Cultural appropriation is a common topic nowadays. However, its concept is not quite clear for many, for its delineation from cultural appreciation is separated by a thin line. This essay seeks to clarify this difference by defining cultural appropriation and expounding on its characteristics, as well as discussing its negative impact on marginalized groups.

The world today is truly globalized and diverse. Everywhere, cultural exchanges occur daily as people from different cultures interact. Others, as with migrants, first-generation immigrants, and biracial individuals, straddle between two or more cultures. As a result, culture has become more complex. People of different cultures often partake in practices that are not originally from their culture and artists may sometimes take inspiration from other cultural practices. These practices, however, are not all the same—some are respectful while others are offensive and exploitative. The latter has become known as cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation has been a popular controversial debate topic in the past years, with numerous celebrities and companies being accused of appropriating another culture, such as Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Victoria’s Secret, and Marc Jacobs (Welk, 2018). With every accusation, of course, comes defenders who argue that their actions are a form of cultural appreciation. Indeed, the lines between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation are blurred, which is why it is imperative to define cultural appropriation and delineate it from cultural appreciation. The author attempts to establish a definition of cultural appropriation based on theories and current discourse in the succeeding definition essay. Cultural appropriation may be defined as the adoption of a culture or certain elements of a culture from a marginalized group by a member of the dominant group for the purpose of gaining power, whether economic or social. 

Concepts and Misconceptions of Cultural Appropriation

The term “cultural appropriation” can be traced back to Kenneth Coutts-Smith’s notion of cultural colonialism, which he fused with the Marxist concept of class appropriation or the practice of the higher class defining “high culture”, sparked the discourse regarding cultural appropriation (“Cultural Appropriation,” n.d.).  Modern notions of cultural appropriation are that it is an amalgamation of various cultural theories and discourse, such as Edward Said’s Orientalism which asserted that the West’s notion of the “orient” motivated colonialism and the pillaging of its cultures (Kane, 2021). Thus, the concept of cultural appropriation is based on the imbalanced power struggle between the colonized or the formerly colonized and the colonizer or the former colonizer. 

Cultural appropriation is closely tied with cultural diffusion, acculturation, assimilation, and cultural exchange as well, which are all forms of transference between cultures. Cultural diffusion, a term coined by Edward Taylor, is the distribution or exchange of cultures through direct, indirect, and forced diffusion (Chen, Huang, & Dorsey, 2021). Acculturation also differs from cultural appropriation in that the latter is the natural process of an individual adapting to the prevailing culture in their societal context while maintaining their distinct cultural identity (Cole, 2019). Assimilation, meanwhile, is the process of the minority culture commingling with the dominant culture and eventually becoming indistinguishable with it (Cole, 2018). All these processes are products of the intermingling of cultures as well as colonialism. 

A concept that emerged in recent discourses regarding cultural appropriation is its purported opposite—cultural appreciation. The concept of cultural appreciation is rooted in appreciation of a culture different from one’s own. This involves seeking to explore, understand, and honor the culture’s beliefs and traditions (Kane, 2021; Chen, Huang, & Dorsey, 2021). Participating in a culture to understand and honor it is different from cultural appropriation because it does not perpetuate harmful stereotypes nor does it reduce the culture into a trend. Cultural appreciation further seeks to understand the social and historical contexts of the culture. 

Cultural Appropriation: Definition

Cultural appropriation is a form of exploitation of a culture from a minority or marginalized community. The notion that one culture can be exploited is stemmed from histories of colonialism. In the past, it is common practice among colonizers to erase indigenous cultures and replace it with their own, then take its artifacts back to their home country to sell for profit (Garcia-Olp, 2018). In more modern times, minority immigrant cultures have experienced discrimination and ridicule due to aspects of their culture deemed too unconventional for Western society. For many minorities and immigrants, their culture has become a source of distress and shame, and many have felt compelled to hide their culture and assimilate with western culture. So, when an individual, group, or company that belongs to the dominant culture that originally tried to erase indigenous cultures and discriminated peoples takes an element of a culture and uses it, the practice is hurtful, demeaning, and offensive to the culture and its people. This is what has been termed cultural appropriation.

Denotative definitions of cultural appropriation center around exploitative motivations and practices. Chen, Huang, & Dorsey (2021) emphasize on the adoption of cultural elements by a dominant culture that is often done without understanding of the cultural element’s significance and often at the expense of the original culture. Lack of respect for the cultural significance of elements and using it for economic or social gain is another aspect that George Lipsitz zeroes in on in his definition of cultural appropriation (as cited in Kane, 2021). To synthesize these definitions, cultural appropriation is characterized by cherry-picking of cultural elements without honoring or intending to understand its cultural significance and context for the sake of personal economic or social gain. In doing so, the appropriator demeans and disrespects the culture even without intending to do so. 

Examples of Cultural Appropriation

Cultures are complex and ever-changing, especially in today’s globalized world. This is one of the many social impacts of the Internet. As the concept of cultural diffusion and acculturation demonstrates, cultures commonly intermingle and merge naturally (Cole, 2019). So, determining which practices should be considered cultural appropriation tends to be confusing. However, there are instances when cultural appropriation is clear, and analyzing them would help clarify the idea. 

