The issues attached with cultural appropriation need to be acknowledged as I believe that when it comes to this subject, people seem to undermine or miss the extent of how impertinent and disrespectful cultural appropriation can be. Throughout this discussion, a certain assumption must be made before I carry on, the fact that cultural appropriation does exist in our society; I will be discussing the definition of the term as well as the causes and effects of it.
The best way to describe cultural appropriation is to first have a small understanding of social anthropology by recognising what assimilation and acculturation means:
- Assimilation: The complete destruction of an original culture in the process of adoption of a new one
- Acculturation: the adoption of cultural elements from an incoming/minority culture by a host culture or the adoption of cultural elements from a dominant/host culture by a minority culture
Cultural appropriation is the result of these two terms welded together. Cultural appropriation is almost a form of acculturation, wherein which it’s the majority (instead of the minority) adopts cultural elements from a minority culture (instead of the majority). Thus, the effects of this are similar to that of assimilation; in which the original culture adopted by the majority then is gradually destroyed and loses its purpose and significance – The cause of this? It is the majority adopting the cultural elements using it completely out of its cultural context or for another purpose. The most common and relatable examples are the appropriation of clothing and jewellery. To summarise, Cultural appropriation is defined in a specific context in which an element of a disenfranchised culture is taken away from a native people and turned into a commodity or costume.
I could list and explain as many examples as I please but I think the best and most impactful example is the example of the cultural appropriation of the swastika, loosely labelled as the ‘Nazi sign’. Before the Nazi Party capitalised this symbol, the swastika was recognised as a peaceful religious symbol that is used mainly by the Buddhist religion – the swastika (Sanskrit svastika, meaning “all is well”) is a cross with four arms of equal length, with the ends of each arm bent at a right angle, in Buddhism the swastika signifies auspiciousness and good fortune as well as the Buddha’s footprints and the Buddha’s heart. The swastika is said to contain the whole mind of the Buddha and can often be found imprinted on the chest, feet or palms of Buddha images. What does this cultural element mean currently? The swastika has developed into a symbol of genocide and the Holocaust for many; something to be reviled – the swastika is one of the world’s most horrifying misappropriations of a cultural symbol, it signified peace was taken and used out of its cultural context leading to the semantics behind it being permanently morphed, this is cultural appropriation.
The argument that people have the freedom to do whatever they want as long as it is legal and it is comfortable for them, some would be fine with the idea of taking small bits of culture to suit their fashion taste or lifestyle, completely ignoring the context and meaning attached to the cultural elements. The example I gave above shows the large extent of cultural appropriation, but it also shows the small scale of what it does – that case is evidence that stealing aspects of culture and using it inadequately deteriorates the origin of that culture and disrespects members of that culture, thus I’m sure it is well within reason to call this immoral and unjust, it all complies with my thought that we live in an expedient society. It isn’t fair using culture for your benefit and out of ignorance as it does cause harm, other examples being bands and musicians unfairly profiting from the appropriation of music from African American culture (Jazz and blues to formulate the classic rock most know today – essentially theft) further shows this. So, I urge whenever you are using an element of any particular culture, ensure that it is used correctly – as can this opens doors for us to learn more about different cultures thus enabling true diversity and social integration.