Edited by Tasmiyah Randeree
“Am I not allowed to do anything anymore?” is a popular exclamation by individuals who are called out for culturally appropriative or offensive practices. With increased attention towards cultural appropriation comes its emergence as a popular buzzword to call out both legitimately offensive cultural mockeries, and behaviours that are halfway there. Despite the oversaturation of the term cultural appropriation, we often fail to fully define what exactly this practice is and what behaviours are considered appropriation vs. appreciation.
Here’s what cultural appropriation involves:
- Taking or using aspects of a marginalized group and/or culture without consent.
- Making a profit off of cultural aspects of marginalized groups and/or cultures.
I specifically stress that cultural appropriation must involve a marginalized group, meaning a group that has and continues to face disadvantage solely because of an individual’s membership to the group. Last year, the ‘Heavenly Beings’ themed Met Gala sparked conservations as to whether celebrity’s dressing up in Catholic garments was cultural appropriation. By wearing Catholic garments, was Hollywood appropriating the European originated Catholic religion?
Long story short, you cannot appropriate European culture as it is the most dominant and normalized culture, that has imposed its power on the world through colonization, slavery, and genocide. Although it may not be polite, imitating aspects of European culture cannot be declared as cultural appropriation, as it simply reinforces its status as the ‘normal’ and ‘superior’ culture, while appropriating and/or mocking non-European culture furthers its marginalization.
A commonly question by some people is, what is the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation, meaning when is participating in another culture’s traditions and practices or wearing their apparel okay?
A major answer to this question is do you have consent to participate in another person’s culture? For example, were you invited to a culturally specific wedding and asked to wear apparel from that culture? Were you given the go-ahead by a religious authority figure to participate in a certain religious ceremony? In scenarios such as these, where you are given consent to participate and appear in another culture, you should do so in a respectful manner; this can be understood as appreciation rather than appropriation.
Top: Ariana Grade appearing with a fake tan and bronzed makeup, not be considered cultural appropriation.
Bottom: An white actor in blackface in a 1940s theatre, to be considered cultural appropriation and racist.
You may still be left with questions on how behaviour can be considered cultural appropriation. As this term has caught media attention, some white writers and advocates have taken it upon themselves to classify a behaviour as appropriation despite not being members of that culture nor consulting members of the culture. An example of this is a recent article which accused pop singer Ariana Grande of ‘blackface’ in an image where she simply had a combination of fake tan and makeup. As stated by United Nations UofT International Affairs Specialist, Alexis Hassanpourtehrani “[People] need top stop telling POC how to feel/how not to feel towards [instances of cultural appropriation] such as a white person tanning [themselves]. There is a huge difference between appreciation and harmful appropriation, and if we’re going to be able to accuse individuals of doing harmful things, we need to be able to make the distinction between [what is harmful] and what is not.” Therefore, one of the best practices one can do before participating in another culture, is consulting with members of that culture to gain consent and understanding of the behaviour.