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Cultural appropriation, or the usurpation of ethnic elements: a real problem?

Cultural appropriation, or the usurpation of ethnic elements: a real problem?

July 23, 2024

The concept of cultural appropriation is increasingly debated in circles of social psychology, anthropology and sociology, although it is not new.

The idea that one culture can feed on another through violent means has awakened a great controversy, and, as we will see, part of the problem is that there are two very different positions: those who believe that cultural appropriation is a form of real domination that must be combated, and those who believe that it does not exist.

Now ... what exactly is that of cultural appropriation and why is it increasingly heard about it? We will see it in the following lines.

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Cultural appropriation: definition

Cultural appropriation can be understood as the use of cultural elements typical of one ethnic group by another, stripping it of all its meaning and banalizing its use. Put more briefly, is what happens when a cultural element is usurped with purposes that have nothing to do with those attributed to it.


However, as often happens in social sciences, there is not a single agreed definition of what cultural appropriation is, and that is why some people add a nuance to this definition: this cultural "theft" must be produced by a dominant or hegemonic culture , to another thing that is subjected to the first.

Thus, this last detail serves to introduce another topic in the way in which we can understand this phenomenon: the dynamics of power, the disappearance of certain cultures at the expense of the enrichment of others.

Some examples of cultural appropriation

Many of the contexts in which people or organizations have been criticized for falling into cultural appropriation are linked to art, fashion and aesthetics. For example, some fashion magazines have been attacked and boycotted (although with few effects) for using white models to represent non-Western aesthetics with clothes of cultures considered "exotic".


The same has happened in the world of music. Several singers have been criticized for resorting to cultural appropriation, like Miley Cyrus with the twerk or Katy Perry for wearing clothes associated with the Japanese stereotype. The same is done, in retrospect, with Elvis Presley, for marketing music that until a few decades ago was part of the African-American culture, until he put it in fashion.

On the other hand, certain universities and organizations of all kinds have also been criticized for marketing acts related to non-western style meditation, or even yoga. There are many commercial activities associated with easily identifiable elements with certain cultures.

The controversy

Cultural appropriation is a very problematic concept. One of the reasons is that, on the one hand, it is very arbitrary attribute an aesthetic, element or ritual to an ethnic collective determined and not others.


For example, Rastas are usually associated with ethnic groups linked to Africa or, in any case, Jamaica, a country with a black majority. However, technically, in the past there were already groups of white people who used dreadlocks, such as certain peoples of Ancient Greece or religious groups in Europe. On the other hand, it would also be possible to criticize people associated with the populations of Africa and Asia for using a cultural element of ethnic subgroups that are in a worse situation than their own. When determining what is an ethnic group it is possible to adopt infinite perspectives.

Another problem is that many people do not believe that cultural appropriation is a problem, even if it exists. That is, they emphasize the idea that cultures have no limits and therefore flow, change constantly and pass from one hand to another. From this point of view, nobody should suffer or worry about something like that , since it would be normal for a culture to remain immutable and isolated from the rest.

In addition, another issue that is often spoken of is that for cultural appropriation to exist, there must first be cultural elements that belong to a few hands. The usurpation occurs when who previously enjoyed something stops doing it by the action of another person, who takes over that resource. However, in cultural appropriation this does not happen; In any case, something that before only used a smaller set of people is popularized.

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A broader view of the problem

Keep in mind that for many people cultural appropriation can not be understood by simply analyzing the way in which a habit, aesthetic or ritual becomes popular. What happens is that this phenomenon is, in any case, the symptom that there is a culture that subjects the rest.

We have already seen an example that leads us to this idea: the popularization of Afro-American roots music by Elvis, a target. The same goes for twerk, which until recently was associated with groups of non-whites with few economic resources. Or even with Buddhism, a religion that because of the stereotypes that surround meditation has been associated with peace, although it is perfectly possible for Buddhists to fall into the violence of religious fanaticism.

Cultural appropriation, then, would be a way of commercializing cultural aspects that have existed for some time outside the margins of the market, and that have been introduced in this from the perspective of white western culture . Even when this serves to wash the image of a specific ethnic group, this is the result of ignorance, a sign of the extent to which these populations are separated from the decision centers of the economy.


1619 and the Making of America (July 2024).


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