By Daniel J. McLaughlin
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. It is often a difficult balance to get right. The exchange is consensual, a way to learn about how other cultures work, whilst the other is akin to theft.
The difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation is the power dynamic shared with the two groups: the appropriator and the inspiration. The dominant culture takes the elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.
Susan Scafidi, law professor and author of 'Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law', defines cultural appropriation as:
“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.
"It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
It may be difficult to recognise cultural appropriation unless it is pointed out. ThoughtCo argues there should be an awareness of why someone is buying or doing something that represents another culture, and list a series of questions for people to ask themselves when in doubt:
Why are you "borrowing" this? Is it out of a genuine interest? Is it something you feel called to do? Or, does it simply look appealing and you're following the trends?
What is the source? For material items such as artwork, was it made by someone from that culture? What does this item mean to them?
How respectful is this to the culture? What would someone from that group feel about it?
Metro also provides a checklist to consider when it comes to cultural appropriation: does the style belong to a minority culture? Are the original people who wear it stigmatised for it? Are they represented, and have they been credited. It is important to recognise the historical connotations behind the style you adopt. And finally, are you wearing it as a costume? This turns style into parody, and it should never be a costume or the butt of a joke.
But cultural appropriation might not be a bad thing, entirely. Borrowing from other cultures isn't just inevitable, the Atlantic argues, but it is potentially positive. Without cultural appropriation, there would be no such thing as New York pizza or jeans (using Japanese denim); more broadly, borrowing is how the West got democratic discourse, mathematics and the calendar.
The Washington Post's Cathy Young argues that protests against cultural appropriation have the potential to "chill creativity and artistic expression". It also could be equally bad for diversity, "raising the troubling spectre of artistic cleansing". She writes: "When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding."
Cultural appropriation is a delicate subject. When considering whether something is a cultural exchange or appropriation, it requires a few more moments - and self-awareness - to consider the difference.