What Is Cultural Appropriation?

May 13, 2018
What is cultural appropriation

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Hey squirrel-friends! This post has been a LONG time coming, so let’s get into it. A quick note that I will be using CA to stand in for Cultural Appropriation throughout this article, and also, I don’t have all the answers and welcome debate/conversation/recommendations PUBLICLY. I’ll explain why. LET’S JUST GET INTO IT. 


Cultural Appropriation is broadly defined as taking ‘something‘ from a marginalised group without their permission/acknowledgement, and using/adopting that ‘something’ outside of its original cultural context (often for gain). Let’s break down that sentence mmmkay?

-A ‘something’ could be anything: a piece of imagery, a mythical figure/icon, a character, an item of clothing, a musical style/genre or just idea, a word (slang or otherwise), an item of jewellery, religious iconography, a piercing, a specific practice. SOME EXAMPLES: Kimono, Native American headdress, Mariachi band

-A ‘marginalised group’ could be a certain community, an entire race, indigenous people, a tribe, an oppressed nation, a religious group. SOME EXAMPLES: come on do you really need examples of people? Muslims, the Cherokee tribe, Indian immigrants (I’ve gone with marginalised groups I personally have heritage with, because it feels weird and problematic explaining an example of a marginalised group and hopefully nobody needed that anyway it’s done now)

-A ‘gain’ or ‘benefit’ could be using the ‘something’ in a business, selling the ‘something’, using the ‘something’ for social media likes, basing a successful creative project of yours on the ‘something’.

So hopefully we are all clear now on what cultural appropriation is? Let’s do a few quick examples (many many more on my Pinterest board here):

– a non-Indian celebrity/popstar using Indian Gods/Goddesses in a music video
– Gwen Stefani wearing a bindi
– festival goers wearing a Native American headdress
– septum piercings
– Topshop selling non-Palestinian made keffiyeh scarves
– whichever Kardashian it was wearing cornrows/dreadlocks (Kim’s kids wearing cornrows = fine)
– a non-Buddhist person writing an English-language book about incorporating Buddhism into your daily life and having a smash hit
– ASOS (here’s the CA part of my thread on all the other problematic shit ASOS do)
– Netta on Eurovision last night

Sometimes something can be culturally appropriated for so long that it becomes part of accepted culture – for example, Mohawk hairstyles (originally appropriated from the Mohawk tribe, adopted by American soldiers and then later, punks), or nose piercings (of Desi origin, appropriated by white Western hippies who went to India in the 60s to “find themselves” and brought back other people’s traditions). How we deal with these things is obviously a bit more complex than just going up to somebody with a nose ring and screaming “RACIST” in the street. I *personally* think with historically culturally appropriated things it’s nice to acknowledge the ugly roots if we are continuing to practise the ‘something’. (This is a much longer topic that could have its own post). My nose piercing (RIP) was symbolic for me; I got it after my engagement, and in my region of India a gold piercing on the right nostril represents a woman who is engaged and ready to marry. Are there white women walking around right now with gold hoops in their right nostril who have no idea about that? Absolutely. Did it void my statement and intention and celebration? …I don’t know?

Other examples of historically CA which have become deviated from the original source:
– flesh tunnels
– tribal tattoos
– colourful embroidery & “folk” art
– Hawaiian shirts

A false example is the Kimono which in UK fashion has come to mean a wide-sleeved floaty jacket rather than an actual traditional Kimono. If shops were selling actual kimono then yes, that qualifies as CA in my eyes. I think it’s more appropriation of the word though because most high-street “kimono” bear no resemblance to anything in Japan. Open to discussion on this: Japanese followers? Thoughts?

what are cultural appropriation examples


In theory, any group can culturally appropriate any other group that they have power over. In practice, it is majority white people culturally appropriating every other group. White people have colonised so many countries and cultures and communities throughout history that almost every marginalised and developing country is still dealing with the remnants of oppression and colonisation even if not directly colonised now. So there is nearly always a historical exploitation at play. Appropriation nearly always involves the culture of a marginalised group being taken out of context by the group that oppressed that culture in the first place.

Can we mutually swap?

Yes. Cultural exchange is a thing that can happen but rarely does. Most academics and critics agree that in order for cultural exchange to happen you need a “mutually equal playing field” (I can’t remember where that phrase is from but it’s been in my head since uni so shout-out to whoever coined that and I’ll attribute you properly if I can remember). This could mean two countries who have never occupied each other or two cultures that have co-existed peacefully.

