What’s the Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation?

Courtesy of Elephant Journal

Courtesy of Elephant Journal

Jarune Uwujaren explains that there needs to be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true exchange.

Cultural appropriation is a term that isn’t often heard in daily conversation, which means it’s inevitably misunderstood by those who feel attacked by feminists, sociologically-informed bloggers, and others who use the term.

Many a white person sporting dreadlocks or a bindi online has taken cultural appropriation to mean the policing of what white people can or can’t wear and enjoy.

Having considered their fashion choices a form of personal expression, some may feel unfairly targeted for simply dressing and acting in a way that feels comfortable for them.

The same can be said for those who find criticisms of the Harlem Shake meme and whatever it is Miley Cyrus did last month to be an obnoxious form of hipsterdom – just because something has origins in black culture, they say, doesn’t mean white artists can’t emulate and enjoy it.

And then there are people who believe that everything is cultural appropriation – from the passing around of gun powder to the worldwide popularity of tea.

They’re tired of certain forms of cultural appropriation – like models in Native American headdresses – being labeled as problematic while many of us are gorging on Chipotle burritos, doing yoga, and popping sushi into our mouths with chopsticks.

They have a point.

Where do we draw the line between “appropriate” forms of cultural exchange and more damaging patterns of cultural appropriation?

To be honest, I don’t know that there is a thin, straight line between them.

But even if the line between exchange and appropriation bends, twists, and loop-de-loops in ways it would take decades of academic thought to unpack, it has a definite starting point: Respect.

What Cultural Exchange Is Not

One of the reasons that cultural appropriation is a hard concept to grasp for so many is that Westerners are used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.

We tend to think of this as cultural exchange when really, it’s no more an exchange than pressuring your neighbors to adopt your ideals while stealing their family heirlooms.

True cultural exchange is not the process of “Here’s my culture, I’ll have some of yours” that we sometimes think it is. It’s something that should be mutual.

Just because Indian Americans wear business suits doesn’t mean all Americans own bindis and saris. Just because some black Americans straighten their hair doesn’t mean all Americans own dreadlocks.

The fact is, Western culture invites and, at times, demands assimilation. Not every culture has chosen to open itself up to being adopted by outsiders in the same way.

And there’s good reason for that.

“Ethnic” clothes and hairstyles are still stigmatized as unprofessional, “cultural” foods are treated as exotic past times, and the vernacular of people of color is ridiculed and demeaned.

So there is an unequal exchange between Western culture – an all-consuming mishmash of over-simplified and sellable foreign influences with a dash each of Coke and Pepsi – and marginalized cultures.

People of all cultures wear business suits and collared shirts to survive. But when one is of the dominant culture, adopting the clothing, food, or slang of other cultures has nothing to do with survival.

So as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.

Because for those of us who have felt forced and pressured to change the way we look, behave, and speak just to earn enough respect to stay employed and safe, our modes of self-expression are still limited.

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is consistently treated as lesser than Standard English, but people whitewash black slang and use expressions they barely understand as punch lines, or to make themselves seem cool.

People shirk “ethnic” clothes in corporate culture, but wear bastardized versions of them on Halloween.

There is no exchange, understanding, or respect in such cases – only taking.

What Cultural Exchange Can Look Like

That doesn’t mean that cultural exchange never happens, or that we can never partake in one another’s cultures. But there needs to be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true exchange.

I remember that at my sister’s wedding, the groom – who happened to be white – changed midway through the ceremony along with my sister into modern, but fairly traditional, Nigerian clothes.

Even though some family members found it amusing, there was never any undertone of the clothes being treated as a costume or “experience” for a white person to enjoy for a little bit and discard later. He was invited – both as a new family member and a guest – to engage our culture in this way.

If he had been obnoxious about it – treated it as exotic or weird or pretended he now understood what it means to be Nigerian and refused to wear Western clothes ever again – the experience would have been more appropriative.

But instead, he wore them from a place of respect.

That’s what cultural exchange can look like – engaging with a culture as a respectful and humble guest, invitation only.

Don’t overstay your welcome. Don’t pretend to be a part of the household. Don’t make yourself out to be an honored guest whom the householders should be grateful to entertain and educate for hours on end.

Don’t ask a bunch of personal questions or make light of something that’s clearly a sore spot. Just act like any polite house guest would by being attentive and knowing your boundaries.

If, instead, you try to approach another culture as a mooch, busybody, or interloper, you will be shown the door. It’s that simple.

Well, maybe not as simple when you move beyond the metaphor and into the real world. If you’re from a so-called melting pot nation, you know what’s it’s like to be a perpetual couch surfer moving through the domains of many cultures.

Where Defining Cultural Appropriation Gets Messy

Is the Asian fusion takeout I order every week culturally appropriative? Even though I’m Black, is wearing dreadlocks appropriating forms of religious expression that really don’t belong to me?

Is meditating cultural appropriation? Is Western yoga appropriation? Is eating a burrito, cosplaying, being truly fascinated by another culture, decorating with Shoji screens, or wearing a headscarf cultural appropriation?

There are so many things that have been chopped up, recolored, and tossed together to make up Western culture that even when we know things are appropriative in some way, we find them hard to let go of.

And then there are the things that have been freely shared by other cultures –Buddhism for example – that have been both respected and bastardized at different turns in the process of exchange.

At times, well-meaning people who struggle with their own appropriative behavior turn to textbooks, online comment boards, Google, and Tumblr ask boxes in search of a clear cut answer to the question, “Is this [insert pop culture thing, hairstyle, tattoo, or personal behavior here] cultural appropriation?”

That’s a question we have to educate ourselves enough to, if not answer, think critically about.

We have a responsibility to listen to people of marginalized cultures, understand as much as possible the blatant and subtle ways in which their cultures have been appropriated and exploited, and educate ourselves enough to make informed choices when it comes to engaging with people of other cultures.

So if you’re reading this and you’re tired of people giving white women wearing bindis crap for appropriating because “freedom of speech,” recognize that pointing out cultural appropriation is not personal.

This isn’t a matter of telling people what to wear. It’s a matter of telling people that they don’t wear things in a vacuum and there are many social and historical implications to treating marginalized cultures like costumes.

It’s also not a matter of ignoring “real” issues in favor of criticizing the missteps of a few hipsters, fashion magazines, or baseball teams.

Cultural appropriation is itself a real issue because it demonstrates the imbalance of power that still remains between cultures that have been colonized and the ex-colonizers.

Regardless, this is not an article asking you to over-analyze everything you do and wrack yourself with guilt.

Because honestly, no one cares about your guilt, no one cares about your hurt feelings, and no one cares about your clothes or hair when they’re pointing out cultural appropriation.

When someone’s behavior is labeled culturally appropriative, it’s usually not about that specific person being horrible and evil.

It’s about a centuries’ old pattern of taking, stealing, exploiting, and misunderstanding the history and symbols that are meaningful to people of marginalized cultures.

The intentions of the inadvertent appropriator are irrelevant in this context.

Therefore, what this article is asking you to do is educate yourself, listen, and be open to reexamining the symbols you use without thinking, the cultures you engage with without understanding, and the historical and social climate we all need to be seeing.



Post and image originally appeared at Everyday Feminism


Also read Poster Puts the Racism of the Cleveland Indians Iconography Into Context  


Jarune Uwujaren is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. A Nigerian-American recent graduate who’s stumbling towards a career in writing, Jarune can currently be found drifting around the DC metro area with a phone or a laptop nearby. When not writing for fun or profit, Jarune enjoys food, fresh air, good books, drawing, poetry, and sci-fi. Read her articles here.



