What Makes Cultural Appropriation Offensive?

Originally posted on ChapterTK.com

As I am fervently interested in equality and human rights, I read a lot of blogs that follow those topics. Frequently, I will read articles involving events of cultural appropriation, a phenomenon I just can’t wrap my mind around.

I accept that cultural appropriation exist and that it is often offensive. What I can’t understand is why it’s so offensive. For example, I read a blog on Katy Perry’s ‘geisha performance.’ I know that her performance was cultural appropriation and that she mixed various Asian cultures. I can also understand the frustration someone of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and other Asian cultures might feel at always being lumped together.

My acceptance without understanding is uncomfortable for me. How can I point to something and say “this is offensive ” if I don’t know what makes it offensive? In hopes of learning just a little, I took to the internet for a definition. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much. The best I found was via Wikipedia, which reads:

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held.

Under that definition, it seems there are times when cultural appropriation is acceptable and when it is offensive. How does a person tell the difference? Before I understood anything about Native American people, I dressed as Pocahontas for Halloween. I hadn’t yet reached my 10th birthday and had no idea that dressing as a Native American was often seen as offensive towards Native American culture.

Now that I’m older, I still don’t get it. Was it offensive to dress as Pocahontas? If yes, why? That’s my biggest question when it comes to any instance of cultural appropriation. I wonder if it’s so hard for me to understand because I’m not a part of a culture that is often negatively appropriated. Is there even an example of the cultural appropriation of Americans?

This is where I need your help. I am wondering if any of my lovely readers can help me understand what makes cultural appropriation offensive. Given what I have read, I am under the impression there is a right and a wrong way to go about honoring another culture in art or music. For example, is there anything Katy Perry could have done to respectfully honor Japanese culture in her performance?

This photo, “134293_0816” is copyright (c) 2014 Disney | ABC Television Group and made available under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license

One of the reasons cultural appropriation has been at the forefront of my mind is because I’ve been thinking about my July cosplay. The character I will be dressing as doesn’t have anything super specific to one culture or another (aside from the fact the game she’s in was made in Japan). However, there are a lot of anime and video game characters who wear cultural garments and/or who are from a specific culture.

Say I dress up as a character from Rurouni Kenshin, which is a historical fantasy taking place in 1878. If I dress as one of the characters, meaning I’d be wearing Japanese garments based off of what they wore in 1878, is that or is that not cultural appropriation? Would it be offensive to dress in such a way since I am not Japanese?

I realize there’s a difference between a stage performance and a cosplayer dressing up as a character for fun, but I don’t understand what makes one offensive and not the other.

When I see an article on cultural appropriation, I always make a point to read through it. I desperately want to understand, partially because I don’t want to do something or approve of something that is offensive to another culture.

At this point, I simply accept an act of cultural appropriation is offensive if I read about people who have taken offense to it. That’s not where I want to stay. I want to be able to see an offensive act of cultural appropriation and know it’s offensive without anyone having to explain it to me.

I guess I’ll just have to keep reading until I figure it out.

How would you define cultural appropriation? What makes it offensive? Can it ever be inoffensive? How can a person tell the difference between offensive and inoffensive cultural appropriation?




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