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What is Cultural Appropriation?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term cultural appropriation is sometimes used to describe the act of borrowing aspects of another culture. For many people, this is a very charged issue, and passionate debates about it can be found scattered across the Internet. Some people feel that the term in and of itself is pejorative, making it difficult to discuss the very real issues associated with borrowing material from other cultures in a measured, balanced way.

You can probably think of a few examples of cultural appropriation, and chances are high that you may even have items borrowed from another culture in your own home, especially if you have traveled or participated in a foreign exchange program. Many people have works of art from other cultures in their homes, for example, such as Japanese woodblock prints or African textiles.

The exchange of art, music, textiles, fashions, beliefs, knowledge, and so forth between cultures has been going on for centuries. All ancient cultures borrowed from neighbors and trading partners, sometimes assimilating new cultural artifacts so completely that people are unaware of the true origin of these artifacts.

Some people feel that cultural appropriation of any form should be considered theft. Critics point out that cultural objects are often transferred from less developed societies to more developed societies, as for example in the case of an American tourist who collects indigenous Peruvian status. Others stress the fact that the human race has a long history of exploiting societies which are viewed as lesser, and that exploitation often involves the removal and repurposing of cultural items.

For people who find cultural appropriation offensive, the sight of an African fertility statue being used as a paperweight or a tattoo in Chinese on a European can be rather jarring. Maybe people feel that when objects are taken out of context, much of their meaning is lost, and that cultural appropriation cheapens the culture which has been “robbed.” The issue can become especially complex when people start addressing things like transcultural adoption and former colonies.

Other people feel that adopting things from other cultures is not necessarily harmful, especially when it is done in a conscious, thoughtful way. These supporters point out that cultural exchange has often been very beneficial historically, and that sharing artifacts between cultures can lead to interesting conversations and greater mutual understanding.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon268825 — On May 15, 2012

I think it's important to keep in mind that there is a huge difference between decorating one's home with statues and works of art acquired directly from another culture (for example, while traveling), and, say, buying a $16 pair of "Navajo" earrings at Urban Outfitters, or wearing a homemade feather headdress to a theme party.

By animegal — On Jun 18, 2011

@letshearit - I am not sure that borrowing objects form another culture in an act of cultural appropriation is a problem in most cases. Though, I consider taking something that is valuable from another culture, such as precious artifacts, to be outright theft.

I think that those who oppose cultural appropriation have not lived in a very multicultural place. For most of us, being exposed to a variety of cultural pieces, and participating in those cultures is the norm.

I can sit in my Asian inspired room, watching European movies, while eating Indian food and reading a book on Buddhist methodology and not bat an eye doing it.

I believe that adopting cultural icons adds value to them, and allows more people to learn about other cultures and enjoy what they have to offer.

By letshearit — On Jun 16, 2011

I find that in some cases cultural appropriation can actual be beneficial to the culture that is struggling with supporting themselves due to circumstances beyond their control.

In the case of the Canadian Inuit, their ability to hunt arctic foxes and fish was damaged due to over hunting and fishing in the northern regions of the country, which lead to extreme poverty.

For many years they had made beautiful stone carvings as a hobby to pass the time in the cold, harsh north. When a visitor from a museum spotted these works they were brought down and shown to the rest of the nation and gained huge popularity.

The Inuit began to make these cultural items in bulk for profit. Even now, Inuit artwork is a thriving business for the aboriginal people, saving them from a life of government handouts.

By SusanGard — On Jun 15, 2011

@nicky0 - Good point, but I can also see how something like a statue that's considered to be sacred being propped on someone's desk as a paperweight could be seen as offensive. I never thought of it in that way before.

By nicky0 — On Jun 15, 2011

Cultures being able to share beliefs, art and information about how they live is a good thing. Otherwise we'd all be confined to just our own lives, which would get really boring. What's the point of living in a world we can't experience or enjoy?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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