Cultural Appropriation: Drawing the line

Written by Aiyana Vittoria Amplatz 

The progressive erosion of borders given by the increasing globalization of economies has, in recent years, facilitated the fusion of cultures and traditions. This has increasingly led to multiple debates surrounding this phenomenon and the positioning of various cultures in relation to one another. For individuals such as myself, coming from small towns, the assimilation into multicultural and internationally oriented contexts has occasionally proven to be challenging. Within these particular contexts, I frequently had to embrace concepts that I was not aware of before. This also required me to adapt my language, seeking alternatives for terminology. These challenges are rooted in several factors. Firstly, the opportunities for migration to small towns for individuals from different cultural backgrounds are comparatively scarce when contrasted with bigger cities. Secondly, although in fewer instances, once individuals from different cultural backgrounds do migrate to smaller communities, the host community often exhibits resistance to embracing the newcomers’ cultural heritage, instead tending towards stigmatization.

Upon my recent move to a more international context, I encountered a specific discourse that proved particularly challenging for me to grasp and, more significantly, to acknowledge. This pertains to the ongoing debate surrounding cultural appropriation. 

The Italian Carnival festivity seeks to celebrate the last moments before Lent, a Christian religious observance commemorating the 40 days Jesus Christ spent fasting in the desert and enduring temptation by Satan. In this context, and especially in small towns, it remains customary to witness individuals dressing up following cultural stereotypes. Among the concerns regarding cultural appropriation is also the practice of individuals engaging in blackface makeup. As a student who has relocated from a small town to a bigger city, and as one who believes in tolerance and equality, I am committed to immersing myself in the discourse of cultural appropriation, trying to gain a comprehensive understanding and a full appreciation of this phenomenon.

Defining cultural appropriation

Collins English Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the adoption of elements of a culture by members of another culture, especially when conducted in an insensitive or disrespectful manner”. In the article What is (the wrong of) cultural appropriation?, authors Lenard and Balint define cultural appropriation as the borrowing or imitation of elements from one culture by members of another culture, often without proper understanding or respect for the context and significance of those elements. In order to explain the term “cultural appropriation” the authors put the concept under the umbrella term “cultural engagement” and identify two types of wrong cultural engagements: cultural offence, which causes others to be upset or hurt, and cultural misrepresentation, which provides a false or misleading depiction of practices or beliefs. The authors then explore the harm caused by cultural appropriation, which can include the erasure of cultural identities, reinforcing stereotypes, and commodifying aspects of marginalized cultures.

Although finding a definition of cultural appropriation is a relatively straightforward task, its practical application within specific situations and contexts can present a more intricate challenge. Determining whether a particular experience qualifies as cultural appropriation requires an evaluation of the context in which it stands. 

During the summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Morocco for study purposes. Throughout my stay, I visited various cities, engaging with the local culture through its traditions, art, and cuisine. It was during this time that I decided to have my hands dyed with henna, a dye derived from the Henna tree, deeply entrenched in Moroccan culture. However, in light of my uncertainty regarding whether this action constituted cultural appropriation, I chose to have a conversation with locals to get to know their perspective on my decision to get henna. Our discussions revealed that my choice to have henna was seen as an expression of my interest in celebrating their culture. Countering my initial worries, they expressed their appreciation for my desire to have my skin dyed and encouraged me to share the significance behind this experience with my family back home.

Would have this been different if I were to style my hair in cornrows or dreadlocks as a means of “celebrating” African-American culture? Therefore the questions: Where should the line be drawn? And by what means can this line be conceptualized?

Appreciation vs Appropriation

Giving the term “culture” a good definition represents per se an intrinsic challenge. The Collins English Dictionary defines culture as “the total range of activities and ideas of a group of people with shared traditions, which are transmitted and reinforced by members of the group”. Together with debates on cultural appropriation the definition of culture also raises questions on whether or not a culture could be owned or claimed by anybody. Authors Lenard and Balint discussed in their article the issue of cultural ownership and whether certain elements of culture can be “owned” by a specific group and eventually argue that these issues are complex and context-dependent. In addition, in the article The blurred lines of cultural appropriation, Grays argues that it could seem like in the 21st century cultural appropriation should be favoured. One main reason is that through the phenomenon of globalization, by combining different cultures and exchanging habits, one promotes equality, respect, and tolerance. However, a line needs to be drawn between appreciation and appropriation as it is fundamental to stress the need for sensitivity and respect when engaging with elements of another culture.

