7 Things You Might Not Realize Are Cultural Appropriation, But Are

by Mia Mercado
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If you’re looking for a hard line on what constitutes cultural appropriation what does not, I unfortunately don’t have the answers you seek. When we look at examples of cultural appropriation, there comes a point where lines get blurry. Cultural appreciation and cultural exchange are vital parts of any culture. Borrowing is not inherently bad. However, it becomes a problem when “appreciation” becomes fetishization, when “exchange” is one-sided, or when cultures are reduced to a single stereotype. Cultural appropriation is complicated, which is all the more reason we need to be talking about it.

Dr. Kelly H. Chong, professor and chairperson in the department of sociology at the University of Kansas, spoke to Bustle over email about what cultural appropriation is and the consequences it can have. Dr. Chong defines cultural appropriation as, "The adoption, often unacknowledged or inappropriate, of the ideas, practices, customs, and cultural identity markers of one society or group by members of another group or society that typically has greater privilege or power." In fashion, for example, cultural appropriation, as explained by actor and activist Amandla Stenberg, “occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.”

The consequences of cultural appropriation can have insidious implications regardless of the intentions of the appropriator. "(Mis)Appropriation of cultural elements of marginalized groups by the dominant groups (without the consent of the groups from which the cultural elements are being “borrowed”) often misrepresents and distorts the original meaning of these elements, exoticizes, simplifies, and commodifies them for display and consumption by the mainstream public," Dr. Chong states, "thereby perpetuating the harmful stereotypes of the marginalized groups." In other words, cultural appropriation can become more clearly harmful when a “trend” takes from a minority culture and deems that trend more societally acceptable when the majority culture adopts it.

In 2017, the owners of a Portland burrito cart were criticized for cultural appropriation after a profile of the pair reveal some dubious origins for their tortilla recipes. While the women ended up reverse engineering a tortilla recipe of their own, portions of the interview where the women talked about “peeking into the windows of every kitchen” was what struck some as appropriative. In a piece for Mic, author Jamilah King states, “The problem, of course, is that it's unclear whether the Mexican women who handed over their recipes ever got anything in return. And now those same recipes are being sold as a delicacy in Portland.” The food cart is now closed, which some speculate is due to the backlash from claims of cultural appropriation.

When it comes to pop culture, artists like Katy Perry have been criticized for cultural appropriation. However, cultural appropriation isn’t necessarily limited to people in the public eye. Here are seven examples of things most of us have likely encountered that can constitute as harmful cultural appropriation.


“Authentic” Food and Appropriation


There is a contentious and confusing history with food and cultural appropriation. Last year, a piece on “how you should be eating pho” received criticism because it featured a white chef’s own take on the Vietnamese dish. In a piece for Everyday Feminism, author Maisha Z. Johnson says, “Recent transplants to the [Bay Area] write Yelp reviews in search of 'authentic Mexican food' without the 'sketchy neighborhoods' — which usually happen to be what they call neighborhoods with higher numbers of people of color.”

Eating and enjoying food from another culture is not inherently appropriative or wrong. Cuisine often exemplifies cultural exchange as its best. However, in instances where someone of the dominant culture is profiting off of the customs and culture of a nondominant culture, without the occurrence of any sort of cultural (or monetary) exchange, it gets into dicey territory. Exotifying and commercializing food of another culture, thus removing it of it cultural history, can also lead to people reducing entire communities into a monolithic cuisine. As Rachel Kuo writes for Everyday Feminism, “when people think culture can seemingly be understood with a bite of food, that’s where it gets problematic.”


Using a “Blaccent”

Music and cultural appropriation go way, way back. It’s frankly fairly easy to find examples of artists using cultures outside their own for the sake of achieving an “aesthetic.” From Katy Perry and geishas to Miley Cyrus and twerking, cherry picking parts of another culture and ultimately diluting and profiting off of them is cultural appropriation at its most clear. It’s seen in the way Elvis danced and heard in the way Iggy Azalea speaks. As author Carvell Wallace writes in a piece on Meghan Trainor’s “blaccent” for MTV News, “What does it mean that Meghan Trainor’s voice is, technically, an approximated black one that comes from a white body?”

