On Cultural Appropriation

August 2, 2008

What is “cultural appropriation”? Boiled down, it’s taking something from a culture that isn’t yours. Period. There are all kinds of different explanation behind that definition – positive forms, negative forms, etc. – but that’s pretty much what it is: taking from somebody else’s culture.

Now, this is something I’ve thought about a lot, largely due to my bi-racial background. Since I feel like Chinese culture is not really “mine” in a number of ways, I make sure that I think carefully about any Chinese cultural traditions or values that I want to take on (or re-adopt). In simple cases, I make sure that I am asking family members who actually grew up with these traditions or values to explain it to me. In situations where that is not possible, I try to do as much research as possible in advance – so that I truly know the story behind it. And if it feels right, then I try to engage it with as much respect and honor and self-consciousness as I can.

But it gets sticky – because taking on traditions that you did not grow up with is difficult. There are a lot of opportunities to make mistakes and accidentally make a mockery of what you are trying to honor. And the question always follows: what gives me the right to try to adopt this tradition? What is my purpose behind it? And am I ignoring larger parts of the culture as a whole to just pick and choose what I like?

Mind you – this is how I feel about my attempts to gain a better foot-hold and understanding of Chinese culture, one I am linked to by blood and immediate family members (although my grandmother’s death severed the most direct link). And I still don’t quite consider it my right – to some degree – to take on aspects of this culture, since I was not raised fully “Chinese.” It’s difficult.

However – it becomes much less difficult when a person has absolutely no blood or birth link to a culture. Then – it becomes simple cultural appropriation (and I seldom use that in a positive way).

Now, by no means is “cultural appropriation” solely a problem of white people, but it stands out more in that context. First, because white people in America often lament the lack of their own culture*, and so try to compensate for this perceived lack by borrowing from others. Second, the situation of white privilege often puts white folks in a naive mentality where they believe it is their right to take from any culture that they desire – that being barred from that would be “unfair” or “not inclusive” or (this is the one that I hate the most) some form of “reverse racism.”** So I will mostly address “cultural appropriation” from an angle of white folks borrowing from non-white cultures (but repeat that it can go in a lot of different ways).

The most obvious examples (ones I see here in Portland all the time are): Zimbabwean marimba music, “African” drumming, Brazilian capoeira, and Zen Buddhism. I’ll just try to hit them up in order (and, by no means are these the only ones).

There is a large contingent of white “liberals” in this town who love to play Zimbabwean marimba music. Now, I’m not going to go into the psychology of this obsession, but let’s just say these folks are REALLY into it. Which should be fine. Because music is an art-form that should be shared and appreciated cross-culturally. However, these white liberals like it so much, they learn to play it. Again – not so bad, as learning to play a kind of music is a form of further appreciation (if in the comfort of their own home).

No – the problem is that these white Americans form “Zimbabwean marimba” bands, that play “traditional” Zimbabwean marimba music. First off – how can they possibly be a “Zimbabwean” marimba band, if none of the players are Zimbabwean (and I do know, for a fact, that they aren’t – and I’m talking about multiple bands)? Second – why the Hell are they playing “traditional” Zimbabwean music? It is not their music. How is it “traditional” if Zimbabwean people aren’t playing it? Some of these bands sing in Shona.

My question is why? Why? Why this kind of absurd theft? Appreciation is one thing -but this is mockery. It is not honor or respect. Respect is not claiming to play “Zimbabwean” music if you are not, yourself, Zimbabwean. Respect is not singing in a language you do not speak fluently, nor do you have opportunity to speak on a (very) regular basis. Respect is not stealing “traditions” out of context and that have no direct connection to you.

How could this be okay? Well – if these groups just said they played marimba music. Maybe make a nod to “Zimbabwean influences,” but without a claim to play the music. If they NEVER played anything “traditional,” and if they sang songs in their own damn language. Music is all about influences and adapting styles to your own. Therefore – if they truly like the music, they can adapt it to have songs with lyrics relevant to their own lives, in their own language. Why try to pretend to represent Zimbabwean music, when a Zimbabwean band could do so much more effectively? Why believe that that is okay?

On another level, this kind of thing bothers me in that very little else of “Zimbabwean” culture is known or actively appreciated by these folks. Seldom have they been taught by a Zimbabwean teacher, nor do they have any true Zimbabwean friends. They – perhaps – may know some Zimbabwean folks (not always), but never are those truly their friends. People they see and talk to regularly. Confide in, listen to, support, etc. So if they are not willing to put in that effort and social investment, how have they the right to profit from somebody else’s culture in this way?

That’s what kills me.

