What Makes Cultural Appropriation Offensive?

As I am fervently interested in equality and human rights, I read a lot of blogs that follow those topics. Frequently, I will read articles involving events of cultural appropriation, a phenomenon I just can’t wrap my mind around. I accept that cultural appropriation exist and that it is often offensive. What I can’t understand is why it’s so offensive.

Chapter TK - Why is cultural appropriation offensive? Is it always offensive, or are there conditions?

For example, I read a blog on Katy Perry’s ‘geisha performance.’ I know that her performance was cultural appropriation and that she mixed various Asian cultures. I can also understand the frustration someone of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and other Asian cultures might feel at always being lumped together.

My acceptance without understanding is uncomfortable for me. How can I point to something and say “this is offensive ” if I don’t know what makes it offensive? In hopes of learning just a little, I took to the internet for a definition. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much. The best I found was via Wikipedia, which reads:

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. 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, can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held.

Under that definition, it seems there are times when cultural appropriation is acceptable and when it is offensive. How does a person tell the difference? Before I understood anything about Native American people, I dressed as Pocahontas for Halloween. I hadn’t yet reached my 10th birthday and had no idea that dressing as a Native American was often seen as offensive towards Native American culture.

Now that I’m older, I still don’t get it. Was it offensive to dress as Pocahontas? If yes, why? That’s my biggest question when it comes to any instance of cultural appropriation. I wonder if it’s so hard for me to understand because I’m not a part of a culture that is often negatively appropriated. Is there even an example of the cultural appropriation of Americans?

This is where I need your help. I am wondering if any of my lovely readers can help me understand what makes cultural appropriation offensive. Given what I have read, I am under the impression there is a right and a wrong way to go about honoring another culture in art or music. For example, is there anything Katy Perry could have done to respectfully honor Japanese culture in her performance?

One of the reasons cultural appropriation has been at the forefront of my mind is because I’ve been thinking about my July cosplay. The character I will be dressing as doesn’t have anything super specific to one culture or another (aside from the fact the game she’s in was made in Japan). However, there are a lot of anime and video game characters who wear cultural garments and/or who are from a specific culture.

Say I dress up as a character from Rurouni Kenshin, which is a historical fantasy taking place in 1878. If I dress as one of the characters, meaning I’d be wearing Japanese garments based off of what they wore in 1878, is that or is that not cultural appropriation? Would it be offensive to dress in such a way since I am not Japanese?

I realize there’s a difference between a stage performance and a cosplayer dressing up as a character for fun, but I don’t understand what makes one offensive and not the other.

When I see an article on cultural appropriation, I always make a point to read through it. I desperately want to understand, partially because I don’t want to do something or approve of something that is offensive to another culture.

At this point, I simply accept an act of cultural appropriation is offensive if I read about people who have taken offense to it. That’s not where I want to stay. I want to be able to see an offensive act of cultural appropriation and know it’s offensive without anyone having to explain it to me.

I guess I’ll just have to keep reading until I figure it out.

How would you define cultural appropriation? What makes it offensive? Can it ever be inoffensive? How can a person tell the difference between offensive and inoffensive cultural appropriation?

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99 thoughts on “What Makes Cultural Appropriation Offensive?”

  1. A question I have; if someone objects on the basis of cultural appropriation to what your dressing up as, should you then not dress up? After all, isn’t there always going to be someone who objects no matter what the subject matter is?
    As liberal as I tend to be…..I fear political correctness goes to far at times

    1. I think it has to do with mocking or degrading cultural symbols. It just that it can be difficult to know what a culture will see as degrading without having an understanding of that culture.

      It may have to do with history as well. Like, dressing as a sexy native American for Halloween is offensive because of the history of red face and the oppression of Native Americans.

      1. As you are mentioning, I also think that “it has to do with mocking or degrading cultural symbols” and the place or country where you’re living. What can be offensive in some cultures, is completely normal for others. As an example of it I was mentioning nakedness in public places. Although it is appropriate in the allowed zones, they have no screens, so anyone can see… Opposite to this, in other countries it is even offensive to hug another one in public. Every culture has its “itchy” or indisputable offensive items. They do have to do with culture and history. If you think of Germany and the WW II, you can imagine that a lot of topics cannot be dealt with nor mention in public or in a social environment in that country.
        However, I think that we can also exaggerate the extend of “offensiveness” or political correctness, as culturemonk was saying. When I was young we used to play “Indians and Cowboys” without feeling bad 😉 I’m not sure, if I’d encourage that game now.

  2. I think that cosplay for anime/Japanimation would not be offensive to Japanese culture. I think that cultural appropriation can only be offensive if it was done in a hateful way. I feel immune to it, after seeing so many cultural appropriations done to my cultural/ethnic group (Italian). It’s been done for years, going back to Chico Marx. Can anyone find malice in Yul Brynners performance in The King and I? Also, I don’t find it offensive to dress as an American Indian, but to your point, I’m not from that group. I don’t think that Katie Perry was concerned about authenticity, but more about the visual aspect of her production. So, the only question that I think that I can answer is that there certainly can be inoffensive cultural appropriations.

    1. I think you are right. I just wish I had a simplistic explanation. Or should we expect all celebrities to consult an expert in the culture they want to appropriate to make sure they don’t do anything offensive towards that culture. That seems a little like overkill to me. I agree with you, though. There’s a difference between wearing, say, a kimono because you think kimono’s are pretty and wearing a kimono as a prop for making fun of the culture.

  3. I can help you with that TK,truth is compound.You see in halloween,you can’t dress in a way you can when going to a family gathering.i.e cute dress or skirt.It has to be wierd,thats the kick of it.Halloween gives people chance to face their fears or also their desires.So dressing in a native american,expresses one of those two angles.Maybe those native americans who frowned at you didnt want to risk knowing your motive

    1. Well, no Native Americans frowned at me because my tiny Midwest Town was 99% white…. and because no one there thinks pretending to be Native American is wrong.

      But cultural appropriation isn’t that simple. It has to do with the history of oppression and red face. It has to do with what might be seen as a degraded use of important spiritual symbols. The point is, how can you know what you’re doing is offensive without having some kind of understanding of the culture?

