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Cultural appropriation is cancelled: killing the concept that would not die

Everyday sees a new cultural appropriation “scandal” lighting up the internet. Social Media warriors pile on and call for the “cancellation” of this celebrity or that brand, bully high schoolers and list all the unwoke – is that even a word? – people that populate this Earth and should know better.

Except, nobody really knows better because there is nothing to know. A small portion of the population gets offended at everything they don’t like and hide behind a concept that should never have been taken from its social studies context. The mainstream appropriation of “cultural appropriation” transformed a sociology concept steeped in the study of power struggles between oppressed cultures and oppressors and applied it to every supposed misappropriation of cultural signs and symbols by people who, according to the uninformed masses, have no rights to it.

In its mainstream iteration, cultural appropriation should never have been an issue. Finding someone’s fashion sense and borrowing of cultural elements they have no background on might, in the worst-case scenario, make us do a double take. It might even make you think the people appropriating are sad, ridiculous or uneducated. However, going from these feelings, to a belief that they are hurting the cultures they are borrowing from seems like a step too far.

The term isn’t really about Miley Cyrus twerking or Kylie Jenner wearing some Gwen Stefani-inspired hairdo that is supposedly “Black”. It is a serious concept that deserves to be understood within the premises of colonialism, oppression and identity erasure. A high school student wearing a Chinese dress to prom isn’t part of the issue. It never was and certainly shouldn’t be now.

Cultural appropriation is a complicated issue, one that crossed over from 1990s Sociology into mainstream culture. But what does it actually mean?

“Oxford Dictionaries, […] defines cultural appropriation as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society,” reports The Week. On GalDem, it is defined as: “the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is generally used to describe Western appropriations of non-Western or non-white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.”

Cultural appropriation is taking, for oneself, elements of a culture that isn’t one’s own. However, isn’t this how societies evolve? In Everyday Feminism, the basic definition is elevated by an emphasis on the power struggle inherent in the sociological context. “A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”

The artist Kenneth Coutts-Smith’s concept of “cultural colonialism”, as explained by The Guardian, reinforces the idea of brutalities done on a cultural level. This, it seems, is a war fought through cultural elements and violent removal of signs and symbols from an oppressed culture by a colonising one.  

Historically, this all makes sense. In a highly globalised 2020, the “Clash of Civilizations” heralded by Samuel Huntington in his 1993 publication reads a tad overdramatic. Within the Western World, where the clashes over cultural appropriation are the most violent and frequent, civilizations, plural, are scarce. Cultures are intertwined, separating them into defined and definite civilizations “distorts the tangled history of ideas.”

Cultural evolution demands the cross-contamination of cultures. Nothing exists in a vacuum and inspiration cannot – and should not – be limited by one’s own “culture,” whatever your personal definition of culture actually is. It is always acceptable – in my book – to be inspired, to reuse or to borrow from other cultures. It is, obviously, never OK to be tone-deaf to cultural symbols charged with meanings and identity-defining significance. This is the difference between cornrows and the N- word; between baggy jeans and a Sikh turban; between twerking and a kimono; between a Native American head-dress and a shirt with only the top button buttoned… In its modern, Internet-culture call out sense, appropriation is how culture gets made. Take Hip Hop: a mix-match of gang culture, prison culture, grigri culture from West Africa, high fashion culture, “all Americana” culture; and in the case of the Wu-Tang Clan, Chinese culture (for over 20 years, but it’s been recently called into question thanks to a make-up collab). Where do we draw the line? Is Hip-Hop appropriating West African cultures whilst assimilating via high fashion and all Americana?

Could cultural appropriation, as a term, be the problem? When keyboard warriors fling “cultural appropriation” at a selfie, what issues do they want to highlight?

Words matter and there is a difference between significant cultural elements and “fillers.” Signs and symbols have meanings and the real problem comes when the meanings are so intertwined with a culture that they are immediately recognisable as belonging to a particular group with a shared history. Historical elements of colonialism, oppression and supremacy are why cultural appropriation, whilst annoying in its new, internet-based iteration, is actually an important concept.

Appropriation is not the same thing as assimilation, when people from a minority appropriate elements from a dominant culture. Of course, it is a question of power. To understand the point even better, we only need look at a specific case, such as “Black” hair. “When Black women have to fight for acceptance with the same styles a young white woman can be admired for, what message does that send to Black women and girls?” Maisha Z. Johnson writes for Everyday Feminism. However, when white women wear “the same styles,” what is their intentions? Why someone borrows from a culture should, surely, be part of the discussion. What seems obvious when we are discussing brands cashing in on marginalised cultures isn’t so clear cut when the discussion is moved outside of a political or economic realm. Or, as Ash Sarkar writes in The Guardian, “Is it right to level the same criticism at an act of cultural borrowing that doesn’t have a clear angle of economic or political exploitation as for one that does?”

