Cultural appropriation is quite the buzzword these days. It’s also quite a mouthful, but nearly everyone seems to be using it. You can go on to Twitter any day of the week, and you will see someone accusing some other person of cultural appropriation. So let’s discuss what do we mean by ‘Cultural Appropriation’ and what’s so offensive about it?
‘Cultural Appropriation’ isn’t by any means a recent invention. It has existed for quite a while, for it has its ties to colonialism. ‘Colonialism’ is the practice where one country takes over the land and resources of another country forcefully and intends to pillage those resources for their benefit and make the captured country a colony of theirs. Appropriation is said to be a leftover form of colonialism in postcolonial societies.
By Wikipedia definitions –
“Cultural appropriation is the adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. This can be controversial when members of a dominant colonial culture appropriate from a disadvantaged minority culture.” Since Europe colonized the complete globe and it is white people that are the dominant majority in the country, we will talk about how cultural appropriation is a protrusion in the branch called ‘Racism.’
‘Cultural Appropriation’ as an academic term emerged in the 1980s, though the particular concept had been discussed earlier in papers, like ‘Some general observations on the problems of cultural colonialism’ by Kenneth Coutts-Smith. Since then, due to mega-celebrities and pop stars starting to adopt other cultures and benefit from them, the term was pushed into daily public discourse.
Viral moments such as Miley Cyrus appropriating black American culture by wearing grills, adding rap music influences to her songs, and donning locs, a staple black hairstyle, all to kick up a storm and revive her music career. Selena Gomez and Iggy Azalea did the same thing by wearing Indian jewelry and accessories as a costume for their music videos and shows. Lana Del Rey appropriated Native American headdresses as a prop for her videos. The fashion industry is also known for its inability to stop stealing disadvantaged cultures as a fashion trend. This started conversations among people whose cultures were being appropriated, and everyone’s becoming aware of how ‘culture-vultures’ capitalize on minority cultures without paying proper dues.
Life imitates art, everyone says. And since people saw how everyone in the art-entertainment industry was doing it, they started doing it as well. Native American, East Asian, Indian, African, and more cultural attires became a Halloween costume. Every Halloween, there is an uproar from those marginalized communities, but the appropriation doesn’t stop.
Now, to answer what’s exactly offensive about the practice: Here are some reasons generally provided by communities of color and critics of appropriation –
- It trivializes and mocks the historical systemic oppression of marginalized sections of society.
- It lets the dominant group (i.e., white people) profit from the labor of oppressed groups.
- It pigeonholes people of color and spreads racist ideas and lies about them.
- It rewards the dominant group for participating in precisely what the minority groups were punished for (by the same dominant group oftentimes).
Identity Politics and Gatekeeping –
Since the concepts of cultural appropriation and identity are intricately interwoven, identity politics rears its head into the debate as well. There’s often tension between the natives of the culture and its diaspora around the world. It becomes a point of contention that who actually can allege the appropriation and who has the higher authority on the matter.
Now that we have some basic understanding of the topic let’s talk about how it affects social media spaces. We all know that social media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is an extension of and a reflection of the real tangible world as we know it. And so we see cultural appropriation carry over to the virtual world as well. Not only does it carry, but it also evolves and finds new ways to exist on the internet. A lot of what we talked about up to this point has all happened on social media too. The music videos from Lana Del Rey and Iggy Azalea were viewed by hundreds of millions worldwide.
In October every year, Instagram is flooded with countless Halloween pictures, which would fall right under appropriation. Instagram algorithms of likes, shares, views, and increasing followers prop up these pictures in the daily feed of unsuspecting people of color. Here are some more recent observations of the shapes cultural appropriation can take on social media –
1). AAVE appropriation on Twitter
AAVE, or African American Vernacular English (formerly known as Ebonics), seems to be the new cool thing among the kids. Non-black people these days have been appropriating AAVE like never before. Phrases like ‘On Fleek’ and ‘It’s the ____ for me’ were quickly lifted and ‘ruined’ by non-black people by excessive and incorrect use. Twitter is a place where non-black people feel quite comfortable using AAVE, maybe because of the constant jokes and hit tweets environment, since AAVE is appropriated for humor quite a lot. Non-black people who use it often argue that it is just ‘stan culture’ and ‘internet culture’ that they’re participating in, not black culture. But that is a relatively weak argument since there is documented proof that AAVE is indeed a part of the black culture.
Black culture and aesthetics are the most sought-after accessory right now, the shiny new thing. So, it’s no surprise that blaccent is being used by non-black TikTokers and YouTubers to gain views, followers, and social capital, which eventually turns into money. Blaccent is a portmanteau word from – Black and Accent. It means mimicking how black people generally speak or the use of AAVE. It started on social media with Vine, and from there on TikTok and YouTube, non-black people use AAVE to humor’s effect to seem hip, humorous, and badass.
Even though there’s this notion of America as a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, it seems that the base standard is always whiteness, and anything separate from it is viewed as ‘other.’ Other cultures are ostracised, exoticized, and capitalized upon all at the same time. Ironically, AAVE – what makes white people seem cool is the same thing which, when used by black people, is considered ‘unprofessional’ and ‘uneducated.’
3). Weaboo Culture
The Anime and Manga industry, originally from Japan, is hugely successful in Asia and the US, UK, and Australia. ‘Weaboos’ – western people obsessed with Animes and Japan, in general, can be quite appropriative at times. They buy into the idea that anime is just part of pop culture now, and it’s at their disposal for their use only. They often learn Japanese to gain social capital among peers and start writing manga to gain financially. Some even fetishize Asian women, which can be problematic. A lot of illegal streaming of anime is done through social media apps, like Facebook. And ‘weeb culture’ can be seen flourishing on platforms like TikTok and Instagram Reels.
4). Queer culture
A lot of artists and companies often appropriate LGBTQ and ballroom culture. Dances like voguing and back-up dancers in flamboyant makeup and high heels used as props in kpop music videos and in the west are quite a common sight to see. Queer slang, too, is often used by non-queer people to seem cool and quirky. This also leads into the territories of pandering and queerbaiting.
Korean pop music, which has its stronghold on YouTube, has a very problematic relationship with appropriation. Known for its high budget and high concept videos with perfect costumes and intense dance choreographies, kpop is a global phenomenon. But the industry has been known to draw its ideas for outfits, dances, and props from every part of the world, including all marginalized communities. Appropriation from Native American, Mexican, South Asian, African American, and African cultures can be regularly seen. The industry has been called out multiple times for this practice, but it hasn’t taken any concrete steps to mend its ways yet.
After all this, you might still be wondering – “but when is it appropriation, and when is it just appreciation?” Well, the answer is simple. Learning about new cultures can be a great experience. Critics say that – Appreciation is learning about a culture, respecting it, and moving on. Making a profit off of it would be considered appropriation. One more term is ‘assimilation’ – defined as when two cultures start to merge because of shared proximity. Growing up in such an atmosphere can be a fantastic thing, vibrant cultures clashing against each other. And if that’s the case and the cultures are yours to adorn, do it. Being respectful of everyone around you and listening to disenfranchised groups is the most important thing to do, and the rest comes along with it.
Social media has changed how we view other cultures. The internet has brought on a wave of globalization that is quite revolutionary. Cultural exchange takes place over social media every day, every second. We regularly consume content – be it movies, tv shows, YouTube videos, Instagram posts, podcasts from all corners of the world.
Wrapped in all that content comes the culture of that place for our consumption too. But having conversations over social media has also taught us to be respectful and grateful for the opportunity to learn those cultures, and there’s a responsibility that comes with the privilege of learning, and that is to not use that knowledge for harm.