A simple definition of cultural appropriation is the idea of someone adopting something from a culture that is not their own. At first glance, it appears that this is a harmless act. Well, think again. A deeper understanding of what cultural appropriation is digs up issues of whether it is offensive and even racist. The idea of cultural appropriation generally involves a power dynamic and an unfair balance of power in which the appropriated culture has a history of being systematically oppressed by the dominating appropriating culture.
A prime example of this power dynamic is the Washington Redskins NFL team, which has been accused of cultural appropriation, particularly their mascot of an American Indian wearing a headdress. American Indians have a long history of being mistreated and pushed off their land by white settlers in the United States, thus the use of the name, along with the mascot, serves as a harsh reminder of the years of oppression and mistreatment suffered by American Indians.
The term Redskin is particularly offensive because of its origins. There are debates about its origin but everyone agrees that it is offensive. One explanation dates back to a time in history when colonial and state governments paid white people to kill Native Americans and were encouraged to cut off their scalps and even genitalia (“red skins“) to prove their “Indian kill.” In this context, it is understandable why this term would be offensive to native peoples. There are websites designed specifically to bring attention to this issue. One in particular is called Native Appropriationsand is dedicated to providing a forum to show how many American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, First Nations, and other Indigenous Peoples disapprove of the Redskins in an initiative called “Natives Against Redsk*ns.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends retiring the use of American Indian mascots altogether. Studies have found that the stereotypical images are harmful to the self-esteem and development of American Indian students and that the portrayals have a negative effect on all students. Urban Dictionary takes a completely different stance on the subject and defines cultural appropriation as: “The ridiculous notion that being of a different culture or race (especially white) means that you are not allowed to adopt things from other cultures. This does nothing but support segregation and hinder progress in the world. All it serves to do is to promote segregation and racism.”
So this begs the question: does the idea of cultural appropriation help or hinder racism and segregation, and is a dominant culture’s adoption of another’s culture inherently racist?
There is a big debate about this. There is also a large spectrum of what is considered to be cultural appropriation. For some people, white Americans walking around in traditional east African garb, for example, is considered cultural appropriation. Others would argue it is a form of self-expression and shows appreciation and respect of another culture. Alternatively, a white American wearing a sari to a traditional Indian wedding ceremony is considered by many not to be cultural appropriation, but instead is showing respect of the culture and tradition.
There are many other examples of cultural appropriation in main-stream media. The Kardashian-Jenners, reality television stars and designers, have often been criticized for cultural appropriation. Kylie Jenner, for example, has been called out on social media for posting a picture with her hair braided in cornrows, a popular hairstyle among black men and women. More recently, Kendall Jenner was highly criticized for a Pepsi commercial she starred in that critics say trivialized, commercialized, and semi-whitewashed movements such as Black Lives Matter. Kendall and Kylie were also targeted when their clothing line produced t-shirts with printed photos of dead rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur with images of the sisters overlaid on the top.
It seems the debate often comes down to one’s intention and whether one is intending to appreciate the culture they are adopting or intending to mock or belittle it. However, it isn’t always that simple. It can be argued that many of the examples people use to define cultural appropriation did not intend to offend. So, the real question should be whether someone from the culture that is being appropriated would be offended by the demonstration of their culture. For example, if a white American male is debating whether or not to buy a t-shirt with an American Indian in a headdress on the front, he should ask himself if he thinks an American Indian would be offended by the shirt—or better yet, he should ask an American Indian what he finds the shirt offensive of his culture.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.