What’s the Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation?

Courtesy of Elephant Journal(Related: “Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?” and “Wanting To Be Indian“)

Jarune Uwujaren explains that there needs to be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true exchange.

From The Good Men Project

Cultural appropriation is a term that isn’t often heard in daily conversation, which means it’s inevitably misunderstood by those who feel attacked by feminists, sociologically-informed bloggers, and others who use the term.

Many a white person sporting dreadlocks or a bindi online has taken cultural appropriation to mean the policing of what white people can or can’t wear and enjoy.

Having considered their fashion choices a form of personal expression, some may feel unfairly targeted for simply dressing and acting in a way that feels comfortable for them.

The same can be said for those who find criticisms of the Harlem Shake meme and whatever it is Miley Cyrus did last month to be an obnoxious form of hipsterdom – just because something has origins in black culture, they say, doesn’t mean white artists can’t emulate and enjoy it.

And then there are people who believe that everything is cultural appropriation – from the passing around of gun powder to the worldwide popularity of tea.

They’re tired of certain forms of cultural appropriation – like models in Native American headdresses – being labeled as problematic while many of us are gorging on Chipotle burritos, doing yoga, and popping sushi into our mouths with chopsticks.

They have a point.

Where do we draw the line between “appropriate” forms of cultural exchange and more damaging patterns of cultural appropriation?

To be honest, I don’t know that there is a thin, straight line between them.

But even if the line between exchange and appropriation bends, twists, and loop-de-loops in ways it would take decades of academic thought to unpack, it has a definite starting point: Respect.

What Cultural Exchange Is Not

One of the reasons that cultural appropriation is a hard concept to grasp for so many is that Westerners are used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.

We tend to think of this as cultural exchange when really, it’s no more an exchange than pressuring your neighbors to adopt your ideals while stealing their family heirlooms.

True cultural exchange is not the process of “Here’s my culture, I’ll have some of yours” that we sometimes think it is. It’s something that should be mutual.

Just because Indian Americans wear business suits doesn’t mean all Americans own bindis and saris. Just because some black Americans straighten their hair doesn’t mean all Americans own dreadlocks.

The fact is, Western culture invites and, at times, demands assimilation. Not every culture has chosen to open itself up to being adopted by outsiders in the same way.

And there’s good reason for that.

“Ethnic” clothes and hairstyles are still stigmatized as unprofessional, “cultural” foods are treated as exotic past times, and the vernacular of people of color is ridiculed and demeaned.

So there is an unequal exchange between Western culture – an all-consuming mishmash of over-simplified and sellable foreign influences with a dash each of Coke and Pepsi – and marginalized cultures.

People of all cultures wear business suits and collared shirts to survive. But when one is of the dominant culture, adopting the clothing, food, or slang of other cultures has nothing to do with survival.

So as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.

Because for those of us who have felt forced and pressured to change the way we look, behave, and speak just to earn enough respect to stay employed and safe, our modes of self-expression are still limited.

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is consistently treated as lesser than Standard English, but people whitewash black slang and use expressions they barely understand as punch lines, or to make themselves seem cool.

People shirk “ethnic” clothes in corporate culture, but wear bastardized versions of them on Halloween.

There is no exchange, understanding, or respect in such cases – only taking.

What Cultural Exchange Can Look Like

That doesn’t mean that cultural exchange never happens, or that we can never partake in one another’s cultures. But there needs to be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true exchange.

I remember that at my sister’s wedding, the groom – who happened to be white – changed midway through the ceremony along with my sister into modern, but fairly traditional, Nigerian clothes.

Even though some family members found it amusing, there was never any undertone of the clothes being treated as a costume or “experience” for a white person to enjoy for a little bit and discard later. He was invited – both as a new family member and a guest – to engage our culture in this way.

If he had been obnoxious about it – treated it as exotic or weird or pretended he now understood what it means to be Nigerian and refused to wear Western clothes ever again – the experience would have been more appropriative.

But instead, he wore them from a place of respect.

That’s what cultural exchange can look like – engaging with a culture as a respectful and humble guest, invitation only.

Don’t overstay your welcome. Don’t pretend to be a part of the household. Don’t make yourself out to be an honored guest whom the householders should be grateful to entertain and educate for hours on end.

Don’t ask a bunch of personal questions or make light of something that’s clearly a sore spot. Just act like any polite house guest would by being attentive and knowing your boundaries.

If, instead, you try to approach another culture as a mooch, busybody, or interloper, you will be shown the door. It’s that simple.

Well, maybe not as simple when you move beyond the metaphor and into the real world. If you’re from a so-called melting pot nation, you know what’s it’s like to be a perpetual couch surfer moving through the domains of many cultures.

Where Defining Cultural Appropriation Gets Messy

Is the Asian fusion takeout I order every week culturally appropriative? Even though I’m Black, is wearing dreadlocks appropriating forms of religious expression that really don’t belong to me?

Is meditating cultural appropriation? Is Western yoga appropriation? Is eating a burrito, cosplaying, being truly fascinated by another culture, decorating with Shoji screens, or wearing a headscarf cultural appropriation?

There are so many things that have been chopped up, recolored, and tossed together to make up Western culture that even when we know things are appropriative in some way, we find them hard to let go of.

And then there are the things that have been freely shared by other cultures –Buddhism for example – that have been both respected and bastardized at different turns in the process of exchange.

At times, well-meaning people who struggle with their own appropriative behavior turn to textbooks, online comment boards, Google, and Tumblr ask boxes in search of a clear cut answer to the question, “Is this [insert pop culture thing, hairstyle, tattoo, or personal behavior here] cultural appropriation?”

That’s a question we have to educate ourselves enough to, if not answer, think critically about.

We have a responsibility to listen to people of marginalized cultures, understand as much as possible the blatant and subtle ways in which their cultures have been appropriated and exploited, and educate ourselves enough to make informed choices when it comes to engaging with people of other cultures.

So if you’re reading this and you’re tired of people giving white women wearing bindis crap for appropriating because “freedom of speech,” recognize that pointing out cultural appropriation is not personal.

