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Educate & Activate: Cultural Appropriation

Feminist Book Club blog contributors are working together to create posts as an “Educate & Activate” series. We will define a term or movement, provide historical context, and give you additional resources to learn more. We believe that an educated populace can be better activists, accomplices and co-conspirators. It is important to note that these are meant to be brief descriptions and not inclusive or exhaustive of all resources. We urge you to continue being curious, and continue learning more.

Definition

According to Dictionary.com, cultural appropriation is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

Writer Maisha Z. Johnson describes it further as a power dynamic in which those from a dominant culture adopt certain elements of another culture that they have systematically oppressed. This, she explains, is what sets cultural appropriation apart from a true cultural exchange: this adoption of cultural elements for fashion or fun or frivolity despite the fact that we ourselves have never had to withstand the daily, ongoing marginalization experienced by those within that culture.

Some examples of cultural appropriation?

An NFL team that persists in using the word “redskins” in its name, when the term actually comes from a time when white people were paid to kill Native Americans, using their scalps as proof that they’d gotten the job done.

A white person sporting dreadlocks or an afro, when a Black person can still legally be penalized by employers or school officials for wearing their hair naturally.

American yoga teachers wearing “nama-stay in bed” tank tops or teaching high-priced yoga hybrid classes without acknowledging the practice’s South Asian roots, commercializing it to such an extent that those for whom yoga has cultural and religious significance can no longer access the practice for themselves.

Clothing brands and majority-white communities creating pass-the-brush videos on Instagram and TikTok without acknowledging that the #DontRushChallenge was created by Black women, or without including people of color in their video compilations.

People like me who honeymoon in Mexico, fall in love with the art and the religious traditions, and then host Dia de los Muertos parties… until they learn about cultural appropriation and realize the extreme error of their ways.

First Usage

In 1945, the term cultural appropriation appeared in print for the first time in an essay by professor Arthur E. Christy, who was writing about “European cultural appropriation from the Orient.” The term didn’t enter common usage, however, for several more decades.

Still, conversations and concerns over cultural appropriation have existed for far longer, albeit through the use of different terminology.

History

In 1865, long before academics began to use the term cultural appropriation in their discussions about the effects of colonialism, cultural anthropologist Edward Tylor coined the term “cultural diffusion.” He used this term to describe the process by which various elements of a culture were passed back and forth between societies.

This practice began to be scrutinized more closely—and critically—in the 1920s, when New Negro and Harlem Renaissance writers in America expressed concern over minstrel shows and other popular cultural phenomena that relied heavily upon caricatures of Black voices and folk traditions.

The term cultural appropriation itself finally came into use in the 1970s and ’80s amidst critiques of colonialism. It was used primarily in the context of academia, within the fields of sociology, anthropology, and various cultural studies.

Though not everyone embraced this terminology. In 1976, the historian Kenneth Coutts‐Smith produced, “Some General Observations on the Concept of Cultural Colonialism,” in which he wrote about both “class appropriation” (in which a dominant class appropriates and defines what can be classified as “high culture”) and “cultural colonialism.” A few years later, in 1979, sociologist Dick Hebdige wrote Subculture: The Meaning of Style, in which he explored the ways in which British subcultures (like punk) had consistently borrowed from other marginalized groups (like the Rastafarians and other low-income populations).

Still, conversations around cultural appropriation have really only entered the mainstream in the past couple of decades and, with these conversations, so has criticism of the concept.

Some—feeling attacked by accusations of cultural appropriation—have asked their accusers what could possibly be wrong with the ways in which they’ve been inspired or influenced by other cultures… the ways in which they’ve shown their appreciation for other cultures.

Others posit that the sharing of cultural elements across communities is merely human, and an essential part of the process in which cultures evolve.

As with most things we discuss within this community, there are no easy answers.

But a mindset of openness and a willingness to listen and learn are usually the ideal starting points.

Resources for Further Education

To learn more about cultural appropriation, you should check out the following:

“What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm” by Maisha Z. Johnson for Everyday Feminism

“What Is Cultural Appropriation?” a video from Origin of Everything

Cultural Appropriation Viewing Guide from PBS

Dear White People

White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men

yellow apparel: when the coolie becomes cool

Cultural Appropriation Bingo card by Dr. Sheila Addison, LMFT

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, the Guardian, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

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