differences matter

Historic exchange and cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is extremely relevant when working with heritage of other people. But what is, and what is not, cultural appropriation is the subject of ongoing debate. There are many aspects to cultural appropriation that need to be considered, and there is not a single, straightforward, open-and-shut definition of this complex reality. [1] I would like to address just one of those aspects here, and that is the point where cultural exchange turns into cultural appropriation. That is often oversimplified by presenting these two concepts as equal: ‘People using elements from other cultures is normal. Just look at history!’ I feel that is cutting corners, and so in this article I explore that statement a little further.

Let me be clear: throughout history, cultures have always assimilated elements from others. I talk at length about cultural exchange and influences over the course of millennia in the e-course on History myself for example, and it is actually one of the elements of adornment and dress that I enjoy the most. Jewellery is a visual testimony to exchange and adaptations, and it is through jewellery that we can literally see how cultures influenced each other. If we never assimilated anything from other cultures, we would probably still be stuck in prehistory. Change and exchange are normal. They are the one constant throughout millennia of human cultural expressions.

But in my opinion, that is not what cultural appropriation is.

When you look at history, you’ll see that cultural exchange often is for the long run. An assimilated element is here to stay: it becomes fully engrained in the other culture. As such, it may change form, meaning and significance on the long term. That may be as status symbol at first (‘look what exciting new material I have!’) [2] or hesitantly (‘this might be the fashion of those new people, but I’m not having any of it’) Cultural exchange does not even have to come about peacefully: it’s not all trade, commerce and marriage, but also wars, conquest and colonization. Whatever the many machinations of cultural exchange, the end result is often that the assimilated element has become an integral, living and changing part of its new culture, so much so that it in turn may be passed on to yet another culture. Like jeans, or the paisley motif.

Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, is using something from another culture fleetingly. There are four basic symptoms to recognize this.

1 Short term. One element is taken out of its context and used on a temporary basis, like a pattern in a seasonal fashion collection. It never becomes an integral, living and changing part of its new culture. Like Madonna wearing Amazigh attire for her birthday party: a single occasion without investment in amplifying Amazigh voices (at least, that I know of!).

2 Unequal power dynamic. The party that takes the element, has a bigger platform and more resources than to the party that it is taken from. Think major brands, popstars, but also countries: rebranding heritage dress and adornment to fit a new narrative is a very vicious way of silencing and erasing the culture of entire populations.

3 Profit. There is usually a very clear element of profit for one party. That can be exposure, but of course clearly also financial profit.

4 No fair share or credit. The party that the element is taken from, is not credited, consulted, or sharing in the profit or exposure that the other party generates.

Cultural appropriation is purposefully taking an aspect of another culture to use that for one’s own gain, without credit or a firm grasp on what this actually means in and to its original culture. It is performative only, not intrinsically meaningful. That is why it is offensive and hurtful: it reduces the values of an entire culture to a quick and profitable fashion or performance statement. It gets even worse when the element is misattributed to another people entirely. More about that is here.

So why does it matter to unpick this one aspect of cultural appropriation? Because in these cases, the ‘historical cultural exchange’ argument is enabling a harmful power dynamic to continue. It’s washing over a deliberate form of capitalizing with an acceptable varnish of culture: it’s historic, so it’s fine. To me, that is a disregard of history itself. First, there are so many examples of historic realities that are anything but fine. And second, an oversimplification like this shows a lack of understanding of historic processes.

But take note: that argument is valid in the other direction as well. Not everything adopted from another culture is automatically ‘appropriated’: those slow wheels of history are still turning. When cultures get in contact with each other (and we are now more than ever, through social media and the Internet, but also through migration), they will slowly and inevitably absorb elements from one another. The point is to keep a watchful eye out for fleeting usurpation in an unequal power dynamic with profits flowing in one direction only.

And still, the lines between exchange, appropriation and appreciation are blurred. Cultural appropriation is a multi-faceted topic with many layers. That does not make it any easier, but it should not be brushed aside with a simple ‘it’s the way of history’.

Just to be clear, I’m definitely not one of those people saying you should not wear anything from outside your own culture or feel guilty just by looking at it! I am however one of those people asking you to consider your pieces as part of a larger cultural context. With awareness and acknowledgement of the culture your pieces come from, understanding their cultural significance and using your platforms to be vocal about both, you can do both: admire and celebrate beautiful pieces and support and amplify the voices of communities whose heritage this is.⁠


[1] An excellent start is this blog, or this one

[2] Wolfgang Grulke shows such incorporation in his book Adorned by Nature

See also this two-part blog by Jenna Nordman on intellectual property and commercial cultural appropriation.

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.