About Everyday Feminism

Everyday Feminism supports people dealing with everyday violence, dominance, and silencing due to their gender, sexual orientation, race, class, and more. Through our online magazine and upcoming online school for applied feminism, we help people apply feminism to their real lives in order to work through issues, stand up for themselves, and live their truth. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter!


  1. The problem is is that people just ASSUME we are being disrespectful and see the thing we are appropriating as being “exotic” or a “fad” and not just a part of or lives that we’ve come to adopt because we learnt it from someone we were inspired to emulate within our multicultural society.

    Take dreadlocks for example, cry-appropriators will always accuse white people of wearing dreadlocks because we see it as a “fad” when they have no fucking idea why we wear dreadlocks.

    The fact is I use ideas from “other cultures” because I see them as a perfectly viable part of life and an unavoidable result of growing up in a multicultural society. This is also why find insistence that I have to be “invited to their culture” daft; multiculture is the culture I grew up in, I didn’t consent to it, I didn’t invite “their” culture into my life, it became a part of mine whether I like it or not.

  2. “Because honestly, no one cares about your guilt, no one cares about your hurt feelings, and no one cares about your clothes or hair when they’re pointing out cultural appropriation.”

    The problem with this kind of comment, and the article, and attitudes directed at cultural appropriation (not to mention the catch-all criticism of white people moving into “others'” neighborhoods as gentrification) is that it demands consideration on the part of the “privileged” individual, and no-one else. If no one cares about how I perceive things then why should I care about how they perceive things. It also treats white people as a monolithic cultural entity. It’s very possible someone who is perceived as being a privileged white person grew up poor and disenfranchised. But evidently that person has to deem themselves privileged in order to realize they have to watch what fashion trends they follow.

  3. “When someone’s behavior is labeled culturally appropriative, it’s usually not about that specific person being horrible and evil.”

    That *should* be the case, but all too often it’s not – and that becomes immediately apparent when you try to discuss it. In most cases when I, as an American of mixed European ancestry, try to have an open, honest and logical discussion about cultural appropriation, the other person *immediately* resorts to name-calling, insults and “la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you” behaviors. The message is clear: their *perception* of what’s happening is the only thing that matters, and if I disagree on a particular point (like whether it’s okay for white Americans to use native plants rather than the European versions our ancestors used for whatever purpose), then I’m just a clueless, privileged imperialist.

  4. Just a response to the initial meme: yes my ancestors killed them. My ancestors killed lots of people. And so did yours. And so did everybody’s. I’m all for try to repair the lingering harm done by these past injustices, it’s more in the spirit of universal human progress than any particular attempt to remedy specific past injustices.

  5. Interesting article. Just one point: Buddhism, Islam (wearing a headscarf) and Hinduism (Yoga) are not “cultures” they are religions. Most religions should be treated with the same respect that “western” culture is – that is to say none – because like western culture they both invite and demand followers to engage in their practices. There are some religions, the Amish religion and Judaism for example, that are excluded from this, because they do not invite new followers.

    As a person of Irish descent, I’m not crazy about the riotous St Pat’s day nonsense, but I could hardly justify the same disdain for the growing indulgence in Catholic practices such as nativity plays, passion plays etc by people who know little about it.

  6. This article seemed like such a waste of time. Take the image for example of the white hipster wearing a head dress, offensive no? Maybe. It’s trivializes a culture that to me was far more beautiful. But when’s the last time you were in an Indian reservation? Because I have been to several recently and let me tell you, there’s plenty of trivialization of that culture going on there, by people that supposedly “own” that culture. So hate the hipsters because they are young and uneducated but really shouldn’t you be feeling more sorry for them, that they are in that sad of a place?

    I question how much of a culture anyone owns these days anyways. To the author for example, is she FROM Nigeria? Is that her authentic culture? It is that something she thought she should look into because her parents are Nigerian? I am Polish mostly, my grandfather escaped from a Nazi camp and eventually made his way to America. I have very little connection to “Polish Culture” and have been all around the country and can tell you that there is a disconnect for the modern poles as well.

    The world has changed and different people are trying on different culture and in a way it IS a costume change, but that’s OK. That’s the nature of culture, you take what works from your neighbors and you leave what doesn’t feel right to you. Should the hipsters in the image walk around with guilt for what their ancestors have done? Chances are they are just from European descent, and what percentage of Europeans came to this country well after the Native American culture had been destroyed. The problem is people that see in groups to begin with. There’s a subtle racism or maybe “culturism” that should be acknowledged there.

    Learn to not be offended by anything. You are the result of your ancestors but where is the nobleness in holding steadfast to their way of life when due to technological change yours is extremely different. We have an opportunity to explore other cultures and when someone is new to a new culture, most of te time, they are NOT going to get it right, but it’s better than them staying in Tennessee their whole lives don’t you think?

    • Yes, thank you for posting that. I really do not understand how people have done it but they have consistently mistaken racism, sexism, classism, and any other form of prejudice for “cultural appropriation.” I think that the real problem is people being WAY too fucking concerned about what others do with their time. Really? You’re Indian and you get super pissed when people walk around with a bindi? Last time I checked, that had to do with religion, not ethnicity or race. Now who’s the prejudiced one? It’s just such a tired and silly complaint. Oppression was oppression. I think people would get irritated if the people who came to their land killed their families and then wore a headdress, for example. But while I do think headdresses are super awesome and cool, I never murdered anyone’s family. It’s time for middle aged and old people to STFU and let young people spread the love throughout the world!

    • I don’t think you quite get it. Cultures don’t stay constant, but natural change comes from within, by it’s own people. It’s not for you, an outsider, to decide what counts as genuine Native American culture and what trivializes it, because that’s forcing a specific image unto other people, without any insight into the their lives. Surely, you can see why that’s wrong?

      Furthermore, a culture is not made by simply taking what you like from your neighbor; a culture is set of practices, beliefs, etc, formed collectively by similar peoples, over time, that they live with. Every cultural element is rich with history and meaning, but by taking it out of it’s natural context, you rob it of it’s significance. For example, to a white hipster, wearing a Native American headdress and warpaint is silly decoration. They do not live this way, nor are they discriminated against for wearing it. To Native Americans, though, this is continuing a historical trend of white people forcefully taking and exploiting Native American culture and using it purporting negative stereotypes about them. It shows that white people have learnt nothing from history, and continue to think of Native American voices as unimportant.

      See, the problem isn’t that we notice differences between people; acknowledging our differences isn’t racist. The problem is a lack of empathy towards those different to us. Instead of telling people to stop being offended, try to understand WHY they’re offended.

  7. Even better, here is Jen’s website: http://jenmussari.com/

  8. Hi y’all, perhaps a bit off topic, but I have an problem with your image credit, which was drawn by Jen Mussari. Original posting link is here: http://jenmussari.deviantart.com/art/You-Don-t-Look-NativeAmerican-116979272
    What is Elephant Journal? Why is the credit not linked? If it was, would that be adequate representation for Jen and her original and creative work? Work that is helping you to illustrate your point and gain attention to your cause? What is this article about, again?

    With respect, but seriously, show some.

