Social Question

Mimishu1995's avatar

What is cultural appropriation and why do people hate it (extremely long details inside)

Asked by Mimishu1995 (19336points) 1 month ago

I have been hearing about this term a lot recently on the Internet, and it is mostly a negative term. But no one seems to agree on the concrete definition of the term. The best I could get from it is that it means borrowing aspects of a culture and using it in a way that encourage harmful stereotypes, especially when it’s done to a culture that was oppressed in the past.

But most of the discussions about cultural appropriation are among American people a lot of them are white. There is virtually no discussion among people in other countries, and especially people in countries where white people are in the minority. So a lot of the discussions are about how some clueless white person takes an aspect of a culture and unwittingly reminds people from other culture of their oppressed past (like writing a story about a Native American god and messing up some details). That’s understandable to me. But in a culture that didn’t experience any of the race issue like America and didn’t have any past action of oppression to another race/culture like my country. In fact, my country should be considered an “oppressed” group by their definition, does the rule still apply? Can people in my country be judged if they don’t have the concept of race in the first place?

And where is the line between insulting a culture and simply enjoying an aspect of a culture? I have some examples of things happening around me that can be “problematic” according to the people hating cultural appropriation:

- When I was in high school, the dreamcatcher (of Native American origin) was insanely popular among people my age. But the only information about its origin that I could get was from a teen magazine, which said very basic things like the dreamcatcher was a Native American charm that helped people get good sleep and dream. And I don’t even think most people my age knew that information. Most of them just thought it was something beautiful to own. And with that a community of people making handmade dreamcatchers was started, and a lot of them were really dedicated to it. So does this count as cultural appropriation?
– Similarly, the omamori (a kind of Japanese charm) is really popular on our online shops. I have read up about it, but most people just don’t really bother to do that. They know that it’s a Japanese charm, and there are several types of it, but they don’t know about deeper details like how it has to be blessed by a Japanese monk or how you are not supposed to open it. Most of the omamori being sold here are of Chinese origin, and they make up their own rules about how to use it like writing your wishes on a paper and stuffing the bag with quartz and dried flowers. I actually really enjoy the design of those charms. So is this cultural appropriation to make charms like that? And am I encouraging cultural appropriation if I like them?
– And lastly, is my attempt at writing a story set in America considered cultural appropriation because I’m not from America?

As an artist it’s a matter that really concerns me lately, seeing how writers/artists are shamed for getting details of other culture wrong and promoting racist stereotypes. I want to be respectful to other cultures, but at the same time there are aspects of other cultures that I really enjoy, from intriguing cloth patterns to a way of life. And “cultural appropriation” isn’t even a thing in my country, so the term is just too abstract for me to fully understand.

What do you think about cultural appropriation?

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47 Answers

Dutchess_III's avatar

“Appropriation” means to take. But in this case it’s not like they lose it.
I don’t know why anyone would get insulted by someone who wants to mimick parts of a culture. We’ve borrowed a LOT of cool stuff from the black culture.

Zaku's avatar

You can see it most clearly in something like Disney making a film and related products about Pocahontas (or the countless other movies made by Hollywood featuring “Indians”), cashing in and claiming “intellectual property rights” about a culture nearly exterminated by the culture Disney and Hollywood mainly represents, not only cashing in without exactly sharing much (if any) of the proceeds with native Americans, but also rewriting their history and having massive effects on how the population finds out about that culture.

Other uses and references may become less clear-cut.

Some much higher levels of sensitivity and criticism may start to seem excessive, or not… different people will draw lines at different places.

I think the term is a new label which applies most clearly to the grossest examples, where someone outside a culture is using something from that culture as if it were their own, misrepresenting it, and it matters most when that culture is not well represented by itself.

So your story is doing its best I’m sure, not exploiting America and profiteering off it, and certainly you’re not at all competing with America for representation of American culture (except maybe if you find someone who’s never heard much of American history, and then only for that audience).

