Cultural Appropriation

Team English -
Created by: Team English -, Last Updated: June 4, 2024

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation involves the adoption of elements from one culture by members of another culture. This practice often sparks controversy and debate. Cultural appropriation usually happens when a dominant culture takes from a marginalized one without proper understanding, respect, or acknowledgment. This act can perpetuate stereotypes, undermine the original culture’s significance, and lead to misrepresentation. By examining the impacts and nuances of cultural appropriation, we can better understand its implications and promote cultural sensitivity and respect.

What Is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the act of exploiting someone else’s culture, race, ethnicity, belief, traditions, and adopting it to make fun or to disrespect, to discriminate, to take it out of context, and exploit it. Cultural appropriation happens when a different group of people simply take something and present it as their own.

Cultural Appropriation Examples

Cultural Appropriation Examples

Cultural appropriation refers to the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture, often without permission or understanding of the original context. Here are ten examples that highlight different instances of cultural appropriation:

1. Wearing Native American Headdresses

Native American headdresses hold significant spiritual and cultural importance. Non-Native individuals wearing them as fashion statements or costumes, especially at music festivals, trivializes their meaning.

2. Dreadlocks and Cornrows

Dreadlocks and cornrows are traditional African hairstyles with deep cultural roots. When people from outside the African diaspora adopt these hairstyles without acknowledging their origins or facing the same societal scrutiny, it can be seen as cultural appropriation.

3. Day of the Dead Makeup

The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday with rich cultural significance. Using Day of the Dead makeup, particularly the sugar skull design, as a Halloween costume without understanding or respecting its cultural importance is inappropriate.

4. Traditional African Attire

Wearing traditional African attire, such as dashikis or kente cloth, by individuals who are not African, especially without understanding the cultural significance or the appropriate context, can be seen as appropriation.

5. Bindi in Fashion

The bindi is a forehead decoration with deep religious and cultural significance in South Asian cultures. Its use as a fashion accessory by non-South Asian individuals often disregards its cultural and spiritual meanings.

6. Yoga Practices

Yoga has spiritual and philosophical roots in Indian culture. When practiced solely as a form of physical exercise without acknowledging its cultural and spiritual origins, it can be considered cultural appropriation.

7. Using Indigenous Australian Art

Indigenous Australian art is deeply connected to the cultural identity and traditions of Indigenous peoples. Non-Indigenous individuals creating or commercially exploiting these art styles without proper respect or permission is problematic.

8. Adopting Spiritual Symbols

Using spiritual symbols, such as Native American dreamcatchers, Maori tattoos, or Buddhist mantras, as decorative items or fashion statements without understanding their significance can be offensive to those cultures.

9. Cultural Cuisine Misrepresentation

Cultural appropriation in cuisine occurs when traditional dishes are commercialized or altered without respect for their origins. This includes non-authentic versions of traditional foods that do not honor the original recipes or cultural significance.

10. Music Genres and Dance Styles

When artists adopt music genres or dance styles from other cultures without proper acknowledgment or understanding, it can be seen as appropriation. This includes the commercialization of hip-hop culture or using traditional dance forms like belly dancing without respecting their origins.

In the Workplace

  1. Corporate Branding
    • Using Native American names, symbols, or mascots for branding purposes without respect for their cultural significance.
  2. Fashion and Accessories
    • Wearing traditional cultural attire, like saris or kimonos, as part of a casual dress code without understanding their cultural importance.
  3. Decorative Office Items
    • Displaying items such as dreamcatchers, Buddha statues, or Indigenous art as mere decorations without acknowledging their cultural and spiritual significance.
  4. Themed Events
    • Hosting culturally themed office parties, such as “Mexican Fiesta” or “Hawaiian Luau,” that reduce cultural traditions to stereotypes and costumes.
  5. Language Use
    • Appropriating cultural phrases or greetings, like using “Aloha” or “Namaste,” inappropriately or without understanding their context.
  6. Cultural Hairstyles
    • Employees adopting traditional hairstyles from other cultures, like dreadlocks or cornrows, which can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts over cultural sensitivity.
  7. Food and Cuisine
    • Offering culturally specific foods at office events in a way that disrespects or misrepresents their traditional preparation and cultural significance.

