What is cultural appropriation?

A young person's view point on cultural appropriation

Understanding cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of an element(s) of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. It is harmful when members of a dominant culture appropriate from minority cultures. 

What is cultural appreciation?

Cultural appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to connect with others cross-culturally. 

The thin line between cultural appropriation and appreciation

Cultural appropriation is when (usually) white people from dominant western cultures delve into minority cultures. Cultural appreciation is different because instead of ‘cherry picking’ certain aspects of a culture, it seeks to understand its significance, seeing it as more than a ‘trend’. 


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Hi I’m Jaya and I’m a psychology student at the University of Warwick. I’ve been most recently involved in the Sex and Bodies campaign as well as working weekly on The Mix’s helpline!

Cross-cultural understanding is important 

In the social world, we are often greeted with many definitions as to what cultural appropriation is. For social platforms like Twitter and Instagram, I’ve seen white women be bullied or ‘cancelled’ for having their hair in box-braids or wearing a saree. But isn’t cross-cultural experience what we should strive for?

As a society, shouldn’t we be trying to reduce the segregation between cultures? Shouldn’t we be encouraging individuals to embrace the cultures of the world? Isn’t it counter-productive to reinforce segregation between different cultures rather than encourage education and acceptance of cultural acts or fashion?

After all, like many immigrants arriving in England, we wear English clothes; jeans and shirts and such. We listen to English music. We learned English and screamed ‘it’s coming home!’ for our football team. Ultimately, according to the social media standards of cultural appropriation, aren’t we appropriating?

What’s crucial to recognise is embracing, respecting and implementing a culture that isn’t your own isn’t always appropriation… It can also be appreciation. Why not wear colourful sarees or braid your hair or wear kimonos or mehndi? As long as this is done with respect and understanding of the culture of origin, how is it really different from an Indian immigrant coming to London and wearing jeans and eating with a knife and fork (something traditionally not seen in India)? 

Cultural appropriation can be harmful 

Sure, cultural appropriation, blackfishing and overall cultural ignorance is important to recognise, and it can be very harmful, especially when aspects of someone’s culture are used in a derogatory way, or an individual purposely claims a culture for their own. That’s appropriation. No doubt. And this is WRONG. 

It is degrading and insensitive to claim another culture for your own, or to steal cultural images and act disrespectfully or mockingly, especially while in a position of power (usually, from white privilege). For example, white celebrities, like Iggy Azalea, purposefully darkening her skin in music videos and using the N-word is disrespectfully appropriating black culture, especially as she attempted to justify her use of the word, and remained ignorant to the implications and insensitivity of her acts.  

We should educate ourselves on cultural appreciation

Therefore, we should strive to educate ourselves on where this boundary between cultural appropriation and appreciation sits. Essentially, encouraging education may reduce ignorance in certain topics to avoid breaching this boundary, where certain acts become degrading and harmful. 

For example, the rapper Mulatto wearing Vishnu, a Hindu god, on a revealing outfit was appropriation and insensitive. This was disrespectful, given the nature of the outfit, which her fans called out, describing exactly why it was wrong, leading to her apology. This is why education on the boundary is key, rather than mindless ‘cancelling’ and bullying. 

My experience of cultural appreciation

From personal experience, on my 18th birthday, I hosted a party for my friends and family where the dress code was to wear formal clothing. My friends, who are from Nigeria, Jamaica, Ghana and China respectfully wore Indian formal clothing; sarees and lengas. This was amazing to me; to see my best friends wear outfits from my culture and dance to Punjabi and Hindi music! 

What made this an act of appreciation was their respect for the outfits they wore and the songs they listened to, and their inclination to seek education on my culture, throughout our friendship, just as I am with them. Their education and respect was essential in making this an act of appreciation rather than appropriation. 

Unfortunately, showing out of context pictures of their outfits could be deemed by people on social media as appropriation – this could be seen as ignorance and hypocrisy. We might question why immigrants, like ourselves, have the opportunity to delve into Western cultures and dress in Westernised fashions, but the reciprocal is frowned upon? Wouldn’t it make sense for everyone to be able to share and appreciate different cultures equally?

These are the questions which reinforce segregation between cultures, something we should be avoiding. Instead, encourage education, respect and acceptance for cultures and appreciate the diversity that surrounds us. 

If you have been impacted by cultural appropriation or racism, take a look at our self-care guide.


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By Holly Turner

Updated on 16-Jul-2021

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