Cultural Appropriation: Its Importance and Insignificance

Alisha Khan, Editor-In-Chief

Hundreds of years ago, merchants trenched across large oceans, arid deserts, and freezing steppes to reach the markets of foreign countries, places where goods were exchanged and culture spread like a contagious disease. Arabs, Indians, Europeans—people from all across the globe—shared their cultural practices, absorbing everything being exposed and adapting it to reflect their beliefs. 

Cultural diffusion has especially been prominent within the history of the United States, as millions of immigrants entered the country from all corners of the globe, bringing their customs and traditions to create a unique, American culture. 

Yet, for a country considered to be a “melting pot,” cultural diffusion has seemingly halted with the rise of cultural appropriation, the idea of incorporating aspects of a different culture into one’s lifestyle without proper knowledge or requirement. A variety of cultural elements may be appropriated, ranging from clothing and hairstyles to dances and festivals, yet appropriation is not simply participating in another culture, but rather “stealing” the traditional components that hold strong cultural or religious significance. 

Celebrities have been accused countless times of cultural appropriation: Kim Kardashian was called out for wearing African-style cornrows, and Selena Gomez became ridiculed for wearing cultural Indian attire while performing her songs. While these instances may be considered celebrity ridicule, regular men and women are also being taught to avoid participating in certain ceremonies or wearing cultural clothing to avoid offending those of minority groups. 

Some conclude cultural appropriation to be necessary, yet others believe the philosophy can turn segregational: the ideology prevents people of a certain ethnicity from practicing the cultural traditions of another, leading to frustration and confusion – why isn’t someone allowed to wear something solely because their ethnicity is different?

Ignorance plays a major role. When people engage in cultural festivals of a different country, they often lack knowledge regarding the festival’s purpose. Celebrations may contain religious aspects, such as the Chickasaw Saw Dance, a dance rooted within the Green Corn Ceremony that celebrates forgiveness and the springtime harvest.  When others participate, they may come off as ignorant for not understanding the major significance behind the tradition. Participants may also be seen as entitled, as they are believed to have only chosen to participate for materialistic reasons, such as aesthetic clothing, instead of taking the time to learn about the custom. 

Cultural festivals may also contain historical significance, and if a participant does not harbor the proper requirements (i.e. appropriate background), they might be perceived as insulting. The Ghost Dance, for example, was a spiritual Native American movement that started in the 19th century, rejecting Western culture and consisting of fairly unconstructed movements. The dance was performed as a protest to American assimilation, and many Sioux members were killed by US soldiers while dancing during the Battle of Wounded Knee. Therefore, if a person of European descent were to participate in the dance, they may be possibly seen as offensive and racist by many Native Americans.

However, will exceptions be made for children?

Kids are extremely curious and desire to learn new things, whether that be through participating in a cultural dance or wearing clothing of different nations. Yet, fears of cultural appropriation place a barrier on children, as parents attempt to avoid criticism by prohibiting their children from participating in events of different ethnicities. While a ban may salvage the reputation of a parent, it does so at the expense of the child. Kids often don’t understand the reason behind such a barrier, as the only answer parents can provide revolves around the child’s race: since they’re not of the culture, they can’t participate. What lesson does such a way of thinking teach children? 

Besides festivals or dances, cultural clothing is also sometimes worn on Halloween, a day dedicated to dressing up as weird and ghoulish creatures. Indian dresses, Native American clothing, and “historical” Ancient Egyptian robes are placed next to costumes portraying bloody vampires and killer clowns. As cultural attire—often not historically or culturally accurate—is being worn on a day celebrating witches and demons, many members of the ethnicities being depicted feel frustrated and mocked. 

Yet, kids are often attracted to new and unique objects, and costumes are no different. While children should be taught that the cultural attire of different ethnicities must not be worn on Halloween or associated with the witches and ghouls of the spooky holiday, should children be barred from dressing up as cartoon characters that are of a different race?

Pocahontas and Moana costumes have grown in controversy, with many parents prohibiting their children from dressing up in fear of ridicule. Anxious guardians are afraid ethnic groups will become bitter and judge their children. However, in cases of cartoon characters, children should not be degraded for wearing a princess costume. Children who dress up as Moana or Pocahontas are not dressing up as a culture for Halloween, but rather a fictional character who happens to be part of a different culture. Should a girl be barred from dressing up as Snow White to prevent appropriating German culture? Would a boy dressed up as Woody be culturally appropriating Southern, cowboy culture? 

Children dressing up as Moana or Pocahantas are simply people who desire to try on clothing they are fond of, no different from celebrities like Selena Gomez or Kim Kardashian. Both groups want to immerse in different cultures, not out of hatred or mockery, but rather curiosity and admiration, as most people mirror behavior and customs they admire—imitation is the highest form of flattery. 

But how can one properly immerse themselves in another culture without being perceived as offensive or ignorant?

Cultural appreciation is an alternative to appropriation: instead of participating in certain practices without proper knowledge, ideally, someone can learn from members of the desired culture and discover the appropriate way of engaging in traditional customs. As more people take the time to study the extravagant amount of cultures around the globe, information will be spread and ignorance will diminish. 

Humans look to enjoy their lives, yet “if… everyone kept to themselves… life [would be] boring” (HMSA 11th grader). Culture is meant to be spread. People need to expose themselves to the traditions of other countries and learn about what else the world has to offer. Staying within the boundaries of only one culture leads to boredom, yet sharing customs allows for different ethnicities to bond and find similarities within their traditions.

Some cultures are afraid their practices will be corrupted if outsiders were to participate and influence their traditions, however historically, nearly every culture has experienced change. As merchants traveled across the globe, they brought their cultures along, diffusing their traditions to their destination and returning home with new ideas. Culture has been forever changing, for as particular cultural elements intermingled, unique traditions developed and older customs died off. In the long run, culture relies on diffusion, and as people from all backgrounds come together, new, distinct cultures will emerge.