Cultural (Mis)Appropriation, Appreciation, and Exchange: The Spectrum, and Why It Matters

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After Halloween had concluded, I found a video by a gentleman dressed in a very, for lack of a better way of putting it, “stereotypical” outfit from Mexico: a sombrero and fake mustache. As a multiracial Eurasian, being exposed to stereotypes was nothing new. Consequently, I felt a little ambivalent about the video based on my own unpleasant experiences with stereotypes about my Southeast Asian blood. In any case, the whole premise of this video was the man going around a college campus and asking people how they felt about his outfit. Certainly, he had mixed responses. Some of the Mexicans in the video were even amused and assured him they were not offended while the non-Mexicans he spoke with mostly were. Surely there was assurance shown by the Latin(x) that nothing was offensive, which may seem well and good.

Yet, there was a lot about the video subjected to scrutiny.

For one, I considered the history of the gentleman in question. I knew his agenda, and what I have seen in his other videos. The way he treated some members of minority groups in the name of “debate” also did not seem with the intention of respectful discussion in mind. This, coupled with his role in rallying supporters to further perpetuate an already toxic political climate, I was not convinced. He was introducing the prospect of cultural appreciation, but in a manner that diminished or discredited the significance of cultural appropriation as a concern – or what I call “cultural misappropriation.” If it did not feel like he was trying to do that, I might have just said, “fair enough.”

Unfortunately, that was the tone in his video when one considers his unambiguous agenda, and how he sometimes borders on “trolling” about it.

I had meant to write about this topic before Halloween, but it did not happen that way. Because of costumes and fashion inspired by other cultures are becoming more commonplace, there are a lot of articles, discussions, and even arguments about the subject of cultural appropriation. Some of my dear friends have in their part become defensive about it because they think anyone taking issue with it is doing a ‘reverse segregation’ or discrimination of their own. They interpret the backlash as trying to exclude others from being involved with other cultures (a small handful may be doing so). Other friends are starting to write off celebrities and people for falling into the trap of cultural appropriation, staunchly opposed to it. For the friends who see cultural appropriation as a problem, we may not always agree with how to deal with it or what constitutes as such, but we can at least agree it is a legitimate issue.

Sad to say, cultural appropriation is not necessarily a new phenomenon, nor is it not an issue to mock or treat as black-and-white. With this, some may understand what I mean by “the spectrum” piece of my title, and even appreciate where cultural appropriation may linger on it. Others may end reading this blog post, feeling strongly enough about my conjecture on the topic to brand me as being either “too sensitive” or not illuminating the issue “enough.” Nonetheless, here we are. I am going to write about it anyway because like many others, I feel I have something to say. I am feeling a little ornery about it at this point, really.

In all seriousness, I am hoping I will help people understand why cultural appropriation is a problem, where it is different from cultural appreciation, and convey what cultural exchange really is. In the end, I hope to also discuss ways to keep on the side of cultural appreciation, while inspiring ways to participate in a true cultural exchange. Months or years later, I may have a more refined view on the topic to discuss in another time, another place. Social issues seem to be nuanced that way, not so easy to deal with in a single era or decade. We will get there, though.

What This Post Is Not

Before I go into what this essay is about, I should preface what it is not. First, I want to nip the concern of me being part of the “cultural police” at the bud. I am not telling anyone they cannot go out and wear what they want, do what they want, and so forth. There is no question of whether one can do something or not. ‘Should’ they, though, is another question, and I hope everyone who reads this can leave with this question to think about.

In kind, this post does not excuse cultural appropriation, either. Unfortunately, all of us at some point have unwittingly done it; we may also accidentally do it in the future. Social issues sadly would not be what they are if it were as simple as to choose not to be part of them. Every generation, we are learning different ways to combat systematic oppressions, oppressions that produce the space for engaging in some of the most harmful forms of cultural appropriation. Some of the things that might seem small may become a larger problem later, just like with anything else. I may find later that I have unintentionally participated in these oppressions, which then I will need to decide how to do better in the future.

Defining Cultural Appropriation, and Why It Is A Problem

Now that I have cleared my intentions and goals, I want to get into the topic at hand, that of cultural appropriation. The basic definition of cultural appropriation is the taking of some or all elements of a culture not one’s own, and utilizing the elements in a way that people of that culture do not (and without appropriate permission and credit). It is truly, truly an issue at its core. Here is one example of why I say this, an example that burns well in the memory of modern Euro-American cultures: the swastika.

