Cultural appropriation is the co-optation of elements, customs, or practices of one culture by another culture without acknowledgment or consent. Usually, the appropriating culture is in a relation of domination to the appropriated culture.
Cultural appropriation is important to understand because it very casually hides under its garb sinister histories of ethnic, racial, or religious conflict and colonization.
Cultural appropriation is distinct from cultural exchange, in which two cultures participate in each other’s rituals and customs on an equal footing.
The earliest known use of the term cultural appropriation is credited to Arthur E. Christy (1899 – 1946), a professor of literature at the University of Illinois (Martin, 2018). Professor Christy was born in China to missionary parents and was thus sensitive to how elements of one culture can be abused by members of another, dominant culture when they are taken from their original setting without a complete understanding of the context they are embedded in.
Examples of Cultural Appropriation
1. Native American War Bonnet
Native American war bonnets are among the most instantly recognizable artifacts of Native American culture, and for this reason, often the most appropriated items of Native American culture.
A war bonnet is a piece of headgear made using eagle feathers and beads and worn either during battle or on special ceremonial occasions by a select few members of the community. The wearer of the war bonnet is seen to have earned the right to adorn the headgear through exceptional acts of valor and courage.
However, until large-scale awareness about cultural appropriation spread, war bonnets were used as fashion accessories by non-natives. They were especially popular as headgear for music festivals. Several Indian tribes found this casual display of an item sacred to their culture offensive and demanded a ban on their use by non-natives (Rota, 2014).
Related Article: Is The Evil Eye Cultural Appropriation?
2. Native American Iconography in Sports
Similarly, the use of Native American iconography as a part of American sports culture has long been contested and criticized. A prominent example is the American Football team Washington Redskins.
The word “Redskin” is a pejorative term used for Native Americans in the US and Canda, rooted in the language of settler colonialism. (McWhorter, 2015) In the 19th century, several American states offered rewards to settlers for extermination Native Americans, and bringing in “Redskin scalps”.
The mascot and logo of the Washington Redskins featured the head of a Native American man adorned with eagle feathers. Collectively, the use of the word Redskin and the appropriation of Native American imagery on its logo were seen by Native Americans as instances of cultural appropriation.
In 2022, the team changed its name to Washington Commanders, bowing to long standing demands from protestors. Other teams that changed their names following similar protests were the Cleveland Indians, Edmonton Eskimos and Golden State Warriors.
Teams currently under pressure to change their names and their Native American iconography are Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks, and Kansas City Chiefs. The Atlanta Braves have in particular come under repeated criticism for their use of foam tomahawks as the team’s mascot. Native Americans have called the use of foam tomahawks demeaning to their culture, and demanded that it be banned. (Anderson, 2017)
3. The Svastika and the Hakenkreuz
Svastika is a Sanskrit word that literally translates to “that which brings health and prosperity”. The symbol has been used as a sacred symbol by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists in the Indian subcontinent for millennia (Zimmer, 2017).
With the spread of Buddhism outwards from India to East and Central Asia, the symbol came to be used in the religious iconography of several other countries such as Japan and Mongolia.
Other variants of the symbol have been in use by indigenous cultures in Africa and the Americas for centuries too.
However, in the 1930s, the German government appropriated a version of the symbol as its party insignia, which today has come to be one of the most easily identifiable symbols of imperialism. The German word Hakenkreuz, meaning a crooked cross, was used along with the Sanskrit symbol for the new dictatorship.
To distinguish the Svastika from the Nazi symbol, several Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist organizations have called for a clear distinction between the Svastika, which is a religious symbol of peace and harmony, and the Hakenkreuz, which is a more accurate descriptor of the co-opted symbol.
4. The Arab Keffiyeh
The Keffiyeh is a headscarf worn by Arab men as part of their traditional attire. The Keffiyeh is either a white or a red-and-white checkered scarf kept in place by a cord known as the agal.
Traditionally worn to keep the head safe from the intense heat of the Arabian desert, the Keffiyeh has become a symbol of Arab identity. More recently, it has acquired the status of an emblem of solidarity with Palestinian nationalism. As a result, its use by non-Arabs wishing to show their support for the Palestinian cause has spiked.
