Cultural Appropriation, Tribalism, and Unity

I really like to find out how, when and where social issues and trends come into being. So, I ask, how, when and where did the idea of “cultural appropriation” spring forth into the social narrative in just the last few years? Were cultures just way cooler in regards to sharing their stuff way back when in 2011?  Or did subjected cultures just keep their resentment to themselves when different cultural trends were adopted? I suspect a gringo or two wore a sombrero to a Halloween party pre 2012.

According to Google Trends, “cultural appropriation” was nearly unheard of until 2012, as the internet was modernizing and Twitter was becoming more popular.

I am fascinated by the invention of the various social issues du jour. Be it the “White Flight” of the 70’s or the more contemporary uproar over Standing Rock, many of these issues seem to disappear as fast as they enter. Or, at the very least, the dissipation of outrage wanes rather quickly.

So a new politically correct law enforcement unit has been formed, as if the word police enforcers were not enough.

So what is this cultural appropriation trend?

Appropriation is, essentially, taking something from someone for your own personal use. I could appropriate your bank account, take $1000 and use it for my own pleasure. Cultural appropriation is taking something from another culture and doing with it whatever we please.

Before diving into my feelings on the subject, I believe expressing what drives my general fundamental values on this subject is in order. I realize my perspective is coming from a very individualistic, low power distance and low context perspective and I certainly recognize my own biases in this regard.

But that’s ok. We are all products of our varying cultural dimension.

Some time ago, Rene’ and I were having dinner with some friends who happened to be Jewish. We recently attended their daughter’s bat mitzvah so discussing issues of a Judaic/ethnic/religious matter was on the table and “appropriate.” I asked our friends if they would be ok if their daughter eventually married outside the Jewish community.

“No,” he said firmly, “that would definitely not be ok.”

Kind of made me want to crawl under a big, fat, gentile rock.

I mean I get it and understand it. I really do. I once thought that way as well in terms of being, “unequally yoked.”

However, we have no control over our unchecked initial guttural reactions to something and, in this case, it was a feeling of sadness. What if their daughter fell deeply in love with a gentile? What would happen to their relationship? Is that fair to put that kind of pressure on one’s child? I believe love should be between two people who share mutual feelings for each other regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender, politics, etc. and it is only their business and that of no one else…even parents (that’s the individualism in me, I know).

However, what struck me at the deepest level was a more general and overriding value –my disdain for unnecessary societal divisions and further segmentation.

I understand that basic tribalism is a fundamental feature of the human race. We like and need “tribes.” Whether that tribe is a religious community, a family, ethnicity, hell -even as my students would say, a “rave squad”- we like to segment into our preferred groupings. In the above case it would be the tribe of Judah.

As much as I see the necessity of this grouping process for basic human survival, it rubs against my personal grain of social unity and coming together when it is practiced to, what I believe to be, the extreme.

Simply, I like to see society and cultures come together and not further divide based on, well, whatever you want to base it on –race, religion, sexual orientation, customs, traditions, class, etc.

So when I read and hear of people getting upset that another culture is hijacking one of their cultural customs, be it food or fashion, the same unity trigger goes off in my head. Cannot we all be nice and share in the goodness of each other’s culture? Last time I checked there are no cultural trademarks or proprietary laws. I do believe the exception would be in cases where a culture holds something to be sacred and it is appropriated in such a way that does not afford that something the respect it deserves. I totally get that part.

Anna Chen writes, “When cultures meet and mingle, they inform and enrich each other. I can wear tartan, wear pyjamas, knock up a curry, curl my hair, cry along to the blues and dance to funk. I know the difference between a schmuck and a schlemiel. I’ve sat shiva for a friend’s father. I love gefilte fish. Does this make me a cultural appropriator?”

Good question. It’s 2018, who knows?

It is ironic that something with such good intentions as a desire for cultural unity can be perceived as something disrespectful or insensitive.

I love hip hop and rap. Yikes.

When in Croatia I purchased the Croatian national futbol team jersey. Whoops.

Hell, I even own a pair of bright orange FUBU shorts. Why? I ask myself the same question.

I really solicit feedback on this issue. Please help me see what I am missing. Again, I understand those things a culture holds sacred and dear should be afforded a high level of respect. I would hope a Muslim would not use the Bible as toilet paper in the same way I would never use the Koran as such. Conversely, I want to respect a book or custom a culture holds dear whether I subscribe to it or not.