  4. If you’d use our Holidays as a reason to drink, but sooner send us back to our countries… it is cultural appropriation.
    If you take pride in our hard work and heritage because it exists no where else, but decimate us by the millions and shove us onto reservations… it is cultural appropriation.
    I guess what I’m getting at is the fact that cultural appropriation is when you take symbols and customs from a culture, without even understanding their struggle… while allowing that culture and people to continue to struggle.
    For example, I have no problem if you want to crack open some beer on Cinco de Mayo… but please, understand what it is about, and do not get drunk and wasted for no reason when you have no connection to the Mexican struggle against the French. And as a Latino, I say this knowing that even I, though I’m not Mexican, would celebrate the holiday. The difference between me doing it and others doing has nothing to do with my background, but where I am going. I celebrate it out of remembrance, and unity with my fellow immigrants. If one were to celebrate it as another reason to drink… well, you get the picture.
    The same goes with the Native American thing that you brought up. To put it on at a Halloween party, at this age, and get wasted is cultural appropriation… it is offensive. To put it on during a day that is important to Native American culture and pay respects is very different. I all has to do with where you are going with what you are doing, because if the reasons why you are doing it have anything to do with remembering the past instead of re-causing it… then it isn’t offensive. At least in my eyes.

    1. I can see how that makes sense. So, would it be safe to say you are offended by people who use today as a day to get drunk without knowing what the day commemorates?

      I do think you are close though. Honoring Native Americans isn’t the problem so much as dressing up like them, using their culture and yet not caring about how their rights have been violated throughout history. You can’t claim you have respect for a culture when you don’t respect the people who are a part of the culture.

      1. Exactly! You know, your posts have helped me think more and more about little things that I used to just breeze over intellectually!

  5. The best answer I can think of for you, would be that appropriation crosses the line of being offensive when it is used for exploitative purposes. One example I can think of is a sports team named the Redskins. Their mascots and fans dress in very stereotypical and non-representative Native American garb. Even as someone who by heritage is only partially Native American, I find that to be crude and offensive.
    Broadly speaking, I would categorize appropriation as follows:
    Emulation/flattery (i.e. cosplay)
    Willfully being assimilated into a culture
    The latter two, obviously, are instances I would define as being easily offensive. Katy Perry’s performance, to me, screams of the latter two.
    The only hitch in my reasoning is that in some instances the line between sincerely attempted flattery and ignorant portrayals of a culture can be severely blurred.

    1. Can you blame a person if they cause offense for being ignorant? From what I read, Katy Perry likes Japanese culture and wanted to pay homage to it through her performance. But, from what I read, people were upset because she mixed some things that were from other Asian cultures into her performance and used the culture as a prop to profit from…. or something like that.

      The good thing about the discussion on cultural appropriation is that I rarely hear people get crazy mad about it unless the offense is obvious (like you Redskins example). Usually, I see it as part of a discussion. People reach out a say “listen, this symbol you used is important to our culture for these reasons. Here is why what you’re doing is offensive.” I think that’s a healthy discussion because, if it remain civil, it can do a lot of good for building unity between cultures.

      1. I think that taking offense to ignorance comes down to persona taste and tolerance level. As someone who has dealt with ignorance from the religious sphere of influence for my entire life, I have a very low tolerance of it in general, especially since we live in an age where information is easily and readily available to many. There is little excuse for it, and at best, I say to it “you should have known better.” Sometimes well-intentioned people do make mistakes, but someone as affluent as Katy Perry should have known better than to just arbitrarily do a bunch of culture mashup.

        1. I agree. Katy Perry has a ton of money at her disposal to hire someone who can make sure her performance isn’t offensive. Not to mention that she said she did it because she likes Japanese culture. She certainly doesn’t understand it, though. You could also say that, for all her interest, she didn’t have enough respect to research Japanese culture to make sure her performance matched it. All together, the culture she tried to use ended up as nothing more than a prop for her performance.

  6. Hi TK, I think the biggest difficulties happen when stereotypes are repeated, very often dangerous to people from that culture. Eg the myth of ‘black’ sexuality, which links to dangers in the past (eg in to kill a mockingbird). Or rituals which are carried out with certain amount of respect are taken over and ówned’ by, say academics, but described in what Geerdz calls ‘thin’ narratives: from an outside perspective, without absorbing the real meanings…Carolahand is probably a very kind person to interact with.

    1. But using rituals like that is common too. Just look at Yoga. It used to be that you had to do a lot of spiritual training before you started doing yoga, but no one is pointing at using yoga, stripped of it’s spirituality, for fitness as something offensive to Buddhism.The perpetuation of stereotypes is definitely a problem, though, especially in the media.

  7. I don’t exactly know how to explain it… For me it’s always been one of those you know it when you see it things.
    I think the main issue in terms of it being negative is that it can be perceived as a mocking one’s culture. Or when in the Katy Perry instance you lump all Asian cultures together it’s just downright insulting.
    I wouldn’t say that dressing up as a character say for Halloween/ cosplaying would necessarily be considered a negative cultural appropriation.
    However, I would say that when you include elements of a culture that are ‘sacred’ or have special significance and you trample all over it perhaps inadvertently belittling it then it becomes a problem.
    E.g. When Native Americans see people using versions of what is traditionally a sacred headdress for cosplay – that’s a problem. If you don’t understand the significance/ meaning of something then you run the risk of offending people.
    Being from Trinidad e.g. one instance that comes to mind is that some of my friends who are of East Indian descent get annoyed when they see people using mehendi for fun/ fake tattoos when it is traditionally supposed to be used for the bride at a wedding. However, most don’t mind as long as you don’t use any traditional wedding patterns.
    It’s all about respect and knowledge. If you don’t truly understand and respect the culture you’re appropriating it becomes a giant mess.
    Sorry this is such a long response. I hope it helps.

    1. I think it really is about understanding a respect. People should know better than to use degrade important cultural symbols. But then, there are also plenty of people who see something, like mehendi, and simply think they look cool. Is it offensive to wear it simply because you think it looks neat? On some level, you have to know about a culture just to understand what symbols are and aren’t important. I bet a lot of people use cultural symbols without even knowing they have anything to do with another culture.

