Print Friendly and PDF
only search

How cultural appropriation becomes trendy—and the real cost of our consumerism

Doing good doesn’t, and shouldn’t, always feel good. For the sake of justice, let’s face that discomfort.

Originally published on Everyday Feminism.

Side profile of a young person wearing decorative bindi, gazing into the camera. Credit: Everyday Feminism. All rights reserved.

Here at Everyday Feminism we often write about cultural appropriation—when members of dominant culture takes cultural elements and practices from a people who are systematically oppressed by that dominant group.

These aspects of culture are often consumed in a popularized way that dilutes their original significance.

A huge question that pops up is: Well, what can I do about it? It’s not my fault. Isn’t this really an issue of our capitalist culture and globalization—two huge things that seem too big to tackle?

And aren’t big companies to blame? They’re the ones that provide culturally appropriated products and benefit the most from their sales!

While discussions about cultural appropriation often focus on individual actions like wearing a culture as a costume, it’s true that we need to pay attention to the big picture.

We can’t have a real conversation about the impacts of globalization without talking about imperialism, which maintains cultural and economic relationships based on domination and subordination by controlling resources, like land and food.

We also can’t forget the many histories where people of color have been directly used as commodities—like how Black people were used for slave labor.

Imperialism extracts what’s valuable from people and territories that are colonized—which might seem familiar.

Similarly, cultural appropriation makes culture an “extractable,” profitable resource.

Malcolm X famously stated, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”

Capitalism offers a promise of freedom and equality, yet is premised on unequal distributions of income and wealth. The idea that this system depends on merit—that working harder and better leads to success—obscures racist practices.

Cultures have traveled across so many different communities and through so many places over time, it’s hard to distinguish where something “originally” comes from and who has “ownership” over what. Traditions that we feel connected to as our own may have come from other cultures and places.

Because of this, discussions of cultural appropriation go beyond simple hard and fast rules of who can or can’t do something.

Perhaps, paying closer attention to why certain cultural elements become commodified and appropriated offers a helpful framework.

So instead of throwing our hands up in defeat under the monster of capitalism, we can take our power back by asking questions: Why the mainstreaming and corporatization of yoga? Why headdresses at Coachella? Why did bone broth, goji berries, and quinoa become “it” foods?

Which might lead to more questions, like: So what? If these cultural elements and practices have become so mainstream, isn’t that better? Now anyone can access and experience different cultures more readily and easily, right?

People often argue that culture is a commons, yet simultaneously want to own aspects of culture through consumerism.

Let’s get to the bottom of this contradiction. What are some ways that capitalism, as a system, works alongside racism to make cultural appropriation the “trendy” thing to do? And what’s our role in all of this?

1. Our individual expression is encouraged through consumerism.

Every day, media outlets like advertisements, TV shows, movies, and magazines tell us that the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the way we decorate our personal spaces define and showcase our individuality.

For example, I love to travel and try new things. I often buy souvenirs from my travels to wear or display in my apartment, and try different kinds of cuisines, to express that part of myself.

We’re encouraged to buy a lot of stuff to seem chic and cool, professional and put-together, fun and adventurous, more calm and relaxed.

As different cultural objects and practices come to signify aspects of our personality, interests, and style, we attach values to these cultural elements based on how they benefit us.

This is where racism and capitalism converge into cultural appropriation. Consumer culture simplifies the complexities of culture, often resulting in a replica rooted in stereotypes.

Gwen Stefani, in an attempt to show her “love” of Japan through Harajuku Girls, literally used Japanese and Japanese American women as props. Katy Perry, apparently in “homage” to Japanese culture, drew on the image of the ‘geisha girl’ stereotype during her performance at the American Music Awards.

These examples of self-expression drew solely on racist tropes – and they substantiate images of East Asian women as passive, servile, and sexualized objects.

Also, while freedom of choice and freedom of expression are central tenets in US national culture, these principles don’t apply equally.

While white celebrities benefit from fame and fortune when they exploit Japanese culture, East Asian women in the US face the pressure to distance themselves from their own culture in order to avoid stereotypes, fetishizing, and discrimination.

We should be free to do the things we enjoy or wear the clothes we like—but self-expression is a privilege. Some folks are pressured to change the ways we express ourselves, like the ways we look and act, just to stay employed or stay safe.