In History

  1. Colonial Appropriation
    • European colonizers adopting and repurposing Native American symbols and practices while simultaneously suppressing Native cultures.
  2. Ancient Greek and Roman Practices
    • Romans adopting and altering Greek gods and religious practices, blending and changing their original meanings.
  3. British Empire and India
    • The British incorporation and alteration of Indian textiles, jewelry, and architecture during colonial rule, often stripping these elements of their original cultural contexts.
  4. African Art in European Museums
    • European powers taking African art and artifacts during the colonial period and displaying them in museums without proper attribution or understanding.
  5. Jazz Age in America
    • White musicians adopting jazz, a genre rooted in African American culture, and often receiving more recognition and financial benefit than the original Black artists.
  6. Orientalism
    • Western artists and writers in the 19th and early 20th centuries depicting Eastern societies as exotic and mysterious, often distorting their cultures for Western consumption.
  7. Indigenous Symbols
    • The use of Native American symbols and names in American government and military contexts, often without permission or respect for their significance.

In Art

  1. Primitivism
    • Western artists like Picasso drawing inspiration from African art and masks without crediting the cultural context and meaning behind these works.
  2. Orientalist Paintings
    • 19th-century European artists depicting Middle Eastern and Asian cultures through a lens of exoticism and romanticism, often ignoring the realities of these societies.
  3. Cultural Festivals
    • Artists using cultural festivals, rituals, and ceremonies as subjects for their work without understanding or respecting their cultural significance.
  4. Tattoo Art
    • Non-Indigenous people getting traditional Polynesian tattoos without understanding their deep cultural and spiritual meanings.
  5. Appropriation of Native American Imagery
    • Artists incorporating Native American motifs into their work without permission, often stripping these symbols of their cultural context.
  6. Fashion Shows
    • Designers using traditional attire from various cultures as fashion statements, often without acknowledging their origins or significance.
  7. Street Art
    • Artists using graffiti styles rooted in African American and Latino cultures without understanding the cultural and historical context of these art forms.

In Movies

  1. Whitewashing
    • Casting white actors in roles meant for people of color, such as casting a white actor to play a traditionally Asian character.
  2. Stereotypical Depictions
    • Portraying cultural groups through harmful stereotypes, such as depicting all Middle Eastern characters as villains or terrorists.
  3. Cultural Symbols as Props
    • Using cultural artifacts, clothing, or symbols as mere props or set dressing without understanding or respecting their cultural significance.
  4. Mythologizing Histories
    • Misrepresenting historical events and figures from non-Western cultures to fit Western narratives, often distorting their true significance.
  5. Fictionalized Cultural Practices
    • Creating fictional cultures in movies that heavily borrow from real cultures, often mixing elements inaccurately and disrespectfully.
  6. Language Misuse
    • Using sacred or culturally significant languages and phrases incorrectly or inappropriately for dramatic effect.
  7. Costume Design
    • Appropriating traditional clothing styles from various cultures for character costumes without acknowledging their cultural origins.

In Music

  1. Elvis Presley and Rock ‘n’ Roll
    • Elvis Presley popularizing rock ‘n’ roll, a genre rooted in African American music, often receiving more recognition and financial success than the Black artists who originated the style.
  2. Hip-Hop Culture
    • Non-Black artists adopting hip-hop styles and aesthetics without acknowledging the struggles and histories of the Black communities that created them.
  3. Reggae and Ska
    • Artists outside of Jamaica adopting reggae and ska music styles without recognizing their cultural and political significance.
  4. World Music Label
    • Grouping diverse musical traditions under the label “world music,” often stripping these genres of their unique cultural contexts.
  5. K-Pop Elements
    • Western artists incorporating elements of K-pop without understanding the cultural nuances and significance of the genre in South Korea.
  6. Sampling Without Credit
    • Artists using samples from traditional songs or music without properly crediting or compensating the original creators.
  7. Cultural Instruments
    • Using traditional instruments from various cultures in music without understanding or respecting their cultural significance.

Cultural Appropriation in Media

Cultural appropriation in media occurs when creators borrow elements from marginalized cultures without permission or proper representation. This issue spans various forms of media, including films, television, music, and fashion. It often involves using traditional clothing, hairstyles, language, or rituals in a way that misrepresents or disrespects the original culture.

In film and television, cultural appropriation can manifest through casting choices, storylines, and character portrayals. For instance, non-Asian actors playing Asian roles or depicting indigenous rituals inaccurately can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and erase authentic voices. Music frequently sees artists adopting musical styles, dances, or languages from other cultures without giving credit, thus profiting from traditions they do not fully understand or respect.


1. Film and Television

  • “Ghost in the Shell” (2017): This film cast Scarlett Johansson, a white actress, as the lead in a story originally set in Japan with Japanese characters. This casting decision drew significant criticism for whitewashing and failing to honor the original Japanese culture.
  • “The Lone Ranger” (2013): Johnny Depp portrayed Tonto, a Native American character. Critics argued that this casting perpetuated stereotypes and disrespected Native American cultures, as Depp is not Native American and his portrayal lacked cultural authenticity.

