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What is Cultural Appropriation?

Image is courtesy of Verywell Mind.

What is it?

The term “cultural appropriation” was created to better describe a relationship between the majority and minority groups in academic spaces regarding issues like colonialism, and is now acknowledged in pop culture. According to Britannica, cultural appropriation usually occurs when those belonging to the majority group take bits of pieces of a minority culture’s group and adopt them in an inappropriate and/or stereotypical way.

It is important to distinguish that learning a new language or enjoying food from another culture doesn’t constitute appropriation, but rather “appreciation”.

Cultural appropriation is unethical because it allows one to benefit from the culture they are appropriating, financially or socially, in ways that those belonging to the culture that is being appropriated cannot. It also has the potential to feed into racist stereotypes that may harm others. Cultural appropriation targets non-dominant cultures which mainly consists of minorities and racialized people, and those not belonging to that culture can participate in it.


Some might be familiar with Halloween costumes depicting racialized individuals in stereotypical means of dressing. Cultural appropriation can present a false idea of what someone’s culture can be fully represented within a stereotype. In an article by Cultural Survival, Dr. Adrienne Keene, activist and professor at Brown University and who is Cherokee, has discussed how negative stereotypes become overlooked and accepted, posing a threat to Native cultures.

“[Negative] imagery…completely disconnects from our experiences and from contemporary communities.”

- Dr. Adrienne Keene

Use of Symbols

Sacred artifacts, hairstyles, and dressing are the majority of what gets appropriated by other people. These symbols have significant meanings. Black hairstyles, which are known for their protective and aesthetic purposes in pop culture, also have historical contexts from their usage in aiding African diaspora during slavery and signifying people’s status in society. However, these hairstyles are appropriated by others not belonging to that culture frequently. In many cultures, there exist symbols that are restricted or unrestricted. It’s important to not appropriate restricted symbols, especially when one does not belong to a minority culture.

Real Consequences

Symbols like hair and tattoos have been a staple in some cultures; however, discrimination makes it difficult for people to engage with them. For example, Black hairstyles such as locks and braids have gotten Black people denied job opportunities and stopped from walking high school graduations. As a result of systemic racism, Black people cannot safely engage with their culture’s inhomogeneous spaces without being discriminated against. Therefore, someone who is non-Black wearing Black hairstyles and exempt from discrimination is a privilege, and allows the individual to engage with that aspect of Black culture without facing the real-life consequences.

In another case, cultural appropriation can take the form of stereotypical personality traits that are performed to be unacceptable, but is typical behaviour of a minority group. An example of this is minstrelsy, a form of racist entertainment.

As Verywell Mind explains, appreciating one’s culture is going to look different from appropriating, and it’s important to recognize which one someone is participating in. You might not belong to a minority culture if you weren’t raised in it or are not ethically born into it, so it’s important to understand and respect boundaries. Appreciating someone’s culture will do so in a way that pays homage to the original while also respecting boundaries. When culture is appreciated correctly, there can be a creative and fluid blend of cultures just like within many other communities.

Article Author: Idil Gure

Article Editors: Victoria Huang, Sherilyn Wen


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