What does the term “cultural appropriation” mean?
Cultural appropriation refers to the use of a cultural element of a group dominated by a different, dominant group. The dominant culture takes symbols from other cultures, appropriates them, neglects their original cultures. It generally uses them without permission or knowledge and often for profit. The term “cultural appropriation” was born at the end of the ’90s but people actually started to talk about it in the 2000s. Accused of “identity theft”, this term has a negative connotation, and it is controversial.
Understanding cultural appropriation in a few examples:
Fashion, cooking, art and design, music, architecture, tattoo. Cultural appropriation has no limits and obviously goes through all areas. Let us understand together what the term cultural appropriation represents in a few examples.
Nowadays, it is common to see people getting tattooed with motifs representing religious iconography, symbols from a minority (Celtic or Polynesian art, for example) or sinograms from different alphabets. But did you know that getting these tattoos without understanding their original meaning you could be accused of cultural appropriation?
The Polynesian costume by Disney
In 2016, after the success of its film Moana, Disney commercialized a costume featuring Polynesian tattoos with the effigy of Maui, one of the key characters of the film. This costume not only takes on the outfit of a half-God but includes a loincloth of leaves and a necklace of shark teeth and bones. Shortly after the release of the costumes, Disney saw itself in the obligation to withdraw them following a great controversy. The Polynesian people saw in that costume a cultural pillage and a profound disrespect by the American brand. The Polynesian tattoo has a sense which is proper to the wearer, it tells a story, something personal. Appropriating it without understanding its meaning is seen as an offence. To make a market out of it for profit is hurtful.
Katy Perry as a Japanese Geisha
In 2013, Katy Perry declared that she paid a tribute to the Japanese culture by dressing up as a Geisha in her performance at the 2013 American Awards while performing her song “Unconditionally”. The American singer was unaware that this performance was creating negative stereotypes against Asian women. She was forced to apologize for it after provoking a strong controversy among the Asian community, already fighting to stop the racism that it undergoes.
Yoga classes in Canada
In 2015, a Canadian university had to cancel yoga classes it offered after receiving complaints. Some students accused the school of being “culturally insensitive”. For these whistleblowers, yoga originated from a culture that had experienced cultural oppression and genocide on the part of Western supremacists. Thus, the practice of such an activity within their school was a shame.
The Parthenon friezes
Recently, Greece requested the restitution of the Parthenon friezes, historical pieces taken by the Scottish ambassador and diplomat Lord Elgin in the 19th century and sold to the British government upon their arrival in London. Despite Greece’s relentless demands to reclaim its property, London still refuses to return the Parthenon friezes. According to the British, “the Ottoman rulers in Greece had granted permission to take the friezes away”. Athens argues that the authorization to take away the works of Phidias was decided by the occupier, not by Greece. Therefore, it is not valid.
Shortly before all of this, it was Egypt that claimed from the British Museum the restitution of its famous Rosetta stone. The famous London Museum, which up until today has given back neither the Parthenon friezes to Greece nor the Rosetta stone to Egypt, seems as insensitive as ever to the many accusations of cultural appropriation it has received.
So to sum it up :
Symbols, beliefs and ideas from other cultures have a precise and sacred meaning. Their use by a dominant culture can be appalling and oppressive by the dominated culture. Using and transforming a cultural element as a commercial object is not the right solution, because the element in question loses its initial values. The current globalization and multiculturalism offers a sharing of cultural elements among members of different cultures. This phenomenon is perfectly normal. Moreover, if they feel on an equal footing, then there is no problem. If what you borrow does not correspond to your origins, it can be considered as cultural appropriation. That is why it is necessary to ask the right questions as well as to fully understand what an element corresponds to, learn about its origin or just ask about the culture to which it is borrowed before using it.