The concept of cultural appropriation is increasingly debated in social psychology, anthropology and sociology circles, although it is not new.

The idea that one culture can feed off another through means that are not violent has aroused great controversy, and, as we shall see, part of the problem is that there are two very different positions: those who believe that cultural appropriation is a form of real domination that must be combated, and those who believe that it does not exist.

Now… what exactly is this cultural appropriation thing and why are we hearing more and more about it? We’ll see in the next few lines.

Cultural Appropriation: Definition

Cultural appropriation can be understood as the use of cultural elements typical of one ethnic group by another, stripping them of all meaning and trivializing their use. Put more briefly, this is what happens when a cultural element is usurped for purposes that have nothing to do with those attributed to it.

However, as is often the case in the social sciences, there is no single agreed definition of what cultural appropriation is, and so some people add a nuance to this definition: this cultural “theft” must be produced by a hegemonic or dominant culture , to something else that is submitted to the first one.

Thus, this last detail serves to introduce another theme in the way we can understand this phenomenon: the dynamics of power, the disappearance of certain cultures at the expense of the enrichment of others.

Some examples of cultural appropriation

Many of the contexts in which people or organisations have been criticised for falling into cultural appropriation are linked to art, fashion and aesthetics. For example, some fashion magazines have been attacked and boycotted (although with little effect) for using white models to represent non-Western aesthetics with clothes from cultures considered “exotic”.

The same thing has happened in the world of music. Several singers have been criticized for resorting to cultural appropriation, like Miley Cyrus with the twerk or Katy Perry for wearing clothes associated with the Japanese stereotype. The same is done, in retrospect, with Elvis Presley, for commercializing music that until a few decades ago was part of African-American culture, until he made it fashionable.

On the other hand, certain universities and organizations of all kinds have also been criticized for marketing acts related to non-Western-style meditation, or even yoga. There are many commercial activities associated with elements easily identifiable with certain cultures.

The controversy

Cultural appropriation is a very problematic concept. One of the reasons for this is that, on the one hand, it is very arbitrary to attribute an aesthetic, element or ritual to a particular ethnic group and not to others.

For example, Rastas are usually associated with ethnic groups linked to Africa or in any case to Jamaica, a country with a black majority. However, technically, in the past there were already groups of white people who used dreadlocks, such as certain peoples from Ancient Greece or religious groups from Europe. On the other hand, it would also be possible to criticize people associated with the populations of Africa and Asia for using a cultural element of ethnic subgroups that are in a worse situation than their own. When determining what an ethnic group is it is possible to adopt a multitude of perspectives.

Another problem is that many people do not believe that cultural appropriation is a problem, even if it exists. That is, they emphasize the idea that cultures have no boundaries and therefore they flow, change constantly and pass from one hand to another. From this point of view, no one should suffer or worry about something like this , since the normal thing would be for a culture to remain immutable and isolated from the rest.

In addition, another issue that is often talked about is that for cultural appropriation to exist, there must first be cultural elements that belong to a few hands. Usurpation occurs when someone who previously enjoyed something stops doing so due to the action of another person, who takes possession of that resource. However, in cultural appropriation this does not happen; in any case, something that was previously used only by a smaller set of people becomes popular.

A broader view of the problem

It should be noted that for many people cultural appropriation cannot be understood by simply analysing the way in which a habit, aesthetic or ritual becomes popular. What happens is that this phenomenon is, in any case, the symptom of a culture that subdues the rest.

We have already seen an example that leads us to this idea: the popularization of music with African-American roots by Elvis, a white man. The same happens with the twerk, which until recently was associated with groups of non-whites with few economic resources. Or even with Buddhism, a religion that because of the stereotypes surrounding meditation has been associated with peace, even though it is perfectly possible for Buddhists to fall into violence as a result of religious fanaticism.

Cultural appropriation, then, would be a way of commodifying cultural aspects that have long existed outside the margins of the market, and which have been introduced into it from the perspective of white Western culture . Even when this serves to wash away the image of a specific ethnic group, this is the result of ignorance, a sign of the extent to which these populations are removed from the centres of economic decision making.