  9. Very nice article with clear explanations of cultural appropriation vs. cultural exchange. I’d like to offer one critique, though: there’s nothing uniquely Western, or even colonial, about cultural appropriation. Take South Korea for example- a nation a culture that has been historically oppressed, first as a Chinese vassal and then as a colony of Japan. Modern South Korea appropriates African and Native American cultures, among others, for cheap gags, music videos, and fast food commercials. And South Korea is only one example; similar issues have arisen in even less economically powerful non-Western and previously colonized nations such as Thailand. It’s also very important to monitor contemporary non-Western powers for the disparagement of other cultures; Chinese nationalism and theocratic Middle Eastern states alike oppress minority cultures on a daily basis.

    This is also important not because it shifts blame or focus from cultural appropriation in Western societies, but because it makes the proposition of cultural appropriation much more convincing and connected with a more universal phenomenon: power. It’s not just some unfortunate feature of Western society that will disappear from the world if the West reforms itself.

    • wellokaythen says:

      Small historical point that my Thai friends would be very quick to point out:

      Thailand was never a colony, at least not in the past 1000 years or so. They faced colonial pressures and may have been unfairly treated by imperial powers like France and Britain, but they were never a colony. In fact, it’s a point of national pride that they never were. Thailand managed quite successfully to play the Europeans off of each other and arm themselves with modern weapons. Same with Ethiopia.

  10. The best way for me to process the information in this highly thought-provoking article is by giving an example of someone who does not engage in cultural appropriation: Stephen Scott, who became interested in the Amish and Mennonite way of life, adopted their dress for the same religious reasons, and joined a related group called the River Brethren. He has also authored several books on the traditions of these peoples.

  11. “This isn’t a matter of telling people what to wear. It’s a matter of telling people that they don’t wear things in a vacuum and there are many social and historical implications to treating marginalized cultures like costumes.”

    You hit the nail on the head right here.

  12. Rosella Chibambo says:

    This is an incredibly thoughtful and important piece. I’m always perturbed by the number of white people who seem more interested in regurgitating tired and privileged lines about freedom of expression and feeling oppressed when people ask them not to demean and disrespect their cultures through appropriation. I hope more people take these opportunities to digest what people of colour are telling them through clear and understandable explanations of the painful impact of appropriation. If you can minimize harm to already marginalized groups of people, why not do it? No one has asked for legal ramifications for appropriation, merely respect and the acknowledgement of your privilege.

  13. Mathieson says:

    “Cultural appropriation is itself a real issue because it demonstrates the imbalance of power that still remains between cultures that have been colonized and the ex-colonizers.”

    That’s why it isn’t a real issue – like you said, the real issue is the imbalance of power. And spending time focused upon the symptoms rather than the cause (the imbalance of power) is alienating and counterproductive in the long run.

    • I disagree. Cultural appropriation will not magically disappear once the imbalance of power is corrected, and by raising awareness of the “symptoms”, are you not, in turn, working towards fixing the larger problem, anyway?

      I think the point of these types of essays is not draw focus onto a single “symptom”, but to make us think more critically about all of our interactions with other cultures.

  14. Darnell_Krabs says:

    Never in the history of communication have people tried to extrapolate knowledge from the superfluous. Shall the Turks spread their butt-cheeks after every interaction? Shall the Japanese feel guilt from being past conquerors? You feeble minded dweebs will argue yourselves into a black hole before you reach any kind of satisfactory conclusion. Brain farts and mental masturbation is what you clowns are good at.

  15. Eternally Confused says:

    I was recently given a genuine, handwoven Navajo-print blanket that was purchased from a reservation in New Mexico. I love it. It’s visually inspiring, practical, and just plain gorgeous.

    Meanwhile, it has managed to spark a spirited debate amongst my friends, some of whom are divided by my apparent lack of ‘cultural sensitivity.’

    As is usually the situation with topics of this nature, I derived nothing of value from this article to satisfy my constant feelings of hypersensitivity (no offence author). Is it ‘okay’ to be a white, anglo-saxon 20-something and own a garment / fabric of this distinction, even with the best of intentions?

    Not trying to bait, genuine curiosity.

  16. I tried to come up with some criteria for what is and is not cultural appropriation. It is about power, mostly.

  17. I think you are spot on here 100%!! Appreciation and interest in other cultures is a great thing, but blind, ignorant or disrespectful appropriation is not.

    I think what needs to be understood though about white people is that we don’t do it out of malice. We do it because we are incredibly boring and have no culture of our own. So a lot of young people are looking for something to fill the culture void in their lives.

  18. Interesting. Funny enough, I ran across this tumblr post today (take a look – the short version is: some girl accuses another girl of “cultural appropriation” because she does yoga and has dreads, but isn’t desi or black): http://whiteopinionsrwhiteopinions.tumblr.com/post/63655397309/earthysoul-whiteopinionsrwhiteopinions

    In contrast to the writer at the GoodMenProject, the tumblr blog (and the links she provides) argues that yoga and dreads are cultural appropriation. I bring this up because it illustrates the variety of opinions that exist, which suggests that there’s some real subjectivity going on.

    She says that it should be an “exchange”, which sounds nice, but the questions that came to my mind were:
    (1) How are wearing dreads part of an exchange? How is eating a burrito part of an exchange?
    (2) In some cases, minorities don’t want the influence of Western culture on their lives. (Cue turning “cultural exchange” into “cultural imperialism” or some other scary phrase. In many cases, there’s a conflict within a culture about Western practices – lookup how angry Hindu nationalists get about Valentine’s Day being celebrated in India.) The reality is that, in every society, there’s a range of opinions about adopting foreign cultural practices, and there are nationalists in every country that want to keep their own culture free of foreign practices. In Pakistan and Iraq, muslim extremists have killed people for wearing shorts or having “Western style” haircuts. What does “cultural exchange” even mean when every society has a range of opinions on your use of their cultural practices, and their use of your cultural practices?

    Why are dreads okay? The author never really explains why dreads aren’t an example of cultural appropriation. She hints that it lies somewhere on that spectrum and says it’s religious (Rastafarian and East-Indian), which means she’d be guilty of “cultural appropriation”. It also makes me think that what constitutes “cultural appropriation” is based on how common something already is. If something is rare, it’s cultural appropriation. But, since dreads and yoga are common in 21st century America, it ceases to be cultural appropriation? (“Nah, it’s not cultural appropriation anymore – we’re all familiar with it now.”) This would suggest that these things were “cultural appropriation” 50 years ago. Should we continue to utilize cultural artifacts that were originally “appropriated” or is it time to “give them back” (as if we were talking about an object which can only be in the possession of one person at a time)? I also worry about the kinds of “cultural segregation” it creates – when we say that certain cultural artifacts (food, clothes, fabric patterns, tattoos, piercings, music, dancing styles, etc) are only available to people of certain ethnicities, and how that harms and limits human culture globally.