Please. I want to share my Hungarian Kapoosta with you all. I want you to enjoy my Hungarian national treasures: Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor. Goodness, I’ll even throw in Olympic Volleyball player Karch Kiraly.

This whole issue kind of makes me wonder what we will be outraged by 5 years from now. I am sure we will think of something.

Humans seem to never fail or disappoint in this regard.



  1. Hey Jimmy,
    I can appreciate where you’re coming from with this. I like the idea of cultures sharing what makes them great with each other. The problem occurs when respect or reverence isn’t given to the particular culture from where we cherry-picked our great new style or use of other customs to our own ends. Especially when the new adopters of these customs receive different receptions for what the original culture has been made fun of or even been chastised in the past for practicing. It’s a problem because it implies a custom or practice is not legitimate until we see that a certain other culture gives it the ok.
    Sometimes this can be flattering. As imitation is often deemed as the most sincere form of flattery. However, what ends up happening quite often is this imitation is passed off as divine inspiration with no regard to where it came from. No, there are no cultural trade-marks or copywrites but, it is a problem when Joe can break big using Jose’s empanada recipe because of access and privilege. Then has the nerve to drop the cultural ties by calling it a “meat turnover.” That is problematic.
    There is also the issue of new blackface. Many fraternities hold parties where they dress up like Black people or Mexicans and claim that they are celebrating their culture. Now let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say their intentions aren’t as blatantly racist as they appear to be. What they have done is reduce a whole culture down to a prop. I’m sure most people aren’t too offended by a sombrero or garb that might be considered aligned with a particular culture. It’s the bullshit behavior that tends to come along with such dress choices by people that don’t truly appreciate where it came from. The fake accents and played up the mannerisms are often satires of negative stereotypes.
    I get that the term cultural appropriation is a term that has just been coined in the last decade but, it doesn’t mean folks weren’t bothered by such behavior before the term went mainstream. It was just something they talked about among themselves. Why would they expect the asshole in the headdress to understand that what he is doing is highly offensive when they know the inevitable response is going to be, “Hey man, I’m just goofing around. Like those old bugs bunny cartoons.” With time comes progress and in this case, the progress is feeling empowered enough to say “if you’re not going to pay homage to where it came from, then maybe it’s not for you.” I do hope one day we can get to a point where the exchange of all ideas, customs and traditions can lead to the betterment of us all. However, that day won’t come until Jose get the same props for his abuela’s empanada recipe that Joe gets ‘s for his stolen meat turnover recipe.
    Also, I think people should be able to love who they want to love. I think this is the best way to teach each other how to be culturally sensitive. This allows us to be open to taking part of cultural experiences with the respect they probably deserve. It’s a little different when you are given a piece of cultural garb at a family function. That sombrero, dashiki or headdress probably won’t be your Halloween costume next year.

    • I cannot thank you enough for this response Stephan….I am so happy to know you still read my blog! It is this kind of thoughtful dialogue I aspire to when writing on such topics. In the spirit of respect for your thoughtful analysis, I do have some questions. As I hope you know, I do not ask rhetorical questions…I only ask questions in which I desire an answer, not to make a point. You write, “Especially when the new adopters of these customs receive different receptions for what the original culture has been made fun of or even been chastised in the past for practicing. It’s a problem because it implies a custom or practice is not legitimate until we see that a certain other culture gives it the ok.” Can you provide an example of this? What was not legit until another culture approved it? In regards to the empanada example, what access and privilege does Joe have that Jose’ does not? I remember many, many years ago singer Paul Simon was criticized by the African community for taking their indigenous cultural songs, giving them a pop feel, (Diamonds on the soles of their shoes….not exactly sure of the title) and capitalizing on them…is this what you mean? I can see this example because Paul Simon does have “access and privilege” as an established artist and has the ability to exploit a song for profit, though I am not sure how “Joe” has this kind of “access and privilege” assuming Joe is an everyday dude. Would you feel different if Joe constantly reminded everyone of the origins of the recipe and paid homage to it?

