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Cultural appropriation is a sociological concept which views the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as a largely negative phenomenon. Generally, an assumption that the culture being borrowed from is also being oppressed by the culture doing the borrowing is prerequisite to the concept. This view of cultural borrowing is controversial, both in academic circles, and in general society. According to proponents of the concept of cultural appropriation, such cultural borrowings are problematic for a variety of reasons, ranging from group identity, and questions of cultural oppression, to claims of intellectual property rights.
According to proponents of the theory, cultural appropriation differs from acculturation or assimilation in that the "appropriation" or "misappropriation" refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of the dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context - sometimes even against the expressed, stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture. Often, in the process, the original meaning of these cultural elements is distorted; such uses can be viewed as disrespected by members of the originating culture, or even as a form of desecration . Cultural elements, which may have deep meaning to the original culture, can be reduced to "exotic" fashion by those from the dominant culture. When this is done, the imitator, "who does not experience that oppression is able to 'play,' temporarily, an 'exotic' other, without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures."
In North America, concepts of cultural appropriation are particularly prominent in Native American studies, and sometimes in studies of Black (American) culture. It is also current in certain circles of fashion criticism.
The term "cultural appropriation" or "cultural misappropriation" usually has a negative connotation. It is generally used to describe instances when the subject culture is a minority culture or is subordinated in social, political, economic, or military status to the dominant culture; or, when there are other issues involved, such as a history of ethnic or racial conflict.
Cultural appropriation can involve the use of ideas, symbols and artifacts, or other aspects of human-made visual or non-visual culture. Anthropologists study the various processes of cultural borrowing, "appropriation", and cultural exchange (which includes art and urbanism), as part of cultural evolution and contact between different cultures.
Cultural appropriation may eventually lead to the imitating group being seen as the new face of said cultural practices. As minority cultures are imitated by the dominant culture, observers may begin to falsely associate certain cultural practices with the imitating culture, and not with the people who originated them. This is often seen in cultural outsiders' use of an 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, notably when these elements are trivialized and used for fashion, rather than respected within their original cultural context. Opponents of the theory generally dispute that cultural borrowing can be negative, and cite the value of the free exchange of ideas, in a free society.
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 is not confined only to the use of the other. However, Lipsitz argues, when the majority culture attempts to strategically anti-essentialize itself by appropriating a minority culture, it 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.
According to this view, acts of resistance to a dominant society, when undertaken by persons belonging to subordinate groups (i.e. when members of a marginalized community mimic and alter aspects of a dominant culture to assert their agency and resistance), are excepted from the usual understanding of cultural appropriation, because the power dynamic is reversed. This is exemplified in the novel Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge when those who are colonized imitate the culture of the colonizers. A historical example is the emergence of Mods in the UK, in the late 1950s and early 1960s; largely working class youth imitated and exaggerated the highly tailored clothing styles, past and present, of the upper middle class and re-purposed iconic British symbols like the Union Jack and the Royal Air Force's rondel. In such cases, the borrowing and re-contextualization of cultural elements can also be termed as "cultural appropriation", however this is usage is usually not intended to suggest any 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; mimicking iconography from another 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 revered cultural artifacts are copied 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 have been criticized 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 misuse 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 use 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.
While the history of colonization and marginalization is not unique to the Americas, the practice of deriving sports team names, imagery, and mascots from indigenous peoples is a significant phenomena in the United States and Canada. Cornel Pewewardy, Professor and Director of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State University, cites indigenous mascots as an example of dysconscious racism which, by placing images of Native American or First Nations people into an invented media context, continues to maintain the superiority of the dominant culture. Such practices maintain the power relationship between the dominant culture and the indigenous culture, and can be seen as a form of cultural imperialism.
Such practices are seen as particularly harmful in schools and universities, which have a stated purpose of promoting ethnic diversity and inclusion. In recognition of the responsibility of higher education to eliminate behaviors that creates a hostile environment for education, in 2005 the NCAA initiated a policy against "hostile and abusive" names and mascots that led to the change of many derived from Native American culture, with the exception of those that established an agreement with particular tribes for the use of their specific names. Other schools retain their names because they were founded for the education of Native Americans, and continue to have a significant number of indigenous students. The trend towards the elimination of indigenous names and mascots in local schools has been steady, with two thirds having been eliminated over the past 50 years according to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).
In other former colonies in Asia, Africa and South America, the adoption of indigenous names for majority indigenous teams is also found. There are team names derived from non-indigenous peoples, such as the Boston Celtics, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Minnesota Vikings, however rather than being appropriations, these names were chosen by groups to represent themselves.
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".
For some members of the South-Asian community, the wearing of a bindi dot as a decorative item, by a non-Hindu, or more broadly, by a woman who is not South Asian, is considered cultural appropriation.
The use of henna-dye for skin decoration (i.e.: Mehndi), either in specific styles, or "in gerneral" is also claimed as cultural appropriation, by some members of communities with a history of this style of decoration; such as Arabs, South Asians, and North Africans.
Criticism of the concept
Critics of the idea of cultural appropriation dispute it on various grounds; from dismissal of the validity of the entire theory, to critiques of its detailed terms and concepts. Rejection is often based on the opposing view, that cultural borrowing and cross-fertilization as a generally positive thing, and as something which is usually done out of admiration, and with no intent to harm, the cultures being imitated. It is also argued that the specific term "appropriation," which can mean theft, is misleading when applied to something like culture that is not seen by all as a limited resource: unlike appropriating a physical object, others imitating an idea taken from one group's culture don't inherently deprive that originating group of its use. 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.'"
Proponents of cultural appropriation theory argue these analyses omit the issues of colonialism, context, and the difference between appropriation and mutual exchange. They argue that 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, and who lack the cultural context to properly understand, respect, or utilize these elements.
- Appropriation (music)
- Civilizing mission
- Cultural appropriation in the fashion industry
- Cultural diffusion
- Cultural diversity
- Cultural imperialism
- Native Americans in German popular culture
- Native American hobbyism in Germany
- Noble savage
- Plastic shaman
- Recuperation (sociology)
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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."
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- A Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation by Katie J.M. Baker
- Chinese Tattoos, Year of the Dragon, and Commodifying Buddhism in Model Minority
- Cultural Appropriation and the Arts Review of James O. Young's work in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
- Declaration Of War Against Exploiters Of Lakota Spirituality
- Intellectual Property in the Dreamtime
- Intellectual Property Law and Indigenous Peoples: Adapting Copyright Law to the Needs of a Global Community by Megan M. Carpenter for the Yale Human Rights and Development Journal
- No More War Bonnets at Glastonbury Music Festival from the Lakota Law Project
- Northern-sparked ‘ReMatriate’ campaign takes on cultural appropriation by Meagan Wohlberg
- Who Owns Culture? Authenticity and Appropriation in American Law (archived here) by Susan Scafidi