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Cultural Appropriation – The thin line between appreciation and exploitation

By Beatrice Porbeni 02 June 2017   |   3:23 pm

Black African women perming their hair or wearing weaves to replicate European hairstyles cannot be regarded as cultural appropriation. An incident of a Black American woman asking a white male student at the University of San Francisco to cut off his dreads because they belonged to the black culture is an example of cultural appropriation.  And we will tell you why.

Cultural appropriation is a very sticky topic, which has become quite popular recently. The term can be described as  “borrowing” or adopting use of the characters of a collective culture by another dominant culture, hence the reason why wearing a weave or European clothing by non-Europeans, is not considered as cultural appropriation. In modern times, the idea of cultural appropriation is more noticeable particularly regarding mainstream art, music, fashion and beauty trends.

In many cases, cultural appropriation is equated to stealing intellectual property, while profiting off the material and giving no credit to its origin. In other scenarios,  the inspiration may have been credited but the context in which the borrowed culture has been used is deemed inappropriate. For example, Beyonce’s recent Lemonade video depicted her as the Yoruba goddess Osun whom she credited and she was applauded for the recognition of her African heritage.

But while her aim was to show appreciation of the culture, many argue that the Osun goddess, being a sacred symbol of the Yoruba people had no place in the American hip-hop culture, and should not be made a spectacle creatively or otherwise.

Cultural appropriation shifts from the notion of appreciation to exploitation when the culture of a collective group of people has been copied and sold to the mainstream as new trend, while the original source is left with no credit or remuneration. Recently, the weavers of Mayan launched a legal battle in the Guatemalan Congress, as their indigenous textile is being appropriated and sold in America. The weavers complain about their lack of business, as many would rather buy the mainstream versions even though the fabrics are an intricate part of the culture, and the history of the country.

But still, the special thing about culture is its ability to travel. Whether we like it or not the nature of culture allows it to be fluid, as human beings interact and draw inspiration from their experiences and environments. If we take a look at our surroundings, we may find that cultural appropriation has its benefits. So, on the brighter side, borrowing ideas from different cultures has led to the international spread of knowledge such as mathematics, folktales, food and politics.

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