    At worst, with no clear lines, this can devolve into: people who are extremely sensitive about culture can find ways to attack people for “cultural appropriation” or get hung up on believing extreme ideas about what “cultural appropriation” is. It can also result in people getting very legalistic about the things people are and are not allowed to do. This could be fueled by:
    (1) A desire to feel superior to others (Example: “I respect other people’s culture, unlike all those dumb white people”).
    (2) An overarching sense of ownership over their culture and a desire to control it and monetize it. When I was younger, I remember hearing that East Asians were not happy about white people taking martial arts to the West. They wanted ownership over martial arts and thought there was something wrong with white people teaching martial arts to other white people. This might’ve been rooted an ethnic pride or a desire to monopolize the teaching of martial arts, manifesting itself as a desire to keep martial arts limited to people of their own ethnic group.
    (3) A desire to deprive other people of one’s culture, perhaps as revenge. Example: “I hate the things that white people have done, and the concept of cultural appropriation allows me deprive white people of my/others cultures (or alternatively) if they fail to respond to my complaints about cultural appropriation, it props up my belief that white people are oblivious and insensitive jerks”.
    (4) A high-minded hypersensitivity to all things ethnic. (Which would most likely manifest itself by complaining about white people’s “cultural appropriation” but ignoring instances of ethnic people’s “cultural appropriation”.)

    Personally, I’m more of a “live and let live” kind of person. I don’t really like excessive rules or legalism. Many of the examples of “bad cultural appropriation” seem to be less about the actual “cultural appropriation” and more about: reinforcing bad stereotypes about certain ethnicities (for example, in the picture you posted earlier, someone commented about the woman in an indian headdress drinking and how the alcohol made it more inappropriate), using things in a very trivial way when they are considered sacred (e.g. headdresses), reminding people of historical injustice (and the irritation of seeing a larger population which is connected to that historical injustice using “your” cultural artifacts), or mocking people. Maybe that’s what’s really going on here – why the author of the article seems to pick and choose which things are labelled “cultural appropriation” while other things are not.

    > “So as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.”

    Or maybe it’s just an exercise in free expression. Besides, I think the author just (accidentally) implied that minorities are exercising “privilege” when they use anything outside their own ethnicity that isn’t strictly based on survival. This would mean, for example, that a poor ethnic minority is exercising “privilege” if they eat Indian food, have dreads, do yoga, or wear flannel (“Hey, poor Mexican worker, flannel is Scottish and you should be ashamed of exercising your privilege for wearing it!” or “Hey African person who is not Rastafarian, you should be ashamed of exercising your privilege by wearing dreads!”).

    I could easily see the concept of “cultural appropriation” devolving into cultural segregation being enforced by a new kind of fashion police. I could see this devolution being fueled by one of the four motives I listed earlier.

    In the end, it seems like some of this cultural appropriation stuff is about an emotional uncomfortableness about certain people using certain cultural items, which is then followed by a desire to define where that line is, but the whole thing is pretty subjective. Stuff like dreads and yoga seem to get a “pass” because we’re all so familiar with it now that it seems weird to label it “cultural appropriation”. But “my familiarity with a thing” is a really weird standard for right and wrong.

    I also disliked how she used emotionally-charged words to try to press her point. For example, “It’s about a centuries’ old pattern of taking, stealing, exploiting, and misunderstanding the history and symbols that are meaningful to people of marginalized cultures.” – except that her definition of cultural appropriation is about more than that. Based on her earlier writing, she implies that minorities are fully capable of “culturally appropriating” the cultural artifacts of other cultures, and that minories are capable of “culturally appropriating” things from white culture. She would like to believe that adopting white culture is only about “survival”, but that’s not true. There’s a lot of white/european culture that isn’t about survival. One easy example: http://nicoleisthenewblack.com/2011/09/oktoberfest-2011-black-girls-in-dirndls.html Is the appropriate response to accuse these black girls of cultural appropriation, as if they are taking something from me?

  19. This is hilarious. We’re having a discussion about cultural appropriation…in ENGLISH. Not only English, but _American_ English, of all things. English has to be the most culturally mixed language in the world, and its American and Canadian variants are especially thievish, for lack of a better word. English has such a big vocabulary, and so many spelling challenges, because if it doesn’t have a word for something it just uses a word from another language. In Star Trek terms, English is The Borg.

    “Be careful about taking someone else’s culture and passing it off as your own.” Trace the roots of all those words and you’ll find a LOT of appropriation going on.

    In fact, some of the last remnants of some pre-1492 Caribbean native cultures are words that have made their way into English: canoe, hurricane, hammock, etc. We could get rid of those words, but then there really would be nothing left of those cultures.

    Irony is feckin’ beautiful sometimes.

  20. So on a rainy Thursday afternoon I’m riffing on “are complaints about cultural appropriation rooted in rascism?” In an MTV world who owns anything cultural? Anyone peeved by “them” acting like “us” is not acting in an inclusionary manner…
    I wear a lot of hats- I’ve always dug Jim Brown’s kufi, I played football and Lacrosse so would it be OK to don one? I do wear, on especially cold days, an under-armor skully under my ball cap, Stetson or watch cap- but really wouldn’t a more colorful beanie clash nicely with my white boy Roy plaid shirt and carhartt?

    • Apparently you have to have some sort of bona fide credentials which have never been defined and cannot really be defined but that are mandatory if you want to wear something culturally distinct. Someone with “identity authority” has to vouch for you. Maybe it’s time for a Minstry of Culture of some sort? Sign me up. I’d like to ban flipflops.

  21. Why is the author conflating racist Halloween costumes with cultural appropriation? One is making fun of other cultures, the other is borrowing admirable traits from other cultures. I don’t see the problem with the latter, so long as you’re respectable.

    It seems to me from the author’s point of view, I as a white person should not eat at a Chinese/Caribbean/Indian/etc restaurant unless invited to do so; that bands who incorporate traditional sounds and instruments from other cultures into their own music are doing something wrong; and I’m not allowed to cover my hair with a scarf because I’m not Muslim. It’s completely ridiculous.

    I lived in China for several years. Most people borrowed liberally from Western culture–wearing white gowns at weddings, eating Western food, wearing Western clothing (jeans, t-shirts), Christmas trees in homes and shopping malls. Am I supposed to be offended because that is cultural appropriation? And after I came back, I now prefer to eat with chopsticks at home, drink Chinese tea instead of coffee, and hang some calligraphy I bought on my walls at home. Did I appropriate anyone’s culture? I’m curious as to whether the author thinks there is something wrong with any of that behavior.

    • wellokaythen says:

      I lived in China briefly. My impression is that people in China would not call it appropriation, as long as you paid higher prices than a Chinese person. It’s only cultural theft if you expected to get a good deal on the antique. (Or at least on that thing that they called an antique.) And, like a lot of cultures, including white American culture, people in China are likely to claim they actually invented the thing in the first place anyway….

  22. Seriously dislike this article for many of the reasons already given above. What about adults and children who are mixed race or who have multi-cultural backgrounds/parents? Buddhism would not condone such clinging to ideas of culture, race, ownership etc. because when you break these concepts down you cannot point to anything specific. Also, who is the spokesperson to decide what is owned by a particular culture or not?

    • wellokaythen says:

      I think people of mixed ancestry are supposed to pro-rate their cultural license based on percentages. If you have one grandparent who was Native American, you can wear one-quarter of a headdress, because you’re 1/4 Native. I don’t know how you divide it. By weight, maybe? Get rid of 75% of the weight of the original article of clothing, I suppose. I recommend keeping the part that sits on the head, though.

      However, bear in mind that different tribal organizations define membership differently. Some require more native ancestry than others. Check your local listings.

  23. Dressing up as an indian (or any other ethnic group) for halloween is one thing, it making fun of their culture, but we would not have any form of modern music (no rock, no rap, no r&b, no jazz) if only blacks were allowed to listen to it. What is wrong is when we continue to look down on those people, no matter if we “appropriate” their music or not.

