The phrase “cultural appropriation” is usually one that triggers a strong emotional reaction. It is often synonomous with racism, white supremacy, and colonialism, all three of which tend to evoke strong negative reactions – and for good reason. Racism, white supremacy, and colonialism are damaging to society as a whole. Sometimes, so is cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is defined as “the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.” So according to this definition, cultural appropriation is very much an act of racism and colonialism. But not everything that has been labeled cultural appropriation is actually appropriation.
The example I immediately thing of is dreadlocks. Many white folks – typically members of a counter culture – have been accused of cultural appropriation because they wear their hair in dreads. (Unless you’re a member of Korn. They’ve had their hair in dreads since ’93, and nobody’s said a damn thing about them being appropriative or racist). In the collective consciousness, dreadlocks have somehow become associate solely with African cultures, despite the fact that they appear in cultures all around the world. Vikings wore their hair in dreads, and so did the Spartans and Celts, as well as Hindu priests. Dreadlocks are also a significant aspect of counter culture (especially stoner culture).
That’s not to say that all accusations of cultural appropriation are unresearched claims which ignore a multitude of nuances. Examples of actual appropriation are the various Native American Halloween costumes that are sold, or those Native American makeup tutorials by white women for Thanksgiving celebrations. Claiming to know anything about Japanese or East Asian culture based solely on the fact that you’re an avid fan of anime is an example of cultural appropriation. Cornrows (which are not the same as dreadlocks) on white folks is an example of cultural appropriation.
The important thing to remember is that most cultures do not exist in a vacuum (there are a few notable isolated groups, one of which was in the news recently after a man intent on converting them to Christianity was killed). Cultures interact with each other, and therefore influence each other. This free cultural exchange is essential for not just the growth of society, but for individual members of society as well. As damaging as cultural appropriation is, it is arguably more damaging to try to force cultures into their own little box. So the next time you see something you thing might be appropriative, take a step back and think before activating your SJW mode. You might be missing some context.