older, run-down home, and you talk to your neighbors, and you hang out at local coffee shops and dialog with people, then I hardly think you’ll be considered guilty of gentrification.

  14. LOL. That pic is totally everyone at Coachella.

  15. I also am sickened when so many non-Indian people take sacred and holy Indian ceremonies, like the sundance and sweatlodge, and practice them openly (and usually for a profit) and never think to support Indian causes today. When I have a desire to sweat, I always make sure the leader is a Native sundancer, and I observe the customs of the particular sweat. I have done support work for many Native causes in the past, and I have observed the tendency of the ‘white man’ to want to manage or control instead of just being a part of or encouraging and supporting Indian people to lead.

  16. Pingback: Articles: Week of 9/9/2013 | TFA Nashville Diversity Group

  17. How Far Back Should We Go To Right All The Injustices of the World?

    It’s a good thing that everyone belonging to a cultural minority have exactly the same thoughts and opinions, otherwise, how would you be able to write an article like this? I mean, it’s not like human culture as a whole has conquered, assimilated, remixed, borrowed, and improved upon ideas between thousands of different groups of people for tens of thousands of years. I’m sure that native peoples never fought with one another or borrowed cultural practices from one another before The Evil White People came. And there were never sub-cultures of White People that had their icons and practices desecrated and stolen, because all White People belong to one group of White People that are full of Privilege and Dominance.

    How do you think languages evolve? How do you think religions and cultures come into being in the first place? You’re painting too broad a stroke here. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ‘cultural appropriation’, except that it makes you feel guilty about something you have absolutely no control over. You want to rail against capitalism and opportunistic, inappropriate cultural commodities? That’s totally fine. We should all have a problem with plastic headdresses and oversized leprechaun hats. But not for the reasons you’re pointing out.

    As other commenters have pointed out, what do you do about Native people who make and sell their own culture’s symbols and artifacts to anyone who wishes to purchase it? Do you not support their business because it’s furthering systemic cultural appropriation? Do you buy their products, but then put them in a display case and then read many books about the products so that you can “understand”, but not trespass on their cultural heritage?

    How can you, as a casual observer, possibly understand the context of each and every instance of what you deem cultural appropriation? You can’t: and you admitted it yourself.

    It seems like you have a poorly identified problem that also has no solution. What does your ideal society even look like? If we fixed all these problems, how would that America look? What’s your goal? Who gets to decide how things “should” be? Is there a compromise that anyone can be totally happy with? That’s totally fair to all parties? Should we let all our decisions be made with a historical context? If so, how far back in history should we be going?

    We don’t live in the past, we live in the present. This is how cultures have mixed and evolved and become new cultures for thousands of years. You weren’t around when Natives were being forced into praying towns and marched to their deaths. That’s not your burden. There is no solution other than gradual assimilation into one national culture, which is how ALL cultures originated. It’s a multiple-century long process. Cultures will change and mix together, old practices and beliefs will die out or be changed into something new. This isn’t inherently bad, and there really isn’t anything that can be done to stop it.

    Just be a good person, be patient, be open, be understanding, and be kind. That’s all you have to do. Stop being mad at history and society for something you have no control over. Do the best with what you have now, because there are no time machines, and there is no perfect and just state for living things.

  18. This article has a number of problems in it. First, it actually misunderstands what a Kuffiyeh is…The Kuffiyeh symbolizes Palestinian resistance to illegal occupation and it isn’t exclusively an ethno-national marker. Also, the issue isn’t white US citizens who are wearing the Kuffiyeh but that the state of Israel appropriated the Kuffiyeh in attempts to be more Semitic and recast the Kuffiyeh in the colors of the Israeli flag and used as a fashion. Anyone who is sympathetic to the liberation of Palestine and the Palestinians plight for freedom can wear the Kuffiyeh. That’s not to say Arab-phobia and Islamophobia don’t exist, but those are different issues that don’t have to do with white privilege in the US.

