What is culture appropriation?

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7 Things You Might Not Realize Are Cultural Appropriation That Are

If you’re looking for a hard line on what constitutes cultural appropriation what does not, I unfortunately don’t have the answers you seek. When we look at examples of cultural appropriation, there comes a point where lines get blurry. Cultural appreciation and cultural exchange are vital parts of any culture. Borrowing is not inherently bad. However, it becomes a problem when “appreciation” becomes fetishization, when “exchange” is one-sided, or when cultures are reduced to a single stereotype. Cultural appropriation is complicated, which is all the more reason we need to be talking about it.

Dr. Kelly H. Chong, professor and chairperson in the department of sociology at the University of Kansas, spoke to Bustle over email about what cultural appropriation is and the consequences it can have. Dr. Chong defines cultural appropriation as, “The adoption, often unacknowledged or inappropriate, of the ideas, practices, customs, and cultural identity markers of one society or group by members of another group or society that typically has greater privilege or power.” In fashion, for example, cultural appropriation, as explained by actor and activist Amandla Stenberg, “occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.”

The consequences of cultural appropriation can have insidious implications regardless of the intentions of the appropriator. “(Mis)Appropriation of cultural elements of marginalized groups by the dominant groups (without the consent of the groups from which the cultural elements are being “borrowed”) often misrepresents and distorts the original meaning of these elements, exoticizes, simplifies, and commodifies them for display and consumption by the mainstream public,” Dr. Chong states, “thereby perpetuating the harmful stereotypes of the marginalized groups.” In other words, cultural appropriation can become more clearly harmful when a “trend” takes from a minority culture and deems that trend more societally acceptable when the majority culture adopts it.

In 2017, the owners of a Portland burrito cart were criticized for cultural appropriation after a profile of the pair reveal some dubious origins for their tortilla recipes. While the women ended up reverse engineering a tortilla recipe of their own, portions of the interview where the women talked about “peeking into the windows of every kitchen” was what struck some as appropriative. In a piece for Mic, author Jamilah King states, “The problem, of course, is that it’s unclear whether the Mexican women who handed over their recipes ever got anything in return. And now those same recipes are being sold as a delicacy in Portland.” The food cart is now closed, which some speculate is due to the backlash from claims of cultural appropriation.

When it comes to pop culture, artists like Katy Perry have been criticized for cultural appropriation. However, cultural appropriation isn’t necessarily limited to people in the public eye. Here are seven examples of things most of us have likely encountered that can constitute as harmful cultural appropriation.

1. “Authentic” Food and Appropriation

There is a contentious and confusing history with food and cultural appropriation. Last year, a piece on “how you should be eating pho” received criticism because it featured a white chef’s own take on the Vietnamese dish. In a piece for Everyday Feminism, author Maisha Z. Johnson says, “Recent transplants to the write Yelp reviews in search of ‘authentic Mexican food’ without the ‘sketchy neighborhoods’ — which usually happen to be what they call neighborhoods with higher numbers of people of color.”

Eating and enjoying food from another culture is not inherently appropriative or wrong. Cuisine often exemplifies cultural exchange as its best. However, in instances where someone of the dominant culture is profiting off of the customs and culture of a nondominant culture, without the occurrence of any sort of cultural (or monetary) exchange, it gets into dicey territory. Exotifying and commercializing food of another culture, thus removing it of it cultural history, can also lead to people reducing entire communities into a monolithic cuisine. As Rachel Kuo writes for Everyday Feminism, “when people think culture can seemingly be understood with a bite of food, that’s where it gets problematic.”

2. Using a “Blaccent”

Music and cultural appropriation go way, way back. It’s frankly fairly easy to find examples of artists using cultures outside their own for the sake of achieving an “aesthetic.” From Katy Perry and geishas to Miley Cyrus and twerking, cherry picking parts of another culture and ultimately diluting and profiting off of them is cultural appropriation at its most clear. It’s seen in the way Elvis danced and heard in the way Iggy Azalea speaks. As author Carvell Wallace writes in a piece on Meghan Trainor’s “blaccent” for MTV News, “What does it mean that Meghan Trainor’s voice is, technically, an approximated black one that comes from a white body?”

The problem often lies in the fact that, whether it is the artist’s intention or not, certain looks and sounds and “aesthetics” are automatically deemed more palatable by society when displayed on or by someone who is white. In the examples mentioned above, it’s celebrating black or Asian culture minus the presence of black or Asian people.

3. Chopsticks In Hair As A Celebration of “Asian Culture”

In addition to this stereotyping Asian culture, it’s also culturally inaccurate. Hair sticks, used in many countries, are not the same as chopsticks. Some have likened using chopsticks as a hair accessory to putting a fork in your updo. As Emma Roberts learned during the 2015 Met Gala, chopsticks as a means to celebrate Asian culture are both culturally inaccurate and reducing Asian culture to a singular stereotype.

4. Bindis, Headdresses, And Other Music Festival Trends

Cultural appropriation at music festivals like Coachella can be seen in decorative bindis, headdresses, henna, and other accessories deemed “exotic” or trendy. This is another example of cherry picking parts of a culture, thus leaving them devoid of their original intention.

Let’s look specifically at Native American headdresses as a “trendy accessory.” In addition to reducing Native American cultures, of which there are hundreds, to a single stereotype, this is removing all context for why headdresses are significant. It also just seems very on-the-nose given other things that have been stolen from Native Americans. For instance, America.

5. Looks That “Borrow” Black Hairstyles

From baby hairs and box braids worn by white models on the runway to tutorials for how to achieve afros with white hair, black culture is often appropriated in the name of fashion. The primary problem lies in the fact while black women receive cultural repercussions, like being fired from their job, for wearing dreadlocks or braids, women who aren’t black can sport the same hairstyle and be praised for being “cool and edgy.” As Zeba Blay writes in this piece for HuffPost, “White women are able to wear black hairstyles without the stigma of actually being black.”

Often used as a counterargument are black women who wear blonde weaves or straighten their hair. This, however, more often exemplifies assimilation than appropriation. In a culture where black women are penalized for their natural hair, changing it to look more like the dominant culture (in this instance, white hair) is a means for survival. As Kat Blaque states in her video on cultural appropriation, “There is no larger pressure that white people go under to assimilate into afrocentric beauty standards.”

6. Themed Parties That Exoticize Other Cultures

Conversations about cultural appropriation become the clearest around Halloween. Costumes that are examples of cultural appropriation can unfortunately be found pretty much anywhere Halloween garb is sold. To be clear: if a costume is a stereotypic portrayal of an entire demographic of people, that should be a red flag for it being appropriative. It’s virtually impossible to go dressed as entire ethnicity or culture without playing heavily into some harmful stereotypes. Additionally, year-round parties in which the theme is something stereotypically associated with a specific group of people (Looking at you, “thug” parties) goes beyond cultural appropriation in just being blatantly racist.

7. “Honoring” Other Cultures Through Stereotypic Depictions of Them

Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

True appreciation entails some level of understanding and respect. Reducing an entire race to a single stereotype is, again, more than likely just blatant racism. Simply put, cultural appropriation hurts everyone. On an individual level, it can be difficult to determine what is cultural appropriation versus cultural exchange versus appreciation. Does wanting to buy a shirt that says “pizza is my spirit animal” make you racist and insensitive to Native American people? Not inherently.

A huge part of cultural appropriation comes from the fact that we want the things we are told to want by industries and ideologies bigger than ourselves. We’re in part conditioned by popular culture as a whole to believe some things are cool and beautiful and others are are not. However, when pop culture takes parts from people who have not been historically deemed “cool and beautiful” and allows those parts to thrive through the bodies and voices of people who have been deemed “cool and beautiful,” we need to take notice.

Experts: Dr. Kelly H. Chong, professor of sociology at the University of Kansas

This post was originally published on May 30, 2017. It was updated on October 9, 2019.

Confused? Here’s A Breakdown Of What The Cultural Appropriation Of Black Music Is

Rock and Roll is another great example, while jazz improvisation, blues and R&B were the starting points for the growth of the genre, when artists such as Chuck Berry and the underrepresented Sister Rosetta Tharpe began to play around with the ideas on an electric guitar, you would never know it without going out of your way to learn music history. Elvis Presley is a classic example of someone who was influenced by black music, but reaped the benefits that many of his black influences never enjoyed. Even nowadays, I think we can all agree that rock music is considered to be a white genre, but its history isn’t acknowledged by many. It’s not like black people aren’t making rock music, they just often don’t get as much attention because of the forgotten history. If only hip-hop and R&B are considered to be “black music,” then a blog or radio show that typically features “black music” won’t include rock music into their line up. Vice versa, a black artist playing rock music may get passed over by a rock blog or radio station because, whether consciously aware of it or not, on some level it’s not “real rock” in this gatekeeper’s mind. The music industry is just as much about image as it is the music, so if an artist doesn’t fit within the stereotypical image one has of a genre or style, they can/are very easily passed over. Rock & Roll definitely has been appropriated by white people in this sense.