Is this, then, assimilation, cross-appropriation or even reverse assimilation? There is such a thing as a trickle-down culture and it’s nothing new, it’s been talked about for decades by sociologists and is a very clear and simple concept: lower social classes adopt signs and codes from those above to “climb up.” As they do so, the top of the pyramid reinvents and finds new codes and signs to adopt. What is happening in the 21st Century is a cycle: the people at the top are “appropriating” from those supposedly “below” them and all of a sudden everyone is in an uproar. Whilst it’s always happened –Marie Antoinette pretending to be a shepherdess and to live a “simple” life on the grounds of Versailles – the oppressed and lower classes didn’t use to have Twitter. Now that everyone can be offended and everyone can call out anyone, we’re flattening out – on the surface – social classes. It should mean that all cultures are now up for grab by anyone, but in actuality, what it really means is that the minorities can make a lot of noise about being oppressed and refuse to let the members of the dominant culture think they got something right, even if it’s just the way they wear their hair. In the 21st century, oppressed hair is a thing, but it only seems to be for those who position themselves as victims within their own societies.

Michael Onyebuchi Eze, in Cultural Appropriation and the Limits of Identity: A Case for Multiple Humanity (ies), proposes that “in restricting the epistemic boundaries of appropriation and assimilation to performative pedagogy of dominant and minority groups (respectively), critics are problematizing cultural appropriation as a discourse of power and domination in which minority groups are mere passive agents only capable of assimilating.” Are minorities only capable of receiving violence and is their only response truly to assimilate? Minorities as teachers should not be dismissed. Sarah Scoenfeld reports Megan O’Brien, an indigenous weaver who, in an article When Culture is Commodified (2015), “is interviewed about her opinion concerning the increasing popularity of indigenous weaving techniques. She doesn’t see anything wrong with cultural appropriators learning a new skill, as long as they are also learning about the culture from which it comes and the challenges that culture has endured.” But how do we know that someone has done their homework? How do we know the “cultural appropriators” have learned more than weaving techniques? And what happens if the “good” appropriator then goes home and wears something he’s made with his new-found technique? Using authenticity or knowledge as a marker of whether something is “good” cultural appropriation or “bad” cannot work. To figure out whether something is a “real” issue or not, all we need do is propose a reversal. What would happen if someone from the culture appropriated from did it? What if a Geisha from Kyoto released a line of shapewear and called it Kimono? It would, I believe, still be somewhat shocking.

However, at the core of cultural appropriation is a dominant/minority issue. What happens, then, in a society where everyone is mixed-race, like in Brazil? “Cultural appropriation doesn’t exist in a country where “everyone is a little bit black,” writes Sofia Ferreira Santos in How Do You Draw the Lines of Cultural Appropriation When Everyone “Is A Little Bit Black“, which, if we follow the thought to its natural end, means that cultural appropriation isn’t really about culture, but about race.

In the 21st century, the dominant culture, at least online, seems to equate “white,” “western” and by extension “American.” Cultural appropriation in the USA is a real issue, but it can get murky when the USA, in its “modern” incarnation, has just been created and is populated by a majority of immigrants: if you cannot call yourself Native American, you belong to a diaspora. It should be no mystery why cultural appropriation is such a big deal in a country that took on the name of an entire continent and claimed it as its own. To be American is to be “Irish American,” “Japanese American,” “African American” and any number of other hyphenated descriptions that claim a right to far-flung places whose cultures you are ready to defend – online, at least – even more fervently than the people who actually live there. “When you’re a second- or third-generation migrant, your ties to your heritage can feel a little precarious. […] The appropriation debate peddles a comforting lie that there’s such thing as a stable and authentic connection to culture that can remain intact after the seismic interruptions of colonialism and migration,” Ash Sarkar writes in The Guardian.

Every cultural appropriation uproar meets resistance. Interestingly enough, the defenders of the “appropriators” are sometimes the very people who should truly be in an uproar (not their long-lost relatives who’ve never set foot on “motherland” soil). It is blatantly obvious within the Asian communities. The Japanese – at least in their social media’s responses – were nonplussed when it came to the Eurovision “scandal.” “Culture is meant to be stolen. If it’s not worth stealing, then it isn’t culture”, “If people keep claiming ‘cultural appropriation’ then people will not touch our culture. Then, people will not understand our culture and it will be easier to become our enemy”, and my personal favourite, “Westerners care too much about silly things.”