This isn’t a matter of telling people what to wear. It’s a matter of telling people that they don’t wear things in a vacuum and there are many social and historical implications to treating marginalized cultures like costumes.

It’s also not a matter of ignoring “real” issues in favor of criticizing the missteps of a few hipsters, fashion magazines, or baseball teams.

Cultural appropriation is itself a real issue because it demonstrates the imbalance of power that still remains between cultures that have been colonized and the ex-colonizers.

Regardless, this is not an article asking you to over-analyze everything you do and wrack yourself with guilt.

Because honestly, no one cares about your guilt, no one cares about your hurt feelings, and no one cares about your clothes or hair when they’re pointing out cultural appropriation.

When someone’s behavior is labeled culturally appropriative, it’s usually not about that specific person being horrible and evil.

It’s about a centuries’ old pattern of taking, stealing, exploiting, and misunderstanding the history and symbols that are meaningful to people of marginalized cultures.

The intentions of the inadvertent appropriator are irrelevant in this context.

Therefore, what this article is asking you to do is educate yourself, listen, and be open to reexamining the symbols you use without thinking, the cultures you engage with without understanding, and the historical and social climate we all need to be seeing.

Post and image originally appeared at Everyday Feminism

Also read Poster Puts the Racism of the Cleveland Indians Iconography Into Context  


Jarune Uwujaren is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. A Nigerian-American recent graduate who’s stumbling towards a career in writing, Jarune can currently be found drifting around the DC metro area with a phone or a laptop nearby. When not writing for fun or profit, Jarune enjoys food, fresh air, good books, drawing, poetry, and sci-fi. Read her articles here.

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63 responses to “What’s the Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation?

  1. I think a measure of understanding and respect are also needed for appropriate cultural exchange. I work at a liquor site and for the summer we had a young man from Bulgaria working there. He commented on a tattoo one of the customers had, a symbol tied to the Norwegian Navy in World War II. The customer looked confused laughed and
    him oh it just looked really cool. My co worker was absolutely disgusted, that there would be such a lack of respect and that a person would put a symbol like that on their body without knowing is story

  2. Pingback: Cultural Exchange vs. Cultural Appropriation | Dr. Michael Anthony

  3. Reblogged this on Belief or Truth?.

  4. mildly annoyed

    While I agree that Halloween costumes portraying charicatures of cultures are in horrible taste, I take issue with the words in the image at the top of the article.

    “it’s not like your ancestors killed them all or anything”

    It’s not okay to assume that all light-skinned Americans have ancestors who were in North America through the decimation of Native American peoples and cultures. Case in point, I’m a fourth-generation American on my dad’s side, and on my mom’s side, I’m a second-generation American. My maternal grandparents were escaping the decimation of their own people, as was my dad’s family.

    Bottom line: be respectful of other cultures, and don’t assume ancestry based on the color of a person’s skin. Don’t blame me for what others have done.

    • I had the same thought when I saw the above image. I understand the intention of the wording, but I agree that it can be polarizing to assume all white people living in the US have ancestors who actually took part in the genocide of Native Americans. However, I’d caution you to not let that be the only thing you take away from this article. “Don’t blame me for what others have done” is so frequently something white people say in conversations about cultural appropriation, racism, etc as a means to dismiss other arguments. If you read the entire article, the implications of the image aren’t present; the author is not assuming the same thing. What the author IS stating is that cultural appropriation is a form of privilege: “using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.” This goes far beyond choices in Halloween costumes.

      In the case of a white person wearing a headdress, it’s extra abhorrent because this person is benefitting from a system that violently destroyed the people to whom this cultural symbol actually belongs–it’s almost like a mockery. So maybe a more appropriate way of wording the image would have been “No, it’s cool. It’s not like you’re benefitting from their genocide” or something like that. That’s probably not a very good example, but you understand what I mean–something that calls the people in the picture out on their privilege and blatant appropriation, while not implying that all white people living in the US are descended from original colonists. I think that’s what the original image is trying to do, but it’s doing so in a imperfect way.

    • THANK YOU. My ancestors also came to North America to escape genocides, and when I get the “white guilt” or “white privilege” thing, it makes me livid. My family members did not massacre Native Americans. They did not own slaves. Just because people with the same color skin as me happened to do those things does not make me guilty. Obviously I am sensitive to imbalances of power, but my family faced the same treatment and experiences in their countries. They were terrified, starved, tortured, etc. They saw their family members and friends die. They came here and worked blue collar jobs to rise up from their circumstances. My family is middle class now, not because we benefited from this false white privilege, but because my great grandparents worked two jobs each and never owned a car. My ancestors were marginalized when they came here because they had accents; in early America, Eastern Europeans and Asians were treated poorly–being white made no difference.

      And another point–you have no idea what someone’s ancestry is until you ask them. I “look white” but have other heritage. I was so sick and tired of hearing that I “couldn’t” like or use or wear certain things because I wasn’t non-white enough, that I’ve just about stopped enjoying anything from my cultural background. I have every right to my own heritage, thank you very much. So how about before we go on and on about white privilege and how white people aren’t allowed to appreciate other cultures because it’s automatically cultural appropriation (which, let’s face it, is basically what this post says at the end), why don’t we consider the fact that this attitude is grouping all white-looking people together into the same group of perpetrators. Isn’t that a little culturally insensitive? (Hint: the answer is yes.) Maybe the author needs to educate herself more on white cultures the way she says the rest of us need to focus on non-white cultures. Yes, I realize that most people don’t know anything about history. I am the first one to say that people need to stop accepting ignorance. I, however, happen to know a lot about history, and I happen to know that while white countries have had a disproportionate hand in putting other peoples under their rule and terrible treatment, white people have also been the victims of other white people in many instances–Ireland and Russia, for recent examples. This topic cannot be broken down into white and non-white, plainly and simply.