What can you do?

While breaking completely free from appropriative consumer culture is a difficult task, there are some initial actions you can take to start breaking away.

Think about the source of your purchase and who it benefits. For example, that Colombian mochila bag might be super cute, but the context changes depending on whether you’re buying it from a local artist while traveling or getting it from Urban Outfitters.

Also, consider why you’re buying something. What are you trying to express about yourself? Is there another way to do it? 

Buying a bag with a pattern you like directly from a Columbian artist won’t silence your self-expression – but it will help you express yourself in a way that’s not exploitative.

2. The idea of diversity has become commodified and consumable.

When you think about the word diversity, what comes up?

If you do a Google Image search for it, you’ll get lots of hands in different skin tones touching a globe. People of different races laughing together. Clip art of silhouettes in rainbow colors or maybe a colorful box of crayons.

The mainstreaming of diversity means that it’s now “sellable.” We’re socialized to think about diversity in aesthetics—as in, the more variety the better.

This aesthetic approach to diversity often leaves out the various intersections of identity—instead of actually including people, we tokenize them with a “one of each” model.

This often translates to: Hey! Let’s try all the different cultures we can!

In the US, metaphors of the “melting pot” and “salad bowl” are often used to describe different cultures and communities coming together in unity. We want to celebrate diversity through a multicultural tapestry.

However, this celebration often happens purely through food and festival. Rather than having a deeper engagement with other cultures, we end up with superficial replicas.

While this kind of “celebrate diversity” culture doesn’t seem terrible on the surface, the commodification of diversity has more harmful consequences. For example, in many gentrified neighborhoods, diversity is an attractive amenity.

In my old neighborhood, there’s an avenue where you can get sushi, Chinese bao, tacos, and banh mi. While this makes the neighborhood seem culturally diverse, it’s diverse in a decorative and aesthetic sense–rather than a social ideal of equality.

Many of these restaurants aren’t owned by the communities that the cuisine purportedly represents–and the decor often looks like a kitschy Epcot-esque theme party.

No matter how “refined” or “elevated” the food, red lanterns and gold accents often fill restaurants that have been “inspired” by the entire continent of Asia. Neon sugar skulls from Dia de los Muertos and sombreros fill Mexican-themed spots.

Based on the price point, these restaurants cater to residents, like myself, who are middle to upper class. The businesses there aren’t truly accessible to diverse groups of people from different economic backgrounds.

Because culture can be tangibly experienced, we can easily consume it. This isn’t to say that it’s bad to learn about other cultures by eating different styles of cuisine, traveling, or consuming media from communities that aren’t your own.

These activities can help expand our perspectives. The problem is when we conflate equity with these consumable experiences–because they are not the same thing.

What can you do?

We need to stop thinking about social justice and equity in terms of an aesthetic model to diversity.

Having a bunch of different voices at the table doesn’t always mean those voices are equally respected—just like having a bunch of different representations of cultures doesn’t always mean those cultures are equally respected, valued, and understood.

Are you actually building true relationships with new people, or do you just like wearing clothes and eating food from other places and communities?

While we may love to celebrate difference through clothing and food, rarely do we acknowledge the actual lived experiences that accompany the cultures we take from.

3. The complexity of cultural expression and history gets flattened through commodification.

The commodification of culture flattens out cultural complexities.

When we reduce culture down to just the pieces we want to take, we often lose the important stories, memories, and rich histories—the stories that tell us how cultural objects and practices came to endure and survive over time.

This creates a sense of distance and detachment. We end up losing our connection to the people, the identities, and the community that we’re taking pieces of culture from.

And thus, it becomes difficult to respect that culture in the way it deserves to be respected.

One example is how some Buddhist spiritual practices have been simplified into consumable pieces. The concept of Zen gets reduced to unwinding as a way to market candles and lotions, the laughing Buddha becomes caricatured into accessories, decorative items, or company logos, and more.

But if you’re trying to practice a tenet like mindfulness, you don’t need to buy “Buddha bookends” or “yoga dog” sculptures—which are, unfortunately, real products from Pier 1—to do so.

We need to focus on what aspects of culture are left out when cultural objects and narratives get appropriated for our own purposes.

