Cultural Appropriation: a Longread Explainer

By Sofia de Martin

Cultural appropriation refers to the use of cultural symbols or stereotypes to make profit or for entertainment purposes without acknowledging the meanings they hold. It can also be seen in inappropriate or misconstrued representations of ideas or practices of a culture, usually one with a history of being oppressed.

The term cultural appropriation only began appearing in the 70s and 80s, and only got a dictionary definition in 2017, yet the concept existed far earlier than that. Those who are vocal about the harm it brings talk about the impact that trivialising minority beliefs can cause. This is because many of these cultures have been oppressed for centuries. They see treating these symbols and beliefs as shallow entertainment or monetisation as a form of oppression and negation of their very identity.

Critics of the idea believe these proponents have gone too far in their quest for cultural preservation. Many say that all cultures inevitably borrow from each other, and that in some cases, it’s not cultural appropriation but cultural appreciation and exchange which is happening. Some of the harshest critics of the term cite freedom of speech as more important than the fear of offending a minority over a perceived slight to their culture.

Where do we draw the line between appreciation and appropriation?


For many, cultural appropriation reflects a continuation of colonialism and post-colonialism, with all the problematic connotations these labels bring with them. The oppression and persecution of other cultures for centuries has left deep scars on many civilisations and they are naturally protective of that which remains. Even in academia, attempts to bridge gaps between cultures and nations often fall flat, with sweeping generalisations of minority identity and a rhetoric of Western vs Other cultures.

A. “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.” Professor Daniel Heath Justice, professor of indigenous studies at the University of British Columbia.

One of the ways colonialists oppressed minority cultures was through the repression and trivialisation of their languages and cultures. Destroying the roots of their beliefs and reducing their symbols’ authority played a part in erasing the history of the colonised.

Many minorities see the misrepresentation of their values in art and society as offensive because they see it as an informal continuation of the oppression their predecessors faced.

B. ”We are mixed in nature, many in our very essence. We can’t help it. To be human is to be hybrid. It is as close to a rule of life as you can ever hope to find.” Adam Gopnik, author.

Many believe cultural appropriation is a far messier term. Cultures change over time and they are shaped by their history and circumstances. Some argue that art and culture necessarily borrow from each other, and these differences should be celebrated rather than attacked.

It is difficult to know where the line should be drawn between celebration of a culture, and when it crosses over into appropriation and exploitation. Cultural appropriation in its origin was used to describe a form of cultural erasure. The more individualised meaning of using and trivialising a culture for profit or entertainment came later and remains far more blurred.

C. “[To] all who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race or skin colour wearing their hair in any particular style or manner – funny how you don’t criticise women of colour for straightening their hair.” Marc Jacobs, designer. (He later apologised)

Many, like Jacobs, argue that if minorities are against people drawing inspiration from their cultures, they should check how much they rely on majority cultures. One example of this is through non-Western nations wearing Western style clothing - though others argue many people do not adhere to the mainstream dress code and standard out of choice so much as to fit in. This too is a vestige of colonialism, where minorities are accustomed to hiding aspects of their culture to blend in with the rest of society.

Historical and cultural erasure

From schools to academia, the version of history we learn is largely written by the winners, the conquerors. Yet, minorities also have a story to tell. Those who advocate for a wider education strive to prove how cultural appropriation denies the possibility of this. Be it through the promotion of stereotypes which reduce the validity of these cultures, or the promotion of language which minimises their struggles to be heard.

Yet, in America, white adults are two times more likely than African-Americans to say that a blackface Halloween costume is acceptable. While 53% of black people state it is never acceptable, only 35% of white people concur.

A. “You are pretending to be a race that you are not and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so.” Dr Adrienne Keene, founder of Native Appropriations.

It is subject to debate whether the previously called Washington Redsk*ns football team -now Washington Football Team- was more famous for its name or its sporting accomplishments. Many native american associations spoke out about the derogatory connotations of the name and why it was problematic. The term was originally used as an ethnic slur and minimises the pain and oppression felt by this cultural minority, effectively erasing their history and presence within society.

B. “The Washington Redsk*ns team, our fans and community have always believed our name represents honor, respect and pride.” Football team owner Dan Snyder.

In 2016, a Washington Post poll concluded 9 in 10 Native Americans were not offended by the team’s name. Yet, this poll sparked a backlash from those same communities. Some denied the results, while others doubled down stating that the name should be changed despite this data. How many people in a culture need to agree that a term or symbol is inappropriate before it becomes unacceptable?

C. “Cultural appropriation arises when people, anyone, takes aspects of another culture specifically to mock or disrespect them ” Saurav Dutt, author

Mr Dutt is not alone in his opinion. Yet it is not always easy to see when a gesture comes from a place of appreciation or mockery. How much does someone need to know about a culture, ethnicity or artist before it becomes acceptable to use their symbols?


We drink Italian coffee while looking at our Swiss watches. We wear clothes made in Bangladesh and use phones made in China. In such an interconnected world, arguing about cultural sensitivity can be a dangerous topic.

A. “Your costume choice is not an opportunity to fetishize or sensationalize anyone’s culture, race, sexuality, gender identity, mental illness, or physical disability, among other things,” The editorial board at Seattle University’s student newspaper.

Cultural Appropriation reduces a culture or its symbols to a commodity used to make a profit or for entertainment. Native American headdresses are a symbol of warriors and were only used by select members of these communities, yet are worn at parties by people who know nothing of its history and significance. This perspective seeks to create awareness that what might be nothing but a pretty image to us, might have a far deeper meaning in its original setting. A meaning represents centuries worth of history and culture that should be honoured.

B. Others argue that we should be free to wear what we want. There are no laws to restrict people from wearing clothing from other cultures.

A tweet went viral when a young (white) girl wore a Chinese style dress to her prom party. Her pictures were retweeted by Chinese people, and people of Chinese descent, accusing her of cultural appropriation, who were in turn mobbed by others who believed she should be allowed to wear what she wanted. The girl in question told the BBC: “I am sorry if I have caused offence to anyone. My intent was never to anger anyone. I simply found a beautiful, modest gown and chose to wear it.”

## Conclusion Fraught with colonial implications, cultural appropriation is a debate we see in the news almost constantly. Despite this, we have yet to find a balance between respecting other cultures and participating in well-meaning cultural exchanges and repurposing other cultures’ values and ways of life for money or merriment.

This page was last edited on Wednesday, 23 Dec 2020 at 12:23 UTC