One of the most common and perhaps oldest examples of cultural appropriation is the use of identities and stereotypes as Halloween costumes. These costumes dehumanize the people it depicts and trivializes their struggles for the purpose of a leisurely activity. Another layer of disrespect is added to costumes using symbols that have sacred meanings to its culture. Such costumes are deemed cultural appropriation because its wearers do not understand the meanings of these symbols and stereotypes they depict and in wearing them as a costume, they fail to recognize its people as humans worthy of respect.

Another instance of cultural appropriation is Kim Kardashian’s earrings featuring the Om symbol for the promotion of her beauty brand (O’Neill, 2021). The Om symbol is sacred in Hinduism and is worn to express devotion to the religion (O’Neill, 2021). Kardashian notably turned the sacred symbol into an accessory meant to add aesthetic value to her marketing endeavors, which trivializes its cultural significance. Kardashian is poised to economically and socially gain from the use of the Om symbols had she not been criticized for it. It is extremely disrespectful for Hindus to use a sacred symbol for commercial purposes, and by a non-Hindu (O’Neill, 2021).

What these examples have in common is that sacred and culturally significant elements or symbols are trivialized into accessories and costumes due to the appropriator’s lack of knowledge and understanding of the original culture. It is often clear, too, that the appropriators do not have the intention of learning about the culture or raising awareness about it. Furthermore, only the appropriators stand to gain from such use of the elements, while the people from its original culture continue to be discriminated against or continue to exist in the margins. 

So, to summarize, cultural appropriation is the act of taking or borrowing an element of a culture from a minority or marginalized group for economic or social gains. Cultural appropriation differs from a minority group adopting or assimilating a dominant culture because minorities learn the dominant culture from a position of weakness, and it is often forced upon them for survival. Thus, in such instances, the minorities do not gain from adopting the dominant culture. Whereas the appropriator, through the economic gains and social reverence they get through culturally appropriated elements, exercise and perpetrate the power imbalances rooted in the history of colonization.

The Dangers of Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is not unacceptable merely because it offends some people. This concept, as explained earlier, is rooted in post-colonial politics. In fact, the practice is offensive because of its negative impact on minority and marginalized groups. 

As partially discussed in earlier sections, to see people from other cultures profit off or succeed by misusing meaningful cultural elements from people who experienced discrimination, bullying, and have fallen victim to hate crimes because of their culture is traumatizing for these groups (Checn, Huang, & Dorsey, 2021). Furthermore, it trivializes and rubs salt on the wounds caused by modern racism. Not to mention, turning a culture into an accessory or some other marketable product—to commercialize it—is exploitative and disrespectful. It turns sacred and meaningful elements into commodities divorced from the historical and cultural context of its people. 

Moreover, cultural appropriation involves using only certain elements of a culture without understanding of its relevance or meaning. Such practices promote ignorance of other cultures, which propagates harmful and hurtful stereotypes (Chen, Huang, & Dorsey, 2021). Although famous people’s use of these cultural elements is sometimes viewed as representation, it often falls short genuinely providing healthy representation (Bradford, 2017). Cultural appropriation also merely propagates the imbalanced power between minorities and dominant groups (Chen, Huang, & Dorsey, 2021). Appropriators can remove or discard the elements they appropriated once it is no longer useful or deemed “cool” but the people from whose culture it was stolen cannot do so as easily.

Conclusion

Cultural appropriation is not a mere buzzword used to cancel famous individuals. Rather, it is a theory that explains the experiences of marginalized groups when their culture is exploited for monetary gains and fashion purposes. Cultural appropriation is different from cultural diffusion, acculturation, assimilation, and cultural exchange through which society achieved multiculturalism because it takes advantage of a minority group’s culture without respect or understanding. Cultural appropriation, as defined in this essay, is the practice of adopting a culture or certain elements of a culture from a marginalized group by a member of the dominant group for personal gains. This action serves to benefit only the individual who appropriates while ignoring or even having a negative impact on the marginalized group. It is important to learn the definition and characteristics of cultural appropriation in today’s diverse world so that individuals can avoid disrespecting another’s culture, as well as teach those who may not be aware of their appropriative actions. 

A definition essay is useful in both hard and soft sciences. This example demonstrates the definition essay as it is used for a topic in sociology. The definition essay, while following the basic essay structure, has unique requirements from the more common argumentative essay. CustomEssayMeister can help you write a definition essay for any topic. 


References

Bradford, K. T. (2017, June 28). Commentary: Cultural appropriation is, in fact, indefensible. Code Switch – NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/06/28/533818685/cultural-appropriation-is-in-fact-indefensible

Chen, E., Huang, E., & Dorsey, J. (2021, February 18). Understanding Cultural Appropriation. Studio Atao. https://www.studioatao.org/post/understanding-cultural-appropriation

Cole, N. L. (2018, January 26). How different cultural groups become more alike. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/assimilation-definition-4149483

Cole, N. L. (2019, November 8). Understanding acculturation and why it happens. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/acculturation-definition-3026039

Garcia-Olp, M. (2018, August 1). How colonization impacts identity through the generations: A closer look at historical trauma and education. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Denver. Digital Commons @ DU. https://digitalcommons.du.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2487&context=etd

Kane, J. E. (2021, July 8). What is cultural appropriation, and how does it differ from cultural appreciation? The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/what-is-cultural-appropriation-and-how-does-it-differ-from-cultural-appreciation-162331

Welk, B. (2018, July 9). 15 celebrities who have been accused of ‘cultural appropriation,’ from Katy Perry to Zac Efron (Photos). The Wrap. https://www.thewrap.com/celebrities-who-have-been-accused-of-cultural-appropriation-photos/