What is Cultural Appropriation?

27 October 2015

This Halloween we’ll see kids, college students, and other revelers dressed in costumes ranging from scary to hilarious: Chewbaccas, spandex police officers, Harry Potters, Frodos… even Elvis. But at any party, we have a good chance of seeing cultural appropriation. We might see white people glibly dressed in mock Native American headdresses, frat brothers dressing “ghetto”, people who have no real connection to India wearing red dots on their foreheads, would-be Zulus, Geishas (from Texas), and of course a gringo in a sombrero.

Such mimicry has come under increasing condemnation recently, and probably for good reasons. But, we might wonder, what exactly is wrong with it? And how precisely should we define “cultural appropriation” anyway?

On the basis of the examples above, we might say cultural appropriation is use or mimicry of artifacts or manners from another culture without permission from any members of that culture.

But it’s not hard to see that this definition won’t do.

It implies, wrongly, that every time someone from one culture uses an idea from another culture, without explicitly asking, that “cultural appropriation” has occurred. But I don’t think, for example, someone who goes to France and then comes home and makes crepes should be called a “cultural appropriator.” (In some weak sense, sure, but that’s not the sense we’re after.) Nor should someone who visits China and learns how to use chopsticks or how to sing a song they heard on the radio.

Much if not most culture (good and bad) results from different cultures bumping into each other and borrowing or just absorbing ideas. So if we’re to talk about “cultural appropriation”—as opposed to just “culture”—we have to mean something more.

So the definition above is an instructive failure. I think many people would be tempted to define “cultural appropriation” in this fashion. But we’ve seen that it wrongly includes mere cultural influences and instances of learning that are in no way problematic. What next?

It seems to me that there is no way to understand the concept of cultural appropriation properly without understanding the historical background of colonialism. Colonialism was and is the systematic subjugation of one group of people by another, where that subjugation is motivated and rationalized by racist ideology. Examples of this have occurred throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas, usually with Europeans as the aggressors, though Chinese, Japanese, and Ottoman empires have historically established colonies as well.

In my view, it’s the latter component of colonialism, the racist ideology, that is crucial for understanding what cultural appropriation really is. I think anything worth applying the term “cultural appropriation” to will be something that expresses at least a psychological vestige of a racist ideology that figured in one of the large-scale colonialist projects.

Racist ideologies characteristically portray an entire group of people, a race or ethnicity, as simplistic, naïve, lazy, untrustworthy, or violent. And such portrayal, embedded in the mind in the form of stereotypes, is used in colonialist contexts to rationalize more brutal forms of mistreatment and ultimately appropriation of much more than just culture.

So this is what differentiates merely using chopsticks to eat (which is not cultural appropriation in any interesting sense) from dressing up for Halloween like a “Chinese” guy from a bad Kung Fu movie (definitely cultural appropriation). In the latter case, the non-Chinese person wearing the outfit expresses—typically unwittingly—a psychological tendency, a tendency to think of another person as a simpler kind of creature than oneself. Furthermore, it is a tendency to think of a whole class of other people in simplifying terms. This psychological tendency is the vestige, or one manifestation of it, that I referred to above.

So a more accurate definition of “cultural appropriation” goes like this: cultural appropriation is where people from a group that oppressed or oppresses another group mimics or represents cultural artifacts or manners of the oppressed group in a way that expresses or reinforces psychological elements of the racist ideology inherent in the colonialist project responsible for the oppression. Such appropriating mimicry can take many forms, but what unifies them will be an implicit or explicit view of other people that makes them out to be less than what they are.

Is cultural appropriation inherently morally wrong? Or is it merely stupid and abrasive? The progenitor of cultural appropriation, colonialism, was and is certainly morally wrong, without question. But does the same go for the mere putting on of a silly Halloween costume?

The details of any given case will matter. Furthermore, I think this is an area where it’s better to think in continuous terms of morally better and worse, rather than wrong or not wrong simpliciter. A European’s going to a Halloween party in a traditional Congolese suit they somehow acquired may not be a gross moral transgression, though it might make us morally uneasy. But whatever its moral status, going in blackface is clearly much, much worse.

The moral vice, when there is vice, consists in perpetuating components of a racist ideology that, in more pronounced forms, motivates and rationalizes much more significant harms. We may grant that one outfit on one occasion might not do much more harm than leaving a few people seriously annoyed. But it signals to members of one’s group—the currently or historically oppressing group—that certain patterns of thought about another group are okay, even something to be enjoyed. Against the background of such signaling, more coordinated aggression can emerge.

These thoughts may all seem too weighty to be about what to wear to your next Halloween party. And perhaps in some way they are. But the psychological fact of implicit racism and other forms of prejudice are by now well known. Given that, the correct thought is that it’s better morally safe than morally sorry.

In any case, you can always be Chewbacca, Harry Potter, or a cop in spandex. You’ll then be merely silly, but perhaps that’s a good thing.

Comments (8)

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Tuesday, October 27, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Hi Neil, I have a question

Hi Neil, I have a question for you, based on the actions of a friend of mine, a white woman who wore dreads for many years until she decided, for ethical reasons related to cultural appropriation, that she should shave her head. I'm wondering if her dreads fit your definition of cultural appropriation:
cultural appropriation is where people from a group that oppressed or oppresses another group mimics or represents cultural artifacts or manners of the oppressed group in a way that expresses or reinforces psychological elements of the racist ideology inherent in the colonialist project responsible for the oppression. 

