Examples of Cultural Appropriation and How to Avoid It

Updated January 14, 2020
hands holding international flags
    hands holding international flags
    Rawpixel / iStock / Getty Images Plus
    Used under Getty Images license

Cultural appropriation is a term for when members of one culture adopt attributes of another culture. These elements can include music, attire, food, art, or other iconography. The connotation of appropriation, which is “to take for oneself,” differs from honoring or being influenced by other cultures. When cultural appropriation is intended to mock a culture that a person does not belong to, it is considered offensive or politically incorrect.

Cultural Appreciation vs. Cultural Appropriation

Multicultural societies typically include a degree of cultural influence. When members of one culture learn about positive or desirable parts of another culture, they are naturally influenced by these elements. Cultural diversity often includes appropriate examples of cultural appreciation that are meant to honor the original culture.

However, cultural appropriation can occur when a dominant culture adopts cultural elements from a historically marginalized population and claims them as its own. Inappropriate or politically incorrect cultural appropriation disregards another population’s history, which can include oppression and persecution by that same dominant culture.


Types of Cultural Appropriation

Drawing the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation can be difficult. You may be surprised that a seemingly appreciative behavior could be considered appropriation. Here are some examples of everyday debates about cultural appropriation.

Halloween Costumes

It seems like there are new debates over cultural appropriation every October. Halloween parties are full of questionable costumes that seem to depend on the eye of the beholder. The controversy typically involves dressing up as a person versus dressing up as an unnamed person from another culture.

An example would be Halloween costumes influenced by Moana (2016). After watching the film, thousands of girls from all races dressed up in Moana’s signature Polynesian outfit for Halloween. Many considered the costume to be cultural appropriation when worn by white girls. Others argued that because the costume was of Moana herself and not an anonymous Pacific Islander, it was not offensive.


Using Sacred Symbols as Fashion

Cultural influence is a vital element of the fashion world. The cowboy hat, the Mandarin collar, and silk scarves are examples of fashion statements adapted from cultural styles around the world. But when is it okay to wear something from another culture, and when is it considered cultural appropriation in fashion?

The answer often lies in whether you are considering clothing or a symbol that is sacred to another culture and positively benefits that culture. If you buy a turquoise bracelet made by a Native American artist, you are both honoring and supporting the culture of that artist. However, if you wear a ceremonial headdress to sell a product, as a Victoria’s Secret model did in a 2012 fashion show, it is considered highly offensive.


Sports Mascots

Although cultural appropriation is a modern concern, it is hardly a modern problem. Sports teams formed in the early half of the 20th century are riddled with problematic names, logos, and mascots. From the Atlanta Braves’ tomahawk chop to the derogatory name of the Washington Redskins, these symbols typically include racist depictions of Native American culture.

These names and symbols are considered to be cultural appropriation because they do not honor Native American culture. They perpetuate negative stereotypes and, despite pleas from the Native community, many professional teams have not changed their names. However, many prominent schools, such as Stanford University and Dartmouth College, have abolished the name and images from their programs.


Renaming Cultural Attributes

A less visible example of cultural appropriation involves taking something from another culture and renaming it as your own. The history of music is especially full of these examples, as music is sacred in nearly every culture around the world. It can be hard to see the difference between being influenced by music from another culture and appropriating it.

Elvis Presley is a historic example of cultural appropriation in music. A pioneer of rock ‘n roll, Elvis created a style and sound that was nothing like his white listeners had ever heard. But, if they’d been listening to the African-American artists Elvis covered in the beginning of his career, they would know that Elvis was a product of gospel and blues music.

Elvis and his producers did not set out to appropriate black music, but by renaming generations of musical influence without crediting original artists, they led listeners to believe that Elvis created his sound all on his own.


How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation

Now that you know what cultural appropriation is, how can you tell if you’re being appreciative or offensive? Answer the following questions to find out.

  • Are you trying to get a laugh from your comment or costume?
  • Are you dressing up as a specific person who happens to be a member of another culture? Or are you dressing up as a random person?
  • Is what you want to wear or do considered sacred to another culture?
  • Do people who belong to that culture say it’s offensive?
  • If you are influenced by another culture, have you given credit to your influences? Or are you claiming your work as your own?
  • Does your costume involve blackface or brownface, which is always considered offensive?

Based on how you answer any of the above, you may want to reconsider what you’re going to do. Learn more about the culture you’re trying to honor by talking to people from that heritage or background. While it’s not always necessary to be politically correct, sensitivity and empathy are vital parts of any culture.