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Cultural appropriation: a debatable topic

Have you ever heard about cultural appropriation? Are people confusing it with cultural assimilation? And also, has cultural appropriation necessarily a negative connotation?

Cultural appropriation: a debatable topic.

Have you ever heard about cultural appropriation? Are people confusing it with cultural assimilation? And also, has cultural appropriation necessarily a negative connotation? Maybe, we can explore some interesting things about this complex idea. According to Oxford dictionary, cultural appropriation is ‘’the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society’’.

As we can see, the definition is very general and there are some things that can lead us to confusion. For instance, to know which practice can be considered as culturally appropriate or not?. In history, it has been some cultures, which have been (and still) very oppressed by other cultures. Across the fashion and the music industry, many top designers and singers have faced accusations of cultural appropriation.

Regarding the music industry: in 2013, the American singer Katy Parry did her performance in American Music Awards setting it in the Japanese context as she dressed as a geisha. At that time, many people objected to her costume and makeup as well as the bowing and shuffling in the choreography, giving a wrong image about Asian people.

In 2015, Coldplay released the famous ‘’Hymn for the Weekend’’ with Beyoncé. The music video was recorded in Mumbai (India) and it shows Hindu temples, Indian people, Indian civilization, meditation being done, festivals and other Indian’s cultural aspects. The music video overall has a variety of positive Indian cultures shown but what made this music video debatable was the fact that Beyoncé is using Indian clothes as accessories even though she is not an Indian herself.

Figure 1: The top models Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner in New York Fashion Week show 2017.

Regarding fashion: the New York Fashion Week Show is one of the most important events for the industry. In 2017, the American fashion designer, Marc Jacobs, put white top models in colorful wool dreadlocks during his show. So, both, he and the models were criticized by black cultural appropriation. 

Moreover, in 2015, the French designer Isabel Marant was accused of plagiarising the traditional costume of the Mexican ‘’Santa María Tlahuitoltepec’’ community. The indigenous community, appealed to Isabel Marant, the Mexican State, and to the private and public sectors to “recognize the identity of the blouse and its collective patrimony of the community, according to the indigenous interpretation of the property, that does not allow the concept of the author’’.

The Tlahuitoltepec invite the designer to “get to know the artisans and appreciate how the blouse is shared on a daily basis so that it makes the explicit recognition of the original design“.

So there are many examples that we perhaps consider cultural appropriation but definitely, there is a difference between wearing dreadlocks and earning huge amounts of money by plagiarizing a blouse. One of the most used arguments by people about this topic is that nobody criticizes women of color for straightening their hair. But actually, we are not talking about cultural appropriation here. When minority groups take elements of a dominant culture is called ‘’culture assimilation’’ and in fact, they do it in order to make their appearance more similar to the dominant culture and as a consequence, make their life easier.

Figure 2: Comparison between the indigenous blouse and Marant’s one.

On one hand, cultural appropriation plays down the oppression of violent history that many people have been and still suffering. Also, it could be interpreted as a ‘’way’’ to show the love for the culture but in fact, it is a way to have prejudices against its people and a way to promote racist stereotypes. Moreover, cultural appropriation emphasizes the feelings of privileged people passing over justice for marginalized people. For instance, one of the main objections to avoid cultural appropriation is reduced to “freedom of expression”. So, while for some they are of vital historical importance, for others it is little more than a trend.

Figure 3: Artwork ‘’Guetto VS High Fashion’’. Jennifer Li.

On the other hand, it is said that cultures are changing and only can grow when they are mixed. For example, the fashion industry is always innovating and has the ability to create new symbols from the existing ones.

To share elements from other cultures should be the direction to follow, otherwise, you make your identity as yours and no one else’s. If in the gastronomic world we take for granted that the dishes are constantly changing and enriching when they are mixed with other cultures, it would be easier to assimilate the same concept in other contexts?

Moreover, neither we talk about cultural appropriation when someone takes elements of his/her own general culture despite that these elements do not represent him or her. In other words, if a high-class person from Mexico wears the Isabel Marant blouse, it is possible that nobody says that it is cultural appropriation, even though that this person does not belong to the minor community.

In conclusion, there are different opinions about cultural appropriation and even though the concept tackles a lot, there are some things that could help to understand each other a little bit more. When we talk about cultural exchange, we are talking about a process where two parts have benefits and to let that happen, people must know about the history of the minority groups and the meaning of their customs, practices or ideas. Maybe, this can be the first step in order to reflect on our daily basis and questioning us about our actions.

Carla Sala


Brandoli, J. (2015). ‘’Las indígenas Tlahuitoltepec acusan a la diseñadora francesa Isabel Marant de plagiar su blusa típica’’. El Mundo.

Play Ground. (2018). ¿Qué es la apropiación cultural?. 

Stephanie, S. (2018). ‘’Does fashion have a cultural appropriation problem?’’. BBC News. 

TED Talks. (2018). ‘’The stigmas of cultural appropriation | Thanika (Annika)’’. TEDxShrewsburyIntlSchool.