What actually is cultural appropriation anyway?

I want to talk about cultural appropriation. It’s not an easy topic to discuss. It’s not an easy topic to define. But, it impacts a lot of people, both positively and negatively, and rightly so.

I have a confession to make. I don’t feel I can define cultural appropriation. And, I’m sure I’m not alone.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines appropriation as:
1. an act or instance of taking especially illegally or unfairly
2. the act or an instance of setting apart for a special purpose
3. a sum of money set apart for a special purpose

I went for the kid’s definition. It was more detailed than their official one.

For cultural appropriation, I’m sure we can agree it uses the first definition of appropriation, and we can focus on the word unfair. But that’s where it gets tricky and confusing. This is where it gets all fluffy. We know that blackface and getting drunk for Cinco be Mayo is wrong. However, last Halloween there was a lot of talk of why people shouldn’t dress as Moana. Let’s leave aside that the Moana movie is a mix of many islander cultures and portrayed as Hawaiian, versus a single culture. I would be proud to see any little girl or boy dressed as Moana. She’s a strong, determined character who fought her fears to help her village. These are characteristics we need to encourage in all children (and adults). But where is the line between celebrating Moana and stealing her culture?

There was another situation earlier this year. A white high school student wore a qipao dress she found in a vintage store to her prom. To her, it was a beautiful dress, which originated in China. To others, it was stealing the culture of an oppressed people. Thankfully, it also prompted many discussions, like this, about what is cultural appropriation. We all have different lives and experiences, and therefore see things differently.

This is why there’s no easy definition or answer to cultural appropriation. It’s also not an argument for Twitter like the dress issue nastily became. So many of these issues come down to the person’s intent. I’m sure the children dressing as Moana have no understanding or intention to be unfair. The prom dress was intended to be a dress, not a political statement.

I’m not sure if it’s the perfect way to go, but I’m going to look for the good in all, try to do no harm, and not judge the ambiguous actions of others. There are still many ideas and cultures that I, and others, are yet to learn. Let’s learn and politely educate before we judge.

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Photo by Mathew Waters on Unsplash of an island culture included in Moana but is not Hawaii.

More about Bianca

Bianca's a nerdy, book worm who is constantly curious and appreciates being alive while the internet exists. During the day, she's a content writer for a huge multinational tech company. The rest of the time she's reading, and running, and bike riding, and sipping coffee, and taking photos around Melbourne, Australia.

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