SALT LAKE CITY — What do Oberlin College, Gucci, actor Zac Efron, celebrity cook Jamie Oliver, the Montreal International Jazz Festival and a Utah student headed to prom have in common?
Each has been accused of crossing the line from cultural appreciation into cultural appropriation — what Oxford Reference calls “the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes or practices by one cultural group from another.” Usually, it notes, cultural appropriation carries “connotations of exploitation and dominance.”
Less formally, it’s being disrespectful with behavior, beliefs and physical items from someone else’s culture, says Irene Maya Ota, academic program manager, diversity coordinator and an associate instructor of social work at the University of Utah.
Oberlin College’s dining room served a sandwich in 2015 that little resembled the popular Vietnamese “banh mi”, but called it that to sell it. For a fashion show in February, Gucci put white models in turbans that Sikhs traditionally wear to symbolize piety and honor, with no nod to either significance or history. In July, Efron sported dreadlocks “for fun,” though black children are sometimes harassed for such hair styles more commonly seen in their culture. In August, news reports noted that chef Oliver is marketing “punchy jerk rice” that’s not like the Jamaican favorite. The Canadian festival opened last month — and closed — a musical featuring white singers as black slaves picking cotton. And in May, the internet exploded over the Utah student who wore a Chinese dress called a cheongsam to prom, though she is not Chinese.
These and others making news recently — from sport teams with Native American mascots to entertainment presenting elements of a culture by people who are not part of the culture — have created backlash.
But many people don’t understand cultural appropriation or why it matters, experts say.
It's a topic that generates heat, complicated when those native to the cultures that might be appropriated disagree on when it’s bad or if it can be a respectful nod to a culture’s desirability. Drawing too hard a line on either side creates hostility and the risk that real harm will be overlooked or, conversely, that complaints will be so frequent that "cultural appropriation" becomes meaningless.
The crux, experts say, is a question of “privilege and power” — and whether culture is used in a way that’s offensive to those to whom the culture belongs.
Perhaps the biggest question is who gets to decide what’s inappropriate or disrespectful, says Ota, who notes that often it’s a battle fought by bystanders offended on behalf of someone who might have a legitimate culture-based opinion.
Further, individuals may choose sides in ways that reflect political ideology rather than genuine cultural understanding, says cultural anthropologist Susan Kresnicka, president of Kresnicka Research and Insights. The term can be used “in our broader kind of moral, tribal, polarizing showdown, so ... what you hear about it is a definition or understanding that moves forward that particular moral tribe’s view. It doesn’t necessarily help you understand it any better.”
Cultural appropriation is “touchy,” says Ota, who like others consulted for the story notes a lack of easy answers and the potential for any view to offend someone.
Not everyone sees a problem. The summary for Chris Berg’s The Drum column for ABC says “to attack cultural appropriation as offensive or insensitive is to attack culture itself. And just as absurd. Everything from the food we eat to the Christmas many are about to celebrate is the result of cultural fusion.” He calls taking bits of other cultures “cultural evolution.”
Adriana N. Vazquez of Oakland, California, is a Young Voices contributor. She's also a Mexican-American woman who says the question of culture exchange is nuanced. “People often want to see it as all right or all wrong. ... I’m glad that people are finding beauty and value in my culture, especially since it is one that is often overlooked or dismissed. On the other hand, it can be discouraging when the cultural significance is lost on those adopting it or when you begin to see your culture turned into a stereotype.”
Like much of America's discourse, the topic polarizes, says Kresnicka, who sometimes explains perspectives through political lenses. The most common argument on the left: Don't replicate a culture other than your own, “especially if that other culture has been impacted by colonialism or imbalances in global power," she says. Doing so can potentially "trivialize something meaningful and sacred.” It’s appropriation when someone in power or with advantages takes something valued by someone with less power and uses it for personal pleasure or advantage.
The view from the political right is more often “the sense that you guys are making a big deal over nothing,” says Kresnicka. Some argue that most clothing styles, for example, don't matter. But, “if they didn’t have importance, we wouldn’t bother spending time selecting clothing. So that doesn’t feel true either,” says Kresnicka.
She warns against “weaponizing culture” in trivial ways that dilute examples of truly egregious or painful practices. Nor does it help, she adds, that many of the complaints are made not by those who are reportedly harmed, but by others offended on their behalf.
That's nothing new — nor is it necessarily bad. Advocacy groups, legal defenders and others have long addressed causes on behalf of others. But Kresnicka says people whose culture is reportedly appropriated should be asked what they think.
But be prepared for a lack of consensus, she warns.
“Who gets to decide what’s appropriate, what’s inappropriate?” says Ota. “The dress thing (involving the Utah teen) was really complex with people who said they were Chinese and commented, ‘You rock it, go ahead.’ Others said, ‘No, it’s disrespectful. You don’t know the history of it.’”
Be aware, too, that cultural origins may not be clear-cut. Mexican sombreros are reportedly based on a hat from Spain. The yoga many practice, considered Indian, has enhancements from The Netherlands.
David Blackmer, a Salt Lake dad, also thinks intent matters. He and his wife, both white, have adopted two children who are Hispanic. “To help them feel more comfortable in our home, I think my wife and I have essentially engaged in culture appropriation,” including cooking from their heritage, learning Spanish as a family, attending a Spanish-language ward and seeking activities more familiar to the two girls than to the rest of the family.