A good example is food; introducing and sharing ingredients, tweaking dishes from your own culture, creating mash-up dishes. The nature of how we consume food is a bit different to how we consume most other cultural things (i.e. music, clothes) and swapping food is generally NOT seen as Cultural Appropriation. (lol let’s not talk about the UK- Desi “exchange” where Britain took curry, wanted to swap back and all Desi people were like no thanks fam you can keep this bland gravy shit) (okay sorry back to the serious tone)

Can White people be culturally appropriated?

Basically, no. I mean technically yes, but I’ve not seen an instance of this so it’s a hypothetical yes with no actual real-life examples. If PoC adopt white cultures this is (almost always) assimilation and is linked to survival. Assimilation here meaning to basically “pass” culturally as white or at least to not be seen as a threat. Back in the day, this could have meant a slave/refugee/hostage trying to adopt the behaviour of their captor in order to assimilate and spare punishment/death. For a very long time, “different” meant “dangerous” and trying to oppress your perceived differences to an oppressor/captor/coloniser was quite literally survival. (see also: history).

In modern society, this might look like a refugee family moving to the UK and adopting British cultures and customs in order to be better accepted by their UKIPpy neighbours. (And FYI this happens all the time all over the country. You probably actually have Friends oC who act one way with white people and another with people of their own culture). In such an instance, the PoC adopting Western behaviours is not Cultural Appropriation, it’s assimilation.

What if I really love the culture of somewhere else?

You can appreciate a culture without appropriating it! There are so many brilliant and easy things you could do to support, champion, acknowledge and respect another culture without resorting to appropriation. There’s a line between the two.

Cultural Appreciation: going to India and writing a post about how much you loved the beautiful outfits that the women wear (this is the bare minimum, what about researching the garment, sharing your new knowledge on fashion in India, highlighting an Indian fashion designer, visiting a fabric factory, giving a face to the people making the fabric, featuring a mini-interview with them celebrating their work, etc etc etc)
Cultural Appropriation: going to India and buying a traditional lehenga, wearing this in front of various cultural landmarks for an Insta snap, posting this on your blog chatting about how you felt like Princess Jasmine (who isn’t Indian FYI so that’s also just generally racist and ignorant)

Cultural Appreciation: sharing an article written by a Mexican historian about the cultural significance of Cinco de Mayo and adding a comment about how fascinating you find the backstory, what you have learned about Cinco de Mayo from your Mexican friends, etc etc
Cultural Appropriation: having a Cinco de Mayo party whilst wearing a sombrero from Tiger and a felt-tip moustache with zero background knowledge on the tradition and meaning of Cinco de Mayo

Eminem: Eminem has spoken multiple times about how his white privilege gave him more platform, how he has always respected and learned from black rappers, has used his position to feature other black rappers and bring his peers/colleagues to the forefront, continually acknowledged his influences. Eminem is generally regarded as not CA due to his own background.
Iggy Azalea: has never credited, repped or acknowledged black influences, spoken about her “blackface” voice, has in fact fueded publicly with a lot of black artists. Iggy is widely acknowledged to be a huge proprietor of CA.

I want to point out here that these are examples of appropriation of black culture. I am NOT in the black community, these viewpoints are informed by the black writers/critics/etc that I listen to and follow, so it’s not for me to clarify and if you feel differently that’s more than valid let’s talk!

What if *blah blah person* from xyz culture said it was cool for me to do *blah blah racist project*, then I’m okay?

No, not necessarily. If you’re working alongside somebody from whatever culture you’re taking from then this certainly adds legitimacy and hopefully helps you to be more sensitive to whatever subject. But it doesn’t just okay you.

