According to Britannica, "cultural appropriation takes place when members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way." Cultural appropriation’s more socially accepted reciprocal, cultural appreciation, though, is defined as "appreciating another culture in an effort to broaden [one’s] perspective and connect with others cross-culturally."
These two concepts are separated by a fine line known as consent and permission to celebrate; however, we see celebrities and popular figures play into the destructive culture of appropriation in an attempt to be trendy or cool time and time again. Credit: Buzzfeed
To play the devil’s advocate, though, most of the time these attempts to be cool or groundbreaking are merely products of misguidance or ignorance. When one facet of a social platform praises someone who showcases culture as a form of "appreciation" and another deems it "appropriation", people fall under the influence of whichever side they feel is socially acceptable; furthermore, this leads them down a muggy path where they are forced to choose between what is trendy and what is conflict-proof.
At the end of the day, though, appropriation of any culture is inexcusable. Generations of minority groups create and foster their culture as a way to make them distinct and a way to pass down a tradition that is sacred. But if these traditions, religions, styles, languages, and garments are so sacred, why do we, as the general public, turn a blind eye to the consistent impositions and exploitations of such rich, dynamic histories?
The answer is quite simple, and it lies in the ideas of profitability and ignorance.
In Music, Fashion, and Media
Justin Bieber, a Caucasian male from Canada, flirtatiously cooing about the benefits of him being your "boyfriend” and sitting by the fire "eating fondue” over a Neptunes-esque beat; Miley Cyrus, with a lineage rooted in country music, attempting to be a contributor to a hip-hop culture that birthed the likes of legends Tupac, Nas, Aaliyah, and Nicki Minaj; Ariana Grande going on more of a dialect/vocal rollercoaster than a pubescent teenage boy; Katy Perry rocking cornrows with the blind confidence of a Norwegian wearing a Baywatch one-piece in the peak of winter; Beyonce wearing traditional Indian garb; and Justin Timberlake…existing, are all prime examples of musicians using exploitation as a means of making money.
And these instances don’t just occur in the 21st century’s cancel-culture craze, either.
In 1957, Pat Boone claimed to have been the original singer of the famed Little Richard tune "Tutti Frutti," shifting the attention of the top 20 songs from Little Richard, a relatively unknown black soul singer, to Boone, a white country star compared to the likes of Elvis Presley and Andi Mathis. And in 1973, the band Led Zeppelin did their best reggae/Bob Marley impression in the song "D’Yer Mak’er," mocking Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean culture and showing heavy insensitivity to the roots of reggae.
Credit: The Independent
Fashion and media are no different. Marc Jacobs models sporting faux deadlocks; Gucci advertising an "Indy Turban" for an astounding $790; Victoria Secret repeatedly showcasing their take on indigenous and Native American cultures; the movie "Soul Man," which tells the story of a white man who conceals his privilege to gain college acceptance through the means of posing as a black man, wearing blackface, and adopting an African-American dialect; and "Breakfast at Tiffany’s," which poorly showcased Mickey Rooney playing a middle-aged Asian man, all point the finger of appropriation at ignorance and greed. And sure, dipping your foot in the rhythm and blues pool, portraying POC as exotic, adopting dialects, and wearing Dravidian garments provide much needed attention to underprivileged minorities and their respective cultures; however, there are other ways to do so that don’t miscredit or take away from the treasures that lie within these diverse practices, histories, and garbs. But it can be hard to tell where the line between disrespect and admiration is.
Roots in Colonialism and Colonialist Culture
Credit: Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology
To call it what it is, cultural appropriation is a form of post-colonialism. When people think of colonialism, they think of slavery, international adventures, and conquering communities of defenseless people. However, postcolonialism is defined as "a field of study concerned with the critical analysis of the ideological impact of Western imperialism and its continuing influence." Simply put, it is a term that refers to the unnecessary extension and crossing of cultural boundaries.
Credit: Center for Prevention MN
And it doesn’t help, either, that young people are taught at an early age to take advantage of what they may deem fascinating or alien. There is this possessive mindset that is engrained in the impressionable minds of young children and follows them until they are adults. A parent, these days, will likely advocate on behalf of a child if that child takes a toy or stuffed animal from another. The whole "I saw it first, so it’s mine" phenomenon is just forced adoption and appropriation in its adolescent stage. Children grow up thinking that whatever is shiny, different, or alluring is theirs to have, rather than trying to understand these things and the extensive history that has made them what they are.
Conclusion Credit: Teen Vogue
Culture is everywhere. The world is currently made up of diverse, varied populations of people that look, talk, act, dress, and believe different things. And as an outsider looking into these rituals and practices, it’s fairly easy to become curious about and enthralled by what is new or unfamiliar. Wanting to celebrate those who are different is a fantastic way to travel the world and learn about the fascinating things that make up each continent; however, exploiting and abusing this curiosity can be harmful. Before engaging in any activity that could be considered appropriating, one must immerse themselves in the culture; dig deep into the roots, trials, and tribulations of whatever minority captivates your attention, and only then will one be able to appreciate and not appropriate.
Culture is niche, but it is not exotic. Culture is rich, but it should not be considered profitable. In the case that culture is considered either of these offensive things, it can lead to a society in which people never learn to appreciate, understand, and immerse themselves in what makes this world colorful and unique.