Search results for cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation generally refers to the adoption of traditional practices, objects, or images by a person or group that is not part of the originating culture. Cultural appropriation can become problematic when it is done without permission, serves to benefit the dominant group, and erases or further marginalizes the oppressed group. In this way, cultural appropriation can recreate larger structures of inequality.

On a recent stroll through a duty-free shop, I was introduced to one of these problematic examples in the form of a new Canadian product named “Totem Vodka,” packaged in a bottle resembling a totem pole. Totem Vodka is not a product of Indigenous entrepreneurship. Instead it is a form of problematic cultural appropriation. Here’s why:

First Nations Erasure

Totem poles are important symbolic creations of some First Nations families in Canada’s Pacific Northwest. They are symbols of family lineage that serve to document stories or histories of people, communities or clans. The Totem Vodka bottle and marketing images erases these families, while appropriating their symbols.


The bottle stopper is shaped like a Thunderbird, a supernatural bird who causes thunder and lightning according to First Nations mythology. The Thunderbird crest is traditionally carved on the totem poles of people from the Thunderbird clan of the Kwakwaka’wakw nations (on Vancouver Island). The origin of the Thunderbird (and totem poles) within Pacific Northwest First Nations communities is absent from the company’s description of the bottle’s design and construction. Instead, the bottle is superficially connected to a wide-array of global references; the bottle was “designed on the West Coast of Canada, moulded by French glassmakers and topped with an Italian-made custom stopper.”

Significantly, the individuals featured in pictures on the company’s Twitter account include few or no indigenous people.

First Nations Exploitation

The owner of Totem Distilleries is a wealthy white entrepreneur and proceeds from the vodka help support a wildlife rescue association without any First Nations connection.

Settler societies have, paradoxically, both outlawed the sacred work of totem pole carving by indigenous peoples and exploited it for their own profit. In this case, the totem pole is used as an aesthetic tool to distinguish the vodka as authentically “Canadian,” while reproducing an abstracted, exotified, and ultimately false vision of indigeneity. First Nations people in Canada have rarely been either credited or compensated for the use of their cultural symbol.

The example of Totem vodka fits within a larger pattern of racism and colonial exploitation of indigenous people. We can look to the historical effects of colonization in Canada to see how attempts to erase Indigenous culture, while simultaneously exploiting it for the benefit of colonizers, has led to systemic discrimination, exclusionary policies and neglect that continue into the present day. Using a totem pole as a vodka bottle symbolizes this larger, patterned systems of inequality.

Alexandra Rodney is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She teaches Cultural Sociology and researches in the areas of food, gender and health. You can read more of Alexandra’s work on her website or follow her on Twitter

A special thank-you to Josée Johnston and Samantha Maskwa for their feedback on this post. Samantha is of Cree, Ojibway and Celtic ancestry. Her family is from the Rice Lake area and the southern part of Turtle Island and she is Bear clan. In addition to her midwifery degree, she is also completing a minor in Sociology and an Aboriginal Knowledges and Experiences certificate at Ryerson University in Toronto.

2 (1)Singer-songwriter Hozier played “guess the man buns” on VH1, and Buzzfeed facetiously claimed they had “Scientific Proof That All Celebrity Men are Hotter with Man Buns.” Brad Pitt, Chris Hemsworth, and David Beckham have all sported the man bun. And no, I’m not talking about their glutes. Men are pulling their hair back behind their ears or on top on their heads and securing it into a well manicured or, more often, fashionably disheveled knot. This hairstyle is everywhere now: in magazines and on designer runways and the red carpet. Even my neighborhood Barista is sporting a fledgling bun, and The Huffington Post recently reported on the popular Man Buns of Disneyland Instagram account that documents how “man buns are taking over the planet.”

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At first glance, the man bun seems a marker of progressive manhood. The bun, after all, is often associated with women—portrayed in the popular imagination via the stern librarian and graceful ballerina. In my forthcoming book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry, however, I discuss how linguistic modifiers such as manlights (blonde highlights for men’s hair) reveal the gendered norm of a word. Buns are still implicitly feminine; it’s the man bun that is masculine. But in addition to reminding us that men, like women, are embodied subjects invested in the careful cultivation of their appearances, the man bun also reflects the process of cultural appropriation. To better understand this process, we have to consider: Whocan pull off the man bun and under what circumstances?

