The Question of Cultural Appropriation

The newest form of political correctness floating around is called ‘cultural appropriation.’

That’s a term that’s being applied to situations where someone wears clothing or otherwise adopts the symbolism of a culture other than their own, usually in the name of ‘fashion.’ It seems to come up most often when a white woman (often a celebrity) wears feathers in her hair reminiscent of ceremonial headdresses of native peoples, or wears a sari and a bindi from India. The argument (as best as I understand it) is that by doing these things, the ‘guilty’ person is disrespecting the other culture’s symbols, cultural heritage or religion.

Now I get that there’s a big history of colonialism and oppression behind all of this. I’m not trying to say that white people get the right to trample on other cultures willy-nilly without any thought or concern for how it might affect others.

But at the same time, I just have to call bullshit on this new trend. What is now being called ‘cultural appropriation’ has been going on for thousands of years. Unless someone is adopting cultural symbols to harass, degrade or ridicule another (which of course does happen, as a recent article in Slate addresses, and which I don’t condone when it does occur), generally it is no more disrespectful—or racist—than eating rice or drinking tea.

Ever hear of Christmas? The holiday is a prime example of cultural appropriation incorporating elements from ancient Romans, Celts, the Norse and several other cultures. The planet called Jupiter was culturally appropriated from the ancient Roman religion, which previously appropriated the concept from the Greek god Zeus. The game of chess was appropriated from ancient India, and playing cards originated in China, and took more recognizable forms when the Egyptians and Persians appropriated the designs, which then were appropriated by the Italians.

The fact is, as long as there have been people on this planet, societies have interacted, and people have picked up bits of each other’s cultures and modified them to their own. Regardless of the status of the peoples—allies or enemies, traders or conquerors—you will find religions, literatures, clothing, and other elements of cultures shared between all peoples at all times in our history.

I agree that things such as ‘Indian’ Halloween costumes are akin to blackface, and are offensive because they reinforce inaccurate and unfair stereotypes, and can be a way to ridicule other people.

But borrowing styles and symbols from other cultures is different. ‘Cultural appropriation’ is how we grow, learn, adapt and prosper, and get to understand people different from ourselves. That’s how we have such amazing literature and artwork and music, a wide variety of cuisines, and yes, even interesting clothing and jewelry options.

When one group of people tells another that they cannot use or participate in certain forms of cultural expression (even when done respectfully), they aren’t ‘protecting’ those forms of expression, but instead they are building walls between the cultures. That encourages everyone—oppressed and oppressor alike—to remain divided and separate, suspicious and hateful.

So if an American (of any ethnic or religious identity) likes dressing in kimonos or practicing yoga (which inspired this article) or wearing an animal totem, don’t immediately assume that they are disrespecting another culture.

It may just mean they’re human.

Jackie Dana is a writer and historian. She hates racism and intolerance of all kinds, but also thinks some people are too easily offended these days.