  8. This is a very tricky topic, in my opinion. I would mainly go with “it is bad if a person from the culture itself takes offense” as well at the moment, because there are many people who are not even from an affected culture and believe it is their job to decide what is offensive and what not without even knowing what persons from these cultures really think/feel about it! I believe it would be over the top to forbid children to dress up as someone from a different culture in general – on the contrary, I think it presents a wonderful opportunity to talk with kids about differences, stereotypes, and respecting others. What I don’t support are “sexified” cultural costumes. An overly sexy native American princess costume? A no go. Same goes for really discriminating things like portraying a culture as a group of fools or all ugly people. But I guess this depends on the context it which it happens – in Europe a native American costume is less problematic than in the states, I believe.
    When studying foreign languages it is very common to learn songs, poems, or plays in these languages (often with improvised costumes), which takes them out of their original cultural context – but I don’t believe this is a bad thing in itself.
    If every instance of cultural appropriation was offensive, then it would also include Western people practising martial arts from Asia, for example. I play Capoeira, which was developed by African slaves in Brazil a long time ago, and just Saturday I met some high graded teachers from Brazil who said they were happy to see this martial art spreading all over Europe! They don’t take offense in European students singing their songs and wearing their typical white pants with a coloured cord, but take great pride in it.
    In my opinion at least in some cases the real problem is not the appropriation itself, but the lack of education leading people to believe only the stereotypical portrayals of a culture are real. Not all Asians are ninjas and there is no such thing as one single African language or culture. That’s what makes the music video you talk about so troublesome. I wish there were easy answers!
    All in all I think that in many cases the ones who are thought to be offended don’t perceive cultural appropriation as negative as some self-proclaimed experts do. Still it doesn’t hurt to do some research and learn about the do’s and don’ts of a culture! And sorry for the long comment 😉

    1. I did read a number of accounts from Asians who were offended by Katy Perry’s performance. I didn’t think of it until your comment, but Africa does get branded with a Similar stereotype to Asia. They just use a blanket stereotype for the whole continent without recognizing and respecting the various countries and cultures within. If I were from either continent, that wold drive me nuts.

      The “it’s bad if a person from that culture takes offense” works for me right now. Usually, people who are explaining why it’s offensive aren’t crazy angry. Cultural appropriation is one of those subjects where I think people are good at using it as a learning opportunity. In certain cases, you can understand why a person might do something without knowing it was offensive. Although, in Katy Perry’s case, she has all the money in the world to have someone evaluate whether or not her performance is paying respect to a culture or offending it.

  9. For me personally, the offensiveness would be in the person’s intention and reason for adapting the costume of another culture. Unfortunately, the intentions of the dresser don’t always translate to the viewer of the costume. You dressed as Pocahontas because she was a figure you admired. You had no intention of being offensive. A few years ago, I read a news story where a white boy was called out for dressing as Martin Luther King when asked to do a report on his favorite historical leader. He felt he was honoring King, yet members of the African American community were offended. I can understand where Katy Perry could be offensive to the Japanese. She’s using a part of their culture to achieve a certain look, rather than to honor their culture. I don’t think her intentions were as pure and innocent as your Pocahontas or the little boy’s MLK.
    How do we decide what’s appropriate? Will we ever please all of the people all of the time? We could make sure that if we’re emulating a person of another culture that we do it in the privacy of an accepting group. For example, in your cosplay group, I don’t think your character would bring offense. However, if you’re walking down the streets of Tokyo–maybe it could.
    This post brings up some really excellent, thought provoking points–I really enjoyed it. 🙂

    1. The fourth graders at my son’s school did a “Living Museum” this year. Each child (from 4 or 5 classes) researched someone from Texas history. Then they dressed as the person and had little fake “buttons” over their heads. You could push the “button” and the person would stand up and read their little biography.
      Not all the kids were present when I went to it the night of open house. There were probably 75 kids or so there, though. Most of them were white with a handful of Hispanic kids and one black girl. I walked around pushing quite a few buttons. When I got to the black girl, I realized that the person she was representing was a black woman. My first thought was to wonder whether each kid got to pick their person or whether they were assigned and if they were assigned, was it appropriate to give her a black person? Was it necessary to match “race”? What about gender?
      If they picked their people (as it turns out they had), would it have been acceptable for a white kid to pick a famous black person? Were the white kids representing Indians offensive? Could a little girl have picked a famous man? A little boy a famous woman?
      I think it’s a shame that the little white boy you mentioned was called out for dressing like MLK. It’s almost like we as a society are claiming that only black people can be proud of black accomplishments. And only women proud of famous women… Anyway, your comment reminded me of all those questions that flooded my head as I listened to the little girl recite her bio about an early NAACP leader in Dallas.

      1. Again, I think the problem with the boy who dressed as MLK was that he also wore black face. Now, he might not have understood why that was offensive, but his parents should have. There’s an oppressive history associated with black face just like red face.

        On to your experience with the living museum. I would argue that a white child dressing as a black person or a boy dressing as a girl would not have been bad so long as they didn’t stereotype or use offensive symbols (which I’m sure the school would be on top of). For example, a white child portraying a black figure shouldn’t wear black face. A boy pretending to be a girl shouldn’t wearing comically large breasts.

        It’s not that these things can’t be appropriated but that a person must respect the culture, race or gender when doing so.

    2. I feel like Pocahontas and MLK bring up unique circumstances because of the history of red face and black face in America. So, wearing my costume (keep in mind I was probably around the age of 7) wasn’t that big of a deal because I didn’t paint my face to look like a stereotypical Native American. If I remember right, didn’t that little boy paint his face black for the part. It’s not dressing like MLK that’s offensive so much as the black face and the history that comes with that.

      I’ve seen white people cosplay black characters and vice versa, but neither went so far as to paint their face to look like another race. It think that’s where a line is drawn.

      There certainly isn’t a way to please everyone. No matter what you do, if you use something from another culture, there is probably at least one person from that culture who will be offended. I don’t think the goal is to make everyone happy. The goal is to build global understanding and respect of cultures so that we don’t have to rely on harmful stereotypes when we honor their culture in some way.

