The questions you've been afraid to ask, answered.
The term "cultural appropriation" has popped up to describe everything from makeup and hairstyles to tattoos, language, and even certain wellness practices. The phrase originated in the 1980s in academic discussions of colonialism and the treatment of minority cultures. From there, it worked its way into the modern lexicon — and we're here to break things down for you.
What is the definition of cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation, also called cultural misappropriation, occurs when a person from one cultural adopts the fashion, iconography, trends, or styles from another culture. Some of the most controversial and harmful examples of cultural appropriation happen when when the culture being appropriated is one of a historically oppressed group.
What is cultural appropriation vs. appreciation? Debates rage about what differentiates cultural appropriation from cultural appreciation — some say appropriation doesn't exist because no culture is completely original and uninfluenced. Others believe musicians and designers get a pass because they are creating art that is open to discussion and interpretation.
The key to expressing appreciation rather than appropriation is to understand the culture you're borrowing from, including its history of oppression and marginalization.
How do I avoid cultural appropriation? One you've researched a culture, do you have permission to use it freely? Not exactly. While good intentions help, they don't automatically absolve you from the negatives of cultural appropriation. Before you "borrow" from a culture, ask yourself a few questions: Is what I'm doing the result of a stereotype? Am I using something sacred to another culture — a Native American headdress, a religious symbol — in a flippant or "fun" way? Am I engaging with a piece of ancient culture as if it's new? Am I forgetting to credit the source of my inspiration? If you can safely answer "no" to those questions, you will probably be able to avoid cultural appropriation. Still, proceed with caution.
What are some examples of cultural appropriation? NFL's Washington Redskins have been accused of cultural appropriation with their use of a mascot of an American Indian wearing a headdress (ditto the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Blackhawks). Some Halloween costumes, such as a "gypsy," Rastafarian, or geisha are also considered cultural appropriation — each outfit plays into stereotypes that have lead to the mistreatment or misunderstanding of a group of people.
See below for some examples of cultural appropriation and alleged cultural appropriation that have been debated in the media.
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