To meet this increased demand, stores in America and elsewhere have begun stocking Keffiyah headscarves manufactured in China. This curious outcome of globalization, in which an item of Arab cultural heritage is manufactured on a large scale by Chinese factories to be worn by white Americans has been labeled by several Arab commentators as an instance of cultural appropriation. (Swedenburg, 2021)
5. The Sikh Turban
Keeping unshorn hair carefully tied in a turban is a central tenet of the Sikh faith that originated on the Indian subcontinent in the late 15th century. As a result, the turban is an item imbued with sacrality and spiritual significance in the Sikh religion.
While turbans are worn by almost all communities in the Indian subcontinent, the Sikh turban is distinctive in appearance and instantly identifiable to anyone familiar with Indian culture.
As a result, the wearing of a Sikh turban by a non-Sikh merely for the sake of appearance can be seen as a case of cultural appropriation by Sikhs. In 2018, the Italian fashion house Gucci was accused of cultural appropriation when several of its white models walked the ramp at the Milan Fashion Week wearing the Sikh turban. (Petter, 2018)
Dreadlocks is a hairstyle that has been used throughout history by many cultures. The style is believed to have been worn by the Minoans around 1600 BCE.
However, in recent history, the hairstyle is believed to have emerged from African culture. Maasai warriors in Kenya would have dreadlocks and the hairstyle became very popular among Rastafarians.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the popularity of dreadlocks among subcultures of white Europeans came up against criticism that they were appropriating African culture. Similarly, white people wearing cornrows (although, not french braids), another African hairstyle, have been criticized.
The difficulty of cultural appropriation in the United States is that African-American culture heavily influences mainstream American culture. You can see it in music, for example, such as Jazz and the Blues.
7. Plastic Shaman
A Plastic Shaman is someone who attempts to dispense traditional, indigenous spiritual and healing techniques while having no biological and cultural link to that indigenous tradition.
Shaman is a term used for spiritual masters and traditional healers of indigenous cultures. Plastic Shamans appropriate the cultural traditions of indigenous cultures in order to market them to a new audience (Aldred, 2000).
In so doing, they remove these practices from the cultural context they are embedded in and present them as cures to the ailments of modern society. In this case, indigenous culture is appropriated purely for a commercial motive.
Tattoos are one of the most common means of cultural appropriation of subordinate cultures. Often celebrities get tattoos of sacred or divine figures from third-world cultures without acquiring any knowledge of the significance of the figure.
Another common tattoo practice is getting texts in supposedly exotic languages tattooed on the body without understanding the meaning or context of the text. This too can be seen as a form of cultural appropriation. For instance, David Beckham famously had his wife Victoria’s name tattooed on his forearm in the Devnagri script used to write the Hindi language.
Maori people from New Zealand also have their own tattoo style that harks all the way back to their warrior traditions. Non-Maori people who get these tattoos can also be accused of appropriation.
9. Whitewashing in Films
Whitewashing refers to the phenomenon of White actors playing non-white characters in cinema. The phenomenon was widespread in Hollywood till the 90s and continues occasionally to this day.
Prominent examples of Whitewashing are actor Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Johnny Depp playing a Native American in the 1997 film The Brave.
Whitewashing contributes to ethnic stereotypes about minority communities. It also raises questions about inadequate or inappropriate representation of a particular community in cinema.
For instance, when Al Pacino, an Italian-American, played Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant in Brian de Palma’s cult classic Scarface, (1983) it was seen as a stereotyping of not just Cuban Americans, but also Italian Americans, lumping both communities together to pander to a popular, white American stereotype of them as mafioso gang members. Pacino’s accent and mannerisms were not particularly well received by the Cuban American community either, who viewed Pacino’s performance as a caricature of Cuban Americans.
10. Plastic Paddy
Plastic Paddy is a term used for someone who tries to appropriate elements of Irish culture.
