“Cultural Appropriation”: Appropriate?

Courtesy of Jen Mussari
Photo courtesy of Jen Mussari

The first time I heard the phrase “cultural appropriation” used was only a few months ago. I was hanging out with some friends one night and one of them began to talk to me about how she had gotten really into Tamil music—regional Indian music from the state of Tamil Nadu. As she went on to describe how inspired it made her feel, the other people around us jokingly commented that it was “so culturally appropriating.” Despite the fact that they were only half-serious, she turned to me and asked, “Do you feel like I’m appropriating your culture?” My response was a vague denial as, at the time, I only half-understood what I was reacting to.

A few weeks later I walked into an Urban Outfitters and stopped short at the sight of a men’s T-shirt with a print of a Hindu goddess on it. My instinctive reaction was to feel offended, as I imagined the shirt being bought by some kid who would wear it as a style statement, knowing nothing of who the figure on the shirt was, and what she symbolizes to members of an entire religion. When I expressed these feelings to a friend who had lived in both America and India, he questioned them, asking why I cared so much when it wasn’t really harming anyone. “I’ll bet half the people in India today don’t know what she symbolizes either,” he stated.

This led me to wonder what was at the root of my frustration: was it a matter of religion, or simply innate protectiveness over my culture? Something set the “T-shirt incident” apart from my American friend’s interest in Tamil music: where I was instantly offended at the former, I felt only amusement at the latter. I began to wonder what the fundamental nature of ‘culture’ is, and how its conceptualization has changed over time and amongst members of different generations.

First, for those of you who are still scratching your heads, a definition of the term “cultural appropriation” is in order. It is rarely given empirical definition due to its subjective nature, but Richard A. Rogers attempts to do so:

Cultural appropriation is defined broadly as “the use of a culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture.”[1]

The important thing to note about this definition is that it’s an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of possible intercultural interactions. In order to focus it, let’s consider it in the context of a setting we’re all familiar with: a college campus.

College campuses, especially those of large universities like BU, are cultural melting pots, as they are home to a large body of both international and local students, and one inevitably encounters members of different nationalities and races on a daily basis. It’s only natural that opinions on what constitutes as being “cultural appropriation” is different in such an environment.

Anna Diorio, a cultural anthropology major at BU, attempts to describe the phenomenon through this lens.

“It’s not always a bad thing because culture is constantly evolving, but at the same time there are instances where it can become problematic. I think this happens most often as it relates to marginalized groups,” she says, referring to social and cultural groups that have been relegated to external strata of society, historically speaking.

“The example that comes to mind is when Urban Outfitters was selling a line of Navajo underwear and flasks with Native American prints on them,” Diorio recounts.

The clothing company was sued in 2012 by the Navajo Nation, a Native American tribe associated with the Southwest, on the grounds of the “Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which says it’s illegal to produce a product that [claims to be] Indian made when it’s not.”[2]

While the lawsuit failed to reach a conclusive settlement[3], it did bring up the issue of cultural ownership, and whether it is in fact possible to own culture in this day and age.

Navajo Print Jeans | Photo courtesdy of Wickerfurniture Flickr
Navajo Print Jeans | Photo courtesdy of user Wickerfurniture via Flickr

Diorio points out that a case like this involves “groups who have systematically had their culture stolen from them by a dominant culture which controls what’s being put out in the media and how people are educated in dealing with other cultures.”

There is something to be said here about the role balance of power plays in intercultural interactions. The export of an economically dominant culture’s lifestyle to other parts of the world is usually a testament to the latter’s economic authority. However, instances of the reverse, as Diorio points out, are construed as commodification.

And this dispute isn’t relegated to the courtroom alone, for who can forget the annual display of exoticism that occurs on Halloween night?

“Take the people who decide to dress up as a Native American chief, complete with the headdress,” says Lizzy Garcia, a recent BU graduate in Sociology. “If they don’t understand the significance of it, I think that might be more connected to why it offends people so much. If it’s directly part of your life and beliefs, then it might be offensive when someone who doesn’t know about it uses it for selfish reasons.”

From Middle Eastern keffiyehs tied as scarves to the use of the Hindi greeting “Namaste” amongst the yoga enthusiasts (and on the nametags of Whole Foods employees), sightings of appropriated cultural symbols are inescapable. This holds true especially in urban settings, which are home to a diverse spread of people. And it’s hard not to take personally when you feel like it is involuntarily done.

