It is lawful to violate a culture, on the condition of bearing a child

(Simone de Beauvoir)

Culture is a living being that evolves, feeds on the environment, reproduces, transforms and constantly reinvents itself; transcending geographical, historical and moral boundaries. Essentially free, it travels as seeds do, germinating and blooming to pollinate and fly again to other places. Certain flowers become a fundamental and vital part of the history and culture of a land and of their people. Sometimes, those flowers that have been cultivated and cared for by generations will be snatched, stripped from their habitat, and planted in more hostile environments. At other times, they will be appraised by their carers and exchanged for other things in order to improve their garden. In other occasions, the wind will blow the flower´s seeds around again and they will sprout in other fields with a different aroma. But, whatever their journey is, the seeds will adapt, they will continue sprouting, flourishing, and creating new species ready to survive.

The sale of the exotic

"Ethnic fashion" is invading virtual and real shop windows of a global market that imposes a capitalist Western view. Its colorful clothes, inspiring dances and melodies, stylish hairstyles, unique flavors, etc. coming from ancient traditions and cultures, are becoming more and more popular. Popular singers1 set their video clips in Asian scenarios, celebrities tattoo themselves with tribal symbols and dress in Arabic or Andean garments, walk cat models use African hairstyles, prestigious chefs mix recipes from all over the planet... creating a impact on a public that, thirsty for innovation and attracted by this exotic beauty, integrates those cultural elements into their daily lives.

Voices from those exotic and ancient cultures rise in indignation against this phenomenon which they consider the result of a "cultural appropriation". They feel pillaged as they can see how the dominant western culture takes their native cultural elements and sell them in the market, after empty them of all significance and transform them in simple decorative items. The sale of these elements out of their original context reinforces the emergence of cultural stereotypes; distorted interpretations of a culture that are generally accepted as real. These images based on ignorance undermine the original culture, and they may even go further ridiculing or mocking the culture.

Other negative consequences can arise from this "appropriation" by ignoring to mention and acknowledge the communities where all that sought-after exoticism comes from. These minority cultures that are used as sources of ethnic inspiration for products and new artistic forms that are later exploited in the market, do not receive any credit, profit or prestige from the sales. Moreover, people who belong to these cultures are often ignored and totally de-linked from the marketing success. Although the injustice that drives these minority cultures to denounce the offense and claim their rights is evident and compressible, it is also important to remember that this phenomenon is an effect of the global market system, which can go so far as to dehumanize, but at the same time promote communication and generate positive impacts.

Appreciation of other faces

The response to this showcase of "ethnic fashion" is not just a banal and inconsiderate use of cultural decorative elements. There are also people who, initially attracted by its beauty, discover new and interesting worlds to be appreciated and valued, and they try to go further in understanding the meaning, history, traditions, and symbols of those ethnic elements. This is known as "cultural appreciation", it happens when we approach another culture through recognition and respect, without prejudice or previous stereotypes, having a predisposition to learn and understand, and always being aware of its complexity. Therefore, this “cultural appreciation” can become a door towards a much needed intercultural communication and mutual understanding for a peaceful coexistence, and even promote exchange to generate new and enriching cultural and artistic manifestations as it has always happened throughout human history.

Accordingly, in the same way that we say the market trivializes and stereotypes minority cultures, it can also open a window into the appreciation of those traditions and knowledge. Let´s say for instance a person who is going along with the trend of the moment signs up for yoga or capoeira classes. Maybe their initial motivation is just to be accepted by their group of friends, or be able to boast of a flexible or athletic body. But, perhaps, this frivolous initiative could later lead that person to explore what is behind the yoga or capoeira communities, to discover other lifestyles and mentalities, to learn from their history and traditions, and maybe to end up collaborating and being part of it. Such is the case of a curious cook that one day finds a new ingredient in the "world´s cuisines" section of the supermarket, and dares to experiment with new recipes contributing to the collective culture that we enlarge every day. Would this be a case of cultural appropriation or appreciation?

Does evolution or perpetuation of culture?

In this endless discussion about the thin line that sometimes separates "cultural appropriation" from “cultural appreciation”, perhaps the very concept of "culture" is the key. The complexity of this term makes its definition ambiguous even to official dictionaries: « the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and handed down from one generation to another». This complexity also causes discrepancies between certain scholars who are not able to come to a unanimous agreement. Nevertheless, two opposite positions can be identified in this discussion.

On the one hand, we find the more accepted and extended "modernist" interpretation, where culture is considered a "fixed and stable entity". Hofstede2, one of its main authors, defines it as a:

«mental program, which is stable over time and leads to the same person showing more or less the same behavior in similar situations.»

According to this approach the different levels that create a culture (values, symbols, rituals, etc.) are like the layers of an onion. The surface layers, or more superfluous cultural behaviors can vary; while the heart of the onion, or the most deeply rooted values remain unchanged. This view allows the categorising of cultures by national territories and establishes divisions that are perpetuated over time.

On the other hand, the "postmodern constructivist" view understands culture as a variable entity in ongoing change:

«a dynamic open systems that spread across geographical boundaries and evolve over time.»3

This approach sees culture as a social product that constantly reinvents itself, depending on the context and the time. We are the ones who create culture daily through relationships and social interactions in different places and times. The postmodernist Fang4 compares culture with the ocean always in permanent movement. We are only able to perceive the motion of the ocean´s waves, which represents the values and most visible cultural behaviors. However, beneath the surface there are innumerable currents and a flows of complex nature that we cannot see, those are the unknown and unpredictable values and cultural behavior that lay within ourselves.