      • “…about white privilege and how white people aren’t allowed to appreciate other cultures because it’s automatically cultural appropriation (which, let’s face it, is basically what this post says at the end), why don’t we consider the fact that this attitude is grouping all white-looking people together into the same group of perpetrators.” Actually this is exactly what the post is telling us not to do. Clealy the author wants us to think critically about the issue, have respect for the cultures that get appropriated and educate ourselves. Also, read the last paragraph again and pick up a copy of the book How the Irish Became White. http://www.amazon.com/Irish-Became-White-Routledge-Classics/dp/0415963095

        “…but my family faced the same treatment and experiences in their countries.” Comparing different race’s experiences in the united states is problematic. Puerto Ricans (historically) have different experiences coming to the country as Africans did, as Jamaicans did, as the Irish did etc., yet they were all marginalized and oppressed. Similar but certainly different.

      • My ancestors were around and probably participated in warfare with Native Americans and owned slaves. I do not feel I am any more responsible for what happened than the descendants of later generations. That being said, we are all living with the aftermath. Your position in society has probably been affected by the actions of my ancestors. You aren’t off the hook because your ancestors arrived later.

    • Actually genocide is still happening in the USA. People’s children are being forcibly taken from them. Lack of basic resources that are given to the rest of America are not available on the ‘reservations.’ The ‘reservations’ are also being taken away or environmentally exploited. If you have light skin and live in the US today you are participating and benefiting from racism. Period.

      If your family moved to the US to escape genocide that is legit but the point is that you are still being read as a white person and benefiting from what this country was built on indigenous genocide and slavery of First Nation tribes & Africans. Wage slavery and the prison industrial complex insure that racism and slavery are still benefiting white people today.

      As a light skin person with indigenous heritage that did not grow up in indigenous culture, I spend time getting in touch with the culture that was stolen from me but I am not going to go around wearing a headdress. And if I did it would be specific to the tribes of my ancestors which is not the headdress pictured in this drawing which is not a universal headdress as most people seem to think it is. & Why wouldn’t I? Because by running around with a headdress tells white people that is okay to do the same because I look white. I recognize this privilege and I appreciate my culture enough to respect it and not sell it out like that.

      • chaZ d. ziNg

        This is a response to Smitty Butler and others. i agree with “d” about things being way too simplified, but at the same time i recognize that talking about “white people” in generalistic terms has its values–for Indigenous peoples, specifically. To a point. That point i want to shed light on is that by reducing human beings down into such rigid categories only ultimately perpetuates that way of doing things. It’s good to reach people who are getting severely poisoned (mentally) out there, for sure. And, yes, we “whites” are certainly privileged in some ways. What the argument misses, wholesale, tho, is that our privilege is only skin-deep. Yes, we avoid being profiled by municipal soldiers (er, cops), yes we can “jump back into” settler society “at will” (if we give up on our ideals, or figure there’s a grey area approach to that), and so on.

        And yet we are made war on in similar ways, tho different on their surfaces. Like Indigenous peoples the world over, we are ALSO herded into a reductionist, depressing mentality which makes war on who we are originally! Think about THAT one for awhile, please! We are all descendants of tribal peoples, and in EVERY GENERATION, we ALL (whites, etc. stuck in neo-colonial coercions) are forced (in myriad ways, mostly via threats and examples made against others) to reduce our hearts to certain “social roles” and practices “befitting our social status and position” and other such garbage. We are forced/coerced to give up our “childhood” spirit, visions, and desires, in order to become Normal Citizens of the realm, thanks to the Nuclearized family, compulsory schooling, and all sorts of other subtle and not-so-subtle ways to herd us into this One Way of Doing Things.

        So we are ALL under fire! And there need not be a hierarchy, except, perhaps, for the need to reach marginalized groups totally used to wielding that frame of reference.

        Whites may have surface privilege, but just under the surface, there are all sorts of psychological genocides (see John Trudell on this concept) taking place! From the reality of off-balanced elders reflecting their intensities at anyone they can pour that poison out on, to the realities of “the work world”, to how we are manipulated to take up the power-over positions of neo-colonialism (i.e. perpetuating the dogma of Edward Bernays and co; see Chomsky on that!) And, i think, no matter what class we are born into, we are not allowed to organize any truly meaningful organization (Chomsky again).

        Lets’s face it, HUMAN BEINGS are under fire hugely in a MYRIAD of ways in the context of “settler normative” conditioning and programming! No matter our alleged status. We are “played”, mined, and tooled to fit snugly into “the interests” (severely alienated) of Misery Loves Company, Incorporated. i think. Even the “most privileged” (materially, at least), have long spoken of the hollowness of that. i’m recalling Howard Hughes’ words on that one, for one. And can such “rich” white people even trust their own kids? What “greatness” do they REALLY have??? i think it’s all illusion, mixed in with material wealth (i.e. a material sanctuary to hide in, as long as you never say your truths too much) and the comfortable numbness of “quiet desperation” (see Pink Floyd commenting on “The English Way”).

        Am i making sense to any of you, yet? And the whites who do do the direct warfare against Indigenous folks of the world, they are REFLECTING their own experience of poisoning! How could it be any different?? (If we were living so great, why would we have the need to reflect out so much pain????)

        Finally, whether we’ve been directly involved in warfare against other warred-on peoples is interesting when you start to look closer at that. Because while yes, such war continues (including the continued interest in stealing Indigenous land and children) overtly, the covert war is much more insidious, and much more inclusive of settler-mentality-holders being part (and parcel) of the problem. It’s called “support” by our uncritical and unaware going along with the program. By our (whites) not seeing how deep colonization warfare extends and how our going along affects and perpetuates that warfare, we inadverdantly become a part of it! It’s like the german population during world war 2 “not knowing” about the mass killings of jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and so on. They didn’t want to know, their culture made sure they could avoid knowing, and they may’ve felt too powerless to know. So i think that dynamic is worth pursuing. Because it continues today against Indigenous peoples of the world, as well as many others who are being ideologically marginalized by our (whites) basic presumptions (and the manufacture of our consent).

      • chaZ d. ziNg

        p.s. i wish to “weigh in” on the idea that subordinating to the idea that wearing what appears to be Indigenous-type outfits and such is not ALWAYS bad, and that there may well be a strategically-challenged ideology at work that we would do well to think through carefully–beyond the pale of neo-colonial AND strategically-challenged Middle Class values.

