Why is cultural appropriation wrong? The answer is both straightforward and complex: At the core of cultural appropriation are unequal power dynamics and a violent historical context.
Cultural appropriation is not cultural appreciation. It is a cultural exchange levied through unequal power relations on a systemic level. It is when marginalized people are mocked, berated, targeted, demeaned, and physically assaulted for displays of their own culture—while majority people are free to use and consume the same culture. It is when the deep history behind a culture gets ignored. It is when things that have cultural significance are regarded as props, costumes, themes, or simply aesthetic objects—therefore otherizing and dehumanizing the people of that culture.
It often seems that cultural appropriation is one of the most defended acts of racism. When someone is called out for cultural appropriation, the response can be a mixture of denial, entitlement, anger, and defensiveness. People become self-justifying in a way that is uncritical and ahistorical.
No excuse works. Ever. Let us continue to repeat this vital mantra: Because of power dynamics and historical context, there is no excuse.
Here are some of the more common rationalizations:
1. I just think that the culture is so beautiful.
Well, of course you are free to think that other cultures are beautiful. But why does this admiration automatically translate to the need to own part of it? This is very literally settler colonialist thinking. Manifest destiny much? You are saying that, just because you think something is beautiful, you think you can possess it. Seizing, occupying, and consuming something is not honoring it. Theft is not honor. It can exist, beautifully, without you. Aesthetics should never trump ethics.
2. Well, my friend who is part of that culture said it was okay.
Your friend is not representative of their entire culture. Cultures are never monoliths.
If your retort to someone calling you out is to tell them that they are not representative of their entire culture either, you should take a step back. They might not be representing their entire culture, but they — unlike you — have the right to represent an aspect of it. Plus, your friend who excused your appropriation is part of the power dynamic system, too. For people in any marginalized community, conceding to the system is often a survival tactic. I consider myself a strong and outspoken intersectional feminist and yet, despite my consciousness, I still struggle with internalized racism. Despite my consciousness, I still often want to “soften the blow” to problematic friends and acquaintances, and tell them something is okay when it’s not. Being tokenized is oppressive, but I also personally know that sometimes it is the only way to endure social situations.
3. I’ve traveled there/studied abroad there/volunteered there/et cetera.
The “travel = enlightenment” equation is a very privileged outlook. The idea that traveling always broadens one’s horizons and opens one’s mind is rooted in colonialist concepts. It is classist and imperialist. I know that there are people reading this who are reacting to this in an affronted manner, and I understand. I have felt the same way. When I was first confronted with this concept, I reacted very defensively; after all, I am a lover of travel with a family background of poverty, immigration, and refugee status. Although these are all factors that must be taken into account, they are still not good enough excuses.
I’ve had some of the most enriching experiences while traveling. No one begrudges the wanderer’s heart or the illuminating results of travel. However, you do not gain admittance to cultures simply by being physically near them. The hosts must invite you. When you are somewhere as a guest, your personal education about other cultures — while important — does not eclipse the potential impact on the people of those cultures.
4. I have a friend/partner/relative from that culture.
This is the classic “I’m not racist—I have a _________ friend” excuse. It does not exempt you. It is different if someone from that culture invites you to participate or if someone from that cultures gives you a cultural gift. Then, of course, people are welcome to respectfully take part. When I wear the Tlingit eagle design silver-wrought earrings that my mother-in-law gifted me, I feel love for her and happiness that she is sharing her culture with me. But this in no way gives me permission to wear eagle feathers or certain types of beadwork. These sacred items have a context in Tlingit culture, one that I have no right to partake in. I am a person of color with my own intersections, but I am still a settler. Being married to an indigenous person does not make me indigenous. So remember that whatever relationships you have, your life’s context is different from theirs.
5. I’m a person of color, too.
People of color can be culturally appropriative of other cultures. We aren’t immune. Even though the power dynamics and historical context are different and complex in these situations, they still apply.
6. But people of color culturally appropriate white culture. Are you saying that cultures can’t even exchange things? Globalization!
A non-white person wearing jeans has an entirely different context than a non-South Asian person wearing a sari. A non-white person getting a tattoo with Greco-Roman mythology has an entirely different context than a non-Polynesian person getting a tattoo with Polynesian tribal iconography. Again, replicating oppressive norms in systems is often for survival. Globalization has not happened on an equal and horizontal scale. It’s a complex thing, but you cannot separate it from the context of colonialism and the creation of the “third world.”
An additional note: One of the most common arguments I hear is, “But you speak English, and you majored in English… that’s appropriation of American culture.” Nope. Again, power dynamics and historical context! The series of circumstances that brought my family to the United States—wars, revolutions, militarization, and poverty—were not choices. Learning English was for survival, not for fun or aesthetics or expansion of my mind. Furthermore, learning to speak another language is not cultural appropriation! Mocking or exotifying languages is another thing, but everyone should learn to speak as many languages as they want.
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7. We’re all human! We’re all equal!
Yes, we are all human. But we’re not all equal. In an ideal world, we would be. But it is disingenuous to suggest a post-racial, post-oppression world when that is simply not the reality. The world’s history continues to reverberate today.
At Indian reservation boarding schools, Native children were forced to “assimilate” through violent, dehumanizing methods. The consequences of this abuse are still present in Native communities. Meanwhile, hipsters and indie singers are capering around in feathered headdresses and claiming appreciation.
After 9/11, Muslim women were shot in the streets for wearing the hijab. Meanwhile, non-Muslim people throw on headscarves and claim understanding.
For generations, South Asian/Desi women have been socially persecuted for wearing their traditional clothing. Meanwhile, pop stars are throwing on bindis and saris and claiming trendiness.
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These are power dynamics: On the bodies of people of color and indigenous people, their own cultures are backwards, outdated, strange, and otherizing. On privileged bodies, the same manifestations of culture allude to glamor, worldliness, progressiveness, and uniqueness. Certain cultures are seen as acultural (aka the “norm”) while others are “exotic.” This is historical context: genocide, subjugation, slavery, invasion, violent expansionism, and imperialism.
So what is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? If there is a double standard, if there is unequal exchange, if there are roots of oppression—then it is cultural theft, not cultural honor. It always comes down to this: There is no excuse in the world that can’t be shut down with the knowledge of power dynamics and historical context.
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[Headline image: The photograph shows a Muslim woman of color wearing a red hijab and top with a yellow design. She is looking to her left with a serious expression. Behind her, blurry black-and-white images of people are visible.]