    Racist imagery must be fought against, but I’m not at all for a PC police of what people can wear or listen to. We had a race police, it was called segregation. No Thanks!

  24. I could see it when your looking at religious things, but just basic cultural things? Fighting to protect cultural purity seems kinda racist. Oh god better keep your black things over with the black people… otherwise your being culturally insensitive and totally not racist.

  25. Thank you for adressing this, but I don’t agree with you when you say “it doesn’t matter what you think, it doesn’t matter you feel guilty”. The first thing we should do,l of course, is listen to those minorities but I don’t think we’ll get any kind of productive dialogue if there is no room for mistake, and for those mistakes to pe admitted, excused, learned from and hopefully, never done again. We all understand your anger, but we’re all humans here, including those who want to do better. Otherwise, people might want to completely avoid the subject in fear of saying something wrong even though they might add something good to the debate.

    I’ve been walking a fine line between those two things, because in my websomic there are two characters that might be problematic, even though my intentions are to bring something positive. The comic strip is about cats and dogs and it has one chihuahua character called Taco (not originally from Canada, but not from Mexico) and one sled dog living in the city (concrete indian!) called Kamik. My intentions are sometimes to point out the other characters (a few cats, a rottweiler and a golden doodle) well-intentioned ignorance when dealing with other cultures (like when the rottweiler played a video game in what he thought was spanish, until Taco pointed out that it was italian) or out right evilness (like when the main villain cat decided to run a pipeline of slushie through Kamik’s backyard) but also the solidarity of the same people who might be ignorant, but want to help (like when all the main “good” characters stood behind Kamik with an “Idle no More” sign).

    Long story short, I’m doing everything I can to change my own perceptions and the ones of my readers, but it is not going to be done overnight. We have many things in common and we don’t have to fight all the time but I know I’m not going to get it right the first time. This is a learning curve that I’m more than willing to get on, though, but I’m going to need your help.

    • @Cynthia When you write…we all understand your anger…”,I wonder how exactly you know this.Who are the we you reference that has managed this great feat?What makes you think there is no room for mistakes,as if this intolerance is THE only reason some people do nothing to facilitate change? Certainly it is clear that many excuse their lack of risk taking to create change on fear of making a mistake and being called racist.I hear that reason used quite frequently.That fear doesn’t appear to prevent these folks from taking much greater risks to achieve other goals.Would it then be true to say that you believe in advocating for freedom and equality for some people,as long as your methods aren’t criticized and your apetite for risk aversion is satisfied?Are you as patient,aware and forgiving as you require of others?I think enduring 200+ years of slavery and 100 years of defacto slavery (after a war to end slavery failed) and 40+ years of Civil Rights backlash black people have shown remarkable patience.

      • wellokaythen says:

        One of the most bizarre forms of appropriation is the banjo. Hard as this is to believe, the banjo was originally an African and then an African American instrument. It was played by African American and African Caribbean slaves for centuries before white people ever started adopting it. Now it’s almost exclusively associated with white people, even associated with white supremacists. (Cue the theme from _Deliverance_.)

        Do black people really want the banjo back?

  26. “So as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.”

    If there were an employer who actually considered natural, ethnic hair or traditional cultural garb inappropriate or unprofessional, would it really matter what race the person who’s wearing them is? I find it hard to believe that if an employer discriminates against black employees for having dreadlocks that he’s going to be okay with white employees having dreadlocks.
    What the author uses as their example of cultural norms being imposed on minorities isn’t even about race– they’re comparing black culture and corporate culture. Apples and oranges.

    The assumption that anyone who isn’t a part of a cultural minority is trying to bastardize a behavior, garb, etc, is absurd. It’s not an exercise of privilege, if anything the person engaging in unpopular behaviors or wearing their hair a certain way becomes a pariah in their community.

    Just my thoughts.

  27. How come there is no mention of music? There is so much ethnic music being appropriated by other cultures. Must a line be drawn somewhere in there, too? Or does all music fall under “cultural exchange” because it’s all fun and beautiful (hopefully)? What about playing a traditional instrument from another culture? Do you have to ask that culture’s permission? (Obviously you can’t.)

    What defines respectful and disrespectful musical appropriation?

    • indeed this line of thought is sinister and strange.
      someone at ‘the atlantic’ tried to argue that janis joplin had appropriated.
      very weird thinking.
      the majority of commentors disagreed so forcefully, the head scratching was so pronounced.
      that the AW wrote a followup article the next day.

      The problem is that Cyrus isn’t racist because she’s awful — or at least, her racism can’t be reduced to her awfulness. Because there are performers who are not awful who have used race much as she does. Performers like Madonna, who bell hooks famously called out for her appropriation of black styles and of black bodies as props. And, also I’d argue, performers like Janis Joplin.

      Joplin didn’t use black dancers that I’m aware of, and she didn’t use black woman, or black women’s bodies, as a code for sex, as Cyrus does. But there are still uncomfortable parallels. Joplin, like Cyrus, deliberately referenced and used a style associated with black women — not twerking, for Joplin, but the female blues singing tradition associated with Bessie Smith. And Joplin, like Cyrus, used that association, and the stereotypes linked to it, to shape her own image against a traditional white femininity. Cyrus uses blackness to be sexual; Joplin used blackness to show she was earthy and real.

      Her strained version of “Summertime” evinces an almost Cyrus-like desperation, blasting through the songs’ subtle longing, fear, and hope, as if she can become one with the black narrator through sheer glottal power.

      how the writer’s current music article fits into his worldview, who knows:
      ‘The Racial Courage, and Questions, Surrounding Muscle Shoals’ Soul Songs:

      A new documentary pays rich tribute to the Alabama city’s color-blind musical contributions in the ’60s, but skims over the more difficult issues raised by its material. ‘

    • wellokaythen says:

      A whole lot of “ethnic” or “regional” music is already a hybrid of a bunch of different origins. For example, zydeco and other music from around the Gulf of Mexico are mixtures of all sorts of different cultures – parts of Europe, parts of Africa, parts of Latin America, and some Native American roots. It’s accordions with guitars with gourds with drums all fused together in some sort of “culturally impure” alliance. Should we make all those parts disentangle from each other and make the sounds all “go back where they came from”? Curse those German immigrants to Texas trying to incorporate the accordion into other people’s bands. Thieving bastards…..

      • I think the original point that the author makes is that there is a distinction between cultural sharing/amalgamation, and cultural appropriation. Appropriation is a taking, something that a dominant culture does towards cultures it has disenfranchised or debased, without input, context, or real consideration for members of that culture as people. Those German immigrants incorporating the accordion into other types of music is an example of cultural sharing; If, say, some better-established and more powerful English immigrants had swindled the Germans out of their money, land and livelihoods, forced them to work for poverty wages, debased them as people, and then decided that their little accordions were really cute and enjoyed playing German polkas in their leisure time while they made the German immigrants work their land — that’s more like appropriation.

        Extreme examples to prove a point. There is of course an unending fractal pattern of gray areas between the two. Plus, there is nothing we can do about the appropriation that has unquestionably made up the fabric of our own culture. It would be foolish to command people, “DO NOT APPROPRIATE.” However, this is valuable as a thought exercise – a way to make people a little more empathetic, more conscious generally of how their actions affect those who are more vulnerable than themselves.