        The underlying principle appears to be that white people HAVE TO subordinate, soldier-style, when it comes to matters of independent judgment which are “too far” beyond the pale of Understood Places to Hold, or we are collectively and always being “disrespectful”.

        Wow! What a curious emotive label to try to fasten onto every diverse voice of human being who looks or is “white”! And how convenient for the Left Wing of Neo-colonialism (not to mention the Right Wing). Keep that constituency in line, somehow!!! Don’t let some anarchy-leaning type get “too far out” of freedom/freedumb!!!

        i dare anyone to take me by the proverbial horns on this topic! You might be surprised in a way you never saw coming! (And, you might surprise me, too!)

        :}

        And, yes, i have been one whom others have attempted to lasso me with these similar sentiments. i even lost a deep friendship with one older man who had been a sort of (white) guide to me, i think because his Middle Class Values got the best of him (noting that this value system often clouds the eyes of many who think of themselves as on the leading edge of radical thinking, when in the realities of those crushed under their egos, they come off as yet another form of religious zealot.

        The thing that cannot be explored is anything outside the established rubric. My particular approach (see: http://www.angelfire.com/folk/magixnartz/flouggindex.html ) touches on Indigenous excellence (and yet i AM a descendant of tribal europe), as a way to carve out territory from What Has Been Mapped and Boxed (and rendered irrelavent by the the usual suspects –whose neo-colon job it is to sideline dissent). Some of us won’t “fit into” establishment Givens, some of us will not play those meta games. Some of us have gone “too deep” down the proverbial rabbit hole, and see the game and don’t want any part in its theater! (i.e. Left/Right “wings” of settler-normative polytricks)

        We see the excellent power of world Indigenous methods and we follow our intuitions along those lines, trying on our own creatively intelligent renditions, in ongoing processes. My own trajectory comes from extended experience in diverse journeys through the Unknown (“Where White Men Fear To Tread” –Russell Means), as well as having been invited to a certain pow wow where i came up with my initial creative angle on how i might approach war Society.

        So i thought i’d add this in, here. Expose that there are grey areas, and that those who are “caught” wearing such ways might be given a choice, rather than being attacked with something that comes off as a new angle on politically correct fascism (tho obviously not, on its surface, certainly peopled in the settler domain by lots of that ilk; which is “par for the course” in this day and age, i think). Certainly more sane for longhaul meaningful allies and friend ships, don’t you agree? To “arming our desires” –while ALSO letting the ideologically, and strategically-challenged have their space! –Just as long as they don’t get away with absolutes!

        Dissent welcome!

  5. Reblogged this on University of Broken Glass and commented:
    I find this an interesting, and important, article; it should be compulsory reading for everyone, especially everyone with white privilege. In many ways this arguments the same views I have on cultural appropriation, only does it a lot more coherent than I could ever (despite the fact that there isn’t a single semicolon in there, but I’ll get over that.) I’d also contribute that white privilege is one of those things that often prevents the equality that the author purports is needed for cutlural exchange to happen, especially with its link to colonialism and neo-colonialism.
    In blogpost that I wrote for a friend’s blog I highlight e.g. the way white izangoma are not stigmatised as backward in the same way that black izangoma are, but rather take up a sense of “bridging cultures” and take up status in the context of new age spirituality.
    A further (recent) illustration on what cultural appropriation is would be Ms Mindy, the warrior princes (who makes Xena roll over in her fictional grave, even though Xena herself engaged in her share of appropriation.) Some comments on that here:
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/19/kenya-mindy-budgor-masai-mara
    http://africasacountry.com/the-bullshit-files-mindy-budgor/
    http://tmsruge.com/voices-from-maasai-women-thoughts-on-mindy-bugdors-warrior-princess/

  6. Nobody owns cultural practices, and people dress like they want, cook what they want, play what they want.

    A Jew is cooking pasta? Horrors. How DARE the Irish guy like gefilte fish?

    It’s stupid. People do what they enjoy.

  7. I agree with Hilda. We should be able to experience others culture, and others should be able to experience our culture, in whichever manner they want. There are several perspectives at play when one is experiencing culture; a white person wearing a headdress may be doing it with good intentions, even if it’s some airheaded yuppie college student at a rave, while a Native American who happens to be watching this kid feels insulted. The free market of ideas will determine the value of every single interaction that takes place. It’s going to be very hard to engage in that liberal pipe-dream of specifically defining every single concept that exists (ex., culture can ONLY be used in this specific way). It’s very hard to place boundaries/limitations upon the desires of humanity.

  8. Reblogged this on being in orbit and commented:
    cultural exchange v cultural appropriation

  9. Reblogged this on 1400wordsorless and commented:
    A thoughtful and ever poignant piece on the delicate boundaries between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation and the respect that must be paid when engaging in exchange. It opens up an interesting discussion on the privilege of insiders vs. outsiders in the determination of what is acceptable but ultimately acknowledges there is no simple answer.

  10. "that white guy"

    I’ve got a few things to say, and know that they probably wont be heard… but here they are anyway:

    “misunderstood by those who feel attacked by feminists, sociologically-informed bloggers, and others who use the term.”

    This is part of the first sentence, and I think it demonstrates a distinct lack of communication present in the discussion of cultural advancement. From experience, I know that people who “feel attacked” by “sociologically-informed bloggers” typically know what terms like cultural appropriation mean. These people, however, don’t appreciate the poignant and often loaded language that is used towards them. Social change is a conversation, not an argument. The frustration comes when people use words like “informed” to describe themselves and pictures like the ones at the top of this thread to describe the people they are trying to enlighten.