      1. Totally agreed. I just revisited the news story. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/17/colorado-springs-2nd-grad_n_1524237.html I’d forgotten that the little boy had put makeup on his face. While he probably innocently thought that it made him look like Dr. King, his parents should have been wise enough to know that it could be perceived as offensive. However, as a former teacher, I’ve been shocked at what certain parents find acceptable! 🙂

      2. I can’t reply to your response to me so I’ll respond here… I was unaware that the boy went with black face. Yes, I agree that that should have reasonably been guessed to be offensive by his parents and thus avoided.
        And I also agree that kids can dress as any person of another gender or race for representing them as in the Living Museum without being offensive. That touches on another issue though. Living in a smallish rural Southern town, I strongly suspect that the black kids could dress as a famous white person and the girls could probably get away with dressing as men… but I bet most people wouldn’t respond too well to a white kid representing a black person or a boy dressing as a famous woman. My theory on this is that it’s ok to “look up” but not ok to “look down” and women are still “less” than men and blacks “less” than whites. I think many people who would steadfastly claim that’s not the case would nonetheless still be uncomfortable if any of the kids crossed those lines and for the reasons I suspect. I’m probably not articulating myself well, or at least, not completely… but this is a comment, not a blog post. 😉

        1. No, this reply went right where you wanted it to. It’s just that other people have replied to this comment as well.

          One of the reasons why I used the example of a boy dressing as a girl was because that would be something people would frown upon, and they shouldn’t. In our every day lives, it’s common and acceptable to see women dress in pants and take interests in things that are traditionally for men. Likewise, it’s common for someone from a minority group to adopt Westernized fashion. However, the reverse is rarely seen. I wonder if it would be seen more like an anomaly than an offense. People might be surprised a boy looks up to a historic female enough to portray her. But then, why should boys look up to great women as much as great men?

          The fact that some people are okay with “looking up” but not “looking down” is only further proof that our society hasn’t achieved equality for all yet. I think, if everyone were truly equal, no one would consider someone higher or lower because of their gender or race.

  10. Reblogged this on Big Blue Dot Y'all and commented:
    This question of whether expression is cultural appropriation or not is so very important and difficult. I often don’t know what kinds of cultural expression crosses the line.
    I taught Sociology for years and sincerely believe that culture works (and always has) by incorporating what is encountered and refashioning it. For example, what makes it okay to dress in a Grecian style, but not Japanese?
    Here is the rub…when is it appropriation and when is it just culture functioning like culture does (regardless of time or place or station.)

    1. “hen is it appropriation and when is it just culture functioning like culture does?”

      Isn’t that the question of the day. It’s normal for cultures to collide and influence each other. I would say the difference between offensive and inoffensive has to do with the line between culturally inspired music/art/fashion and culturally stereotypical music/art/fashion.

  11. OK… wow, there’s a lot to work with here. I study cultural behavior as it applies to marketing communication; specifically multiculturalism, acculturation, and assimilation in the US so I believe I have a little expertise. You got the wiki definition which is sufficient: Cultural Appropriation is “the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group.” That’s it. What makes it offensive is the why and/or for which purpose. In communication the sender and the receiver of a message won’t always necessarily agree on the content of a message (think how written communication gets easily misinterpreted for lack of tone, volume, and pitch). So, if I were to dress as a slave some people may take offense, especially people who had family who were enslaved. If I dress as a samurai, someone may take offense thinking that I know nothing about the samurai and therefore am lessening it’s importance. Other costumes that can be problematic: Jesus, Buddhist Monk, Geisha, Prostitute, Member of an native/indigenous group (i.e. Pocahontas), homeless person, etc. When we think of cultures there are big ones like Europeans that encompass many subcultures and smaller ones like surfers. Cultural Appropriation applies to all of them. In halloween, our costumes are like caricatures and we should strive not to turn serious topics into caricatures. I don’t think that dressing as a fictional character is offensive. I think that those who don’t recognize the character may confuse you for something else but that’s easily fixed: just explain and continue enjoying the party.
    It’s worth mentioning that some cultural appropriation is sometimes inevitable and even welcomed. It is part of acculturation and eventually assimilation, processes that shouldn’t be forced upon people but that people have the right to engage in. One could argue that having Taco Tuesday is cultural appropriation. Is it offensive? Probably not.
    I hope this helps. 😀 Keep reading.

    1. It makes enough sense. What’s I’m getting from your comment and many others is that there is no easy answer. It all depends on your intention and awareness of the culture your’re appropriating. And, of course, you can’t make everyone happy. It sounds like the best anyone can do it to make sure they aren’t perpetuating a stereotype when doing something inspired by another culture. Like Taco Tuesday. it’s fine if you enjoy some tacos. It’s another thing if you dress in stereotypical Mexican clothing and make fun of the way the speak. Then it becomes offensive.

  12. Good post TK.
    Without being too simplistic, it seems to me cultural understanding/misunderstanding boils down to personal taste and our ability to be tolerant or sensitive to other points of view. Unfortunately, we can only see and understand things from our own perspective…we cannot understand something we have never experienced before and so we judge things from what we understand to be true. People from every culture do this and so unless something changes there will always be misunderstanding and offenses at some level.
    Ask yourself this, would I be offended if a Japanese Child dressed as say, Abraham Lincoln (or whatever) to celebrate a Japanese Holiday? I would venture to say your answer would be no. But other North Americans might be offended. Why is that? Because the same thinking that would cause an offense in Japanese culture for a American child dressing in Japanese costume would be the same thinking that would cause an offense in N. American cultural for a Japanese child dressing in a N. American costume. Some people (not all) in both cultures just don’t think about the value of other cultures…for whatever reason. Does that make one right and one wrong? No…but I think its sad because there is so much we can learn from each other.
    So, I think you are right in a sense, it is hard to understand other cultures simply because we don’t live in that cultural…but…I think a willingness to understand would go a long way to bridging the gap.
    Anyway…that’s my take. Regards ~ Dave

    1. That’s the great thing about discussions on cultural appropriation and why I love reading up on it. Most of the comments by people from that culture are aimed at building understanding. People only get upset when someone from outside that culture tries to tell them it’s stupid their offended.

      Maybe these kinds of discussions can help build a more culturally respectful world.

  13. I think that you Americans actually like being culturally appropriated. Half the kids down my street in Yorkshire, England have culturally appropriated most of their clothes and attitudes from the ruddy United States. What with all their “L A Surf Club University 1953″ sweat shirts with hoods on top, and their “Salt Lake City Cobras” baseball caps on the wrong way round, and their “Made in Taiwan” sneakers, they wouldn’t know a flat cap and a pair of clogs if they came up and slapped them around the chops.