However, some instances do not induce the offense that the abovementioned do. Indeed, there is a fine line between cultural “appropriation” and “exchange,” the latter of which involves “the reciprocal exchange of symbols, artifacts, rituals, and/or technologies between cultures with roughly equal levels of power.”[4]

Garcia cites the example of Caribbean music. “Locals had a distinct style of music and rhythm that had been passed down, to which immigrants from Africa added their own influences. If you listen to the music today it’ll be in Spanish, but it has a lot of drums and African beats. Both cultures are very fully present, and that is a good example of a voluntary exchange”

In some cases, the adoption of one culture’s constructs by members of another is truly a result of a deep appreciation and connection that is felt with it.

“Hip-hop started as an African American music born out of struggle, and now there are white rappers and even African American rappers who haven’t necessarily been through the same preconditions but still use the art form. It is an art form that is available as long as you understand and respect where it comes from,” says Diorio.

This example is one that makes us remember that as time passes, social conditions change, as do people, and consequently culture. This holds especially true in this age of globalization and social media, wherein it’s virtually impossible for different cultures not to come face-to-face with each other on a regular basis.

Kimberly Arkin, an Anthropology professor at BU, provides some insight on the subject:

“The assumption behind cultural appropriation is that cultures are bounded entities with not only clear boundaries but clear content. But in many ways every culture is an assemblage of things from different places, different peoples and times. What cultural appropriation smuggles in is the idea that we were self-reproducing islands, and that’s never how anything works.”

We might not have had the stealth that comes with social media a thousand years ago, but that sure didn’t stop the ancestors from charging headfirst into foreign lands. And the effects of historical invasions and colonization are very much reflected in aspects of different cultures today. Social media and globalization further the sense of convergence.

Justin Britt-Gibson, a writer for the Washington Post, points out in his article on Millenials that “Ninety-five percent of 18 to 29-year-olds have friends from different racial backgrounds.”[5] With the increasing diversification of the urban sphere comes an implicit exposure to and incorporation of various multi-cultural elements into the individual’s lifestyle.

And really, it’s not uncommon to grow up dressing in harem pants, watching Japanese anime, and eating sushi on the regular. The real question is, do all of the above, like the Native American Halloween costume, construe as being appropriation? Is the title of “appropriation” still relevant in the light of today’s conceptualization of culture?

Richard A. Rogers, New Media professor at the University of Amsterdam, introduces the concept of “transculturation,” which involves “cultural elements created from and/or by multiple cultures, such that identification of a single originating culture is problematic.”[6]

This theory of a hybrid culture is most relevant in a cosmopolitan setting, much like the one we live in, and appears to best define the direction that “culture” as such is heading in. As the world becomes increasingly globalized and involved in transnational capitalism, it might be time to accept that certain assumptions about culture are redundant.

“In a sense, the model of cultural appropriation presumes stasis, that there are certain things that are appropriate for certain people,” states Arkin. And when we live in a cosmopolitan environment such as ours, this view is largely redundant.

But does that mean that the Halloween costumes and the Urban T-shirts are in any way justified? Absolutely not.

The exposure we have to different cultures and belief systems should only reinforce the ethos that it is important to respect that we all come from different places. While we might imbibe aspects of other societies more freely and comfortably into our lives today, we still have rituals and beliefs that we hold dear to us as symbols of our respective heritage.

Ultimately, the T-shirt with the Hindu goddess did not in any way educate its future owner as to its origins. It was presented simply as an aesthetically appealing image. As an Indian and a Hindu, this was instinctively off-putting to me. My friend’s interest in Tamil music on the other hand stemmed from a genuine appreciation for and interest in music for music’s sake, and a desire to learn more about its origins.

“There’s a difference between taking elements of a different culture and putting it on as a mask or costume, however it’s possible to really connect with an element of a different culture and want to pay tribute to it,” says Diorio.

Ultimately, fostering a sense of thoughtfulness where other cultures are concerned is important not only on an interpersonal level, but also in the name of navigating the increasingly diverse landscape of society. It’ll make it that much easier to laugh about 100 years in the future over chai and green tea biscuits.


[1] Rogers, Richard A. “From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation.” Communication Theory 16.4 (2006): 474-503. Print.

[4] Rogers, Richard A. “From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation.” Communication Theory 16.4 (2006): 474-503. Print.

[6] Rogers, Richard A. “From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation.” Communication Theory 16.4 (2006): 474-503. Print.

Vijayta Narang

Vijayta Narang

Vijayta is a film student who shamelessly indulges in music, art, and other vices through the QUAD. She is an ardent lover of coffee, fantasy novels, and sweaters,

2 thoughts on ““Cultural Appropriation”: Appropriate?

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  • March 9, 2014 at 9:25 am
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    Thankyou I am currently doing a project on this and have come across article after article about the negatives of cultural appropriation. I have the same view as you on this that cultural appropriation can help one culture to connect to another but we should not trivialise other cultures into superficial fashion statements. I am quite bad with words and explaining what my thoughts so this has helped me make it clearer. Thankyou

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