I spotted my first man bun in college. And it was not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American guy rocking the look in an effort to appear effortlessly cool. This bun belonged to a young Sikh man who, on a largely white U.S. campus, received lingering stares for his hair, patka, and sometimes turban. His hair marked him as an ethnic and religious other. Sikhs often practice Kesh by letting their hair grow uncut in a tribute to the sacredness of God’s creation. He was marginalized on campus and his appearance seen by fellow classmates as the antithesis of sexy. In one particularly alarming 2007 case, a teenage boy in Queens was charged with a hate crime when he tore off the turban of a young Sikh boy to forcefully shave his head.

A journalist for The New York Times claims that Brooklyn bartenders and Jared Leto “initially popularized” the man bun. It’s “stylish” and keeps men’s hair out of their faces when they are “changing Marconi light bulbs,” he says. In other words, it’s artsy and sported by hipsters. This proclamation ignores the fact that Japanese samurai have long worn the topknot or chonmage, which are still sported by sumo wrestlers.

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Nobody is slapping sumo wrestlers on the cover of GQ magazine, though, and praising them for challenging gender stereotypes. And anyway, we know from research on men in hair salons and straight men who adopt “gay” aesthetic that men’s careful coiffing does not necessarily undercut the gender binary. Rather, differences along the lines of class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality continue to distinguish the meaning of men’s practices, even if those practices appear to be the same. When a dominant group takes on the cultural elements of marginalized people and claims them as their own—making the man bun exalting for some and stigmatizing for others, for example—who exactly has power and the harmful effects of cultural appropriation become clear.

Yes, the man bun can be fun to wear and even utilitarian, with men pulling their hair out of their faces to see better. And like long-haired hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, the man bun has the potential to resist conservative values around what bodies should look like. But it is also important to consider that white western men’s interest in the man bun comes from somewhere, and weaving a narrative about its novelty overlooks its long history among Asian men, its religious significance, and ultimately its ability to make high-status white men appear worldly and exotic. In the west, the man bun trend fetishizes the ethnic other at the same time it can be used to further marginalize and objectify them. And so cultural privilege is involved in experiencing it as a symbol of cutting-edge masculinity.

Kristen Barber, PhD is a member of the faculty at Southern Illinois University. Her interests are in qualitative and feminist research and what gender-boundary crossing can teach us about the flexibility of gender, the mechanisms for reproducing gender hierarchies, and the potential for reorganization. She blogs at Feminist Reflections, where this post originally appeared.

Here at SocImages, we typically use the phrase “cultural appropriation” to describe rather frivolous borrowing of cultural practices and objects for the purposes of fun and fashion.  We’ve posted on examples ranging from the appropriation of American Indian fashion,  the mocking of the Harlem Shake, and an Orthodox Jew-inspired fashion show.

A slideshow of members of the punk scene in Burma, however, offers another version of cultural appropriation.  Their fashion is clearly inspired by the punk scenes of Britain and the U.S., which started in the 1970s. Accordingly to an interview with Ko Gyi at Vice and an article at Spiegel Online, some members of the sub-culture believe themselves to be rebelling against an oppressive state, others are interested in “non-political anarchism.”  While their music has to pass through state censors, they are talented in pushing their lyrics right up to the limit and deft in using metaphor to get their point across.

This is a fully different kind of appropriation, the kind that is about fighting the establishment, not spicing it up with “colorful” bits of marginalized groups.  It is more akin to feminists and gay liberation activists borrowing the tactics of the civil rights movement.  Alexander Dluzak writes:

In Burma, punk is far more than just a superficial copy of its Western counterpart. Here, what is probably the most rebellious of all subcultures in the Southeast Asian country is going up against one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.

Cultures can borrow from one another, then, in ways that both empower and disempower.  It will be fascinating to see if this particular appropriation can shape the future of Burma.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Katrin sent in a delightful video by the 1491s, a sketch comedy troupe that frequently skewers popular representations of Native Americans and their various cultures. The group recently released a new video featuring footage of 1491s member Ryan Red Corn dancing at the Santa Fe Indian Market interspersed with shots of visitors to the market and examples of appropriation of Native cultures, all set to Irving Berlin’s “I’m an Indian Too,” from Annie Get Your Gun. It’s a great send-up of the whole Native-culture-as-fashion-statement trend:

For the past few years I’ve been following a wonderful little blog, Hanzi Smatter. The author invites people to submit images of tattoos written in (what they think is) Japanese or Chinese, to find out what they actually mean. As it turns out, tattoos often do not mean what their bearers think they mean. The results can be hilarious, like Thought to mean: Loyalty. Actual meaning: Noodles.

