What Is Cultural Appropriation?

Here's why cultural appropriation is harmful and how to avoid doing it.

Cultural appropriation means using a racial, religious, or social group's customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits without authority or right. It's taking those cultural identities and pretending they are part of your background.

In the United States, cultural appropriation looks like pop stars dressing up as Geisha girls, social media influencers donning Native American headdresses, and White people wearing cornrows, dreadlocks, or boxer braids.

The term came to use around the 1980s in academic circles to discuss problems with colonialism and disparities between minority and majority groups, according to Encyclopaedia Brittanica. By 2020, the phrase was widespread, with celebrities, politicians, and regular people being called out on social media for acts of cultural appropriation.

Here's what you need to know about cultural appropriation, why it can be harmful, and how to steer clear of it. We'll also explain the difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation and how to bridge the gap between the two.

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What Is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the practice of using or taking something from another culture without giving proper recognition or respect to that culture, Mia Moody-Ramirez, PhD, professor and chair of the department of journalism, public relations, and new media at Baylor University Waco, Texas, told Health.

But what exactly constitutes a culture? Neal Lester, PhD, founding director of the Project Humanities initiative at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., described culture as the "patterns of what has characteristically been constructed as an identity and the behaviors, language, traditions, rituals that are associated with that identity."

Where you live, your ethnicity, your race, your religion, and your lived experiences are all examples of identities that can form a culture. And because we all have such overlapping identities, we can belong to multiple cultures simultaneously.

At its core, Lester explained, cultural appropriation is "stealing something from somebody that is not you." 

For example, cultural appropriation may occur when you use or wear something that is clearly from outside your identity. And usually, the culture that is being appropriated has been or is marginalized. 

"Cultural appropriation is about power," Lester said. "It's about who has the power to steal from somebody else and not offer any consequences."

Another hallmark of cultural appropriation is that the one doing the appropriation might be financially benefiting from it without any credit or compensation given.

Cultural Appropriation Examples

Cultural appropriation includes using customs, attire, makeup, ideas, art, and language. One example that Moody-Ramirez gave is when designers have models wear cornrows.

"People have been wearing cornrows, dreadlocks for years. But when you see it on the runway, all of the sudden, it's the greatest, latest fashion, and that designer invented it," explained Moody-Ramirez.

On TikTok, people show themselves doing choreographed dances and rollerblading routines made by people of other cultures that they pass off as their creations. And those instances have been called out as examples of cultural appropriation.

Other examples of cultural appropriation include wearing a bindi to a party or talking with a "blaccent." 

"[The examples] go on and on and on, but it's ultimately about power and disrespect," noted Lester.

Why Is Cultural Appropriation Harmful?

Cultural appropriation can perpetuate stereotypes and exploit groups that are discriminated against, according to Lester.

The Native Governance Center—a Native American-led nonprofit organization that serves Native American nations—stated that cultural appropriation can also cause "confusion" for marginalized groups who want "to learn about their culture and identities."

The Native Governance Center gave an example of how the wellness industry has been appropriated. For instance, having "pricey yoga classes that emphasize fitness (rather than yoga's roots as a free, devotional practice)."

"When a practice is appropriated, we no longer understand its origins and true intent," explained the Native Governance Center.

Cultural appropriation can also have mental health effects. Stephanie Fryberg, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., has spent years studying how Native American stereotypes and logos affect Native people.

Through her research, Fryberg has found that sports mascots that culturally appropriate Native American symbols and imagery "decreased [Native American adolescents'] self-esteem, lowered the achievement-related goals they set for themselves, and diminished both their sense of community worth and belief that their community can improve itself," as Politico has reported.

Additionally, according to a study published in 2014 in the Journal of Black Psychology, cultural appropriation in the beauty industry can lead to mental health issues, particularly among people of color.

"[Black women] are told [certain looks are] not attractive in their culture. But then when it's on White women, it is depicted as being beautiful," and that can be "harmful," explained Moody-Ramirez.

How Can You Prevent Cultural Appropriation?

A good rule of thumb: Think twice before wearing a hairstyle or dancing on Instagram in a style traditionally considered part of another culture. Take a second to consider why you want to do what you're doing. Is it just to be edgy?

If you think what you're about to do would be appropriating a culture, don't do it, noted Lester. If you went ahead with something and it turned out to be cultural appropriation, you can "try to make yourself educated [so] that you don't do it again," added Lester.

You can also try to educate others about cultural appropriation. Moody-Ramirez recommended Halloween as a good time to introduce the topic, especially to children. As people dress up in different costumes, you can use the opportunity to explain why dressing up in specific cultural attire is not necessarily a good thing.

When it comes to TikTok, Moody-Ramirez said avoiding cultural appropriation can be as simple as giving credit when it's due, like shouting out the original creator in your video description and linking to their TikTok account.

"Obviously, you still have talent, but somebody else taught you how to do it, or somebody else choreographed it, or you were inspired by someone else. So that's OK if you say you were inspired by someone else—you don't have to pretend that you came up with it all on your own," explained Moody-Ramirez, adding that she compared it to citing your sources on a research paper.

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation

According to Moody-Ramirez, the opposite of cultural appropriation is cultural appreciation. Cultural appreciation is celebrating or showing respect or honor for a culture.

Cultural appreciation could look like this: You're invited to a cultural celebration. The host asks you to join in the special occasion by dressing up and shares with you what the attire means. So, it's possible to appreciate a culture without appropriating it.

A Quick Review

If you're thinking of doing something and you're not sure if it would be considered cultural appropriation, Lester gave some advice: "If there's any question whatsoever, err on the side of not doing it."

Cultural appropriation is often called out on social media, where even non-celebrity posts can go viral and damage your reputation.

"People are not sitting idly by," explained Moody-Ramirez. 

And as those who are appropriating culture begin to realize that they won't be able to get away with it, they will be less likely to do it. However, if you plan on confronting someone for cultural appropriation, Moody-Ramirez advised doing it gently from the side.

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