Cultural appropriation is a hot-button issue that is often misunderstood.
Like all the big, uncomfortable topics that can be daunting to explain to children, we are not always armed with the exact right words the moment we need them.
But now, perhaps more than ever, it is vital that parents take the time to learn about this complex issue and have honest discussions at home.
Talking about race and culture with your kids (and approaching it in age-appropriate ways) demystifies the discussion and helps children understand and respect cultures outside of their own.
If you’re worried about how to approach this issue with your children, here are some ways you can explain cultural appropriation to your kids.
Cultural appropriation refers to the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that doesn’t respect their original meaning, give credit to their source, or reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression.
In this way, cultural appropriation is a layered and nuanced phenomenon that many people may have trouble understanding—or may not realise when they are doing it themselves.
It may be natural to merge and blend cultures as people from different backgrounds come together and interact.
Many beautiful inventions and creations have been born from merging such cultures, such as country music.
However, the line is drawn when a dominant cultural group uses elements of a non-dominant group in a way that the non-dominant group views as exploitative.
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Defining Cultural Appropriation
Taking a step backward, how do we define cultural appropriation? Let’s first consider what is meant by each of the terms in the phrase and some related terms that are important to understand.
Culture refers to anything associated with people based on their ethnicity, religion, geography, or social environment.
This might include beliefs, traditions, language, objects, ideas, behaviours, customs, values, or institutions. Most often, culture is thought of as belonging to particular ethnic groups.
Appropriation refers to taking something that doesn’t belong to you and most often refers to an exchange that happens when a dominant group takes or borrows something from a minority group that has historically been exploited or oppressed.
In this sense, appropriation involves a lack of understanding of or appreciation for the historical context that influences what is being taken.
For example, I am taking a sacred object from culture and producing it as a Halloween costume.
Cultural denigration refers to when someone adopts an element of a culture with the sole purpose of humiliating or putting down people of that culture.
The most obvious example of this is blackface, which originated to put down people of colour as having certain undesirable personality traits.
Cultural Appreciation & Respect
Cultural appreciation is the respectful borrowing of elements from another culture interested in sharing ideas and diversifying oneself.
Examples would include learning martial arts from an instructor to understand the practice from a cultural perspective or eating Indian food at an authentic Indian restaurant.
When done correctly, cultural appreciation can result in creative hybrids that blend cultures.
Context of Cultural Appropriation
Learning about the context of cultural appropriation is essential for understanding why it is a problem.
While you might not think twice about adopting a style from another culture, such as wearing your hair in cornrows, the non-dominant group has historical experiences that make your actions insensitive to their past and current suffering.
Although it is just one example, the history of racism in America that has been codified into law means that there are still artifacts of racism that exist today.
A person of colour might be discriminated against because of a hairstyle that relates to their culture, while you as Part of the dominant group can get away with appropriating that same hairstyle, making it trendy, and never understanding the experiences that contributed to the invention of the do in the first place.
In other words, you’ve jumped on a trend because it seems incredible, but in doing so, you show insensitivity to the people for whom that trend is their life and not the latest fad.
Examples of Cultural Appropriation
What are some examples of cultural appropriation? First, let’s consider the types of items that tend to be the target of cultural appropriation.
- Intellectual property
- Clothing and fashion
- Religious symbols
- Wellness practices
Now, let’s consider the groups typically targeted in terms of cultural appropriation in the United States. They include the following groups of people:
- African Americans
- Asian Americans
- Hispanic Americans
- Native Americans
How to Explain Cultural Appropriation to Your Kids
Common Examples of Cultural Appropriation
While cultural appropriation as a concept may seem straightforward, often, in practice, it can be more confusing.
There are many ways in which society appropriates traits from minority cultures and perpetuates harmful stereotypes, often without realising it.
Common examples of cultural appropriation include:
While Americans gather every May 5th to celebrate “Mexican independence” by eating Mexican food and drinking margaritas, this “holiday” is not in Mexico. Seriously.
