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.