    1. None of that offends me, though. However, if they acted in a way specifically meant to stereotype and make fun of Americans, then I might take a little offense.

      For example, I studied abroad in Europe for a semester with a girl who was from New Jersey. Everyone expected her to be like they guys from The Jersey Shore TV show. She was happy to correct them, but it did get annoyed after a while. If she then saw someone making fun of New Jersey people by dressing and talking like the stereotype perpetuated by that show, I bet she would have taken offense.

  14. I’ve never heard the term “Cultural Appropriation” but it seems to me that it is being used as a tool to further political correctness which is in itself a tool of censorship. Some people will always find certain things offensive. I think the phrase in the 80’s was to Lampoon, for example the British were always portrayed as wearing Bowler Hats (Derbys) carrying an umbrella and talking frightfully posh. Now some Britons would take offence at this image while the majority would just accept that this is how some countries see us. To say this is, generally offensive and therefore not to be portrayed is ridiculous. At what point do we stop? There are certain things that I find offensive, do I want censored? Absolutley not, I have the choice to turn over, turn off or just plain ignore.
    An individual has a right to complain, bur for example an US TV Producer does not have a right to decide content based on an assumption what another nation may or may not find offensive.
    As a general rule I work to “Do I find this offensive?” Or “Can I understand why somebody may find this offensive?” If the answer to both is no then the chances are it isn’t offensive. And if we have to rely on body of people to tell us what is and isn’t offensive, then sadly we are on the road to losing our rights to free speech and free thought.
    Sorry to ramble 🙂

    1. I understand what you’re saying. I think it really comes down to understanding. It you are doing something to make fun of another culture, that’s almost guaranteed to be offensive. However, if you do something, like use a scared spiritual garb in a way someone from that culture finds demeaning, I think it would be respectful to apologize and not do it again. Rarely do I see people get really pissed unless their voice is completely ignored. I do think it’s healthy for us to work towards understanding and respect for all cultures.

    1. Okay, i have a few though about cultures and this is my 2 cents..
      I don’t expect anyone to agree with me…

      I take my own culture very seriously..
      Where I’m from.. Quebec/Canada, here in Quebec we have, i should say we had a very specific culture which is based on our own French culture, but the government allowed 100 000’s of immigrants into our country and they all settled into Quebec therefore almost killing our culture.. that was a government attempt to shut us down from us separating from Canada and becoming our own country..

      People will think I’m a racist because i hate how we give all immigrants and religions and religious groups equality that is destroying one culture for another..

      Because a big majority of them use it to steps on other culture and destroying them little by little.. because we gave them everything.. even more than our own people are allowed to.. and most of them don’t like our culture and don’t even respect us, even if we gave them everything..

      But I’m not racist, my best friend was a black man and my ex was Salvadorian, i just don’t want a culture to die, stepped on by another that don’t even care..

      I’m for equality and human rights too, but when a culture step into another therefore destroying it. I don’t like that…

      What they are doing theses day’s is : “Divide et Impera” with culture insemination into one another, Culture and Race-Baiters for military and economic to gain and maintain power by breaking up into chunks that individually have less power.

      New’s and medias uses this kind of tactics.. saying this and that.. about this person or that one… I like to say “brew up storms and stir up shit”.

      What is appropriate for one and not for the other, that will always be like that.. differing from where you are in the world or which culture and religion you obey by..

      Alright : Who Will Cast the First Stone on me?

      1. I think I get what you’re saying. I think what your’re mad at is the government’s action more than the immigrants. It’s not about their culture so much as it is about the government systemically trying to get rid of your culture (I think).

        None of that is really cultural appropriation, but it certainly is a problem. You can’t really blame them for practicing their own culture. I wouldn’t even know where to start with that, because cultures naturally change anyway. All I could say is to hold on to what is precious about your culture. No one can take your culture away from you.

  15. america and the media hasn’t done near enough for the racism that works beyond imagery. privledge leads the blind and one has to examine and see things beyond their own landscape to understand what is at work. hollywood is the worst offender and the media.

    1. Very true. And too many people ignore it by saying we’re being “too politically correct.” it’s not always about anger or name-calling. It just about having respect for other cultures and avoiding the spread of harmful stereotypes.

  16. Thank you for posing this question. I think this is a great, constructive space to discuss these hot topic issues.

    Cultural Appropriation is offensive because it promotes stereotypes. People of color have often been marginalized to a caricature of a dominant group. While Katy Perry may have not intended to be offensive, her choice to further popularize a stereotype is. While the representation may have been an aspect of a culture, it does not bring light to the enormous amount of history, traditions, and struggles that created that culture.

    Because cultures are made up of individuals, someone will ALWAYS be offended. Therefore, I do not dress in traditional garments as “costumes” to avoid this… I can dress in the traditional garments of my own heritage to wear as a costume. I do however research cultures and attempt to understand them more fully. Also, sometimes it’s ok not to understand why someone is offended, simply knowing that they found it offensive is reason enough. Demanding a reason demonstrates a certain amount of privilege and entitlement… Which is at the core of cultural appropriation.

    1. “simply knowing that they found it offensive is reason enough.” I agree. Without being a part of a culture, it’s impossible for me to understand what is and isn’t offensive. However, I do know what stereotypes about my own culture offend me. If I point it out and the person apologizes – accepting that what they did was offensive – I have no problem. If they try to claim it’s stupid for me to be upset when they stereotype my culture, then I get really mad. Intentions have a lot to do with it. If a person is sorry, clearly they were trying to be respectful. If a person doesn’t care and keeps on, they probably meant offense all along.

  17. An interesting and thoughtful read. My perhaps limited view of the concept of Cultural Appropriation is it isn’t a real issue. There is no such a thing as Cultural Appropriation – simply because culture is not a static thing. It changes, grows, morphs, absorbs, and eventually becomes something else. My opinion only. I think even if I am not Catholic I can immerse myself and celebrate Mardi Gras or Carnival, or the Day of the Dead.
    The flag of Cultural Appropriation gets raised when I think the real issue is racism, xenophobia and malicious disrespect. Those are real issues that need to be addressed. Telling me I cannot think, dress, dance or behave in particular way simply because it is “not my culture” is just another way of building walls between groups. It is a dangerous ideal that when followed to its logic conclusion leads to segregation in an attempt to impose a “pure culture”.
    Culture can not ever belong to an individual or group.

