Cultural Appropriation

The topic of cultural appropriation can be controversial at times. There are many layers to it, and approaching this topic requires humility, sensitivity and kindness.

Before we dig in, please pay attention to what you feel as you think about the concept of cultural appropriation. Is it a term you’ve heard before? Does it cause some resistance in you? Why? Have you heard other people’s opinions about this, and either agreed or disagreed? Do you feel indifferent about this topic?

 Let’s consider everything we have covered up to this point:

  • The importance of culture to our well-being
  • Your involvement in culture
  • The damage colonization had and continues to have on Indigenous culture
  • The way history interconnects with culture, and the need for people groups who have been oppressed to have a strong sense of culture

How Do You Know When It’s Cultural Appropriation?

One of the big arguments that comes up with the topic of cultural appropriation, is that nothing is original. It often sounds like this: “All cultures borrow from each other.” “Sharing ideas is unavoidable.” In this way, some people try to reframe cultural appropriation as a form of cultural appreciation. It is true that ideas are shared between cultures. A lot of us are grateful that the Italians shared pizza, bolognese, and espresso! The furniture industry is very influenced by Scandinavian style. The British have very much influenced the music scene throughout the years. Many pop bands today are influenced by the Beatles, 80s British pop, and the 90s Manchester music scene. Is it a big deal if you pick up a Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Ramones knock-off t-shirt at your local big box store just because you think it’s cool, even though you’re not a fan? Likely not. Your purchase probably won’t affect the band members or their descendants. A key factor here is that they do not have a history of being oppressed by society.

However, when we steal or borrow from an oppressed culture, especially for financial gain, it is a different story altogether. That is cultural appropriation.

Getting Clear About Cultural Appropriation

The following is a great definition of cultural appropriation. It’s from an article by Christine Nguyen (chef, writer, and activist) called Not Just a Sandwich: A Cultural Perspective on Banh Mi:

Cultural appropriation happens when a dominant culture adopts the practices of another culture for monetary or societal gain. The marginalized culture however, remains stigmatized for maintaining their cultural practices and are constantly pressured to assimilate into the dominant culture.

It is likely to be cultural appropriation when a practice, art, or even food that is considered sacred to a marginalized culture is borrowed from, or changed for personal gain without understanding the cultural significance of the practice for its originators.

For example, let’s look at the First Nations cultural practice of smudging.
Smudging is a sacred, powerful practice.

According to the Indigenous Corporate Training website, smudging is traditionally a ceremony for purifying or cleansing the soul of negative thoughts of a person or place.

There are four elements involved in a smudge.

Tobacco, white sage, cedar, and sweetgrass are used for smudging, and they are considered sacred medicines.

Do other cultures practice smudging? Yes, other cultures practice the burning of sacred plants. However, the term “smudging” is used by the First Nations peoples of North America.

The Indian Act made cultural ceremonies illegal (including smudging) until the act was amended in 1951 in Canada. In the US smudging was illegal until 1978 with the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
Point 22 in the Truth and Reconciliation call to action states this:

We call upon those who can effect change within the Canadian health-care system to recognize the value of Aboriginal healing practices and use them in the treatment of Aboriginal patients in collaboration with Aboriginal healers and Elders where requested by Aboriginal patients.

Smudging is a deeply sacred practice that has a rich history. Many people from the dominant culture in North America are likely (perhaps unconsciously) noticing that colonization has destroyed many ties to sacred practices. This has created a desire for people to start practicing smudging and other sacred Indigenous practices. However, they are missing the cultural element and the breadth and depth of its history. Smudging is a trend by influencers on apps like Instagram. Big chain stores like Sephora, Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, and Amazon all sell smudging kits. Who is benefitting from the sales of these kits? Essentially big companies are capitalizing off sacred Indigenous spirituality.

The smudging trend has also led to overharvesting and shortages of white sage. Many big companies are illegally harvesting it from protected areas (especially in California). This issue of overharvesting directly affects Indigenous peoples.