There are many examples and arguments I could put forth that would be enough to write a book about the appropriation of black music. However, this is just a blog post. At the end of the day, the appropriation is so rampant that we take it for granted. While we can all agree the white people that don’t acknowledge how black music influenced their writing and style are appropriators, the gray area comes in with those who do. Even if a white artists says they were influenced by a black artist, the fact that many of these black artists never enjoyed success or notoriety on the level of these influenced artists is a demonstration of the racist microaggression woven into our culture that people can’t, or refuse, to see. Furthermore, the ala cart method of using the negative stereotypes within black music as a tool for gain, and throwing them away when you’re done with them, pays no respect to black music. While not always intentional and malicious, this all still is appropriation, and an example of how ingrained racism is within our culture.

Out of Context #1: Shruthi Rajasekar on Programming with Integrity

“Out of Context” is a 10-part series that addresses the topic of cultural appropriation as it intersects with both Western European-based classical music and the broader social landscape. Commissioned by American Composers Forum and I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the goal of the series is to offer information and diverse perspectives to those seeking to acknowledge historical context, honor cultural traditions that are not their own, and expand their sphere of knowledge with awareness and respect. A culminating collection of these articles and other resources will be shared for continued learning and dialogue.

A rousing arrangement of a Black-American spiritual at the end of a choral concert. A piece by a South American composer slotted in between European symphonies purported to have “Latin-flavored rhythms.” A work by a white composer framed as an ode to a supposedly overlooked mythic figure of non-Western origin… do the details matter? After all, these are just a few of the maneuvers we have developed in Western classical concert music to “diversify” our programs.

Let me begin by saying this: I understand. I understand that your organization might be facing pressure to change your traditional concert season. I understand that you might be becoming aware of how white or male or straight or ableist or otherwise-normative your program is. I understand that you might have looked around the room one rehearsal and noticed that your ensemble looks a little different than thirty years ago. I understand.

But do you understand me?

Last year, the new music scene exploded when brave voices pointed out how white composers had appropriated and thieved the music of historically marginalized composers of color. These were not examples from history, but contemporary and ongoing actions, which made these truths particularly bitter for some to swallow. In the online arguments, I observed tenuous comments from composers and performers, afraid that they would somehow misstep.

I have always firmly believed that more music leads to greater understanding. As a child, I went with my mother, Carnatic musician Nirmala Rajasekar, to hundreds of presentations at schools, community centers, and nursing homes across America. These were different from her prestigious concerts or whirlwind tours—in these more intimate performances, she had to lay out the historical, cultural, and social contexts of her work to audiences, who were often unfamiliar and sometimes reluctant, but their subsequent transformations were always remarkable. That’s maybe why I’ve dedicated my life to using music to build compassion. I compose a variety of works, several of which explore my Indian heritage and diasporic identity. I do this to not only understand myself better, but to also foster cultural dialogue with ensembles as we collaboratively assemble a piece.

Nirmala Rajasekar–Photo courtesy www.nirmalarajasekar.com

But I am realizing that music creation approached for the wrong reasons can cement ignorance. In Western concert music, there is a long history of composers using music to evoke the “exotic” unknown, dividing humans into the categories of primitive “them” and divinely-ordained “us.” Such rhetoric is not so distant from today—what is treating an entire culture’s music as something “light,” “fun,” “encore material,” or “a discovery” but a reduction of that culture into something lesser than yours? Not only is it racist, it is also uninformed.

It is vital that we change our programs, but we need the kind of understanding that my mother fosters—now, more than ever. It might seem daunting to build an informed program of integrity, so here are some starting steps:

1. When you decide to program a specific tradition’s repertoire, first ask yourself why.

Is it to engage your ensemble, the wider community, or new audiences? Talk to people. Ask them what they might want to see in your programs, and listen as much as possible. If talking to performers in another tradition or genre, ask whether you can attend one of their events.

Is it because you’ve noticed that your current repertoire upholds problematic conventions? This is good to change, but you’ll need to make sure that you’re not seeking tokenist solutions. It is important to make space for underrepresented composers in your program, but you have to follow through with institutional change. Can you also make larger changes in the makeup of your organization? Can you diversify leadership and bring in different voices? Have you reassessed your mission?

Is it because you need something “rhythmic,” “light,” “fun,” “popular,” or “obscure” for your preexisting program? This is a problem, and your vocabulary indicates that you need to dig deeper. Examine your biases and values (e.g. what constitutes “high” art for you?) and whether you can alter these entrenched views. Then, do your research. Speak with or write to practitioners and participate in close study of the music that you’re trying to incorporate. While you must accept that you won’t become a master, invest a fraction of the energy and time you devote to your primary idiom; you can’t make any decisions about a new tradition without some degree of knowledge.

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

2. Once you’ve become familiar with the tradition you’re trying to incorporate, you can choose your repertoire.

When you’re new to a tradition, it’s hard to know what is quality. Each system of music has its particular priorities, meaning that the musical factors by which you judge aren’t necessarily transferrable to other systems. Practitioners can give you the best sources to guide your decisions and advise you on the order of your program; your Western classical “instincts” about the slotting of a piece are based on a system that prioritizes “serious” Western art music over other “frivolous” traditions.

You might also be familiar with composers or arrangers who draw inspiration from a specific tradition or idiom that is not their own, or your colleagues from within Western classical concert music might point you in this direction. If you choose this path, be very aware of the composer’s or arranger’s credentials. It is not unfair to expect them to have conducted their work and research at the highest standard. You should be sensitive about composers who are constantly being asked to “prove” themselves, but as we’ve seen recently, we composers need to do better in being transparent about our process, sharing our motivations, and revealing the moments when we’ve not known the answers in order to name the sources that helped us.

3. In approaching discussions with members of your ensemble or community, be aware that those in vulnerable positions may feel awkward or even targeted because they are accustomed to tucking themselves in to fit the dominant culture.

Rather than singling them out by saying, “Hey—I’m thinking of programming material from XYZ tradition, and you’re/you do XYZ, right?”, make it clear that you are here to listen. Share your vulnerability of being ignorant. Show that you want to learn. If there are practitioners or composers that you’re engaging for help, and you have their permission to do so, make their contact information available to your ensemble. But if you are committing to listening, you must be prepared to always have your door open. If an ensemble member comes to you the week of the concert expressing unease with your choice of repertoire, you must be willing to act: to remove it from your program, and do better in the future.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

4. In addition to communicating with practitioners, bring them into the room.

Physically inviting a practitioner in can make a huge difference in your ensemble’s work. If it is not possible, then set up video conversations between the ensemble and the practitioner(s). If the work uses text, seek ample language assistance. You and your ensemble should do your best to engage on the terms of the practitioner(s). As mentioned, musical systems have different priorities; translating their words into the terminology of Western classical music erases those important differences.

It could be special for your ensemble to have the practitioners be a part of the performance, if they are able and willing. Perhaps that means that you step aside and allow them to lead.

5. Be sure that you are providing suitable monetary compensation and verbal and printed acknowledgment for anyone aiding your process.

This is critical; it is a step that we have often overlooked in Western classical music. If you do not have the financial resources, try partnering with either grant-awarding bodies or local organizations committed to a similar mission. Perhaps a few of your workshops with the practitioners can be open to the public (if they consent) and you can collect donations from the audience—people will be interested in your process, which will connect them to the end product: your concert.

You might even consider organizing a consortium of local ensembles. Why not approach repertoire of a new tradition alongside your colleagues? Your invited practitioners will have more audiences, increasing their impact. Your community will be able to attend a series of events linked together, which will foster their aural understanding of that genre. As for you? You and your colleagues can learn together, helping each other navigate something new and pushing one another to commit.

You may be wondering: is it worth the effort, time, and resources when our ensemble could simply sight-read some arrangement and move onto other repertoire?

The extraordinary thing about a thorough approach is that you’re not only avoiding negative consequences—like disrespecting other cultures and minimizing people in your ensemble and community—you’re actively creating positive ones. You’re building a repository of information that you can use several times: instead of programming a piece from one tradition once, why not find a few pieces for the years to come? You’re building a culture of listening and learning: your audiences will want to know about your process, and by sharing it with them (via programs, via newsletters, via social media), you’re strengthening your connection. You’re reaching out to new people in your community with integrity and understanding. And if you’re an educational institution, you are demonstrating to the next generation how to be respectful, sensitive, vulnerable, and constantly humbled and awed by the world around us. What could be more fulfilling?

Thank you to friends and colleagues Lillie Harris and Sarah Baber for your recommendations.

