cultural appropriation

[ kuhl-cher-uhluh-proh-pree-ey-shuhn ]
/ ˈkʌl tʃər əl əˌproʊ priˈeɪ ʃən /
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the adoption, usually without acknowledgment, of cultural identity markers from subcultures or minority communities into mainstream culture by people with a relatively privileged status.
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Origin of cultural appropriation

First recorded in 1965–70
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What does cultural appropriation mean?

Cultural appropriation is the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.

Where does cultural appropriation come from?

The term cultural appropriation emerged in academic literature as early as the 1960s as a tool used to critique colonialism and its effects. The term gradually moved from scholarly jargon into online social-justice activism. It jumped into the mainstream by 2013 as exemplified, for instance, by a popular Huffington Post article critiquing Katy Perry’s indiscriminate incorporation of East-Asian cultural imagery into a “geisha-themed” performance.

As a result, opponents of cultural appropriation naturally began to pop up, declaring that people were being oversensitive, ridiculous, or even that they were promoting segregation. This naturally sparked debates, spreading the term even more.

Another factor that popularized cultural appropriation is people’s increasing willingness to call out the problematic behavior of high-profile people, such as Selena Gomez when she wore a bindi outside of its religious context.

Halloween is also a time when discussion about the issue is cyclically reignited, as people sometimes dress up as racial stereotypes (e.g., white college students wearing Native American headdresses at parties).

How is cultural appropriation used in real life?

Cultural appropriation is a word that’s still used in academia to discuss the practice as it exists in a theoretical framework. Academic works tend to deal with its morality and any issues that arise out of the practice, especially on a wider, more global level. It also deals with race relations in regards to power imbalances from the aftermath of aggressive colonialism.

As a tool in the social-justice arsenal, people use the term cultural appropriation critically and prescriptively, choosing to label the behavior of others as being culturally appropriative. The term itself is often present in circles dedicated to social justice as a means of starting a dialogue and talking about why an action someone did was wrong. This often happens when a celebrity or a piece of media is found to have culturally-offensive content. The offending party is called out by others in an attempt to get them to acknowledge it, but to also allow bystanders to learn from it. The ultimate goal is to raise awareness and to prevent future, similar instances of the behavior.

Because of the more recent misuse of the term, counter-critics may use the term mockingly, thinking it too politically correct and that SJWs (social-justice warriors) use it for everything. For example, one such critic says “Attention Social Justice Warriors: Please Stop Writing! It’s Cultural Appropriation!” They state that the Sumerians first invented writing and, therefore, it belonged to them, making every modern person guilty of cultural appropriation. This speaks to their belief that activists overuse and overextend the word. One argument is that not sharing cultures and experiences begets less understanding and appreciation for them.

More examples of cultural appropriation:

“Many forms of yoga cultural appropriation are subtle; they involve knowingly glamorizing a cultural practice but rationalizing it as harmless and fun.”
—Rina Deshpande, Self, October, 2017


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use cultural appropriation in a sentence