Cultural Appropriation

Cameron Manning Brown, Gommeroi   

Cultural appropriation is a term that has been used a lot recently on social media and in the media itself, and it is a very complex topic. Cultural appropriation can be defined as “The taking of intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from another culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It is most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects”.

Cultural appropriation is most commonly perpetrated against Indigenous people of the world by the colonizers of their country. This can cause reinforced negative stereotypes of Indigenous cultures, as well as deeply offending Indigenous people’s culture when it is used in a way which diminishes its importance. For example, white people are often praised for doing things that black people are often shamed for, such as when white people wear African style fashion trends it is portrayed in the media as looking better on them then on a black person. This is deeply racist, and highlights how the western media contributes to negative racist stereotypes of people of colour around the world.

In relation to Aboriginal people here in Australia, cultural appropriation has become a growing phenomenon that we all must deal with on a daily basis. When it comes to issues such as non-Aboriginal people dressing in “blackface”, many non-Aboriginal Australians struggle with the concept of this being highly offensive and racist. This is essentially white people mocking people of colour, and perpetuating long held racial stereotypes of us. For myself as a young Aboriginal man who is heavily tattooed with Aboriginal ink, I often encounter non-Aboriginal people asking me if it is appropriate for them to get Aboriginal tattoos in the same style as mine. For myself, and for many other tattooed Aboriginal people that I know, this is highly offensive and a prime example of cultural appropriation. My tattoos tell my own personal story, and tell the story of my connection to my Gommeroi country, my dreaming and creation stories, and to Awabakal land on which I live. And to see these sacred images with so much importance being put on a non-Aboriginal person who does not understand the meaning of the images or have a bloodline connection to the stories behind them is deeply insulting and diminishes the cultural meaning of the tattoos.

In the tattoo community alone I see cultural appropriation being a major issue for Indigenous people. I often encounter non Aboriginal people who have no connection whatsoever to Indigenous cultures, getting images of Native American chiefs, women and sacred images of Native American culture tattooed on their body. In my experience, many non-Aboriginal people seem to want to take the “positive” aspects of Aboriginal culture e.g art, language, stories, food, cultural practices, and not acknowledge the “negative” aspects of our experiences such as historical and current genocide of our people, murders, land destruction, cultural destruction, health inequalities, black deaths in custody etc. This is a very important aspect of cultural appropriation, when members of the “dominant” culture take aspects from the cultures of oppressed people without understanding or even acknowledging the historical struggles that they face. I believe that it is important for non-Aboriginal people to understand our struggle and respect our culture, without trying to take elements of it which they like.

 Cultural appropriation is a growing problem facing Indigenous people of the world particularly in this country. I believe that better education of non-Aboriginal people in relation to cultural appropriation is a major step forward. It is always important to acknowledge and have some kind of an understanding of the roots of the music you listen to, the clothes that you wear and artwork that you wear, and the stereotypes and history associated with these things. The assets of each culture are precious, and it is highly important to protect the integrity and significance of these assets.

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