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  20. Pingback: Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Apropriation? | Warrior Soaring Spirit

  21. Pingback: Cultral Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation? | Warrior Soaring Spirit

  22. Reblogged this on A Continued Journey of Self-Discovery. and commented:
    A crash course on culture appropriation and its deleterious effects.

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  24. What about people of the pagan religion who use sweat lodges as part of their religious practice? The sweat lodge does not inherently belong to the First Nations; people all over Europe (East to West), the Baltics, and Scandinavia have used steam and sweat lodges for various purposes for centuries. Where do you think the idea of “the sauna” originated? They were steam baths, and most were used for religious purposes, some were used for medicinal/healing purposes, and some were just for getting clean and warm. The Pagans (and related European religions) have been using such structures for a very long time, completely independant of the First Nations. The easiest place would be wikipedia, but even in Google search, there’s a bunch of links to information about non-First Nations sweat lodges.

    To automatically accuse them of being appropriative is erasing of that culture, and actually pretty bigoted. It shows that you clearly haven’t done much of your own research into the accusations you’re making; while I do agree that many of your points are good, you’re falling prey to the beginnings of the behavior you’re railing against. YES, First Nations are a very large and diverse group of traditionally spiritual people who ritually and regularly use sweat lodges. HOWEVER, they (and by the language used in your article and on this site, it sounds like *you* as well) are NOT the only ones they “belong to”. YES, the use of traditional parts of your culture by people who are uneducated, unwilling to learn, greedy, and/or treating it as a trend is appropriation. HOWEVER, what about the people who wish to educate themselves about parts of a culture in a respectful way, to learn more about that culture/its people, and/or to learn how to avoid appropriation of that culture? They do exist, and contrary to your opinion (based on how you worded your article), the number of them is not small. To lump all of them in with the first group is bigoted and culturally closed-minded. It is an isolationist’s mindset, and an isolated culture rarely moves forward (or grows).

    As a last note, I must say that I think there is something both ironic and sad about the fact that one cannot look at a subject like culture and see that skin is not at all indicative of who another person is, or where they come from. All white people are not constantly trying to oppress or appropriate, just like they are not all European, just like they are not all Christian. There is as much variation in “the White man” as there is in any other subset of human beings. We (I say we, because I am white) are not at all a homogenous group, just as other groups are not homogenous. I don’t think or claim that white cultures are blameless in the history of oppression and/or appropriation, because that is not at all true. But it is bigoted to spread blame and hate over the whole of us, like it is racist to spread stereotypes and oppression over the whole of other cultural groups.

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  26. Pingback: What’s the Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation? | Unsettling America

  27. Pingback: Inappropriate Appropriations! | WGSS 2230:

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  29. wow..nice article..thanks for sharing informations with us..:)

  30. white people are crap nobody likes you so f off ! the very people you oppress you mock stealing their beliefs . hope everyone gets together and genocides all white trash you are full of lies and Christianity is a perfect example as the lords name was never jesus Christ his name was yeshua messiach it isn’t alright to take someone else’s culture because we all know white people lie and distort the true belief and other cultures are not white mans trend to make a mockery out of it. you all are going to hell. hope your mass genocide arrives . the world would be a better place without parasites that lie and steal the very cultures of the people they dehumanize, slander, oppress, and defamate character of. now get out of north America, us aborigjnals don’t want you peasants here.

    • Hello Indigenous,
      I’d imagine you’ve been really hurt, belittled and insulted by some white individuals to express so much anger towards them. I know you’re entitled to your anger, indigenous people in North America have experienced and continue to experience extreme oppression and injustice. However, when you wish a genocide upon a group of people or call them parasites and peasants, it seems identical to the wishes and ideas and language of the colonists who oppressed the First Nations people in the first place. It also scares me because calling people names like parasite and peasant dehumanizes and defamates them which as you know does not lead anywhere good.

      Though the historical injustices of the past continue to be felt and do effect the present, but the real issue is injustice in the present. It’s us working together now. Whether you like it or not, we all just got here, and we need to work together for a fair, just, non-discriminatory,equal opportunity world in the present. I hope you know peace and happiness and justice.