Specifically, I'm wondering how her dreads reinforced "psychological elements of the racist ideology," particularly as she was very sensitive to this and decided to get rid of the dreads precisely so as not to perpetuate, however unwillingly, racism or racist ideology.
I'm also wondering about white people who adopt certain spiritual practices of Native Americans (or pick any Eastern religious/spiritual practice) because they admire the culture in some way and find those practices valuable or helpful in their own lives. Does this kind of thing fit your definition? Is doing a sweat lodge cultural appropriation, for example?

Neil Van Leeuwen's picture

Neil Van Leeuwen

Tuesday, October 27, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Hi Laura,

Hi Laura,
It's a really good question. It matters most what motive is being expressed. If the motive is to mimic or mock, then definitely. But I generally don't think most people grow dreads with that motive. Growing the dreads takes too much time and effort to be grown for such a shallow purpose. Also, your friend sounds really conscientious, so it doesn't seem that likely to me that her growing dreads was done out of a psychological vestige of colonialist racism. So it's good she was sensitive to the issue, but I don't think she would have been in the wrong to keep the dreads. (Then again, as I say, better morally safe than morally sorry.) 
As for practicing, say, Buddhist meditation...that is definitely not cultural appropriation, as long as it's done out of a sincere desire for wellbeing. It might be done for the wrong reasons, however. If someone does it to seem all cool and "Asian"...well that's another story (and it probably won't do much spiritual good either!).

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Tuesday, October 27, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

My friend who removed her

My friend who removed her dreads did so after thinking a lot about the issues raised in this article. One major issue identified there was white entitlement to take from other cultures without knowing or recognizing their full cultural significance, and without having to deal with the consequences someone from that culture does.
As she was thinking about whether she too ought to get rid of her dreads, my friend wrote:
It wasn't until I really began to look at my privilege as a white woman that I realized that no matter what the reasoning behind it [her justification of her dreads], there would always be an undercurrent of inequality because I can make the decision to wear my hair this way and not have to worry about all of the struggles and hardships associated with locks when people of color wear them.

When Rachel Dolezal was outted as a white women passing as black, a lot of the criticism of her was based on this idea that she, as a white woman, can decide to look black or white, and because of that she is participating in white privilege, even when being the target of racism based on her perceived blackness.
I've also heard criticism of white people participating in sweat lodges or other Native American practices along these lines - they simply feel entitled to take what they like from an oppressed culture, and in so doing, they perpetuate inequality and racism. 

sagark07's picture


Saturday, October 31, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

i would like to know what

i would like to know what more do you think about cultural appropriation, i mean you favor it or you believe that it must be discouraged?

Or's picture


Sunday, November 1, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

I find that the difference

I find that the difference that we are pinpointing when making a distinction between culture and cultural appropriation might have to do with integration and intentionality. Cultural influences are acceptable, and cultural appropriation is not per se lazy or violent. I am not inclined to agree with the notion of a person dressing up as somebody from another race as thinking of that person or race as a whole as ?lesser.? However, I do think there is certainly a subconscious (or perhaps conscious) projection of simplification. I also have an adverse reaction to the definition of cultural appropriation as pertaining solely to a dialogue of oppression ? is cultural appropriation still a valid qualification when an oppressed culture say, dresses up as somebody from another oppressed culture? Is it still cultural appropriation if a person from an oppressed culture attempts to embody a person from a non-oppressed culture? I think the dialogue of cultural appropriation steps far beyond the boundaries of oppression into the realm of multicultural respect.

sanjay's picture


Wednesday, November 4, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Hi Neil,

Hi Neil,
Cultural appropriation word is the one which is acceptable to all without hurting their feelings or faith.It is a Big Word as sometimes acts are performed without even knowing that our acts are inappropriate to others. Ignorance is not an excuse to get away with the deeds we are doing but sometimes we have to ignore and accept the facts that these silly jokes are not to meant harm anyone feeling or to insult.
If would look at the western world there is hardly anything to celebrate except than to Christmas and to keep celebrating or bring humor to our life certain festivals have been created.World is a beautiful place and what it has made beautiful is colours. Colours are the way to celebrate life as you would see other cultures they are full of colours and life for example Indian Culure, Thai Culure and many more in asian countries where in western world only few colours are visible in day to day life which are Black and White.
Children are children and they get fascinated by seeing something different which appeals to them and they enjoy and like to repeat the same, so by putting Bindi on the forehead is they find amusing and adoreable.It should not be seen as mimicry but can be seen as fascination towards something new.
It might give you to think and boredom is the worst enemy of human being and in an attempt to make our children so civilized we have taken the fun out of their life which is saddening.
We as a parent or a member of the society should bring more avenues to children life  than a Black and White colour and Folk and knives the way to eat food.

Neil Van Leeuwen's picture

Neil Van Leeuwen

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 -- 4:00 PM


"is cultural appropriation still a valid qualification when an oppressed culture say, dresses up as somebody from another oppressed culture?"
Good question! I think my definition will capture some cases like this and not others. Just because a person is from an oppressed group doesn't mean one hasn't internalized colonialist stereotypes about another group (or one's own, for that matter). So if the kind of thing you have in mind is an expression of such a stereotype, then it fits my definition.
Of course, there may be examples of people from one culture dressing up as people from another culture and thereby expressing stereotypes that were in no way derived from colonialist history. I would be inclined to say this is very similar to cultural appropriation, but not quite worthy of the name. But as long as we're clear on what's going on and what the important parameters are, at this point our dispute will start to become more and more merely terminological.
Thanks for the comment!

Davidandrew2134's picture


Friday, May 10, 2024 -- 11:50 PM

I don't know how this winter

I don't know how this winter turned out to be so beautiful because when we wear our favorite clothes, we become even more charming. And this Los Angeles Dodgers Jackets meets my expectations because I look better in it

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