What is cultural appropriation and why is it problematic?
- Definition: To take parts (symbols, artifacts, dress, words, practices, etc.) from a culture that is not their own. This can happen in a variety of forms but often around Halloween it involves wearing ‘costumes’ that rely on specific cultural signifies.
- Dressing up as an ethnicity, race, or culture that is not your own is very problematic.
- A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.
That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic.
It is also not the same as assimilation, when marginalized people adopt elements of a dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t.
Some say, for instance, that non-Western people who wear jeans and Indigenous people who speak English are taking from dominant cultures, too. But, marginalized groups don’t have the power to decide if they’d prefer to stick with their customs or try on the dominant culture’s traditions just for fun.
In other words, context matters.
Which means it’s not about saying that you, as an individual, are a bad person if you appropriate someone else’s culture. It’s a complicated issue that includes our histories, our current state of affairs, and our future, as we act to eliminate oppression, instead of perpetuating it.
Cultural appropriation is a double edged sword. When cultural artifacts or symbols are reproduced or used as substitutes for existing culture it can be detrimental to those who belong to that culture.