Cultural appropriation describes the adoption of cultural assets of one culture by members of another culture. The exchange of cultures is fundamentally to be welcomed, as it promotes mutual understanding and recognition. However, it should be noted that the concept of cultural appropriation is not so much aimed at claiming cultural assets on an equal footing. Rather, it takes into account a historically grown power imbalance in which the Global North makes use of the music, jewelry, clothing, religious symbols, etc. of the Global South – often in order to enrich itself. Designers who use the ornamentation of Yoruba textiles can serve as an example of this.
At its core, the problem does not revolve around who is the owner of a culture. The idea of ownership applied to culture is the wrong model to approach the issue, as philosopher Anthony Kwame Appiah notes. However, this does not mean that misconduct did not exist. It is not so much the aspect of appropriation that is in the foreground; much more important in this context are exploitation and disregard, which are made possible in the first place because of unequal power relations.
When Rhinelanders dress up as members of the indigenous populations of North America with feather ornaments in their hair and use redfacing to celebrate carnival, this is not cultural theft, but disrespectful and racist. When U.S. pop singers use the rhythms of South Africans’ music to make a lot of money, the question should be allowed whether they have given a fair share of their profits to South Africans.
The problem is therefore not rooted in appropriation per se, but in the disrespectful and exploitative treatment of cultural characteristics and traditions that are important to other people, if not even considered sacred in the regions of origin. On the other hand, a cultural transfer and exchange on an equal footing, in which all parties meet each other with decency and sensitivity, would be a gain for all.