Cultural Appropriation in the Media

Cultural appropriation is when people borrow practices and appearances that belong to a separate culture and use them as their own for the sake of fashion and trend. To many people this seems an innocent or superficial practice, like white women wearing Bindis at Coachella or cornrows at the beach. But, more specifically, it is when a dominant culture borrows from a systematically oppressed culture. America has turned a blind eye to the problem, going so far as to poke fun at certain outlets that describe the real, pressing issues behind it. Even those who do not support the practice are often confused by why it is shown in such a negative light by these outlets. Ultimately, the practice of cultural appropriation damages said appropriated culture in ways unseen by the larger American population.

For clarification, cultural appropriation is not the same as assimilation or cultural exchange, because the power imbalance is very different between these three examples. Assimilation is when people from the systematically oppressed culture adopt parts of the dominant culture in order to fit in within that dominant culture. Cultural exchange is when cultures on the same level mutually share their practices and appearances. Neither of these are the same as cultural appropriation because in assimilation, it is a survival tactic, and in cultural exchange, the cultural power balance is equal.

Cultural appropriation spreads misinformation about the culture that it is appropriating in the first place. Many people who support or defend cultural appropriation believe that it is supposed to help the dominant culture learn, but that is not the case. One example that expands on this from modern culture is the story of Pocahontas. In the American Disney movie, this woman is a strong, yet kind girl in a Native American tribe that is approached by an Englishman and eventually falls in love with him. Pocahontas’ real name was Motoaka, and her story is much more grim than many Americans would suspect. She was abducted as a teen on a ship to Jamestown, given to an Englishman, Christened Rebecca, and used as a racist propaganda tool before she died at 21. The culture that Moataka belonged to represented years of diverse culture and important history, but in a sense it seems apparent that the racist propaganda she was subjected to never quite ended. This is because most of the stories that we hear of Pocahontas depict the land as savages, passive, or nonexistent, not to mention an entirely sugarcoated depiction of the real event. Because the dominant culture never represents the real stories of subjugated cultures in popular media, the American population never recognizes that the stories are trivializing and rampant with appropriation to make the dominant culture more comfortable with the gruesome story.  

In the United States, The dominant culture when speaking about cultural appropriation is white people, and one of the largest problems with their appropriation is the fact that when these white people wear or do something that belongs to another culture, it is seen as trendy, hip, or even progressive and inclusive. But when people of color, especially those that belong to the particular culture, do the same thing, they are seen as ‘too ethnic’ and ‘stuck in the past’. This double standard pressures black women to conform especially. When Zendaya wore faux locs at the 2015 Oscars, Fashion Police host and E! red carpet host Giuliana Rancic commented that she “feels like she smells like patchouli oil or weed”. But when Kylie Jenner wore the same faux locs in an a cover story photo shoot in Teen Vogue, attempting a “desert rebel” look, she is praised and described as raw, groundbreaking, fresh, and edgy. Zendaya responded, saying: “There is already harsh criticism of African American hair in society without the help of others who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair. [I wanted to] showcase [locs] in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough.” Not to mention its repercussions outside of praise or insult. In March 2014, AR 670-1 was released by the U.S. Army, a list of policies for the appearance of the soldiers. This list banned braids, locks, and twists with a diameter of a quarter of an inch. It also slandered unauthorized hairstyles by calling them unkempt and matted. The message this sends to the appropriated black community is that black women who wear their hair naturally in styles such as locs are not deserving of praise, acceptance, or even respect in the eyes of white people. It enforces the harmful lie that black natural beauty is not appealing to the general white, American population, and is only attractive when worn by white women. This message is not only being sent to adults struggling to find jobs, but children struggling to find confidence.

Not only does this practice of accepting cultural appropriation miseducate the majority population, it trivializes violence and oppression. The NFL team, the Washington Redsk*ns, have been criticized for the name, but the terms have been largely defended by its fans and owners. The argument is made that the name “keeps to tradition”, and “honors Indians”. It has been taken even further by telling the Indigenous activist groups that have called them out on the name’s racial connotations that they are “being too sensitive”. But for Native people, redsk*n means a barbaric colonialist practice in which governments would brutally scalp and murder Native Americans and use their “redsk*ns”, or scalps as proof of their kill. When violence targets one specific section of people through genocide, the trauma will last throughout subsequent generations. Therefore, it makes said trauma seem ridiculous, funny, and even playful when using it carelessly in everyday life. Media reinforces this by upholding and encouraging these false stereotypes and misinforming the general public.

Cultural appropriation is one of the most widespread issues within white, American fashion today, and deserves ample recognition and rectification. Yet we, as a nation still dismiss it as trivial. Education is the first step to showing exactly how many problems this phenomenon causes for minorities in America. This is especially true for those whose ethnic features and traditions are thought beautiful, but their actual well-being not as much. Not only this, but people of color as constantly seen through the lense of these stereotypes that cultural appropriation perpetuates and popularizes. As a result, it creates barriers of disrespect and dismission within the real world.

Works Cited:

  1. United States. National Park Service. "Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend."National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 04 Oct. 2015. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.

  1. "Despite The Natural Hair Movement, Black Women Still Face Pressure To Conform." Despite The Natural Hair Movement, Black Women Still Face Pressure To Conform. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.

  1. "Zendaya Rips E! Red Carpet Host Giuliana Rancic for 'Ignorant' Dreadlocks Comment." TheWrap. N.p., 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.

  1. "Kylie Jenner Rocks Dreadlocks On Instagram." StyleBlazer. N.p., 10 Feb. 2015. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.

Comments (5)

Ian Fay (Student 2017)
Ian Fay

I really liked the way you clearly defined cultural appropriation. I always thought that it was a form of assimilation but, you cleared it up nicely in the second paragraph so I had that definition in my head for the rest of the article. Also, the real world examples were very well chosen for this article. It shows how it is a damaging series of stigmas, misconceptions, and double-standards. Very nicely done.

Arianna Haven (Student 2017)
Arianna Haven

This paper definitely opened my eyes on this topic. It is a topic that I have known about, but never really thought too deeply about. I believe that is the part of the problem. Many people know about issues but never address them. By reading your 2fer, I gained a different perspective on the topic; a perspective that I agree with. Something that I had never seen before is the word redskn with a star in place of the i. I think that if more people started to spell "redskn" that same way, they would realize it is equivalent to a curse word. Overall, great job!

Teylor Ellerbe (Student 2017)
Teylor Ellerbe

You already know I love this topic it bring to life real world isseues going on that people need tolook into more. I really love how you broke down assimilation or cultural exchange I learned more about them while reading this. Maybe you talk about cultural appreciation as thing people get culture appropriation confused with as well, I love this it really made me think more on the topic than I already have. Nice Job

Ella Petersen (Student 2017)
Ella Petersen

I really liked your real world examples. They were easy to understanding and chosen well. This really expanded my thinking on cultural appropriation because I've never supported it but I've also never fully understood it so this helped me with that. I also thought it was a good choice to compare the word to assimilation and cultural exchange.

Nyla Moore (Student 2017)
Nyla Moore

I really like your choice of quotes in this paper. I like how you used examples that everyone has been exposed to and that made it easier to understand. I also wrote my first 2fer on cultural appropriation and I enjoy seeing your perspective on the topic.