“African” drumming is much the same. I don’t need to go into it in detail, but it’s even worse, in some ways (because – although different styles of drumming in Africa are similar, most people are learning West African styles – specifically Ghanaian, Senegalese, or Gambian)***. Again – appreciate, learn (from an “African” at least), and play – but never claim it as “African” and please go immerse yourself in the culture – all of it.

Quickly – capoeira. For those unfamiliar with capoeira, it is a Brazilian martial art/dance style with roots in the African slave trade in South America. As slaves were not allowed to practice anything that resembled aggression or violence, these slaves (and later, their ancestors) disguised their martial arts and rebellion as a dance – capoeira. It’s a beautiful story – quite inspiring. But – again – it kills me when I see an all-white-American troupe doing an exhibition for even more white folks. Practice on your own. Learn from a Brazilian master. But don’t f-ing exhibit it in public as education/entertainment. If any of these things were truly for only the person, themselves, out of respect and appreciation – then there would be absolutely no need to bring it to the masses – that is the job of those whose culture it is. And if they don’t choose to do so – respect that and don’t take it upon yourselves.

Finally – Zen Buddhism. This one’s more sticky for me because it’s (vaguely) a religion. But it bothers me. As a (part) Chinese-American, it bothers me that the majority of Buddhists and Buddhist temple-goers in this town are white. That feels wrong. White Buddhist “monks” choosing Chinese or Hindu names – when they don’t speak Chinese or Hindi (except for a smattering of terms). This one hurts me more as a representation of Orientalism**** than anything else. Because – obviously, this one is less public and more personal, which treads on territory I don’t have a right to dispute. However . . . it doesn’t feel right.

So – a number of examples, but there are so many others out there (I’d like to hear other people’s pet-peeve forms of cultural appropriation). But it all boils down to – do not share what it is not yours. Do not presume to teach what you have not been immersed in. Learn only from those who have right to claim it. And question – deeply – your need/interest in learning and taking on aspects of another culture – and why it is only that one single aspect of the culture you are taking on, while leaving all the rest. Doing anything else is an insult. Anything else is disrespectful and smacks of privilege and ignorance.

And causes me to get all uppity and pissed off.

This is a topic I could go much deeper into, but I think that would work better as a conversation or dialogue. So, hopefully there are some timid non-commenters out there ready to ask some questions and get some clarification (and to challenge me if I sound just too sure of myself, and too judgmental).

But I leave you with this – we all learned as children (most of us, at least) that – if it isn’t ours, we should leave it alone. And if we borrow something, we should do it with the intention of giving back. Why should culture and tradition be any different?

* I’ll address this is at a later date, but – in short – I call B.S. on those claims.

** This will be an even longer post. Just thinking about it has me ready to spit fire.

*** I suppose the “Africa is not a country” post will have to happen sometime, as well.

**** This single post has touched off so many future off-shoots – the Orientalism discussion definitely needs to happen.



  1. hi there. very interesting posting. i’ve been thinking about what the difference is between revering and celebrating elements of a culture while not “appropriating” it. there is a fine line; a delicate balance that often gets out of whack. i’d love to hear more about what your readers think regarding this balance– and, if we’re too conscious of not-appropriating, do we run the risk of not experiencing other cultures, of remaining too insular and ignorant? (i had a friend in high school who refused to listen to any music that wasn’t by white folk-artists–cause she felt that listening to music outside of that realm was something she hadn’t been “invited” to do by those cultures and communities.) totally extreme, no?

    i recently went to a “matisyahu” concert. matisyahu is a white, orthodox jew who has made a name for himself singing reggae music. here is a man who has adopted a musical genre that is clearly not his own. he performs several songs in hebrew, sings about the coming of the jewish messiah, and praises his rabbi and the teachings of the torah. this is not traditional reggae by any means. matisyahu has created a hybrid musical style–a merging of his world, his culture, and that of an outside culture.

    does this make it less appropriative? more so? would it be worse if he sang traditional reggae without the hebrew lyrics and torah references? when is the merging of cultures / musical genres / celebrations acceptable?

    sorry. lot’s of questions, and no answers. i’d love to hear your thoughts.

  2. CVT,
    First of all “Welcome Back!”–I just clicked to see if you were back and lo and behold, there are all these posts!

    Second, there are forms of cultural appropriation that bother me more than others, and I’m not sure why. I suppose I could explore this more, but the caffeine from the earl grey hasn’t quite kicked in.

    Let me try to explain though: I’m more bothered by people appropriating things on their body than I am in their art/food. Especially food.

    And maybe it’s because I believe you can develop fusion food (although I am also sometimes annoyed by Asian-fusion–perhaps I’m just more sensitive to appropriation of what I consider my own? Although that’s also problematic and should be further explored by me, but again, too little caffeine).