    I also feel that we live in a global world with a lot of history that can’t be claimed by anyone. e.g: the word slave comes from middle ages, a time when europeans were enslaving the caucasian people to the east, who are now referred to as slavs (not just a coincidence, in the year 800 “slav” was just what the western whites called their eastern white neighbors and the word slowly changed into “slave” over 1.2 thousand years). and while the Roman empire took a few slaves from Africa, it was from an incredibly marginal section predominantly populated by Arabic people, black african enslavement doesn’t start until the 1400s. THIS DOESN’T MEAN SLAVS OWN THE WORD! my point is: no one owns cultural oppression. Or culture for that matter, we are all humans damnit, stop trying to draw lines in the sand and divvy up whats yours and whats mine, “oh you can have SOME dreadlocks, but I want business suits” SHUT UP. Furthermore, humor, respect, and fashion come in all shapes and forms. It may be in poor taste that someone wears a fashion that they think pays homage to slavery (but is really just offensive), but it’s no ones right to say “your culture doesn’t own that,” they can definitely say, “dude I think you could be upsetting Jeff, his family deals with that issue a lot, and you kinda look like you’re making fun of him.”

    Also please stop being offended for other people, do you want to know what is worse then “stealing their culture,” THINKING YOU KNOW THEIR CULTURE SO WELL, THAT YOU CAN SPEAK FOR EVERY SINGLE MEMBER OF THAT CULTURE. Talk about “america taking ownership of other cultures” we literally think we can speak for them and understand them so well that we know whats best for their culture.

    I don’t think anyone will read this far. if you have I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, but seriously. some things are wrong, they are shitty, and the internet is opening up a new age of cultural deterioration allowing racism and hatred to creep back into our every day lives under the guise of “anon.” we do NEED to fight this, but not as an accusation, not from “the high ground,” but as a conversation. We need to accept that we are ALL flawed, and ALL part of this earth culture, and we can’t keep drawing lines in the sand because all it does is divide us, and we’re ALL to stupid and stubborn to listen to someone who is standing on the wrong side of a damn line.

    • Yes. Absolutely.

    • Dude. Thank you. Best response and exactly my sentiments. cultural ownership is akin to theft.

    • As a child of Caribbean and Eastern European families, I have often wondered about culture blending/exchange vs. appropriation. I think this article has several good and important points to it, and while they are not perfectly expressed at all times, there are two big things we should take away: respect and thoughtfulness. You point to that in your own post.

      I don’t think the issue is necessarily white vs. minorities. I think the issue is mass culture versus marginalized culture. As someone else pointed out in the comments, because I’m Jewish and Jamaican does that mean I can only eat Gefilte fish and salt fish? Of course not. We have tons of food options available and we are not disrespecting someone else’s culture by eating them. If, on the other hand, you or I or anyone were to walk into a Mexican restaurant and start effusing praise on how wonderfully exotic the experience was and/or how it measures up to Taco Bell, things would become uncomfortable. Why? Because we’re now deliberately calling out the culture as being “other” and passing judgment on it. You don’t have to be “white” to be guilty of that.

      I’m a big culture lover. I love going to other countries or visiting with culturally different families and learning about their traditions. Those interactions, I think, are fine. If I come home and start making some of the foods I learned to make when I was wherever I was, I think that would also be fine. If I start dressing like people of that culture and acting like I knew all about it, that might not be fine. Why? I’m not 100% sure, but I think it has something to do with intent. Why am I doing this? Is it a fad to me? Is it a life change because that culture/religion just rings true to me? I think the place where it goes from exchange to appropriation is the place where I’m just trying the culture on like a new dress.

      We all come from traditions. They are our own individual traditions, practiced by our family and based off of a larger culture. In that way, we are all marginalized in comparison to whatever you might you call the thing that is our mass culture. If you enjoy my family’s or home country’s tradition and want to live your life that way, great. BUT, “trying it on for size”; taking some part of it and parading around so that other people will notice you and think, “How culturally aware he/she is” or ” How cool”; or acting like you are the guide to or the authority on any tradition makes you kind of a jerk. Or at the very least an annoyance, whether you’re “white”, “black”, or whatever else.

  11. I appreciate the concept of mutual understanding and respect between cultures, but I think this argument misunderstands the nature of cultural exchange and appropriation. History has demonstrated that when two or more cultures meet, there is often a blending of cultural artifacts, ideas, and traditions, all of which are inevitably modified by the adoptive culture. Sometimes the manner in which one culture takes on the habits of another is an example of ignorance. But sometimes it’s innocent. Some white people like the way dreadlocks look. If they choose to adopt that style that doesn’t make them Rastafarians, and they usually they aren’t trying to be. The beatniks were interested in Buddhism, but the way they understood it was filtered through a western lens. So what? Should Americans be offended that Japanese people wear jeans and adopt American English linguistic expressions? And should Japanese people be offended that some Americans are obsessed with anime? Unless one culture is antagonizing another, then what’s the harm?

    • One of the best ways that I have found to distinguish this has come from the ever evolving wikipedia article on it which says “…when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinated in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture; or, when there are other issues involved, such as a history of ethnic or racial conflict between the two groups.” -https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation

      Japan is considered to be more equivalent to the United States in terms of power. White culture harasses most other cultures in the US, really– all over the world. Like it is stated in the article, when culture is offered, it is appropriate to participate — respectfully.

      Are dreads really ‘just a hairstyle’ when Black kids are being kicked out of school for not straightening their hair? How do you think a Black Rastafarian feels when they can’t get a job with dreads and cuts there hair to assimilate but then see a white person with dreads get the same job?

      Basically it IS extremely harmful when a dominant culture takes the religious symbology of another culture especially when they then make a mockery out of it.

  12. “A Long History of Affirmative Action – For Whites

    Many middle-class white people, especially those of us from the suburbs, like to think that we got to where we are today by virtue of our merit – hard work, intelligence, pluck, and maybe a little luck. And while we may be sympathetic to the plight of others, we close down when we hear the words “affirmative action” or “racial preferences.” We worked hard, we made it on our own, the thinking goes, why don’t ‘they’? After all, the Civil Rights Act was enacted almost 40 years ago.

    What we don’t readily acknowledge is that racial preferences have a long, institutional history in this country – a white history. Here are a few ways in which government programs and practices have channeled wealth and opportunities to white people at the expense of others.” (http://academic.udayton.edu/race/04needs/affirm22.htm)

    This article goes on to give the long and storied history of how US policy has advantaged the well-being of whites in the US, GENERATIONALLY, and disadvantaged people of color GENERATIONALLY. So yes, we DO have the right to speak up for ourselves and to tell you to STOP with the white guilt and stop with the derailing and stop with the victim blaming and shaming and LISTEN to your “fellow citizens,” the very people who financed your relatives’ ability to buy homes and be protected by unions, and have the best schools, neighborhoods, and public facilities reserved for THEM. You damn well better believe we expect this one. little. thing. LISTEN!
    .

