Why Cultural Appropriation Matters

Cultural appropriation is a tricky topic to unpack and explain in a manner that keeps the attention of those who believe it to be “PC crap,” but also doesn’t dampen the significance of the issue. But we should try anyway.

I’ve no doubt played a role in cultural appropriation throughout my life, with no bad intentions or awareness that I was doing anything harmful. Growing up in okla humma, Choctaw for “Red People,” I was surrounded by Native American culture. Half of the cities I can name in Oklahoma derive from a Native American word or phrase in the language of one of the 67 tribes represented in the state. You can buy dream catchers and arrowheads at gas stations along the interstate, and Oklahoma museums have some of the largest Native American collections in the world. The designation of Oklahoma as Indian Territory in the 19th century laid the foundation for the incredibly complex and muddled mixing of unique cultures that white people typically lump into “Native American” culture. This amalgamated meta-culture, if you will, has been commodified into a staple of Oklahoma tourist attractions and local affairs. To those born here, the combined Native American culture is a frequent part of every day life, even though many don’t understand the significance of the cultural artifacts in their original context.

Cultural appropriation is often so easily recognized and understood by the trained eye (e.g., the anthropologist) and the appropriated (e.g., Native Americans), yet so unrecognizable to the appropriator (often white Americans). Perhaps white Americans have trouble recognizing cultural appropriation because many of them do not have deeply rooted cultural expressions that hold sociohistorical significance. I am not saying whites don’t have a culture; there is a rich variety of white culture. However, white Americans don’t typically have a long history of ethnically derived cultural expressions that hold significance in their lives and the lives of those around them. It is possible that this lack of connection with a uniquely defined, deeply rooted culture makes it more difficult for white Americans to easily understand when something is appropriated. Perhaps an analog to which many white Americans, particularly among the South, can relate would be a misappropriation of religious traditions or symbols. If a member of a decidedly un-Christian group wore symbols of Christian religious significance while ignoring the Christian religion and the context in which those symbols were significant, the Christian community would likely be upset. This might be particularly true if the symbols are masqueraded in a fashion that almost mocks or perverts the significance and meaning of the symbol. In this hypothetical situation, I imagine the argument would be that those individuals do not represent Christianity, and are giving others a diluted and unrepresentative image of what Christians are. Much is the same when a white American frivolously wears a Native American headdress.

It’s tough to even find an appropriate metaphor that accurately represents a white American experiencing cultural appropriation. In the US, white culture is the dominant culture, and thus cannot experience systemic oppression of its culture. This isn’t to say white Americans are intentionally oppressive or insensitive to other cultures. Often the material culture being appropriated is made out to be a fashion statement or décor due to its intriguing and desirable properties. There’s nothing inherently wrong with purchasing a dream catcher or some arrow earrings for fashion. The problem occurs when those cultural expressions are used without any understanding of their significance within their original context. Cultural appropriation is only a “thing” because discrimination still exists, albeit to a much less degree than in the past. The issue now is not necessarily that individuals are oppressive, per se, but that institutional discrimination exists. When a company mass produces an appropriated item, it quickly loses its significance. Crosses, for example, have become a trend to such an extent that they hold much less cultural significance today than they originally did. Even so, Christianity is the predominate religion in the US, and cannot be robbed of its symbols quite the same as a minority culture’s symbols. It’s much easier for your voice to be heard and the significance of your culture’s symbol to be realized when the majority of people living around you understand the significance in the original context.

The biggest issue with cultural appropriation is that the significance of an appropriated expression, a unique human perspective on the world, is lost, diluted to a fashion statement that will die out within the decade. Human cultural diversity is rapidly declining as the world becomes more and more globalized. Globalization isn’t inherently bad, so long as the idiosyncratic views on human nature and the world are not lost along the way as minority groups attempt to attain equality through assimilation. Cultural appropriation not only thins the world’s cultural diversity, but also reinforces stereotypes of minority cultures and perpetuates ignorance, which further deteriorates any cultural pride that group of people may have. Once your culture is universally mocked and turned into a casual commodity by the dominant culture, why bother preserving it?

If we want to preserve the wonderful array of cultural diversity that we currently have, we must be more aware of how we borrow practices or symbols from the minority cultures. There is nothing inherently wrong with buying dream catcher earrings for a fashion statement; however, do your part in preserving the culture by learning a little something about the item your wearing. Cultural exchange can be a powerful tool in the preservation of marginalized cultures, but only if the significance in the original cultural context is preserved along with the material culture. Simply make sure you aren’t perverting something that is sacred to another group of people, and give credit where credit is due. If you’re using something that is interesting or unique, see what the story is behind it. Learning what something truly means and having the ability to tell the story alongside the material will likely to make it even more interesting while also helping to preserve its cultural significance.

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14 thoughts on “Why Cultural Appropriation Matters”

  1. Hmmm…The Romans were massive appropriators. They absorbed and preserved other cultures, notably the Etruscan and Greek; we are the lucky inheritors of ideas, inventions, architecture and art that would have been lost and are the foundation of Western Culture. Many Native American peoples had utterly forgotten their ancient predecessors until archaeologists, anthropologists and private parties rediscovered their material culture and urged contemporary descendants to rekindle long gone traditions. It’s never so black and white.

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    1. I agree that it’s not so black and white, and that anthropologists and archaeologists play an ever important role in cultural preservation. However, appropriation of a culture is a quick way to diminish any significance it may have.

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      1. What? The two “activities somehow cancel each other out? Someone puts on a headdress and Native American artifacts “magically disappear” from museums? That’s not possible.

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      2. Their cultural significance in their original context, not the material culture. That’s the issue with appropriation. It ignores the context in which those items or practices were significant. Over time that meaning becomes lost.

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      3. How do we know what the context was? Stories (myths) are subject to gross distortion over time; human memory is very poor. Even written history is full of inversions, fanciful conclusions, big blanks and later interpretation.

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      4. That’s not what I am saying. I think you are missing the point. A practice or material object that originates in a culture derives its significance from its use within that sociocultural context. If it is used outside of that context for frivolous reasons, it loses its original meaning and significance.

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      5. I would see it differently: culture arises through appropriation and repurposing. The Chinese invented gun powder and rockets. The West “borrowed” these, and created weapons that changed warfare and the lives of millions. I would say that modern warfare has greatly increased the significance of gunpowder over a “frivolous” use as entertainment. That is, appropriation vastly increased the impact of a “toy.” (Tragically, in my opinion.) Few people understand in their own time what consequences will flow from appropriation; but that’s how cultures grow. I think native Americans have much more important matters to deal with; alcoholism, suicide, poverty. Eventually people must come to grips with catastrophe and a future.

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      6. Those are technological exchanges, not a dominant culture within a nation exploiting practices or symbols that are sacred to a marginalized culture.

        Perhaps the rates of depression and suicide among Native Americans have to do with the exploitation and utter destruction of things they once held sacred, not to mention forced assimilation? Perhaps the high rates of obesity and illness among native americans has to do with exploitation of them and the lack of adequately spaced grocery stores amongst reservations. As you said, it’s not so black and white.

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      7. Example: The Last Supper of Christian fame is a cannibalistic feast, and yet no Christian “knows” the original context, even though it’s right there in front of them.

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