Also, reminder, that a lot of the main critics today of CA are people originally from marginalised cultures living in the West. A lot of people still in marginalised communities don’t understand the nuances and are often quick to “okay” the act of CA because they don’t understand the issues with representation or they are so used to being exploited that they don’t see it. There is ignorance, confusion and dismissal within marginalised groups. JUST BECAUSE ONE PERSON OKAYED YOU DOESN’T MEAN IT’S OKAY. CA is something many PoC are still processing and dealing with in their own communities, and it’s a discussion and conversation that’s ongoing rather than one specific yes/no answer. There’s no allocated spokesperson for each community. (For example, I’m very very mixed race, and I’m still working out what parts of my heritage I can lay claim to and what I can’t, for more info on that see: every other post I’ve ever written pretty much)

Also: it is a problem because we sometimes benefit. For example, did young me recognise Bombay Dreams, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Bollywood inspired musical for the CA shitstorm it was or was I happy to see a brown person on a stage? I was happy to see a brown person on stage; I loved MT and that was a turning point for me that I didn’t need to be white to be in the West End. This is why I bang on about #RepresentationMatters so much, because if we had better authentic and valid representation it would be a lot easier to sort the CA from the actual culture. See also: the section in The Problem With Apu (by comedian Hari Kondabolu) where multiple Desi diaspora actors are talking about having to play to stereotypes to get roles. That’s a CA issue but only in a small part – it’s also a representation and race relation issue. CA is a complex, multi-layered issue all by itself hence this INCREDIBLY LONG POST which ONLY JUST SCRATCHES THE SURFACE okay moving on

what are cultural appropriation examples


-You can listen to those conversations and follow them, WITHOUT INSERTING YOURSELF INTO THE CONVERSATIONS UNLESS IT’S RELEVANT. I.E. if you’re white and you see two Desi people discussing the appropriation of the bindi on twitter, don’t jump in and go “actually it’s okay because REASONS”, accept you don’t know, thank them, and share their convo instead (#notallwhitepeople maybe you’re a white person who has a doctorate in traditional Hindu practices in which case go right ahead)

-FOLLOW AND SUPPORT PEOPLE FROM OTHER CULTURES. Listen to what they say. I mean actively go and seek out media, journals, writers from other cultures, don’t just wait for the algorithms to hand you something.

-Be more analytical of what you see. If somebody says “that’s a bit exploitive”, don’t write that person off but investigate.

-Educate yourself. Did I learn about CA at school? The fuck no I did not. Did I learn from Google, Twitter? Yes. Google articles, find writers, take that info and go to the library, read books, share articles, follow more PoC and look at what they’re saying. I’ve actually made a board on Pinterest about Cultural Appropriation so simply by following you’ll find relevant articles in your feed GUYS HOW USEFUL IS THAT. (Bonus: I also have boards on race issues and Desi Representation! Also bonus: so does Kristabel!)

-I purposefully included septum piercings above because I knew loads of people would go “septum piercings? What?”. And I wanted to say that all you need to do is google “history of septum piercings” or “origin of septum piercings” and then click away to your hearts content.

-Be open to the fact that not everything is for your personal benefit. THAT’S OKAY.


Please note that I’m serious about what I’m saying in this section without trying to call anyone out or just throw shade at well-intentioned people. However, just because something is well-intentioned doesn’t mean it’s not also capable of being problematic. This next section is less about CA itself as a concept, and more about how we deal with this and learn more. It could have been a separate post, but for me, it’s become inextricable from talking about CA. I understand that a lot of people have blind spots, and I’d like to believe that most people want to do better and learn more. So take this next bit as it is intended – as guidance/critique on how we can best assist each other – and not as some sort of bitchy shade-throwing read. That ain’t my style!

Every time I mention CA on social media, I’ll get a flurry of messages from whites. And I say “whites” not because I’m trying to encourage segregation or shit all over a specific group, but because it is literally only white people that have done this to me, in my experience.

Following my thread on CA the other week and my (now archived) chat on IG stories, I had about 30 DMs on twitter and a further 15-20 messages on other platforms. The messages nearly all went like this.

“Hey Laila!
I really appreciate this, I always learn so much from you! I wanted to ask a question (because if we don’t ask, we don’t learn!). I took this photo/bought this item/wore this thing 12936 years ago and I posted it on XYZ platforms. *another 2-3 paragraphs of where and when they went, how great a time they had, plus attachments*. I wanted to ask if you think this counts as Cultural Appropriation or not? I obviously want to be sensitive to all cultures, so if it is problematic, I’ll get rid of it or remove it because I hate the idea that I’ve got something offensive up. Thanks so much!”