Multiple Asian traditions have used the swastika in art, and for Indian culture in particular, the swastika symbolizes good luck and prosperity. Buddhist iconography across Asia have employed the swastika in some form or another. For Hindus and Hindu-influenced systems, the swastika is often tied to Ganesha, and at times is placed somewhere at the entrance of a home. Anyone seeing the swastika, in this case, are to be filled with a sense of being blessed, if you will.

In modern Euro-American culture, though, that is not what the swastika elicits, is it? Many who see a swastika now are filled with dread, some level of discomfort or ambivalence; or, now assume it a symbol of white supremacy, a symbol of hate. For Jewish communities, this is especially the case after the history leading up to the horrors of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust. So then, the question remains: how does a symbol of good luck and prosperity become one of the most horrifying symbols associated in the Western world?

The answer is two words no one wants to hear: cultural (mis)appropriation. When people speak about cultural appropriation and take issue with it, one can now see this is no longer a new issue. What is different now is more people are aware of it as a concern.

Truly, irony is not lost on a number of historians, Indologists, and various other learned individuals: Adolf Hitler was fascinated with the history and culture of India. A scholar before his time had believed a (superior) “white” race had existed a long time ago, and also invaded India at some point in ancient history, endorsing a theory called the Aryan Invasion Theory. As a result of this, and other scholars proposing similar ideas, Hitler believed the original Aryans were Europeans. Ergo, his ideal image of the “Aryan Race” was someone with blond hair and blue eyes.

Evidence today shows a very different picture of Aryans, indicating their origins were likely from elsewhere. Iran used to call their land “Aryana,” or “the land of the Aryans.” To add a relevant anecdote: own name was given to me in a Farsi class because it was the closest we could get to the meaning of my birth name, which had nothing to do with a race.

This is where I digress. Hitler took the swastika as a “borrowed” piece of another culture, turning it into something else completely divorced from its original meaning. Because of this single act of appropriation, I have to educate people about the origins of the swastika whenever they notice the Asian version’s similarity to the symbol bastardized by the Third Reich. Further complicating this matter are the numerous neo-Nazi organizations who still carry the symbol as their own. It may be years yet before people will understand collectively what happened to the swastika, perhaps even longer before it can be reclaimed as a symbol more appropriate to its older meaning (no pun intended).

This, again, is why cultural appropriation is an issue. I will even boldly say this is why cultural appropriation can be harmful, even when the start of it seems harmless. The more aware one can be of how misappropriation of cultural symbols or trinkets can be, the higher chance we can reduce its impact. People can take better care of how they use items from another culture (if at all).

Someone may now also understand why utilizing some items or practices from a culture might cause concern, if not offense. It is not about them — the ones accused of cultural appropriation — it is about the history, the circumstances, and the lingering postcolonial influences and systems of oppression. The swastika was not suddenly turned into the symbol it had become. It was a process, and it started from one person named Hitler using a symbol from a colonized culture. And he did not care about how it would later impact the culture in question because he admired the culture and history, but thought little of the natives (he supported the British colonization of India). In contrast, the Christian cross being used by the Nazis did not cause the same impact because Christianity was still considered part of the dominant culture.

In saying this, I am definitely not saying anyone plans to become a dictator when they use something from another culture. Nor am I saying they are a bad person. I use the swastika and its use (abuse) by the Nazis as an example of cultural appropriation because it embodies what many fear might become of their culture. There are many other examples I could go into on this.  I recently went into a case of (mis)appropriating the Hindu Goddess, Kali. The swastika, however, is one of the most classical, historical examples of cultural appropriation, while illuminating just how damaging it can be.

With this in mind, am I saying that no one who is an outsider to a culture can never participate in that culture in a way? Or adopt practices from another culture? Absolutely not. Diwali is regularly celebrated on college campuses now, and some Caucasian women are invited by their hosts to wear traditional dresses during this occasion. In kind, the Japanese-American Association had hosted cultural events where both Japanese and non-Japanese were able to participate in dances, wearing cultural dress suitable for the event. With these situations, outsiders have significant enough understanding of the culture, as well as consider the perspectives of the insiders of the culture. Through this, they are not merely taking what they please because they “can.’’