What cultural appropriation is

The name is a bit of a mouthful, but cultural appropriation happens when a dominant culture takes things from another culture that is experiencing oppression. We know there are a lot of technical-sounding words here, so let’s break it down:

  1. A ‘dominant culture’ is the most visible and accepted culture within a particular society.
  2. ‘Oppression’ describes repeated and prolonged discrimination. It’s something that’s carried out through powerful organisations such as courts, the armed forces or schools. It’s not just one-on-one behaviour, but a form of structural discrimination, meaning it’s backed by powerful authorities. Racism, homophobia and sexism are all forms of oppression.

What cultural appropriation isn’t

Cultural exchange is different from cultural appropriation. Things like tea, gunpowder and pasta have been shared between different cultures throughout history. These ‘borrowings’ aren’t the same as cultural appropriation, because they don’t involve power. When different cultures come together on an equal footing, exchange happens. But when dominant groups take from an oppressed group, we’re dealing with appropriation.

Cultural exchange is also very different from assimilation. ‘Assimilation’ describes what happens when minority cultures are forced to adopt features from a dominant culture in order to fit in. This is different from appropriation, because it’s done to ensure survival and to avoid discrimination.

Why cultural appropriation is a problem

It continues the oppression of the non-dominant culture

When we look at a culture that’s experiencing oppression, it’s often a result of colonisation, where a dominant group has claimed ownership of the land and its people. When the dominant group continues to steal aspects of the non-dominant culture, it continues the economic oppression and disadvantage of that culture.

In Australia, there are cases where white Australian businesses have stolen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks for use on T-shirts and souvenirs. This allows the dominant culture to make money from the non-dominant culture, without benefiting the original artists.

It doesn’t give people credit for their own culture

Cultural appropriation also has a nasty habit of giving the dominant group credit for aspects of a culture that they have taken, reinforcing the power imbalance between the two groups.

For example, Kylie Jenner was credited with starting an ‘edgy’ new hair trend, while black actress Zendaya faced criticism for wearing her hair the same way. What’s interesting about this, is that Zendaya’s natural hair was seen as a negative. But Kylie Jenner, a person with no ties to black culture, was given credit for taking something that wasn’t hers.

It creates stereotypes

Cultural appropriation often adds to stereotypes faced by non-dominant cultures. The Native American chief, the Japanese geisha or the Arab sheikh can be examples of stereotypes that pop up during Halloween. When people from dominant cultures ‘dress up’ like this, it reduces something of cultural significance to a costume just so that the dominant group can have ‘a bit of fun’. It also keeps these kinds of stereotypes going. And when cultures have been oppressed, stereotypes often add to their negative experiences.

So, does this mean it’s always wrong to engage with a different culture?

Nope! There are times when it’s encouraged to try something from a different culture. Being invited to an Indian wedding where the hosts are cool with you wearing traditional clothing is not cultural appropriation. You’re invited to take part by people from that culture. So, the all-important ideas of dominance and oppression don’t exist here, which is what makes cultural appropriation a big deal in the first place.

What is the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation?

A panel of experts, including MacArthur Fellows Josh Kun and Viet Thanh Nguyen, explains the history of cultural appropriation and growing awareness in the digital era.

A white Salt Lake City teen wore a red qipao, a traditional Chinese dress, to prom last spring and shared photos of it on social media. At Milan Fashion Week last February, white models wearing the latest Gucci line marched down the runway wearing turbans in Sikh fashion.

Cultural appropriation is increasingly a topic of discussion and debate, magnified by the rise in social media.

On Thursday, panelists at a discussion hosted by the USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena shared their definitions of cultural appropriation, offered examples of it and its historical context — colonialism and genocide.

From left, Josh Kun, Aditi Mayer, Rebecca Hall, Melissa Chan and Viet Thanh Nguyen at the USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, Calif. Photo by: Michael Baker The panelists included University Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer-winning author of The Sympathizer; Josh Kun, Chair in Cross-Cultural Communication and a MacArthur Fellowship awardee, as well; Melissa Chan, a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Studies at USC Dornsife currently studying the political messages of Hong Kong martial arts films; and Aditi Mayer, a photographer and journalist who explores ties between artistic expression and social action.

The panelists said cultural appropriation raises a question of ownership on everything from food and music to clothing. Answering questions from event moderator and USC Pacific Asia Museum Assistant Curator Rebecca Hall, the panelists offered ideas about cultural appropriation for an audience of about 65 people.

“Who owns culture? Who has the power? Ownership is a term that gets thrown around. People say we own this or that as a culture,” said Nguyen, Aerol Arnold Chair of English and professor of English, American studies and ethnicity, and comparative literature at USC Dornsife. “People are not just getting upset over a song or a dress. It becomes manifest in these outrageous incidents that dominate the news.”

Author, artist, curator and journalist Kun, who is the director of the School of Communication, noted that one other framework also determines appropriation: capitalism.

“Those encounters and those dominant marginal encounters and the removal or theft or extraction happen because those things become marketed or commodified in our culture. It has financial gain attached to it. It’s what we might call racial capitalism.”

Cultural appropriation and appreciation: Social media’s impact

Mayer said that social media has elevated cultural appropriation as an issue, both in positive and negative ways. While users are highlighting culture by sharing photos and thoughts about art, fashion, food and music, they also are subject to scrutiny if they appropriate items or traditions from other cultures.

“We can call people out when they are behind the keyboard,” Mayer said, noting that social media users were quick to criticize Gucci for the use of Sikh turbans.

“The internet is also this space where people see themselves differently with culture,” said Chan. “You can see this cross-cultural interaction across the internet, but a lot of important information gets stripped out as well.”

Chan, who raised the issue of the teen wearing a qipao to prom, said that some people may ignorantly appropriate another culture’s art or fashion, but they should be responsible for doing the research. Otherwise, the display is insensitive and offensive.

Selma Holo, interim director of the museum, noted that the Pasadena building in which the museum is located is a 1924 Chinese Qing Dynasty-inspired mansion that has been “appropriated” for purposes of displaying Asian Pacific art collections and enhancing scholarship for faculty and students at USC.

Holo, professor of art history at USC Dornsife and director of the USC Fisher Museum of Art, told the audience that the famous French tale The Little Prince ends with an important message that indicates how to become more culturally sensitive.

“You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed,” the prince says.

19 September 2019

Country: Brazil

by: Sofia Ferreira Santos

Brazilian singer Anitta sparked an international debate when she released a music video for her song Vai Malandra in late 2017. Some praised the singer for showcasing Afro-Brazilian and favela (historically black, often poor and underserved neighbourhoods) culture to the wider international public, as she sported a dark tan and long braids while wearing a bikini made out of black-tape, a style commonly used by favela residents to sunbathe on the roof tops. However, many were offended by her use of these symbols to lucratively promote her song and image–even though she grew up in a favela, herself.

Anitta hit back at the 373 million viewers, claiming that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist in a country where “everyone is a little bit black.” It was not the first time a white or mixed Brazilian celebrity was accused of appropriating Afro-Brazilian culture for Instagram shots or video aesthetic. But, unlike in the West, where the boundary appears clearer, in a mixed-race country like Brazil where everyone really is “a little bit black,” it is difficult to establish clear boundaries around race or agree on a singular narrative when it comes to cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation has been a hot topic all over the world, and social media has made it easier for the debate to cross borders. However, Brazil’s cultural and historical context makes the debate more complicated than it is in the West. In some ways, Anitta’s statement isn’t wrong: many Brazilians do lie in a grey area of several generations of mixed racial identity, which becomes particularly confusing when it comes to what they can and can’t do. Because of this, conversations about race and topics like cultural appropriation are often silenced in the mainstream Brazilian media, as opposed to being explored and unpacked.

As a mixed Brazilian living in the UK, it’s easy to notice the difference in media narratives between the UK and Brazil surrounding debates about ‘wokeness’. Whereas UK media debates from both sides of the spectrum, with some outlets rejecting the concept and some denunciating its offenders, the presence of this debate in Brazilian media is almost non-existent. Though the dust is brushed off every now and then when a white celebrity sports an Afro hairstyle or has their tan one shade too dark, the general consensus is that we shouldn’t talk about race. Instead of hiding from the debate and its complexities, Brazil’s many mixed identities would benefit from talking about and establishing an open conversation about race and cultural appropriation. But to do so, we need to create our own definition of these issues – one which isn’t based on Western ideas about race.

Being the last country in Latin America to abolish slavery, abolition in Brazil resulted in millions of displaced African and Brazilian-born enslaved people having to create their own communities – the favelas – and rediscover their African heritage in a new country. It also led to something Europeans named the ‘negro problem’: there were now millions of unemployed and uneducated people colonials could no longer exploit. Worst of all in their eyes: they were all black. From this ‘problem’, the ideas of branqueamento (whitening) and mestiçagem (race-mixing) were born. Europeans and Brazilian-born whites decided the only way to erase this blackness was through mixing with Africans and black Brazilians – they eradicated laws banning mixed-relationships and marriage, which created the wide, Brazilian ethnic diversity that we see today.