  13. It is important for people to acknowledge that cultures that are dominantly white have a history of destroying, antagonizing, exploiting, and enslaving cultures that are not dominantly white, without having to feel the need to assign or accept blame. The objective fact of this element of history is important in understanding the state of today’s cultural and racial relations. But to claim that harassment is a tenant of modern white culture is a bit of a misnomer. Members of white cultures harass others. Members of Israeli culture harass Palestinian culture and members of Palestinian culture harass Israeli culture. But one doesn’t have to marginalize other cultures in order to be fully culturally white. The same goes for other cultures who have a history of conflict between each other. We live in societies that thrive on symbolic interaction. The way in which one culture understands the symbols of another is innate. We understand the world through our own contexts and we shouldn’t blame each other so much for being susceptible to our own minds, unless such perceptions result in hate and/or violence. I acknowledge, though, that even innocent intentions sometimes need to be prudently moderated. A good example of this is the current tension between several Native American cultures and non-native cultures that have appropriated stereotypes of Native culture for sports teams. Even though the word “redskin” was invented by racist white former generations, the symbolism of the word hasn’t evolved in any way to make it acceptable in a modern context, at least that’s my opinion.

  14. captainsakonna

    So even if I personally am not the one who is kicking black people out of school or denying them jobs, I shouldn’t wear dreads? I can understand how it would seem mocking if some guy used a black person’s hairstyle as an excuse to put him down, and then showed up wearing that same hairstyle himself. But why should a person who isn’t actually committing the oppression be excluded? I agree that respect is key, but I don’t understand how it is disrespectful to adopt part of a minority culture, just because someone ELSE of the same skin tone as you is oppressing said minority culture. “How do you think a Black Rastafarian feels when they can’t get a job with dreads and cuts there hair to assimilate but then see a white person with dreads get the same job?” S/he probably feels angry at the HR department and whoever else was involved in the hiring decision … but I don’t see why s/he would be offended or hurt by the white person with dreads who got hired.

    The only rationale I can see for this position is a kind of spiteful, dog-in-the-manger attitude. “If I can’t get a job with dreads, then you shouldn’t be getting a job with dreads either … even if the forces preventing me from getting a job with dreads are not your fault.” That doesn’t strike me as a good attitude to have. There is a place for giving up a privilege to show solidarity with those who do not have it — for example, sometimes friends of a cancer patient going through chemo will shave their heads, so that the patient doesn’t have to be the only one without hair. But no one is going around lecturing all people that they should be bald, just because *some* people are forced to be bald. You may be about to say that cancer isn’t caused by any human, whereas oppression of other cultures is. But oppression of other cultures isn’t caused by ME … and I can no more stop a black child with dreadlocks from being kicked out of certain schools, than I can stop a cancer patient’s hair from falling out. So if I can’t wear dreads, why isn’t there an equal moral imperative for me to shave my head entirely?

  15. captainsakonna

    I’m also a little bemused by the way this article seems to be identifying the culture of professionalism (whether seen in school, corporations, or any other regimented environment) with white culture. Do you think white people aren’t cramped by corporate dress codes too? They may adapt with LESS difficulty, but they are still forced to give up forms of self-expression in order to survive. I would guess that clothing associated with the sub-culture known as “redneck” or “hillbilly” wouldn’t be too welcome in these professional environments, for instance.

  16. I did not “claim that harassment is a tenant of modern white culture is a bit of a misnomer.” I state a generalization of white culture in the US which is most often oppressive to other cultures and often goes into other countries and is also oppressive there. This doesn’t mean that being a white person means you are going to be oppressive. It just calls out the racism that exists in this country. Also, I did not state that people of color couldn’t be oppressive nor that lateral oppression does not exist.

    Also, there is a big difference between blame and accountability. As far as I can tell this article is asking for accountability. When people start saying “don’t blame me, I wasn’t even alive or my ancestors weren’t even here yet or my ancestors were dealing with their own genocide”; this does not allow room for individuals to be accountable to the privilege that their skin awards to them.

    Often times white people get involved in these conversations and use a lot of academic language to try and argue around the accountability process but this within itself is racism. To tell a person of color that they don’t know what racism looks like is… yep, racist. This article is getting at the root of this type of racism where white people tell people of color what racism looks like and when they are allowed to get upset. White people really shouldn’t be commenting. They should be listening to people of color talk about what affects them.

  17. Forgive me if I seem to have overstated what you’ve said. I am not, however, attempting to tell people what racism looks like. As a white person, of course my experience with cultural attitudes towards race is vastly different from those of other skin tones. Why should I presume to know the subjective experience of my black counterpart? And I’m not naive; I know that the color of my skin comes with privileges not afforded to others. A sad but true fact. I said, “It is important for people to acknowledge that cultures that are dominantly white have a history of destroying, antagonizing, exploiting, and enslaving cultures that are not dominantly white, without having to feel the need to assign or accept blame.” In other words, the same thing you said: whites can acknowledge the privilege history has bestowed upon their skin without feeling like they have to deal with blame in one way or the other. White people and people of color have different roles to play in the discourse of modern race relations, but that doesn’t mean white people can’t be a part of the conversation. And I’m still listening to anyone who wants to tell me about how racism affects them.

