There Will Never be one Global Understanding of Cultural Appropriation


Rebecca St Fleur, Contributor

Cultural appropriation is defined as the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. I’ve seen lots of posts and tweets about how people simply shouldn’t appropriate cultures, how they should be educated about it, and how they’re supposed to understand all cultural nuances. And that forms under the assumption this definition provides. And that is that there is a single global understanding of cultural appropriation. Which there is not.

There are thousands of cultures and every single one of them is so diverse. On online platforms and media, terms like ‘black culture’ or ‘spanish culture’ are so often used but this isn’t accurate because these are not singular entities that have a proper concept of what is acceptable for others to engage in or not. Even within communities people disagree on a multitude of things. So my question is, if communities within themselves can’t come to a consensus, how can we expect to institute something like cultural appropriation on a global scale, like so many push for?

Now, most people won’t even recognize the things they’re doing as wrong, unless it’s something extremely religious. But when typically done by foreigners, clothing, jewelry, gestures, and more aren’t usually seen as problematic. Going on, whenever celebrities get into trouble for wearing something like dreads, I’ve seen people debate about the origin of the hairstyle, with some claiming it comes from slavery in North America, some saying it’s an ancient Egyptian practice, others Celtic and more. None have ever been acknowledged as wrong because cultures are fluid, flexible and are constantly changing. They are not laws written in stone but practices, customs and beliefs that for most of history mixed across regions.

Through my research I’ve noted that when it comes to cultural appropriation discussions there’s a divide between what diaspora communities think and what the people of that same ethnic group or culture that weren’t removed from their homeland think. What someone might find problematic as a black person from Africa could be completely different from what a black person living in the United States finds problematic. One might think it’s totally deplorable and others won’t give it a thought. 

Let’s use for example the most debated case: black people’s braids. When I visited Jamaica over the summer, my family met a white couple at the resort we were staying at. When we saw them again, the white woman with formerly pin straight hair, had it braided into cornrows. And while the hairstyle isn’t good for her hair type, I had no problem, because it was her choice and she was one of the kindest people ever. When she spoke to my mother later, she mentioned that a black Jamaican woman offered to do her hair. For that woman, it was not a problem if white people wore them, while most of the people up here are against such a thing. This is where the majority/minority aspect comes in. That woman in Jamaica most likely didn’t have to face discrimination for the way she wore her hair, because it was the norm for people around her. However, for black people in other countries where they are marginalized, the same thing can and has been used to target and oppress them. So the way that people living in their native mainland vs those who are immigrants or minorities in other countries have very different experiences, shape the way they view cultural appropriation. I think that minorities in foreign countries can be sensitive to cultural issues because they have had to fight and continue to have to just to present their ethnic identity. They can often be the subject of racism, discrimination, and opression, so it forms a very different perspective on how other ethnic groups should interact with their culture. 

Just recently, a Korean artist named Penomeco released an afrobeat song and people are already calling him out for cultural appropriation because he is profiting off the culture it originated from. Listeners claim that despite the fact this artist even credited the people he was inspired from, that it is still appropriation. Quoting one user, “I just feel it’s weird especially when countless black people have experiences of being stared at and judged while living life in Korea. Even though he acknowledged the artists, there’s still a culture in many East Asian countries where it’s difficult for a black person to exist, yet the same folks are consuming music with roots within the diaspora.” And while I personally don’t agree with that viewpoint because I don’t believe it’s fair to judge an individual artist based on the opinions of the general population he’s from—it didn’t sit right with me how when anyone commented an opinion differing from the one stated above, it was coined ‘silencing black voices.’ Because I am a black voice within a diaspora community with a minority opinion, and I never feel heard because within the community we don’t understand one another. And you know what wasn’t surprising? In that same comment section, there were Nigerians, still living in Nigeria, saying that they loved the cultural appreciation, weren’t offended, and felt represented. Which resulted in arguments within the comment section about how black people should never support this and that you should know firsthand the struggles of a black person. It proved my point exactly. But I still have questions, and I doubt they’ll ever get a clear-cut answer.

Do we say that, if one person claims it’s offensive then it is? How do we determine the response of an entire culture or ethnic group to a specific action? Or is there no need to do it at all? Because if some people are upset then their feelings should be acknowledged. But what about the ones that weren’t upset? This doesn’t mean that any community should be taken more seriously than the other, but it makes sense that diaspora communities are more likely to problematize these kinds of things because they’ve had different experiences. Communities are not heterogeneous nor a monolith, they do not all think alike, and for that very reason there will never be one global understanding of cultural appropriation. 

Ultimately, cultural appropriation arises as an issue because of the lack of respect and regard shown towards people of different races, ethnicities, and religions. And I know that discussion and debate is only to become less ignorant, more socially conscious and aware human beings. But at the same time I have to point out that the current conception of cultural appropriation, and culture as a whole is too facile to provoke an actual meaningful conversation that will result in change.