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Rocking a Native American headdress at your next music festival may be a bigger deal than you first thought. Chances are you've heard about 'cultural appropriation', but it can be tricky to understand. Learning about what it is, when it happens and what makes it a big deal is a great way to avoid landing in a sticky or offensive situation.

What cultural appropriation is

The name is a bit of a mouthful, but cultural appropriation happens when a dominant culture takes things from another culture that is experiencing oppression. We know there are a lot of technical-sounding words here, so let’s break it down:

  1. A ‘dominant culture’ is the most visible and accepted culture within a particular society.
  2. ‘Oppression’ describes repeated and prolonged discrimination. It’s something that’s carried out through powerful organisations such as courts, the armed forces or schools. It’s not just one-on-one behaviour, but a form of structural discrimination, meaning it’s backed by powerful authorities. Racism, homophobia and sexism are all forms of oppression.

What cultural appropriation isn’t

Cultural exchange is different from cultural appropriation. Things like tea, gunpowder and pasta have been shared between different cultures throughout history. These ‘borrowings’ aren’t the same as cultural appropriation, because they don’t involve power. When different cultures come together on an equal footing, exchange happens. But when dominant groups take from an oppressed group, we’re dealing with appropriation.

Cultural exchange is also very different from assimilation. ‘Assimilation’ describes what happens when minority cultures are forced to adopt features from a dominant culture in order to fit in. This is different from appropriation, because it’s done to ensure survival and to avoid discrimination.

Why cultural appropriation is a problem

It continues the oppression of the non-dominant culture

When we look at a culture that’s experiencing oppression, it’s often a result of colonisation, where a dominant group has claimed ownership of the land and its people. When the dominant group continues to steal aspects of the non-dominant culture, it continues the economic oppression and disadvantage of that culture.

In Australia, there are cases where white Australian businesses have stolen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks for use on T-shirts and souvenirs. This allows the dominant culture to make money from the non-dominant culture, without benefiting the original artists.

It doesn’t give people credit for their own culture

Cultural appropriation also has a nasty habit of giving the dominant group credit for aspects of a culture that they have taken, reinforcing the power imbalance between the two groups.

For example, Kylie Jenner was credited with starting an ‘edgy’ new hair trend, while black actress Zendaya faced criticism for wearing her hair the same way. What’s interesting about this, is that Zendaya’s natural hair was seen as a negative. But Kylie Jenner, a person with no ties to black culture, was given credit for taking something that wasn’t hers.

It creates stereotypes

Cultural appropriation often adds to stereotypes faced by non-dominant cultures. The Native American chief, the Japanese geisha or the Arab sheikh can be examples of stereotypes that pop up during Halloween. When people from dominant cultures ‘dress up’ like this, it reduces something of cultural significance to a costume just so that the dominant group can have ‘a bit of fun’. It also keeps these kinds of stereotypes going. And when cultures have been oppressed, stereotypes often add to their negative experiences.

So, does this mean it’s always wrong to engage with a different culture?

Nope! There are times when it’s encouraged to try something from a different culture. Being invited to an Indian wedding where the hosts are cool with you wearing traditional clothing is not cultural appropriation. You’re invited to take part by people from that culture. So, the all-important ideas of dominance and oppression don’t exist here, which is what makes cultural appropriation a big deal in the first place.