I Don’t Get It: Cultural Appropriation 101


Words || James Booth

Hello readers welcome to everyone’s favourite remaster of urban dictionary, I don’t get it. I’m here to take some more “lefty” concepts and explain to you why they are important to our generation’s discourse. So if you find that you “don’t get it” when it comes to cultural appropriation, I’ve got you babe. Put down that ‘American Indian’ headdress, rip the bindi off your forehead, and get ready for me to spill the chai hunny.

Cultural Knowledge

I think it is best to begin by discussing what exactly cultural knowledge is. Cultural knowledge is you guessed it, any  knowledge related to a certain cultural group. This may be a group such as millennials and meme culture, or a particular fandom of a television show or video game may have specific cultural knowledge. However in this instance cultural knowledge refers to cultural information specific to a particular racial, religious or ethno-cultural group.

Cultural knowledge is often divided into two sub categories, culture specific knowledge and culture general knowledge. Culture General knowledge is concerned with dimensions or frameworks which can compare all cultures such as communication, emotional process, or the way in which cultures relate to time. General knowledge concerns an objective awareness that cultures are understandably different from one another, and as such have different traditions, values and beliefs. Whereas Culture Specific knowledge, refers to particular characteristics that belong generally to members of a particular culture, not necessarily all. This can include things like language, celebrations, or the meaning of certain gestures or mannerisms. 

Cultural Appropriation

So what is Cultural Appropriation? This is quite the buzz word, and something that many people would like to deny exists. It is important to note that just because something may not offend one member of a particular demographic doesn’t mean it upsets none of those individuals, it is important to allow each member of a specific cultural group to hold their comfort within a space in regards to a certain action as cultural appropriation.

Cultural Appropriation concerns two key base characteristics. Firstly that there is an individual partaking in cultural knowledge that is not from their own cultures, and secondly that this is appropriated. Appropriation meaning to take something for one’s own use, typically without the permission of the owner(s) of that thing. Therefore we can understand that to culturally appropriate, is to utilise cultural knowledge for your own use without any permission or engagement from within that cultural group. 

What does this look like? This could look like wearing a bindi to a music festival to “open your third eye” without belonging to South Asian culture or engagement with the religious /cultural significance of the bindi. Moreover, without an understanding of the way in which South Asian people have faced vilification and stereotyping for performing the same act of culture specific knowledge. Or it could look like wearing “boxer braids” for fashion, without acknowledging that black women often have their hair determined non-professional for wearing the same style. Perhaps it is painting your face like a Calavera for the “day of the dead” without acknowledging the cultural significance of the symbolism it represents.

It is really important to be mindful of cultural appropriation when it comes to artistic endeavours. For example, being mindful of the way that artworks from first nations cultures have been appropriated for souvenirs or often replicated without the consultation of cultural awareness of these paintings. 

Cultural Appreciation

Often people will say that they are not appropriating culture, rather they are appreciating culture. It is really important to strike the difference between the two, and note that the boundaries of what is appreciation and what is appropriation will look different to different people of colour. 

For myself, the key difference lies in the value which a certain act of cultural knowledge adds to a person’s life and whether that value would be seen more negatively should a person from that culture engage with it. I feel like popping a few diamantes on your head to drop a pinga at stereo sonic is not appreciating the cultural significance of the bindi to south Asian women. 

Whereas I believe that cooking South Asian food or performing Yoga, with an acknowledgment of its South Asian roots, can be considered an appreciation of cultural specific knowledge. Both of these second instances don’t make the mistake of taking something which a cultural specific person would be othered for performing themselves, and being ignorant to the privilege of this adding benefit to your life. 

The important distinction lies in the value of the knowledge, does engaging with meditation and Buddhism add a certain “mystical” or “spiritual” value to your life? The answer is yes of course it would, but are you othered for engaging with spirituality in this way? The answer is likely to be no, and you’ll be able to chat about chakra cleansing sprays and have it add a cultural value to your life, that would have an entirely different meaning if you belonged to those cultures. 

At the end of the day, appreciation requires knowledge of the origins and purpose of the culturally specific knowledge and an awareness that the symbolism in art or spiritual practice does not come from your cultural background. Without the critical distinction that the knowledge is not yours to benefit from, there is a lack of empathy shown towards the people who can’t just try on a cultural practice and return to a position of privilege afterwards. This is especially important as we head towards Halloween, please don’t try on the “Mexican” costumes or dress up as a “gangsta”. There are plenty of spooky ways your can dress up, without transforming someone else’s culture into a costume.