Cultural appropriation differs from cultural exchange in that it is not mutually beneficial, and is more akin to “stealing” aspects of a culture. Cultural appropriation is inherently disrespectful, whereas cultural exchange retains the original purpose/intent/context/use of the aspect of the culture that is exchanged. This much is typically understood and accepted by the majority of people. Cultural appropriation, especially done knowingly is often considered “racist.”
However, many people trying to put an end to racism via cultural appropriation often in turn reinforce a sort of racism, if not just cultural ignorance. This can be seen when people, in an attempt to end racism, jump to the conclusion of cultural appropriation of Native Americans any time the following is seen:
- The wearing of feathers by anyone who is obviously a non-Native American.
- Face/body paint by any non-Native American.
- The wearing of buckskin.
- Naturally made bows/arrows in use by non-Natives.
- Braided hair.
- Animal-centered spiritual concepts and animal totems.
- Parietal art
- Drums, flutes, etc.
- Virtually anything considered “tribal.”
Considering these things, as used by non-Native Americans, inherently culturally appropriative implies that all of one’s knowledge on Native American cultures is founded on generalization and also implies that one’s knowledge of indigenous cultures is limited strictly to the indigenous peoples of North America.
The reason for this being is that, as humans, we are all remarkably similar in our most natural states. That which is listed above can be found in many variations in almost all indigenous cultures. And all races of human were at once indigenous; we all have tribal roots as far as our ancestors go.
For example, is it cultural appropriation for a white person to wear a Native American feather headdress (or War bonnet) at a music concert? Absolutely. The feathered War Bonnet, in the style typically seen and associated with cultural appropriation, is specific part of a specific Native American culture. Whereas the use of feathers as an adornment may be a universal thing, the War Bonnet is tied to specific culture, so the use of it outside of a member of the culture could rightfully be considered cultural appropriation.