As a result, being ‘mixed’ in Brazil can mean a variety of different things – particularly since most Brazilians now come from a long line of ‘mixed’ relatives. In Europe, the concept is different – ‘I’m mixed’ typically suggests one has a fully white and a fully Black, Middle Eastern or Asian parent. Of course, there are mixed communities in the UK too – but these identities are usually based on two ethnicities, instead of 5 or 6 or god-knows-how-many as is common in Brazil. Though their ideas about race and racial demographics are completely different, one thing Brazil and the UK have in common is that both countries still operate on a system which automatically benefits those who are white and creates obstacles for those who are black.

Think about race talk. Both countries hear a similar excuse from people who have just been accused of saying something racist: “but I have a black friend/neighbour/fourth-cousin, so I’m not racist.” This argument often won’t find any legs to stand on in the UK, but what happens if the argument becomes ‘my dad/mum is black/mixed’ or ‘I’m mixed’? Are people allowed to say the n-word then? Talking to my white British friends, I found a funny yet unsurprising response: there was a consensus that white people can’t, black people can, and mixed people can choose whether they say it or not. But is that necessarily true? And if the majority of Brazil’s population identifies as mixed, how do these rules apply? And why are we allowing white people to make the rules?

There is a desperate need to open up a conversation about cultural appropriation and race which distances itself from Western ideas and focuses on the specifics of a country with a population which does not fit into the Western binary of white or black. Though people of mixed backgrounds still face inequalities, black communities in Brazil face the same racist and colourist oppression that black communities in the UK face daily. People like Anitta aren’t seen as black, and because of this she will never experience the same oppression as black women regardless of her mixed heritage. For Anitta, she was able to pick and choose which “Black” features she wanted: thinning her nose and permanently straightening her curly hair, while enhancing her curvy body and topping up the tan when it suits her aesthetic. Though mixed Brazilians may have black heritage, wearing black hairstyles or sporting turbantes doesn’t pose them any danger as it does to black Brazilians and doesn’t usually carry the same cultural significance as it does to Afro-Brazilians, either. Using mixed heritage as a way of excusing oneself from criticism creates the sentiment of a ‘free-for-all’ around cultural practices and objects which often have a significant or spiritual meaning to some communities. The absence of debates around these issues allows mixed Brazilians and white Brazilians to justify their racist actions because there is no established standard for them to follow, and at the same time, limits how much mixed Brazilians interact with and embrace their heritage. Talking about race will allow Brazilians to establish a right or wrong which focuses on a realistic Brazilian ethnic spectrum rather than a Western one, beginning to erase the grey area which allows Afro-Brazilian culture and aesthetic to be taken and moulded by mixed and white Brazilians when it suits them.

For more about cultural appropriation, check out our data analysis of who Googles it and why, here. For more on Brazil, check out our article on Jair Bolsonaro and the power of memes, here.

Sofia Ferreira Santos is a Brazilian journalist living in East London. She tweets at @sofiferreiras.

Cultural appropriation is when people borrow practices and appearances that belong to a separate culture and use them as their own for the sake of fashion and trend. To many people this seems an innocent or superficial practice, like white women wearing Bindis at Coachella or cornrows at the beach. But, more specifically, it is when a dominant culture borrows from a systematically oppressed culture. America has turned a blind eye to the problem, going so far as to poke fun at certain outlets that describe the real, pressing issues behind it. Even those who do not support the practice are often confused by why it is shown in such a negative light by these outlets. Ultimately, the practice of cultural appropriation damages said appropriated culture in ways unseen by the larger American population.

For clarification, cultural appropriation is not the same as assimilation or cultural exchange, because the power imbalance is very different between these three examples. Assimilation is when people from the systematically oppressed culture adopt parts of the dominant culture in order to fit in within that dominant culture. Cultural exchange is when cultures on the same level mutually share their practices and appearances. Neither of these are the same as cultural appropriation because in assimilation, it is a survival tactic, and in cultural exchange, the cultural power balance is equal.

Cultural appropriation spreads misinformation about the culture that it is appropriating in the first place. Many people who support or defend cultural appropriation believe that it is supposed to help the dominant culture learn, but that is not the case. One example that expands on this from modern culture is the story of Pocahontas. In the American Disney movie, this woman is a strong, yet kind girl in a Native American tribe that is approached by an Englishman and eventually falls in love with him. Pocahontas’ real name was Motoaka, and her story is much more grim than many Americans would suspect. She was abducted as a teen on a ship to Jamestown, given to an Englishman, Christened Rebecca, and used as a racist propaganda tool before she died at 21. The culture that Moataka belonged to represented years of diverse culture and important history, but in a sense it seems apparent that the racist propaganda she was subjected to never quite ended. This is because most of the stories that we hear of Pocahontas depict the land as savages, passive, or nonexistent, not to mention an entirely sugarcoated depiction of the real event. Because the dominant culture never represents the real stories of subjugated cultures in popular media, the American population never recognizes that the stories are trivializing and rampant with appropriation to make the dominant culture more comfortable with the gruesome story.

In the United States, The dominant culture when speaking about cultural appropriation is white people, and one of the largest problems with their appropriation is the fact that when these white people wear or do something that belongs to another culture, it is seen as trendy, hip, or even progressive and inclusive. But when people of color, especially those that belong to the particular culture, do the same thing, they are seen as ‘too ethnic’ and ‘stuck in the past’. This double standard pressures black women to conform especially. When Zendaya wore faux locs at the 2015 Oscars, Fashion Police host and E! red carpet host Giuliana Rancic commented that she “feels like she smells like patchouli oil or weed”. But when Kylie Jenner wore the same faux locs in an a cover story photo shoot in Teen Vogue, attempting a “desert rebel” look, she is praised and described as raw, groundbreaking, fresh, and edgy. Zendaya responded, saying: “There is already harsh criticism of African American hair in society without the help of others who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair. showcase in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough.” Not to mention its repercussions outside of praise or insult. In March 2014, AR 670-1 was released by the U.S. Army, a list of policies for the appearance of the soldiers. This list banned braids, locks, and twists with a diameter of a quarter of an inch. It also slandered unauthorized hairstyles by calling them unkempt and matted. The message this sends to the appropriated black community is that black women who wear their hair naturally in styles such as locs are not deserving of praise, acceptance, or even respect in the eyes of white people. It enforces the harmful lie that black natural beauty is not appealing to the general white, American population, and is only attractive when worn by white women. This message is not only being sent to adults struggling to find jobs, but children struggling to find confidence.

Not only does this practice of accepting cultural appropriation miseducate the majority population, it trivializes violence and oppression. The NFL team, the Washington Redsk*ns, have been criticized for the name, but the terms have been largely defended by its fans and owners. The argument is made that the name “keeps to tradition”, and “honors Indians”. It has been taken even further by telling the Indigenous activist groups that have called them out on the name’s racial connotations that they are “being too sensitive”. But for Native people, redsk*n means a barbaric colonialist practice in which governments would brutally scalp and murder Native Americans and use their “redsk*ns”, or scalps as proof of their kill. When violence targets one specific section of people through genocide, the trauma will last throughout subsequent generations. Therefore, it makes said trauma seem ridiculous, funny, and even playful when using it carelessly in everyday life. Media reinforces this by upholding and encouraging these false stereotypes and misinforming the general public.

Cultural appropriation is one of the most widespread issues within white, American fashion today, and deserves ample recognition and rectification. Yet we, as a nation still dismiss it as trivial. Education is the first step to showing exactly how many problems this phenomenon causes for minorities in America. This is especially true for those whose ethnic features and traditions are thought beautiful, but their actual well-being not as much. Not only this, but people of color as constantly seen through the lense of these stereotypes that cultural appropriation perpetuates and popularizes. As a result, it creates barriers of disrespect and dismission within the real world.

Works Cited:

  1. “Despite The Natural Hair Movement, Black Women Still Face Pressure To Conform.” Despite The Natural Hair Movement, Black Women Still Face Pressure To Conform. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.

  1. “Zendaya Rips E! Red Carpet Host Giuliana Rancic for ‘Ignorant’ Dreadlocks Comment.” TheWrap. N.p., 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.

  1. “Kylie Jenner Rocks Dreadlocks On Instagram.” StyleBlazer. N.p., 10 Feb. 2015. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.

About Maisha Z. Johnson

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This article was originally published on EverydayFeminsim.com and is republished with permission.

If someone was trying to help you, but they were unintentionally doing more harm than good, you’d want to tell them, right?

