All cultures have meaningful practices. Some dances, chants, songs, food, or clothing may be more culturally important or meaningful than others. Some may be a form of tradition with purpose; something meant to directly connect with the culture it derives from, such as a specific ceremony or ritual. For the populations involved with these meaningful traditions, the reason, place, or manner in which they are done is what makes the tradition important and sometimes sacred to a certain culture. Meanwhile, a certain pattern in fabrics may be popularized in one culture, eventually catching on and becoming a part of worldwide pop culture. This could vary from the use of specific colors, to spices, slang, dance moves, or music. These simple interests are much less important to specific cultures, and while they may have been derived within a culture, they are not used to define it. When an aspect of a culture moves from secluded ethnic tradition to world wide popular culture, this is known as a transition from folk to pop. During a transition from folk to pop, it is important to recognize whether this aspect making the transition holds significant cultural value, or is merely what is considered fashionable to a certain culture. This distinction will determine whether or not some significant aspect of the tradition is being lost in that transition.
The rise of a meaningful tradition into pop culture is often referred to as cultural appropriation. When this kind of culture is brought mainstream, its value is often lost in translation, as it is being used for its aesthetic appeal rather than for its original purpose. Someone who is not part of the derivative culture will tend to disregard the cultural meaning and importance in whatever they are participating in, whether that be makeup and jewelry or song and dance. This can be considered offensive, with many people feeling as if their culture has been taken advantage of. More often than not, the perpetrators are white westerners who see the beauty in the object, but don’t understand it’s importance, origin, and culture.
However, not all inter-cultural influence can be called cultural appropriation. People around the world gain influence from other cultures all the time, and without this, we would have significantly fewer cultures than we do. The difference between a meaningful tradition and a mere interest can be unclear, leading some to believe that the use of a common design from another country would be cultural appropriation somewhere else. People immigrate, emigrate, and gain knowledge along the way, spreading their knowledge and increasing spheres of influence. However, it must be noted that the lines that define cultural appropriation, where it begins and ends, are wildly blurred and debated.
At the moment, arguments surrounding cultural appropriation are so varying in subject and intensity that to try to stage a one-woman discussion here would prove both useless and confusing. But what’s important is to understand what is considered offensive and what is not, in what environment, and why. Sharing cultures is a way in which societies grow and change, and learning how to respectfully engage with multiple cultures will help to ensure a more knowledgeable future.
By Maeve Cawley