      In regards to fraternity parties, you would know far better than I what goes on there since I have never been to one. I suppose there is a line between having fun and making fun of…and I would have no idea what the motivation would be for such a party. Since (I assume) you have been or are aware of such parties, what “bullshit behavior” do you refer? What do they do that would qualify as such? From what I have seen and read, simply wearing the garb is enough to qualify as appropriation.
      I agree that culture evolves and progress is achieved. Perhaps it is as you say and normally oppressed groups have progressed to the point they feel the right to finally speak out. In addition, I would also suggest that the explosion of social media in the last few years has played an enormous role as well. It have given nearly everyone a voice and its very nature makes people feel courageous and emboldened to speak out -in which they would never do so in other more traditional mediums. Perhaps social media is a great “democratizer” in this regard.

      Thanks again Stephan. I love how we all can see issues though our unique lense. I am sure as an SDSU person your perceptions are quite a bit different from my own. Perhaps you see a side of society I am not privvy to…

  2. I think that normally it’s not a big deal when people wear clothing of another culture, but I also think the reason it became an issue was because certain people would at one point, say something rude or insulting about it, and then a couple months later they’re seen wearing that. An obvious example is Cinco de Mayo. There are many people online who are very rude and racist towards Mexicans and their culture, but as soon as this day comes they bring out the sombreros and ponchos. I don’t think that’s okay. However, if someone admires and appreciates a culture, I don’t believe they should be attacked for it.

    • Hi Alex….Cinco De Mayo is such a great example. Perhaps I subconsciously penned this blog on the fifth of May as thoughts of unique cultural celebrations was on my mind. I do find it weird how it seems non-Hispanics seem to care more about it (in the name of getting loaded) over most Hispanics that I know. I do have an issue rectifying how anti-Hispanic assholes celebrate and act like the culture they supposedly hate. Do you have experience with a blatant anti-Hispanic person embracing the Hispanic culture on Cinco de Mayo? Why do you think they would do such a thing?

  3. Personally, I don’t have a specific memory of this. But I see it everywhere. Of course, I’m on twitter all the time so a lot of this behavior is shown on there. No matter where someone is in the world you can see their opinions and their actions, and a lot of them are part of that hypocritical group. I’m not exactly sure why they do this either, but then again, neither are they. How could they be when they’re all sheep?

  4. For my entire lifetime, or at least as far back as I can recall (perhaps 76 of my 80 years, the black/negro culture in the USofA has “invented” new forms of music, soon to be adopted by the white majority. I have always marveled at this. I have always wondered if the black community resents this.
    As far as clothing customs go, I do not think there can be any claim of ownership for a sombrero or poncho. Having lived in Texas for a majority of my life I know that “cowboys” , whether Mexican, North American or Negro, wore such as protection from the elements. I realize there may be some use of such as “costumes” for parties and such and that might be considered “cultural appropriation”.
    I really think the beginning of “cultural appropriation” was when the American Indian finally came out of their shell and activists began to insist that the use of their culture not be disparaged by the use as “mascots” . I truly believe that this activism was motivated by the desire to draw attention to the plight of the American Indian regarding their treatment regarding —- well, everything.
    Once other minorities observed how much attention the American Indian culture was receiving, they began to object to being objectified.
    I remember “my name, Jose Jimenez”, “mommy mia , that’s a spicey meat ball”, “speedy gonzales” and lots more that were ‘”pulled” , never to be seen again because the activists of the offended “tribe” found them disparaging.
    I’m not sure where I am going with this so I’ll just say that I believe that there are “activists” in each culture who are now aware that they have the power stop activities that demean their culture. I also believe that there are faux activists who are raising issues that are not demeaning in order to simply draw attention to themselves. These demagogues are actually distracting from real issues and yet the uninformed public cannot tell the difference (or are not willing to).

    • Well stated and I thank you for your input Don. Your thoughts are always very much appreciated. Actually since I responded to Stephan this morning (if you haven’t read his excellent response to this blog I would encourage it) thoughts concerning this issue have been swirling around my head, causing a certain amount of dissonance. Stephan used the example of the empanada being exploited by another culture who has access and privilege, for profit. As I thought more about this, if we take this to the extreme, only Mexicans could own Mexican restaurants, Italians Italian restaurants, French French and on down the line. When a culture wants to claim ownership of something one must keep in mind that they probably extrapolated (appropriated it, if you will) it from another culture, at the very least in part, at some point in their history. Cultures have been borrowing from each other for thousands of years. A culture does not own the idea of putting meat and flour together…every culture has their version of it. If we take this approach, probably the one of greatest appropriators in our country would be Yumi Brands….an American company who owns both Taco Bell and Pizza Hut (and others). The former’s slogan is “Take a run for the border.” They are capitalizing off the Mexican “brand.” Where is the outrage in the Age of Outrage?

