Cultural appropriation is defined as the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture. However, cultural appropriation has little to do with one’s exposure to and familiarity with another culture. Rather, it typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of minority groups with little to no knowledge of the culture’s history.
African American, Asian American, Native American, Native Hawaiian and indigenous peoples generally tend to be those targeted by cultural appropriation or exploitation.
We see cultural appropriation in our everyday lives and are so surrounded by it that we often don’t recognize it. We are most ingrained with the exploitation of cultures other than our own as a result of the media.
When members of a dominant group appropriate the cultures of others, they often reinforce stereotypes. We often see celebrities attempt to represent cultures other than their own, completely misrepresenting and/or disrespecting them.
In 2013 popstar Katy Perry performed as a geisha at the American Music Awards, describing her portrayal as an “homage to Asian culture.” Asian Americans strongly disagreed with her appraisal, describing it as “yellowface.”
Perry’s performance was completely problematic, as she failed to celebrate Asian culture, however managed to disrespect and misrepresent.
Although we’ve seen such outright misrepresentation of minority cultures in America today from celebrities, we often fail to recoginize this in our everyday lives. As a high school student I’ve recognized the same types of cultural appropriation in school. After reading Fool’s Crow by James Welch in an English class, I found just how acceptable it appeared to dress up in an ever-so-stereotypical traditional Native American headdress for an assigned reenactment of a scene from the novel. Students did not seem to find said action to be disrespectful to Native American culture, most likely as a result of our ingrained ideas of culture.
We have also been caught up in exploiting cultures for the sake of school spirit. Spirit themes are often harmless, however it is important to recognize, for example, how a Hawaiian theme can potentially be problematic. When students dress up in what is considered Hawaiian attire, it is often forgotten or even unrecognized just how mistreated Native Hawaiians were nor do they seem to remember that Native Hawaiians were colonized and their culture was stripped away. Are we celebrating the oppression of Native Hawaiians and our lack of knowledge of the culture and its history? A spirit theme can be harmless, and in this case it may be, however ignorance can be harmful. Not knowing the history of a culture before you attempt to represent or celebrate it can quite frankly result in disrespect.