Now, you’re probably thinking, “That’s a really nice and valid message. Why has she got an issue with this? Why can’t she just respond nicely? She’s not even a big blogger!”. So before all the subtweets about bloggers who don’t reply to every single message, let me explain. I’m not going to pretend to know each person’s context or background, but let’s take some facts purely from these many messages I received. (And to the people who sent those messages – I am REALLY not trying to alienate you here but respond en masse in a helpful way to avoid problems going forwards, so please take it in that spirit. If we don’t respond we don’t progress…ILY guys!)

– These messages were ALL basically identical
– They all centre the self, i.e. “how do I come across” rather than “how has this culture been persecuted and is continually exploited”, nobody asked for more history/cultural context
– I am not some sort of CA police or ambassador, me declaring something does not mean you’re on/off the hook, I’m also under no obligation
– The idea that you can’t learn about CA because you haven’t experienced it is completely false
– Via your behaviour, you are insinuating that my time is worth less than your time. The time it takes you to write out a message and start a dialogue with me is faster than it likely would be to hit Google, so you will spend my time and not yours
– You appreciate my time, but that appreciation doesn’t manifest in any other way than you saying that. Do you compensate me for my time? Donate, share, follow? (It took at least 8-10 minutes to reply to each message so do the math, and at least half had follow-up questions) (I will say about 25% of people asked for my Paypal but nobody actually sent anything)
– I am not here to assuage your guilt or complicity with systemic racism/let you off the hook/affirm that you’re a well-intentioned person – you need to process that on your own
– WoC are often seen as teachers and we end up dealing with the emotional labour of other groups, it’s a huge unfair burden that happens throughout society and is a complex intersectional issue (again, another post)

The worst thing about these identical messages?

– These messages were ALL private. This could have been one public convo that could have been RTd and the other 40+ people could have learned from that. I’m assuming they were all private because people are so upset at the idea of being seen as ignorant/confused or implicit in something racist, that they want to deal with it privately and then carry on with life.

Part of being a decent ally is acknowledging and dealing with your own guilt/privilege, not just trying to identify and then quickly delete it before anyone else notices. I’m not saying we should go round the circle one at a time and talk about the potentially racist things we’ve done, BUT, if there was some sort of hashtag or mass movement where everyone in this community went ahead and said “look, hands up, I did this shitty thing on holiday in Mexico in 2006 and I want to say, I see how this was problematic and I hope you all learn from my mistake, here’s to moving forwards and progressing as people” how great would that be? Everyone can process their guilt/issues/learning curve together, learn from each other, and engage in a public conversation where we share information. Imagine how cathartic and freeing and educational and helpful that might be? Nobody would start this because nobody wants to publicly admit to having a blind spot in a certain area. I’m going to say right now that I’m well aware I still have lots to learn, which is why I’ve repeatedly said through this to please comment or start a discussion publicly.

TL; DR? If you’re confused and ask somebody for help, a) do this in public, b) admit your own ignorance and c) COMPENSATE WHOEVER YOU ASK.

This was a long bloody post and there is SO MUCH I could have branched off onto and fleshed out, but this is it for now as it’s already extremely long. Thanks so much for reading, PLEASE do feel free to chat and please please please don’t let this be the only thing you ever read on the topic. I’m one gal and one voice! Ultimately I want to learn – I’m hoping we can have some actual conversation and debate around Cultural Appropriation. I would love to write a post addressing CA specifically in the blogosphere because we have developed our own specific form of CA and it’s increasingly prevalent and clearly awful. But this is already essay-length. If you found it useful give us a share and a follow, won’t you?

P.S. If you want me to speak on your show or write for your thing about CA HIT ME UP IT IS MY MASTERMIND SUBJECT Y’ALL and I promise I’m not nearly as serious as I sound in this post. (I mean this really took it to 11.)

7 comments so far.

7 responses to “What Is Cultural Appropriation?”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you so much for writing and sharing this! I’m so pleased it was a long and detailed post because the issue of Cultural Appropriation is complex, and widely misunderstood.
    I’ll definitely been taking all of this on board, and sharing with my community/following.
    My husband is British Indian and I’m white so I have a little understanding of it, but it’s still something I want to learn more about.
    As a white woman I think the key is to listen to WoC and be aware of our part to play in all this.
    Obviously through marriage I wear sari’s, lengha, bindis, and mehndi.
    But I can admit that as a teenager I wore bindis in the 90s because I thought they looked cool on Gwen Stefani. There certainly wasn’t this kind of public conversation then, so I’m hoping that this kind of awareness helps.