How do we rethink and retrace our own perceptions of different places and cultures?

Instead of forgetting that influential power dynamics and hierarchies exist, we can be careful not to replicate them through cultural binaries like “high” vs. “low” fashion, Western societies vs. everywhere else, or “first world” vs. “third world.”

What can you do?

If we’re expressing our love for something, associating ourselves with the most popularized and commodified parts of that culture may not be the best way to show our appreciation.

We can educate ourselves on the histories and significance behind cultural objects and practices: Why are they meaningful? Where have they traveled? What other objects and practices are they associated with? How and where are they made? Are local artists or producers creating them—and if so, how can I support their work?

The information’s out there—read pieces like Minh-Ha T. Pham’s excellent essay on the production and consumption of the “Chinatown plaid” pattern that became “high fashion.” Learn about some of the unique dress and customs of the 566 different recognized Native American tribes in the US, and reject generic patterns from companies using labels like Navajo, “tribal,” and “Native” interchangeably.

By developing a more complex, fuller, and more nuanced picture of these objects and practices, we can understand and appreciate their importance.

4. We buy from big companies and consume their approaches to culture.

Okay, at this point, you might still be thinking, so what? I learn a little more about other cultures, get to know some new people, and ask myself some heartfelt questions.

But how does any of this dismantle the behemoth that is capitalism?

In this market scheme, the process of producing profitable goodies for us to buy often involves cheap labor at a fast pace.

For example, think fast fashion companies, like Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters. We often don’t even know the supply chains of the products that we encounter in clothing stores, restaurants, supermarkets, and other retail spaces.

While we respond to these big companies, they also respond to us. Big company trends don’t materialize from nothing.

Those awful Lord Ganesh duvets and socks at Urban Outfitters and those “face gems” (ahem—bindis) don’t exist in a vacuum. The centuries-late “discovery” of bone broth’s “healing” properties leading to pop-up shops selling cups of broth at $9 a piece doesn’t come out of nowhere.

Companies produce what we’ll consume—and we’re consuming a dangerous ideology that says culture can be mass-produced.

When we approach culture as consumers, that shapes society to operate in a way that seeks out the next big thing–regardless of the consequences.

What can you do?

As Maisha Z. Johnson writes on the appropriation of Black culture, are you giving support or trivializing struggles?

When celebs like Kylie and Kendall Jenner are reported to “rock” cornrows that are “epic” and “edgy,” they sure don’t support Black women ostracized or discouraged by institutional barriers from wearing their hair in natural styles.

But you can reflect on whether or not you’re you showing up for a community’s struggle in a way that’s accountable to that community’s needs.

Investing energy and time in supporting community-led movements is one possible way to demand change in this system. We can work alongside others to organize for justice in a way that’s sustainable and accountable.

For example, Taté Walker offers some ways to honor Native Americans without appropriatingNative culture, such as backing Native-led movements or supporting Native American artists.

Trying to disrupt consumer culture and its link to cultural appropriation can be hard. Consuming stuff is fun! It can feel so good. Yet, in our consumption, no matter how pleasurable, we are complicit in both racism and capitalism.

Companies like Pier 1, Whole Foods, and American Apparel (not really “sweatshop free”) tell us that we can be more ethical and responsible by buying their products.

But even so-called “responsible consumerism” is really not that responsible. It still turns social justice into something that can only be purchased with our dollars. And it’s not nearly enough.

Even if everyone, including you and me, went ahead and said, Well, I’ll no longer shop here, the issue of capitalism and corporate power would still be present in the world around us.

Plus, sometimes we end up buying from big companies because it’s more financially accessible. We need people with class privilege to not just swear off buying from these companies, but commit to changing a system that creates dependency on large companies as the only option.

As we re-program our approach to culture, let’s really think about intention and impact—who ultimately benefits and who doesn’t.

Responsible consumerism benefits us in an individualistic sense—we get to feel good about doing good. However, doing good doesn’t and shouldn’t always feel good.

It can be downright uncomfortable. For the sake of justice, let’s face that discomfort.

About the author

Rachel Kuo is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a scholar and educator based in New York City. Her professional background is in designing curriculum and also communications strategy for social justice education initiatives. You can follow her on Twitter @rachelkuo.

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.