    1. “The flag of Cultural Appropriation gets raised when I think the real issue is racism, xenophobia and malicious disrespect.”

      This is probably true. It’s like a more subtle form of disrespect, though… sort of like microaggressions. I think people can accidentally perpetuate a disrespectful cultural stereotype without knowing it’s disrespectful. Most of the events I see people label as cultural appropriation were not originally intended to be offensive. The people simply weren’t educated on the culture enough to know what they were doing was disrespectful.

      1. I don’t think that is disrespect then – it is certainly ignorance and perpetuating a stereotype. Nor can what anyone does out of ignorance be “offensive”
        Yes someone will be offended – however the correct response when one feels offended to to state, “That causes me hurt, because “A” has this meaning to me.”
        Your post sparked an interesting conversation with some artists friends about “cultural appropriation” and in their view it is using someone else’s symbols for economic advantage without respecting the values contained in the symbols. Which frames it more like a “trademark” or “intellectual property” dispute.Certainly an easier test in some ways.
        Basically it comes down to an individual asking themselves: “Why am I using this symbol/representation/activity, and am I using it appropriately?”

        1. Exactly. Everyone should try and ask themselves that, especially if they will be profiting from whatever their using the cultural symbols for.

  18. a country that profited and embraced Slavery that is a big start right there and this mess with Donald Sterling speaks directly to privledge and money which controls all aspects of what we see and hear.
    its the Elephant in the room which is seen and yet never approached

    1. People just don’t want to see it. No one who considers themselves successful wants to admit they had extra help and luck, when they do. People like to think the fight for civil rights is behind us, but Sterling proves the fight continues.

  19. I know that it’s not directly related but actually explains a bit what I think about understand cultural appropriation as something offensive: a time ago I saw a south park’s episode about Peruvian characters (singers of music that isn’t native an indeed is just for tourists) and even a character pissing on Machu Picchu. Honestly I laugh a lot with that episode for just one simply reason: these years I’ve laughed with tv cartoons or comics that make fun about aspects of the USA culture so it would be hypocrite if I’d laugh if they make fun about aspects of Perú. Something like I’d allow myself to joke about others but be angry if the joke is about me.
    I think the problem is one of tolerance and understanding, if some other person uses a chullo, raise a llama or starts to speak in aymara well, I am happy, if some person do something that could be offensive so I explain in what was his/her mistake but I am not going to judge a person that do something without know if it could be seen in another way. Instead, if some person from my own country do something offensive I hope that the law be strict with him/her because actually we know about ourselves (for example use the word “cholo” because it means “dog” and it’s peyorative). Besides, the people who asks respect for their culture probably are so much serious about something that their ancestors didn’t care so much.

    1. Since you mention South Park, here’s why things on that type of show aren’t always seen as offensive – it’s a comedy. It’s a show that makes fun of everyone and everything thing. I don’t think it means any kind of real offense. That’s far different than someone making fun of a culture just to be mean.

      1. I’d love if that would be so simple, but from time to time appears in Peruvian news and forums a bit of rage from some people for things that appears in cartoons or movies (I think I saw the reference to that episode first in tv news), even a minister called to boycott the last Indiana Jones’s movie because showed wrong our country… It’s funny because we appropriate several aspects of the culture of your country and you’re not screaming in horror for that 😀

        1. No matter what, you can’t please everyone. There will always be people who take offense. I hear that American culture is appropriated, but I never take offense to it. That’s why I think it has something to do with respect and understanding. If you respect a culture, you’ll use a positive stereotype to emulate it. However, if you don’t have that kind of respect, then the stereotypes you work off of are going to come across as offensive.

  20. I’m half Japanese, and I can say… while perhaps not flat-out offensive, I did find Katy Perry’s “geisha performance” distasteful. And yes, it mostly has to do with blending my culture right into another (same reason I didn’t really like the Memoirs of a Geisha movie). But it also has to do with turning my heritage into a commodity. And anyone who feels like they can buy into my culture, or even fetishize it, makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I guess I feel like it’s a hereditary possession – and that’s a bit of a selfish view, since I love aspects of so many other cultures… but I still understand that just reading about these cultures or eating their food doesn’t make me truly understand them, because I haven’t lived them. I grew up in Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean I understand the social expectations pushed upon my Mexican friends and neighbors.

    Being half-white, it’s difficult to find anything that’s offensive just for being white in America. White American culture is so ubiquitous and all-encompassing – and it’s never portrayed as a negative parody in our media. White Americans in media have been limited to Friends, or The OC, or heck, the X-Files, How I Met Your Mother, The Office even. It’s everywhere and it’s not just a token.

    The best comparison I can make is in this show, Flight of the Conchords. The leads are two white men, but they’re from New Zealand and living in New York. Frequently, as a long-running joke, they’re marginalized for their kiwi origins. One friend of theirs, their only American friend who is ethnically Indian, frequently refers to them as Scottish, German, British, or “wherever the hell you’re from.”

    It’s hard to view that as negative, because we don’t view Scots or Brits in a negative context and because we imagine the typical American as coming from such a background, we never have. So in a comedy, that kind of ignorance is humorous. But imagine if that were your life. Imagine if you’re always talking to someone who unmistakably looks different than you, you’re in their “homeland” so to speak and thus have some knowledge of their culture and language – or perhaps like me, you’re even part of that culture, too – but they consistently seems to view your culture as so insignificant, so worthless, that they can’t even commit to memory where you’re from, what language is spoken there, and constantly mistake you for a culture you view as entirely different. Then they trivialize it by selling caricatures of it that aren’t even accurate. And they think they know what your culture is about and faces because they eat hamburgers. That’s a little picture of the kind of insensitivity people can have. And it’s not really so much offensive, to me, as it is a little off-putting and annoying. I haven’t suffered any real consequences, so that may be why.

    As for dressing like a character from Rurouni Kenshin, I don’t view that as negative because you’re not trying to trivialize and falsely represent an entire culture. You’re trying to emulate one specific character – and that character is not an offensive caricature of the culture either. In fact, when people got upset about that actress dressing as a character from Orange is the New Black, I really don’t think they should have. She’s not trying to make fun of African Americans. She didn’t make her face an offensive caricature. She just wanted to emulate a character. If that’s offensive, then the movie Cloud Atlas should be wildly so.

