What is cultural appropriation?

If you’ve been reading the news lately you know that multiple brands, celebrities, and companies have been accused of cultural appropriation, but what does the act for which they are being singled out really mean?
Read on to find out not only the definition of cultural appropriation, but also its impact measured in consequences, examples, and how to handle the issue.

What is cultural appropriation
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Definition of cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation definition refers to the adoption of certain elements of another culture without the consent of the people who belong to it. 

It is an issue that from the beginning has been handled with a high level of controversy, and in the last couple of decades it has been brought to the center of society’s attention thanks to both activists and celebrities.

However, there are many people who are still confused about what it means, and it has no other explanation than the usurpation of culture for purposes that are completely unrelated to it, such as selling a product.

And, not to be confused, cultural appropriation has little to do with the exposure and familiarity of cultures, as it usually involves members of a dominant group taking it upon themselves to exploit less privileged groups.

It is very common to notice how these acts are performed along racial and ethnic lines, where almost no understanding of history is maintained, let alone community experiences or traditions.

This is not a negative action at all!

It comes to us the need to point out that taking cultural aspects from other places does not always have to be a bad thing, as it can be full of benefits if the culture is not offended.

An example of this would be Picasso, who copied some examples of African art that led to positive results. 

Demonstrating that in some cases cultural appreciation can be used to enhance not only personal work, but the communities from which the characteristics that have been taken originate.

Unfortunately, some kind of benefit is not always taken into account, and that is where appropriation comes in.

Impact of cultural appropriation

While many people follow trends, or styles, set by society without knowing where they come from, the impact of cultural appropriation is often greater than anyone could imagine. 

No country, city, town, village, or community is going to like it when people who maintain other cultures take parts of their own for their own purposes or without giving them the recognition they deserve, but all this can escalate to higher levels.

To understand it better, it would be good to point out some of the consequences of cultural appropriation:

Cases of appropriation offend and weary harm to the diverse cultures that fall victim to these acts. The introduction of systems of oppression, patriarchy and ableism tend to offend people and these are characteristics that can be included in appropriation.

The different stereotypes that people have are penetrated in a dangerous way, since in most cases the damage caused to the culture is irreparable.

In every case of appropriation there is a dynamic that is based on the power of one, so when the exposure of culture occurs it is not something that benefits both sides.

The reason why the impact of cultural appropriation is not so widely perceived in society at large is because for outsiders the act is unimportant, but for the affected communities it is of utmost importance.

Although many artists, brands, among others, claim in most cases when they are exposed as the party of power that their acts have not been based on malice, the truth is that there is always some kind of damage.

Examples of cultural appropriation

It is something that has been happening for many decades, but in recent history there are cases that can be taken as examples of cultural appropriation that have had great impact on society.

The Carolina Herrera case and the Mexican native peoples

It would be on June 6, 2019 when Carolina Herrera would launch its Resort 2020 collection, bringing the debate of cultural appropriation back to the table. This collection is characterized by a folkloric air, as well as bright colors. 

Although the designer said the inspiration came from a “joyful and colorful Latin vacation,” both she and her creative director, Wes Gordon, were accused of appropriating the embroidery and designs that belong to the native Mexican people.

The Mexican Ministry of Culture took the decision to address a letter to the brand on June 10 asking for explanations as to why they used techniques and patterns specific to Mexican indigenous communities for their own benefit.

Kim Kardashian and Kimono case

In 2019 Kim Kardashian would take to her Instagram account to announce a new project that dealt with a brand of modeling garments that she intended to call Kimono Solutionwear

This denomination caused a controversy being taken as an example of cultural appropriation to the Japanese garment. The scandal was fueled by Kim’s intention to register the word “Kimono” as a trademark in the United States.

The issue prompted the mayor of Kyoto, Daisaku Kadokawa, to write to Kim in a letter asking him to reconsider using the word “Kimono” as it is a traditional ethnic dress based on its rich nature and history.

Luois Vuitton and the design of a chair.

It would be on July 5, 2019 when the Mexican Ministry of Culture would send a letter to Louis Vuitton where it was accused of appropriation of the culture of traditional Mexican designs replicated in the upholstery of a chair costing more than $18,000.

The chair was part of LV’s “Travel inspired” campaign and represented a pattern that was similar to the designs that are part of the designs and embroidery that are made in the community of Tenango de Doria.

The company stated that the production of the collection had actually been a collaboration with artisans in the community.

Cultural Appreciation vs Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appreciation involves genuinely learning about and respecting aspects of a different culture without exploiting or misrepresenting it. It stems from a place of curiosity, open-mindedness, and a desire to understand and celebrate diverse cultures. When someone appreciates another culture, they may participate in cultural events, wear traditional clothing, enjoy art forms, or adopt certain practices while acknowledging and respecting the culture’s significance and history.

Cultural appreciation fosters cross-cultural understanding, empathy, and unity. It can lead to positive intercultural relationships and create opportunities for people to connect on a deeper level.

Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, refers to the adoption or use of elements from a culture by members of another culture, often without proper understanding, context, or respect for its significance. This process can lead to the commodification or trivialization of sacred or meaningful cultural practices, symbols, attire, or traditions.

The problem with cultural appropriation arises when elements of a marginalized culture are taken and used by the dominant culture, leading to the erasure of the origin culture’s significance or historical context. In such cases, it can perpetuate stereotypes, commodify cultural elements, and cause harm to the culture in question.

How to handle and avoid cultural appropriation?

Once the case has been made official, the way to deal with it is the one discussed in the examples.

Publicly expressing to the persons responsible for the act the reconsideration of the use of images, words, among other resources, that belong to the culture. 

However, society has a different way of handling cultural appropriation, since with the advent of social networks it is very easy to publicly condemn those people, brands, companies, among others, that are appropriating characteristics of a culture, hence the important of cultural awareness and cultural communication.

If you are part of a project, or you are a personal brand, there are many things you can do before facing the cruel reality that what you have been inspired by for your product, is not really yours.

Can cultural appropriation be prevented?

With the last paragraph you may have been left with the doubt of whether it is possible to avoid the damage to culture, and the truth is that there are points that can help you in how to prevent cultural appropriation that have no great difficulty in executing them.

A couple of these are presented below:

The correct action will always be to express the error and apologize to the affected communities. Ignoring a problem by pretending that it will eventually pass is positioning oneself above those who are affected, and is precisely an example of power.

Understanding the impact of cultural appropriation should automatically lead to consideration of trying to repair some of the damage that has been caused.

FAQS of Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation refers to the adoption, borrowing, or imitation of cultural elements or practices from another culture, particularly when it is done without permission, understanding, or respect for the original culture. It can include the use of clothing, hairstyles, symbols, rituals, music, or other cultural expressions.

Cultural appreciation refers to learning, understanding, and honoring aspects of another culture in a respectful and thoughtful manner. It involves seeking knowledge about the culture and actively engaging with it. On the other hand, cultural appropriation involves taking and using elements of a culture without understanding or respecting its significance or history. It often leads to the commodification and exploitation of cultural practices for personal gain or fashion trends without considering their impact on the original culture.

One example of cultural appropriation is when individuals from dominant cultures wear sacred Native American headdresses as fashion accessories without understanding their cultural significance. This disrespectful act reduces a sacred item to a mere fashion statement, ignoring the spiritual and ceremonial value it holds in Native American cultures.

Cultural appropriation is often linked to colonialism because it involves the dominant culture appropriating elements from marginalized cultures. Colonization often resulted in the erasure and suppression of indigenous cultures, and cultural appropriation perpetuates this power imbalance by commodifying and profiting from these cultures while disregarding their historical and social context.

Yes, adopting a hairstyle from another culture without understanding or respecting its cultural significance can be considered cultural appropriation. For example, non-black individuals wearing dreadlocks as a fashion trend without acknowledging the cultural roots of the hairstyle in black culture can be seen as appropriating a cultural element without understanding its historical and social context.

No, cultural appropriation can manifest in various forms beyond fashion and hairstyles. It can include the appropriation of religious symbols, music, language, art, cuisine, or any other cultural element that is taken out of its original cultural context and used for personal gain or entertainment purposes without understanding or respecting its significance to the originating culture.

Cultural exchange refers to the mutual sharing and learning between cultures, where individuals or groups willingly and respectfully engage with each other’s traditions, beliefs, practices, and customs. Unlike cultural appropriation, cultural exchange involves a reciprocal and educational process that fosters cross-cultural understanding and appreciation while respecting the autonomy and agency of the cultures involved.

To appreciate a culture without engaging in cultural appropriation, it is important to approach it with respect, curiosity, and a desire to learn. This can involve seeking knowledge about the culture’s history, beliefs, customs, and traditions through educational resources, engaging with members of the culture in a respectful manner, and avoiding the commodification or caricaturization of cultural practices. It is crucial to engage in cultural appreciation while being mindful of power dynamics, historical context, and the potential harm caused by cultural exploitation.

Cultural appreciation refers to the genuine interest, respect, and engagement with another culture, valuing its practices, traditions, and customs. On the other hand, cultural significance refers to the historical, social, and symbolic importance that specific elements or practices hold within a culture. Cultural appreciation involves recognizing and respecting this significance while cultural significance refers to the intrinsic value and meaning that certain practices or traditions hold within a culture.

Yes, cultural appropriation can include borrowing or appropriating elements from multiple cultures. It commonly occurs when individuals or entities combine different cultural elements without understanding their cultural significance or treating them as mere fashion trends or aesthetic choices. It is important to approach cultural borrowing with respect and understanding, acknowledging and honoring the cultures being borrowed from rather than treating them as disposable commodities to be co-opted.

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