What is Cultural Appropriation?

A photo of a poster in Thailand warning tourists to interact with Thai culture appropriately. Editorial credit: Sombat Muycheen / Shutterstock.com.

Cultural appropriation refers to the act of the culture of the majority adopting certain choice aspects of the culture of the minority without asking for permission. Cultural appropriation is considered harmful because of its disregard for the cultural context of the traditions that it is choosing to adapt. Cultural appropriation is also seen as being exploitative. Some activists also argue that cultural appropriation is a form of colonialism.

In the United States, minority groups such as African-Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans are often the most susceptible to cultural appropriation. In the early decades of American society, the overwhelming belief was that white Americans were seen as better than all other Americans. Not only were these beliefs pervasive in culture, but they were also protected by law. Throughout this time, while many cultures were still discriminated against in the United States, aspects of these cultures that were deemed "acceptable" were borrowed in white American culture. Examples of this include African American and Native American actors being portrayed by white actors, elements of African American music being used by white musicians,

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exchange

When it comes to the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange, many argue that the difference comes down to intention. While cultural exchange (or appreciation) would involve a willingness to listen and learn about other cultures, boundaries of cultural appropriation begin to be crossed when aspects of a culture are nitpicked and adopted in a way that is beneficial to another cultural group without regard to the history behind the culture.

Cultural appropriation is a very controversial concept in sociology and is often received with varying reactions. Many people in minority communities express a concern over cultural appropriation because of the historical oppression their communities experienced. A willingness to learn and approach topics with respect go a long way when it comes to the topic of cultural appropriation


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