Cultural Appropriation: When Imitation is Not the Sincerest Form of Flattery

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Dusty Florbjord

Sex Educator, Social Analyst, Feminist, Writer, Baller

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Alright, kids. The time has come for the Talk. No, not the birds and the bees. No, not systemic oppression (although that is part of it). We need to talk about cultural appropriation. Say it with me now, Cul-tur-al Ap-pro-pri-a-tion.

Since you’re a well-informed feminist, you’ve probably heard the phrase before and you may even know that dressing up in a Native American headdress on Halloween fits into the category. But what, in simple terms, is it?

Cultural appropriation is the adoption or co-option of one culture (or elements of a culture) by a different dominant cultural group. This is especially problematic when the culture being adopted (or co-opted) belongs to an oppressed group and is adopted (or co-opted) by members of a dominant cultural group who are doing the oppressing.
Ok, so, what the fuck does that mean in real life? An easy example, is the aforementioned Native American headdress on Halloween. Within Native American communities the headdress is a restricted use item – bestowed upon people who have earned it and are respected within the community. When a white girl puts on a brown suede mini skirt and a large feathered headdress and calls herself a sexy Indian, that’s cultural appropriation. It is not ‘honoring the culture’. Really. It’s not. Just, no.

So, we’ve got their headdresses but where did the rest of the culture go? Well, we forbade their languages, killed them off in all sorts of fun ways, deprived them of the land on which they lived and believed belonged to everyone. Oppression is like a serial killer and cultural appropriation is the trophy, saved to remember how quaint that culture used to be.

These instances are only made worse when those doing the appropriating have no idea what the symbols they are stealing actually mean. They are not giving a reasoned or intentionally offensive critique of the symbol, but rather they are thoughtlessly mocking the symbols, a privilege they possess because of their belonging to the dominant cultural group.

It’s super fashionable for white people to costume themselves in the clothing or religious garb of groups we have dominated. With our long and esteemed history of destroying whatever culture we happen upon (yay, white people!), it’s not surprising that we might choose to adopt some of the more visibly differentiated aspects of those conquered cultures.

Now, let’s talk about the newly crowned Queen B of cultural appropriation, Rachel Dolezal. I know her fifteen minutes of fame have come and gone (rightly overshadowed by the Charleston shooting) but her bizarre actions still warrant some discussion.

Rachel Dolezal

Dolezal took her cultural appropriation to the next level – she tried to live it. Actually, she did live it quite successfully. As a white woman, Dolezal adopted the hair, skin color, and even the oppression of people of color as her own. Her experience is not the same as a black woman’s because she grew up white. Her entire life experience is that of a white woman’s. It is only in the past decade that she has lived as a black woman and it is unreasonable (and fucking weird as shit) to claim that, because she is living as a black woman now, she can speak to the entirety of the black experience. She needed to maintain her racial performance through specifically coloring her skin which mean she knows she is not black. She is wearing blackface like a crazy asshat. The fact that she can put on or remove her blackness means that she cannot understand the lived experience of a black person because that experience means that you are inherently unable to access the privilege of a white person. And just to clarify, the term that Dolezal co-opted, ‘transracial’,  is not equal to ‘transgender.’ Check out these articles for more on that.

She didn’t just appropriate a symbol, she appropriated an entire life and took up space in the movement for racial justice where an actual black woman could have actually used her actual real voice and actual real experiences of a black woman in America.

But this is a privilege granted white people, to pick and choose which aspects of a culture to utilize. And rarely are there any consequences.

Cultural appropriation serves to further erase the often violent history and massive struggle these groups had to endure to maintain their cultural identity. Part of conquering a nation or people is destroying the culture that goes along with it. This includes things like making it difficult to speak in a native tongue, destruction of important artifacts, and coopting the imagery or folklore of those people.

Take Christmas, for one teeny tiny example. Christmas was originally a pagan holiday called Yule (you may remember the Yule Ball from Harry Potter). The Christians co-opted certain traditions from pagan religions in an effort to mix cultures to more easily coerce pagans to convert to their religion. And now it’s been so well-appropriated that paganism is barely even a recognized minority. Or, if they are, they are discredited as some crazy fringe group.

Or, look into the history of yoga. Rock-n-roll. Iggy Azalea. The music industry (and therefore a good part of our culture) is flooded with cultural appropriation.

Katy Perry appropriating Japanese culture.
Katy Perry appropriating Japanese culture.

The point is, cultural appropriation isn’t just a series of one-off incidents committed by well-meaning but moronic individuals. It’s indicative of the power dynamics at play within our society – it’s part of our legacy of systemic racism and oppression. It’s not a simple cultural exchange because elements of the oppressed groups culture are taken by the dominant group who has systemically oppressed them.


Want to learn more about cultural appropriation?

Check out this great article from Everyday Feminism.

Or this awesome video from Hunger Games star Amandla Stenberg:

Or this from our very own TRN family.



Header image credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/Associated Press. Click here for information about the image.