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Cultural appropriation occurs when a dominant group adopts some practices or styles from a marginalized group's culture and uses them outside of their original context, sometimes in a demeaning manner. The offensive nature of the phenomenon resides in the unequal power dynamic of the dominant sector vis-a-vis a weaker and oppressed one.
To illustrate the problem, consider medals and decorations, which are only given out in recognition for a heroic deed (usually military in nature). Then consider the eagle feathers and war bonnets often worn as cheesy costumes, even though among Native Americans they serve a fairly similar function as medals in Western society.  In this instance, Native culture is exploited for profit and marginalized.
Of course, not all cases of a privileged group's borrowing constitute appropriation. More often than not, the originators are actually very happy to see outsiders respectfully sharing in their customs, which may allow both groups to better understand each other. Defining the boundary between appropriation and appreciation can, however, sometimes be tricky.
- Native American war bonnets worn as a "funny" item. War bonnets are reserved for the most respected members of the tribe and worn only on ceremonial occasions. It's somewhat like wearing a pope hat in the Vatican.
- Similarly, the iconic sun symbol found on the New Mexican flag (and practically everything else that's remotely New Mexico-related) is held sacred by the Zia Pueblo tribe from which it originates. They generally do not mind its use, but appreciate it if people request permission first and have likened its misuse/appropriation as similar to "[seeing] an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in an advertisement on the side of a portable toilet."
- Depending on the context, white people with natty dreadlocks. While largely associated with Rastafarianism, it carries a long history in African culture. They have been worn in European cultures, for instance in Archaic Greece and possibly among Vikings, but nowhere near as commonly as in African tradition.
- Speaking of which, people pretending to be Rastafari to justify smoking weed. Genuine Rastafari have a prohibition on consuming alcohol and maintain strict vegetarian i-tal diets, which most of the pretenders probably wouldn't be prepared to follow. Of course, the core of Rastafarianism itself can be said to be cultural appropriation from Judaism, so what goes around comes around.
- Celebrities dressing up as someone exotic in music videos purely for the visual appeal, possibly referencing racist stereotypes in the process.
- White rappers imitating the style of black rappers wholesale, down to adopting a Southern black accent. Not an example if the white rapper grew up in the same neighborhoods and thus the same culture, but is an example if you are from an entirely different country, such as Australia, where none of the local white or black populations have a notable connection with American hip hop culture.
- Most "ethnic" photo shoots.
- Most tattoos in a language the owner can't read. Bonus points if the tattoo is a terrible Internet translation, or just nonsensical gibberish that only looks vaguely like the language. For that matter, general use of foreign languages for exoticism value rather than any attempt to actually convey information in that language. Or even worse, fonts/typefaces meant to look like stereotypes of what another language "looks like".
- Similarly, African-Americans often resort to Swahili words (Kwanzaa, uhuru, etc.) because Swahili is one of the more widespread and available African languages. Ironically, Swahili itself is not a pure African language, containing many Arabic, Hindi, Persian, and Portuguese loan words, originally written in an Arabic (Semitic) script, and currently written in the Latin alphabet, not to mention that Swahili is spoken on the other side of the continent from the areas most Africans in the New World had their roots (where said ancestors would have spoken Yoruba, Bantu/Bantoid languages, Ful, etc.)
- More of a literal example, but the British museums
lootingpreserving various artifacts from throughout the Empire probably counts. Though to be fair, incredibly important discoveries such as the Rosetta Stone were used as building material before the FrenchBritish found them, and given the current political instability in the Middle East and Africa, some artifacts are probably better off staying put in those museums.
- Speaking of Egypt, mummies being used as Halloween costumes is an example, but since the ancient Egyptian religion is long gone, probably no one cares.
- Performing haka if you're not Maori (such as on the University of Arizona football team), unless you're a member of the New Zealand All Blacks performing it in the authorized and correct manner.
- Controversially, Yoga. Although considered a physical exercise by many, it has its roots in Hindu spiritualism and philosophy. Some Hindus see yoga as practised in the west as appropriated into another form of trendy fitness, dressed in New Age trappings. It is worth mentioning, however, that current Indian government puts great effort into promoting yoga worldwide. So the question is - does it count as cultural appropriation, if it is driven by the original cultural phenomenon possessors?
- The appropriation of the swastika as the symbol of the Nazi party, along with other pre-Nazi supremacist and nationalist groups, from the cultures of Troy and the Indian subcontinent.
