Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is without the consent of the originating culture, and when the appropriating group has historically oppressed members of the originating culture. Appropriation may eventually lead to the appropriating group being seen as the new face of said cultural practices. As oppressed peoples' cultures are mimicked by the dominant culture, observers may begin to primarily associate certain cultural practices with the mimicker, and not with the people to whom the practices originally belonged. This is often seen in the use by cultural outsiders of a minority, oppressed culture's symbols or other cultural elements, such as music, dance, spiritual ceremonies, modes of dress, speech and social behaviour, among other cultural expressions.
Cultural appropriation differs from acculturation or assimilation in that "appropriation" or "misappropriation" refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are taken from the minority culture by a member of the dominant culture, against the will of the people of the originating culture, and then these elements are used outside of their original cultural context. Often in the process, the original meanings of the cultural property are distorted or even desecrated. This cultural property, which may have deep meaning to the original culture, may then be reduced to "exotic" fashion by those from the dominant culture. Critics argue when this appropriation is done, the appropriator, "who does not experience that oppression is able to 'play,' temporarily, an 'exotic' other, without experience any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures."
Cultural appropriation can involve the appropriation of ideas, symbols and artefacts, 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.
Art, iconography, 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, Ph.D.
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.
At Halloween, some people buy, wear and sell Halloween costumes based on racial stereotypes. Costumes such as "Vato Loco", "Pocahottie", "Indian Warrior", or "Kung Fool" are sometimes worn by people who do not belong to the racial or ethnic group being made fun of. These costumes are generally seen as being in poor taste at best and, at worst, patently racist. Those who have dressed up this way often claim their actions are "comedic". In some cases, theme parties have been held where everyone is encouraged to dress up as stereotypes of a certain racial group. A number of these parties have been held at colleges, and at times other than Halloween, such as when white students donned blackface for Martin Luther King Day.
Religion and spirituality
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:
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.
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.
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 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 the perception of appropriation as "cultural cross-fertilization" and as something done out of admiration with no intent to harm the cultures being imitated. It is also sometimes argued that the specific term 'appropriation', which can mean theft, is misleading when applied to something like culture that is not a limited resource: unlike appropriating a physical object, others copying a cultural concept doesn't inherently deprive its original users of the use of it. For instance, John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University and contributing editor at The New Republic, has written that, "With gay white men and black women, for example, it's not as if the black women are being left without their culture after the "theft," ... 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 appropriation and mutual exchange. They argue mutual exchange happens on an "even playing field", whereas appropriation involves pieces of an oppressed culture being taken out of context by a people who have historically oppressed those they are taking from.
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- Johnson, Kjerstin (25 October 2011) "Don't Mess Up When You Dress Up: Cultural Appropriation and Costumes" at Bitch Magazine. Accessed 4 March 2015. 'Dressing up as "another culture," is racist, and an act of privilege. Not only does it lead to offensive, inaccurate, and stereotypical portrayals of other people's culture...but is also an act of appropriation in which someone who does not experience that oppression is able to "play," temporarily, an "exotic" other, without experience any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures.'
- Schneider, Arnd (2003) On ‘appropriation’. A critical reappraisal of the concept and its application in global art practices, published in Social Anthropology (2003), 11:2:215–229 Cambridge University Press
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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."
- Taliman, Valerie (1993) "Article On The 'Lakota Declaration of War'."
- Working Group on Indigenous Populations, accepted by the UN General Assembly, Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; UN Headquarters; New York City (13 September 2007).[dead link]
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- Model Minority: Chinese Tattoos / Year of the Dragon / Commodifying Buddhism
- Intellectual Property in the Dreamtime
- Declaration Of War Against Exploiters Of Lakota Spirituality