In our globalized world, we sometimes use cultural elements from other countries in an interiorized way. Often, we don’t even know that we might be hurting someone. Using these elements and calling them our own can become a problem for many people from the white-dominant part of the world because they usually don’t know where these come from. The phenomenon where we seem to own a part of another culture is what we call cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation can be understood as the use of cultural and typical elements of one ethnic group by another, stripping it or all its meaning and trivializing its use. Usually, it is a dominant culture that takes these things from another one. “The phenomenon is based on the adaptation of ideas, morals, or style, from one culture to another,” says Lisa Polders, a gender and diversity student at the University of Ghent. ‘Cultural appropriation is always adapting things from another culture but without knowing the real meaning of this culture’. In short, this theft happens when a person takes over a cultural element for purposes that have nothing to do with those attributed to it.

Cultural appropriation is a very problematic concept. Lisa’s study program, Gender and Diversity, a great deal on its complexity: ‘It’s just like learning what it means to be human and to see the diversity of people and how a person can be influenced by another. We also talk about cultural appropriation because it’s a big part of our culture and it happens all the time without us realizing it’s happening. ‘ However, as is often the case in social sciences, there is just one definition for this term. There are different nuances about the meaning of cultural appropriation. Many of the contexts in which people or organizations have been criticized for falling into cultural appropriation are linked to art, fashion and aesthetics. But it’s very arbitrary to attribute an aesthetic, element or ritual to a particular ethnic group and not to others.

Cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation or cultural exchange?

Another problem is that many people do not believe that cultural appropriation is a problem, even if it exists. In other words, they emphasize the idea that cultures have no limits and therefore flow, constantly change and pass from one hand to another. From this point of view, no one should suffer or worry about something like this, since it would not be normal for a culture to remain unchanged and isolated from the rest.

Lisa, who has an African boyfriend, has a clear point of view about this, and she agrees that every culture has a cultural exchange with others. She sees this as a positive thing. ‘We learn from the other culture. As an example, we have learnt a lot about mathematics thanks to the Arab society, and I think this is positive, but I guess that the real cultural appropriation is taking things from another culture without knowing the real meaning of it, which can cause real damage to the other culture’.
We also talked with Hanne Juchtmans, a 19-year-old girl from Leuven, Belgium. She studies musictherapy and she wears dreadlocks for a couple of years, and for her, cultural exchange is more about taking some attributions
from one culture but with the permission of this culture. ‘When something is exchanged between cultures, this usually happens with a predetermined purpose. The purpose of cultural exchange is often to learn something about that other culture. When it comes to cultural appropriation, I tend to think of more individual issues. People themselves choose to take over something from another culture, whether that one culture agrees with it or not.’
Since Lisa is dating her boyfriend, she wears African clothes sometimes because she feels really into this culture. She defends that this can be positive or negative for the African culture, depending on the person that takes these elements. ‘If the person wears the clothes with respect for another culture, it’s okay, but it can be negative if the person doesn’t take into account the meaning of these clothes. And I think that’s a bit disrespectful towards the other culture’. In the case of Lisa, this would be cultural appreciation. She feels inclined to African culture. She says: ‘I
don’t know if I’m influenced, but I’m attracted to it, because of the way they feel and because of their morals. I recognise myself in African culture. That’s why I love to spend my time with these people and learn their way of thinking. I’m also influenced by their clothing, maybe a bit too much. When I go to Africa, I wear their traditional clothes, but they don’t care about that. Sometimes I feel that I’m more African than them and I’m a bit uncomfortable about it because I don’t want that they think that I try too hard. But they appreciate it, I think.’

‘You look beautiful!’ said an African girl when she saw Lisa with her African Dress. © Carmen Moya Tárraga

And the other way around?