Nor were, say, the Pink Panther movies culturally appropriating French culture with Inspector Clouseau. They may have included some cultural parody, but few people would take it seriously as their only source of information on French culture, which represents itself rather well in general.

Or, depending on one’s definition of “cultural appropriation”, maybe the Pink Panther and even your store ARE examples, but such minor examples that they do little harm, or even contribute to interest in the cultures they reference.

That is, the severity of the cultural appropriation, and the harm done, is what’s important, not just any amount of it at all.

elbanditoroso's avatar

It’s seen as a negative because the original culture feels that its identity is being stolen from it for commercial (other other) reasons.

The flip side of the argument is that the so-called appropriators are in fact paying respect to the original culture because of its originality and beauty.

This is another one of those culture-wars issues where my identity takes on major importance, likely to the detriment of society at large.

There is usually some monetary incentive to cry ‘cultural appropriation’.

Mimishu1995's avatar

@Dutchess I know you are old, so it’s understandable that you are surprised by why people would be upset by that. This is a very recent thing I noticed on the Internet, and it’s often the reason for some drama and boycott. And I am as surprised as you too. I’m like “I remember everyone was ok with that. Why is it suddenly a bad thing now?”

@Zaku @elbanditoroso so it’s a matter of personal opinion in the end? That makes me really angry, because if it’s personal opinion, then why do people get outraged when someone do something that they see fit and doesn’t harm anyone? It’s just a very selfish attempt at making oneself important. I’m not talking about obviously racist and malicious action though.

except maybe if you find someone who’s never heard much of American history, and then only for that audience

Sadly there are books like that in my country. I can think of some books about America, written by people who have never been to America and do very little research apart from reading some generic articles about America and using “the power of imagination”. And they someone get attention because of how “genius” the authors are to write about a country they have never been to. And all of them are horrible.

And if I went for that route, I would have been published by now.

Zaku's avatar

Yes, cultural appropriation is largely a matter of opinion, except perhaps in the more egregious cases.

If someone is over-using it righteously about an opinion about a marginal case in some online discussions, that can may well be annoyingly off-base, and detract from some arguments about more legitimate complaints.

Call_Me_Jay's avatar

There is usually some monetary incentive to cry ‘cultural appropriation’.

That is not true in the least. It shows resentment towards minorities asking for respect.

To the privileged, equality feels like a loss.

Mimishu1995's avatar

@Call_Me_Jay So are the example in my description cultural appropriation? What do you think?

Call_Me_Jay's avatar

@Mimishu1995 I would say dreamcatchers are pretty things that everyone likes. They don’t have deep religious meaning (that I know of). If Native Americans like sharing them with the world, then we are all welcome. They can be like Levi’s jeans (America says you’re welcome, world!).

Maybe the difference is whether the originators wish to keep the practice/symbol/whatever to themselves.

Also, there is the element of “punching down” vs. “punching up”. Euro-Americans committed genocide with the destruction of Native American nations. For us (I’m a white American) to trivialize their culture is more mean-spirited than for Native Americans to joke about the dominant atmosphere.

Mimishu1995's avatar

@Call_Me_Jay what about my story? What do you think?

I noticed recently that people are arguing that you are not allowed to write about a culture different from your own. What do you think of that?

@Zaku so from what you said, I think I shouldn’t care too much about some angry people on the Internet think. While doing research for my story I have come across discussions about things like cultural appropriation. And it did affect my confidence a lot…

Zaku's avatar

I would say to absolutely not worry about culturally appropriating from US history!

On the contrary, I would say your interest to write such a story project is flattering, and it’s quite interesting to me (in a good way!) that you’ve chosen to do that.

Let us know if anyone does actually try to label it cultural appropriation, because that would be really amusing!

Dutchess_III's avatar

That was a rude thing to say to me @Mimishu1995. Kinda wrecked my day. Thanks. (Did you have fun typing that?)