  2. Greatness Reinvented says:

    Very thought provoking post really enjoyed reading it

    GR | https://www.thegreat.uk

  3. John Smith says:

    I agree with all of this! Was just wondering if learning another language against the rules? I lived in Mexico for a while and am now fluent in Spanish, but I’m worried I’ve been appropriating culture without realising it! I chose to learn Spanish to bridge the cultural divide and learn about other people but I realise now that this whole time I’ve actually been hurting people, not making lifelong friends. I’ll unlearn the language if need be I just need your expert opinion on my lack of morality first. Thanks!

  4. Jane says:

    This is so important and you explain it well. People make some of the worst excuses for cultural appropriation. I noticed Netta on Eurovision last night as well, I can’t believe no one else is pointing it out!

  5. zeyneb says:

    I do agree with some of the points but I don’t agree with all. I have a huge interest in other cultures and I like to learn as much as I can about them. I have worn an Indian traditional outfit for a wedding as that was the dress code – is that CA? I have worn the Arabic belly dancing costume at a belly dancing class etc. I kind of see it as loving and embracing something thats part of another culture.
    If someone takes something from my culture, I would see it as like that.

    Firstly, I dont understand how saying feeling like princess Jasmine in India makes a person racist. Ignorant and probably uneducated yes, but how Racist?

    Also, even though I am not white myself. but the constant use of ‘white people’ on this article made me quitet unfomfortable – especially when you are so up in CA and racism. It is racism against other races but its ok to say white people this and that?

    In a time where everyone says we should be more diverse etc, the whole CA thing defeats the the purpose, no? I think as long as the person know where it’s from, the history with it, it should be ok.

    I love your writing style, but I am sorry but some of your views on things comes across as quite hypocritical, but yes I do agree that people should educate themselves more on other cultures.

    We should celebare diversity. We should enjoy and embrace each other’s cultures. We are all mixed anyway, in our dna.

    • Laila says:

      If something is the dress code and you have been specifically asked to wear it for a private and personal engagement, then no, that’s not cultural appropriation. That doesn’t coincide that with the examples I made and the definition that I used.

      How you personally see somebody taking something from your culture is outside of the problem. By definition, taking from a COMMUNITIES culture means that different individuals within that community have every right to feel different ways about that. That doesn’t mean it’s okay. If every single person in that community saw it as okay, we would be asking different questions: why do they feel okay about their culture being used outside of its original context? Culture is ever-shifting and changing and it’s important to look beyond what one person in a community deems as sacred culture. A community is never a single person. One person’s view as a standalone opinion on something is basically irrelevant.

      Somebody saying they feel like Princess Jasmine, a character of French and Arab origin, whilst in Indian shows complete ignorance of both the place they are in and the character they are referencing, a lack of any kind of research on India, and also points to them believing that all Arab and Indian places/characters are either interchangeable or the same thing. Which I’d describe that as racist.

      When I say white people, I literally mean white people. I’m using that as a descriptor and not a pejorative. As I said in the post, in theory, other communities could culturally appropriate white people. In practise, I have no examples or references of when or where that has happened. If you have any I’ll gladly hear them. I feel I explained this coherently in the past when discussing historically oppressed minority groups and I’m unsure at which point I lost you – if you would like to point this out I’ll gladly explain further.

      “In a time where everyone says we should be more diverse etc, the whole CA thing defeats the the purpose, no? I think as long as the person know where it’s from, the history with it, it should be ok.” Diverse doesn’t mean we can take what we want and use it. You haven’t used the word “respect” which, for me, is an absolutely crucial point in encouraging diversity. Who are the gatekeepers of diversity in terms of media and politics? Largely white people occupy the positions of power that can challenge. To “enjoy and embrace” each other’s cultures does not just mean you can dabble in whatever you feel like.

      “We are all mixed anyway, in our dna.” This is an extremely reductive point to finish on. In what world do humans respect and interact with each other based on DNA? I appreciate the symptom, but blindly saying “we’re all mixed anyway” is an extremely damaging thing to say and completely ignores the view point of actual mixed people (I say actual in reference to people forced to define themselves as mixed). I’d urge you to think about that viewpoint and what that might feel like said from a white person OR a black person to somebody who is a mixture of both.

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