This phenomenon is what we call cultural appreciation.

Cultural Appreciation, And How to Practice It

In summary, cultural appreciation is when someone outside of a culture has done in-depth research on a culture or had participated inside a culture enough to respect the things they utilize from the culture. This is where the line between appropriation and appreciation can become tricky, though. There are some individuals out there, especially of the dominant culture, who in their mind are appreciating a culture when they like something from it and use it. A “positive” or romanticized view of a culture might be at play. So sometimes, someone with the best intentions can accidentally cross into the line of cultural appropriation.

What comes fresh to my mind are some of the yoga practitioners I encountered while I lived in Boulder, Colorado. Yoga is a popular “fitness” activity there. While there are surely physical benefits from practicing it, there were not many yoga studios I felt comfortable attending. In part, some of the studios were fixated on the physical aspect of yoga with complete neglect of the spiritual components, or its history. Not to mention, I had met a number of practitioners who loved yoga, yet were above doing something such as participate in community held Indian festivals, or making a trip to India.

At a time, Indians were strongly discouraged from practicing yoga during colonial India. They historically had a more spiritual attribution to the practice of yoga, the original goals of it reflecting accordingly. Spiritual attainment was more prioritized than the physical (though they are not always mutually exclusive).

With this in mind, I felt a bit of a wrongness about the studios that completely disregarded this history, or the original ideas surrounding yoga. There were only two instructors I was willing to learn yoga from for this reason. With the topic of cultural appropriation becoming a focus of discourse, I now understand why this was (and still sometimes is) the case.

Does this mean no one should practice yoga if they are not Indian? As a multiracial, multicultural person myself, I would be a behemoth of a hypocrite to say yes to this question. I am not saying this at all; not by a long-stretch. What I am saying is this, though.

The difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation is whether power and historical, systematic (and often post-colonial or neocolonial) oppressions come into play. Cultural appreciation requires the minimizing or removal of that power dynamic to their best ability. This is why it is not considered cultural appropriation when minority groups from non-Western countries dress in professional business suits in the United States. Cultural appropriation happens when the group with power begins to commodify trinkets of a less dominant culture for the use of the dominant culture.

Thus, another harmful element of this appropriation: the dynamic easily becomes exploitative. Someone is culturally appropriating a practice when the native practitioners face negative connotations, considerable stigmatization, and so forth for engaging in the practice while the “appropriator” does not. Yet the person not native to the culture indulges in the practices in question because they are either unaware of, or do not care about the baggage carried by the minority culture.

What if a person not native to a culture feels more native to the culture, truly wants to connect with the culture, and really wants to show they appreciate the culture? If for instance, a yoga practitioner who is not Asian wants to continue practicing yoga, but in a way that shows cultural appreciation? What about cosplays of characters from Japanese anime? I believe there is a way to go about this, even if the path is not so clear-cut and easy. Because some practices that were once stigmatized are now becoming less so, I believe we are moving in a direction where we can, hopefully, more easily do this, with some considerations.

It starts with questioning why one feels native to the other culture, trying to understand one’s limitations to connecting with that culture. Further, it begins with considering what makes the culture fascinating, or what makes the items or concepts from it appealing. This awareness is key, because all of us have been raised with unconscious prejudices of some form or another, ones that may ultimately contaminate how we engage other cultures. Unfortunately, the beauty of a culture is not sufficient rationale for cultivating appreciation of it (and it risks exoticization, even unintentional).

The journey begins with regularly engaging the natives, and really thinking about the ways to ensure their voice is not ignored while one tries to participate in the natives’ cultural practices; practicing with sensitivity. And this is not something anyone will do perfectly or get right all the time. We all can learn how to do better each time, though. I will be the first one to admit that I have made a small error on my presentation about Shivaratri a few years back, only to be corrected by an annoyed individual and having to concede with my mistake. It is going to happen, but I do what I can to own my mistakes. What mattered to me was I heard a long-time Hindu correct me, versus their voice being shut out from the discourse surrounding their culture altogether.

With the case of the yoga practitioners who want to show cultural appreciation while doing yoga, they can start researching yoga beyond their existing class. There are resources found online; there may be many at this point for this now with the increased popularity of yoga. Even better, they can seek yoga practitioners or online materials given by Asian (likely to be Indian) yogi/nis. From this, they may learn there are little things to perfect their personal yoga practice. Statuettes of Indian gods might be moved someplace where one might not accidentally point their feet in their direction. A yogi/ni might eventually find themselves receiving certification from organizations representing Asian lineages of practitioners in their journey to perfect their practice.