KNOWITALL's avatar

My generation grew up breakdancing and appropeiating everything black or gansta. From clothing to music to speech.
I see Justin Bieber recently got called out for wearing dreads, which some think is wrong as it’s culture appropriation.
I’m not a minority so I can’t speak on why it’s not seen as a compliment but due to my Cherokee blood, I feel anything not mocking the culture or demeaning the culture, mostly fine.

As far as your country, imagine a person walking around in a ‘Gook’s rock’ -shirt. That wouldn’t be very cool to me. (Gook is ugly slang for Vietnamese. Like Chink is for Chinese people.)

Mimishu1995's avatar

@Dutchess err… What did I say to offend you? I’m genuinely confused.

@KNOWITALL the Gook thing is an obviously racist example. I was talking about more ambiguous things like Justin Bieber’s hair or my story. Now some people will call this cultural appropriation and get outraged, others think it’s normal and laugh at the outrage. This is where the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation gets very blurry, and this is the source for all the online drama I saw.

To me personally, if people don’t do anything obviously racist, I’m fine with that. I’m totally ok with a foreigner wearing Ao Dai and putting on cone hat. I already have other more important things in my life to worry about so I just don’t see the point of getting worked up about someone “stealing” my culture.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Dutchess I know you are old, so it’s understandable that you are surprised by why people would be upset by that.
It all depends on context, not my age.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@Mimishu It is considered rude here to tell someone they are old.

Mimishu1995's avatar

@KNOWITALL oooooooooh… Ok. Thanks for the cultural lesson. It was just me using my culture’s logic on here again. In my country it’s totally ok to call someone old, if it’s relevant to the conversation. Some people even use their “old” status to force other people to show respect to them.

What I meant by that post was that the anger surrounding cultural appropriation is a recent development I noticed on the Internet, particularly Youtube, Twitter and to a lesser extend Reddit (about 2 years ago at most). And most of the time it involves people my age, or even younger. That, plus @Dutchess’s apparent surprise at the drama I’m talking about led me to assume that it’s something more relevant to the younger generation, hence the “old” comment.

Demosthenes's avatar

Good question. Cultural appropriation is a concept I find troubling. It seems to be a paradox of multiculturalism. You want all these different cultures to live together but you don’t want them to borrow anything from each other. Good luck with that, I guess. People naturally borrow. They see something in another culture that appeals to them and they want to participate in it or use it for themselves. I understand that sometimes this can be disrespectful. I think one should try and understand a culture and its cultural items before borrowing them, but I don’t think the borrowing in itself is nefarious. Some of the complaints I’ve heard is that something from a minority culture will be stigmatized and suppressed but once it’s embraced by the majority (read: whites) it’s suddenly acceptable and that creates resentment. But when I think of “cultural appropriation” I think of absurd examples like a white women co-owning a restaurant that sells Mexican food being shut down because of “cultural appropriation” or a white men with dread locks being accosted in public because dread locks belong to black people and he isn’t allowed to have them. This idea of trying to say that something “belongs” to a culture in a multicultural society I find a largely pointless exercise.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@Mimishu It’s called ageism. Dismissing a person’s comments because they are ‘old’.
It’s a form of discrimination that allows you to disregard someone because of sex, race, age, identity, color, etc… It’s actually a law here that you can’t do that. Like for jobs and thing’s.
I would apologize and remember in future.

@Desmosthenes Completely agree.

Mimishu1995's avatar

@KNOWITALL thank you. And to @Dutchess, I apologize. I will remember this from now on.

Mimishu1995's avatar


something from a minority culture will be stigmatized and suppressed but once it’s embraced by the majority (read: whites) it’s suddenly acceptable and that creates resentment.

This is what I found the most confusing about the entire thing. What is the definition of the “majority” here? White people are accepted as the majority in countries where there are a lot of white people, and let’s say Asian people are considered the minority. But if we are talking about countries like mine, where 99% of the population are Asians, then does it make white people’s culture “minority”?