      I really like your balanced approach Don. The question is where do we go from here? I see really only two primary choices: Hunker down and fiercely fortify the walls of each culture as to ensure none are demeaned or objectified….OR open up the cultural borders walls, as it were, and let us become a beautiful cultural melting pot that that does not guard customs, rather gives. As I said in the blog, I am not a collectivist at heart, rather an individualist who wants to be open and be welcoming to all: Both Ingroup and Outgroup members, in the hope that in the future we are narrowed down to just a group. I do think we have a long way to go as some of the atrocities committed in the past are still open wounds…but I believe it should be the goal nonetheless.

  5. I could be wrong Jimmy but having spent a huge portion of my life in a particularly American culture, that being the American Cowboy, your subject matter here has pretty much caused some self-examination. I can honestly say that in days long past when I saw someone wearing the “outfit” who obviously was just trying to look the part without having lived the part or understanding the history or the culture that the clothing sprung from I did tend to “look down my nose” at them. (That would have been a “Granny McGowenism”). The reason being that having lived the life of a real Cowboy I have a keen understanding for the reasons behind nearly every part and parcel of the clothing and the role those things played in my life at the time. When I see someone dressed in the “outfit” knowing full well that they haven’t a clue what the various items represent and the purpose for same, I admit to a degree of arrogant disdain. So in the interest of fairness I have to consider the fact that people of other cultures may have the same feelings when they see people who are attempting to co-opt “look.” I would say to anyone that if you want to express a cultural specific at least have the integrity to understand the cultural basis for the “look” or “behavior”. You might find your effort better received.

    • Very interesting Georgia and thank you for sharing your thoughts. If a non-cowboy dresses like a cowboy simply for fashion, how does that affect you personally? Why do you care? Do you feel it belittles real cowboys? Perhaps the problem is as you suggest, it is the reaction of “arrogant disdain,” based on pride. You do not own cowboy culture any more than they, I, or the other cowboy across the street does. Thank you Georgia…your insights are always appreciated.

  6. Hi Jimmy I can see your stance but not everyone sees buying things from different cultures as “just because they like that”. I have seen numerous times of adults and children buying certain items that may represent a different culture, just to make fun of it. Whether it be the person mimicking the accent or the clothing to make the joke. As well culture appropriation can be seen as someone using another culture to gain fame or money. Many believe Postmalone (a rapper and singer) uses African American culture to gain a following and to become famous. To me, people speak more openly about it now than before because many were afraid to call out those doing the cultural appropriation. I am also young so I see a lot of this over social media.

  7. I personally was never raised with any culture or customs that would be considered cultural appropriation, so in a way I was lacking spice in my life through way of plain buttered spaghetti every other night for dinner. As I got older, I discovered a lot of different cultures through high school. I started to realize the differences between people based on their family and where they came from. Cultural appropriation wasn’t even a concept I knew about, but I had a feeling growing up that taking someone’s culture and practicing their customs when I was not raised with them was disrespectful. I learned in school and from friends that certain customs are practiced a specific way and different cultures require certain mindsets. I knew that I didn’t want to be that person to half-ass a specific custom. I knew that if I was going to, I needed to whole-ass the process. For example, about a year ago I read an article about a little girl who was white but really loved Japanese culture, so her mom helped her put in research to have a birthday tea party that was fashioned in the traditional Japanese way. The entire internet went up in FLAMES. Everyone was screaming about cultural appropriation. I read through the comments, trying to get the whole picture. Eventually, I stumbled upon a comment from a Japanese citizen. She said that the Japanese actually appreciate when people from other countries take from their culture, especially if it is so well researched and so well put together. In my opinion, cultural appropriation isn’t necessarily about the concept itself, but it’s about being respectful and not half-assing it. Many people just jump the gun and feed into the flames of the rioting comment section.

  8. Hello proffessor, I enjoyed reading about cultural appropriation. I detest cultural appropriation movement of sorts. The United States is a nation of immigrants. Our culture is always changing and adapting. Immigrants assimilate the American way of life but also introduce new ideas into our culture. Its hard for me to fully grasp the idea of cultural appropriation especially since we all celebrate holidays such as Thanksgiving in which latinos , blacks or asians were not involved. Is that cultural appropriation or assimilation?

