This essay focuses on the phenomenon of cultural appropriation, its modern manifestations, and its historical as well as cultural background. This problem is becoming more and more important for the national cultures within modern globalized world. This becomes particularly evident as the world is becoming more and more populous, as globalization puts down the borders between the cultural areas. This problem is particularly important for the cultures of minorities living within the biggest countries of the world, nations of large multinational countries, in which one culture dominates over the others, it is important for the majority of nations all over the world as western culture is continuing its invasion through easily accessible cultural products, such as high budget movies, TV and Internet broadcasting etc.
First of all it is important to discuss the terms. Cultural appropriation is the process of Adopting one culture’s traditions or other cultural elements by another culture. This term is particularly used in case when a dominant culture is adopting cultural elements of the culture, which is being suppressed by it. In case of cultural appropriation the adopting culture incorporates, implements elements of the other culture into its own cultural context. As a result, the adopted cultural elements are further on seen as elements of the culture, which has adopted them. Respectively, these cultural elements are being recognized beyond their native culture and not associated with it. Oftentimes adoption of such cultural elements by a dominating culture is met by explicitly expressed protest from the side of the suppressed culture. However, in the majority of cases these elements are still used by the suppressing culture and incorporated into its cultural context, being represented as its own cultural elements. Oftentimes in the process of such cultural incorporation the meaning of such elements is being neglected, and this may result in narrowing the meaning of an element to its merely aesthetic function. Often important and in some cases even sacred meaning of such elements, characteristic of them within their native culture, may appear to be entirely lost after their adoption. Thus, a deeply important symbol or ritual, after being adopted may be turned into some exotic element without any sort of meaning attached.
This process is being closely studied by the scholars in the field of anthropology and. It is also sometimes replaced with an alternative term “Borrowing”. It is seen within the context of intercultural communication and cultural exchange.
It is important to keep in mind that traditionally the term “Cultural appropriation” is used and, therefore, understood in a negative context. Cultural appropriation is seen as something bad, very close to stealing something valuable from somebody who is weak. When applying this term it is usually understood, that the culture, which is a donor in this particular case, is in one way or another subordinated to the culture, which is borrowing the cultural element or a range of cultural elements from it. Such subordination may belong to military, economic or political type. Appropriation may occur between a minority and majority cultures within one country or region. Still, there may be other reasons behind such a phenomenon, such as historical context or some sort of conflict, involved.
It is also important to realize, that the process of cultural appropriation is different from adopting cultural elements of a suppressing culture by the representatives of a suppressed one. For instance, if within the process of colonization the representatives of a colonized ethnic group or groups are adopting cultural elements of the suppressing group, of their colonizers speaking in other terms, this is different from the process of cultural appropriation as the power is not used for the purposes of adopting cultural elements, in fact, the situation is quite reverse – the colonizers usually do not mind their cultural elements being borrowed. May they wish to oppose to such a state of things, they have got all the means for doing so. At the same time the purpose of borrowing of such cultural elements in such a case is different from the motivation behind cultural appropriation. When representatives of a suppressed culture are borrowing elements of the suppressing, colonizing culture, this is most frequently done for the purposes of associating themselves with the suppressor, with the power, the strength of the suppressor. Negative meaning is hardly ever assigned to such instances of cultural borrowing.
