At its very core, “cultural appropriation” is stealing—whether intentional or not. It’s profiting off something that is not materially or culturally one’s own. It’s like plagiarism an idea or paper, submitting it as one’s own and then getting credit for it. And it happens all the time. If considered within the context of power dynamics and dominant culture vs. subordinate culture--whether in terms of race, gender, class, age, sexuality, language, and other systems of oppression--cultural oppression is about systems, not individuals. Individuals who culturally appropriate can naively or deliberately be the casualties of cultural appropriation.
Specifically, cultural appropriation is the act of taking elements of another culture and intentionally or unintentionally abusing or misusing those elements to perpetuate stereotypes, to exploit, and to demonstrate or exert dominance. When considering what constitutes cultural theft, these questions are critical: Who is laboring? Who is profiting? Who is considered “surplus”? Who is considered “core and central”? Does the action or performance underscore the difference between an historically discriminated group that is still be discriminated against today? Is the action perpetuating a stereotype? Stereotypes themselves are shortcuts to understanding and to granting humanity to individuals. Stereotypes are based on previous experiences and knowledge, not on critically accessing and assessing what is in the present moment that may in fact challenge past experiences. It takes time and critical thinking to assess and access what is in the present, especially when non-threatening circumstances do not warrant the human capacity for fight or flight.
As a scholar and educator who has studied US race relations for over thirty years and who has facilitated myriad professional workshops and community conversations on and about cultural appropriation, the resistance to what is and is not cultural appropriation is often coached as a distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, too often framed as “What is culture?” and “Who owns culture?” Such questions may well originate from a desire for understanding, but those who are minoritized in this country know well what culture is the dominant (i.e., “mainstream” culture) and what is not. Poet Audre Lorde, in her speech “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” (April 1990), offers this context when explaining this notion of “minoritized vs. mainstream”: “Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows 'that is not me.' In America, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practicing.” So, while cultural appropriation is most often about race, it is also about other identity intersections where someone in power takes from or takes credit for another’s cultural and physical labor or uses another’s oppressed identity and lived experiences as a costume—as a “performance”--for amusement, edginess, coolness, trendiness, or some other purpose lacking in understanding and authenticity. Consider the popularity of prison Halloween costumes by those who know little to nothing about prison culture.
We can certainly appreciate hip hop music without assuming a “Blaccent” as did Iggy Azalea a few years ago with great fanfare and acclaim. It’s also the situation of mostly white folks calling cornrows “Bo Braids” as though Bo Derek’s hairstyle in the 1979 movie 10 was groundbreaking and trendsetting when Black women had sported cornrows and braids forever, too often having them deemed “unprofessional” and inappropriate in the workplace. For some white person who sports dreadlocks because the style communicates edginess and anti-establishment, there is a Black child with braids being told that his hairstyle violates school dress code or a Black student whose locks are keeping him from graduating high school or a Black wrestler forced to cut his locs as he is beginning a match or a Black student sent home because of her braid extensions. Cultural appropriation is about power and authority, not about “political correctness” or “identity politics.” The range of cultural appropriation is broad and expansive, centrally rooted in white supremecist practices that manifest and perpetuate systemic racism:NFL Player Draws Attention for Dressing Up as Jay-Z in Blackface, “Miley Cyrus Asked for a ‘Black’ Sound for Single, Says Songwriters Rock City,“Macklemore on Hip Hop & Cultural Appropriation: ‘I Need to Know My Place, and that Comes from Me Listening,” “Miley Cyrus’ Twerking Was Cultural Appropriation at Its Worst,” "Don’t Cash Crop my Cornrows,” “Jack Daniels’ Sordid History Shows Cultural Appropriation Is Nothing New—Black Culture Has Been Stolen for Centuries," "Microsoft Sent an Embarrassing Email Inviting Interns to Get ‘Lit’ and Play Beer Pong on Monday Night," “The Cultural Crimes of Iggy Azalea,” and “Esther Jones’ Stolen Boop: A White Woman’s Fame Built on a Black Woman’s Boop."
The list of celebrity and politician appropriation offenders is extensive and exhausting—Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Kendall Jenner, Kim Kardashian, Chet Hanks, Elvis Presley, Justin Trudeau, Pat Boone, Beyonce, Adele, Gwen Stefani, Robin Thicke, Bruno Mars, Halsey, Christina Aguilera, Bo Derek, Katy Perry, Rita Wilson, Lizzo, the Beach Boys, Kenya Moore, Taylor Swift, Mick Jagger, Amy Winehouse, Riff Raff, Nick Jonas, Hilaria Baldwin, Justin Timberlake, and Tyler Perry, but everyday folks engage as well--whether old folks adopting a younger generation’s lingo to be cool or hip, or gay males assuming typically Black women’s personas and rhythms of talking, or middle class white folks rapping as Black rapper stereotypes, or even Black heterosexual men assuming some exaggerated construct of women and femininity solely for the sake of laughs at the expense of mocking women (Jamie Foxx, Flip Wilson, Martin Lawrence, Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes). This latter example is not to be confused with the artistry of drag via RuPaul and others whose performances are not centrally to mock women as comedy.
The sin of cultural appropriation is not a legal criminal offense. However, it will likely come with social consequences from those who are historically and culturally aware and socially conscious. And once we know multiple histories beyond the prescribed and digested “master narrative” that excludes, erases, or invalidates in terms of what we say, how we dress, and how we show up as performers dressed literally and figuratively in another’s culture, we simply have to do better. Yes, we can appreciate without appropriating, and the difference between “appropriating” and “assimilating” is the degree of power afforded the assimilated person’s actions in terms of perceived job “professionalism” and even social status. For instance, historically, Black women chemically straightening their hair is still part of mainstream “professionalism” as long, straight, and silky continues to be a female beauty ideal in this country. Wearing an afro wig as part of 60’s party as a non-Black person moves into appropriation. Women wearing dark business suits as professional attire mirrors what many men wear as “professional” attire in many corporate settings. Understanding histories that differ from our own means that we are aware of the complex histories of marginalized communities from multiple perspectives–from rituals to music to commercials to hairstyles to language to fashion to Halloween costumes to tattoos. The rewards and gains for cultural appropriation, although temporary and material, reveal us as “emperors” metaphorically and literally wearing another’s traditions, clothes, and cultures.
Ahwatukeee resident Dr. Neal Lester is Foundation Professor of English and Founding Director of Project Humanities, Arizona State University. Here are some of his Selected Commentaries and Interviews on cultural appropriation:
Interview, “ASU English Professor Talks Cultural Appropriation and Ableist Language,” The State Press (September 2016)
Interview, “Cultural Appropriation: Why It Matters,” by Anta Diallo, Voice of the Pride (February 2017)
Interview, “There Is a Fine Line between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation,” by Maria Idalis Harris, The State Press (27 April 2017)
Interview, “Halloween Costumes and Cultural Appropriation,” CBC Radio (Vancouver) (October 2017)
Audio Interview, “A Parents' Guide to Cultural Appropriation: An Expert Breaks Down Kids' Halloween Costumes,” USA Today (18 October 2019)
Podcast Interview, “Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation with Dr. Neal Lester,” Real Life, Voices of Your Village, Seed and Sew (1 October 2020)
Television Interview, “Kendall Jenner Faces Backlash after Launching Her Tequila Brand,” Good Morning America (19 February 2021)
YouTube Interview, “The Special Report: Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation,” The Special Report with Areva Martin (March 2021)
Interview, “Justin Bieber’s Dreadlocks Spark Debate: What’s Cultural Appropriation versus Appreciation?” USA Today (May 2021)