      • Thank goodness for cultural appropriation of Reggae at least…
        Every fall a whole generation of white boy Roys get their consciousness expanded by discovering Bob Marley and Jim Cliff…
        Kind of like going to a blues show where most of if not the only blacks are on stage…

  28. AnonymousDog says:

    How do you feel about New York City dudes (and dudettes) walking around in cowboy boots and “Western wear”? Would seem to fit your definition of cultural appropriation. Or don’t American regional subcultures deserve the same respect as ‘real’ foreigners?

    • wellokaythen says:

      Excellent example, especially considering a lot of “Western wear” and expressions are originally from Spanish-speaking cultures in the Americas. A lot of cowboy stuff is actually of Hispanic origin. (“Buckaroo” from the word “vaquero,” “lariat” from “la riata,” “rodeo” from “rodeo,” “Alamo” from “Alamo,” etc….) Anglos (and African Americans, who were roughly half of all cowboys) learned how to be cowboys from their Hispanic neighbors. There were already Hispanic cowboys in the Americas a hundred years before the Mayflower. It’s not just a question of U.S. regional subcultures but anglos “approriating” from non-anglos.

      • FYI: It was the Spanish who first brought horses to the New World. They didn’t exist until Europeans brought them. If we’re going to play this dumb little game, then you’re going to have to admit that cowboys trace back their origins to Europe. Any “cowboys” that were in the Americas a hundred years before the Mayflower (which would put them at 1520, or less than 30 years after Columbus) would have been Spanish conquistadors.

        “The origins of the cowboy tradition come from Spain, beginning with the hacienda system of medieval Spain. This style of cattle ranching spread throughout much of the Iberian peninsula and later, was imported to the Americas. Both regions possessed a dry climate with sparse grass, and thus large herds of cattle required vast amounts of land in order to obtain sufficient forage. The need to cover distances greater than a person on foot could manage gave rise to the development of the horseback-mounted vaquero.”

        • Joanna Schroeder says:

          That’s true about horses, but “cowboys” don’t necessarily have to have horses to be herding cattle.

          • wellokaythen says:

            Are you suggesting that natives may have been herdsmen before they got horses?

            Before Europeans arrived, Native Americans had no domesticated cattle either. They had no large domesticated animals, with the exception of llamas and alpacas in the Andes and some native dog breeds in North America. There were no native herdsmen in the sense of domesticated animals, at least outside of the Andes. (Hunting buffalo is not really the same thing, and in any event buffalo hunting was much rarer before natives got horses and firearms.) It’s the lack of large domesticated animals that may be a central factor in their lack of resistance to Old World diseases, in fact.

        • wellokaythen says:

          I think you think I’m disagreeing with you, but we probably agree with each other. You’re actually helping me make my point. There is no pure authentic culture out there for us to preserve even if we wanted to. They’re all hybrids of some kind, and in the case of cowboys, sometimes something that seems totally distinctive is actually common to multiple places. In a lot of cases, the “origin” of something isn’t really the origin.

          We could keep tracing back and back for a very long time – Americans got cowboys from the Spanish, and the Spanish cattle practices were heavily influenced by the Moors, who adopted some things from further east, who learned from…..

      • AnonymousDog says:

        Western-wear owes as much to the clothing styles brought from the Border region of Britain as it does from ‘Hispanic’ clothing. Also, immigrants from the Border region of Britain brought with them a cattle herding culture indigenous to that part of Britain.

        I think you are trying to justify cultural domination of rural Americans by the ‘mainstream’ urban culture.

  29. Who owns culture is a tricky question.

    Appropriation is the taking of a thing without the owner’s permission.

    Who properly and ethically represent a culture to which I could seek permission: the political leaders, commoners, religious leaders, seniors?

    Most cultural meanings derived from traditions are nonsensical, so why should they be given the respect typically reserved for matters of sense? As the Christina joke goes: if Jesus had been put to death in modern times, believers would carry an electric chair charm around their neck rather than a cross.

    If it is to right and injustice, then why not just concentrate on righting the injustice rather than fawn at a proxy of the culture which has been done wrong?

    The argument of damage is usually better served in the reverse of appropriation: using the Star Trek “prime directive” of non-interference – don’t insert your junk into theirs for it may have negative consequences. And let’s not forget all the massive leaps forward achieved by good appropriation of the methods and practices.

    I’m not convinced we’ve done a good enough job of hashing out the ethics on this question and are stuck in a “progressive’s” default understanding that has links to more pedestrian considerations such as time elapsed, copyright-type issues and handing out pseudo power to smaller cultures that are struggling under the weight of 7 billion pieces of ever more brownish Mc-Burger made humans. Given this complexity, “respect” may be as good as answer as any right now.

  30. “One of the reasons that cultural appropriation is a hard concept to grasp for so many is that Westerners are used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return. ”
    Why Western? .5% of the Men in the World are directly descended from Genghis Khan, the poster boy for forced assimilation.

    • wellokaythen says:

      Point of historical accuracy here. Genghis Khan and his Mongol armies were extremely aggressive and coerced people into joining his empire, but they were NOT assimilationist. They were NOT interested in turning other people into copies of themselves. They apparently could not have cared less what language you spoke or gods you worshipped or anything like that. Pay your taxes, submit to their political rule, and don’t cause trouble, and you live. They killed you for resisting, not for being culturally different.

      If anything, Chinggis Khan was more interested in making the Mongols like others than he was making others like Mongols. They were ultimately pragmatic, which is why Chinggis made sure that he had at least one wife from every major and minor religion and ethnic group in his empire.

      What too many people fail to realize is that there are forms of multiculturalism that are perfectly compatible with imperialism. Multiculturalism does not prevent conquest.

  31. Been enjoying reading the points that come up in this article, thank you! I’m feeling you on how there needs to be respect in order to create mutual understanding, while also holding an analysis of power.

    “One of the reasons that cultural appropriation is a hard concept to grasp for so many is that Westerners are used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.

    We tend to think of this as cultural exchange when really, it’s no more an exchange than pressuring your neighbors to adopt your ideals while stealing their family heirlooms.”

    Bang on. Yes.

    I’ve seen the image you’ve used has been passed around the internet quite a bit, so you’re using something very culturally specific to talk about cultural imperialism, which has some problems. Something to think about is how cultural appropriation of Native cultures is distinct from other non-White cultures based on the fact that you’re writing it from within the British/Canadian/US empire on stolen Native land. It’s hard to create mutual respect given this gross power imbalance, know what I mean? Given this truth, I’d expect you to write more about Native erasure, assimilation, appropriation and settler colonialism. Lastly, the messaging in the image basically states that all Native people are dead and gone (even if it’s done sarcastically), which is very far from the truth.

    • wellokaythen says:

      It seems to me there’s a significant difference between “stealing their family heirlooms” and adopting some of their cultural customs. There are kinds of appropriation besides stealing statues and driving people off their land. English has plenty of words with Native American origins, for example. Are those words “stolen” from indigenous peoples? (Come to think of it, they’re not really “borrowed” either, because the words can’t be “given back.”)

      • wearing something that is considered sacred within american indian societies, that must be earned through a series of very specific accomplishments, and then conferred upon a recipient according to a very specific set of protocols just because it looks cool is hardly on par with “adopting cultural customs”.

        none of you were or are even aware of what a headdress is so dont try and justify your lack of knowledge and lack of respect by calling it an “adoption of cultural customs” since you clearly have no clue as to what, exactly, those are.

        white girls wear it as a fashion statement because they are socialized to be shallow, stupid, disconnected, clueless consumers. nothing more. and that in itself should be offensive to you.