Moreover, in order for the resentment to be created, the minority culture in question has to be stigmatized and suppressed in the past by the majority. But my country has never engaged in any racial discrimination throughout history because we didn’t have anyone other than Asians as permanent residents. So by their logic, should people in my country be judge by the same cultural appropriation standards in the dreamcatcher example?

It seems to me that the people who are worked up over this issue are only seeing the matter in the perspective of Americans, while acting as if everyone has to abide by their standards. It gets really messy and demeaning when a person who isn’t from America gets judged by the American standards. I heard that a Chinese writer who wrote about slavery from the perspective of a Chinese got cancelled badly because people on the Internet thought she was smearing on American history by making slavery so inaccurate. It got so bad that she had to abandon her own book before it was even published. The inconsistencies worried me so much and that was what prompted this question.

JLeslie's avatar

I find it complicated and confusing.

If a group is offended I want to hear them out. They know best If something is offensive, bigoted, or if something feels like it is unrightfully stolen from a culture for profit.

When it’s a bunch of “white” people screaming at the top of their lungs because they’ve decided it’s offensive or hurtful to another group, I want to check with the group itself.

Sometimes I think people are offended too easily, but sometimes there truly is an issue.

Take clothing, I’ve been wearing clothing from other countries and cultures since I was a little girl. Usually, the items were from the actual countries, but not always. Sometimes it was just a designer using influences from another culture.

@Zaku Can no one else sell Pocahontas dolls and trinkets? Do you have a problem with making the movie in the first place? My guess is Disney consulted with the tribe, but I don’t know That for sure. Does a producer have to be Jewish to do a movie on the Holocaust? Black to do a story about slavery in America?

Dutchess_III's avatar

You dismissed my comment because, according to you, I’m “old”.
It’s no different than dismissing someone’s comment because they are a girl.
Or dismissing someone’s comment because of the color of their skin.
It’s just rude to dismiss someone’s opinion out of hand for any reason.
Other than that I have enjoyed seeing this discussion evolve.

JLeslie's avatar

Let’s remember the OP is not a native speaker of English and give a little room for using the word “old.” We would usually say older or say different generations, and word it more politely, but that sort of nuance is very difficult to get right when using a second language. Plus, the OP apologized and we know the OP for a long time, and the OP seems genuinely interested in people’s opinions and not want to hurt anyone.

Zaku's avatar

@JLeslie It’s an issue about power and exploitation and doing good or harm to a struggling culture and people. Look at what happened to the native Americans, and what continues to happen to them in the US and Canada. Look at the prosperity of the Disney corporations and their practices of leveraging their wealth and power to get more wealth and power, and what they use that power for.

As for me having a problem with Disney Pocahonas, that’s not one of my issues, but if you do a search for ‘disney pocahontas cultural appropriation’ you will see no end of other people writing about the problems they see with it.

I would be very surprised if “Disney consulted with the tribe” in any satisfying way.

Brian1946's avatar


“I know you are old….”

That really hurts the feelings of us oldsters. ;-(
We prefer to be called elderly, ancient, or fossilized! ;-)

Mimishu1995's avatar

@Brian I’ll go with fossilized. It sounds good and makes me look smart and kind. ~

JLeslie's avatar

@Zaku It’s a Disney movie so I expect some liberties to be taken. I googled a little and they did use Native American actors and some other efforts, but I guess they made the character older? I never saw the movie.

I try to think what if Disney made a movie about a Jewish girl in history and not fully accurate if it would bother me. It would really depend on the situation.

I was going to watch Coco a few days ago, the Disney movie about a Mexican boy. I watched the trailer and it seemed so far removed from my husband’s family who is Mexican.

Meanwhile, I think Disney showing different cultures and nationalities is overall a positive force. I think it does much more good than bad.

