The Different Perceptions of Cultural Appropriation

The term cultural appropriation, is by far a familiar one. It is defined as situations where a person associated with one group uses cultural elements from another group. These elements can include cultural items like “symbols, genres, expressions, technology and artifacts”. While the term is widely used, actual empirical data surrounding the perception of cultural appropriation is limited. In a recent publication, Dr. Ariel Mosley, a Columbia postdoc, and Dr. Biernat venture into the perception of cultural appropriation. To understand how cultural appropriation is perceived by different groups, Dr. Mosley utilizes an approach of a majority and a minority group in the same community and identifies how each group views different actions as cultural appropriation. 

This study uses multiple examples of cultural appropriation (Figure) to identify the perception of appropriation (whether the example is actually cultural appropriation), perception of harm (whether the appropriation can be harmful to the group the cultural aspect was borrowed from), perception of intent (whether the appropriation was done purposefully), and distinctiveness threat (whether the appropriation threatened cultural aspects that allow the minority group to be distinct from the majority group).

To fully identify the perception of cultural appropriation, this study was divided into five sub-studies. Studies one through three focused on the perception of appropriation, harm and intent, study four focused on manipulating distinctiveness threat, and study five focused on fully crossing the actor and race. They recruited an equal number of adults that either identified as Black or White Americans, with White Americans being considered representative of the majority group and Black Americans representative of the minority group. For studies one through three, the authors set out to answer whether Black Americans or White Americans would have higher perceptions of appropriation, harm, intent, and distinctiveness threat. They used a design where the participants would read scenarios, adopted from social media and news clips, of potential cultural appropriation. In these scenarios the perpetrator, the person doing the appropriating, could be either white or black. The participants were asked to review six possible cases of cultural appropriation (Figure). Throughout the three studies they found that Black participants perceived more cases of appropriation than White participants when the perpetrator was White. In a similar pattern, Black participants saw the scenarios as more harmful, and with intent when the perpetrator was White. When the perpetrator was Black neither White participants nor Black participants saw the scenario as appropriation. Black participants also overall felt an increased distinctiveness threat when compared to White participants. These findings supported Dr. Mosley and Dr. Biernats’ original hypothesis of cultural appropriation being more likely to be perceived when perceivers were members of the minority group.

Since in studies one through three, Black participants felt an increased distinctiveness threat, Dr. Mosley and Dr. Beirnat wanted to see whether increased distinctiveness threat in particular could alter the perception of cultural appropriation. To test this the authors primed the participants in a fourth study for increased distinctiveness threat and focused on one scenario category, “hairstyle” (Figure). They primed the participants to either have increased distinctiveness of threat by having them read, “The Disappearing Color Line in America” or normal distinctiveness of threat by having them read, “The Geography and Climate in America”. Black participants were widely unaffected by the priming with the results mimicking studies one through three, but for White participants, those that were primed for distinctiveness of threat saw the White perpetrators’ actions as cultural appropriation. These results indicated that the level of distinctiveness threat experienced increases the perception of cultural appropriation.

Figure: Detailed depiction of the study designs and categories of cultural appropriation.

Then in study five, to reassure their results, the authors paired a perpetrator with a product that was distinctly part of the participant’s culture. The previous four studies used an item/product that was outside of the perpetrator’s culture, but not necessarily an item belonging to the participant’s culture.  Here they used an item/product that was explicitly part of the participant’s culture. The perpetrator was either a White waiter serving culturally Black cuisines or a Black waiter serving culturally White cuisines. Mimicking their previous studies, they found that Black volunteers were more likely to see cultural appropriation when the waiter was White.

Overall, their study indicated that majority and minority groups perceive cultural appropriation differently, with the minority group being more sensitive to actions that can be perceived as appropriative. They also found that harm and intent correlated with appropriation leading them to the conclusion that both perceptions are part of the appropriation construct. These findings supported their initial hypothesis that power relations and social constructs affect the perception of cultural appropriation and added empirical data to a topic often spoken about but yet understudied.

While Dr. Mosley and Dr. Beirnat have added a significant amount of empirical information on how cultural appropriation is perceived, there is still more to explore. Future studies could expand on how cultural appropriation affects multiple other groups including individuals across different races, sexual orientations, genders and individuals with disabilities. 


Dr. Ashley Mosley is a Post-Doctoral Research Scientist in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. Her research focuses on social cognition, social identity and intergroup biases. More information about Dr. Mosley can be found on her website.

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