    So just a quick recap: non-South Asian/Hindu woman wearing a sari for her wedding (which a friend of mine told me about a friend of hers): annoying form or Orientalism (for me). A non-South Asian person using Indian ingredients as a chef in their restaurant (like the fad for cardamon creme brulee): fine (although I HATE the whole infused creme brulee craze).

  3. Unfortunately, I’m not “back” yet – just discovered this handy feature where I can write posts in advance and then schedule a slow unveiling by date and time to spread out my posts while gone. I’m still out in the middle of nowhere (working at an arts camp) where the internet is spotty, at best. However, I shall respond in full when I am finished up here (a little less than a week). I hope I haven’t lost too many readers in the meantime.

  4. I don’t know if you’ll come back to read my comments – but I’m back now, and feel like I should respond for real.

    B.N. –
    Cultural appropriation is a strange beast. Again, I think music, art, and food are a little easier to “respectfully appropriate” because of their nature. As long as you don’t claim to do a “traditional” form of any of those things (that’s not your own culture), those forms are meant to be borrowed-from to a certain degree. That’s what keeps it all moving.

    That said, my general rule of thumb is this: if I am totally into one specific aspect of a different culture, but I don’t know a whole lot about the rest of the culture, I’m probably on dangerous ground. Cultural respect is about immersion, so picking and choosing only certain aspects feels more like appropriation to me.

    And it’s funny you mention Matisyahu – a Jewish friend of mine went to a show recently here in Portland, and she came back asking me if that was a form of cultural appropriation. My answer to that one: no. He has taken reggae sounds and made them his own by singing about what’s important to him – his own traditions and culture. If he was singing all about “Jah” and mimicking other reggae artists, that would be a different thing altogether.

    Jennifer – I totally agree with you about wearing “traditional” clothes of another culture. I wore a Chinese shirt (mandarin collar, silk embroidery) to work one day, and a co-worker told me, “I got married in a shirt just like that.” Needless to say, she’s not Chinese. Neither is her husband. I bit my tongue (the workplace didn’t seem like the place to go off), but – damn – did that bother the Hell out of me. And the fact that she thought I would think that was a GOOD thing made it even worse . . .

    • The name “Jah” for God was Hebrew/Jewish long before the existence of reggae, Jamaica, or Rastafarianism — see Psalm 68:4 (KJV if you can’t read the original inHebree). So how would it be “appropriative” in the mouth of a Jewish reggae singer, while somehow just fine in the mouth of a Jamaican reggae singer?

  5. Hello CVT

    Once again I am late on this but I think I have an interesting perspective to share.

    In college I dated a white Frenchman who was very into hip hop/rap/zouk and other music in the same vein. He had a whole website dedicated to music reviews and he helmed most of the rap reviews.

    I did not think that this was an example of seedy cultural appropriation until I saw pictures of his bandmates. Of course it was a afro-fusion band, with four other white Frenchman, and they all wore “traditional” West African attire, but not traditional for them. I also found out that three of the four other bandmates were dating a black woman (American or French).

    I remember feeling unnerved by it, but at the time I didn’t have the words to express what I was thinking. I knew he was a genuine music lover, and he preferred black girls but I feel that at some point appreciation of the “other” crossed the line.

  6. Estheroette –

    As for the all-white zouk band, I know that disturbed feeling well, as Zimbabwean marimba music is very popular here in Portland – and almost always presented by all white American (men). It just kills me how people don’t understand or feel (because I really FEEL sick when I see it) how wrong that is.

  7. Hmmm…well I can relate but in a different way. I live in the Philippines…where everybody is infatuated with the American culture which includes the African American culture. Filipinos are always either acting like they’re white, or acting like they’re black! Or they all want to be Spanish! Good grief! It gets really annoying!

    About East and West though…I haven’t experienced that. My mother is a very proud Chinese who won’t give in to anything white and my father is a very proud American who won’t give into anything yellow! No compromise whatsoever! I think that I’m the only adult in the family! And I think that’s why they ultimately broke up!

    I think it’s nice, though, if we could all appreciate and experience other cultures. But I know what you mean about losing the respect for them in the end.

    On the other hand, though, could it be that deep inside, people are all just looking for love and acceptance? Like, even white people go through things in their lives like rejection and being unwanted. It’s not always about race.

    What if white people just want to be accepted, too? And so some seek that acceptance and sense of belonging in furthering into other cultural beliefs and practices? Maybe those are the little things that make them feel a little bit more loved? A little bit more accepted?

    Because, afterall, we are still all just people. Whether we’re white, black, yellow, red, brown, or blue or pink or purple! 🙂

  8. It’s a tricky question, and I have to say I think the position you’re taking is a little on the harsh side. Culture is fluid, transitory, evolutionary, interacts with people’s lives whether or not they were born into that culture. I think it’s healthy for people to try to broaden their cultural horizons.

