Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group. Specifically, the use by cultural outsiders of a minority, oppressed culture's symbols or other cultural elements. It differs from acculturation or assimilation in that cultural "appropriation" or "misappropriation" refers to the adoption of these cultural elements, taken from minority cultures by members of the dominant culture, and then using these elements outside of their original cultural context. This cultural property may be forms of dress or personal adornment, music or art, religion, language, intellectual property or social behavior, all of which may have deep cultural meaning to the original culture, but may be used as fashion by those from outside that culture.
In practice, cultural appropriation involves the appropriation of ideas, symbols, artifacts, image, sound, objects, forms or styles from other cultures, from art history, from popular culture, or other aspects of human-made visual or non-visual culture. Anthropologists have studied the process of cultural appropriation, or cultural borrowing (which includes art and urbanism), as part of cultural change and contact between different cultures.
The term "cultural appropriation" or "cultural misappropriation" usually has a negative connotation. "Appropriation" is often used to describe instances when the subject culture is a minority culture or subordinated in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture; or, when there are other issues involved, such as a history of ethnic or racial conflict.
Cultural and racial theorist George Lipsitz outlined this concept of cultural appropriation in his seminal term "strategic anti-essentialism." Strategic anti-essentialism is defined as the calculated use of a cultural form, outside of your own, to define yourself or your group. Strategic anti-essentialism can be seen in both minority cultures and majority cultures, and are not confined only to the appropriation of the other. However, Lipsitz argues, when the majority culture attempts to strategically anti-essentialize themselves by appropriating a minority culture, they must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not to perpetuate the already existing, majority vs. minority, unequal power relations.
Acts of resistance to dominant society, when members of a marginalized group take and alter aspects of dominant culture to assert their agency and resistance, is different from the usual understanding of cultural appropriation, as the power dynamic in this case is reversed. This is exemplified in the novel Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge when those who are colonized appropriate the culture of the colonizers. Another historical example were the Mods in the UK in the 1960s, working class youth who appropriated and exaggerated the highly tailored clothing of the upper middle class. Cultural appropriation in these cases are rarely, if ever, spoken of with negative connotations.
Iconography, art and adornment
A common example of cultural appropriation is the adoption of the iconography of another culture, and using it for purposes that are unintended by the original culture, or even offensive to that culture's mores. Examples include sports teams using Native American tribal names, images, or human beings as mascots; wearing jewelry or fashion with religious symbols such as the war bonnet, medicine wheel, or cross without any belief in those religions; appropriating other culture's history such as tattoos of Polynesian tribal iconography, Chinese characters, or Celtic art worn by people who have no interest in, or understanding of, their original cultural significance. When these cultural artifacts are taken from living cultures and regarded as objects that merely "look cool," or when they are mass-produced cheaply as consumer kitsch, people who venerate and wish to preserve their indigenous cultural traditions are often offended.
You are pretending to be a race that you are not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so. - Adrienne Keene, Phd.
In Australia, Aboriginal artists have discussed an "authenticity brand" to ensure consumers are aware of artworks claiming false Aboriginal significance. The movement for such a measure gained momentum after the 1999 conviction of John O'Loughlin for the fraudulent sale of works described as Aboriginal but painted by non-indigenous artists.
Historically, some of the most hotly debated cases of cultural appropriation have occurred in places where cultural exchange is the highest, such as along the trade routes in southwestern Asia and southeastern Europe. Some scholars of the Ottoman Empire and ancient Egypt argue that Ottoman and Egyptian architectural traditions have long been falsely claimed and praised as Persian or Arab, and Greco-Roman, innovations, respectively. On the other hand, when the middle-class Slovenian band Pankrti adopted the style of London punk music rooted in unemployment and other issues specific to the UK, it was seen in Yugoslavia as the spread of British culture and its adaptation to the local setting.
Religion, spirituality and mythology
People have been injured, and some have died, in fraudulent sweat lodge ceremonies performed by non-Natives. Among critics, this misappropriation and misrepresentation of Indigenous intellectual property is seen as an exploitative form of colonialism, and one step in the destruction of Indigenous cultures:
The results of this appropriation of Indigenous knowledge have led some tribes, and the United Nations General Assembly to issue several declarations on the subject:
4. We especially urge all our Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people to take action to prevent our own people from contributing to and enabling the abuse of our sacred ceremonies and spiritual practices by outsiders; for, as we all know, there are certain ones among our own people who are prostituting our spiritual ways for their own selfish gain, with no regard for the spiritual well-being of the people as a whole. 5. We assert a posture of zero-tolerance for any "white man's shaman" who rises from within our own communities to "authorize" the expropriation of our ceremonial ways by non-Indians; all such "plastic medicine men" are enemies of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people. – Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality
Article 31 1. "Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions." – Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The use of one culture's religious or cultural symbols by another culture as mascots has been criticized, whether the images in question are from from Native American or Irish cultures. A common term among the Irish for someone who appropriates or misrepresents Irish culture is Plastic Paddy.
In some cases, a culture usually viewed as the target of cultural appropriation can be accused of appropriation, particularly after colonization and an extensive period re-organization of that culture under the nation-state system. For example, the government of Ghana has been accused of cultural appropriation in adopting the Caribbean Emancipation Day and marketing it to African American tourists as an "African festival". A bindi dot when worn as a decorative item by a non-Hindu woman is often considered cultural appropriation.
Criticism of the concept
Rejection of the idea that cultural appropriation is harmful is often based on a choice to see appropriation as "cultural cross-fertilization" and as something done out of admiration with no intent to harm the cultures being imitated. For instance, John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia university and contributing editor at The New Republic, has written that, "The idea that when we imitate something we are seeking to replace it rather than join it is weak. ... Every language in the world is shot through with words and grammatical patterns from other languages—that is, signs of people in the past doing what we would call 'appropriating.'" Critics argue this analysis omits the issue of colonialism, context, and the difference between cultural exchange that happens on an "even playing field", and pieces of an oppressed culture taken out of context by a people who have historically oppressed those they are taking from.
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- Wernitznig, Dagmar, Europe's Indians, Indians in Europe: European Perceptions and Appropriations of Native American Cultures from Pocahontas to the Present. University Press of America, 2007: p.132. "What happens further in the Plastic Shaman's [fictitious] story is highly irritating from a perspective of cultural hegemony. The Injun elder does not only willingly share their spirituality with the white intruder but, in fact, must come to the conclusion that this intruder is as good an Indian as they are themselves. Regarding Indian spirituality, the Plastic Shaman even out-Indians the actual ones. The messianic element, which Plastic Shamanism financially draws on, is installed in the Yoda-like elder themselves. They are the ones – while melodramatically parting from their spiritual offshoot – who urge the Plastic Shaman to share their gift with the rest of the world. Thus Plastic Shamans wipe their hands clean of any megalomaniac or missionizing undertones. Licensed by the authority of an Indian elder, they now have every right to spread their wisdom, and if they make (quite more than) a buck with it, then so be it.--The neocolonial ideology attached to this scenario leaves less room for cynicism."
- Mesteth, Wilmer, et al (June 10, 1993) "Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality." "At the Lakota Summit V, an international gathering of US and Canadian Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations, about 500 representatives from 40 different tribes and bands of the Lakota unanimously passed a "Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality." The following declaration was unanimously passed."
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- Declaration Of War Against Exploiters Of Lakota Spirituality