Monday, September 16, 2013

Cultural Diffusion vs. Cultural Appropriation: What’s the Difference and Why Should We Care?

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Do you like Chinese food? How about Mexican or Italian or Thai?  Me too.  The spread of ethnic cuisine is a tasty example of the phenomenon known as cultural diffusion.  Cultural diffusion is the spread of a cultural aspect from one group to another.  Food is one example, but styles, technologies, ideas and languages can also be transferred between cultures.  The process has a well documented history going back to the spread of agriculture if not earlier.  It is generally considered an important part of how societies interact and evolve. 

Contrasted with that is cultural appropriation.  Cultural appropriation is when members of one group take a specific aspect of another group’s culture and use it in such a way as to radically alter the meaning of that aspect.  Here’s an example:

In the culture of many groups of Native Americans living on the Great Plains, the feathered war bonnet was worn on ceremonial occasions by warriors who had earned the right to do so through acts of valor in battle.  It was awarded to them by the leaders of the tribe and was not only a mark of honor but also was believed to have protective properties.  What do you suppose the chances are that these random white guys in face paint have earned the right to wear the Native American equivalent of the Medal of Honor?   Some other examples of cultural appropriation include Lady Gaga wearing a burqa because she thinks it looks cool and Disney attempting to trademark the Latin American holiday Día de los Muertos to go with their new movie. 

So, how is this different from cultural diffusion?  The main difference is how the originating culture feels about it.  No one cares that I love palak paneer (an Indian spinach dish), but most Hindus would be deeply offended if I wore a bindi (Hindu mark of wisdom and protection).  For many cultures, the context-less appropriation of their important religious and cultural symbols is deeply problematic.   I know from some earlier examples it may seem like all the cool kids are doing it, but as late as the 1940s people thought minstrel shows and blackface were okay too.  It took decades of effort by African Americans and their allies to teach people that it was actually offensive.  Now, is there anyone reading this blog post that doesn’t find this photo horribly racist and insensitive?


  1. Good for you for taking on a sensitive topic.

  2. I'm sorry, but I have to strongly disagree. Lady Gaga (and, no, I'm not a fan) wearing a burqa because she thinks it's cool is no different than me trying that new Moroccan restaurant because I think it might be cool. Cultural diffusion is cultural appropriation.
    However, given the hyper-sensitive times we live in, it might be best to ask ourselves two questions. 1) Who might I be offending (believe me, someone's always offended)? And 2) do I care that I'm offending them?

    1. 2) might seem callous, but let's face it, we don't always care.

    2. If something is culturally insensitive (like the Native American headdress example brought up in this blog), it should not be tolerated. Lady Gaga wearing a burqa can also come across as insensitive as burqas are worn by persecuted women in Muslim countries. This blog doesn't cover the entire situation with Lady Gaga, so assuming that she brought the burqa's significance to light while wearing it, that could be a good example of teaching others what it means while demonstrating what it looks like.