    A lot of the examples you objected to, though, is the fetishization of the other.

    Like, it’s fine for a non-Korean to take Taekwondo because they like the sport. It’s stupid and appropriative though if they think that gives them some deep insight into Korean culture. But, if the sport triggers an interest learning more about Korean culture, great. Unless they get self-righteously obsessive, as a lot of white guys who take martial arts do.

    I’m caucasian, and I collect and wear Qipaos. But – I know and appreciate the history of the garment, it’s not simply an “exotic Chinese dress” (actually it’s a fusion of Manchu and Western styles, fyi), and it is an emblem of my hometown. But I cringe at the white tourists who buy the tacky, inauthentic Qipaos sold as “exotic Chinese dresses”. And when I wear a Qipao outside of China, I definitely get the death glares from Overseas Chinese.

    When I travel, I try to eat wear the locals eat, and shop how the locals shop. What’s the point of traveling otherwise?

    Like, I have a lot of friends who are Mainland Chinese musicians playing rock and singing in English. For them, it’s just a cultural option; it’s a different thing than trying to act/be white because it’s exotic/ethnic, which definitely some Chinese do. Or all the Han musicians who pretend to be and sing in Tibetan…

  9. Lisa –
    Sorry for the late response, but I think this post on “Racialicious” should cover some of the responses I would have to your take:


  10. Pet-peeve forms of cultural appropriation? There are tons of them in the Native American field. New Age practitioners. Other Indian wannabes. Sports mascots and their fans. People who dress up as Indians for Halloween. Etc.

  11. Hello!

    I followed you over from Racialicious, and between this and your post on gentrification you’ve got yourself a new reader 🙂

  12. My 2 cents to this discussion…

    It’s great to have cultural manifestations (song, dance, martial arts, literature, etc) replicated in other countries even with people who are not from the same roots, as long as it’s done true to its origins.

    As a Brazilian dance teacher living abroad I feel honoured when a foreigner decide to take in the brazilian culture and replicate it. It’s non-sense to feel offended.
    One of the best drumming groups I ever met was directed by a french-californian who’s learned drumming in Brazil and took our culture to LA and now Sydney.

    What happens is some foreigners start to replicate the activity (in my case dancing, capoeira and drumming) without having proper training and understanding of what it is and therefore start doing it improperly.

    Take for example the Balroom Samba dancing style (a modification of the original Samba dancing style of 1920’s that spread out in Europe). It has very little resemblance to the Samba de Gafieira danced in Brazil today and even the music used in Balroom is from a different rhythm – not the Brazilian Samba Gafieira or Pagode.

    This kind of situation leads to all sorts of confusion to the point where commentators on TV shows such as “dancing with the stars” and “so you think you can dance”, insist on saying this dancing style is how things are done in Brazil today which is not true.

    When this happens it creates confusion and makes lots of people unhappy.

    For instance, I as a teacher, have had a hard time convincing people the Lambada style I teach has nothing to do with the forbidden dance and it is not the sexual dance the Lambada movie promotes.

  13. Falcon – Thank you for jumping in. It’s good to be hearing from somebody that actually embodies a culture I’m “defending” on my soapbox.

    I think we’re still mostly in agreement here, though. I have no problem with somebody falling in love with an art form, pursuing it to its roots, and working their ass off to become very good at it. I can only respect that – as would somebody representing that culture.

    However, it’s when – as you say – people lose the message in between that it gets me. It’s also in the presentation – Korean b-boys don’t talk about being “traditional African-American dancers” or some-such nonsense. They just pursue it out of love and have come to be the BEST at it.

    My question for you is: would it be bothersome to you if somebody (not of Brazilian descent) was presenting less-than-expert Brazilian dance forms as “traditional” Brazilian dance to an unknowing public? That’s more what I’m referring to here.

  14. Hi..just a thought. I happened upon this post as I was researching for my own blog at:


    But anyway..there is a real honesty with his writing, that I think is often not expressed by very many. White privilege has become a term that is synononimous with the black culture. However; it is quite prominent in other cultures as well. Being an activist..I often times see when it is ignored…but it does make people angry. It’s a very little thing to admire someone else’s culture, but a fine line that allows for you to exploit it. Everyone should try to remember that.

  15. Re:
    “ Respect is not singing in a language you do not speak fluently, nor do you have opportunity to speak on a (very) regular basis.”
    Are American kindergarten teachers disrespecting France by teaching non-French-speaking kids the song “Frère Jacques”?
    Also: many teachers of languages find that their students are benefited (in fluency and pronunciation) by learning to sing songs in the language: even from the earliest stages, when fluency is still zero. (Similarly, babies often learn a few songs before they can speak well.) is all that forbidden, too?

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