Author: Melissa Bunnapradist
The BRB Bottomline
Social movements such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate call upon people to pay attention to injustices faced around the world. Conversations are happening more in pockets of life, whether they be at work or at dinner, about how to be an ally to social justice efforts. Consequently, many companies have asked themselves how they can improve upon diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. The concept of “cultural appropriation” is crucial to understand as an ally and as such, it is important to define it.
This brings into question what counts as appropriation. Is it eating Vietnamese food at your favorite restaurant, owned by Vietnamese immigrants? Is it wearing traditional clothing to your friend’s Indian wedding because that’s a custom in their culture, even if it’s not yours? Is the mere act of consuming culture insidious?
There are debates about this in activist spaces, but for the purpose of this article, the answer is no. While the previous examples given are ways in which one participates in another culture, the commonality they have is that those acts empower the communities being borrowed from. In the first example, the customer supports Vietnamese people by patronizing their businesses. In the second, it is their friend’s decision to invite them to participate in a cultural experience. These are experiences in which people from those cultures feel centered.
This distinction is essential to ensure that critique of cultural appropriation is focused on what is actually harmful. There are academic definitions of cultural appropriation, but in simple terms, cultural appropriation is akin to someone stealing your idea for a group project and not giving you credit for coming up with it—it’s not the mere act of working on the group project.
Consequences of Appropriation
Cultural appropriation discredits the ideas and labor of those who create. It’s Keziah Daum wearing a sexualized version of traditional Chinese dress as Asian-Americans face spikes in hate crimes, such as the recent Atlanta shooting where the perpetrator targeted Asian women in an act of fetishization.
Essentially, cultural appropriation is not just stealing from another culture; it’s being praised for doing so when the people who created what was stolen still face violence for their identities. The reason that wearing a Scottish kilt at a festival is not appropriation, but Daum’s prom dress was, is because Scottish people do not face racial violence for celebrating their identities. Cultural appropriation happens both at a corporate level (see: Gucci making turbans a fashion accessory when it is a religious symbol to certain cultures, not to mention that neither of the owners who profit most are Sikh) and at an individual level (Daum).
Additionally, the violence of cultural appropriation is not just in hate crimes. It’s in white people Westernizing and commodifying yoga to the point where it’s joked about as a “white girl activity”, and yoga instructors simplifying yoga lessons to finding inner peace without discussing South Asian influences. It’s in the woman in Manhattan advertising “clean Chinese food” as Chinese-Americans now mobilize to remind everyone that they are not a virus.
An additional but crucial example is how many Westerners travel to Southeast Asia as newfound Buddhists, simplifying Buddhism as “peace and love” as Southeast Asians endure systemic violence and hatred. Buddhism is in all parts of Asia, but somehow, it’s the poorest parts of it that often warrant a visit from foreigners. They complain over why they aren’t entitled to a religion rooted in cultural values that do not belong to them, marvel over the “humble means” people live as if squalor is an aesthetic choice and not a consequence of colonialism, and center their fragility over validating the harm caused by cherry-picking which parts of a culture they value and which they do not.
Cultural appropriation is so often seen as only a social justice issue when it is also a business issue—how can it not be one when the action itself regards profiting from other cultures? Let’s examine the examples given. Daum and Gucci represent the fashion industries who create these items. The yoga industry brought in over 11 billion US dollars in 2020. “Clean Chinese food” is a restaurant issue. And lastly, co-opting Buddhism is present in the book industry when people write meditation books, in Amazon selling Buddha statues over 3 feet tall that lie adjacent to hot tubs of non-practicers, among others.
There is a misconception among some that those who criticize cultural appropriation seek to exclude and gatekeep. The reality is the opposite though—criticizing it is often an act of inclusion and love, with the intention of ensuring that those who create are credited, centered, and celebrated. As people engage with other cultures, they should always be mindful as to if that inclusion and empowerment exists in their actions.
Melissa (she/her) is a second year studying Business Administration and Computer Science, with minors in Japanese and Creative Writing. She is passionate about increasing visibility in social justice spaces for Southeast Asians, and disaggregating data about ethnic Asian subgroups. She hopes to write articles that inform readers about these issues. Professionally, she is interested in leveraging professional fields for equitable access to information for underrepresented minorities. Outside of BRB, Melissa is involved in The Berkeley Group, as well as other organizations that leverage tech and business for social good.