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What is cultural appropriation? Why is it wrong? How do we avoid it?

Definitions vary, but cultural appropriation usually involves unbalanced power dynamics. It is understood as borrowing something distinctive from another cultural group in ways that either disrespect that cultural group, fail to give credit to it, or take without asking. Some define it as cultural borrowing from a less privileged group in ways that confer prestige or gain upon a more privileged group.

It’s a complex topic not only because “culture” is complex, but also because what is or is not cultural appropriation can sometimes depend upon stereotypes about what makes different cultures distinctive and what practices or traditions “belong” to them. Cultural borrowing is constantly taking place and has been throughout human history. Incorporating elements of another culture into my life can be a sign of appreciation. That’s fairly obvious with things like language or food. If I learn the language of another culture or try some of their favorite dishes or even learn to cook some of those dishes, it’s unlikely that I would be accused of cultural appropriation.

Recently I went to Indonesia, and on three different occasions I was given the very kind gift of a batik—an Indonesian shirt. It would be strange if I were committing the offense of cultural appropriation by wearing a shirt that some kind Indonesian friends and colleagues gave me. But it would probably be considered cultural appropriation if I took it upon myself to start a batik company here in Michigan. Similarly, if I wear the shirt for self-serving reasons or in ways that fail to honor the cultural beauty that produced it, we’d be in the realm of cultural appropriation.

There’s no absolute law here, but Jesus provides us with a reliable rule of thumb: Treat other cultures and especially people from other cultures the way that we would like ourselves and our cultural gifts to be treated (see Matt. 7:12). As with so much in life, living with genuine appreciation, gratitude, and kindness will go a long way, as will a sense of curiosity about the beauty and uniqueness of the human world all around us. That human cultural world is a gift to be humbly explored and appreciated rather than raw material to be exploited.

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