  18. Pingback: discussion on topic of settler appropriation of Indigenous traditional guidelines: the challenge of escaping reductionist traps | unsettling.subtle.settler.unsettlers

  19. Pingback: a response to “that white guy” on unsettling america’s blog: paradigm shift consciousness, baby! | unsettling.subtle.settler.unsettlers

  20. Pingback: Lev Chernyi challenges critical thinkers: Desire or Guilt in Liberation Movements | unsettling.subtle.settler.unsettlers

  21. Pingback: Excellent posts noted, with some commentary, re: whats-the-difference-between-cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation? | unsettling.subtle.settler.unsettlers

  22. In your article you used the word mishmash, which is actually Yiddish. Did someone who speaks Yiddish invite you to use that term? It doesn’t really matter nowadays because common Yiddish words have been incorporated into spoken American English, and as a person with ancestors who spoke Yiddish, I love hearing people who might not have grown up hearing Yiddish phrases at home say them. However, Yiddish is the language of Eastern European Jews, many of whom were slaughtered in the Holocaust and to this day experience racism worldwide, just much less so in America. Is it cultural appropriation? Yes, but it’s not offensive like dressing up as a religious Jew as a costume, as a form of mockery (which historically has been a practice in places where Jews are unwelcome, i.e. anywhere outside of most urban metropolises). It would be impossible to go around asking a sample of people from every ethnic group for their permission before using something of their culture to express oneself, but it might be best to first consider if you would be offended if someone did something comparable by mining your own cultural heritage for their own purposes.

  23. ‘Westerners are used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.’

    In French Canada in the 17th century, the Native Americans really wanted the Frenchmen’s guns, because it was technology that would help them in wars with other tribes (and the French). Rather than ‘pressing their own culture’ [guns] on the Indians, the French actually created laws banning the sale or trading of guns to Native Americans. They did this in order to retain their technological advantage, and I do not defend their actions, but this example illustrates how sometimes, Western technology and culture was not simply ‘pressed’ onto others but was desired and requested by the other culture. If we remember how the early technology of guns, the arquebus, was a Western European invention that relied on previous Chinese inventions–namely, gunpowder–the issues is further complicated. It’s far too simplistic, and ignorant of history, to say that all cultural exchange is cultural appropriation if it’s not self-conscious or ‘mutual.’ Were the Native Americans appropriating the French culture by desiring their guns, when the French did not want to give them to the Natives? Not at all. They were simply reacting to the situation they found themselves in, as many of the players were in the early years of global trade. I highly recommend the book ‘Vermeer’s Hat’ to anyone who is interested in how exactly we got to the world we’re in today: where the whole world buys cigarettes (originally a Native American tradition), drinks tea (a Chinese and Southeast-Asian tradition), and so on.

  24. Pingback: What has Halloween come to??? | The Adventures of Natasha and Nate

  25. Reblogged this on The Adventures of Natasha and Nate and commented:
    I came across this post in all the ridiculousness surrounding this year’s inappropriate racial Halloween costumes.

  26. Jesus. “Guns” are not culture, they’re technology. There’s good comments here, but that’s not one of them. Apples and oranges, man, apples and oranges.

    • Certain weapons are cultural, take the Katana which is heavy in Japanese culture. You could say the m16 after vietnam was heavily American. A headdress is a technology, one developed to show a certain rank or as a decorative item depending on the culture using it. Are tomahawks a cultural item?

  27. I’m Polish-American, which is already a problem when people assume I’m white American and not Polish. I do not see tons of non-Polish women rocking traditional head scarves and I choose not to purchase Native American inspired apparel either. What irritates me is that people seem to think theres a difference between a blonde green eyed white person rocking Native American designs and a black haired dark skin toned Filipina rocking Native American designs. There is no difference, both are wearing designs popularized in a consumeristic culture.

  28. In different contexts and perspectives we all come from, any symbol may mean wildly different things to people. Try to find out how others feel and be considerate of their feelings and experiences? Should be a given. Try to listen and be respectful of marginalized individuals when you benefit from societal priviledge? Should be a given. Live in paralyzed paranoia? Of course not. I love many aspects of multiple cultures, and I enthusiastically copy things I delight in. Usually this is received well, as people often read it as my sincere, well-meaning, if clumsy, admiration. But if I ever become aware that I may be hurting someone because of the cultural context we live in/ their perspective or context is sending a different message, then I hope my desire to be a decent person and not hurt others will guide my response. We’re all just people in a crazy, unfair world, and caring and being nice the best we can is what makes it better. It may be complex if you try to start parsing things out, but it’s not so complex when you just do your best to let that be your ruling guide for each individual interaction with your fellow humans.

  29. Reblogged this on Alright, cool man. and commented:
    Seriously great article. Wonderful example of critically thinking about an issue that is prevalent and easy to take a side on without thinking. Also, I kind of had to read this since I have a tattoo of a chicken wearing an Indian headdress.

  30. Pingback: Cultural Appropriation | Can you tell your Elbas from your elbows?

  31. This is actually something I’ve become much more aware of lately and I’m trying to be more critical about it. This was pretty helpful. However, I think if we create too much caution tape around cultures, people are going to be afraid to try and experience other cultures all together. The way it is worded of “by invitation only” makes curiosity in other cultures seem like a bad thing. I enjoy learning about different cultures, not from condescending observational standpoint, but from the perspective of the shared human experience. Plus, making me question ordering chinese food? that just seems a bit far.

  32. To the white people who are destroying everyone’s culture I just wanna say hey, knock it off guy. You just have to realize that you aren’t really allowed to do anything too cultural because you are responsible for racism. Being in a white “majority” means that you have to smile and agree to the terms of anyone who gets culturally offended. It’s science. In closing I would like to share a quote that has carried me through these years of being a guilty white person:

    “Whatever, I’ll do what I want” ~Eric Cartman

  33. I’m very white. As white as they come, through and through. My ancestors probably did own slaves and participate in early genocides. When I was a kid growing up in Ohio I was a fan of the baseball team the Cleveland Indians. I didn’t think about it being wrong then because nobody else around me did. Now I think its ridiculous. I don’t feel like I force my culture on others, I haven’t adopted any others, and I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally exploited anyone else’s. I’m just an average white guy, I wear a shirt and tie when I go to work. I don’t do it because I want everyone else to, I just do it because its normal and expected. I wouldn’t be offended if someone wore a headdress to work, but I can’t say I wouldn’t double take. I have friends of many different ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, and sexualities. I don’t really think about the fact that they are different from me, I think I just see them as people that are my friends. I am aware of the privileges awarded me simply because of the color of my skin. I’m not proud of it, I know something is fundamentally wrong there. I know others are suffering while I go about my day. And to be quite honest, I don’t know what to do about it. If by being a white person living in the United States I am participating in and benefiting from racism, how do I stop? I’m not asking maliciously or to make a point, because I agree with it to some extent, I just simply do not know.

