Cultural appropriation is a fairly recent term that Oxford defines as “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.” In other words, cultural appropriation is the act of adopting something from another culture—clothing, food, music, art, a hairstyle, etc.—in an unauthorized or offensive way.
We borrow from other cultures all the time. Any time an English language speaker uses the word entrepreneur, bouquet, reservoir, or omelet, he is borrowing straight from the French language. If a person who is not Italian, German, or Mexican attends an opera, drives a Volkswagon, or eats a taco, she is “appropriating” elements of another culture. Of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the variety that other cultures provide and showing appreciation for them.
The problem comes when the use of expressions, symbols, or artifacts from another culture are used in a mocking or offensive way. A white person darkening his face, putting on an afro wig, and speaking in Ebonics would be an example of inappropriate cultural appropriation. He is not engaging the black culture or showing appreciation; rather, he is drawing on broad stereotypes to create a caricature.
Cultural appropriation also involves instances of the “unauthorized” adopting of a foreign cultural element. For example, if a Korean pop singer wraps herself in an Indian dance blanket or dons a chief headdress and dances around the stage in “war dance” fashion, she would be guilty of cultural appropriation. She’s not Native American, and she is co-opting elements of Native American culture in what amounts to trivial commercialism.
Most definitions of cultural appropriation call for a consideration of the comparative power rankings of the two cultures involved. In order to be considered inappropriate cultural appropriation, it must be the more powerful, or dominant, culture that is “borrowing” from the less powerful, or minority, one. When important cultural or religious symbols or customs are adopted and incorporated by the dominant culture, they are often bastardized, resulting in a disrespectful parody of the real thing. Some objectors to cultural appropriation liken it to intellectual property theft.
Some people take the idea of cultural appropriation too far, finding fault with all sorts of innocent situations. For example, there are some activists who say non-Mexican restauranteurs should not have a burrito bar, a white painter should not depict a black person, an Australian should not write a book that features a character who is a slave, and a Filipina should not have dreadlocks. Such overreactions do nothing but provoke unnecessary anger and foster a type of cultural apartheid. What is segregation but trying to force others to stay within the bounds of their ethnicity, rejecting others from being a part of your society based on race, or refusing anyone to share the culture of another?
As Christians, we’re faced with cultural appropriation to a minor extent—how often have crosses been used for edgy fashion statements and not as a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice for us?
In the Old Testament, God strictly forbade the Israelites from appropriating the culture of the Canaanites: “Do not fall into the trap of following their customs and worshiping their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:30, NLT). The reason for God’s command was not ethnic purity or cultural sensitivity but spiritual health. The pagan customs of the Canaanites involved idolatry, immorality, and all types of uncleanness; God demanded that His people worship Him alone and keep themselves morally pure.
Believers in Jesus Christ should oppose all forms of oppression, disrespect, and mockery leveled against anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. When cultural appropriation is offensive or devoid of an appreciation of the other culture, then it is sinful and should be opposed. At the same time, not all that is decried as cultural appropriation is wrong. A non-Indian Christian woman should feel free to eat a curry dish or even wear a sari. That same Christian probably should not wear a bindi, however, because of the Hindu connotations. Appropriating the practices or images of a pagan religion implies approval of that religion and must be avoided.
In the end, it’s all about showing respect and demonstrating God’s love for others. Part of that is respecting what others value. Cultural appropriation isn’t necessarily a sin, but it should never be allowed to become a stumbling block to others.