Category Archives: Cultural Appropriation

Cultural Appropriation Fueled by Media

African American culture is not just for black people alone to enjoy and cherish. Culture is for everybody. But there’s a distinction between appreciating a culture and appropriating it.

-Spike Lee

This quote was found on

In our increasingly interconnected global world it has become almost impossible to avoid cultural appropriation.  But cultural appropriation is intensified by mass media.  We can consume cultures through media without the risk and benefit of actually experiencing them in person.  If I am interested in a culture on the other side of the world I do not have to have money or time to travel, I can watch movies from that culture, go on the internet to get information, and consume stuff (products) that come from within that culture.  This is great for consumerism and the economy however we lose the cultural meaning of items, situations, and events by consuming them through the filter of the media.  In this post I want to talk about two types of media that can be used to intensify and avoid cultural appropriation.  First we will discuss entertainment media, namely movies.  And second we will discuss online media (especially social media).

Movies are such an important medium of sharing information and understanding the world.  Even though a lot of movies are superficial and do not seem to be giving the audience anything real and substantial, most movies help us to understand people and situations that we either are not familiar or those that we can relate to.   We use the information that we gather from movies (subtle suggestions, situations, imagery) to understand the world around us.  (In media studies these ideas fall under the umbrella of social cognitive theories.)  In movies we often see characters of different ethnicities, nationalities, etc. who’s parts have been written by cultural outsiders.  Oftentimes cultural symbols, styles of dress, etc. are used in generic ways that do not grasp the importance or significance they may hold for that group.  And even more importantly for movies we have to understand that they often reproduce and reinforce stereotypes about groups that are far from accurate.  These generalizations foster prejudice, discrimination, and conflict.  However it can be simple to avoid the overconsumption of these dangerous generalizations and stereotypes.  Here are some quick easy tips you can use to avoid cultural appropriation in movies:

  1. Do not take everything at face value.  (Read between the lines.)
  2. Do some quick research and educate yourself.  (Who is the Producer? Director? Writer?  Do they really know anything about this culture?  Did they use any experts to consult?)
  3. Avoid applying what you see in the movies to everyday life.  (For example: Just because Italians are mobsters in 9 out of 10 movies does not mean that all (or even most) Italians are connected to the mob.)

The second form of media that we are going to talk about is online media.  The internet is such an important part of our modern lives.  (Obviously since we are communicating with you all through a blog!!)  I often see an item (a bracelet for example) online that comes from a different culture and I want to purchase it.  But I stop and think, what is this?  Does this bracelet have a meaning or a history that I should know before I purchase it?  Who or what am I supporting when I buy this item?  And I can get the answers I want with a click of a button.  We have access to so much information; some of it is reliable and some of it is not.  We can learn so much about different cultures through the amazing power of the internet.  Not only that we have the opportunity to purchase things from around the world.  But do we know what we are purchasing, the history behind the item, or the meaning it may have?  One of the biggest downfalls about using the internet is that you cannot always be sure if the information you are reading is accurate and unbiased.  Online media can be a great source of education, there is a vast wealth of information and it is generally free to access.  There are ways of ensuring that the information you access online is reliable, here are some tips:

  1. Find out who the author is. (Read their bio and do some research.  Do they have any biases towards the information being presented?  Are they an expert or professional or just someone who decided to post on the internet?)
  2. Try to find websites and blogs that are affiliated with reputable sources. (Universities, professional journals, major Non-Profit Organizations, etc.)  This may not eliminate bias but at least you have someone who has to be slightly accountable for what they are writing.
  3. Check multiple sources to confirm information.
  4. Use social media sites (FaceBook, Twitter, Tumblr, Blogs, etc.) to actually get to know people from around the world.  Thanks to all of this constant streaming personal information we all have the opportunity to get a glimpse of the perspectives of cultural insiders without having to travel.

What we all should take from this is that we consume images and information from exposure to media and it is impossible to distance ourselves from it because our fast paced consumerist world is driven by our constant exposure to media.  What we can do is begin to question the accuracy and intentions of what we are exposed to on a daily basis. We can all begin to discuss what these things mean and how we can begin to move away from the commodification of culture.  We do not have to reduce the value of an item or work of art to dollars.  These things should have cultural and interpersonal value as well.  The purchaser of an item or the audience of a movie does not have to be disconnected from the cultural significance of it.


Cultural Resources: Please Borrow Responsibly

Cultural Appropriation Cat, borrowed from

It’s difficult, nowadays, to say that anything is original. We are constantly borrowing from each other. Borrowing is a part of being a global community. Ideally, our interactions with other cultures provide beautiful opportunities to discover other traditions, expand our views, and learn from each other. However, as we covered in our last post, borrowing from other cultures can also come with serious negatives, when we don’t do it respectfully and appropriately. So, how exactly can we share with our diverse communities around the world in a healthy manner?

First, it starts with evaluating our motivations and attitudes for borrowing. Why are we doing it in the first place? Do we understand what we are borrowing in its full context? Or are we leaving room for misinterpreting and misappropriating the cultural artifact? It is easy to disassociate cultural traditions from people, like when we adopt fashion styles because they might make us “stand out” from our normal crowds. Not that there is anything wrong with appreciating the appearance of cultural artifacts, but if we do not look deeply at where they come from and how they are used by their culture of origin, we end up creating caricatures of the culture and the very real people who shape it and give it meaning. This brings us to our first step to healthy cultural borrowing:

Step 1: Actively seeking education about the cultural group. 

