Best defined as the ‘adoption’ a.k.a. theft of specific parts (icons, traditions, rituals, behaviour) of a culture by a dominant culture where the significance of the parts of the original culture are not acknowledged, eventually leading to the ruin of what’s appropriated. The items become meaningless and lose their original spiritual, cultural, and historical significances and simply becomes stereotypes of pop culture.
In racial dynamics where white supremacy was started with colonialism and currently upheld and maintained, appropriation is usually done by white people of the cultures of people of colour. Cultural appropriation is in fact a by-product of imperialism, colonialism, and the oppression of people of colour wherein PoC (people of colour) are shunned for celebrating their culture. This is not a post-racial society, and there is a very definite imbalance in the cultural, economic and territorial relationship between people who are white (dominant culture(s), the oppressors in a world that upholds whiteness) and people of colour (minority culture, the oppressed). The imbalance between the two is maintained by extracting everything of value from the oppressed (people of colour) for profit and in this case, culture is very much of value.
And cultural appropriation is very much profitable. Objects and traditions of a culture of marginalized people are seen as trendy, exotic, edgy and desirable, which means profit. The media industry profits off taking parts of marginalized cultures and portraying them in ways that degrades them from their original value. In the meantime, the people those traditions originate from are oppressed and treated inferior for the celebration of their own culture.
And because of the history of colonialism behind white people and the continued oppression of people that exist today, white people have no ‘ethnicity’ because celebrating whiteness is racist. People of colour are the only ones with ‘ethnicity’ and white people, ‘without an ethnicity’ try to take on aspects of other cultures to appear worldly.
One of the worst things white people do is treat everything like it is theirs to have. But they do, and it is maintained by white supremacy, which means even a lot of people of colour are willing to allow whiteness to consume all of their culture in an effort to be accepted. It has not, does not, and will not work.
So culture is then treated not as a part of existence of people of colour but as a ‘thing’ in this capitalist society where individual people with differences are not treated as such but as identical workers, parts of a machine. So culture is not seen as maintained by the people, but as maintaining the people. This is best seen as when people of colour are informed and treated like there is a ‘right way’ to be of their culture/race and thus moulded into stereotypes that are very often mostly inaccurate and originate only from pop culture.
But things from a certain culture? Have their meaning BECAUSE of the people of that culture. It is given meaning by the people, and not the other way around, those objects have meaning when particular people of that culture wear it/do it, partly because of the history of the people and that part of a culture, and the people fiercely holding on to their culture despite the years of oppression.
When a white person wears something from a marginalized culture, they ignore the years of oppression PoC endured, and still endure, because of their culture. It becomes a mockery, makes it seem like all that hardship suffered doesn’t matter. When PoC wear or do something, they do it in defiance of white supremacy and the ideals of whiteness. When PoC celebrate their culture, they suffer, but it is done in defiance. White people do not have to suffer, because they are not oppressed for that culture, instead, white people appropriating culture strip the original culture of its meaning and the years of oppression that culture has borne. And most white people do not wear/ do something of another culture of another culture with its historical, cultural and/or spiritual significance in mind. Which is why it’s not okay for white people to wear/do things of PoC culture, even if particular people do know the significance. (See the post through the link)
There ought to be a differentiation between cultural appropriation and cultural syncretism , the latter of which is defined by “the process of reconciling or melding of differing views or beliefs or uses. This can happen intentionally, or by a natural, unconscious process. More or less discrete cultures that come into contact with one another, either through geographical proximity, migration, conquest, trade and exploration, or in other ways, will start to syncretize aspects of each culture. This is inevitable, and neither undesirable nor preventable. Cultural items tend to get taken on in a new culture if they are useful, convenient, resolve a problem, or appeal to a value that already exists in the host culture”. (From the article through the link- read more there to better understand syncretism.) Cultural syncretism, however, IS how cultural appropriation (degrading of a culture, loss of significance) happens eventually.
Things confused with cultural appropriation often: cultural exchange or sharing, which suggests an equality between the cultures. However, sharing can only be done when parts of a culture are ‘offered’. Like when cultural food or art is offered by the people of that culture, or learning of a culture from materials given to you by the people of that culture. That’s based on syncretism. An example would be when a native martial arts master offers to teach others. Here there is a willingness to share, and it is a skill given freely (or sold) by a member of the original community. As in, their culture belongs to them and they can do whatever with it, but other people learning Japanese martial arts doesn’t make them Japanese, nor does it allow them to adopt other parts of Japanese culture, which is downright appropriation.
And cultural appropriation is stealing, and degrades culture. It is not okay for white people to take from a culture that does not belong to them, which is racist.