The term is also used for members of the Irish diaspora in America and England who make exaggerated displays of celebrating their Irishness, especially on culturally significant occasions such as St. Patrick’s Day. It is especially used to deride the sentimental commoditization of the paraphernalia associated with Irish identity such as the Green color.
It may also be used to refer to Americans of Irish descent who claim to be Irish despite the fact that they, and even their parents, have never even stepped foot in Ireland.
Blackface was the practice of non-black performers applying make-up on their faces to mimc the appearance of an African-American person, most often as a caricature. The practice was widespread until the early 20th century when it began to be recognized as being insensitive and highly offensive.
The practice however continues sporadically, especially as a Halloween tradition in the United States.
The history of Blackface is rooted in racial stereotypes of Black people as sub-human. In theatrical performances, it was typically used as a device for inducing humor and sometimes revulsion in the audience. The character appearing with Blackface would either be intended as a subject of derisive laughter, or of villainous contempt, or both (Desmond-Harris, 2014).
A mandala is a Buddhist symbol used in meditation and other religious practices. They are not always considered cultural appropriation, although can be in some instances.
It is sometimes considered cultural appropriation to use a Mandala if it’s to be trendy and fashionable while you have no direct understanding of (or connection to) Buddhist culture.
For example, wearing it on a t-shirt to “look like a hippie” is far less respectful than using it because you’re a practitioner of Buddhism. Similarly, mandala tattoos worn by non-practitioners may get some sideways looks.
However, the use of mandalas is not the exclusive domain of one particular ethnic group. People from around the world use mandalas in meditation practice and in other ways that show contextual understanding of the mandala and its cultural and social value.
13. Dream Catchers
Using a dream catcher isn’t necessarily cultural appropriation. Many Native Americans sell authentic dream catchers for a living.
However, the use of a dream catcher for decoration or jewelry without acknowledgment of its purpose can be considered cultural appropriation.
To use a dream catcher respectfully, remember that it isn’t just a gimmick or decoration. It has history and purpose for a minority culture. As a result, it should be purchased and used for its own purpose – as defined by Native Americans – and not only as a gimmick.
What’s Not Cultural Appropriation?
While the concept of cultural appropriation is fuzzy (and changes over time!), currently, the following items are generally not considered cultural appropriation.
Hawaiian shirts – Hawaiian people tend to be very welcoming of non-Hawaiians wearing Hawaiian shirts. With some limited exceptions, these shirts can be work by anyone.
The Evil Eye – Worn as a tattoo or jewelry, the evil eye is said to scare off evil spirits. It’s not generally considered cultural appropriation, despite the fact it’s used in traditional spiritual rituals. This may be because it’s not connected to an organized religion.
Cultural appropriation is a controversial topic. Sometimes, we have clear examples of appropriation of symbols, language, and traditions in ways that are offensive and imperialistic. In other instances, such as that of Jazz and Blues music, there is debate over whether culture has been appropriated, or merely that cultures have blended and grown together in multicultural societies.
Aldred, L. (2000). Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality. American Indian Quarterly, 24(3), 329–352. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1185908
Anderson, D. ( 1991, October 13). Sports of The Times – The Braves’ Tomahawk Phenomenon. New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/13/sports/sports-of-the-times-the-braves-tomahawk-phenomenon.html
Desmond-Harris, J. (2014, October 29) Don’t get what’s wrong with blackface? Here’s why it’s so offensive Vox https://www.vox.com/2014/10/29/7089591/why-is-blackface-offensive-halloween-costume
Kitwana, B.(2006, May 30). Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America. Basic Books.
McWhorter, J. (2015, October 12) Why ‘Redskins’ Is a Bad Word Time https://time.com/4070537/redskins-linguistics/
Petter, O. (2018, February 23) Gucci criticised for putting turbans on white models The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/gucci-white-models-turbans-avan-jogia-fashion-canada-actor-a8224716.html
Rota, Z. (2014) Why Native Headdresses No Longer Belong at Music Festivals Vice https://www.vice.com/en/article/jpnzz7/why-native-headdresses-no-longer-belong-at-music-festivals
Zimmer, H. (2017) Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Princeton University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]