Cultural appropriation is real and can be very harmful, but Tumblr en masse has grossly misdefined it. Here are some examples of what isn’t cultural appropriation:
- Eating food from another culture
- Properly practicing a religion from another culture.
- Listening to music from another culture
- Reading literature from another culture
- Learning a new language
- Respectfully wearing clothing from another culture in an appropriate setting, such as overseas, at a cultural event, wedding, etc.
- Buying crafts from local craftsman.
- Respectfully participating in cultural activities such as yoga, dreidel, and belly dancing
- Respectfully wearing or using non-sacred icons or art from another culture, such as Chinese pottery or in some cases, henna.
- Trying out instruments and tools from another culture, such as chopsticks or traditional writing instruments
Many people from other cultures are actually offended when Americans try to fight “cultural appropriation”. For example, many Japanese people thought that criticism of Avril Lavigne’s video was laughably ignorant at best and racist at worst. Also, in many countries, Americans who refuse to partake in cultural activities or traditional dress out of fear of appropriation are seen as snobbish and entitled. Additionally, many religions actively encourage evangelization. Saying that religions traditionally practiced by non-white people cannot freely spread has some very racist implications.
Being culturally literate actively fights racial prejudice or ignorance. Taking the time to learn another culture’s history, values, perspective, and traditions makes people better citizens. For example, understanding how various cultures and religions view illness will help me be a better nurse. Cultural competence can only help society, and it prevents genuine, offensive cultural appropriation.
There are definitely some gray areas when it comes to cultural appropriation. Some Christians find non-Christians using crosses in fashion offensive, while some do not, for example. Intent can also carry some significance. For example, someone may fully understand the sacred meaning of the ankh and feel a strong spiritual connection to it. Another person may just think it looks cool. Both wear an ankh ring, but one would definitely not be appropriating while the other has entered a gray area.
Some cultural practices overlap as well. Tattooing has been practiced around the world by many cultures that didn’t come into contact with each other, for example. Meditation has also been practiced around the world. Buddhist mediation is arguably the best known, but nearly every culture and religion has one or more varieties of it. (I personally like the method practiced in Ancient Ireland best, because it’s the only one I personally know that allows one to think exclusively in words. It’s not physically possible for an NLDer to “turn off” verbal thinking, so most other forms of meditation are inaccessible.)
Historically, separating cultures often leads to cultural incompetence, xenophobia, discrimination, stereotyping, and racism. Cultural appropriation is bad, but that doesn’t make cultural segregation good.