Cultural appropriation can be defined as the adoption of specific elements of one culture by a member of another cultural without appreciation or acknowledgment of that group. On a larger scale, cultural appropriate is viewed as a component of racism that is very much alive and well in today’s society. Examples of cultural appropriation have been weaved throughout histories of oppressions since the 1700s and across the multitude of races, ethnicities, and cultures of marginalized communities.
The history of cultural appropriation in the United States dates back to the colonization and extermination of Native Americans from their own lands in the 16th century. Seeking to obtain property and ownership in the “New America”, British settlers (mostly white clergy men) abused the camaraderie offered by Native Americans. Using the gifts and practices given, colonizers then used this friendship to seize their land, while still retaining the offerings of Native Americans and later deeming peoples as “savages.”
During the slave trade of the 1800s, we became acquainted with “dreadlocks” of African Americans. “Dreadlocks” – the term used to describe the texture and consistency of African American hair during the slave trade, was termed “dreadful” by white colonizers – hence the terminology. This “style of hair” (now properly termed ‘locs’) can now be seen worn by white folks as an “appreciation of Black culture”.
The late 1800s brought the oppression and damage of Mexican and Chicano culture in America with their removal from owned territory by white colonizers – this time from 1846 through 1848. The US-Mexican Wars resulted in Mexico losing half its territory, the creation of “The Borderlands”, and long-lasting effects to the economy and culture of Mexico. To this day, cultural appropriation can be visibly seen both in the unjust immigration system of the US and the disregard of Mexican and Chicano history in the United States other than stereotypes of “illegal aliens”. Furthermore, this culture is heavily appropriated during capitalist holidays such as Halloween.
Another form of appropriation observed during our nation’s history centers around the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As more individuals from China and East Asia entered the United States, they were employed to expand the transportation system across the increasing property of the US. Viewed as “cheap and unskilled labor,” the Chinese were simultaneous exposed to unfair working conditions at the same time white politicians were imposing restrictions on the immigration of the Chinese. As the years went on, the Chinese were used to describe Filipinos, Koreans, and more individuals from Asia who were perceived to be similar in appearance, mannerisms, and culture. Early cartoons depict Asians as thin men with a pronounced yellow complexion. This has seen transferred to daily stereotypes and microaggressions experiences by AAPI individuals in our country.
Cultural appropriation continues (mostly) unabated to this day and can be seen in corporate logos, fashion, music, television, and it almost every aspect of daily life in the United States. While respectful cultural exchange is welcome, too often elements of marginalized groups’ culture are appropriated and exploited often for financial and personal gain.
As one can see, cultural appropriation has been a huge part of “our country” as early as its inception. It has made a systemic impression on the opinions of society and how we view race and ethnicity in America. Awareness and education of cultural appropriation and its delineation from cultural appreciation and exchange are needed to reverse the marginalization of people in the United States.