Culture Wars: appropriation vs. inclusion, and why it matters

Niya Bajaj-

This article is part of a Discussion on inclusivity, free speech, and identity politics.

In The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom argued “Cultures fight wars with one another…Cultures have different perceptions, which determine what the world is. They cannot come to terms…The very idea of culture carries with it a value: man needs culture and must do what is necessary to create and maintain cultures.”[1] Maintaining culture and the associated authenticity can pose a significant challenge — especially for groups who are not part of the dominant culture and who may turn to their perceived in-group for a sense of community and stability when they face an unwelcoming broader social experience. Maintaining cultural authenticity is further complicated by the increase in cultural appropriation in the recent past.

Cultural Exchange vs. Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is very different than cultural exchange. Bin et al. define cultural exchange as the “exchange of art, publication, sports, literatures, studies, music, and so on. Through cultural exchanges, the impact of one culture to another culture increases with generally positive impressions. Cultural exchange promotes interaction among the countries and encourages people to learn more about other cultures. The world can achieve a win-win approach and development through the deep understanding of the cultures.” Matt argues for more cultural exchange in his piece, and I agree with his stance.

Susan Scafidi, 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.” In almost all cases, the aspects of culture that are taken are reproduced with negligible change in the dominant culture and presented to the powerful majority as something novel and desirable. This act of taking without asking and reproducing without acknowledgement of the source is perceived as an act of aggression, and possibly of continued colonization, by members of the minority culture from whom something is taken. It serves to highlight the power divide between groups, where the dominant culture can take from a minority culture (and often profit from it) without asking or acknowledgement, and face few consequences because of the power they hold.

Media coverage of cultural appropriation, when it is identified correctly, paints it in a negative light. It posits that the use of elements from one, usually marginalized, culture by members of a dominant culture is harmful. Cultural appropriation for economic gain is detrimental to relationships between cultures and should be addressed. However, the concept as a whole would benefit from consideration before being universally accepted as unconscionable behaviour.

Cultural appropriation is not always malicious, but it is always a deliberate act on the part of individuals or corporations from the dominant culture. It is often the result of the ongoing challenge they face to define their brands and create unique value propositions to acquire and maintain their social and financial capital. Social capital, in this case is defined as “the collective value of all social networks and the inclinations to trust each other and to do things for each other that membership and positions of status in these networks confers.”

As individuals and brands struggle to maintain their position, visibility, relevance and the trust associated with those things, some of them are appropriating “authentic” practices and materials from marginalized cultures on a more frequent basis. This suggests an increase in thoughtless engagement with, and colonization of, the history, culture, space and displacement of marginalized communities. It also results in name calling, accusations and the erosion of positive relationships between communities as both sides turn to their in-groups for support instead of looking for space to build bridges and engage in constructive discourse — which as Matt suggests in his piece build a more cohesive social fabric.

But is ending cultural appropriation the solution to the concerns about Columbusing — the act of discovering something that has existed for a long time as part of a culture that is not your own and sharing it with your culture while stripping it of its original context — and exploitation? Or would doing so create silos and barriers between dominant and marginalized cultures, limiting opportunities to share information, learn from each other, and work to develop a shared set of values informed by differing perceptions of what the world is? As Matt argues, and I agree, building bridges and creating space for ongoing discourse is important to building a more inclusive community, ideally one that has room for the bigger tents that Ian proposes in his article.

Yoga: cultural appropriation or cultural exchange?

When an aspect of a culture is appropriated, it is taken from the culture it began in, and is presented in its original form in a new space to a dominant culture that is different from the founding culture, without acknowledgement of where it has come from.

Teaching and practicing yoga in North America is not an example of cultural appropriation, despite what the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa posited — and their subsequent reinstatement of the class with a teacher of South Asian descent demonstrates how fuzzy definitions of cultural appropriation are. The philosophical aspects of yoga make it clear that the practice is for everyone, not just for individuals of South Asian descent. Additionally, entrepreneurial yoga teachers from India deliberately left India (the lawsuit-plagued Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga is an example) and travelled to North America to teach yoga. These Indian teachers taught their students to teach yoga and encouraged them to teach other people, slowly creating what is now a veritable empire of yoga studios across the Americas. While teachers have adapted the original teachings and used them as base to improvise upon, they continue to acknowledge the origins of the practice, and their original teachers. The more successful improvisations return to India where they are practiced with just as much enthusiasm as more traditional forms of yoga. Yoga is a great example of how cultural exchange, not appropriation, can enrich global culture.