The Chinese responses to an American student who wore a Chinese dress at her graduation were mainly positive, in stark contrast to the diaspora who fell on the girl for her appropriation. As reported by Michael Onyebuchi Eze: “an editorial in the Wenxue City News praised and applauded the student’s creative adaptation of a Chinese cultural artefact. […] a […] reader even recommended that Chinese government, state media and fashion industry extend her an invitation to visit China for cultural display. […] Culture has no borders. There is no problem, as long as there is no malice or deliberate maligning. Chinese cultural treasures are worth spreading all over the world.” […] And from CYLinTW, expressing gratitude for her use of the cheongs: “Thank you for letting everyone know the beauty of Chinese culture.” “It’s ridiculous to criticize this as cultural appropriation,” Zhou Yijun, a Hong Kong-based cultural commentator, said in a telephone interview. “From the perspective of a Chinese person, if a foreign woman wears a qipao and thinks she looks pretty, then why shouldn’t she wear it?”

Why are members of diasporas trying to preserve their culture with such vigour, when people who live in the places their ancestors came from have no problem with it? Power is, again, at the centre of it. Add to it some identity-crisis and you have a recipe for cultural appropriation uproars and Twitter tantrums. “While these diaspora citizens may not fight wars for their cultural homelands, pay taxes or even relocate to these places, they are those for whom culture plays an even more critical role in identity formation,” writes Michael Onyebuchi Eze.

As minorities, diasporas’ identities are based on “heritage culture,” “fantasy culture” that makes them other but also part of something bigger – and better? – than their current displacement. “So identity becomes a hoard to be guarded, rather than to be shared and explored. Your particular culture is increasingly fetishised as something that can only be understood by people who are exactly like you, […].”

“People like you,” however, do not necessarily see eye to eye with you. When you are part of the mainstream culture, such as with Chinese culture in China, the need to safeguard signs and symbols as part of your identity-building does not arise. In the incredibly globalised and connected world of the 21st century, where most battles – at least when it comes to cultural appropriation – are fought online, how can minority and mainstream cultures be defined? What are the differences between a Japanese Twitter user and a Japanese American one? Who should we listen to?  

Is a link to a culture enough to make appropriating its signs and symbols OK? Is Kim Kardashian-West, as the wife of a black man and mother of mixed-race children given more rights to African American culture than Miley Cyrus who has no links to the African continent?

Is African American culture culturally appropriating African cultures? Which culture? Every time an African American speaks about “Africa” as if it was a country or a culturally homogenous place, it lessens the African American’s claims of cultural appropriation a little further. Cornrows aren’t “African,” Africa(n) isn’t a culture and “black” certainly, definitely, isn’t. There is no culture associated with a melanin level.

When Beyoncé (who I am personally a fan of) gets “African” dancers for the Who runs the World (Girls) video, they’ve never even heard of her. She, as an American, is appropriating as much as Kim Kardashian-West. Is her skin what makes her different? Kanye West widely advertised the fact that he was in “Africa” to get “inspired” when recording his latest album. "I felt this energy when I was in Chicago. I felt the roots. We have to go to what is known as Africa." What, exactly, does this mean? The idea that “Africa is the motherland” shows a deep misunderstanding of Africa as a continent, which is neither an identity nor a culture.

But entertainers are not the only ones who can get confused. In the New York Times, Afropunk’s problematic is laid down. Its “rebellion manifests in glorious, creative outfits that riff on centuries-old aesthetic legacies from Africa, beloved cultural traditions among African American communities and a fantastical, futuristic sensibility. These outfits are also, according to some Africans, inadvertently disrespectful. In Nigeria, I spoke to a stylist who mentioned that Afropunk style — which can mix Kenyan kitenge cloth with Bini coral beads and an Egyptian cobra headband — was one way that the African diaspora has betrayed African people, since it flattens so many individual ethnic communities into one Pan-African look.”

Is calling yourself African-American an antidote to other people being offended by your cultural appropriation? Does this only apply to people of a certain melanin level? Is it not worst appropriation for black Americans to completely mix and match cultures from an entire continent, claiming it all as one culture, than for white Americans to appropriate black American culture? American cultures, whether they be white or black, have more in common than any colour-coded American culture could ever have with African cultures.

However, it seems the call out of cultural appropriation is only available to a certain group of people: the diaspora, the people who are, for all intents and purposes, at least within a cultural discussion, part of the “oppressor” culture – to the extent they do not recognise anything outside of it (“Africa” as a single culture) – but might not feel as if they have integrated. They might not be at the top of their respective societies, but they are part of it, which makes the cultural appropriation claim all the harder to swallow. “Does not the fact that we already speak a language indicate that we are already inserted in the culture of those who speak those languages? What then defines culture? Is it dress? Is it cuisine? Is it aesthetics? Language? Traditions? Stories? Or Race?” asks Michael Onyebuchi Eze.