What do we take over?

Appropriate is "to take something for oneself, to become owner of it." If we understand culture as a stable entity, frozen in time and divided into categories by national territories, then "cultural appropriation" makes sense. A dominant culture takes over an immutable cultural element of another determinate national culture stripping it of meaning and marketing it. This is akin to someone who steals a photo from an very old album that has been preserved for centuries, and then sells it without explaining where it comes from, its meaning, or what its connection is to the past. As well as the consequences that the theft implies for the native culture, those old photos also play an important role in to the community to which they belong. They represent a model which establishes permanent cultural values and social behaviors within the community, contributing to create its own stereotypes. Those stereotypes are possibly different from those ones that the global market can generates but, after all, they are images that do not match with the changing reality in which we live.

Conversely, if we consider culture as an evolving entity and in constant transformation, then the "cultural appropriation" becomes a paradox, because it is unlikely to be able to take over something that is unpredictable and changes all the time. It would be like trying to own the ocean or air currents, perhaps for a moment you could be owner of one of these, but immediately it would change course and become a fleeting wave or a blast of air that evaporates in seconds. In this sense, those cultural elements used to attract an audience hungry for innovation, could be understood as the capture of a precise moment in the evolution of a culture that it is unstoppable, it transforms and reinvents itself in every second.

We are history, we are a mix, we are evolution

Our history is evolving and we are the evidence of this cultural evolution which has forged over the centuries since the beginning of humanity. If we tried to maintain our culture as something unalterable, then we should still act according to the prehistoric behaviors, values and cultural expressions. Instead, different cultures have been evolving through a continuous adaptation and exchange with the environment and between civilizations. The Greeks took ideas from India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Turkey; the Romans developed ideas from the Greeks and maintained relations with a great melting pot of cultures including the Chinese; the Arabs and Christians influenced Mediterranean culture, Europeans adopted the Greco-Roman culture... and the list goes on.

This endless historical list that has been enlarged by different types of exchange and influence: free and voluntary for the survival of humankind; commercial like in the times of the ancient caravan, when traded products and knowledge helped to join the East with the West; or spoiler like in the period of colonialism. Through all these forms of mergers, absorption, and usurpation of cultural elements that reflect our own nature, we have created over the centuries, and we continue to do so, a great wealth of culture, although not always in fair and honest ways. A wealth of culture which we live with and we use for our own benefit without thinking if we are committing a cultural appropriation, for example, when we eat a pizza (Italy), when we walk over a cobblestone road (Romans), when we wash our hair with shampoo (India), when we play chess (Arabic), when we use paper (China), or when we celebrate with a shot of tequila (Mexico).

In the same way, all those snatched or appreciated ethnic items that the market now offers will melt within their anonymity into a collective and global culture, as has always happened. In the process, the fight against the unfair appropriation and for the defense of native cultures will perpetually continue, but also new horizons for curious and restless minds will be opened, plus new cultural and artistic expressions will be created as part of an unstoppable evolution. An evolution that reveals who we are, where we come from, and what our history is about. A story that tells how we live in a constant adaptation to the environment, our perpetual exchange with the environment and fellow human, and our eternal struggle for survival.

We are a mix; there is no pure and unchanging culture, ethnic group, or gene. Even though our innate need for defining our identity, feeding our sense of belonging, and for understanding our origins lead us to try to preserve and protect our native cultures; the passage of time and its constant transformation will not stop because our needs and will keep modifying who we are. Like the planet has been moving over millions of years, like plants and animals acclimatized themselves to new dawns, like children will alter the inheritance of their parents in future generations, just like we come from and we go toward to, change.


1 Videos. Youtube: Coldplay. Hymn for The Weekend; Shakira. Waka Waka; Madonna. Nothing Really Matters.
2 Hofstede, G.: Culture’s consequences: International differences in work related values,1980. Sage Editors. Beverly Hills. Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind, 1991. Mc Graw-Hill Editors. London.
3 Hong, Y., Chiu, C.: “Toward a paradigm shift: From cross-cultural differences in social cognition to social-cognitive mediation of cultural differences”, 2001. Social Cognition, Volume 19.
4 Fang, T.: From Onion to Ocean: Paradox and Change in National Cultures, 2005. International Studies of Migration and Organisation.

Other sources

  1. Villaverde Maza, Noemí: “La apropiación cultural”, October 26, 2016. Mito Revista Cultura, nº38.
  2. Salazar, Diego: “¿Qué demonios es “apropiación cultural?”, October 10, 2016. Peru Periódico 21
  3. “La apropiación cultural. Qué es y cómo evitarla”, October 30, 2014. Demonio blanco de la tetera verde.
  4. Adarraga, Pablo: “¿Es la apropiación cultural una forma de racismo? ¿Por qué?”, November 7, 2016). Revista Quora.
  5. Baudino, Marcelo: “Hablemos de apropiación cultural”, September 26, 2016. Iceberg Inteligencia Cultural revista.
  6. “La apropiación cultural: o por qué no te puedes disfrazar de blanco”, February 7, 2016. Maestroviejo.
  7. “Cuando lo “étnico” se pone de moda”, January 1, 2016. Daniela y Maureen.