Hypothetically, if yoga were to be culturally appropriated, tourists from the West would have had to come to India shortly after partition in 1947 (well before yoga was exported in the late 1960s and early 1970s) in order to learn yoga from Indian teachers. They would then have had to return to their home countries and teach other people to practice in the same manner in which they were taught while marketing the practice as something they had invented or discovered.

Unconscious vs. Deliberate Appropriation

Sometimes appropriation happens unconsciously, as the case of #GheeGate with Lee’s Ghee (clarified butter used for cooking and ayurvedic medicine) illustrates. The Toronto Star profiled former model Lee Dares’ artisanal ghee enterprise without mentioning, or acknowledging the South Asian community and culture she learned about the product from. Dares’ defensive response to criticism of her product and her choice to be photographed in a sari further exacerbated the ire from the South Asian community.

Sometimes appropriation is a deliberate action, which Dsquared2’s #DSquaw Fall-Winter 2015-16 show demonstrates. Canadian couture designers Dean and Dan Caten used design concepts from a range of American Aboriginal cultures without acknowledging the original sources. Their choice to use the term “Squaw” which is broadly recognized as highly offensive made them appear even more colonial and insensitive.

As the world becomes increasingly digital, marginalized groups — South Asians, in the case of Lee’s Ghee and #GheeGate, and First Nations, Metis and Inuit populations, with #DSquaw — have found ways to raise awareness of their issues and concerns with the dominant culture taking, and profiting from, what they perceive as their cultural property.

Using both #GheeGate and #DSqaw as examples this piece will explore the impact that decrying cultural appropriation has on segregating cultural groups who are attempting to maintain a sense of authenticity. It will also explore how doing so devalues the contributions that those cultures make to the dominant culture.

Consuming Authentic Purity

As more individuals adopt identities as global citizens, niche material is finding its way into the mainstream. The ability, and encouragement, to curate one’s presence have made conspicuous consumption an easy route to acquiring and maintaining social capital. One of the easiest ways to increase social capital is to consume something authentic and “pure” that has yet to be adopted and marketed by a recognized brand.

Craving and consuming the authentic allows individuals to define themselves in relation to a set of ethics and aesthetics instead of being obviously associated with multinational brands whose practices are often viewed as unethical and thus undesirable. “Ethnic” traditions, or those practiced by minority groups exist as an undiscovered country, full of resources to be mined. Instead of oil, sugar, or chocolate; traditional foods like ghee, or traditional crafts are being prettily repackaged, displayed and eventually sold to a mainstream audience by members of the dominant social group who use the materials as props to display their cosmopolitanism and finesse their self definition.

This spurs the dominant culture’s desire to consume what they consider untouched materials which allude to a history that is more “pure” and “authentic” and thus more desirable than a mass produced product. Once the population sees individuals with high social capital consuming those materials they begin to filter into the mainstream and eventually lose their “authentic” status.

It is worth noting that consuming materials, like ghee or Aboriginal design components, that are rarely seen in the dominant culture suggests the consumer is of a higher status because they have access to rarely seen “pure” product. However, this gain in status only applies to members of the dominant culture. If members of a minority culture are seen consuming materials that are part of their culture that are unknown or have yet to command status in the dominant one, they are not accorded any additional status or social capital. Instead, they may lose social capital for choosing not to blend in and observe conventions.

Benevolent entrepreneur or colonial exploiter

Lee Dares markets herself as a benevolent entrepreneur. When telling her story on her website, she states “I became fascinated with the health benefits of dietary fats such as ghee and started making my own ghee to cook with. I even went all the way to India, the land of ghee, to immerse myself in the culture and learn more about traditional foods. When I came back home, I wanted to share all I had learned with others, so I started Lee’s Ghee.” The rest of Dares’ marketing incorporates fabric and other “ethnic” aspects of Indian culture that add value to her expensive “artisanal” product – which retails for a much higher price than imported ghee from Indian producers. What Dares didn’t account for was that Indians and South Asians more broadly would take issue with the way she chose to share her learning.