Party lines and political stands, however, make drawing the line between appreciation and appropriation even more complicated. 

In the last four years, Will Witt, an American Podcaster and Influencer, has raised concerns about a possible collective overthinking on the topic of cultural appropriation. According to PragerU, an American non-profit organization aimed at offering “a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education”, Witt “decided to drop out of the University of Colorado Boulder after personally experiencing the left’s relentless indoctrination of students”. Many videos now circulating illustrate Will Witt’s conservative ideologies concerning topics that go from government spending to abortion. A series of them in particular showcase his stance on cultural appropriation. Four years ago Witt started dressing up with costumes depicting specific cultures’ stereotypes. In the video Students vs. Mexicans: Cultural Appropriation, Witt is seen wearing a stereotypical Mexican costume and collecting opinions over it first by students on campus and then by Mexican people. The video was aimed at showcasing how Mexican people did not feel in any way offended by his costume and how, on the other hand, college students seemed rather “overthinking” the problem of cultural appropriation.

It is evident that most often many cases of claimed appropriation are directed at individuals who select a certain type of clothing or hairstyle such as dreadlocks and cornrows. It is in fact the contextual conditions that can render instances of cultural appropriation more egregious than others and therefore cross the line. Instances of appropriation, such as the ones which target African-American or Native-American culture, might include the existence of a power imbalance between the cultural appropriator and those from whom the practice or symbol is appropriated, the absence of consent, and the presence of profit that accumulates in the hands of the appropriator. On the other hand, cases of appreciation see the conscious celebration of another culture. The failed understanding of the distinction between appropriation and appreciation could lead to wrongfully denying individuals their right to make choices about how to dress, or style their hair. 

About one year ago, Will Witt shared another interesting opinion this time on braids and dreadlocks during the Dr. Phil show, where he claimed that these hairstyles should not be considered a source of cultural appropriation considering that culture cannot be claimed and should be shared among the people to create a “cohesive society” and avoid creating “different groups that cannot work together”. Completely different is Amandla Stenberg’s stand. The American actress and singer, known for her feminist stance, said: “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves”. On this note anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh in White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack explores the privileges that white people enjoy in everyday life and describes white privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets” that white people can relish everyday. Therefore, although it is accepted for people to celebrate cultural features, African-American culture is something that needs to be treated with caution. This is due to the privilege associated with being white and the resulting white supremacy, which often results in the disregard for the origins and historical significance of African-American culture. Therefore, if I were to style my hair in cornrows or dreadlocks, reactions would be different from the ones I received when getting Henna as this action could provoke hurt and offence to Afro-American people. 

Final take

In today’s environment, characterized by a pervasive cancel culture, individuals are increasingly susceptible to being targeted on social media for their opinions. Nevertheless, given that cultural appropriation remains a highly debated issue, it often could lead to wrongful accusations. I felt the need to employ this article as a means to understand where the line should be drawn, therefore between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Although it might seem easy to differentiate between the two, political stands and party lines make drawing the line even more complicated. So while the more conservative Will Witt claims that braids and dreadlocks cannot be “claimed only by one culture” and used as a source of cultural appropriation, more left-wing thinkers might claim the contrary and therefore would believe that although culture cannot be completely claimed by one group, white privilege still plays too much of an important role to be overlooked.

It is fundamental to recognize that acts of cultural appropriation can cause hurt and offence to people. It is thus essential to steer clear of cultural appropriation and instead emphasize the significance of cultural appreciation. As globalization continues to advance, addressing this issue may become progressively challenging. Nevertheless, it is important to always make it a priority to be kind to everyone.

Edited by Joanna Sowińska , artwork by Vanessa Franko