Other holidays that perpetuate negative stereotypes include St. Patrick’s Day and Thanksgiving.
This is not to say you cannot celebrate these days, only that you should take the opportunity to learn about the origins of the holidays and discover ways in which you can celebrate respectfully with your family.
If you’re unsure if a Halloween costume is an example of cultural appropriation, ask yourself if it represents a culture other than your own.
If you need to darken or lighten your skin, change the colour of your hair, add physical markings like tattoos, or wear another culture’s traditional clothing or hairstyle, it is culturally insensitive.
Hairstyles and Fashion
From Kim Kardashian’s cornrows to Katy Perry dressing like a geisha, we are constantly inundated with images of celebrities borrowing from other cultures in ways we may not immediately recognise as being offensive.
But when dominant cultures take aspects of non-dominant cultures, they adopt elements of their history without any negative ramifications.
As adults, we understand complex issues like racism and oppression and how minority cultures have been exploited throughout history.
But children are not born with that context, so it can be tricky to explain why cultural appropriation is terrible and how it can be avoided.
When faced with an instance of cultural appropriation, here’s how you can begin to navigate that conversation with your child.
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First, Ask Them Why This Is Important to Them.
Whether a child wants to dress as a particular character, wear their hair a certain way, or is speaking in an accent they heard on TV, remember that children learn by osmosis.
They are absorbing the world around them and picking and choosing what sticks out to them.
They are not likely aware that their choice could be offensive to others and so it’s important not to dismiss an idea without first discussing why it’s important to them in the first place. Instead, listen to their reasons and use that as a jumping-off point for the conversation.
Discuss the Context of That Piece of Culture Together.
If it is a topic, you understand well, discuss it with them. If not, take the time to research the origins together. Then, in the simplest of terms, talk about the history and the people behind this piece of culture.
Explain How Other Cultures Are Treated Differently.
Children learn early that while everyone should be treated the same, this is sadly not the case. Treating others with kindness and respect extends to honouring their cultures.
Offer Alternative Suggestions.
Now that you’ve laid the groundwork and emphasised the importance of respecting other cultures offer alternative suggestions for them to consider.
Treat This as an Opportunity for Growth.
Children will not understand issues regarding race and culture after one discussion. Even as adults, most of us still have a lot we will continue to learn in time.
The important thing is that you lead by example and continue to be open to growth yourself. By doing this, you will instil in your children an appreciation and respect for others.
Explain That it Perpetuates Stereotypes
The businesses that make and sell appropriated Halloween costumes are perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
They’re also making money off Indigenous peoples’ culture without giving anything back to the people who’ve been exploited, nor do they take the time to understand individual symbols, significance, and differences across communities.
How to explain this to your kid: The companies selling these Halloween costumes ignore what makes each Native group unique to make money for themselves. If we want to support Native cultures, we can look at Native artists and artisans (but we still cannot wear those items as a “costume”).
What If Your Child Wants to Celebrate a Culture That They Aren’t Part Of?
The ethics get trickier when people debate whether it’s OK to dress up as a specific person or character from a culture that is not your own.
What about Disney characters, for example?
Fortunately, Disney has evolved to develop characters of colour like Moana, Tiana, and Mulan to look up to, and, understandably, children of all races would want to dress up like them.
However, parents of white children (or children who are not from the culture represented in the costume) can use this as an opportunity to discuss why it could be a tough choice.
Because characters like Moana are based on a rich cultural history, there’s a good chance that such a costume will unwittingly reinforce stereotypes and promote a Halloween environment that is less fun for neighbours and classmates of colour.
It’s Important to Talk to Our Kids About These Distinctions.
White children, in particular, have plenty of white characters in pop culture to choose from—and recognising that is one way to begin informing kids about their privilege.
In an opinion piece, Moana isn’t the best costume choice for a white child: “This isn’t about putting a damper on your kid’s creativity; it’s about exercising sensitivity towards anyone who doesn’t get to choose how the world at large sizes them up.”