The problem often lies in the fact that, whether it is the artist’s intention or not, certain looks and sounds and “aesthetics” are automatically deemed more palatable by society when displayed on or by someone who is white. In the examples mentioned above, it’s celebrating black or Asian culture minus the presence of black or Asian people.


Chopsticks In Hair As A Celebration of “Asian Culture”


In addition to this stereotyping Asian culture, it’s also culturally inaccurate. Hair sticks, used in many countries, are not the same as chopsticks. Some have likened using chopsticks as a hair accessory to putting a fork in your updo. As Emma Roberts learned during the 2015 Met Gala, chopsticks as a means to celebrate Asian culture are both culturally inaccurate and reducing Asian culture to a singular stereotype.


Bindis, Headdresses, And Other Music Festival Trends

Cultural appropriation at music festivals like Coachella can be seen in decorative bindis, headdresses, henna, and other accessories deemed “exotic” or trendy. This is another example of cherry picking parts of a culture, thus leaving them devoid of their original intention.

Let’s look specifically at Native American headdresses as a “trendy accessory.” In addition to reducing Native American cultures, of which there are hundreds, to a single stereotype, this is removing all context for why headdresses are significant. It also just seems very on-the-nose given other things that have been stolen from Native Americans. For instance, America.


Looks That “Borrow” Black Hairstyles


From baby hairs and box braids worn by white models on the runway to tutorials for how to achieve afros with white hair, black culture is often appropriated in the name of fashion. The primary problem lies in the fact while black women receive cultural repercussions, like being fired from their job, for wearing dreadlocks or braids, women who aren’t black can sport the same hairstyle and be praised for being “cool and edgy.” As Zeba Blay writes in this piece for HuffPost, “White women are able to wear black hairstyles without the stigma of actually being black.”

Often used as a counterargument are black women who wear blonde weaves or straighten their hair. This, however, more often exemplifies assimilation than appropriation. In a culture where black women are penalized for their natural hair, changing it to look more like the dominant culture (in this instance, white hair) is a means for survival. As Kat Blaque states in her video on cultural appropriation, “There is no larger pressure that white people go under to assimilate into afrocentric beauty standards.”


Themed Parties That Exoticize Other Cultures

Conversations about cultural appropriation become the clearest around Halloween. Costumes that are examples of cultural appropriation can unfortunately be found pretty much anywhere Halloween garb is sold. To be clear: if a costume is a stereotypic portrayal of an entire demographic of people, that should be a red flag for it being appropriative. It’s virtually impossible to go dressed as entire ethnicity or culture without playing heavily into some harmful stereotypes. Additionally, year-round parties in which the theme is something stereotypically associated with a specific group of people (Looking at you, “thug” parties) goes beyond cultural appropriation in just being blatantly racist.


“Honoring” Other Cultures Through Stereotypic Depictions of Them

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True appreciation entails some level of understanding and respect. Reducing an entire race to a single stereotype is, again, more than likely just blatant racism. Simply put, cultural appropriation hurts everyone. On an individual level, it can be difficult to determine what is cultural appropriation versus cultural exchange versus appreciation. Does wanting to buy a shirt that says “pizza is my spirit animal” make you racist and insensitive to Native American people? Not inherently.

A huge part of cultural appropriation comes from the fact that we want the things we are told to want by industries and ideologies bigger than ourselves. We’re in part conditioned by popular culture as a whole to believe some things are cool and beautiful and others are are not. However, when pop culture takes parts from people who have not been historically deemed “cool and beautiful” and allows those parts to thrive through the bodies and voices of people who have been deemed “cool and beautiful,” we need to take notice.

Experts: Dr. Kelly H. Chong, professor of sociology at the University of Kansas

This post was originally published on May 30, 2017. It was updated on October 9, 2019.