    1. “It’s hard to view that as negative, because we don’t view Scots or Brits in a negative context”

      The answer might be here. A lot of cultures who are victims of cultural appropriation are ones which have historically been looked down upon. So, maybe cultural appropriation is about using negative stereotypes for gain.

      1. Yes, or marginalizing a culture in favor of a more prolific one. People ask if I’m chinese all the time. Doesn’t bother me nearly as much as when they assume I am. And theres nothing wrong with being Chinese – the wrong is in the assumption that all Asians are Chinese because it’s reductive of my culture. In America, most whites are a mix, and we use general terms like white or Caucasian anyways. But I could imagine that in a place or time where the cultures were more distinct, an Irish person may get irate if someone assumed he was Scottish, or a German person might think someone who mistook him for English was very ignorant.
        It doesn’t necessarily have to do with gain. There are also just aspects of wanting recognition.

  21. I think the idea of cultural appropriation has a lot to do with history and how that’s shaped one’s identity. In many ways minorities have been shamed, teased, or flat out told they weren’t allowed to embrace or practice aspects of their culture, be it language, rituals, clothing, etc. throughout history. I can think of instances where several races/ethnicities and groups of people were prevented from practicing their own culture. Like Native Americans in North America and Black people all over the Western Hemisphere, etc.

    Now fast forward to present day when, for the most part, we’re allowed to practice our culture and feel proud of our culture but there are still social stigmas and stereotypes attached to being black or Indian or whatever. Then you have other groups of people, namely caucasians, appropriate aspects of your culture to mock and exploit it, and then return to their mainstream White/European culture without any repercussions. They don’t have to deal with the negative aspects of being black/Mexican/Native American in a society where caucasians and whiteness is seen as the norm.

    People have been using Katy Perry’s performance as an example in comments but I think we can expand this to other mainstream pop stars like Miley Cyrus with her twerking and Selena Gomez with her Come and Get it Bollywood video. When does it become cultural appropriation? I think it becomes cultural appropriation when someone takes/adopts aspects of another culture without thinking, acknowledging, and speaking about the social/cultural significances behind it and or how one’s appropriation could be seen as offensive, racist, etc. i.e. the history of blackface as it pertains to American history. White people have been blackface in jest/theatre, etc. to mock and demonize black people since the beginning of the 19th century. And now it’s being used in mainstream American culture i.e. Julianne Hough on Halloween without considering the history of blackface and how the black community will react to it. In other words, cultural appropriation in and of itself means the adoption of one or more aspects from another culture. But the degree to which it is negative or positive can be decided historically but also subjectively.

    If you’re interested in more of this dynamic you should check out Jane Elliot’s brown-eye blue-eye experiment on YouTube. It’s pretty good.
    But I applaud your willingness and encouragement to talk about this because I think so often we ignore/avoid potentially uncomfortable or controversial discussions or because we want to be politically correct.

    1. I love uncomfortable or controversial discussions ^_^ so long as they are handled in a civil manner.

      I really think history is the big factor here. History and respect. Culture shouldn’t be used as a prop for gain. It deserves to be respected and revered. You can do that in a music video or a stage performance but you have to make a point to educate yourself. You can’t just slap on a kimono and call yourself Japanese. Your other examples are spot on as well, but I know a little more about Japanese culture so it’s easier for me to talk about than, say, Native American culture. There are many examples all over the media of different cultures being appropriated. You don’t have to look far.

  22. This article is excellent! I don’t get it either. I understand that presenting a culture in a disempowering way is bad, but I don’t get that there can be no neutral presentation, like with you dressing as a character.

    Asking how Katy Perry could have incorporated something from Japanese culture without being offensive is an excellent question as well.

    1. Well, Katy Perry is obviously offensive, not because she emulated Japanese culture, but because she used general Asian symbols from various cultures and claimed they were all Japanese.

  23. Talk about challenging and important topics! It’s a fine line between cultural appropriation and respect for another culture — so fine that it’s impossible not to stray over it from time to time. I tend to downplay the “offensive” part. Our various cultures aren’t monolithic. Some members may be offended by a particular work, while others appreciate the artist’s attempt to understand a culture that they weren’t born into. As a lesbian, I can testify that some straight women and even some men can create believable lesbian characters. On the whole, I’d rather have good writers make the attempt and not quite get it right than have them so scared of giving offense that they won’t even try. So I’m a lot slower to take offense than I was 30 years ago.
    To anyone interested in this I recommend Edward Said’s classic Orientalism. He focuses on the ways in which Europeans romanticized, colonized, and appropriated “the East,” but his insights apply to other kinds of appropriation.

    1. I think it comes down to building understanding. A culture should be able to point out to someone how what they did could be seen as offensive so that person can learn and grow in their cultural understanding. There’s no need for anger, there. I think real anger comes when someone tries to instigate that dialog and the person gets defensive.

      1. How does “a culture” point anything out to anybody? Cultures are huge and diverse. Pointing out is done by individuals, and within any culture individuals vary greatly in what they find offensive, what they’re willing to take offense at, and when they think it’s worth bringing up.

        On the whole I think that focusing too much on “offensiveness” is a dead-end, or maybe “red herring” is the better word. Giving and taking offense doesn’t lead to meaningful communication.

        “Building understanding” sounds great, but how does one build understanding with people who aren’t listening, who don’t have to listen, who may be willing to listen but only until they start to feel uncomfortable? Privilege can shut down or limit any discussion it doesn’t want to hear. Privilege can also choose to listen, but often it doesn’t.

        As a woman, I can testify that being not-listened to often enough can make a person angry. It can also persuade a person that communication and understanding are impossible, so why bother trying?

        1. You make a good point. Perhaps there is a difference between saying “this offends me” and “this offends my culture.”

          This listening aspect is important. One person can’t speak for a whole culture, but they can teach about their culture. I guess that’s what I meant. If something seems offensive, that can be an opportunity to teach another person about the culture and why their action came off as disrespectful. Even if most people don’t listen, some will. And if none listen, there’s always the chance someone will someday. But the message will never get out if a person doesn’t try to be heard.

