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What’s That Cultural Appropriation We Keep Hearing About?

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

The concept has been in the headlines during the past few years and is becoming more and more controversial.

Let’s start with a few examples, and you’ll see clearly what this means and why there are so many discussions around it.

- Scarlett Johansson played the role of Motoko Kusanagi in the movie Ghost in the Shell (link to IMDb). A white actress took the role of a Japanese character, in a clear example of whitewashing, another controversial topic nowadays.

- Halloween costumes depicting cultural stereotypes. For example, “Indian warrior,” especially when people wearing them do not belong to the cultural group in question. We could say the same about charros, samurais, and Scottish clan tartans.

- The use of Devanagari script, Korean letters, or Han characters in tattoos, especially when people don’t have a clue of what they mean.

- The former mascot name of the Washington Football Team, The Redskins. Indigenous groups for sure never played American football.

Okay, I think you get the idea now. Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some aspects of a minority culture by members of a dominant culture.

This year, 2021, saw the debut of surfing in the summer Olympics, fueling the tension around cultural appropriation discussions.

On the one hand, we have the meaning of surfing. For the indigenous people of Hawaii, surfing was about a spiritual connection with the land and the sea; it was an art form. Then came the European settlers, who capitalized on this stylized sport. Then came Christian missionaries, who disapproved of the nudity on display. Then came white-only surf clubs. Think about it: when you imagine a person surfing, is it a white person? Or is it a native Hawaiian?

White person? There you go! That’s the basis of the cultural appropriation discussion. After all, in movies with surfers in them, how many are not white people?

On the other hand, we could argue that cultures have not evolved in silos [and should not]. Human history and cultural evolution cannot be summarized in a few hundred years, not even in a few thousand years. And yes, dominant cultures have modified or destroyed minority cultures, to the extent that we cannot imagine how many cultural treats humanity has squashed. This being true, then couldn’t we argue that it is about preserving cultural aspects of minorities?

Take the sombrero. This is a unique hat, introduced by the Spanish in the 18th century, as an identity of the mestizo peasant class. Later, this evolved into the cowboy hat; yes, the white or black so often used in western movies to identify good and evil. Is it cultural appropriation? Acculturation? Or assimilation?

The three are different, by the way. Acculturation is a process in which a person adopts or adjusts to a new cultural environment when placed into a new culture, pretty much what you or I will have to do if we move to Paris. Assimilation is when a minority culture transforms to resemble a majority group, pretty much what most colonized cultures ended up doing.

Let’s go back to the surfing example. Are all surfers cultural appropriators? With an agenda of exploitation, among other things? Or are they just people having fun in the waves?

Even further, are Hawaiians the original invertors of surfing? Or did it come from another one of the Pacific islands? If so, how’s that different? At the end of the day, your culture, whichever it is, and as you know it today, is the result of evolution, changes, assimilations, acculturations, and, of course, some appropriations.

Also, critics of the concept of cultural appropriation have pointed out that culture is not something that can be stolen because it is not a physical, limited resource. It is more about being disrespectful or not. Usually, the imitation of cultural practices comes from admiration, with no intention of harming the cultures being imitated.

In any case, where’s the line being drawn? Is it cultural appropriation when we see an American tourist coming back from Mexico with a Sombrero de Charro? Or is borrowing cultural elements part of evolution? Especially in the world we live in, and the one we keep evolving into, where distances are shorter, and technology allows quick access to cultural elements.

What’s your take?

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Photo: Getty Images


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