Even further, we should try to seek this education from a direct source, otherwise the knowledge we obtain can be by biased by the interpretations of non-members of the culture. By learning about where these artifacts come from and how they are used, we learn the context behind them, and we can better understand how certain (or all) uses of the artifact may be inappropriate or offensive.

Also, we should inform ourselves regarding the history of oppression in the cultural group and our  own culture’s relationship history with them. By recognizing the inequalities that may be present, we also recognize the wounds our cultural group may have inflicted on them, and we can work towards not repeating the mistakes of the past. All of this brings us to an informed respect of the cultural group (the people and their traditions and values), and helps us avoid harmful homogenizing and degrading stereotypes.

Step 2: Giving back to the cultural group.

Giving back involves a couple of different levels. First of all, we need to give credit where credit is due. We are, after all, borrowing not taking. In giving credit to the group, we must be able to disclose to others what we learned in Step 1, especially emphasizing appropriate and inappropriate uses of the cultural artifact.  In fact, being able to tell others isn’t enough, we should also be pro-active about sharing our education with those interested in the items borrowed. Secondly, if we are making profit distributing the artifact, we should also give monetary credit to the cultural group. Without them, there would be no profit, after all. Too much to ask? We don’t think so. We believe that businesses should be held accountable for this, as it is a method of showing corporate social responsibility and understanding that businesses are part of the community too and their actions have a deep impact on people and the environment. Borrowing cultural artifacts is using a resource, and taking resources without giving back to the community is exploitation and theft.

We, at f.a.c.t.s. are very proud to be making every attempt to give as much as we can (our goal is to reach a point where we are giving 50% of the profits) back to the communities, who share some of their unique cultural resources with us. For every fashion article we sell, we will also be providing our customers cultural appreciation cards (with information on where the article came from and its cultural context) as well as social issues cards (with information on the particular community need we will be investing in with the profits). Our blog will also highlight the cultural group in focus for each season, giving a platform to the multiple voices in the community. That is just the start. As we expand, we will be doing social needs assessments in collaboration with the community in focus, in order to ensure that our investments are being put to the best use. This blog will allow transparency with our customers to hold us accountable for our policies and principles. (You can check our Business Ethics page for more information.) Look forward to our next post, where our media analysis expert (and co-founder of f.a.c.t.s.), Marlaina Dreher, will be finishing off our discussion of cultural appropriation and the role/influence of the media. Again, we want to open the conversation up to our potential customers and supporters of f.a.c.t.s. So, if you have any relevant opinions, comments, suggestions, or questions, please feel free to give us feed back. We love to hear from you!

We are still working hard in the preliminary stages of setting up our website/store site, but will keep you updated as soon as we have finalized our exact opening date! (We are still looking at mid-June.)

Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation? An Introduction

Before starting our cross-cultural enterprise with f.a.c.t.s., we thought long about the problems of cultural  appropriation and how it is distinct from cultural appreciation. We, at f.a.c.t.s., want to give you confidence in our products and confidence in our business ethics, and we figured it would be most appropriate to simply address this issue right at the start! Because this will be a fairly long topic (we want to make sure we are thorough in our explanations), we will have to break it down into a few parts. Today, we will focus on introducing the topic. Please, feel free to join in on the conversation! Ask us any questions that you have. We will be happy to answer your concerns and address your opinions!

Let us first begin with definitions. What is cultural appropriation, in the first place? Appropriation, at its most basic level, has to do with the borrowing of traditions, symbols, or other artifacts, from cultures other than our own. It doesn’t really seem so bad, at first, considering we live in an increasingly globalized world, where cultural assimilation inevitably happens all the time. The tricky part, in our opinion, lies with the motivation for adopting the cultural element (whether it is the South African mbaqanga style of music, or the hijab) and who is doing the borrowing. It definitely changes the meaning when people from a dominant culture start assimilating elements from a subculture (i.e., when a white American might try to pass off wearing a bindi, because it “looks exotic”) when they are ignorant of the significance of those cultural elements, and even more so when they do not have respect for the people (they see the culture as an object disassociated from the people themselves). When you extract a cultural element without knowing the context behind it, you end up, whether you mean to or not,

  1. contributing to often offensive generalizations about the cultural group,
  2. invalidating how very diverse a culture really is,
  3. ignoring the history of oppression that is probably present, thus reinforcing the oppression, and
  4. often misrepresenting or distorting traditions that, for all you know, could even be sacred to the group, and
  5. in some cases, you might actually be cheating others out of money that should be going to them.

These 5 negatives of cultural appropriation make it a harmful and irresponsible thing to do.  Another more familiar word for these 5 negatives happens to be called “exploitation.” In the West, we have a long history of exploiting other cultures and marching through life with a very self-important and either unaware or (often) indifferent attitude that the world and everything in it is ours for the taking, but not the taking care of…

So, how do we account for these 5 negatives of cultural appropriation in a world that is becoming smaller and smaller? Is there a way to show appreciation of a culture without stepping on sensitive toes and reinforcing bad caricatures and negative stereotypes? Find out answers to these questions and how f.a.c.t.s. is doing things differently in our next couple of posts!

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