And you’d hope they’d be open to your feedback – after all, you’re not saying they’re a bad person or accusing them of deliberate sabotage. If they really have your best interests at heart, they wouldn’t want to hurt you — right? So if you point out that they’re doing exactly that, then hopefully they’ll stop.

I have the same hopes for you.

If you’re looking for ways to appreciate other cultures, but you haven’t yet thought about how to avoid appropriating them, it’s possible you’re doing more harm than good.

Appreciating another culture looks like cultural exchange. You’d have consent to participate in someone else’s culture, and both sides would mutually benefit and gain understanding of each other.

On the other hand, appropriating another culture includes taking from a marginalized group without permission, and usually without respect for or knowledge about their culture.

Let’s use an example. Are you fond of anything from another culture? Maybe you like Navajo fashion designs, South Asian accessories, or Japanese home décor.

Maybe your tastes span all around the globe, and you include an eclectic mix of international styles into your personal self-expression.

You’re not trying to hurt anyone – in fact, you’re trying to appreciate these other cultures.

But I want you to consider the fact that real appreciation would include learning about and listening to the people of those cultures.

Don’t you feel the most appreciated when people listen to you and try to understand your perspective – especially when you’re trying to teach them how to stop hurting you? Well, that’s what people of color do when they speak up about cultural appropriation. We want you to know that you can support and appreciate our cultures without appropriating our cultures.

For example, you could support a Navajo artist by purchasing designs directly from them. You could wear a South Asian bindi when invited to do so at an Indian festival. You could research the meaning of Japanese décor and honor that meaning when you include those items in your home.

You would consider the impact of what you’re doing. For instance, if you’re white and include these items in your Halloween costume, you’d be perpetuating harmful stereotypes about people of color. So instead of treating other people’s cultural items as a masquerade, you stick to using these items as they’re intended.

Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, would look like buying “Navajo-inspired” designs, imitations of South Asian accessories, and decorations labeled “Japanese” from Urban Outfitters. You buy it because it looks cool, and the only people who benefit are you and the corporation that’s mass-producing these items for a profit.

You might think that incorporating these things into your personal style shows appreciation for another culture – but the actual impact of your actions causes more harm than good.

Unfortunately, I’ve heard a lot of people get defensive when confronted about the above behaviors. Many of them say, “But I’m just trying to help!”

So if you really are trying to help, honor, or appreciate the traditions of other cultures, you should know that appropriation is not the way to do it.

But you’re not the one to blame if you were taught some damaging lessons about “connecting” with people of other cultures by taking what they have and claiming it as your own. In the US and other areas dominated by white supremacy, we’re all taught to do things this way.

Now you can make an effort to avoid cultural appropriation by unlearning those toxic lessons, and learning instead to support each other through respectful cultural exchange.

Here are some of the most common ways people end up causing harm through appropriation, even without meaning to – even when they’re just trying to help.

1. Exotifying Other Cultures Because You Think It’s a “Compliment”

“You’re so exotic.”

Even though the US is made up of many different cultures, “exotic” is a “compliment” that’s usually only given to people of color.

Which shows why it’s not much of a compliment at all. You may mean it to be, but it actually implies that somebody is “different” – as in, because they’re not white, they don’t seem like they belong here.

But someone else’s culture is just as normal as yours. You only consider it different because it’s not what you’re used to.

Many people of color have had the bizarre experience of seeing their everyday cultural norms treated like exotic adventures.

Say you’re throwing a themed party. You could go with a color theme, like black and white, or a seasonal theme, like Winter Wonderland.

But you decide to go with “Exotic Asia” – encouraging your guests to dress up like geishas, ninjas, and dragon ladies.

You do this because you find “Asia” fascinating. And you think this is just harmless fun, or even better – a “compliment” to Asian people.

But what you’re actually doing is perpetuating harmful stereotypes about East Asian people.

You’re reinforcing the idea that their cultures are strange and different, rather than a normal part of people’s everyday lives. You’re encouraging your guests to see Asian people as one homogenized caricature, as exotic characters to imitate for fun, instead of as real people who are othered in the US on a daily basis.

If you find another culture “fascinating,” that’s not a sign that it’s time to claim it for yourself. Your fascination indicates that you could really use some education around this culture, so that you can treat its people like human beings and not exotic creatures.

2. Creating Your “Own Version” But Calling It By the Same Name

There are many things in this world that we wouldn’t have without inspiration from other cultures – forms of music, dance, food, and more.

But there’s a point where being “inspired” by another culture actually just means misrepresenting that culture, which is a hurtful thing to do.

One of the problems with cultural appropriation is that it often ends up erasing the origins of things people of color have created.

You know how it goes when something gets popular among “the masses” – it spreads and becomes more and more like the status quo, until the meaning is totally distorted and nobody even remembers who started it or what it originally meant.

This often happens with dances that begin in Black communities. A few years ago, it happened when (mostly non-Black) people took over YouTube with videos of what they called “the Harlem Shake.”

This Harlem Shake was bizarre and random, with participants going from motionless and serious to over-the-top and animated in seconds. Many people found it hilarious and fun – and there’s nothing wrong with a trend that gets a lot of people laughing.

However, there’s a problem with calling this “the Harlem Shake.” The Harlem Shake is actually the name of a totally different dance that started in (you guessed it) historically Black Harlem.

Maybe whoever named this new trend after the Harlem Shake thought they were playing homage to an underappreciated form of dance. But hip-hop dance is a vital form of self-expression, resistance, and survival in many Black communities.

And while white folks get recognized for their work all the time (just check out a media awards show list of nominees), it’s sadly quite common for the dominant culture to fail to give Black folks credit for our contributions to society.

It’s cool if you want to encourage appreciation of a particular form of dance. But recognize what it means to the community that created it. Give its creators a signal boost and share videos of them showing off their skills.

And if you’re inspired to come up with your own dance that’s nothing like it, don’t give it the same name.

3. Creating Your “Own Version” But Presenting It As Normalized

There’s a balance to find here – you don’t want to create something new and use the same name, but there’s also a wrong way to go about modifying another culture’s elements into something different.

From mass producing “fusion food” to commercializing yoga so that middle class white Americans can enjoy it “without the dogma,” there are lots of examples of cultural traditions being transformed for white consumers.

Maybe you think that modifying something for mass consumption would help “normalize” it. Would it still be treated as “other” if white people are doing it, too?

The problem is that these changes are usually based on the idea that the dominant white culture is superior to other cultures.

For instance, some white clothing designers steal designs from Native artists and put them in collections that pair words like “modernized” and “chic” with coded language like “primitive” and “tribal.”

The implication is that when Native people wear this clothing as it’s meant to be worn, their culture is “backwards” and “uncivilized.” But when it’s “updated” for white people’s comfort, it’s acceptable.

Directly supporting Native designers by giving them visibility and compensation for their work is a much better way to appreciate their creations.

People of color shouldn’t need to have our traditions assimilated into the dominant culture in order to be accepted as “normal.” We should be respected exactly as we are.

More Radical Reads: Intergenerational Trauma: Indigenous Resilience in the Face of Abuse

4. Using Appropriation As a “Learning Experience”

Food stamps for a week, a fat suit for an afternoon, a wheelchair for a day – it’s pretty common these days for people in positions of privilege to “try on” marginalized people’s experiences to see what their lives are like.

The intentions behind these challenges are good. The people who do them are often trying to “help” other folks by bringing attention to their plight and learning about their experience.

They’re often applauded for momentarily sacrificing their privilege by “walking in someone else’s shoes.” We share their videos and reflect on how “brave” and “inspirational” they are.

But it would be a mistake to believe you can understand someone else’s experience by appropriating their struggle. It’s better to learn how to be a good ally to them by listening to what they want you to know.

When Ala Ahmad wrote about white non-Muslims wearing the hijab, she explained why these “social experiments” fall short. If you’re a white American, you can’t truly experience what she has by living her entire life as an Arab Muslim in a Western country.

As Ahmad puts it: “One day’s experience cannot compare to a lifetime of being the ‘enemy.’”

What’s worse is that it’s insulting for you to claim you can understand someone else’s experience this way. You’re putting the attention on yourself, and prioritizing your voice instead of listening to the countless people who are out there sharing about their own experiences.

Once again, all you’re really doing is reinforcing a system of hierarchy that puts you above another group.

Because if you can only believe someone’s account of their experiences once you’ve experienced it yourself, then are you saying that all of the marginalized people speaking about their own struggles are untrustworthy?

Is your audience saying that they only believe in oppression when someone from the dominant culture vouches that it’s true?

Eradicating oppression includes getting rid of the bias that has society listening only to dominant voices. It’s great that you want to learn about other cultures – and you can learn a whole lot by listening to the people of that culture.

5. Putting Yourself In Someone Else’s Shoes to Make a Political Statement

You could have the best of intentions by putting yourself in someone else’s metaphorical shoes.