In a HuffPost article entitled, Indigenous People Want Brands to Stop Selling Sage and Smudge Kits (2018), Kory Snache (Giniw), who is Anishinaabe from Chippewas of Rama Mnjiknini First Nation states:

People who utilize sage spiritually have a very different concept of what sage is, and that should be respected,” said Snache, who organized a medicine walk in Toronto over the summer. “It is deep rooted with medicinal and spiritual understandings that are reinforced with teachings passed down through generations.

For Reflection

  • Knowing that not long ago practices such as smudging were considered illegal, and people had to do them in secret, how do you think it would feel for an Indigenous person to see dozens of smudging kits selling on Amazon for $30.00?
  • Do you think that smudging is always considered cultural appropriation? Why or why not?

More Examples of Cultural Appropriation

Let’s look at some other examples of things that can be considered cultural appropriation:

  • Clothing and fashion: This can show up in both costumes and high fashion.
  • Food: No one culture can own a food or even one way of preparing food. However, certain foods can be deeply tied to a culture and the history of a people group. When the dominant culture takes elements of that cultural food and adapts and changes it to fit the palette of the dominant culture, even food can have elements of cultural appropriation. This is especially the case if businesses or restaurants owned by someone of the dominant culture take business away from someone who is actually from that culture. (For more reflection about this, consider reading the Medium article Not Just a Sandwich: A Cultural Perspective on Banh Mi by Christine Nguygen).
  • Artifacts such as dreamcatchers and teepees.
  • Movies that are about an oppressed people group but are written by people from a dominant culture.
  • Hairstyles: The article A History Of African Women’s Hairstyles (2020) on the website, states:

    Hair played a significant role in the culture of ancient African civilizations. It symbolized one’s family background, social status, spirituality, tribe, and marital status.

    Hair was considered a sacred part of the body, and was treated accordingly. Styling hair was a social activity. Some tribes used beads and shells in their hair. Different hairstyles (such as cornrows, braids, and dreadlocks) were – and are – deeply connected to culture.

    Here in North America many Black people have experienced discrimination because of their hairstyles including dreadlocks or braids. Yet when a white person has dreadlocks or braids, it can be considered fashion forward. Because of the history of oppression here in North America, taking traditional Black hairstyles can be considered appropriation.

  • Tattoos: when people tattoo symbols from a culture that is not their own.

Cultural Appropriation and Language

Intentionality around culturally appropriating language is important as well. Some examples of this are:

  • Using the term “pow wow” for a meeting
  • Using the term “spirit animal” flippantly or out of its cultural context. Spirit animals are sacred to some Indigenous cultures. When people who don’t understand or care about the significance of spirit animals use this term, it is appropriation
  • Using African American Vernacular English (AAVE) when you are not black, or using a “Blaccent”

Can you think of any other ways the use of certain phrases can be problematic?

Nurturing Cultural Appreciation

Cultural appreciation is when we earnestly seek to engage and understand another culture. It is when we seek to understand others, outside of our own personal gain. Cultural appreciation always comes with an attitude of deep respect and humility.

We must think about how we can engage with those cultural practices in a way that does not appropriate them but instead honours, respects, and learns from them.

Some examples of cultural appreciation:

  • Appropriately engaging in a tradition such as a sweat lodge, led by Indigenous peoples
  • Attending a smudging ceremony led by Indigenous people
  • Eating traditional food at an Indian restaurant
  • Visiting a Mosque or other place of worship
  • Attending a wedding or event for someone of a different culture and asking what is expected with regard to attire . Many Indian weddings encourage all women to wear traditional saris

What are some other ways you can engage in cultural appreciation?

Is it always easy to figure out if something is cultural appropriation, or cultural appreciation? No, it’s not. However, if we do some research and reflection, we will be better equipped to make that distinction.

For Reflection

  • How does all of this sit with you?
  • Which do you feel is more important?:
    • the intent of one’s actions
    • or the impact of the actions on an oppressed people group
  • Why or why not?
  • Do you feel like cultural appropriation is complicated with many layers? Does it seem simple and straightforward?
  • Do you think there are times when a situation would be considered cultural appropriation and a situation where something similar leans more towards cultural appreciation?


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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