Mimishu1995's avatar

@JLeslie I heard that Mulan and Aladdin were criticized in China and Muslim countries for their inaccurate depiction of their culture (Chinese complained that Mulan didn’t act like a Chinese woman and the dragon sidekick was just too weak for a real dragon, and Aladdin was criticized because he was cleanly shaven, which didn’t fit the beauty standard of men at that time). Funnily enough, in recent years Mulan is now slowly getting more popular in China because younger people like Mulan’s personality and can see the logical reasons why certain characters act the way they do.

So yeah, unless it’s truly malicious, this is really a grey area.

JLeslie's avatar

@Mimishu1995 It seems to me American children see these different characters and fall in love with them. Little girls want to be Disney “princesses” without thought to if that princess is a different race of heritage.

My mom used to sometimes call me Pocahontas when I wore braids. I guess now some people would find that offensive. Growing up I only had positive feelings about Native Americans. Actually, growing up I didn’t have any negative feelings about any group. The only sort of exception was talk of Germans in Germany, but I had German friends here in the US and we never thought of them in a negative way.

Zaku's avatar

@JLeslie The upset people aren’t upset about Pocohontas herself as a person being misrepresented. They’re upset about the culture that practically wiped them off the face of the planet, betrayed them and that continues to treat them as second-class human beings, and which has repeatedly white-washed the history of it and vilified them in cowboy-indian movies, and which continues to abuse them, also continuing and create dominant messages about the history which omit those parts, and which bring in huge profits for corporations without sharing any with them, etc.

Trying to think of a Jewish equivalent, it’d be about a Jewish girl who helped people from one of the cultures that has tried to eradicate and steal homelands from the Jews (but in an alternate history where they’d succeeded and there were only small “reservations” of Jews left on the planet), by a massively rich media mega-corporation from that culture, which doesn’t mention the horrors and continued abuses, that is really profitable for that corporation and one of the main pieces of media that many people see about Jewish culture.

Oh, and while the story is about exploration by likable people, the success of that exploration also expedites the invasion of huge amounts more land by the genocidal culture.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@Zaku But people inside the group are not all offended, I think that’s what makes this particular issue more difficult for the rest of us.
I think if you read through this particular example below, you’ll notice many natives are saying they’ll change their own speech to reflect the PC change, even though it’s not personally offensive to them.

JLeslie's avatar

@Zaku I do think they should share back some of the profits in some way. Either donating directly to a tribe, or building infrastructure for the community or something.

A movie targeted for children I would not mind if it is white washed a little in your Jewish example if it helps promote treating each other as equals and respecting and becoming interested in other cultures. As long as it touches on some of the real history, and later those children will learn more about all of the details of that time. When I was in college a lot of people there would tell me they had never met someone Jewish before. If they had added as a child they watched the Disney movie Rachel Stein (totally made up name) and used to wear her dress all around Disney World, I would be ok with it. If they thought she was brave and felt badly she had to move away from the house she grew up in, and had a vague idea of what it was like from a child’s perspective without giving too many nightmares I’m ok with it.

Zaku's avatar

@KNOWITALL Yes, that’s an interesting observation. “Cultural appropriation” does seem to often be a point made by academics and critics, and perhaps not commonly felt by the actual current cultures in question. It’s often more about “what do the people who think critically in the dominant culture approve of?”

JLeslie's avatar

I remember on a Q a long while back I made the point that if the group themselves are not bothered why are we listening to far left liberals and academics, who are supposedly upset for them. One jelly, I don’t remember who, said because they don’t know any better. The minority group doesn’t know they are being abused. That really came out of left field for me, I didn’t know what to think. I mean my immediate reaction was to think, bullshit, people know if they are offended or being hurt. Later, I thought about it more and I just don’t know what to feel about that. I think it was about using the name Redskins, because that was a hot topic for while.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@JLeslie Probably why Bieber still has his dreads, his homies don’t care, so why should he? Some of it is silly, like braids, so it’s hard to tell what to take seriously.

