Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, may take on meanings that are significantly divergent from those they originally held.

A common type of cultural appropriation is the adoption of the iconography of another culture. Obvious examples include tattoos of Hindu gods, Polynesian tribal iconography, Chinese characters, or Celtic bands worn by people who have no interest in or understanding of the original cultural significance. When these artifacts are regarded as objects that merely look cool, or when they are mass produced cheaply as consumer kitsch, people who venerate and wish to preserve their indigenous cultural traditions may be offended.

African American culture has been the subject of aggressive cultural appropriation, especially elements of its music, dance, slang, dress, and demeanor. Artists such as Eminem, a white American who adopted a traditionally African American music and style, may be perceived this way.

Another prominent example of cultural appropriation is the use of real or imaginary elements of Native American culture by North American summer camps, by organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America, or by New Age spiritual leaders. Many summer camps, and many age segregated groups of campers within summer camps are named after real Native American tribes. Tipis are common at summer camps even at an enormous distance from the Great Plains, and rituals often evoke Native American culture. The Boy Scout honor society is called the Order of the Arrow.

Cultural appropriation may be defined differently in different cultures. While academics in a country such as the United States, where racial dynamics had been a cause of cultural segmentation, may see many instances of intercultural communication as cultural appropriation, other countries may identify such communication as a melting pot effect.

It has also been seen as a site of resistance to dominant society when members of a marginalized group take and alter aspects of dominant culture to assert their resistance. An example were the Mods in the UK in the 1960s, working class youth who appropriated and exaggerated the highly tailored clothing of the upper middle class. Objections have been raised to such political cultural appropriation, citing class warfare and identity politics.

The history of almost every society that comes into contact with other societies is filled with examples of what may be described as cultural appropriation, often learning from other cultures, taking parts that are useful, aesthetic, or agreeable, and incorporating them into their own. For instance, it is arguable that the Islamic civilization appropriated the cultural and intellectual heritage of the Greco-Roman civilization during the Islamic Golden Age. They then used this knowledge, combined with their own talents, to rise to a level of greatness comparable to the days of the Romans themselves.

Justin Britt-Gibson’s article for the Washington Post looked at the appropriation of his African-American culture as a sign of progress:

Throngs of dreadlocked Italians were smoking joints, drinking beer, grooving to the rhythms of Bob Marley, Steel Pulse and other reggae icons. Most striking was how comfortable these Italians seemed in their appropriated shoes, adopting a foreign culture and somehow making it theirs. The scene reinforced my sense of how far we’ve come since the days when people dressed, talked and celebrated only that which sprang from their own background. For the first time in my life, I was fully aware of the spiritual concept that we’re all simply one.

Last month in a Los Angeles barbershop, I was waiting to get my trademark Afro cut when I noticed a brother in his late teens sitting, eyes closed, as the barber clipped his hair into a frohawk, the punk inspired African American adaptation of the mohawk. Asked why he chose the look, the guy, without looking up, shrugged, “Something different.” Immediately, I understood. Minutes later, his different cut became my new look.


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