Another common theme is that for cultural appropriation to exist, there first have to be cultural elements that belong to a few hands. Usurpation occurs when someone who previously enjoyed something stops doing it because of the action of another person, who takes possession of that resource. In case of cultural appropriation, it’s different: both parts, the dominant and the dominated, use that cultural product.
Ramón is a 22-year-old man who lived in Nairobi, Kenia. His mother is African, and his father is Spanish. Four years
ago, he came to Spain to continue his studies and start a new and different life. For him, cultural appropriation isn’t necessarily a negative thing, even though the term itself has a negative connotation. ‘If you see a white girl with braids, some people can get offended but some people won’t because there are also black girls who wear wigs with straight hair as white girls have. That’s why it can be a positive or negative thing. There’re things that you can do and
others that you just can’t do.’ For example, there’s also another kind of cultural exchange, based in minority groups that adopt elements of a dominant culture because the adoption of these elements makes it easier for them to experience and live within this culture. This can be called cultural assimilation. To make this clear, Ramón and Lisa give us some examples. ‘The black people that change the colour of their skin don’t do it to look like white people, they do it because they like to look lighter, not white, but to raise the brown tone’, Ramón explains. ‘They assume that white skin or lighter skin is beautiful and dark skin is ugly. So, black people feel ugly, and people who feel insecure about themselves use creams that aren’t healthy for their bodies to feel more confident or accepted. Yes, black people are very racist too, but we can’t just generalise. Some white people are racist, and some people are not, and some black people are racist, and other black people are not.’

Lisa also agrees with this testimony: ‘In Africa, they do skin bleaching, which I think is a big thing, but I don’t think this is cultural appropriation. For Africa, I think that this is because of globalisation and because they want to be like the dominant culture. Think of it as raising your status. I think this is damaging for the people because they think they are less compared to us. They should always be proud of their culture.’

Hanne has the same view on this. ‘We see a certain westernisation in some parts of the world. This includes Western -or mainstream- clothes. In some countries, Western costumes can also be seen as a kind of status. Since our Western spreading so much, it is less noticeable when other cultures adopt our customs. If a Westerner wears typical
African clothes, this is more noticeable as it is unique.’ What we have to keep in mind is that this does not happen the other way around, because of the unequal position of the ‘minority’ culture and because of the reason
why they do it to fit with the standards of the supremacist society.

Hanne’s dreadlocks are part of her identity. © Hanne Jutchmans

Guilty globalisation

As Lisa is starting to be an expert in this  kind of topics, she knows that this is a thing that we can’t avoid due to globalisation. ‘I don’t think that cultural appropriation is the fault of the multinational companies, but I think it’s a part of capitalize Western cultures without us knowing it. I think that our domination and colonisation have shaped us and we don’t always realise that we see the others as less than us, and this can be damaging for them. I don’t think it’s the fault of but the big societies or the big businesses, but it’s part of their nature, and we have to pay attention
to it’.
It’s clear that some companies respect this fact, but others don’t. ‘Industries like music of clothing you can clearly know if they do it with a meaning behind it and with respect, or if they just did because they will get more popular. When cosmetic companies introduce different products for everyone, as different tones of skin, they do it with good intentions, but anyway they are always focused on money. It’s a combination of both: concern and
money.’ Hanne thinks differently. She knows they play a significant role in this, as mass production is now a cheap and straightforward choice for most people. The fact that companies take these practices from other cultures decontextualise the culture just to be used for profit.

The importance of being aware

If nobody knows what cultural appropriation exactly is, it’s impossible to make it less harmful for people. ‘Respect is important but also the fact that we talk about it. The biggest problem is just that we don’t realise that it’s happening.’ Lisa says. Hanne recommends that we always have to be respectful to people. ‘Then I think there is a smaller chance that people will feel hurt. It’s also important that everyone realises that we are all human beings and therefore have the right to take over different things from each other. When a certain culture forbids others to use things from their
culture, this is not an example of solidarity. Sharing is caring’. Ramón finds it necessary that people talk about it: ‘People should care about it because it widens your horizon and it helps you to understand diversity better. It’s a matter of learning and appreciating people’s culture. You can take some things from other cultures because this makes you more open-minded and less extreme. You’re opening to another world. That is different ‘. Lisa agrees. “Discover. Cultural exchange is so important. Everyone should know at least something about other cultures but always behave respectfully. ‘ Cultural appropriation is here and always will be in our lives. Our responsibility as citizens in a multi-ethnic society is to find a way to create new values ​​and customs, amidst the waves or negative and disrespectful appropriation. This is an often-overlooked challenge of our generation.


Text: Carmen Moya Tárraga, pictures: © Carmen Moya Tárraga, Hanne Jutchmans