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Cultural Appropriation – It Makes Up Everything You Are

by: Kay Selisho - 21 May 2014

Urban youth culture is a diverse mix of little pieces of life borrowed from the rest of the world. Ruled by a consumer mindset and a mob mentality, where do we draw the line between appreciating the origins of all those little pieces that make up who we are and insulting the very places and people that they come from?

What Is It?

Appropriation is the act of adopting, selling and re-creating cultural elements of a particular culture by people who are not part of the culture in question. These elements can be things such as ideas, symbols, images, sounds, objects, styles and designs. Under the topic of appropriation, the West is often viewed as this gigantic monster that sucks up cultural artefacts from around the world and spits out cheap, meaningless products that shred the meaning and historical context from said artefacts.


Linked to appropriation is the reason why America can be found anywhere in the world, cultural imperialism. This is basically when one culture and all its ideals dominate lesser known cultures and create civilizations throughout the world that are culturally the same. So American right? Well, not really, the West does not always refer to the United States in this case but they are to blame most of the time.

All of that then leads to assimilation. When – for example – non-Americans behave like Americans, from the accent right down to the ideals, they have assimilated. This can happen really quickly or quite slowly and can be so effective that it becomes hard to tell which culture is which.

And true to the nature of such a topic, there are those (the oppressors) who moan and groan about oppression working in reverse. “Reverse cultural appropriation” is what they call it in this case but that is just not a thing. Why? Because what separates assimilation from appropriation is history and power. Western culture assumes a supreme, powerful and coveted position while it is only through the West that non-mainstream cultures obtain that status. That is how it has always been.

Where do you see it happening?

To you, it’s shopping for cute little trinkets, accessories, clothes and music that you think are cool but these items are things of significant importance to someone else. Turbans, Native American headdresses, Polynesian tribal iconography tattoos, tribal print material, Chinese characters, Celtic bands, Bindi’s and other cultural items have become highly coveted pieces and ideas sold in the mainstream market to people who mostly live what would be called a Western lifestyle. It also happens when people celebrate the public holidays of another nation and use it as just another excuse to party, like the religious Irish holiday St. Patrick’s Day for example.

Forever 21 - an American apparel store - selling hip hop culture.

Forever 21 – an American apparel store – selling hip hop culture.

How often do you buy something because it “looks cool” or because you have seen it in the media throughout your life and you have decided that you’ve “always wanted one”? A Dashiki, a bindi, a henna pattern on your hands… a kimono, an is’phandla (an animal skin bracelet worn by people belonging to indigenous South African tribes) are all things that serve as examples of appropriation in practice.

Celebrities use it as a strategy to appear unique or cool through starting new trends but when they do not do it right, they run the risk of downgrading the original cultural significance of something. But what about when their mass appeal promotes awareness around lesser known cultures? Like when former Miss South Africa Marylin Ramos wore an iNdebele-inspired costume during the international costumes section of the Miss Universe competition in 2012? Or when the bindi dot (which is a cultural commodity in India) which has been worn by stars like Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani, Vanessa Hudgens and Madonna, leads to people researching what it means?

There is a very thin line between insult and appreciation. Appropriating a culture – despite all of its negative connotations – is not always a bad thing. It only becomes so when carried out in a particular manner.

What is wrong with it?

When the meaning, significance and context of something becomes lost in its marketing, THAT is when appropriation becomes a problem. The commodification of a culture and its products makes it as easy to dispose of and forget as it is to buy. Those who are against it condemn it because they see it as a major threat to cultural diversity that would lead to the extinction of cultures, making the world less “culturally rich”.

Source: Artist: Jake McCornack

Source: Artist: Jake McCornack

What is right with it?

Globalization exposes the world to many cultures. Exposure allows you to gain better insight into other cultures and sometimes provides a deeper appreciation for them. It also provides you the opportunity to support people of a particular culture by purchasing products directly from them.

Appropriation also puts a spotlight on lesser-known cultures so that they too can also be celebrated in the media. When you think about it, there is barely anyone that is defined by a single culture nowadays and learning more about others is a major part of our social lives. So is being so affected by those around us, we end up picking up pieces of who they are until it becomes a part of who we are.



One thing you must consider though is the message you are sending to the world when wearing items from or inspired by a religious, ethnic or social movement. In essence, to avoid crossing the line between appreciation and insult we must ensure that our actions towards foreign cultures and their products are rooted in respect, consideration and knowledge of the context behind them.

Inspired to sound off? Follow me @kay_tatyana or add me on Facebook and share your opinions.