2. Music

  • Miley Cyrus at the 2013 MTV VMAs: Miley Cyrus’s performance included twerking and other elements associated with Black culture. Critics accused her of using these cultural symbols for shock value and entertainment without understanding their cultural significance.
  • Iggy Azalea: The Australian rapper faced criticism for adopting a Southern American Black accent and style in her music. Many felt she was appropriating Black culture without acknowledging its roots or the struggles faced by the Black community.

3. Fashion

  • Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (2012): During this show, model Karlie Kloss wore a Native American headdress as a fashion accessory. This sparked outrage as the headdress holds deep spiritual and cultural significance for Native American communities.
  • Marc Jacobs’ 2017 Fashion Show: The designer featured white models wearing dreadlocks, a hairstyle traditionally associated with Black culture. Critics argued that the show appropriated Black culture without recognizing the historical and cultural importance of dreadlocks.

4. Advertising

  • Pepsi’s 2017 Commercial: The ad featured Kendall Jenner using a can of Pepsi to resolve a protest, which many felt trivialized social justice movements, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement. It was seen as an appropriation of serious cultural and social issues for commercial gain.
  • Dolce & Gabbana’s 2018 Campaign: The brand released ads depicting a Chinese model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks. The campaign faced backlash for reinforcing stereotypes and showing a lack of cultural sensitivity.

Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

Cultural appropriation in fashion involves using elements of a culture, often from marginalized communities, by designers and brands without permission, understanding, or respect for their significance. This practice can lead to the commodification of cultural symbols, stripping them of their original meaning and reducing them to mere fashion trends. Below are notable examples of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry:

Examples of Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

1. Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (2012)

During the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, model Karlie Kloss wore a Native American headdress as part of her costume. The headdress, a sacred and significant item in many Native American cultures, was used purely for aesthetic purposes, sparking outrage and accusations of disrespect.

2. Marc Jacobs’ 2017 Fashion Show

Marc Jacobs featured predominantly white models wearing faux dreadlocks on the runway. Critics argued that this was an appropriation of a hairstyle with deep cultural and historical roots in Black communities, used without proper context or acknowledgment of its significance.

3. Gucci’s Turban (2019)

Gucci faced backlash for selling a blue turban that resembled the Sikh dastar, a religious head covering. The fashion house was accused of commodifying and disrespecting a sacred symbol without understanding its cultural and religious importance.

4. Chanel’s Boomerang (2017)

Chanel released a luxury boomerang priced at $1,325. The boomerang is a traditional Aboriginal Australian tool with cultural significance. The luxury brand’s use of this item for profit was seen as a blatant disregard for its cultural value and heritage.

5. Dior’s Sauvage Campaign (2019)

Dior released an ad campaign for their fragrance “Sauvage,” featuring Native American imagery and actor Johnny Depp in a setting meant to evoke Native American culture. The campaign was criticized for exploiting Native American culture for commercial purposes and perpetuating stereotypes.

Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation

  • Cultural Appropriation: Involves using another culture’s elements without understanding or respect, often leading to exploitation and misrepresentation.
  • Cultural Appreciation: Involves respectful learning and participation in another culture, fostering mutual respect and accurate representation.
AspectCultural AppropriationCultural Appreciation
DefinitionThe adoption of elements from another culture without permission or understanding.The respectful acknowledgment and learning about another culture.
IntentOften lacks awareness or respect for the original culture.Driven by a genuine interest and respect for the culture.
ImpactCan perpetuate stereotypes and exploit the culture being appropriated.Helps to foster mutual respect and understanding between cultures.
ContextOften occurs in contexts of power imbalance, where a dominant culture borrows from a marginalized one.Typically involves mindful engagement with and learning about the culture.
PermissionLacks permission from the people of the culture being borrowed from.Seeks permission or guidance from members of the culture.
RepresentationCan misrepresent or oversimplify the culture being appropriated.Aims to accurately represent and honor the cultural practices and symbols.
ExamplesWearing traditional attire from another culture as a fashion statement without understanding its significance.Learning and participating in cultural traditions with respect and understanding.
Cultural SensitivityOften insensitive to the historical and social significance of cultural elements.Demonstrates awareness and sensitivity to the meanings and significance of cultural elements.
BeneficiariesBenefits the appropriator, often commercially or socially, without benefiting the source culture.Benefits both the individual and the culture by promoting cultural exchange and respect.
Ethical ConsiderationsRaises ethical concerns about exploitation and disrespect.Aligns with ethical standards of respect, consent, and acknowledgment.

