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Culture 101: Appropriation

By Maanasi Shyno

Graphics by Sophie Williams

This summer, Chinese fast fashion brand, Shein, released several culturally insensitive pieces that sparked outrage on social media. South Asian cultural garments were being modeled by white women as sleepwear and Muslim prayer mats depicting holy images were being sold as multipurpose “fringe carpets”. After backlash from these communities, Shein issued an apology for the “oversight” and created a diversely staffed product review committee to prevent future mistakes. Just days later, Shein released a necklace with a buddhist swastika pendant.

Seeing the Shein products brought to mind my first time seeing pictures of Coachella, a popular music festival hosted annually in California. At the time, I wasn’t well-versed on all the reasons cultural appropriation was so problematic and my parents didn’t seem to mind, but the pictures of white girls wearing bindis made me uncomfortable. Coachella attendees have also worn cornrows, Native American headdresses, and kimonos— all belonging to cultures they knew little to nothing about and were simply wearing a “festival look”. Like many people of color growing up in the US, my culture is inherently part of my identity, serving as both a source of pride and social stigma. For a POC living in America to see something so personal displayed by the same people who use culture as a vehicle to alienate POCs is not only disorienting, but deeply invalidating.

Cultural appropriation is a legacy of colonialism and profiteering. Fortunately, there has been a great shift towards caring about cultural appropriation and insensitivity. But, there’s still a lot of confusion around how to check yourselves and how to show appreciation, without being insensitive.

What is cultural appropriation and insensitivity?

Cultural appropriation and cultural insensitivity are two distinct things that often work in tandem. To understand these terms, it’s important to grasp the concept of cultural knowledge. Cultural knowledge refers to the norms, values, symbols, beliefs, and practices, and objects belonging to a specific culture. For example, in South Asian culture, our traditional clothing designs like the saree would be considered cultural knowledge. This knowledge belongs to that culture, sort of like an unspoken patent.

Just like with anything patented, there are rules to how this cultural knowledge can be used and by whom. At a basic level, the integrity of the original concept must be preserved and respected, especially when the person engaging with the culture is not from it. When the cultural knowledge of a group is ‘borrowed’ by another without this preservation and respect, it is considered cultural appropriation.

Additionally, when speaking about or engaging with a culture, it’s important to do so respectfully. Typically, to be respectful, you must be sensitive to the fact that you do not know everything about the culture. You must also educate yourself to avoid perpetuating or engaging with stereotypes. When this is not done or not done properly, it is considered cultural insensitivity. Appropriation and insensitivity compound to perpetuate racism and stereotypes, making life difficult for POCs. Because most cultural appropriation originates from cultural insensitivity, most discussions regarding cultural appropriation will not treat the two as mutually exclusive.

Cultural appreciation is not simply engaging with a culture, but doing so with respect and humility. This means making an effort to be knowledgeable about that culture and to be committed to preventing meaning from being stripped from the cultural practice or object. It also requires consideration and support for the people belonging to that culture. You have to actively give credit to the culture, while not taking from it for personal gain. You also have to recognize that there is an inerasable power dynamic between those of the culture who must endure discrimination and others who are able to disengage as well as perpetuate that discrimination at will.

Why is it important?

Cultural appropriation and insensitivity can be harmful to the communities groups that cultural elements originate from. That should be reason enough for it to matter. But let’s dive into some specific reasons.

First, profiting off of a culture while ostracizing that culture takes away from the work that minority has done to rid themselves of internalized oppression and self-hatred. It’s no secret that it’s hard for minorities to embrace their identities when society pushes whitewashed ideals upon us. To then use parts of that identity for profit signals that there’s nothing about the cultural idea itself that is unappealing, just who engages with it and when. For example, Black women are discriminated against when wearing natural hairstyles and feel pressured to wear wigs or straightened hair in the workplace due to the whitewashed idea of a ‘professional’ look. Simultaneously, they see white models sporting cornrows, a style with a lot of cultural weight, as high fashion. This solidifies the division between “society” and the “other” in ways that leave lasting impressions and damage. By trivializing the history of certain peoples, cultural appropriation also serves as aggression by dehumanizing and denying people of their identities. In doing so, it also allows for intergenerational trauma, the compounding transfer of trauma between generations. This is absolutely unacceptable if we are to progress towards a fairer, freer world in which people can be comfortable with their identities.