  31. So I’m a Health and Physical Education Teacher and currently we are discussing bullying in a social and emotional health unit. Using the terms “gay” and the “N” word came up as being inappropriate terms to use which may offend someone passing by or sitting near the conversation. I came across this article as I am creating an assignment for my very diverse classes to present the like and dislikes of their personal cultures. Appropriations is what I was looking for to explain why so many people think that it’s “cool” to use the “N” word whether the person is black or not. However, I have to dumb this down for my 8th grade class.

  32. Pingback: Cultural Appropriation: A Brief Discussion and Overview | Anthropology Rocks

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  34. Cultural appropriation is offensive to people who experience being hated on and oppressed, and then see a member of the privileged group that hates on them and oppresses them walking around wearing one little thing from that otherwise despised culture, that was cool and fun enough to appropriate.

    Maybe it’s so hard for people to understand this anger and this argument because the real problem is not cultural mixing. Without the hate and oppression, there would be no reason to resent the cultural mixing. Maybe an article that was just about the hate and oppression would be easier for people to take in and digest. But that doesn’t mean the anger isn’t real. Of course it’s hard for the oppressor to understand the feelings of the ones they oppress, because true empathy would keep us from oppressing.

    “Oh hey, you’ve got the wrong white person! *I* am not a part of the contemporary oppression of Native Americans by the government and society of the United States; in fact, I am really your ally, as proven by the fact that I have this dream-catcher in my window.” One big reason white people, and especially young, rebellious, non-conformist, liberal white people, are so big on appropriating the cultural markers of the oppressed, is that it’s a very easy way to feel that you’ve switched sides and don’t have to feel guilty any more about doing so little to struggle for the rights of all those who are suffering right now from the institutionalized racism of American society– while we white people are all, right now, benefiting from it, whether or not we have a dream catcher on our wall. Maybe that’s one reason people find cultural appropriation so offensive; it’s often a total cop-out and evasion and make-believe. If only Native Americans could solve the whole racism problem in their lives by wearing a DeKalb cap and hanging a black velvet Elvis painting on their wall!

    You can do lots of guilt-free cultural mixing by getting to know some people from other cultures. They’re friendly! They’ll often invite you to learn and participate in all kinds of interesting new ways of cooking and dancing and making clothes and getting clean and worshiping, and they’ll sometimes even give some beautiful object that only people from their culture know how to make that way. And then if some stranger comes up to you and gives you a hard time about cultural appropriation, you can just say, “What, this? My buddy made this– he gave it to me for my birthday– got a problem with that?” You’ll feel so righteous! On the other hand, if no friendship with a member of the donor culture was involved in your acquisition of a distinctive marker of another culture, maybe you’d better admit that you live in a racist society that has succeeded in discouraging you from forming any such cross-cultural friendships, and that in fact you have engaged in a non-friendly act of cultural appropriation.

  35. Out of curiosity, what about what could be deemed as “reverse cultural appropriation”, when non-Western cultures appropriate specifically Western cultural artifacts? In particular, I am thinking about Turkish, Russian, Korean, Japanese Westerns — movies that in some way are reflecting back to the world the American Western mythos. I have a partner writing on this topic (http://seemsobvioustome.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/sukiyaki-western-django-as-a-representation-of-transcultural-identity/) and I would be curious to hear your thoughts.

  36. Pingback: Cultural Appropriation is about Power | Two Friars and a Fool

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  38. What a bunch of drivel! It sounds like the writer of this piece has never met a person outside his/her own group, and places all their attention on things that separate us. How ironic that the article is accompanied by an insulting and inflammatory depiction of young women who are apparently so stupid because all they do is drink and party. We should treat the people we meet with kindness and respect, but on one person speaks for the entire group. So I ask you, oh wise one, who’s permission do we need whenever we step outside our own ‘cultural sphere?’ I really don’t think you want that job, and I’m not sure you’re up to it.

    PEACE

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