You’re trying to do the opposite of putting attention on yourself. Instead, you want to make a statement of solidarity, to show the world that people who are usually treated as abnormal are actually “just like the rest of us.”

Again, this is a noble goal, but I encourage you to learn more about what solidarity really means before you go about trying to show it with cultural appropriation.

One journalist, Boglarka Balogh, made this mistake when she published a project titled “I Morphed Myself Into Tribal Women To Raise Awareness of Their Secluded Cultures.”

She took photographs of these “tribal” women from various African tribes, but didn’t stop there – she also worked with a graphic designer to create images of herself “transformed” with dark skin and the traditional attire of the women.

The result was appallingly insensitive. She was in blackface, which is horrendous enough on its own. And she also took attention away from the women she was supposedly helping, by inviting viewers to gawk with fascination at her transformation, instead of listening to the women’s voices.

I can’t condemn the journalist’s intentions – I don’t know her, so for all I know, she could be sincere when she says that she had the purest of intentions for helping the other women.

But I can say that there are much more effective ways to offer help, without causing harm in the process. People from the villages she visited have already proven their ability to speak for themselves, so she could have just gone with their words and photos, without centering herself in blackface.

If you’re looking for ways to leverage your privilege to help a marginalized group, try asking them what they need from you. They can tell you what solidarity really means to them.

More Radical Reads: Over the Word Ally: 9 Ways Solidarity Is An Act of Radical Self Love

6. Claiming to “Not See Color” At All

We can agree that segregation’s not cool, right? Maybe you think cultural appropriation is actually a good thing because it means that our cultures blend. If everyone can adopt elements from any other group, does that mean that all things are equal?

Perhaps in a utopian future – but we don’t live in a post-racial world. If you say you’re going to do whatever you want regardless of your skin color because you “don’t see color,” then you’re not recognizing the reality we’re living in.

The appropriation of different elements of religion and spirituality is a touchy subject for this reason. You feel like you should be able to adopt spiritual practices however you want, even if it’s a practice that people of color created.

I know that spirituality is deeply personal, and I’d never say you should stay away from the spiritual practices that feel right to you. But if it feels “right” to practice your spirituality in a way that hurts people of color, you may need to reevaluate why that seems like the best practice for you.

For instance, many non-Native people feel that aspects of Native spiritualities resonate with them.

Some take it further than participating as they’re invited. They appoint themselves as “shamans,” lead other non-Natives through imitations of Native rituals, and sell their distorted version of “Indian spirituality” for a profit, using sacred items that were never meant to be for sale.

If you “don’t see color” when it comes to finding someone to guide you through Native spirituality, you might end up giving more profit to one of these fake shamans instead of getting a real spiritual experience.

When you believe that being “colorblind” is the way to treat all people equally, you’re deliberately ignoring significant differences between how we live our lives and the way we’re treated. You’re not listening to what people of color say about what we need.

Native people already face such high rates of discrimination, and Western society tends to look down on their cultural practices. If you honor who they are as people, instead of refusing to “see” their race, you can recognize that Native spiritualities have a deep significance as a way of helping Native people survive and preserve their traditions.

The US even has a history of forcing Native people to convert to Christianity and give up their spiritual practices. So honoring these practices must include centering Native people and following their leadership.

I’m not saying you can’t participate in any of these things if you’re white. But make sure you’re invited by and listening to Native people instead of diving in by giving your money to a white person who’s just trying to make a profit.

7. Insisting on “Appreciating” When You’ve Been Told You’re Actually Appropriating

Have you noticed a theme through all of these examples? You can avoid appropriation bylistening to the people whose culture you want to participate in.

I understand that it hurts to be told you’re causing harm when you’re just trying to be helpful. But when that happens, it’s best to swallow your pride and understand that marginalized people know what’s best for themselves.

We all make mistakes, so it make sense if you were misguided and you participated in appropriation without realizing it could be harmful.

The best response is a sincere apology if people were hurt, and learning from your mistakes so that it doesn’t happen again.

Too many people insist that since their intentions are in the right place, they should get a pass for cultural appropriation.

But it’s one thing if you own up to the fact that you accidentally did something that caused harm, and do your best not to do it again.

It’s an entirely different story if you insist on continuing to appropriate just because you “don’t mean to hurt anyone.”

If you truly care about marginalized people – and you’re not just interested in taking what you like from their cultures without caring about the rest – then a great way to show it is by listening to the difference between appreciating their culture and appropriating it.

Then you’ll know how to participate in cultural exchange with respect and understanding.

So, what is the right way to appreciate a culture without appropriation? You may think that by ruling all these options out, I’m saying there is no right way to do it.

In reality, there are lots of alternatives that can help you connect with other traditions without hurting people.

The first step is knowing that your intentions aren’t everything – they don’t make much of a difference in whether or not the impact of your actions is harmful.

But genuinely respectful intentions can help point you in a thoughtful direction. Consider that marginalized communities are each facing different forms of discrimination, stereotyping, and violence. We’re often forced to give up cultural traditions that mean a lot to us in order to survive.

We need positive representation, space to be heard, and tools for expressing pride in our cultures without being ostracized.

It may not seem like it would make a big difference to avoid cultural appropriation, but it would really help us out. You can help change our everyday norms from erasing our individual identities to celebrating them.

A world where we can celebrate our authentic selves is a better world for all of us.

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There are some things in this world that as hard as you try, you can never forget.

I remember such a feeling during my freshman year of high school, when I was sitting in English class, and looked up to my classmates giving me a “Sieg Heil.”

I felt it four years later, when I sat down to a desk that was vandalized not with song lyrics or lewd drawings, like everyone else’s, but with death threats and swastikas.

I felt it just a few weeks ago, when I found out that a monument near the Gates of Heaven Synagogue, right here in Madison, had been covered in Nazi symbols just hours before the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Swastika graffiti discovered near synagogueA memorial close to the Gates of Heaven Synagogue was vandalized with swastikas early Wednesday morning. The memorial, dedicated to Read…

Even though my ancestors have shed their yellow star patches, we will never fully be free of them. As a member of an ethno-religious minority, I will never forget the feeling of wanting to strip myself of this identity when faced with hatred. I will never forget wishing it was as easy as taking off a costume.

I am sure a member of any minority group in America, whether they be African American, Native American, Muslim, Indian or Latinx, understands this feeling. Although we are proud of our identities, unique cultures and rich heritage, blatant bigotry makes being different bittersweet. You cannot have the positive experiences of belonging to a minority group without the negatives. Well, unless you are a white person on Halloween — or rather, a portrayer of cultural appropriation.

This Halloween, try not to pick ‘culturally insensitive’ as your costumeLet’s all just agree on one thing: Pocahontas, Disney princess or not, is a no-no. Now that that’s out of Read…

Oxford Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. The systemic power dynamic and lack of mutual respect that occurs in this cultural phenomena are what separates cultural appropriation from cultural exchange.

From minstrel shows of the early nineteenth century, to popular musicians like Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Miley Cyrus, it is obvious that cultural appropriation has been a component of American popular culture for decades, but has only recently been gaining attention by the general public. No matter how many celebrities practice it, or how cute the costumes or trends may be, cultural appropriation is never okay and there are no exceptions, regardless of the intent of the portrayer. The negative effects of cultural appropriation are numerous, and demean minority cultures.

In terms of fads, costumes and fashion, cultural appropriation makes certain styles seem cool and edgy for white people, but too ethnic for people of color. Standards of professionalism in many business places bar African American women from wearing their natural hair in cornrows, dreadlocks or an afro, making them choose between being themselves, and succeeding in the business world.

But white women, such as Kylie Jenner, are lauded when they choose to wear dreadlocks or cornrows. The fact that African American women have to fight to wear cultural expressions that white women are celebrated for wearing tells African Americans that their natural beauty is only beautiful on a white woman — that they will never be beautiful until they present like white people.

New initiative showcases diversity, richness of Latino cultureThe Latino Professionals Association of the greater Madison area is showcasing their “Yo Soy” initiative this September to highlight the Read…

Given that Halloween season is upon us, culturally insensitive costumes are bound to be rampant.

If the above reasons are not enough to convince you of making sure your costume isn’t appropriative of any culture, remember that cultural appropriation says more about the person appropriating the culture than it does about the culture itself. It blinds us from historical fact.

If you see a non-Native American girl dressed as Pocahontas, she is not just portraying a Disney princess, but rather a child who was abducted, forced to marry an Englishman and used as racial propaganda until her death at the young age of twenty one. Wearing a Pocahontas costume, or any culturally appropriative styles at any time of the year, shows how privilege makes us so blind to the struggles of minorities, that we trivialize them as costumes. If you do not want to appear ignorant and arrogant, make sure not to dress like you are.