So, back on the man I mentioned in the fake mustache and sombrero and making a point of cultural appreciation: he really was not showing cultural appreciation. He had a fake black mustache, which alone was a telltale sign of the agenda to follow. I might have given it thought if he had not added that impertinent touch. It was not anything done with any genuine respect for Mexican culture but done in a mockery of others. This display was only a little “less offensive” than the minstrel shows that were once popular in the United States, ones that over-stereotyped Americans of African descent (which, I daresay, were quite offensive).

At the end of the day, there may be a few members of the culture who will not approve of an outsider engaging in their practices, no matter their efforts or authenticity; or even how much they get it ‘right.’ This, too, needs kept in mind. Their opinions is their prerogative, no matter the right or wrong of it.

The more people put effort into honoring the culture they wish to engage in, listening and understanding the voices of its natives, the further away they inch from the line crossing into cultural appropriation. In the process, they may find themselves in a situation where they can safely say, and feel with confidence, they are engaging in what is the ideal scenario: cultural exchange. They may find themselves where all are truly equally engaging each other’s worldviews on equal footing, without residual colonial baggage contaminating the exchange. With cultural exchange, all is as an ideal world would mandate: there is no power dynamic or history of systematic oppressions to impede the sharing of ideas and concepts.

How To Make Cultural Exchange Happen

In addition to genuinely trying to show appreciation for the culture, where the natives’ feedback and voice is valued while doing so, there are other considerations for making space for cultural exchange. As noted before, one of the bigger issues that come with cultural appropriation is the commodification of materials or constructs within that culture. Admittedly, this happens with Christianity in the way Christmas items are commercialized. However, because Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States, Christians have a little more agency on this; other religious-cultural traditions may not. This leads to the following.

If one really wishes to own items from a culture (if they do not have the appropriate occasion to use it), it is always a good idea to see if one can purchase the items from the natives. Dreamcatchers, for instance, are a very popular item in the United States, and come from Native American culture(s). A better way to show appreciation for the trinket, and work toward cultural exchange, is to learn about the dreamcatcher from the Natives’ voices. Really take the Native sources and voices seriously, while seeking Native American groups and sellers to purchase from. Invest in fair trade organizations, as well, who will make sure most of the money goes to the people of the native culture. Doing this will also prevent one from giving more money to a company that is engaging in harmful exploitation of the culture in order to deliver the “commodities” of interest.

Another important way to encourage exchange: seek opportunities to regularly participate in the culture. I am by all means not saying to force one’s self into a powwow, but the more one can play a role with, or (ideally) in the culture itself, the more agency you give to the natives of the culture. For anyone who loves Asian cultures, make plans to eventually visit the country with the culture of interest (if you can). Immerse yourself, do not just go to the tourist hubs. This way, one can fully appreciate the experience of being part of the culture. If this experience is not available, try making connections and build relationships with the diasporic communities. I have two spiritual fathers from doing this. Who knows, I might end up being adopted by more!

Last but not least: do your part to be an ally to the culture. There are a number of subcultures and diasporic communities in the United States who could really use some. With an increasingly toxic political climate, many of these communities are being subjected to systematic abuses, their voices not being heard. Some politicians are making sure such voices are ignored, working toward the disappearance of these voices. The more you can do to fight social inequalities affecting the community, advocate for the community, and help empower the community, the more you will help reduce the power of the dominant culture. Reducing the power that the dominant culture has over a community makes cultural exchange more common, more organic.

Concluding Thoughts

I understand this is perhaps one of my longest blog posts in a while. In kind, I know that I discussed a very difficult topic, and there may be nuances that I could not address in the depth (or breadth) that I went. Admittedly, there is no way I can do more justice to this topic, with how complex it is. With this in mind, I hope I still am able to convey a better appreciation of it. There are many other resources on the topic, and I wish I could remember off the top of my head all of them. When I run across them later, I will certainly update this post with a reference list.

Importantly, I know that despite the best intentions, all of us are going to make mistakes on resolving the real issues. We are human, but we can also learn from each other (and ourselves) on the way. What matters is enough people want to do so and endeavor to do their part – big or small.


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