The decision can be a bit nuanced, though. Buying a Moana costume straight from the rack seems perfectly fine to her, as long as it doesn’t include face painting, temporary tattoos, or a brown bodysuit.
She does take issue with non-Polynesian people drawing on tattoos or trying to don traditional Polynesian dress when they’re uninformed about the cultural significance of these traditions.
That is the definition of cultural appropriation: taking something from a culture you don’t belong to and using it for a purpose that it is not made for, without knowing or understanding its cultural significance, turning it into an accessory for your fun or entertainment.
What Are Some Examples of Cultural Appropriation from Popular Culture?
Below are some to consider.
Rock’ n’ Roll
In the 1950s, white musicians “invented” rock and roll; however, the musical style was borrowed from Black musicians who never received credit.
Music executives chose to promote white performers over Black performers, reinforcing the idea that cultural appropriation impacts a non-dominant group.
In 2011, motivational entrepreneur James Arthur Ray was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide after the death of three participants in his pseudo sweat lodge. This is an extreme example of the cultural appropriation of Native American traditions.
Do you remember the “voguing” craze made famous by Madonna back in the 1990s?
Voguing is a dance that had its roots in the gay clubs of New York City and was pioneered by the Black and Latinx communities.
Madonna defends her right to artistic expression, but the question remains—how many people still think Madonna invented voguing?
Major sports teams in the United States and Canada are involved in cultural appropriation because of the names of the units
Past and present team names include the Chicago Blackhawks, Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, and Edmonton Eskimos. (The Redskins and Eskimos are both undergoing a name change as of the time of this writing)
Redskin is a derogatory term for indigenous people, and the Inuit community has rejected the term Eskimo. So once again, if you aren’t sure if something is cultural appropriation, you need to look no further than the reaction of the group from whom the cultural element was taken.
How to Know If Something Is Cultural Appropriation
Are you unsure how to decide if something is cultural appropriation? Here are some questions to ask yourself in this situation:
- What is your goal with what you are doing?
- Are you following a trend or exploring the history of a culture?
- Are you deliberately trying to insult someone’s culture or being respectful?
- Are you purchasing something that is a reproduction of a culture or an original? (e.g., artwork)
- How would people from the culture you are borrowing an item from feeling about what you are doing?
- Are there any stereotypes involved in what you are doing?
- Are you using a sacred item in a flippant or fun way? (e.g., headdress)
- Are you borrowing something from an ancient culture and pretending that it is new?
- Are you crediting the source or inspiration of what you are doing?
- If a person of the original culture were to do what you are doing, would they be viewed as “cool”, or could they possibly face discrimination?
- Are you wearing a costume that represents a culture? (e.g., Geisha girl, tribal wear)
- Are you ignoring the cultural significance of something in favour of following a trend?
Explore these questions and always aim to show sensitivity when adopting elements from another culture.
If you do realise that something you have done is wrong, it’s OK to accept that as a mistake and then work to change it and apologise for it.
How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation
How do you avoid cultural appropriation? Below are some steps to take.
- Ask yourself the list of questions above to begin to explore the underlying motivation for what you are doing.
- Give credit or recognise the origin of items you borrow or promote from other cultures rather than claiming them to be your original ideas.
- Take the time to learn about and truly appreciate a culture before you borrow or adapt elements of that culture. Learn from members of the culture, visit venues run by actual members of a culture (such as restaurants), and attend authentic events (such as going to a real luau).
- Support small businesses run by original members of a culture rather than buying mass-produced items from big box stores that are made to represent a culture.
Cultural appropriation is the social equivalent of plagiarism with an added dose of denigration. It’s something to be avoided at all costs and something to educate yourself about.
In addition to watching your actions, it’s essential to be mindful of the activities of corporations and be picky about how you spend your dollars, as that is another way of supporting members of the non-dominant culture. Finally, do what you can when you can, as you learn to do better.
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