The term cultural appropriation is sometimes used to describe the act of borrowing aspects of another culture. For many people, this is a very charged issue, and passionate debates about it can be found scattered across the Internet. Some people feel that the term in and of itself is pejorative, making it difficult to discuss the very real issues associated with borrowing material from other cultures in a measured, balanced way.
You can probably think of a few examples of cultural appropriation, and chances are high that you may even have items borrowed from another culture in your own home, especially if you have traveled or participated in a foreign exchange program. Many people have works of art from other cultures in their homes, for example, such as Japanese woodblock prints or African textiles.
The exchange of art, music, textiles, fashions, beliefs, knowledge, and so forth between cultures has been going on for centuries. All ancient cultures borrowed from neighbors and trading partners, sometimes assimilating new cultural artifacts so completely that people are unaware of the true origin of these artifacts.
Some people feel that cultural appropriation of any form should be considered theft. Critics point out that cultural objects are often transferred from less developed societies to more developed societies, as for example in the case of an American tourist who collects indigenous Peruvian status. Others stress the fact that the human race has a long history of exploiting societies which are viewed as lesser, and that exploitation often involves the removal and repurposing of cultural items.
For people who find cultural appropriation offensive, the sight of an African fertility statue being used as a paperweight or a tattoo in Chinese on a European can be rather jarring. Maybe people feel that when objects are taken out of context, much of their meaning is lost, and that cultural appropriation cheapens the culture which has been “robbed.” The issue can become especially complex when people start addressing things like transcultural adoption and former colonies.
Other people feel that adopting things from other cultures is not necessarily harmful, especially when it is done in a conscious, thoughtful way. These supporters point out that cultural exchange has often been very beneficial historically, and that sharing artifacts between cultures can lead to interesting conversations and greater mutual understanding.