        • “white girls wear it as a fashion statement because they are socialized to be shallow, stupid, disconnected, clueless consumers.”

          That comment seems both racist and sexist.

          In any event, the women in the illustration are probably also violating numerous gender taboos. Certain forms of headdress are for men only. We should not allow white women to violate native forms of sexism…..

        • wellokaythen says:

          “wearing something….that must be earned through a series of very specific accomplishments, and then conferred upon a recipient according to a very specific set of protocols”

          That sounds awfully hierarchical and institutional to me. I thought aboriginal wisdom was about relationships and not institutions…..

  32. Blogger: One of the reasons that cultural appropriation is a hard concept to grasp for so many is that Westerners are used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.

    It’s not a “Westerner” thing. It’s not a “white” thing. It’s not a “male” thing.

    It’s a human thing.

    Throughout history, in all times and places, whether there have been dominant groups and minority groups, the dominant group presses its own culture upon the minority group and takes what it wants in return.

    It is literally how the ever changing kaleidoscope of cultural anthropologies evolves. And if you are familiar with SPIRAL DYNAMICS (a must read for this sort of discussion, IMO) you will know that higher levels of the SPIRAL both include and transcend lower levels. In other words, cultural appropriation is as natural as natural as a phenomenon can be – just like biological appropriation.

    Now – let’s be very clear: This phenomenon, in and of itself, is not unethical. It is not immoral. It is not (for example) in any way equivalent to or even coupled with the all too often unethical and immoral incidents that occur between dominant and minority cultures such as mass rape, pillage, plunder, enslavement, etc.

    It is not – in any sense – equivalent to the deliberate intentional acts by dominant cultures to commit cultural genocide against minority populations in their midst.

    A very good example of this was the enlightened attitude that the Romans had to the many disparate subcultures that became part of their world Empire. When they would annex a territory, they were very careful NOT to disrespect the local culture. The locals could continue to worship their gods, just as long as they were willing to add the Emperor to their divine panoply.

    And the reason that the Romans felt that the newly emerging sect of Christians were so dangerous to the civic good, is that they weren’t willing to do that. They insisted – as a minority population – that the only God was THEIR god, and that worship of other gods was blasphemy and a work of the devil.

    So a vital difference needs to be made between what is the NATURAL process of cultural appropriation – which is as natural as the appropriation of genetic material as intermarriage occurs between formerly separate and disparate groups as they mix.

    I assert firmly – and against this blogger and her fellow offended feminists (or whatever) that there is no breach, no violation, no ethical problem at all.

    Instead, I move the locus of control to this point:

    As INDIVIDUALS, we each have both the opportunity and the responsibility to define what is and is not going to make us upset, and what we are going to do when we do get upset.

    In case you hadn’t noticed, this world is going to offer you a continual stream of inputs into your brain that WILL trigger negative feelings of fear, anger, sadness. Such is life in Samsara.

    It’s up to you (and to me, and to each of us) to decide what we are going to think, say and do in response.

    Teachers like the Buddha teach us that we can re-wire our minds to a great degree, so that we don’t experience so much upset, and aren’t as offended at other people, places and things as we have been up until now.

    Teachers like the Buddha would say that this is actually THE GREAT WORK – us unhooking those connections, so we can experience life with much more serenity, joy, equanimity – even with the existence of REAL injustices and moral violations in the world that we can and should take action against – AS WELL as the small beer of every experiences that has nothing to do with rape, pillage and plunder – ie unethical and immoral karmic actions.

    And the bottom line is that I cannot possibly be responsible for the hair triggers in your mind that make you upset in situations where there isn’t any cleark karmic violation being done to you, or to others.

    All that is important between us bis that I am not TRYING to harm you in any real and material way. If you’re going to take offense anyway, that is in your problem domain…not in mine.

    This isn’t just the Buddha’s teaching, of course. You hear the exact same principles if you spend any time in the various 12 Step rooms. I would particularly invite you to attend an open meeting of Al-Anon, or Co-dependents Anonymous, or ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics).

    In all these situations, people are learning to understand and deal with exactly these sorts of emotional enmeshment issues. Participants learn that they are NOT responsible for the rage of the other, they are NOT responsible to make the OTHER feel good about themselves or about life. They are only responsible for living their own lives ethically and morally, for not creating any real karmic violations, and for apologizing when they do.

    • I love this response!

    • “And the bottom line is that I cannot possibly be responsible for the hair triggers in your mind that make you upset in situations where there isn’t any cleark karmic violation being done to you, or to others.

      All that is important between us bis that I am not TRYING to harm you in any real and material way. If you’re going to take offense anyway, that is in your problem domain…not in mine.”

      Hmm. I think that I see the buddhist teachings slightly differently than you do, perhaps. Notwithstanding the validity of the teachings on klesha, and the truth that we do have a human tendency to fan the flames of our outrage (or even sometimes manufacture it altogether), emotions such as anger are sometimes sane and appropriate. It’s only when we deliberately exacerbate our feelings of anger (or resentment, or whatever) that we’re heading off into the weeds.

      I’m also a bit concerned about the use of the term “hair triggers”. What is a “hair trigger”? Who gets to decide? And just how much can intent (sincere or merely proclaimed) excuse? A bull in a china shop doesn’t intend to break all that china, but does that mean it doesn’t get broken, or that the breakage doesn’t matter? Should we simply tell the owner of the broken china to overcome their destructive emotions when they experience it as upsetting?

      • Mary,

        I think what you’re getting at is the fundamental conflict between Western and Non-Western values.

        As someone raised in the United States, I believe that there is a fundamental freedom of expression that should not be limited in any way, no matter what. Because of this, I am willing to tolerate MANY forms of expression that I find personally offensive. I was raised as a Catholic, and I fully understand why “Elephant-Dung Virgin Mary” and “Piss Christ” are offensive, but I am willing to tolerate the offense in order to permit free exchange of ideas. Similarly, the protests of the Westboro Baptist Church are highly offensive, so are the organized marches of the KKK, the neo-Nazis, and the speeches of Louis Farrakhan.

        But again, I’m willing to put up with all of that, because I believe in freedom of expression.

        As a white man, I’m not particularly fond of being told that my very existence oppresses people (Louis Farrakhan), that I deserve to harmed (Valerie Solanas), that there is no evidence of my humanity (Andrea Dworkin), or that I have an inherent desire to visit violence upon others (Catharine MacKinnon). But despite feeling thoroughly insulted by all of these viewpoints, I still believe that I should put up with this because freedom of expression is just that important.

        And now here comes someone else telling me “No, you don’t understand, I’m REALLY insulted,” and it’s impossible for me to care, because caring would me a denial of my own right to feeling insulted by the very expressions that insult me. I would have to somehow say “You’re right, my feelings are nothing, your feelings are everything, and this is beyond the justification of freedom of expression.” That’s just not a place I’m ever going to be. Instead, I’m going to continue those claiming to be “REALLY insulted” to go ahead and accept that maybe I’m insulted by things too, but I value freedom of expression, and so I’m not going to censor anything. And if they want to tell me I’m a racist for feeling this way, it’s their right to express that viewpoint, and I’ll go ahead and defend their right to that expression.

