Is Cultural Appropriation Real?

By Lee Collins •  Updated: 09/11/22 •  6 min read
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“Cultural appropriation”.

We have been taught that something as innocent as a child wearing a Pocahontas outfit on Halloween is a form of cultural appropriation.

As a human AND a marketer, this is something to keep in my awareness.

Something happened recently to bring this into focus for me and urge me to give it some deeper thought.

We were out to dinner with friends.

Another couple.
Both younger than us.
A male and female.
Both white.

Dinner was at a Japanese hibachi place in town.

I LOVE hibachi grills. Always have.

If you have never been and I find out, it will be the next place we go.

I love them so much that way back when I had a network contracting gig in Richmond, VA I would commute from Charlotte, NC to Richmond, VA every week just to eat there. Every Friday when I came home we would go to the Japanese steak house down the street. If you want to win favor with me, take me to hibachi.

And, before you say it, I know it’s not traditional Japanese but it’s still delicious so stick with me here…

When the female part of the couple mentioned bowing to show thanks to the host, I knew it was as a sign of courtesy and respect and I commented as such.

She glowed.

Her boyfriend had other thoughts.

To him it was disrespectful and cultural appropriation. “Let them have that”, he scolded, “they don’t have much left. We don’t need to take that from them, too”.

She retreated into a shell.

I re-iterated to her that, from my own observations and experience, it’s actually seen as a sign of respect and appealed I had never seen it taken as discourteous or disrespectful.

My thoughts were met with “I have a lot of black friends too” muttered under his breath.

I heard it. And I didn’t reply.

Dinner became a bit more awkward after that.

What I did do afterward is give it a lot of thought and I even looked up “appropriation” and “cultural appropriation” just to clarify my own thinking. I’m open to being wrong and try to be as self-aware and self-correcting as possible.

What I found was appropriation is defined as: the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.

To me, assigning yourself as the spokesperson of any genre of people or person, whether on a large or small scale, and acting as if they don’t have their own voice to speak, and deciding for them what is right, wrong, good or bad is the ultimate act of appropriation.

In doing so, you are literally taking away their voice. (Or “appropriating” it, by speaking on their behalf when your input was neither requested nor required.)

Had we asked the host, do you think he would have been offended or thought in any way her bowing was disrespectful or a form of cultural appropriation?

Doubtful. Highly doubtful.

From all my travels around the world I have never seen anyone respond negatively to another person showing honor, courtesy, or respect to these kinds of aspects of their culture. I have seen some folks corrected for improper gestures or usages, but the effort is usually still openly appreciated.

But, to many people in today’s world, cultural appropriation occurs when a person from one culture adopts the fashion, iconography, trends or styles from a culture that – through their lens – is not their own. The Oxford Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc”.

I call BS.

Here’s why…

The United States, and every place in the world today I have ever visited or can think of, are all some level of melting pot of cultures, beliefs, perspectives, and identities – most so mixed and interwoven together that one would have to go back centuries to realize that the thing you say Group A appropriated (or misappropriated) from Group B didn’t originally belong to either of them in the first place.

Is this really the kind of world we want to live in?

Or do we instead honor each other by sharing in our differences AND our likenesses?

As an example…

My lineage comes from these countries and peoples: Belgium, France, Germany, Isle of Man, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Switzerland, Iceland, Wales, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Scotland, Spain, France, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, Russia, Slovenia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Seychelles, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe – and that was before we came to the new world and became simply “Americans”.

Your lineage is probably just as diverse.

Does this mean that I am only allowed to have cultural aspects from the above-named countries and any adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, fashion, iconography, trends or styles not explicitly from the United States or the list of countries above is cultural appropriation?

Is my playing of the Native American flute cultural appropriation when my ancestors lived with the Cherokee for decades? Was my daughter wearing a feather in her hair or dressing as Pocahontas a form of cultural appropriation because we have a Cherokee lineage and not Powhatan, or is it OK because both were Native American peoples? Do I have to notify you of all this to be sure you understand my family’s history beforehand?

Of course not. That would be ridiculous.

But, because of my skin color and appearance, some would argue that both are examples of cultural appropriation and would vilify me as such.

Now, is there blatant misappropriation in places by some people to create unjust advantages for themselves? Yes, of course.

But, as a whole, we are all more alike than some would have us believe.

We are all one people, a humanity with a vast array of gifts to share.

One day, I hope we can all figure this out.

As the world attempts to become a more complicated place, let us remember to keep things simple by seeking unity, not division.

Much love.


Lee Collins

Lee Collins is a former Air Force Network Systems Engineer and Fortune 500 Corporate VP - who is best known as an early pioneer of Direct Response Marketing on the Internet. He has over 24+ years experience running operations for multiple multi-million dollar marketing, software, SEO, financial, and business coaching companies. When Lee isn't helping his private clients solve big (and small) marketing and operations problems, Lee is most likely heading up into the mountains in his fully-equipped Jeep Gladiator. Or just gone fishing.