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On Cultural Appropriation

What exactly is cultural appropriation? It’s not just copying.

“One thing that I would really get mad if everyone appropriated is challah bread,” my wife said.

I didn’t say anything.

When two groups meet one of the first things they do is copy each other — each side takes what they find useful, beautiful, or trendy and incorporate it into what they make and do. This is one of the main mechanisms through which cultures evolve — and cultures are always evolving.

It’s normal, so normal, in fact, that looking at the ways which one culture replicated the art and technology of another is one of the main ways that archaeologists produce models of who cultures interacted with, where they went, and something about the dynamics of what they did.

The flows of intercultural influence that can be seen via copying is a clear sign of power dynamics.

When a weaker culture takes from a stronger one it demonstrates a form of reverence, obedience, or simple practicality — if someone does something better you should copy it.

But is that really appropriation? Not really.

When the Roman empire was in decline there are reports that it was trendy for youths to go around wearing the clothes of “barbarians” in the name of rebellion, fashion, cuteness.

That’s appropriation.

The difference? Power dynamics.

The power of an alpha culture is bolstered when it is the copied and when it is the copier.

Filed under: Culture and Society, Travel Philosophy

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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