According to Wikipedia, cultural appropriation deals with “the adoption of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.”
Today, this term is often used to describe someone’s misuse of an aspect of another culture. Usually, the someone is a caucasian and the other culture is a minority culture. Cultural appropriation is a highly debated topic that shows up in news and media almost daily, yet no one really agrees on where that fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is.
To me, the difference between the two is that the cultural appropriation we widely condemn today plucks an important aspect of a minority culture that has traditionally been viewed as inferior and turns that aspect into something that’s suddenly “fashionable” and “trendy”, while cultural appreciation could take that same aspect and showcase it with respect, attributing credit to the original culture.
I’ve seen many posts addressing blatant cultural appropriation.
For example, a Caucasian wearing Native American headdress to Coachella is undeniably cultural appropriation. There is no way anyone can suddenly decide that a culture they had killed and exiled for centuries was suddenly trendy and that the previously mocked culture is now suddenly a way for corporations to profit off of. Blackface, yellowface, and redface are all openly racist and deserve the criticism it has received. There may even be more action necessary to combat these actions.
While most accusations of cultural appropriation in our society today are fully justified, I can’t help but feel like some accusations have gone overboard.
Don’t get me wrong. I despise racist cultural appropriation and misinterpretations of my culture, and I would never hesitate to stick up for it.
However, to me, just because someone adopts an element of another culture, that does not mean it is automatically the cultural appropriation we attack today. If we define cultural appropriation using Wikipedia’s definition, then it is not only inevitable but also not inherently racist. There are ways to appropriate elements of a culture and to show respect for it at the same time.
A few years ago, a mother was accused of cultural appropriation for throwing her daughter a Japanese themed party. People called her a racist and told her to educate herself about cultural appropriation.
However, most people who protested this example of a Caucasian wearing a Japanese kimono were not Japanese or of Japanese descent and were actually highly misinformed about the kimono.
Contrary to these criticisms, opinion polls in Japan, as well as the overall mindset in the kimono industry, actually do not view Caucasians wearing kimonos as cultural appropriation. In fact, many in the kimono industry and many Japanese encourage this kind of practice so that there could be higher sales in the industry and higher awareness of Japanese culture.
Recently, students have started to claim that their college dining halls were culturally appropriating their food. These dining halls would claim to serve “ramen” or “banh mi”, but the actual food served ends up not resembling nor tasting like these foods.
While some call this cultural appropriation, I view this as simply the college’s genuine attempt to try to be more inclusive and diversify the food that they served. Personally, when my school’s dining hall claims to be serving fried rice, I know that the food would definitely not taste like the fried rice I eat at home or in Taiwan, but I still appreciate my school’s efforts recognize my culture on campus.
This is why I have my reservations about our society’s current interpretation of cultural appropriation.
Cultural exchange and cultural appreciation are crucial to a wider mutual understanding among races, yet we’re seeing instances where white kids are afraid to dress up as Moana for Halloween in fear of being accused of cultural appropriation. If someone adopts an element of another culture while being respectful about it, taking the time to learn about the history and meaning of it, they should be able to do so.
So, while Karlie Kloss’s Indian headdress at the Victoria Secret’s fashion show depicts blatant cultural appropriation, we should not criticize every instance of one people adopting another culture without understanding how these people are doing so.