When Cultural Appropriation Goes Wrong

Xiaoxiao Du

February 2019

Five girls surrounded me while I was getting my henna tattoo done in a chaotic square of a Moroccan town. Their eyes followed the curvy lines drawn on my hand with a special herb product that dyed the skin. After she finished the last petal, the old henna artist admired her work for a second, decided that any addition to it would be redundant, and let go of my hand. I paid and stepped aside to make room for the next customer, but the other girls exchanged looks amongst themselves, and none of them sat down.

I was confused by their paradoxical admiration for the henna and their reluctance to get one, until later that night, my roommate, one of the five girls, revealed the magic words that kept them from getting a henna tattoo: cultural appropriation. Offending the locals was a lesser concern, because the henna artist was sitting in the middle of a square filled with tourists, and the locals passing by did not pay any attention to the henna stall, not to mention appear offended. It seemed that it was the mutual censorship, the fear that other students might accuse them of cultural appropriation, that kept them from getting a henna tattoo. In the end, you can never be too careful when dealing with potential cultural appropriation. 

Later in the Morocco trip, we had a chance to talk to local university students. We asked them whether they thought that it constituted cultural appropriation if someone outside their culture got a henna tattoo and then posted pictures of their henna on Instagram. The Moroccan students first asked what cultural appropriation was. They were amused by our concern about the appropriateness of getting a henna tattoo and replied that, no, they do not feel offended at all. They added that they felt flattered when people appreciated and spread their culture, so long as they were not poking fun at it. 

Moroccan Coast

Photo: Xiaoxiao Du

The Moroccan trip made me realize that cultural appropriation is a complex concept. I thought I was acquainted with the term “cultural appropriation” and its implications, but I failed to make the connection between getting a beautiful henna tattoo in Morocco and being guilty of cultural appropriation like other girls. I thought the criteria were simple: first, I have no intention of claiming henna tattooing to be part of my culture; second, my action did not offend anyone; and, third, it is just what tourists do. I would even go as far as calling my action “cultural appreciation.”

Yet talking about cultural appropriation is about calling into attention what people, tourists included, just do without questioning. The discussion about cultural appropriation is inseparable from other social and cultural discourses such as colonialism, orientalism, and the history of slavery. Talking about cultural appropriation sensitizes people so that they are more aware of the harm they could cause for the less privileged cultures and peoples.

The Oxford English Dictionary incorporated the term “cultural appropriation” in 2017 in response to the heated discussion about it in the western world, defining it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, or ideas of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Despite the appearance of clarity, the definition is problematic. The key terms are vague: what kind of adoption is inappropriate? How much acknowledgement is needed? For instance, a headdress which appeared in Victoria’s Secret’s 2017 show resembled a traditional war bonnet of the Native American culture. It is considered blasphemous for an outsider to wear it, and the headdress enraged the Native Americans. The leading opinions of the fashion world all agreed that the war bonnet constituted “cultural appropriation. It is unproductive to ban all assimilation of other cultures, but if we replace the war bonnet with less scared or mundane items, when does it cease to be cultural appropriation and become acceptable?

The conceptual confusion is not only a concern for scholars studying postcolonialism. When the line is hard to draw, and when people throw the term everywhere, an objective judgment is sometimes nowhere to be found. Worse, the resultant dispute can cause miscommunication and hatred. 

For instance, Jeremy Lin, a Chinese American basketball player, is known for his frequent change of hairstyle. When he posted on Instagram a picture of himself wearing his new choice of hairstyle, dreadlocks, he explained that he saw his hair as a tribute to the black culture. None of Lin’s teammates protested against his new hair, yet Kenyon Martin, a black basketball player from another team, bashed Lin’s African hairstyle, interpreting his action as a sign of wanting to become black, and labeling his hair “cultural appropriation.” People got so excited and ready to attack the person labeled as if they were a gam of sharks that smelled blood. Although some from the black community expressed their support or remained neutral, others followed Martin and left vicious comments under Lin’s Instagram. The dispute came to an ironic end when Lin responded to Martin, “At the end of the day I appreciate that I have dreads and you have Chinese tattoos. I think it’s a sign of respect.” The term, coined to call for respect, has turned cultural exchange into name-calling. Its abuse pits people against people, minorities against minorities.

The dialogue about cultural appropriation does not happen in every country and every culture, but the need for respect is universal. It is for the purpose of fighting discrimination and trivialization of the less privileged cultures that we initiate the conversation about cultural appropriation. But maybe “cultural appropriation” has gone too far that its practice defeats the purpose of promoting genuine respect and appreciation. Those who lack respect weaponize the term, whereas those with great respect for other cultures, due to the fear of being accused of “cultural appropriation,” lose the chance to take advantage of their cultural exchange experiences.

Talking about “cultural appropriation” cannot guarantee mutual respect. As someone who got a henna tattoo in Morocco and who might have been guilty several times of “cultural appropriation” according to stricter versions of its definition, I am not sure to what end the discourse is leading.

Xiaoxiao Du is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her name means “small small.” She is a philosophy major with special interests in metaethics. She can re-read novels by Cao Xueqin and Gabriel García Márquez any number of times without getting bored.