“We’re just trying to celebrate the wonderful and diverse aspects of our different children’s lives, almost like supporting a kid who loves soccer by going to all her games. It makes for a unique atmosphere in the home, and sometimes our efforts fall short, but if the idea behind our cultural appropriation is pure, I think it should be welcomed.”
Los Angeles-based writer and entertainer Chante Griffin has simple rules on when to adopt aspects of other cultures: “If you’re in doubt, don’t do it. If it’s a fad, don’t do it. If you feel uncomfortable, don’t do it. If it might make other people feel uncomfortable, don’t do it. If people might give you the side-eye, definitely don’t do it.”
Pam McMurtry, a Kaysville artist, disagrees. “My first and only negative experience ... was a total surprise,” she says. In art school, she wanted to paint someone of a different nationality and culture, but one prevalent where she grew up. Her instructor told her she had no right to portray a subject not of her personal heritage.
“As an artist, I feel I have a right to paint any thing or person I please. If I choose to honor a subject by depicting it in a respectful (or not) piece of art, I will do it regardless of political correctness or whatever barrier is being thrown up. A person does not own their culture like a trademark or patent,” she said by email.
As an artist, I feel I have a right to paint any thing or person I please. – Pam McMurtry, a Kaysville artist
Food and clothing are problematic for those seeking crisp rules about culture. Both have traditionally been shared and altered, inspiring new foods and fashions.
“We all are not going to be allowed to eat or cook anything if it means I shouldn’t be cooking any food whose cultural heritage does not come from my own,” says Kresnicka. “Sharing cooking and meals is an important way to learn about another’s customs.”
Food also looms large in cultural appropriation complaints, as happened last year in Portland, Oregon, where Kooks Burritos closed amid claims the two white proprietors had culturally appropriated recipes. Some accused them of stealing the recipes. The controversy inspired a Google document called "(Alternatives To) White-Owned Appropriative Restaurants in Portland."
Mariana Leung is a New York photographer and writer who covers the fashion industry and says “the most significant misunderstanding about culture appropriation is not that the inspiration of one culture to another is wrong, it is the disrespect or lack of attribution to the borrowed culture” that separates appropriation from appreciation.
“Artists, chefs, designers have been inspired or collaborated between cultures since the beginning of creativity,” leading to some of their best work, she says. But “stealing and appropriating someone else’s culture can and does cause pain and actual harm."
She says big brands commercialize cultures and diminish meaning and history of items or they create knock-offs that deplete the market for items local artisans make to support themselves. Leung says buying a dress from a designer representing another culture is good because it promotes and supports that culture financially — cultural appreciation. Wearing a trashy Geisha costume for Halloween is “mockery of that culture, perpetuating negative stereotypes and financially benefiting someone without ties to that culture” — cultural appropriation, she explains.
Differences of opinion don’t invalidate how people feel, Leung says. When the Utah student wore the cheongsam, Leung, of Chinese descent, thought she looked beautiful, but says that “doesn’t discount the feelings of those who were offended.”
Why might some feel bad? “In relatively recent history, Americans of Chinese descent have been barred from serving the country, operating a business, subject to racial violence simply for their heritage. Americans of Japanese descent have been interned in America’s equivalent of concentration camps simply for their heritage, as well. Is it that difficult to imagine someone could be emotionally triggered by a white girl (in) a Chinese dress when their relatives were denied human rights for doing the same?” Leung says.
Kresnicka says how people use others’ cultural treasures is key, but urges understanding on both sides. “It worries me terribly that in the efforts to be respectful, to be empathetic and compassionate, we could potentially be closing ourselves off from an exchange that ultimately would encourage empathy and compassion and understanding. It’s such a Catch-22 — an intrinsic human question related to human beings moving around and encountering one another.”
Shoe on other foot
Having trouble seeing it? Ota encourages those who dismiss cultural appropriation as evidence of “victim” culture to think of something that matters to them and how they feel when it seems disrespected.
Lots of people from different cultural background relate to the American flag and the national anthem, Kresnicka says. National debate has flared with people insisting everyone stand with hand on heart for both. They feel genuine pain and outrage for their country when someone doesn’t make those patriotic gestures.
Those feelings may be similar to those felt by a Native American over the mascot “Red Skins” — a phrase that dates to when colonizers tried to wipe them out, says Ota. A cash bounty was offered for “red skins,” verifying their death.
There is a natural tendency to “want to demand honor for the things we honor,” says Kresnicka. One might be outraged by perceived misuse of the flag — such as not saluting it or burning it — but really proud to see that same flag held up as representing ideals worth emulating. It's the same flag, presented in different ways.
The intent behind the use of the flag clearly matters.
Kresnicka thinks that in the conversation about cultural appropriation, there’s plenty of room for respectful discussion.
"My advice for those on the far right who want to say it’s 'more liberal, snowflake whining,' is, 'Hang on. Can we have a little awareness to the fact there is some validity in people wanting to see their culture respected, to them wanting to see it reproduced in ways that are respectful and healthy, that honor their heritage and don’t trivialize and stereotype it.' That seems fair."
On the other side, Kresnicka adds, “I would say if a person is not just blindly and mindlessly reproducing some negative and hurtful cultural stereotype, if someone is doing it with the intention to honor someone else, to honor the cultural exchange in a respectful way, I actually think the intentions need to be accounted for. Give them the benefit of the doubt in the moment you want to go deep into self-righteous judgment.”