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What We Are Getting Wrong About Cultural Appropriation

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

It isn’t what most of us think it means, apparently.

Due to the increasing use of the term “cultural appropriation” and the corresponding increase in my own confusion over what it really means, I did some reading and found out some interesting things.

The questions in my mind included:

What is culture, and what are the differences between cultural participation, appreciation, assimilation and appropriation? Which is bad and which is good?

Is wearing a suit cultural appropriation of the West?

Is rapping culturally appropriating African American culture?

Is saying Eid Mubarak instead of Selamat Hari Raya culturally appropriating Arabic culture?

Is a non-Chinese wearing a cheongsam or qipao culturally appropriating Chinese culture? What about designing and selling?

Is a Malaysian restaurant serving Italian food culturally appropriating Italy?

Is using words like fanatik, beb, infrastruktur, kipidap dongibap culturally appropriating the English culture through its language?

Is creating art influenced by anime culturally appropriating Japanese culture?

Is enjoying Indian food in non-Indian countries culturally appropriating Indian culture?

And perhaps most important of all, is Singaporean food a cultural appropriation of Malaysian food?

From Oxford Languages:

Cultural appropriation - 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.

Cultural appropriation refers to the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that doesn't respect their original meaning, give credit to their source, or reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression.

Therefore, the common elements defining cultural appropriation seem to be:

  1. Unacknowledged or inappropriate use of cultural elements...

  2. of a non-dominant culture/society by a more dominant culture/society in a position of power, that

  3. doesn't respect their original meaning or is divorced from the original concepts and meanings,

  4. doesn’t give credit to their source,

  5. misrepresents, distorts, degrades or misuses the cultural element, and

  6. reinforces stereotypes or contributes to the oppression of the non-dominant culture/society

From the video below:

“At the heart of cultural appropriation isn’t just a cultural object, but power. Appropriation happens when you have a position of power, or a member of a dominant culture, who is able to take the parts of a marginalised culture that you enjoy, divorce them from their original meaning, and use it for entertainment value without considering their original context, or having to deal with the negative ramifications that someone from that culture would have to deal with as a result of that same action”

Nice. I learned something new today.

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