What is Cultural Appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is “appropriating” or borrowing elements of one cultural group by a different cultural group. This term has a negative connotation when mainstream culture adopts elements of a minority culture.
Historically, there has been a power imbalance between the dominant White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture and marginalized cultures such as, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Americans, etc. Colonization has allowed for the dominant culture to be understood in society. While many marginalized cultural groups still struggle to be accurately recognized in society.
With cultural appropriation, the dominant culture feels that they can borrow elements of a culture without understanding the culture’s history, experience or traditions. The cultural elements that are borrowed (or taken without permission) from an ethnic culture could be forms of dress, music, art, religion, language, social behavior, or other forms or styles of culture. As a result, the culture is simplified and misrepresented in society. With cultural appropriation, dominant groups continue exploiting marginalized groups and the power imbalance continues.
What are Some Examples of Cultural Appropriation?
The following are some examples of how cultural elements can be used by people who may have no interest in understanding the cultural significance behind the element (e.g., bindi, henna) they are adopting.
When Hollywood celebrities wear dots (or bindis) on their forehead because “it is cool or sexy” rather than understanding why they are worn.
When women use henna (or mehndi) to decorate their hands because it is “exotic” rather as a meaningful way to celebrate cultural traditions and ceremonies.
How Can We Avoid Cultural Appropriation?
When cultural appropriation happens, marginalized groups are offended by the way their culture is being represented in society. They wish to preserve their cultural traditions. They also wish people had a better understanding of their culture and what those cultural elements mean for them.
There has been some debate about what is cultural appropriation and what is not.
For example, some Asian Indians have posited that the bindi is not an example of cultural appropriation because many Asian Indians can’t tell you what it means. While other Asian Indians believe that people should quit wearing them as fashion accessories because people are merely wearing them to be trend setters.
It is important to remember that the origin of the bindi does come from a culture that needs to be acknowledged. It does have historical, cultural and religious meaning and significance. When society knows about a culture’s histories and traditions, they are playing an active role in moving society forward and towards greater acceptance for that culture.
Culture is always evolving. Today it is important to embrace the multicultural world that we live in. Historically, cultural appropriation was due to this power imbalance based on not acknowledging or knowing about a culture. Racism and discrimination against Asian Indian “Hindoos” and their cultural elements also played a significant role in misrepresenting the Indian culture. For example, in the 1980s Asian Indians who wore a bindi were targeted by a racist group known as the “Dot Busters.” They were told to “go back to their country” because the dominant, mainstream culture resented them for being in America. However, today, mainstream society has taken the same and used it to look “cool” or “sexy” in the media (e.g., Selena Gomez) and disregarded the cultural significance of the bindi.
However, what if, today, borrowing elements of a culture was giving voice to a culture? What if the people who were borrowing elements of a culture learned about the discrimination this group has faced in the past and learned more about a culture’s histories and traditions? This would work to decrease the power imbalance in society. While culture is obviously more complicated and nuanced than a basic understanding of one element, such as a bindi—this is still a step in the right direction.
To avoid cultural appropriation, we should learn about the diverse cultures that exist today. Don’t just borrow elements of a culture because “it is cool” or “exotic” but learn about the culture first and then decide if it is an element that makes sense to use in your life. Do you know why Asian Indians wear dots or bindis? Do you wear the bindi to remind yourself to pay attention to your thoughts, words, and deeds? If you can gain knowledge about the culture and perhaps use the cultural element in the way that it was intended, you will be able to give voice to a culture that for years has been misrepresented by society and the media.
Through the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) portion of this site, we hope to strategically essentialize cultures. Strategic essentialism is strategically pointing out elements of a culture so that the culture has a clear group identity in society. When people don’t talk about a culture, that culture becomes represented by stereotypes that permeate our society. If it cannot be named (e.g., bindi) it will remain unheard. By talking about the various elements of a culture, our hope is to develop a more accurate understanding of culture in society. With this understanding, parents and children can begin to contribute to a more meaningful dialogue in society.
By Amita Roy Shah, Ed.D.