What is Cultural Appropriation?
Culture influences every aspect of our lives. It influences the food we eat, the music we listen to, the way we speak, and more. Sharing cultures is generally very positive and important in combating prejudice and discrimination. It’s a wonderful thing when two people of different cultures interact and share their cultures, and this exchange of information can lead to a better understanding and appreciation for differing perspectives and traditions.
However, sharing and taking are two very different things. The line is drawn when a dominant cultural group takes elements of a non-dominant group without their acknowledgment and uses such elements in an exploitative manner.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as: “The act of copying or using the customs and traditions of a particular group or culture, by somebody from a more dominant (= powerful) group in society”. At first glance, this might not seem like a big deal, but non-dominant groups are often discriminated against for their values by the dominant culture.
Taking elements from a non-dominant group and making it “trendy” is insulting and insensitive to those people who were discriminated against for those same elements. For instance: “Smudging”, which is the burning of white sage for spiritual ceremonies of some Indigenous peoples of America has recently become trendy in the dominant culture to “clear negative spaces”. This is cultural appropriation because Indigenous Americans have been, and still are, fighting a cultural genocide led by the dominant culture that has brutally punished Indigenous Americans for their spiritual practices for hundreds of years. This is just one example of cultural appropriation. There are several other elements that have been appropriated by the dominant culture that many of us practice without realizing it.
Appreciating other cultures is wonderful. Sharing helps connect cultures and leads to a positive understanding of each other.
How can we share each other’s cultures without exploiting them?
Understand your own culture and beliefs. How do you expect to appreciate and understand another person’s culture if you don’t first understand your own?
Listen to other cultures. Do not assume you understand someone else’s culture. Listen to their stories and understand the aspects of their culture. It is okay to purchase and use elements of another culture (generally; sensitive cultural aspects may be entirely inappropriate to own/partake in) as long as you understand and have listened to the significance behind it. If you just take an element without understanding the cultural significance behind it, then it is cultural appropriation.
Do not claim a symbol of another culture as your own. There are certain symbols in various cultures that are used for intimate purposes. Do not take these without permission and without understanding. Would you want someone to take an important symbol of your culture and tell you that it is now theirs and carries a completely different meaning?
Embrace cultural differences. Just talk! Engage with people of other cultures and discuss your differences. Don’t be prejudiced towards people who go against the norm of your own culture. Prejudice fosters discrimination.
-Pierce Rasmussen, CULTURE Society Incorporated