Cultural categories, culturalisation and cultural appropriation

Cultural categories

Sometimes people are assigned to a certain culture because of their country/region of origin or that of their parents or previous ancestors. When this supposed “culture” or cultural category is equated with a country or region, as often happens, this does not take into account the cultural and social diversity or heterogeneity of any country, nor the fact that “cultures” always influence each other.

What does and does not belong to a particular culture is often disputed even among those people who identify with it. In addition, people are not only shaped by the cultural, political and social diversity of their place of residence or family background, but also by the cultural, political and media influences of the colonised and globalised world.

We (with our individual personalities) adopt the cultural tools which help us to get by within the specific conditions of the environment we grow up it. Sometimes this happens consciously, sometimes unconsciously. The result is that people cannot really be assigned to only one specific culture. Rather, we all experience a variety of “transcultural” influences, for instance through the internet.

This does not mean that there are no cultural differences, or that individuals do not identify with cultural elements. But it is impossible for an individual to really determine the content of a particular culture, regardless of whether he/she feels a part of it or not. At the same time, only individuals themselves know whether and why they feel close to certain cultures and not to others.


Regardless of whether people know where a person – or his/her ancestors – comes from, cultural features, such as names, accent or dress, or non-cultural features such as physical characteristics, are often used as unnamed cues to assign people to certain cultural categories. In this case, these cultural categories (including religion) are thought of together with certain personality traits and abilities, e.g. temperament, dancing skills or diligence. This is similar to the old understanding of racism, since cultural traits are also treated as unchangeable, quasi-biological characteristics that are supposed to distinguish one group from another. In this way, “culture” is used as a more “politically correct” substitute term for “race”. This disguises or trivialises the racist content of such actions or statements (which may not even be done consciously), but the consequences for the people affected are the same as those of the racist actions or statements. This racist view of culture is called “culturalisation”.

Cultural appropriation

These days more and more people are talking about the issue of “cultural appropriation”, i.e. when people use cultural objects, traditions or practices which are not seen as coming from their “own” culture. Generally speaking, cultures have always adopted – or “appropriated” – different cultural or religious goods, traditions, customs or foods from the groups they have had contact with over time (see “cultural categories”). In other words, “cultural appropriation” has always taken place, even unconsciously. When we talk about “cultural appropriation”, however, this refers to the conscious use of cultural goods, traditions or customs that clearly do not originate from the culture, in which that person grew up – and often doing this for personal gain in reputation or money (for example, when a White German person performs rap music, sells Thai food, wears henna tattoos or dreadlocks to look “cool”).

The criticism of cultural appropriation is very diverse, and the public discussion is very controversial, but generally it brings up some important perspectives which were not discussed openly before. A common point of criticism is that these cultural assets are often used in a way that is not respectful towards people associated with this cultural sphere or that gives no or little credit to those who developed them (e.g. performing hip hop music but not knowing anything about the origin of the music and/or being discriminatory towards Black people).

Another point of criticism is the economic displacement of people from this group, meaning that even if a White actor plays a Black character in a play with seriousness and dignity (using make-up to make him/her look Black, referred to as “blackfacing”), the White actor is taking the place of a potential Black actor who could be playing the part. Since Black actors are hired much less often for plays than their White colleagues, this contributes to the marginalization of Black actors in the theatre business and for this reason, may lead to resentment among Black colleagues. There are also many examples, in which certain cultural achievements, such as soul music, only gain strong and widespread popularity and profit when a White person uses or performs them.

The reverse side of the critique may be seen as a demand: in a broader sense, it is about a respectful and non-discriminatory appreciation of cultural goods from other cultures, as well as the people who first created them or were instrumental in their creation. It is also important to understand that consumable goods may seems to some to simply be fashion (dreadlocks) or sport (yoga), but they do not exist in a political vacuum. Sometimes these very people are prohibited by authorities from using “their own” cultural goods. Respect means taking these conditions into account when deciding how to consume such cultural goods. Respect also means taking steps to act against (economic, cultural or political) discrimination against these people.

A few recent links on this:

– “Cultural appropriation in pop culture” at

– And specifically on literature: “Writing needs solidarity” by Saba-Nur Cheema in the taz:!5758624/