JLeslie's avatar

@KNOWITALL Sometimes I don’t know if I am just lagging behind what these other people take so seriously, or if they are upset about less important things and the really important issues get lost and the rest is just noise and a means to divide us AGAIN.

It’s like getting distracted about water at voting places (which most of us have never been offered water at a voting location while on line, the water can easily be outside of line area) while we are not paying attention to a state trying to change the rules so the legislature can override the vote of the people! We need to keep our eye on the ball regarding what is really an attack on the United States of America and our pursuit of the ideals of our democracy.

I feel like we are constantly being led around by the nose.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@JLeslie As long as we keep focusing on these small things, we can’t focus on the big issues. Distraction is the key word, for sure.

Mimishu1995's avatar

Sometimes I don’t know if I am just lagging behind what these other people take so seriously.

I go to Youtube everyday and come across drama frequently, and I still don’t know what they are furious about, so no, you are not lagging behind at all. There have been just so many rules of what not to do that it gives me serious panic attack.

And side note: it’s not just the US that is suffering from this. I’m genuinely scared of my own country’s zealousness too. And that’s not just some vague fear stemming from some bad apples on the Internet. There is actually statistics to back this up (download the report and see where my country ranks in online civility)

KNOWITALL's avatar

@Mimishu1995 I couldn’t open that link but yes, I was just telling @JLeslie that during year two of a global pandemic, it’s hard to find the energy to fight about hair styles.

snowberry's avatar

@KNOWITALL I had to scroll down and then I found the link to download the report, but I’m so clueless about how to find the report once I’ve downloaded it onto my iPad, I might never see it.

If anyone can give me simple instructions on how to find it, I’d appreciate it!

KNOWITALL's avatar

@snowberry It’s a .pdf so I can’t copy and paste for you with it being mostly graphics.

Vietnam was rated at 72%/ -6, with the best being 31%/-5 in the Netherlands, if that helps. Lower DCI equals better online civility.

Stache's avatar

I have a local friend from India and she recently mentioned how the start of summer makes her wonder what others think about suntans by white women. Is it brown facing?

I’m a white person in the states. Her question is legitimate and I’m not the person to disagree. She’s the one who faces discrimination in this country. It’s her question to ask if it’s cultural appropriation.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Brown skin is prettier than white skin (this from someone who glows on the dark.)

KNOWITALL's avatar

@Dutchess I’d agree. I spent thousands tanning for years but have finally accepted my vampiric white glow. Haha!
Not sure if I would consider tanning cultural appropriation though, personally.

JLeslie's avatar

@Stache I’m very very pale white and my husband is olive skinned. He gets a beautiful tan very quickly in the sun. I’ve always been envious of people who are darker than me and can be out in the sun without burning. I would have been fascinated and happy if my children had been darker and thick hair like his. It hadn’t occurred to me until recently that might be a negative to some people.

Getting tan is a natural occurrence so I don’t think of it as “brown facing” although, there is irony when people discriminate against people with darker skin and then spend hours or money to be tan.

The old school definitions of races had to do a lot with facial features not just skin color. Being Black was having broader nose and their hair, etc. A Black person with narrow features some people used to say that person had very white features. People from the Middle East were white, but had Semitic features, and people often talked about their nose shape. Asian, more specifically East Asian had narrower eyes, or less round I guess.

I know people from India who are very white, and others who are darker similar to my husband.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Of course it isn’t @KNOWITALL. It’s absurd to think that it is.

Call_Me_Jay's avatar

I have a local friend from India and she recently mentioned how the start of summer makes her wonder what others think about suntans by white women. Is it brown facing?

I think not, except in extreme cases.

When I worked in a photo portrait studio in the late 1980s, the rule was to make white people look darker and make black people look lighter.

You could probably make a PhD study about the preference. But coming from a white-people-tanning culture, it seemed simple to me.

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