      • I’m also a bit concerned about the use of the term “hair triggers”. What is a “hair trigger”? Who gets to decide? And just how much can intent (sincere or merely proclaimed) excuse? A bull in a china shop doesn’t intend to break all that china, but does that mean it doesn’t get broken, or that the breakage doesn’t matter? Should we simply tell the owner of the broken china to overcome their destructive emotions when they experience it as upsetting?

        When a bull runs through a china shop, china is broken, and the owner suffers material loss for which any court would deem him eligible for damages.

        No china was broken when Miley twerked at the VMA’s.

        It’s really just that simple.

        If somebody wants to take offense at at that, or at someone else dressing up in a cultural costume not his or her own, they have a right to do so. We all have a right to get angry at whatever we want.

        But that expression of anger doesn’t legitimize it as a moral imperative. And – against the article – I am saying very deliberately that it is NOT a moral imperative.

        Therefore the real, ethical onus for change is not on Miley the twerker (or whoever). She’s guilty of no ethical or karmic violation whatsoever. As I pointed out above, her “appropriation” is simply what all humans do, all the time. There is no moral evil involved.

        No, the real, ethical onus for change is on the angry (read outraged) person, who really does have the capacity (Buddhist or otherwise) to re-frame the “appropriation” so the three poisons aren’t stirred up. That’s where the “hair trigger” is, and it is totally optional, and can be gotten rid of anytime – and the world will be a better, saner place for it.

        So yes, I’m calling SHENANIGANS on this whole idea.

        • The bull in the china shop is, obviously, a metaphor. It isn’t intended to be guidelines for handling the limited circumstances when a literal bull bumbles through a literal china shop, but to illustrate a wider range of situations. If we’re unable to extend our imaginations beyond the limited, literal circumstances of the metaphor, then every single individual instance of anything at all can only stand for itself. And that, of course, means that no lessons can ever be learned. Some people no doubt sincerely believe this (and others, perhaps, would prefer not to learn them, so embrace the idea that said learning is impossible), but I’m not sure why they would ever bother to read this article. much less discuss it.

    • @paul: you obviously put a lot of thought (or whatever) into your post, but in the end, your argument boils down to a hodge-podge of ramshackle ideas smushed together in an attempt to justify CULTURAL APPROPRIATION as a natural human process…..which means you’ve missed the point entirely and your impassioned, but nonetheless specious, appeals are likewise mis-aimed.

      cultural appropriation in the context that the writer is referring to it, means the expression or assertion of ownership over and subsequent decontextualization of culturally specific symbols and signs in the course of constructing a white hegemonic reification of these signs and symbols into something they are not.

      the western world (and by “western” i mean european colonial) has a long history of imposing its particular social reality on others in a very disrespectful and destructive way. we call it the “colonization of cultural specificity” because by reifying these very specific signs and symbols into something else, and the promoting of that something else as harmless and “fun”, as part of a “natural human process”, the very real and very oppressive power dynamic being played out is minimized and the very justified protests of subaltern communities are trivialized while the disrespectful appropriation of the “dominant group” (to borrow your words) is privileged as normative.

      certainly there is, and always has been, and, i am sure, always will be, the flow of ideas across cultures…. in fact, sociality as a state of hybridity in constant flux is the normative state for human social reality. but there is a very distinct difference between a free and willing flow of ideas and the imposition of such. if there weren’t a difference then we would not have concepts of “boundary” or “boundedness”, nor would we have notions of sovereign and autonomous (because there are very distinct differences between those two concepts as well).

      the point being that the western world privileges itself as normative (i.e., you are arguing that essentially “it’s normal to embody hierarchical power systems”) and everything else springs from that. because the western world considers itself a collector of things which it imposes ownership upon simply by virtue of the “might makes right” rationality, then of course it’s normal for the material and symbolic identifiers of the societies it owns by virtue of colonizing them to be likewise possessed.

      cultural appropriation is not a free and respectful exchange of ideas, it is the colonial possession of things wanted by virtue of the crude power dynamic that drives colonial mentality and sociality. it is done because it can be done….questions of whether it should be done are never a factor in the doing.

      contrast this with indigenous cultures, which are relationship-based, rather than institution-based like the western world. in the indigenous world, i challenge you to find any comparable instances of cultural appropriation on par with what the writer is referencing. you won’t. why? because the power paradigm is structured differently; it is not hierarchical nor is it premised on brute force & notions of raced, anthropocentric privilege which give way to self-entitlement and an expectation of possession as is the western world. it is balanced on the complementary notions of reciprocity, individual autonomy, social obligation (and social doesnt just refer to that which is human), respect (which means in essence embodying the ethic of “leaving it alone”), and kinship. and that is why you have clueless white girls copying and wearing headdresses (why not wear a yarmulke for fun while they’re at it?) and people like you not seeing an issue with it, and why the “subject” group protests it as cultural appropriation.

      • wellokaythen says:

        “contrast this with indigenous cultures, which are relationship-based, rather than institution-based like the western world. in the indigenous world, i challenge you to find any comparable instances of cultural appropriation on par with what the writer is referencing. you won’t.”

        This is a very popular dichotomy right now, the “occidentalist” paradigm contrasting the evil West with the virtuous, collaborative East. It’s certainly a powerful idea, and it certainly mobilizes powerful emotions. If only emotions and desire made something true, the world would make so much more sense. Occidentalism has been a long time coming, after centuries and centuries of its equally ugly twin, Orientalism.

        This only works if one defines “West” to include almost everyone and define “indigenous” to include very few groups. This false dichotomy only works if the following people are also included in the “Western” category:

        Zulu empire
        Indigenous empires of West Africa: Mali, Songhay, etc.
        After acquiring horses and firearms: Lakota, Comanche
        Several dynasties in China, spanning almost 2000 years
        First 200 years of Islam

  33. wellokaythen says:

    I think “appropriation” is too broad a term. It covers everything from exploring new ideas to genocidal destruction.

    There’s a real difference between incorporating something into your life and “stealing” something from another culture. Doing something that another culture does is not automatically a cultural theft. If the adopting culture claims to have invented it, then that is stealing. If the adopting culture claims it as its own and denies the existence of the original developers, that is also stealing. If you get cultural expressions from another person and trademark it, that would be plagiarism, also a kind of theft.

    But, using words or clothing from another culture is not by itself a theft, nor is it automatically an act of power against that group. Sometimes it can be, sometimes it’s not. Adopting something from another culture without “giving” that culture something is not actually exploitation. Of course, the proper thing to do would be to express some gratitude and give credit where it is due, but otherwise there is no “exchange” necessary. In fact, Westerners attempting to “give culture” in exchange generally face accusations of cultural imperialism (quite often true).

    If adopting the language, symbols, or ideas of another culture for self-expression is a form of privilege, then the word “privilege” has become virtually meaningless. In fact, there are all sorts of ways that oppressed groups have worked their culture into the dominant culture. There is “bottom up” infiltration, not just “top down.” Total cultural segregation would make empathy even more difficult.

    This argument may also come across as a little condescending or essentializing to non-Western peoples. Sometimes there’s a misconception about indigenous cultures that assumes that every single aspect about their culture has a very serious and/or functional reason behind it, and they do what they do only because of deep respect for the meaningfulness and seriousness of their traditions. As if white Westerners are the only ones who care about individual self-expression, experimentation, etc.

    BTW, the illustration perpetuates another horrible misconception, the idea that native Americans have “all” been killed. And, of course, it perpetuates the assumption that today’s white people have no Native American ancestors.


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