Types of Cultural Appropriation

Fashion Appropriation

Fashion appropriation involves adopting traditional clothing, accessories, or hairstyles from another culture without acknowledging their cultural significance.


  • Wearing Native American headdresses as fashion accessories.
  • Using traditional African hairstyles like cornrows or dreadlocks without understanding their cultural heritage.

Artistic Appropriation

Artistic appropriation happens when artists use cultural symbols, motifs, or styles from another culture in their work without permission or proper context.


  • Incorporating Indigenous art styles into contemporary artworks without credit.
  • Using sacred symbols in non-religious or inappropriate contexts.

Music Appropriation

Music appropriation involves using musical styles, instruments, or songs from another culture without acknowledging their origins or significance.


  • Adopting elements of reggae, hip-hop, or traditional folk music without recognizing their cultural roots.
  • Commercializing traditional songs for profit without consent from the originating culture.

Language Appropriation

Language appropriation occurs when elements of a language are used out of context or in a way that disrespects the language’s cultural importance.


  • Using words or phrases from another language as trendy slang.
  • Misusing sacred or meaningful terms from a culture in a casual or disrespectful manner.

Religious and Spiritual Appropriation

This type involves adopting religious symbols, practices, or rituals from another culture in a way that disregards their sacredness and significance.


  • Wearing religious symbols like the cross, om, or hijab as fashion statements.
  • Participating in spiritual practices like yoga or meditation without understanding their cultural and religious origins.

Food Appropriation

Food appropriation happens when traditional foods from another culture are taken, often altered, and commercialized without recognizing their cultural significance.


  • Selling traditional ethnic dishes inappropriately altered and marketed as authentic.
  • Claiming ownership or invention of traditional recipes from another culture.

Cultural Stereotyping

This type involves using stereotypical images, narratives, or characters from another culture in media, entertainment, or advertising.


  • Depicting cultural stereotypes in movies, television shows, or advertisements.
  • Creating characters based on racial or ethnic stereotypes.

Costume Appropriation

Costume appropriation refers to wearing cultural attire as costumes, especially during events like Halloween, in a way that trivializes the culture.


  • Dressing up as a “gypsy” or “ninja” for Halloween.
  • Wearing traditional cultural garments as part of a costume without understanding their significance.

Intellectual Property Appropriation

This involves using traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or genetic resources from another culture without permission or proper attribution.


  • Patent claims on traditional medicines or practices.
  • Commercializing indigenous knowledge without sharing benefits with the community.

Cultural Appropriation vs. Misappropriation

  • Cultural Appropriation: Involves using another culture’s elements, often without full understanding or permission, potentially leading to misrepresentation and offense.
  • Cultural Misappropriation: Involves a more egregious misuse or exploitation of cultural elements, with clear disrespect and significant harm to the source culture.
AspectCultural AppropriationCultural Misappropriation
DefinitionThe adoption of elements from another culture, often without permission or proper understanding.The misuse or exploitation of cultural elements in a way that disrespects their origin and significance.
IntentMay or may not involve harmful intent; often due to ignorance or lack of awareness.Typically involves clear disrespect, exploitation, or harmful intent.
ImpactCan perpetuate stereotypes, trivialize cultural practices, and cause offense.Causes significant harm, reinforces negative stereotypes, and disrespects the cultural origin.
ContextOften occurs without full awareness of cultural significance, sometimes in contexts of power imbalance.Always involves a context of misuse, often with a clear power imbalance or commercial exploitation.
PermissionUsually lacks explicit permission from the culture being borrowed from.Explicitly disregards the need for permission, often exploiting cultural elements.
RepresentationCan misrepresent or oversimplify cultural elements.Grossly distorts, disrespects, or demeans cultural symbols or practices.
ExamplesUsing traditional attire from another culture as a costume without understanding its significance.Commercializing sacred symbols or rituals for profit without consent or respect.
Cultural SensitivityOften lacks sensitivity to the historical and social contexts of the culture.Demonstrates a blatant disregard for the cultural and social significance of the elements.
BeneficiariesOften benefits the appropriator, potentially at the expense of the source culture.Primarily benefits the appropriator while significantly harming the source culture.
Ethical ConsiderationsRaises ethical concerns about respect and representation.Raises severe ethical issues, including exploitation, disrespect, and harm to the source culture.

Cultural Appropriation in Modern era

In the modern era, cultural appropriation is a contentious issue characterized by the adoption and commercialization of cultural elements from marginalized or minority groups by dominant cultures. This often occurs in fashion, music, art, and entertainment, where traditional attire, hairstyles, music styles, and sacred symbols are used without understanding or respecting their cultural significance. Such appropriation can lead to the commodification and dilution of cultural identities, perpetuating stereotypes and contributing to the systemic inequalities faced by the originating cultures. The debate around cultural appropriation emphasizes the need for cultural sensitivity, respect, and acknowledgment of the origins and meanings behind the adopted cultural elements.