It is quite trendy in the U.S. to get a word that means something to you in English (“love,” “strength” etc.) tattooed in Japanese or Chinese characters. Visit any tattoo parlor or online tattoo image gallery and you’ll see many Chinese and Japanese character options. So why is this so popular? Some argue that the beauty and simplicity of the symbols make Asian characters desirable for tattoos: “But what, besides the beauty of the art, would make these tattoos so popular? The main reason is that Chinese symbolism can be used to express so much, while still remaining simple and clean.” But couldn’t any written language be considered beautiful (cursive English, for instance)? And isn’t any language capable of expressing a lot in just a few simple characters (words have multiple meanings even in English)?

I don’t think this is just about beauty and simplicity. Using Japanese or Chinese characters makes a tattoo more exotic than getting the same word tattooed in English. And there is an added element of mystery—having a tattoo that not everyone in an English-speaking country can read is cool (even if the person with the tattoo can’t read it, either).

Cultural appropriation describes the adoption of specific aspects of a culture that is not your own. A Kanji tattoo when the wearer is not Japanese and has no specific connection to Japanese culture is an example of cultural appropriation. While we could debate whether or not cultural appropriation is ever positive (e.g. the popularity of yoga, or the interest in Italian food and culture when HBO’s The Sopranos was running), there are negative consequences to cultural appropriation. When language and symbolism are taken out of their original context, the meaning is over simplified or completely lost. Tattoos that attempt to translate English into Japanese or Chinese characters are a perfect example of lost meaning:

Intended meaning: None. Characters chosen for their appeal. Actual meaning: “Buy/trade”, “road, path”, and “card” which is like a type of prepaid card that allows its owner to access public transportation.

Thought to mean: Warrior. Actual meaning: Waterfall or rapids.

 Many tattoos are victims of what Hanzi Smatter calls “gibberish font.” There is no correlation between English letters and Japanese or Chinese characters, but some tattoo shops use this gibberish font for tattoos—using the font to spell out words letter by letter, when Chinese and Japanese don’t work that way.

Thought to mean: Initials of loved ones. Actual meaning: Nothing

Thought to mean: Beautiful. Actual meaning: “Calamity, disaster, catastrophe.”

 Thought to mean: As long as I breathe, I hope. Actual meaning: The five characters mean “living”, “air”, & “love” separately, but just the characters together do not create the intended sentence.

 Thought to mean: Outlaw. Actual meaning: “[In] hiding” and “criminal”, or the equivalent of “snitch” or “rat”.

 Thought to mean: Live for today. Actual meaning: None.

Hanzi Smatter discusses that last one:

As is, this gibberish means nothing in Japanese or at least nothing like “live for today” and I don’t think it means anything in Chinese either. The only meaning I can guess is that if it were written 生きて現れる, this would mean “to show up alive” or “turn up alive” as if someone thought dead had appeared alive. Anyway, it sounds pretty spooky, like seeing a zombie!

I think the person who made this up just looked in a dictionary for the word for “to live” 生 and a word that means something like “now” 現and thought you could stick them together to make “live for today.”

The fact that these tattoos, and countless more like them, don’t mean what people think they mean, illustrates the consequences of fetishizing aspects of a culture. Symbols and language don’t translate easily from one culture to another. Adopting aspects of a culture that might seem “exotic” without understanding what they mean in their specific contexts ends up creating cultural gibberish; tattoos that make no sense to anyone at all.


Adrienne K., from the excellent blog Native Appropriations, recently appeared on the Al Jazeera English show The Stream to discuss issues of cultural appropriation of Native American cultures in fashion and home decor, sports mascots, and so on. It’s a great segment about Native American concerns specifically, and the broader issues of appropriation, respecting different cultures, and how responsible different groups are for educating themselves and others about cultural traditions:

Culture-sharing, of course, is nothing new. But with new forms of media, they are intensified and, increasingly, we get to see what “they” do with “our” art forms. Jenelle N. sent in this fascinating music video of artists in Bulgaria appropriating American hip hop and, correspondingly, elements of “Black” culture (highly produced and largely invented by music executives) and blending it with more “indigenous” art forms (please do note all of my scarequotes).

This duet is, as Jenelle explains, “between two of Bulgaria’s hottest chalga performers, Azis and Malina called Iskam, Iskam (I Want, I Want).”

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_uHa8gTyxU[/youtube]

See also the Google sari.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Yesterday Native Appropriations featured a presentation about Urban Outfitters, cultural appropriation in fashion, and the struggle to get the clothing chain to stop labeling clothing as “Navajo.” The presentation is great both for explaining this particular case — which included the Navajo nation sending a cease-and-desist letter demanding that Urban Outfitters stop using the term Navajo in its marketing — and also because it shows how one particular story spread through social media, which increasingly have the ability to bring mainstream media attention to stories that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.