The term of cultural appropriation in its negative meaning is oftentimes criticized. Some specialists in the field of anthropology and other related disciplines do not see anything negative behind the process of cultural borrowing. They underline, that such borrowing most frequently occurs with no evil intensions from the side of the borrower, and is taking place as a part of a natural process of cultural exchange. This process is constantly taking place and cannot be addressed as a result of somebody’s evil will. Such borrowing is a result of admiring the elements of one culture’s elements by the representatives of the other, and the act of borrowing does not stand for intensions to cause any harm to the culture from which such elements are borrowed. One more aspect, which causes serious critical feedback, is the application of the word “appropriation” to culture. The critics of this concept argue that this term may only be applied to a resource, which is limited by its nature (McWhorter, ND). It is almost equivalent to stealing. Meanwhile, culture cannot be seen as such a resource. It is not limited and cannot be even seen in this dimension. If a cultural element is borrowed, this does not mean, that the culture and the representatives of the ethnic group for whom such culture is native, will automatically become unable of using these cultural elements. The element is not “removed” from the culture, it remains within its context, and the representatives from whom such borrowing is implemented continue enjoying its benefits. The critics of the concept indicate particularly to such a phenomenon as a language. Each and every language is full of borrowed words, and such words are borrowed from different and diverse cultures in different historical periods and under different historical circumstances. It is impossible to look at all these cases as if they all were instances of theft. The term “appropriation” would have to be applied to all of them. However, there are scholars, who respectfully object to this sort of argumentation particularly pointing out that mutual exchange should not be put in one row with the forceful appropriation, when cultural elements are borrowed not as a result of regular intercultural relations, but becomes a result of cultural suppression.
It is important to bring up a few examples of such practices. And when speaking of such examples it is first of all important to pay attention to cases when symbols or texts or any other artifacts are used by the suppressing culture free of their sacred context, within which these elements were seen within their native cultures. In such cases such cultural elements are used disrespectfully of their original meaning, and such use, such application may even sometimes appear to be offensive to the original culture. Here are a few bright examples” a number of US football clubs are named with the names of Native American tribes. For the tribes this sounds offensive as for the adopting culture these words are no more than a funny combination of sounds, and as such it is applied, while in the Native American culture such a word may be seen as something very important, misuse of which seriously offends the representatives of the culture. This often refers to Chinese characters or iconography belonging to the tribes of Polynesia are copied to be printed on clothes or other elements of décor, and then worn by the people who merely believe such to look good and do not care for the actual meaning of such symbols within the context of their native culture. Such behavior results in mass production of various things reproducing such cultural elements, and such mass production and somebody’s merely commercial approach to something very significant for the culture is very offensive for the representatives of such culture, and particularly for those who take such things seriously.
It is important to address the issue from the historical prospective. And when seeing the phenomenon within its historical context many scholars have paid attention to the fact, that the cases of cultural appropriation most frequently occurred in the places, where the intensity of cultural exchange was the highest. At least historically the instances of cultural appropriation have led to most intense discussions. In this context one may think of trade roads which had the heaviest traffic. Such were located in the south-eastern part of Europe as well as in the south-western part of Asia. In general, intense trade relations made great input into the practice of cultural appropriation.
One brighter example is the practice of wearing various costumes belonging to different cultures during the Halloween night. For instance, the Indian Warrior costume may be worn by a person who has got nothing in common with Indian culture, has got no knowledge of what stands behind the costume within the cultural tradition from which it is stolen, but wears it only to make fun of the culture and its representatives.
People who stand up against such unauthorized borrowing and misinterpretation of the elements of one or another culture point out, that such actions are significantly influencing the state in which the original culture is, destroying it, harming it, to say the least.
And this is quite an understandable point of view. Civilized nations, as they refer to their own selves, respect intellectual rights. Thus it is quite unclear, why the rights of a person who has written a text or a melody or painted a picture need to be respected and observed, while the concept of cultural appropriation is criticized with a reference to culture not being a limited resource.
When speaking of cultural appropriation one may remember numerous instances, when western cultures would borrow elements of Eastern cultures without any sort of authorization. It is worthwhile remembering elements of Chinese and Indian culture nowadays incorporated into the western cultures. One bright example is Yoga, which out of a complex and serious philosophy has been turned into nearly a sport by people ignorant and not caring of the original significance of the borrowed elements. Such instances may be discussed endlessly and the problem, unfortunately, is quite a serious one. In order to properly influence this problem the United Nations has adopted a number of declarations. For instance, the declaration on the rights of the indigenous people in its article 31 particularly reads:
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.
Utmost effort needs to be undertaken by all the people from all over the world to protect all cultures from the instances of cultural appropriation. This gains particular importance within the context of modern globalized world and intense interaction between all the cultures of the world.