What Is 'Cultural Appropriation'? It's Become A Popular Term, But What Does It Mean?

December 30, 2015Dec 30, 2015

The term "cultural appropriation" is being bandied about a lot these days, especially among protesting college students. It's popped up in recent news stories, from handing out sombreros to advertise a Tex-Mex food event to decorating a college cafeteria for a Mexican food event to Yoga classes being shut down in Canada to college students protesting "culturally inappropriate" food served in their cafeteria.

In general, the term refers to the practice of the "dominant" culture adopting elements of a "minority" culture. Some people, especially liberals, see this as inappropriate because they say it's a form of oppression that steals a ethnic group's identity or their intellectual property rights.

In the examples above, a Tex-Mex restaurant was excoriated for handing out sombreros on a university campus as a form of advertisement because they were "stereotyping" Mexican culture. The hosts of a campus Mexican food event "culturally appropriated" Mexican culture by using Mexican decorations. A Canadian university Yoga class was shut down because it was deemed "insensitive" to practice it because the cultures that Yoga originates from “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy.” Minority students at another campus stood outside a cafeteria and protested the ethnic food served because it was "disrespectful" in its inauthenticity.

Is the term "cultural appropriation" clear to you now?

Perhaps. Or perhaps not. The lines between "cultural appropriation" and "cultural sensitivity" get blurry for people who trace their origins from multiple cultures and ethnicities. Is not American culture itself made up of numerous cultures? Wouldn't it technically be "cultural appropriation" for an American of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity to dance to a Jewish song, an American of German ethnicity to make a pizza, or an American of half Dutch, three-eighths French, and one-eighth Cherokee ethnicity to dress up as a ninja for Halloween?

Few people would advocate intentionally offending or making fun of other cultures, but do you get the impression that banning "cultural appropriation" would be more of a divider amidst the diverse people that make up our country rather than a unifier?