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What Is Cultural Appropriation? Why It's Problematic and How to Avoid It

Liz Coulbourn

Cultural appropriation is a hot topic that has gained significant attention in recent years, though it’s been happening for much longer. But what is cultural appropriation exactly? According to researchers from the University of Huddersfield, UK, it can be described as the taking of elements of a culture in a way that ultimately distorts or misrepresents the culture.

Cultural appropriation is seen as problematic because it can perpetuate harmful stereotypes, strip cultural elements of their significance, and ignore the history and struggles of the culture from which they are taken.

In contrast, cultural appreciation (or exchange) is the understanding and respect for a culture that is different from one's own. It can be a positive experience because it fosters mutual understanding and respect for different cultures and doesn’t rely upon an existing power imbalance between two cultures to achieve its aims.

Examples of cultural appreciation include attending cultural festivals, trying new foods, and learning about the history and traditions of a culture. It should be approached with an open mind and a willingness to learn, rather than an attitude of entitlement or superiority.

Cultural Appropriation Examples

Unfortunately, cultural appropriation is something that permeates almost all areas of life. In fashion, this includes wearing traditional clothing without understanding its significance or using cultural symbols without permission. This is commonly seen with folks, like white models or festival-goers, wearing Indigenous headdresses.

In music, appropriation can include borrowing elements from a genre or culture without giving proper credit, or using them in trivial or disrespectful ways. This can be seen in popular music such as the origins of rock, or throughout the history of hip-hop and reggae, wherein the genres of historically marginalized groups were later appropriated by white mainstream culture without due credit.

In some cases, cultural elements are taken and commercialized, leading to the commodification — and, ultimately, trivialization — of culture, like the use of Native mascots by teams like the Kansas City Chiefs or, before their change, the Washington Commanders (which used to have an anti-Native slur as part of its name).

Is Henna Cultural Appropriation?

Henna (or mehndi) often refers to a natural dye made from the leaves of the henna plant (lawsonia inermis), and can be used to change hair color or create temporary tattoos. Its use dates back thousands of years in places like ancient Egypt and the Middle East; and India has been credited for popularizing henna.

It has been used for medicinal purposes, as well as for adorning the body for special occasions and celebrations, with deep cultural significance in many parts of the world. This is particularly true in Muslim countries and India, where it is an important part of weddings, festival traditions, and religious practices.

There are those that believe the use of henna outside of these traditions can be inappropriate and disrespectful. Others think it’s an art form that can be appreciated by anyone, especially since it has been used by various cultures throughout history. Ultimately, intent is important: are you seeking to learn about its history or participating in a ceremony, or just to “look cool” at a music festival?

Are Braids Cultural Appropriation?

Braids have a fascinating, multicultural history. Their intricate patterns and styles have made them popular around the world, and they have been used for centuries by different African societies and Indigenous cultures.

Today, there is an ongoing debate about whether non-Black people wearing certain types of braids amounts to cultural appropriation. Some argue that those types of braids are an important part of Black culture and when worn by anyone who isn’t Black, it is always cultural appropriation. Others argue that braids are a hairstyle that anyone should be able to wear, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Rhon S. Manigault-Bryant, a professor of Africana studies at Williams College pointed out to HuffPost that Kim Kardashian wearing her hair in cornrows can turn it into a beauty symbol, but there’s still a clear double standard when Black students have been punished in schools for wearing similar hairstyles. Ultimately, there are so many different braids styles that have no cultural significance — when in doubt, stick to those.

Is K-pop Cultural Appropriation?

K-pop is a music genre that originated in South Korea and has gained immense popularity worldwide over the past few years, thanks in part to its unique blend of traditional Korean culture and modern Western influences. Some critics argue that K-pop appropriates elements of Black culture without giving proper credit to the original creators.

For example, some K-pop artists have been accused of using African American vernacular English (AAVE) without acknowledging the cultural context or showing due respect. Others have been criticized for wearing hairstyles and clothing that originated with Black culture without proper context.

People have offered a range of opinions on the topic of K-pop and cultural appropriation, with some suggesting that artists in the industry should undergo cultural sensitivity training.

Are Dream Catchers Cultural Appropriation?

Dream catchers are sacred objects deeply rooted in Indigenous culture, though their origin is attributed to the Ojibwes. The cultural significance of dream catchers varies depending on the tribe and their specific beliefs and practices. Generally, dream catchers are seen as a symbol of protection, and are believed to help ward off nightmares and promote good dreams. In modern times, they have been used as objects that symbolize hope, healing, and protection..

Dream catchers have become popular outside of Indigenous communities over the years. If you’re not Indigenous and are interested in acquiring one for non-decorative purposes (i.e. to participate in the spiritual traditions of Indigenous people), make sure you research the history behind them and try to source from Native craftspeople instead of chain stores.

Is Yoga Cultural Appropriation?

Yoga has a rich history that spans thousands of years and multiple cultures, evolving over time to incorporate influences from Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, and Jainism. In recent decades, yoga has become popular in the Western world, embraced as a form of exercise and stress relief. As it has become more mainstream, there have been numerous examples of cultural appropriation within the community, including the misappropriation of language and sacred Hindu symbols.

The debate over whether yoga constitutes cultural appropriation is a contentious one, with passionate arguments on both sides. Shreena Gandhi, PhD, and Simon Wolff argue that the popularity of yoga in the West is “tied up with colonialism” and allows practitioners to “experience the idea of another culture while focusing on the self.”

As such, it is important for the yoga community to engage in ongoing dialogue and reflection on issues of cultural appropriation to ensure their practice is inclusive and respectful.

How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation

To appreciate cultures that differ from our own, without falling into the trap of cultural appropriation with relation to how we interact with those cultures, it is important to approach cultural exchange guided by the goals of respect, education, and understanding. Ashley Wells of the National Institute of Health writes that cultural appreciation begins with good intentions and a willingness to learn about the culture. In particular, when approaching a culture different from our own, we should consider the context of our interactions to “determine if the intention behind adopting an aspect of a culture is meaningful.”

When approaching other cultures and customs, consider Wells’s suggestions. For starters, “examine your own culture and beliefs. Knowing your own culture is one of the best ways to understand and appreciate other cultures.” You should also, “Recognize and embrace cultural differences” and “Allow these differences to spark healthy dialogue.” Wells also suggests you, Refrain from using sacred artifacts or symbols from another culture as an accessory, and “Ask yourself why. Ensure your intentions are sincere and genuine.”
Lastly, and importantly, she suggests you “be an ally! Engage in important conversations and help others learn about cultural appropriation.”

By taking these steps, we can all work towards creating a more inclusive and respectful society that celebrates the diversity of the world's cultures.

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue