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What is cultural appropriation?
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Cultural appropriation isn't the act but the how

Cultural appropriation refers to the act of appropriating another culture. This fails to differentiate between respectful cultural exchanges and damaging cultural thefts.
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Cultural appropriation as a term defines the act. But the offence isn’t in the act itself but the ‘how’ it is done.

The Argument

There is a clear difference between appropriating a culture to mock and cause offence, and borrowing from a culture to pay homage and respect. For example, in 2017, Dana Shultz, a white artist, painted a picture of Emmett Till, an African American victim of a lynch mob in 1955. She was quickly accused of cultural appropriation for exploiting black suffering for “profit and fun”. [1] It is clear from the context that Dana Shultz should not be hounded by the same accusations of “cultural appropriation” as a group of university students that hosted a “Raj-themed” birthday party. [2] The cultural appropriation term needs to focus more on the ‘how’ rather than the act, to make these important distinctions and call out damaging behaviour without vilifying respectful cultural exchanges.

Counter arguments

Dana Shultz is still engaging in cultural appropriation because she made a profit off of black suffering. If she had opted to donate all the proceeds of her artwork to a charity that promoted equality and sought to end racism, then she would have been borrowing from African American culture. The fact that she made a profit from the painting means she exploited black suffering for personal profit, making her no better than the university students who exploited Indian culture for a laugh. Her intentions do not change the fact that she engaged in an act of cultural appropriation and must be called out for her behaviour.


[P1] Cultural appropriation as a blanket term fails to distinguish between respectful cultural exchange and damaging behaviour. [P2] To identify damaging forms of cultural appropriation, we must look at how the act was carried out, not the act itself.

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P1] The how does not matter. The act of cultural appropriation is offensive in and of itself.


This page was last edited on Friday, 31 Jan 2020 at 18:01 UTC

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