Their ire stems from Dares’ sense of entitlement, specifically her sense that ghee, and the other traditional foods she learned about, were just waiting for her to immerse herself in a vibrant culture that she could select from, neatly package, and sell. She didn’t think to connect her audience with the original source of her learning beyond a general reference. It also stems from the fact that she didn’t take into account the weight and place that ghee already has in the lives of Indians and South Asians in their home countries, and in the diaspora who wouldn’t be given nearly as much media coverage if they decided to make their own ghee and market it. To the #GheeGate contributors these small acts of colonization, while innocuous on the surface, suggest a more troubling phenomenon when viewed over the longer term.

Dean and Dan Caten, of Dsquared2 don’t pretend to be benevolent entrepreneurs. Their #DSquaw collection was marketed with the following language: In a captivating play on contrasts: an ode to America’s native tribes meets the noble spirit of Old Europe. Magic and mysterious tribal influences meld with royal references in a bold, quite eccentric aesthetic, revealing luxurious materials and high-end, artisanal details.

Critics of the collection note that it celebrates colonialism while ignoring the histories and traditions of Aboriginal culture in favour of European ones. In addition to ignoring the traditions and artistry that are foundational to Aboriginal fashion, the design choice to exoticize Aboriginal culture as “magic and mysterious” belittles it by suggesting it requires the “noble” qualities of Old European royal fashion to be marketable. The design team also chose to use stereotypical design elements, including fur hoods which suggest cartoon images of Eskimos, and the addition of tribal-inspired beading, fur accents and leather fringe to the signature Twin Peaks bag to create the “eskimeaks” bag.

The choice to use #DSquaw as the hashtag for the collection was a poor attempt at being deliberately provocative. While the word is from the Algonquin language, and is still used during certain ceremonies, it has become a derogatory term for a North American Aboriginal woman. The broader culture is aware of the weight the term carries and up to date dictionaries include the fact that the term is extremely offensive.

The deeper problem with the appropriation of Aboriginal design components is the implicit suggestion that the features were taken from a dead culture that no longer exists except in historic accounts. In a Fader article about the collection, Kim TallBear, a scholar and activist for Native American visibility, highlights this problem in her comparison of the appropriation of design elements from African American culture and Native American culture. This is implication is particularly provocative when put in context of the larger conversation taking place in Canada around Residential Schools which were established to assimilate Aboriginal children into Euro-Canadian culture. It is also concerning because it ignores the ongoing work and existing contributions in the fields of couture and ready-to-wear fashion by Aboriginal designers.

Inspiration vs. Appropriation

In fashion, as it is in food and art, creators draw inspiration from the world that surrounds them. Inspiration is one of the results of cultural exchange. In an increasingly cosmopolitan world, where a diversity of cultures is represented in neighbourhoods across a city, or through restaurants that serve home-cooking that is as close to that in the restaurateurs country of origin, it be can difficult to tell where inspiration stops and appropriation begins. One way to draw the line between the inspired and the appropriated is to determine if the ideas, images, styles, or traditions of marginalized cultures have been trivialised, removed from the history and context that inform them. Appropriated material debases source material and strips away any original significance in the name of commercial or social capital gain.

Determining the difference, and staying on the inspired side, requires a level of awareness about the politics, history, and power imbalance between cultures — something that the pacing of a consumption-focused digital world does not encourage. Creation does not occur in a vacuum. Anyone who is creating and selling a product, whether it is artisanal cooking fat, or couture clothing, should consider where they fit in the hierarchal relations between cultures within the country.

Inspired creators who occupy a position of social privilege would be better served by close consideration of the traditions and knowledge they are drawing from. It would also help if creators extended this consideration by contemplating what their response would be if an individual from a marginalized culture claimed to “discover” or Columbused an aspect of Western culture, and then commodified and marketed it for profit without any acknowledgement or recognition of the original source. Arguably, this is difficult to do, especially in a digital culture because Western media tends to maintain a strong, if not dominant presence and so the “inspired” aspects are easily recognized and very difficult to pass off as “novel”. This empathy-based understanding runs deeper than a surface-level assessment of how hierarchies are imposed within a society that continues to assert that white and Western are the norms that all cultures should aspire to.