Related to cultural appropriation is the concept of transethnicity or trans-race, something infamously associated with Tumblr users. Transethnicism is the self-identification of oneself as another racial or ethnic background (or to put it bluntly, "transgender, but with race"). More often than not, it takes the form of a Japanophile conflating their enjoyment of anime and Pocky with actually being Japanese, or their spiritualism, 1/256 blood quantum, and having a chic dreamcatcher keychain without actually being Native American. This, like other "dysphorias" that toe the Poe line (transableism, trans-fat, etc.), is generally strongly looked down upon.
In the real world, transethnicity, broadly, refers to people who were adopted and raised by parents who come from and live in an ethnic or cultural background different from their own (for example, a passing white child being raised in a black or First Nations family, or a Japanese orphan being raised by Chinese adoptive parents in Beijing). It is a relatively common and complex issue of racial and ethnic identity in the modern globalized world that is, unfortunately, misused.
On the other hand...
Arguably, not all instances of appropriation ultimately result in increased marginalization. For example, white musicians imitating the style of rock'n'roll, blues, and jazz musicians in the 1950s actually broadened the audience for these styles and helped black music come to prominence; likewise, Alfred Reed's unambiguous borrowing of Russian musical traditions as part of a (mildly successful) attempt to help out US-Soviet relations can hardly be considered harmful. A little bit later, white women began to break the gender divide in these forms of music and made them more accessible to an even greater number of people. Culture does not work like a commodity market and imitation may bring the originals into the limelight. This effect happens all the time: for example, film adaptations tend to sharply increase the sales of the original books.
Also, in terms of the creative arts, a blanket prohibition on cross-cultural appropriation can actually be counterproductive, especially in environments where the lion's share of the artists are dominated by a majority culture, leading to segregation within said media.
It's best to do your research and be sure a cultural practice is original to a group as well. Belly dancing is common (even stereotypical) as part of Arab culture, but does not originate with it (something at least one Arab-American woman objecting to white women belly dancing did not know). The origin of belly dancing is obscure and might be anywhere from pre-Islamic North Africa to Asia Minor, Persia, or India, but it long predates both Islam and the expansion of Arab culture from the Arabian peninsula (although this doesn't necessarily mean white people should dress up like Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie).
That being said, one thing turning out okay is not a very good argument for doing something else that could end up in marginalization.
Everything is cultural appropriation
On yet another other hand, humans have been "borrowing" or outright stealing ideas since the dawn of time. Alphabetical writing was likely only invented once by the proto-Semites and subsequently refined (through the addition of vowels) by the Greeks and all non-syllabic and non-logographic alphabets are based on those, so writing or reading this article is only possible because someone somewhere "borrowed" from a culture not his own. Similarly, pants were first worn by Celtic and Germanic tribes that were seen as barbaric by the Romans who wore more cumbersome garments. The problem with cultural appropriation is not the act of taking inspiration from another culture in itself, but rather the attitudes and discrimination associated with it. Wearing dreadlocks is not a problem in and of itself, but a police officer stopping and frisking a black person with dreads while finding nothing in white people wearing them is. Making fun of Kwanzaa while finding rap music by white people the greatest invention ever is a problem. "Dressing up" as other ethnicities is a problem, especially if it is related to the extremely cartoonish getup found at sports events.
How to avoid
- If you buy a cultural item, you may want to ask whether there are ways of using the item that are considered disrespectful. For example, while war bonnets are considered sacred, dream catchers are not. However, some consider the non-traditional use of dream catchers in other forms, such as jewelery or keychains, as appropriation.
- If you've been invited to or want to try an activity from another culture (such as yoga, capoeira, t'ai chi chuan, djembe playing, etc.), barring few examples, it's perfectly okay to learn or participate. Ideally, try to find an instructor or class, and don't be a twit about it.
- The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation - Everyday Feminism
- A Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation - Jezebel
- Australian Hip Hop Scene Mostly Made Up of Culturally Confused White People - The Advocate
- "Pueblo seeks respect for Zia symbol," Santa Fe New Mexican, 31 Oct 2007. WebArchive.
- See the Wikipedia article on Dreadlocks.
- The Misappropriation of "Ka Mate" by Brendan M. Kennedy (2015) Cultural Survival.
- N. K. Jemisin, The Appropriateness of Appropriation, The Angry Black Woman
- See the Wikipedia article on Belly dance.
- Jenkins, Philip (2004). Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516115-7.