Cultural appropriation tends to limit culture to a race-based discussion. But culture isn’t only about where you’re from. Is it cultural appropriation if mainstream culture takes something from the Underground or subcultures? Is putting on accents cultural appropriation? Is eating the food of a culture you have no claims to offensive? Isn’t it more offensive to believe people of a certain colour or people from a certain place all adhere to the same culture? What about minorities within each culture? The Ka Mate haka might be used by all New Zealanders, but it belongs to one iwi (tribe) – it was composed by by Te Rauparaha, who was chief of the Ngāti Toa tribe of the North Island of New Zealand, and for a misappropriation example, you need look no further than Cultural Survival. Isn’t calling out “white” people over fried chicken actually perpetuating the stereotype of “black” people’ supposed love of it? Who should be allowed to post a selfie with sushi, or with Korean Kimbap (which was advertised to me by an elderly man in Seoul as “the Korean sushi”)? Who should have the “rights” to a colour, a way of moving one’s body, or a word? Who should be judge and jury, when we’ve already seen that even people who are supposedly from the same culture can’t agree? “Who “owns” what?”

Offending a “culture” through appropriation means offending people within said culture. But who decides who’s in and who’s out? Are we going to look at how many generations back you can claim to belong to a culture for and who decides how many generations is enough? “An entire people,” “set of traditions,” these are historical terms that shouldn’t be relevant in this day and age. Cultures are not only for those who are born into it. But even if they were, most cultural elements aren’t traceable, or come from multiple places. Should henna only be worn by Indians? What about the long Middle Eastern tradition, the Malaysian tradition, Sudan or Israel’s historical claims to it? Even more importantly, does cultural appropriation’s fears require us all to stay within our lanes?

Ultimately, cultural appropriation is the issue we are all, to an extent, mad about. With its deeply engrained power struggle and cultural colonialism undertones, cultural appropriation debates will not go away anytime soon. Whilst the call outs have mainly been discussed in American culture’s terms, the issues underlying the concept aren’t USA-centric. In the deeply divided, globalised societies of the Western world, pointing out cultural appropriation is a way for diasporas to reclaim their otherness and identities. But what about the perpetrators? Shouldn’t intent be part of the debate? If we put aside obvious disrespect, such as the “fun” use of Native Americans’ war bonnets at festivals or a butchered Haka at an American college’s football game, could cultural appropriation actually just be appreciation, a sort of homage to something that might not be part of our own culture but that we find interesting, moving, or simply nice or beautiful?

When the Wu-Tang Clan appropriates Chinese symbols, Asian Americans call it “appreciation.” The underlying message is that a minority can appropriate from another minority, as long as they’re not white. Within minorities – which have been, in this hierarchy of cultures, flattened out as one big mass – who should have the monopoly on being – and feeling – oppressed? “On some level, it doesn’t feel right to call what Afropunk attendees and Japanese cholas do “cultural appropriation.” The power dynamics at work are complicated; […] But of course, it is appropriation. These groups, in different ways, are adorning themselves with symbols from another culture and wearing them for their own purposes,” the New York Times.

Are we really believing that people from minorities are incapable of racism, mockery or disrespect? Are these only “white” issues? “Where culture is conflated with race, the critique of cultural appropriation inevitably becomes a critique of whiteness and not necessarily for cultural theft,” Michael Onyebuchi Eze.

Melanin levels do not equate a culture and the discussion has, unfortunately, done nothing but divided where it should have brought a deeper understanding of the incredible breadth and depth of cultural identities – and how they shape different groups – within our societies. “The result is often that people are so afraid of appearing “bad” that they self-censor good-faith impulses to try something new. Ironically, in doing so, they learn less about other cultures.”

Fixed, unmoving and unmovable cultures, therefore, become a bigger problem than someone trying out a new fashion garment that might not “go” with their skin. “It’s not fair to ask any culture to freeze itself in time and live as though they were a museum diorama,” says Susan Scafidi, a lawyer and the author of Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, as reported by The Atlantic. If we were to stay within our lanes, which lane would I, a mix-raced woman with a European mother and a West African father, a half-Filipino uncle, and links, further back in time, to the Pacific Islands and the West Indies, be in?

If it seems impossible to “cancel” cultural appropriation, let’s at least appreciate the fact that it can be positive, as well as inevitable. “We have to stop guarding cultures and subcultures in efforts to preserve them. It’s naïve, paternalistic, and counterproductive. Plus, it’s just not how culture or creativity work.”  And if this inevitability – and positivity – really is too much for you to take, we should all remember that it is possible – and again, inevitable – to be part of the dominant culture one day or in one place, and of the minority somewhere else or at another time. Identities, like cultures, are not fixed, and understanding their multi-layered complexities would go a long way in all of us, if not getting closer to killing the concept of cultural appropriation, at least moving forward.


Sarah Kante is a writer with itchy feet. She has written for brand and publications including Universal Music, IDOL magazine, TripAdvisor, Kokoro Care Packages and TC Jewfolk. She is @SarahKante, and further information and writing is at her website.