  24. As a Romani (Gypsy) who has a bit of Gadje (non-Gypsy) in the genes, I will first say that I love to see people dressed as Gypsies. The classic (stereotypical) costume is the long skirt, peasant blouse, head kerchief and tambourine. This is actually the dress of one vitsa, or tribe, the Kalderash. I am first generation American and grew up as an “underground” Gypsy. No one really knew because our skin is light and some family members have blue eyes. I recently experienced cultural appropriation with the same culture! I wrote a book and was slammed so mercilessly by a 100% Gypsy that the pain made me eventually unpublish. The title was The Way of ONE Gypsy. One. I did not try to pass this along as the ONLY way. The complaint was not about my book, though, it was about my photo. I was in a long red dress with a tambourine. It was my wedding photo and red is considered fortunate. I held the tambourine to symbolize my love of music and because it IS a cultural symbol. My husband, who is Pennsylvania Dutch with a culture of farming, held a pitchfork. The troll also insisted that Gyspies didn’t “believe” in chakras but we are from India and even our unofficial Gypsy flag is a wagon wheel, like the chakra on the Indian flag. She protested with such misinformation and I tried to counteract it in comments, as did others, but the review was never removed and I finally could not face the pain anymore. All this is to say that the really hurtful thing is the evidence that many Romani, who need each other to help the European ones who live in poverty and cannot get a decent education, are hateful to each other. I worked in college financial aid and the Native Americans had a wonderful scholarship for anyone who was one eighth Native American. Blood, a drop of blood, was enough to help each other. So my conclusion is that with some people, no matter their culture, nothing will ever be acceptable whether you are part of the culture or not. I say, “Dress up!” It is a good way to learn about different cultures. BTW, I do read cards as a way for people to share their troubles with me, I come from a long line of drabarni (healers), and the long skirt is because women are “unclean” from the waist down. Yes, I grit my feminist teeth over that but there it is!

    1. That’s crazy that it happened within your own culture, and it repeats the idea that it has to do with respect. The difference between appropriating a culture in a positive way vs. a negative way is how much respect you have for the culture you’re borrowing from. And, like in your case, people will take offense if you try and tell them they are wrong about their own culture.

  25. A few years back I went to a steampunk convention that decided to pick an Asian theme that year. While there was of course a bit of trepidation with how it was going to turn out, seeing as the normal demographic of steampunk fans was predominantly white, because it was held in the SF Bay Area they were very considerate about cultural appropriation, going so far as to having a panel discussing the topic. Sadly, I lost the goggles I bought from that con.

    In regards to your cosplay dilemma, I don’t think that counts as cultural appropriation. You dressing up as a Rurouni Kenshfin character is offensive as someone of Asian descent dressing up in fictional Victorian gear. You’re wearing it to show an appreciation for a character and creator. As long as you are acknowledging the culture, i think you’re good.

    1. It’s all about respect. You can admire a culture and even dress in that culture’s traditional fashion without being disrespectful or stereotypical. it’s great they had a discussion on the topic. The anime convention has a similar discussion planned.

  26. I’m sorry, this post has so many comments I haven’t read through every single one, so apologies if I repeat anything :S
    I think intention has a lot to do with it. If someone is dressing up in a stereotypical article of dress because they love the way it looks or love the culture behind it, it should be taken as a compliment. Even if there is ignorance attached to it which may cause offense.
    I saw a shopping haul Youtube video by a young lady (with dark skin), who was showing off and declaring how happy she was that she’d finally got some red Doc Marten boots with white laces. I was offended that someone would wear that combination (it’s a sign of racism and white supremacy). But then my offence faded. Did this girl not know what this item stood for, or did she know and was she normalising it? Is she just paying a compliment to 1960′s London style?
    At the end of the day, the people who are offended are more likely to speak out than the people who aren’t offended. Maybe the majority of people from a culture are not in fact offended by innocent cultural appropriation.

    1. I didn’t know that Doc Martens and white laces had any cultural significance, that’s very interesting.

      I think everything should be taken as a learning opportunity. Anyone should have enough respect to listen to someone who is offended and learn a little but more about the culture in the process. For me, offense isn’t in the action so much as the defensiveness some people have when they are told their actions offended someone. Just a “I didn’t mean to offend anyone and will watch my actions in the future” would be nice. Anything is better than “you’re stupid for being offended.”

  27. Worse yet is cultural dominance and forcing. I live in Gwangju, South Korea and can point to many instances where Language, Religion and Culture are used for one country (say the USA) to completely overtake a culture (say Korea). Note: KPOP is merely rebaked ‘N’ Synch or Back Street Boys or New Kids on the Block, but of both genders. SO Western sensibility (sex and fun over respect and tradition) have won the minds of all the youngsters here, and marketers, advertisers and manufacturers. to me THIS is a larger problem than misappropriation. Note one essay about how Religion works this game in Korea here:


    1. If I am understanding you correctly, you’re saying a bigger problem is the culture of a given country or people being overtaken by another. I see that happening too, and it’s such a shame. I think it sometimes happens because they think that’s the way of progress. That culture progressed one way, so my culture should too. That doesn’t have to be the way of it though. Perhaps if we had more respect for all other cultures – something that would nearly erase cultural appropriation as well – maybe they wouldn’t feel so pressured.

      1. Agreed. And if we stopped using other cultures’ land, minerals, fossil fuels and cheap manual labor for our own profit motives, more people would respect the USA I bet.

    1. I think a lot of it has to do with history. Why is blackface wrong but whiteface (like the movie White Chicks) is okay? There’s a history behind blackface that gives it a racist message. Why is wearing a Native American headdress wrong but a Native American dressing as President Washington okay? Because there is racist history attached to people outside of Native American culture wearing stereotypical Native American clothing.

      I think that confuses people. The fact is, though, that racism is not gone and people are still sensitive to symbols of racism. It’s just like the American flag is a symbol of America. If someone burns it because they are against flag makers (just making something up here) that dosen’t stop people from seeing that action as burning America.

  28. What you are really asking here is…should I feel morally obliged to modify my behavior to make others feel okay about themselves? I can’t answer that question for you. You have to decide for yourself. Just know, the reactions of others are their own and have nothing to do with you.

    1. It’s not about making other people feel okay about themselves, it’s about having respect for other cultures and not abusing them for your own gain. I think it’s a bigger issues with cultures that have a history of oppression. When cultural appropriation has been used to hold you or your ancestors down, you take issue when you see it happen.

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