How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation

There are a lot of ways to appreciate culture without having to make it like it is your own. Respecting one’s culture and tradition can and is possible. In order to get a good idea on how to avoid cultural appropriation, here are some simple rules or guidelines to follow.

Step 1: Stop Stereotyping All Cultures as One and the Same

The best thing a person can do is to stop stereotyping that all cultures are one and the same. Not only is this considered an insult to different ethnic groups, it is also considered a form of discrimination against people with different beliefs and traditions. No two ethnic groups are the same, regardless of a few similarities in their traditions.

Step 2: Get To Know the History and Origin of the Tradition

Another thing you can do to avoid discriminating against anyone for their culture and tradition is to get to know the history and the origin. There is always a story for every tradition, language, fashion, costume, symbols, and getting to know them is one of the keys to appreciating them over appropriating them. 

Step 3: Understand the Context behind the Culture

Before making any statement or taking something with no idea of what you are taking, understand the context behind the culture you are presented with. Take the time to educate yourself all about the community, the ethnic groups, the dances, the traditions, and everything in between.

Step 4: Educating Yourself and Others

The last thing you can do is to educate yourself and others about the beauty of understanding the different cultures of different ethnic groups. Educating yourself and others can come in different ways. Learning the traditions, respecting their beliefs, and of course accepting that everyone is different.

The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation

Dos of Cultural Appropriation

  1. Educate Yourself
    • Research the cultural significance behind the traditions, symbols, and practices you are interested in.
    • Understand the history and the current context of the culture you are engaging with.
  2. Show Respect
    • Acknowledge the origins of the cultural elements you are incorporating.
    • Seek Permission when appropriate, especially if the cultural elements are sacred or hold deep significance.
  3. Give Credit
    • Attribute cultural elements to their source. This helps in recognizing and valuing the original culture.
    • Support artists and creators from the culture you are inspired by. This can include buying their work or promoting their contributions.
  4. Be Inclusive
    • Invite members of the culture to share their perspectives and contribute to your understanding.
    • Collaborate with people from the culture, giving them a platform to share their stories and traditions.

Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation

  1. Avoid Stereotyping
    • Refrain from using cultural elements in ways that perpetuate stereotypes or misconceptions.
    • Avoid oversimplifying or misrepresenting the culture’s practices and beliefs.
  2. Don’t Exoticize
    • Do not treat cultural elements as mere fashion statements or trends. Recognize their deeper meaning and importance.
    • Avoid using cultural symbols and practices out of context or in a manner that reduces them to novelty items.
  3. Respect Sacred Elements
    • Do not use sacred or religious symbols, attire, or rituals in a casual or disrespectful manner.
    • Understand the boundaries and significance of sacred practices and respect them fully.
  4. Don’t Erase Original Voices
    • Do not present cultural elements as your own creation or innovation. Always acknowledge the source.
    • Avoid overshadowing or replacing the voices and contributions of the original culture with your own interpretation.

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements from one culture by another, often without understanding or respecting the original culture’s significance and context.

Why is cultural appropriation harmful?

It perpetuates stereotypes, disrespects cultural significance, and exploits marginalized cultures for profit, contributing to systemic inequalities.

How can I avoid cultural appropriation?

Respect and research the culture, understand its significance, and seek permission when using cultural elements.

What are some examples of cultural appropriation?

Examples include wearing Native American headdresses, using African hairstyles, and commercializing traditional foods without acknowledging their origins.

Is borrowing from another culture always wrong?

Not always. Borrowing can be positive if done respectfully, with permission, and with a genuine understanding of the culture’s significance.

How does cultural appropriation affect marginalized communities?

It undermines their cultural heritage, reinforces stereotypes, and can lead to economic exploitation and loss of cultural identity.

What is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?

Cultural appreciation involves respectful engagement and understanding, while cultural appropriation involves taking without permission and understanding.

Can cultural appropriation happen within the same country?

Yes, cultural appropriation can occur within the same country when dominant groups adopt elements from minority or indigenous cultures.

How can businesses avoid cultural appropriation?

Businesses should research, consult with cultural representatives, give proper credit, and ensure fair compensation when using cultural elements.

Why is cultural sensitivity important?

Cultural sensitivity fosters respect, inclusivity, and mutual understanding, helping to bridge cultural divides and reduce exploitation.

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