The Debate Behind Cultural Appropriation

Recently Ateez, a Kpop band, released a new album, ZERO: FEVER. For this new album, they created a poll for their fans to choose the title track of it. Two songs were the nominees: Thanxx and Inception. In the music video trailers of Thanxx, the lead singer of the band wears cornrows, a hairstyle that is generally associated with African Americans. This sparked a heated debate on Twitter about cultural appropriation, the firm eventually officially apologized for using cornrows in the music video. This whole event got me thinking about the extent of calling something cultural appropriation, and what it is. 

by Didem ÖZÇAKIR

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Cultural appropriation, also used as cultural misappropriation, in its broadest terms occurs when someone adopts an element from a culture that is not their own. When westerns practice Yoga or wear a different type of hairstyle and clothing this is considered as cultural appropriation. 

Why is borrowing from another culture by itself a problematic thing? I believe what creates the problem here is not the act of borrowing itself, but it is the way we use the elements from another culture. I also think that we should not disregard that it is hypocrisy to say something looks unprofessional or barbarian when it is used by the members of an oppressed culture while you regard the same element as cool and original when it is used by a member of the dominant culture. To simplify it, it is hypocrisy when cornrows are considered unprofessional when they are worn by black people, but cool when they are worn by white people. However, the solution to this is not to say “using cornrows if you are not black is being disrespectful”. Instead of demonizing the usage of cornrows by white people, we should focus on eliminating the “dominant” culture relationship between the two groups. If everybody gets the same response for using the same cultural element, the problem would be solved.


The way we use elements from another culture is also very important. For example, when you wear a sacred hat that has a very big spiritual importance in Indian culture for a Halloween Party, this means you are disregarding the importance of that hat for a specific culture and making it a simple accessory.

This is far from being respectful to the culture and understanding the meaning behind it. This can even be regarded as mockery. If you do not know how to Hula dance but still try to imitate them by having coconuts as your bra and doing some random movements, this also means that you are not understanding the meaning and importance of a different culture.


Karlie Kloss’s outfit from Victoria’s Secret was accused of cultural appropriation as they were trying to create a “sexy Indian” image. This is by no means respectful to the origins of the Indian culture and how the elements are supposed to be used.

Some people also say the sole existence of a dominant-oppressed cultural relationship between the two groups is enough for something to be a problematic cultural appropriation case. They argue that after centuries of systematic oppression, the dominant culture can not adopt the same elements that they have been trying to oppress. I am not sure if this kind of a point of view leaves any place for any kind of improvement between two cultures as it presumes what has happened in history can never be changed.

It is very important to realize that there is a difference between cultural exchange and cultural misappropriation. Some people are very prone to start objecting to the first moment that they see a cultural element in the hands of a person who was not born in that culture. There was the case of an African American girl who learned Irish dance and professionalized in it. Her videos went viral and she was accused of cultural appropriation. For this to be considered a problematic cultural appropriation case we should also be ready to object to every single person who has a passion for Latin dance or who like hip hop.

Cultural exchange is not just inevitable, but it is also positive. We create different ways of living, different art forms, and different artistic expressions by benefiting from other cultures. To give credit to the culture that you are benefiting from and use their elements in the way that they were intended to be used are very important points for this positive relationship to thrive. I guess we should not regard eating Sushi, pizzas, or burgers in Turkey as cultural theft. Rather, it enriches our everyday lives and permits the creation of a whole different culture in an era of globalization.

Going back to our first example, the Kpop band and the cornrows, I want to question if this should be considered as a problematic cultural appropriation or not. The first thing is that there is no “dominant culture” relationship between Korean culture and African Americans. To say that Korea systematically oppressed black culture would be to disregard history. Besides, it is questionable if the way that the lead singer wears cornrows is by itself offensive or humiliating for the black culture. Still, we can say that it is hypocritical to use cornrows in a commercial music video to make money while cornrows are still not considered professional and cool when they are worn by black people. 

 Netta, the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest 2018, from Israel was also accused of cultural appropriation as she was using elements from Japanese culture in the scene. Her song was not directly involved with Japanese culture. Still, I want to leave it to you to decide whether this was problematic or not.


Cultural appropriation is a very fragile topic. It is not a wise thing to dictate to people what they have a right for getting offended too. If someone is feeling offended, we should look at the situation from a critical point of view. The scope of accusations should still be open to questioning so that we do not mix cultural exchange with humiliating cultural misappropriation and say borrowing elements from another culture by itself is problematic. I believe the way cultural elements are used is the determining factor in this debate.