Appropriating Culture

I’m going to be honest with you: I’ve heard the term “cultural appropriation” just short of a million times and I’m still not exactly sure what it means. I have a good idea of it, but I’ve definitely found myself nodding my head in response when asked “You know what I mean?” when really, I don’t. So let’s learn.

Despite the constant debate over the legitimacy of Wikipedia, I thought it had the best definition of cultural appropriation after doing my Internet-searching: cultural appropriation is a sociological concept which views the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as a largely negative phenomenon. In other words, cultural appropriation is when someone adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own. The worst part is that cultural appropriation almost always occurs by members of a dominant culture who are taking elements of a culture who has been oppressed by them.


The number one thing that drives cultural appropriation: the economy (surprise, right?). Capitalism has made customs and items from various cultures, specifically Indigenous and POC (people of color) cultures, a form of profit. The first thing that comes to mind for me is people who attend music festivals, like Coachella, decked out in bindis, henna tattoos, Ohm
symbols and Native American headdresses. This can be known as the “hipster” look that retailers often try to advertise in hopes that consumers, mostly the youths of America, will give in to.

From what I’ve seen on the Internet and heard in conversation, a lot cases of cultural appropriation through capitalism occur during Halloween. You can’t go to a Halloween party without seeing someone dressed in a headdress as a Native American, a sombrero as a Mexican or a fez as a Sultan. Not only are adults dressing up in these costumes, but you can find a lot of these costumes made for children as well. We are influencing the children of America in ways that we may not realize.

Let it be noted that there is a difference between cultural appropriation and what can be known as cultural exchange. A cultural exchange is an intentional, mutual sharing of a culture’s symbols and customs. In this article from Everyday Feminism, something caught my attention: “using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.” “Ethnic” and “cultural” symbols such as food, clothing and hairstyles are often demeaned and ridiculed when displayed by members of that culture. However, when members of dominant culture take on symbols from these cultures, it is as seen as self-expression. To me, that is the most ridiculous double standard I have ever heard of. How absurd is it that marginalized cultures have to take on the standards of the dominant culture in order to survive, and anything the dominant culture does is seen as “self-expression”?

Cultural appropriation can be a very blurred and sometimes subjective concept, but there are definitely some obvious actions many take part in that can and should be stopped. Where do you see signs of cultural appropriation? Where do you think the line is between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange?

One thought on “Appropriating Culture

  1. I really like how you mention Cultural Exchange. Many people seem to not understand the difference between Exchange and Appropriation, and thus act/dress/ etc. in ways that they normally would not if they simply knew the implications it had.


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