Second, cultural appropriation and the use of cultural knowledge often boils down a significant aspect of a culture to a trend or object to be misused. For example, in Islam, the prayer mat is holy and only used when praying. It is treated respectfully at all times and kept safely when not being used. The mats being sold by Shein were directly pulled from Islamic culture, even depicting the Kaaba, the holiest site for Muslims. Additionally, the mats were being used as rugs for pets, including dogs which are considered impure in Islam. To advertise these mats for casual use is inappropriate and disrespectful Islamic culture. Although Shein issued an apology and removed the item, allowing the product to enter the market in the first place sends a clear message about Shein’s priorities. By simplifying complex, significant elements of a culture to a casual item for consumption, meaning is stripped and the cultural knowledge is essentially stolen.

How to appreciate a culture and identify appropriation

  1. Educate yourself: A deep understanding/commitment to understanding the roots and background is inherent in appreciating a culture. You need to dive deeper than the aesthetics of a culture. This could take many forms, from dedicating yourself to studying the culture or participating in cultural traditions with friends (by invite of course!). If your friends are comfortable, ask questions! All it takes is a Google search to become more familiar with a culture than you were before. Of course, educating yourself does not permit you to participate in a culture; you must also consider other factors!

  2. Question your intentions: Ask yourself if there is a reason that you want to engage with the practice. If you want to wear another culture’s clothing or accessories, is it because you genuinely find the items and their significance beautiful or do you want to participate in a “trend”? If you are planning to explore another culture’s art form, are you doing it out of appreciation or because you think it will make you look cool? If you stand something to gain and your engagement is more about yourself than you interacting respectfully with the culture, you’re probably appropriating.

  3. Ask yourself how you could hurt someone: If you think that your actions could hurt or offend someone, there’s definitely something wrong there. Brainstorm ways you could relate appreciation that would make people feel respected or rethink engagement. For example, wearing geisha makeup and a kimono for Halloween, regardless of your appreciation of the culture, would be unacceptable. Asian people suffer from the exoticization and fetishization of their culture. Seeing you make a character out of an important aspect of their culture would be painful. There’s no perfect way to make sure you aren’t hurting someone. It’s important to be open to conversation and remedy any mistakes you make.

  4. Give credit and support the culture!: If you’re taking inspiration from a culture, acknowledge that! Even if you feel like you’ve created something that is really your own, it’s important to give credit. This can be done by referencing a cultural origin or spotlighting other artists. If you’re buying cultural items make sure they are authentic so you can support the culture and their artists financially. If you’re wearing a cultural piece, you can share what you’ve learned about the historical background with others! (Johnson)

Getting a tattoo of a dreamcatcher because you think it looks aesthetic and it has a “deep meaning”.Getting a tattoo of a dreamcatcher in honor of your Native American spouse after reading extensively about their history and significance.Buying a Chinese qipao because you think it’s cute and like the color. Buying a Chinese qipao with your best friend to wear to her wedding out of respect and with understanding of its importance. Doing a “Day of the Dead” makeup look for your next dance performance because it fits the dark music you’ve selected. Doing calavera makeup to accompany a traditional dance celebrating Mexican culture with a researched foreword to educate viewers about the cultural heritage.

Ultimately, culture is hard. A lot of our “mainstream” or “Internet” culture is inspired by Latinx and Black heritages, so it’s hard to know if something popular is something cultural we need to understand better. Cultures are fluid and dynamic, overlapping with each other so it’s challenging to attribute credit. But at the end of the day, it’s worth it to take note of instances where we may be participating in cultural appropriation because it helps us respect those around us and teaches us to hold ourselves responsible for our choices. There are no set rules: this is a practice you have to keep updating as time goes on. It’s okay to make mistakes and it's certainly okay to love and appreciate other cultures, as long as we love and appreciate all of the complexities and histories that come with the beautiful aspects.


“What's Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm.” Everyday

Feminism, 14 Aug. 2020,

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