Cultural appropriation is unacceptable in this day and age, regardless of intention or portrayal. These costumes and styles are insensitive, inaccurate, and draw on racial stereotypes that minimize the experiences of the most tread-upon groups in America.

If you cannot be an advocate for minority groups, at least be kind enough not to rub salt in their wounds, wounds created by systemic racism. Even though you can take off a costume, the people who are represented with such stereotypes cannot control the skin they are in.

Abby Steinberg () is a freshman majoring in political science and intending to major in journalism.

The cultural appropriation debate has changed. But is it for the better?

What do Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, Awkwafina, and a Utah high school student have in common? In 2018, they all faced accusations of cultural appropriation, signaling how a term unfamiliar to most Americans even a decade ago has become pervasive today.

In fact, the debate over cultural appropriation, loosely defined as the taking of another culture’s practices without consent, is currently so widespread that it’s starting to see pushback.

This is especially the case given that, while the term for years was directed at white people who profited from the music, dress, spirituality, and cultural artifacts of marginalized groups, people of color are now nearly as likely as whites to face accusations of appropriation.

When Bruno Mars, who is Puerto Rican, Filipino, and Jewish, was accused in March of appropriating funk and soul music from African Americans, R&B legends such as Charlie Wilson came to his defense. The next month, a white teenager sparked an international debate about cultural appropriation after she shared a photo of herself in a Chinese dress called the qipao. The controversy prompted Refinery29 writer Connie Wang to pen an essay arguing that the dialogue about cultural appropriation had become “radioactive.”

“The most vitriolic on the left suggest that any cultural swapping is tantamount to acts of visual racism; that using symbols without permission is always bad, and those that do it should be condemned without mercy,” Wang wrote in May. “The most sanctimonious on the right believe that cultural appropriation is a meaningless phrase that willfully ignores intent; that people should have the right to celebrate what they find beautiful without criticism or abuse.”

Given this context, it wasn’t altogether surprising last week when a Twitter user complained that Beyoncé didn’t receive the same accusations of cultural appropriation when she wore Indian attire to an Indian wedding. “Can someone please explain to me what is the difference between a white person wearing this and being called out for cultural appropriation and Beyoncé, a black woman, doing the exact same and not being told anything?” the user griped.

can someone please explain to me what is the difference between a white person wearing this and being called out for cultural appropiation and beyonce, a black woman, doing the exact same and not being told anything? genuinely curious https://t.co/Ladvjrpge5

— αrοα (@pinkkyeom) December 9, 2018 View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Beyoncé (@beyonce) on Dec 9, 2018 at 11:47am PST

The tweet did not express concern over whether Beyoncé really had appropriated Indian dress and the effect that might have on the Indian community. The real injustice, the writer suggested, was that Beyoncé had gotten away with a misdeed for which white people are routinely criticized. But this argument overlooked the fact that the singer was an invited guest to an Indian wedding where Indian dress was expected.

Permission plays a major role in whether an act constitutes cultural appropriation. Beyoncé had permission, but many of the public figures who’ve been called out for appropriation — from Madonna to Miley Cyrus — may not have.

And while a number of white people have been accused of cultural theft, several of the celebrities caught up in cultural appropriation debates this year, including Awkwafina and her supposed “blaccent” and Nicki Minaj and her hit song “Chun-Li,” are people of color.

The argument that minorities are allowed more leverage when it comes to cultural appropriation clearly isn’t true. But that someone made the claim at all implies that the cultural appropriation debate isn’t moving forward.

To put the cultural appropriation debate into perspective, I reached out to professor Susan Scafidi, the founder and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School and the author of Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. That book came out in 2005, several years before the term “cultural appropriation” branched out of academia and into the mainstream.

I spoke to Scafidi about whether the term’s meaning has shifted over the years and why some of the most egregious examples of cultural appropriation continue to happen. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and style, follows.

Madonna was accused of culturally appropriating North African dress when she wore clothing from the region during an appearance at the 2018 VMAs. Noam Galai/WireImage

In Who Owns Culture, you defined cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” Would you say that this is roughly the same definition of it today, or has it shifted since the book debuted 13 years ago?

Cultural appropriation became a widespread topic of conversation in 2015 during the Yale Halloween costume controversy — 10 years after I published Who Owns Culture? — and has been amplified via social media ever since. For the first time, groups with differing perspectives have communicated with one another in real time, and the results have included both thoughtful conversation and oversimplification.

My definition of what was once an unfamiliar academic term hasn’t changed, but 280 characters unfortunately doesn’t allow for much of the nuance that can lead people to mutual respect and understanding. Then again, that problem in our society isn’t limited to discussion of cultural appropriation!

If I could remind those encountering the term of one thing, it would be that there’s a spectrum of cultural appropriation, from harmful misappropriation to creative and often collaborative inspiration.

Central to your definition of cultural appropriation is the word “permission.” Can you discuss this, especially in light of Beyoncé being accused of cultural appropriation for wearing Indian dress to an Indian wedding?

Wearing Indian-inspired attire to a wedding at the behest of an Indian bride is a paradigmatic example of an action that is neither economically nor psychologically harmful to the source community. Instead of cultural misappropriation, it is an instance of cultural appreciation in keeping with the norms of the community, or what our grandparents might have called social etiquette.

The term “cultural appropriation” is a descriptive one, but not all forms of appropriation are misappropriation.

Does the cultural appropriation debate get trickier when all involved are from marginalized groups, such as Beyoncé, a black woman, wearing Indian dress, or an Asian American dressing up as Pocahontas? How does cultural appropriation change, if it does at all, when white people aren’t involved?

Source communities who wish to set boundaries on the use of certain cultural products, often those considered sacred or even secret, may or may not be concerned as to exactly which outsider is violating those norms.

As cultural appropriation has garnered more attention, some artisans from minority groups, such as Native Americans, have said that it’s harder for them to sell their wares to the public because consumers don’t want to be accused of cultural appropriation. What is your take on this?

Source communities themselves are the best arbiters of what is or is not misappropriation. Many products are freely commodified and sold for use by outsiders, benefiting both parties to the exchange. We would never taste others’ traditional dishes, buy unfamiliar ingredients, or create fusion cuisines without this kind of permissive exchange.

Katy Perry and Rihanna at the 2018 Met Gala, which some Catholics argued appropriated their religion. Kevin Tachman/Getty Images for Vogue

Increasingly, I’ve heard more concerns about religious appropriation, particularly related to paganism. Some Catholics also raised concerns that their religion was appropriated at this year’s Met Gala, where the theme was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Could religious appropriation be the focus of the next wave of the cultural appropriation debate?

Religion has always been part of the cultural appropriation debate, since religion is an important part of culture. For adherents of a particular faith, religious practices and objects are often those most vulnerable to misappropriation. Everyone is part of a source community, and people rise to defend what is most important to them.

In recent years, I’ve heard the term cultural appropriation applied to the hoop earrings and nameplate necklaces associated with working-class black and brown women. But nameplate accessories certainly aren’t ancient relics. Can contemporary cultural objects be appropriated in the same way as ancient ones?

Culture is fluid and evolving. Source communities arise and form new cultural products on an ongoing basis, and appropriation can apply to both ancient traditions like basket weaving and modern creative genres like jazz or hip-hop.

Although the cultural appropriation debate has been raging for years, some of the most egregious cases continue, such as the Halloween costumes that sexualize Native American women. If the public is more aware of cultural appropriation, why does it persist in such troubling ways?

Freedom of expression includes the freedom to offend. Even best efforts to share cultural norms and communicate boundaries won’t change everyone’s behavior, just as passing laws doesn’t stop all criminal activity and teaching good manners doesn’t ensure universal civility.

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Certainly, cultural engagement does not take place on a level playing field. Racism and inequality shape the ways in which people imagine others. Yet it is difficult to see how creating gated cultures helps promote social justice.

There are few figures more important to the development of rock ’n’ roll than Chuck Berry (who died in March). In the 1950s, white radio stations refused to play his songs, categorizing them as “race music.” Then came Elvis Presley. A white boy playing the same tunes was cool. Elvis was feted, Mr. Berry and other black pioneers largely ignored. Racism defined who became the cultural icon.

But imagine that Elvis had been prevented from appropriating so-called black music. Would that have challenged racism, or eradicated Jim Crow laws? Clearly not. It took a social struggle — the civil rights movement — to bring about change. That struggle was built not on cultural separation, but on the demand for equal rights and universal values.

Campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal the changing meaning of what it is to challenge racism. Once, it was a demand for equal treatment for all. Now it calls for cultures to be walled off and boundaries to be policed.

But who does the policing? Every society has its gatekeepers, whose role is to protect certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and cordon off some beliefs from challenge. Such gatekeepers protect not the marginalized but the powerful. Racism itself is a form of gatekeeping, a means of denying racialized groups equal rights, access and opportunities.