Normalizing or Rendering Invisible

The insidious nudging towards a white, Western cultural norm has resulted in a subtle, yet pervasive pattern of dismissal, misunderstanding and obliviousness towards ethnic cultures present in Western cosmopolitan centres. This can impact members of those ethnic groups in a range of ways. While appropriation, which privileges one group’s sense of “normal” over another’s chafes, the infiltration of these aspects of culture can seem reassuring since it suggests a broader level of acceptance and space for conversation about how cultures can enrich each other.

The danger with the normalization of aspects of culture that happens as part of the appropriation and mainstreaming process, especially for Aboriginal cultures in the West, is that the culture that is being appropriated from is depicted as one that has vanished. The cultural position adopted, especially in the colonial United States and in Canada, suggests that Aboriginal culture has all but disappeared when it in fact continues to flourish outside the mainstream. However, the ongoing lack of acknowledgement of the successes of Aboriginal creators and the choices of Western designers to appropriate instead of creating collaboratively reinforces the narrative and renders today’s Aboriginal culture mostly invisible.

From Appropriation to Collaboration

It is easy to suggest that cultural appropriation is a white, western problem but does that approach unfairly target a group, that at least in size, is no longer the majority? Is Beyonce guilty of cultural appropriation because she is dressed in “traditional Indian dress” in the new Coldplay video for “Hymn for the Weekend?” What of marginalized cultures that appropriate from each other? Sushi, tacos, belly dance and capoeira are not part of most ethnic cultures but that does not stop individuals of those groups from consuming and willingly participating in those activities to build their social capital and secure their space within the mainstream. Is it easier to condone their behaviour, or to view it as something other than appropriation because they don’t have the same access to power, experience similar oppression, and occupy a different space in the power hierarchy when compared to a white consumer?

The most helpful, obvious approach to addressing the issue of cultural appropriation, and to begin to transition it to one of cultural exchange is to create space for dialogue between creators from marginalized cultures and those who occupy space on the dominant side. Talent incubators, like the Toronto Fashion Incubator in the fashion and design space are one example of a space where dialogue could occur naturally as participants engage with each other to share practice and learn. Cultural institutions, including museums, galleries and libraries could encourage more formal conversations about the origins of cultural practices while engaging participants with their collections and exhibitions. The physical spaces aren’t neutral and come with their own contextual weight, but they are still relatively safe starting points in public space. The social media world is another space where there is room for education and response — and while these responses are sometimes more pointed and satirical than educational. India Bakchod’s version of Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend

is overlaid with a classic love song, by the well recognized vocalist Mohammed Rafi, which is fitting for both the location and the costuming. It opens a conversation that may well result in entertaining future collaboration.

Consumers could also take it upon themselves to start conversations with creators of materials that they consume in order to learn more about the cultures that source the foods, objects and practices they find desirable. The space created by those conversations will create space for other conversations what could help dispel the us/them notions that can be challenging to set aside when consumption occurs primarily with members of an in-group.

While the digital sphere is higher-risk, another potential space could be the comments section of publications that are focused on opening the dialogue and including diverse voices while moderating the space to ensure the conversation does not degenerate. The Ethnic Aisle (full disclosure: I write for the publication) is one example of this sort of publication. A space for respectful, meaningful cultural exchange is worth aspiring to since it would both recognize the original cultures responsible for creating something that enriches the dominant culture.

These conversations will help build awareness and relationships and could culminate in products that incorporate “authentic” aspects in a way that is both respectful of the origin culture and that reminds consumers that those cultures are alive and that their contributions should be recognized in their own right. In addition, conversation and the resulting learning creates space for innovation and the creation of novel products that instead of being exploitative recognize the cultures that they are rooted in and enrich the mainstream.


[1] Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind, p202.



4 thoughts on “Culture Wars: appropriation vs. inclusion, and why it matters

  1. Very thoughtful piece, Niya. It’s tricky business trying to determine where the line should be drawn between a healthy exchange between diverse communities and thoughtless exploitation of a tradition of a minority culture. Personally, I think the most egregious cases occur when an image or an idea that holds a deep or sacred meaning for a marginalized culture is appropriated, neutralized of its meaning, and commercialized. Some things just don’t belong in a commercial domain. Speaks as much to the emptiness of materialist culture as it does to post-colonization habits that won’t die out.

    Liked by 1 person

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