    On the fashion aspect I do not understand how you can dress too white or too black . Fashion is regional and due to financial ability.

  9. Hello Prof Jimmy, So I think the modern world has to clash with this idea. we can’t see ourselves as parts of tribes and ideologies when our world is being shared with everyone who has access to a translation method and a computer, I feel that because of this people are fighting for what little space they can claim to their world, so I feel this is less a crusade for being sensitive, and more of a reaction to having our cultures and identities tossed into the proverbial melting pot, that will eventually melt away into the culture broth. Another thing more and more I start seeing people as a culmination of experiences less than what they say they represent, and I wonder about someone who is saying cultural appropriation, what have they experienced that lead to it, have their own thoughts and ideas been dismissed as unworthy or inferior because someone sees it as a trinket to be put on display and then set down. How does a culture feel when it is minimalized to one aspect of its vast cacophonous self when a song is one note it does not reveal the melody within, but on the other hand if we take the first step in acknowledging that a culture is more than what we represent it as we can open the floodgates to a cascade of interesting new ideas and perspectives regarding the cultures they represent, and maybe a better perspective on why people think so differently.

  10. I think the main reason cultural appropriation is a hard thing to define because of how difficult it can be express how that one thing that is being “taken” can be part of culture. I’m not really talking about those scared somethings, but rather the other things that are appropriated such as hair or clothing. I also think the anger over culture appropriation comes from the lack of similar experience and response to that thing that was appropriated. For example, one of the more frequently discussed items is hair styles. Of course anyone could braid their hair and of course black people aren’t the only ones that have ever put a braid in their hair, but their hair experience and the response to their hair are not the same as the non black person who did the same. Why some white dude wears a poncho for cinco de mayo will be different as why some mexican dude wears a poncho on any other day of the year. The difference in experience is why there’s also always that one person that says “I’m ____ and I don’t care” amongst the many others who do care. Also why people of the same culture in different locations will have a different opinion on culture appropriation. I saw a comment that brought up how Japanese people in Japan will okay something Japanese people in American won’t. I’ve recently seen a response to that which is that people of the same culture but in a different location aren’t allowed to comment on the situation because they are not in the same environment and those who have practiced their culture in a setting that only includes that culture do not have the experience to participate in the conversation. I’m not sure how much I agree with that, but it does bring up an interesting argument. I agree with you when you say cultures should be shared, but we also live in country that hasn’t treated all cultures the same so I think the defensive stance some have taken for their culture has some reasoning behind it.

  11. I completely agree with the notion that we will always find something to be upset about, and believe Outrage Culture has led us to this. I wanted to touch on a previous comment, which stated that anti-Hispanic individuals should not celebrate/partake in Cinco de Mayo activities. That is completely just, however, there are some major discrepancies in that take. For example, if a white male is being racist towards Hispanics, I believe we can all agree that Cinco de Mayo probably should not be an excuse for him to celebrate. Most would condemn him. However, now that this white male has disrespected their culture, individuals will now proceed to generalize this individual and make him the standard, stating “White males should not celebrate Cinco de Mayo.”. And I believe that’s where even more tension arises.

    Nonetheless, where do you thin we draw the line? It seems the sharing of cultures is such a natural thing to do. Im caucasian and own a 2Pac shirt, can I wear it? Not a question I should have to ask myself. Thanks

  12. The way I see it, it is not a problem to share and blend cultures. In fact I think we should encourage people embracing others’ cultures. To me the problem appears when someone appropriates something a culture gets teased, harassed, or ridiculed for. For example, a lot of white celebrities wear dreads or cornrows and everyone praises it; at the same time black people try to wear dreads or cornrows to the workplace and it is considered unprofessional. I also think it is an issue if someone wears something from another culture and is ignorant to the significance it has to that culture. Another example is when people wear tribal clothing to music festivals. To those tribes, the headdresses, makeup, and jewelry are all sacred so, when someone shows up to a music festival wearing something tribal because “it looks cute” is like a slap in the face. It feels incredibly disrespectful and insensitive to the culture who has been through so much. In conclusion, I believe it is totally okay to embrace other cultures although, you need to make sure you are doing it in a respectful way.

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