In minority communities, the gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians whose power rests on their ability to define what is acceptable and what is beyond the bounds. They appropriate for themselves the authority to license certain forms of cultural engagement, and in doing so, entrench their power.

The most potent form of gatekeeping is religion. When certain beliefs are deemed sacred, they are put beyond questioning. To challenge such beliefs is to commit blasphemy.

Is Gordon Ramsay allowed to cook Chinese food ? Is it OK to dress up as Disney’s Moana? Can Jamie Oliver cook jollof rice despite plainly not knowing what it is? Exactly what is cultural appropriation? To take a glance at Good Morning Britain, the ITV show that never takes its finger off the pulse of Middle England’s clogged arteries, you’d think it’s a question of white people seeking permission to have fun. And in return, new media outlets have guaranteed traffic from anxious millennials by listing things that fall into the category of problematic when white people adopt them (blaccents, bindis and box braids).

Why has cultural appropriation, an imperfect term mobilised in imperfect contexts, become such live ammunition for the socially conscious? And what does it mean especially for people of colour when we turn our fire on each other? It is striking that a phrase intended to sharpen a political analysis of life under postcolonial capitalism seems to have drawn the most blood between people who share overlapping experiences of racism and displacement.

The debate over cultural appropriation has been around for decades. Black writers and artists from the Harlem Renaissance voiced their concerns about the distortion of African cultures in some modernist artworks, and wrote at length about the demeaning caricatures of black identity in minstrel shows. Elvis Presley was said to have exploited “negro” music.

The artist Kenneth Coutts-Smith wrote one of the first essays on the subject in 1976, entitled Some General Observations on the Concept of Cultural Colonialism. He never actually used the term cultural appropriation, but he was the first to bring together the Marxist idea of “class appropriation” (in which notions of “high culture” are appropriated and defined by the dominant social and economic class) and “cultural colonialism”, which describes the way western cultures take ownership of art forms that originate from racially oppressed or colonised peoples.

‘Is it OK to dress up as Disney’s Moana? Can Jamie Oliver cook jollof rice despite plainly not knowing what it is?’ Photograph: ©2016 Disney

This is important to bear in mind. Our modern understanding of cultural appropriation is highly individualised. It’s all about what Halloween costume you wear, or who’s cooking biryani. But the way in which the idea was first used was to describe a relationship of dominance and exploitation between a global ruling class and a globally subjugated one. The idea that cultural appropriation is primarily a form of erasure – a kind of emotional violence in which people are rendered invisible – came along later. And this is the sticky point. Is it right to level the same criticism at an act of cultural borrowing that doesn’t have a clear angle of economic or political exploitation as for one that does?

This month, news broke that Inuit singers were boycotting Canada’s Indigenous Music Awards over the nomination of a Cree singer who, it is claimed, utilises specifically Inuit throat-singing techniques without coming from that culture herself. The Guardian’s own coverage of the story – headlined “Canada: one Indigenous group accuses other of cultural appropriation in award row” – treats the two different cultures as interchangeable. The point of commonality – both Inuit and Cree being Canadian indigenous people – positions a shared history of dispossession by a white settler colony as erasing cultural and artistic distinctions. The implicit question seems to be: “Why are you lot even fighting? You’re all the same anyway.”

Daniel Heath Justice, a Cherokee professor of indigenous studies at the University of British Columbia, points out that the row isn’t the result of oversensitivity or prickliness. The throat-singing technique in question was banned by Christian missionaries, and discouraged by colonial governments. In his words: “We’re talking about continuity in spite of traumatic, sustained and systemic multi-generational assaults on every aspect of our beings – including our artistic practice.”

Yet I find it strange that a recognition of the pain caused by colonialism is being projected on to fellow indigenous artists. It’s possible to argue against a colonial viewpoint that homogenises those whom it dominates, without using language that holds responsible people who have also been affected by centuries of dispossession.

‘London MC Wiley got it right when he talked about Canadian rapper Drake (above) being a ‘culture vulture’.’ Photograph: Arthur Mola/AP

It’s worth pointing out that conflicts between racially oppressed people often result from the fact that colonialism worked on divide and rule. Certain ethnic, religious, racial or indigenous groups were deliberately privileged over others in order to create a sense of investment in upholding the power structure.

Today, arguments rage about non-African Americans participating in (and making money from) hip-hop culture, or whether black people should wear south Asian head ornaments. I get that it’s tempting to see such pop-cultural phenomena as a replication of centuries-old colonial dynamics. But maybe our own frustration at the erasure of difference risks erasing certain crucial differences in itself. Not all cultural borrowing is a form of social violence: some of it is just cringe. I thought London MC Wiley got it right when he talked about Canadian rapper Drake being a “culture vulture” profiting off the UK music scene. The godfather of grime didn’t need to raid the library of Soas University of London to come up with his critique. A straightforward “Listen, bumbahole” did the trick just fine.

But young, socially conscious people of colour do need to be a bit more honest with themselves about what’s driving our political interventions when it comes to cultural appropriation on this issue. I’ve felt that anger myself: such as when someone very earnestly told me how henna actually looks better on pale skin; or when I see Indian food staples marketed by English gentrifiers. There’s a very particular feeling when you know that the identity I wear on my skin is an outfit for someone else – that culture is valued more than the humanity that produced it. But there’s another uncomfortable feeling lurking at the bottom of it.

When you’re a second- or third-generation migrant, your ties to your heritage can feel a little precarious. You’re a foreigner here, you’re a tourist back in your ancestral land, and home is the magpie nest you construct of the bits of culture you’re able to hold close. The appropriation debate peddles a comforting lie that there’s such thing as a stable and authentic connection to culture that can remain intact after the seismic interruptions of colonialism and migration.

I’m not suggesting we stop using the term cultural appropriation altogether: it’s clearly meaningful when talking about systems of exploitation and dominance. But we do need to become a lot more discerning about how we use the idea in discussing interpersonal dynamics. There’s a difference between understanding how these frustrations have a politicised background, and treating these issues as sites of political contestation in themselves. Not everyone who participates in a misguided attempt at cultural borrowing is a coloniser in disguise. Some people are just sad try-hards.

• Ash Sarkar is a senior editor at Novara Media, and lectures in political theory at the Sandberg Instituut

With the cheongsam, fashion in the European sense came to China. In the decades from 1915 to 1950, the cheongsam changed more than women’s costume did in the previous 250 years.

That moment of creativity did not endure. The communist takeover of 1949 restored the ancient practice: a new emperor imposes a new costume. Mao Zedong required his subjects all to wear the same unisex blue suit—and he so desperately impoverished China that few could have chosen otherwise even had they dared. Not until after his death would Chinese women recover any freedom of dress, and not until the 1990s could they afford to exercise that freedom. Today China has overtaken the United States, the European Union, and Japan as the world’s single largest market for luxury goods.

The cheongsam has come rocketing back, too, in a dizzying array of lengths and styles. But the freedom Chinese people have recovered is only a very partial one. The post-Mao rulers of China minutely police any flicker of regional resentment of rule from Beijing. They have by law insisted that the language of the North, known in the West as Mandarin, be recognized as the nation’s sole official language. “Cheongsam” is a Cantonese word for a South Chinese thing—but in almost every media report on the cyberbullying of Kezia Daum, the garment is given its Mandarin name, “qipao.”

It’s important to have these details in order to understand what is so deeply sinister about the claims now being made about the prom dress.

Like the idea that audiences should refrain from talking while music is performed, the idea that women should be able to move about as freely and easily as men is a cultural product—popularized by the North Atlantic world in the period after the First World War. If it’s wrong for one culture to borrow from another, then it was wrong to invent the cheongsam in the first place—because not only did the garment’s shape originate outside China, but so, too, did the garment’s purposes. It was precisely because they appreciated that they were importing Western ideas about women that the inventors of the cheongsam adapted a Western shape. They took something foreign and made it something domestic, in a pattern that has repeated itself in endless variations since the Neolithic period.

The policemen of cultural appropriation do not think that way. They have a morality tale to tell, one of Western victimization of non-Western peoples—a victimization so extreme that it is triggered by a Western girl’s purchase of a Chinese dress designed precisely so that Chinese girls could live more like Western girls.

In order to tell that story, the policemen of cultural appropriation must crush and deform much of the truth of cultural history—and in the process demean and infantilize the people they supposedly champion.

Consider, again, the Death Metal Cowboys. Despite their enthusiastic, wholesale adoption of costume and music imported into Botswana, they are unlikely to be accused of cultural appropriation. Why not? The would-be culture police build their whole philosophy on a single assumption of extreme chauvinism: that Western culture is universal—indeed the only universal culture. Western technology, the Western emphasis on individual autonomy and equal human dignity, and even such oddly specific Western practices as death-metal music—the cultural police take all this for granted as thoroughly as a fish takes for granted the water in its fishbowl.