What Is Cultural Appropriation? Here's Why the Practice Is So Harmful—and How You Can Avoid Doing It
Cultural appropriation is a term that you've probably been hearing more recently. As influencers wear accessories to music festivals, as your friends go to parties in costumes, and as celebrities post videos of themselves talking in accents, they might be called out for cultural appropriation. But what exactly is cultural appropriation? Here's what you need to know.
What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is the practice of using or taking something from another culture without giving proper recognition or respect to that culture, Mia Moody-Ramirez, PhD, professor and chair of the Baylor University department of journalism, public relations, and new media, tells Health.
But what exactly constitutes a culture? Neal Lester, PhD, founding director of Arizona State University's programming initiative Project Humanities, describes culture as the "patterns of what has characteristically been constructed as an identity and the behaviors, language, traditions, rituals that are associated with that identity." Where you live, your ethnicity, your race, your religion, and your lived experiences are all examples of identities that can form a culture. And because we all have such overlapping identities, we can belong to multiple cultures at the same time.
At it's very core, Lester explains, cultural appropriation is "stealing something from somebody that is not you"—when you use or wear something that is clearly from outside your identity, for example.
Usually, the culture that is being appropriated has been or is marginalized. "Cultural appropriation is about power," Lester says. "It's about who has the power to steal from somebody else and not offer any consequences."
Another hallmark of cultural appropriation is that the one who is doing the appropriating might be financially benefiting from it without any credit or compensation given.
Cultural appropriation examples
Cultural appropriation includes appropriating customs, attire, makeup, ideas, art, and language. One example that Moody-Ramirez gives is when designers have models wear cornrows. "People have been wearing cornrows, dreadlocks for years, but when you see it on the runway, all of the sudden it's the greatest, latest fashion and that designer invented it," she explains.
On TikTok, people will show themselves doing choreographed dances and rollerblading routines made by people of other cultures that they pass off as their own creations, and this has been called out as cultural appropriation.
Other examples of cultural appropriation include wearing a bindi to a party or talking with a "blaccent." "[The examples] go on and on and on, but it's ultimately about power and disrespect," Lester says.
Why is cultural appropriation harmful?
Cultural appropriation can perpetuate stereotypes and exploit groups that are discriminated against, according to Lester.
The Native Governance Center—a Native-led nonprofit organization that serves Native nations—believes that cultural appropriation can also cause "confusion" for marginalized groups who want "to learn about their culture and identities." The Center gives the example of how the wellness industry has been appropriated—for instance, having "pricey yoga classes that emphasize fitness (rather than yoga's roots as a free, devotional practice)." "When a practice is appropriated, we no longer understand its origins and true intent," the Center explains.
Cultural appropriation can also have mental health effects. Stephanie Fryberg, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has spent years studying how Native stereotypes and logos affect Native Americans. Through her research, she has found that sports mascots that culturally appropriate Native American symbols and imagery "decreased [Native American teens'] self-esteem, lowered the achievement-related goals they set for themselves, and diminished both their sense of community worth and belief that their community can improve itself," as Politico has reported.
Studies have shown that cultural appropriation in beauty can lead to mental health issues as well, particularly among women of color, according to Moody-Ramirez. "[Black women] are told [certain looks are] not attractive in their culture, but then when it's on white women, it is depicted as being beautiful," and that can be "harmful," she says.
How can you prevent cultural appropriation?
A good rule of thumb: think twice before wearing a hairstyle or dancing on Instagram in a style that's traditionally considered part of another culture. Take a second to consider why you want to do what you're doing—is it just to be edgy? If you think what you're about to do would be appropriating a culture, don't do it, Lester says. If you went ahead with something and it turned out to be cultural appropriation, he says that you can "try to make yourself educated [so] that you don't do it again."
You can also try to educate others about cultural appropriation. Moody-Ramirez recommends Halloween as a good time to first introduce the topic, especially to children. As people dress up in different costumes, it can be a way into explaining why dressing up in certain cultural attire is not necessarily a good thing.
When it comes to TikTok, Moody-Ramirez says avoiding cultural appropriation can be as simple as giving credit when it's due, like shouting out the original creator in your video description and linking to their TikTok account. "Obviously you still have talent, but somebody else taught you how to do it, or somebody else choreographed it, or you were inspired by someone else. So that's OK if you say you were inspired by someone else—you don't have to pretend that you came up with it all on your own," she says. She compares it to citing your sources on a research paper.
Part of the reason why you're seeing cultural appropriation talked about more lately is because people are getting called out for it, Moody-Ramirez explains. "People are not sitting idly by," she says. And as those are appropriating culture begin to realize that they won't be able to get away with it, they're going to be less likely to do it. If you plan on confronting someone for cultural appropriation, Moody-Ramirez suggests doing it gently from the side.
Cultural appropriation vs cultural appreciation
The opposite of cultural appropriation is cultural appreciation—which means to celebrate or show respect or honor for a culture, according to Moody-Ramirez. That could look like this: You're invited to a cultural celebration, and the host asks you to join in the special occasion by dressing up and shares with you what the attire actually means. So it is possible to appreciate a culture without appropriating it.
But if you're thinking of doing something and you're not sure if it would be considered cultural appropriation, Lester gives this advice: "If there's any question whatsoever, err on the side of not doing it."
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