What Is Cultural Appropriation? Here’s a Deep Dive into the Complex Term

what is cultural appropriation cat

The ‘fox-eye’ beauty trend recently exploded on social media for being the new eye look to try. But are you aware it plays off the shape and size of Asian eyes? And that’s, um, problematic. This complicated relationship is called cultural appropriation.

By now, you’ve probably seen even more recent examples of cultural appropriation (i.e. Trader Joe’s packaging, a hip-hop yoga studio and most Kardashian-related stories). Or perhaps it’s come up in an uncomfortable conversation with someone close to you. Regardless, it's probably time you learn about how harmful cultural appropriation can be. Here, we break down what the term means and show how it can be found everywhere from the beauty world to the sports arenas.

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation—also known as cultural misappropriation—is when a person or group takes (or “borrows”) a group or a culture’s ideas, customs, or styles without acknowledgment or proper credit, sometimes even exploiting it for profit. Those appropriating are often labeled the “dominant group” while the ones suffering from the appropriation are usually from marginalized communities.

What are some examples of cultural appropriation?

1. Beauty

Hair is one of the most visible examples of cultural appropriation, especially in celebrity culture. Some might say that cornrows, baby hairs, afros and other protective styles worn by non-Black individuals are “just hairstyles.” But so often, when Black women wear their hair naturally or in the aforementioned protective styles, their do’s are deemed “unprofessional,” and end up preventing them from getting jobs or receiving recognition. On the other hand, when white women wear the same hairstyles, they’re applauded for being “cool and trendy.” For example, when Zendaya wore her hair in locs for the Oscars, Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic mocked the actress, saying her locs “probably smell like patchouli oil. Or, weed.” Conversely, the Kardashians regularly wear cornrows and Fulani braids, only to hear praise for rocking a “new look.”

Even tattoos have been up for discussion especially when traditional patterns, different languages and tribal symbols are involved. In 2019, Ariana Grande got a tattoo in Japanese. She was hoping to get the title of her hit song, “7 Rings” inked on her hand. But her tattoo artist misspelled it instead. Twice. The tat now reads “Japanese barbecue finger.” 

2. Fashion

Back in 2012, Victoria’s Secret was in hot water after model Karlie Kloss walked in the annual fashion show wearing a traditional Native American war bonnet, which holds spiritual ceremonial significance and is only worn by respected leaders of a tribe.

More recently, Comme des Garçons had white models wear cornrow wigs during Paris Fashion Week in January, while brands like Zara, Urban Outfitters and Shein have constantly been called out for selling Indigenous clothing and home decor. (In Shein’s case, the online retailer received backlash this month for selling offensive items like a Swastika necklace and religious prayer mats as rugs.)

3. Music

The music industry has had its fair share of slipups, dating back to the 1950s. Seriously, where do you think Elvis got his style from? Many have debated that music can and should be subjective. But when artists like Miley Cyrus create a persona, heavily profits over Black culture and uses Black women as props in her performances then decides one day to push it aside for a “cleaner image,” she becomes part of the problem. 

4. Language

FYI, the way your voice changes talking to certain groups of people is a form of cultural appropriation—and is an example of a microaggression. For example, if you suddenly start using slang like “sis,” “periodt,” and “yas” as soon as you interact with BIPOC...then you might want to reconsider your choices. A clear example of this is actress Awkwafina who has been accused of using a “blaccent” (a type of accent that feeds into stereotypical mannerism of the Black community). It started at the beginning of her career and continued up until she started getting cast in blockbuster films, such as Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s EightAfter the success of some of her more serious roles (even earning a Golden Globe for her performance in The Farewell), critics and fans alike began to notice a change in her persona. Similar to Cyrus, she switched so fluidly, it showed an underlining comparison that one culture is considered “more acceptable” or “more appropriate” than the other. 

5. Wellness, Sports & Other Spaces

Sports also have a deep history of appropriating. Just consider a few current team names: Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians or the Chicago Blackhawks. The wellness space has also been caught in the crossfire when it comes to Indigenous rituals. Think: sweat lodges, yoga or even meditation. 

OK, but what about cultural Appreciation?

The common reply after someone is accused of appropriation is “I didn’t do anything wrong. I was only appreciating the culture.” That’s because many people don’t believe cultural appropriation exists. There’s also the argument that no culture is completely original and cultural exchange is the only true thing that’s happening. That’s because many people don’t believe cultural appropriation exists, or they think ‘America is a melting pot,’ not the ‘America is a salad bowl.’ But there’s a huge difference between appreciating a culture and wrongly adopting it as your own. At the end of the day, cultural appropriation is all about power. Cultural appreciation means being invited to take part by members of that culture, like wearing traditional garb to an Indian wedding; cultural appropriation would be donning a sari and a bindi for a Halloween costume.

Can we prevent cultural appropriation?

Unfortunately, there’s no escaping it. There’s always going to be a person, group or brand making the headlines in this space. Most of the time it can be completely unintentional. So, how do you prevent yourself from appropriating a culture? Here are a few things you should ask yourself:

1. Am I wearing or doing this to be offensive, funny or trendy? The most insulting and offensive examples of cultural appropriation is feeding into stereotypes by the way you dress or act. You’ll often see this during Halloween, when people choose to wear costumes like “gypsy,” “geisha,” and “rapper.”

2. Am I aware of the origin of this item or practice? The first step in moving from appropriation to appreciation is educating yourself and understanding the cultural significance of what you’re buying, wearing or showing off. Immerse yourself in the culture and don’t ignore the significance it might hold.

3. Am I adopting artifacts as accessories? Are these items actually sacred? When Kloss wore the headdress, she clearly didn’t take into account the spiritual meaning behind this traditional wear. Again, this goes back to educating yourself.

4. Am I engaging with this culture outside of it being “trendy” or “cool” right now? Am I providing credit? Hate U Give star Amandla Stenberg said it best:  “What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we love Black culture?” We see this a lot when a new craze begins and no one realizes a BIPOC creator was behind it. Many were upset at Kim Kardashian for wearing Fulani braids (aka cornrows) but were even angrier when she referred to them as “Bo Derek braids”, paying homage to a white woman instead of the genuine history behind the protective style. 

5. Finally, who is profiting from the item I’m buying? Instead of supporting brands that are solely focused on making a profit over enriching our culture, why not spend your dollars on small businesses created by BIPOC and other marginalized communities? Here are a few to get you started:

At the end of the day, big changes can start with you. Start being mindful and take into account how you represent yourself. 

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Associate Editor, Ultimate Fangirl, Aspiring Beauty Guru

Chelsea Candelario is an Associate Editor at PureWow. She has been covering beauty, culture, fashion and entertainment for over a decade. You'll find her searching the internet...