  34. Michaela Alexander

    I completely agree with this article! I’m very thankful that someone took the time to represent these important yet rarely explained issues. I completely agree with the aspect of respect when it comes to indulging in another culture when it comes to fashion, beliefs, or dialect. I believe this is why we all have problems with “posers” or people who think it’s trendy or cool to divulge in something temporarily that is sacred to another’s culture. It is completely disrespectful and selfish to think one is entitled to be a part of some of the cultural building blocks from a culture outside their own. For example, when someone from a different culture steals a fashion from another culture it is most likely just a phase. Considering something that has so much background as just a “phase” is simply tasteless. There is a fine line of wearing something and it noticeably be considered a costume. It is in good morals to be aware of this and not over step boundaries which could offend somebody. I like how the article compares cultural exchange to a “humble guest, invitation only.” Stressing the importance of not over staying your welcome and not pretending to be a part of the household. I can relate to this growing up in a large family with six brothers and sisters. Someone always has a friend over and most of the time it’s been the same friends for years, we are all familiar with our brother and sisters friends and our home is there home. However every once in a while a new friend will come over and see the way we all treat each other and automatically think they are a part of our sacred circle. They will laugh at our inside jokes louder than we do, without any understanding. They will open the fridge and get food just because a friend of multiple years does. They will curse and use crude humor just because we jokingly do. They try on clothes without asking because they watch the other kids do it. It always rubs me the wrong way when this happens, it is disrespectful to think one fits in just because they are in the presence of our family. The respect is earned by every friend of the family and by each individual family member. When this happens I always know this is a temporary friend a “phase” and that they will not last long. Lack of respect goes hand in hand with lack of commitment. The same goes with cultural exchange, be humble and respectful. Do not boast or feel entitled just because someone opened the door to the knock, one must be invited and engage without pretending to understand.

  35. Pingback: Need a couple of topics? Some suggestions. | The unbearable lightness of writing

  36. Pingback: Take Nothing, Leave Nothing: A Guide to Cultural Interchange | Go Girl Travel Network

  37. Pingback: Colorblindness: A Solution or Erasure? | larissamalia.wordpress.com

  38. That image says everything! I’m saving it to show somebody next time they say something stupid like, “Why can’t they get over the name ‘Redskins’? It’s just a name..”

  39. I have been brought up with two cultures, one colonial based the other that I practice is an indigenous Salish. Their is very significant differences in these cultures.

    The colonial based people dress themselves in items and display them as a sign or who they are and what they have achieved, primarily they purchase the items however I have witnessed this, displays of success and wealth and their personal identity through clothing, that is considered culturally appropriate. Many people who are related to me who are not indigenous have shared themselves with my through wearing and basically showing off the item, telling me how it makes them feel good about themselves, where they purchased it, why they felt compelled to own it and this action and sharing it with people makes them feel proud of who they are.

    My Salish culture we do not express ourselves this way, the items we wear express who we are, they identify our history, our family lineage and relationships with each other. Our clothing items are hand made and specific to who we are as Salish People, in some cases, our cedar hats can be worn by all, but then other items become more specific, more refined. What I am and are not allowed to adorn myself with is based upon my family lineage, my clan and other factors. Some symbols are not mine to wear, but are other family members, they adorn themselves in their regalia and display them for us, they also have dances and songs that represent their clans, families and lineage. Although we are blood relatives that does not give me the right to wear their regalia’s or perform their dances, nor does it give them the right to wear mine. This is how we express our pride in who we are and in our families and ancestors.

    I would not take the personal and important items from people who are related to me, or any others and declare them to be my own because that would be removing items that represent their personal pride in being who they are. Also I do have my own so why would I even want to?

    Other cultural items in the Salish culture are earned for positive accomplishments, much like a gold watch is earned for retirement within the non-indigenous culture. Anyone could go out and purchase a gold watch if they earned enough money but that act alone does not make the person feel as good as receiving it as a reward for a significant accomplishment which is presented to them with ceremony and as a sign of respect from the community, family or co-workers. Items are not always just items, their are often deeper meanings behind them, individually, culturally and emotionally, so I find it best not to tread on others feelings if I don’t want people to tread on mine. And again, I do have my own, therefore it would be disrespectful and greedy for me to take anothers.

  40. Pingback: Call for Submissions: Decolonizing Witchcraft | Awakening the Horse People

  41. Pingback: What’s the Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation | Cult Frictions

  42. Pingback: Cultural Appropriation: The Breakdown | Cult Frictions

  43. i liked this blog alot but Jurune, you forgot to mention those from your own culture, people like the Nuwaubian Nation, the Washitaws and other moorish fabrications of native americans being descended from africa, egypt and china. People like Malachi York; Eliase Yenageta AKA Eliase Graywolf; Tecumseh Brown Eagle, aka Abdul Abdulla Mohammed, & James Oliver Johnson; theres alot of work to be done thats for sure!

  44. Leonardo Fibonacci

    Okay, it looks like I better change my plans about going to the powwow next weekend, ’cause I can’t find a First Nations friend to go with me and make sure I behave respectfully. It looks like I’m not really welcome at the powwow unless I have the right genetic ancestry, so maybe the Christian Fundamentalist church down the street has some space in the pews. Oh, wait – Christianity makes me feel sick whenever I encounter it. What to do…???

    It’s unfortunate that this author is only able to see cultural exploitation when white people may be interested in changing their lives. Euro-culture refugees, I call us, and it’s always interesting to see the same barriers towards meaningful engagement in another culture as are erected in white capitalist culture against people of colour.

    But you go ahead and make sure whities don’t feel welcome; you keep your ceremonies and we’ll keep our refrigerators. Carry on complaining about the systemic exclusion you suffer, even while you don’t welcome people who may be desperately wanting to change it themselves. I’m not accusing you of racism, but of failing to see the opportunities in every person who comes looking for inspiration, regardless of their ethnicity.

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