What Can Google Searches Tell Us About Cultural Appropriation?

29 August 2019

Country: Global

by: Anna Lekas Miller

CulturalAppropriationIt is starting to feel like there is always a cultural appropriation scandal in the news. Just this week, Kim Kardashian was pressured to change the name of her most recent clothing line, whose original name contained the word “kimono” and a group of Jewish actors called out a production of Falsettos for not including a single Jewish cast or creative team member.

However, now that conversation might be taken one step further—Mexico is proposing a law that could take cultural appropriators to court for plagiarism.

By definition, cultural appropriation is borrowing elements of a culture that is not one’s own. The act of appropriation—whether it is in its original definition as property, or something less tangible like culture—has a negative connotation; it implies taking something without permission.

Many of the most outrageous examples of cultural appropriation unmistakably resemble cultural theft, but others are murkier. Disciplines like music, fashion and the arts have long-existed in a space of cultural exchange, influence and inspiration. Could this narrative on cultural appropriation—especially if accompanied with new legislation—curb creativity?

If that is the case, where is the line between appreciation and appropriation, and how can the media do a better job at helping people understand how to ensure that one doesn’t become the other?


As tempting as it is to join the social media fray, I decided to take a look at the data—Google’s data, to be exact, about who is interested in “cultural appropriation” and whether or not search queries could tell us anything about who was searching, and what piqued their curiosity.

My first discovery was not particularly surprising. The vast majority searches for “cultural appropriation” are in English, with the majority coming from the United States. Searches peaked in the days before and after Halloween, likely due to stories of culturally insensitive costumes, or Day of the Dead celebrations.


However, my next discovery showed that the second most common language was Portuguese—and the searches were coming from Brazil (Blue is English language searches, Red is Portugeuse searches). It does not seem like a coincidence that, according to data from the World Population Review, the United States and Brazil are also the two most racially diverse countries in the world. However, while both countries often celebrate their multicultural heritages, they are diverse largely due to a fraught history with the African slave trade, whose legacy lives in on racism and discrimination of Black communities in both places.

Could it be that cultural appropriation is only a concept when different cultures collide?

Many of the key conversations on cultural appropriation in both Brazil and the United States reflect these histories and sociopolitical dynamics. In the United States, many complaints of cultural appropriation revolve around white performers taking aspects of Black culture at random—from Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs to Katy Perry sporting cornrows—without crediting Black artists. While white women are celebrated for wearing these styles, Black women have been denied employment and criminalized for their hairstyles, making it a source of discrimination and racism.

Actress and singer-songwriter Amandla Stenberg said it best in her viral video, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” where she called out popular music artists for imitating and profiting off of aspects of Black artists’ musical and aesthetic style—but not condemning police violence or the senseless killings of young Black men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.

In Brazil, a similar narrative has captured social media. Like Black Americans who wear their hair in twists, dreadlocks and braids, many Afro Brazilians frequently wear turbantesheadwraps that their ancestors used to wear during the time of slavery. Like other Black hairstyles, the turbante has been appropriated as a fashion item, often flattened with the justification that it is a Brazilian garment as opposed to a garment rooted in a very specific history of a Brazilian minority.

“Wearing a headwrap is a form of belonging. It is joining with another member of the diaspora who also wears in a head wrap and, without needing to say anything, know that he or she knows that you know that the head wraps on our heads cost and continue to cost our lives,” as Brazilian writer Ana Marcia Gonçalves writes in the Intercept.

“The head wrap we wear is not the same as yours. What for you is the simple desire to be cool, to project yourself as a free being without prejudice, for us is a place of connection. Connection among us and also with something that we lost, not always knowing exactly what it is or where it was left behind.”

But cultural appropriation is not always black and white, colonizer and colonized. Recently, VICE’s Broadly channel profiled Hollei Day, a Chinese-American rapper who is inspired by the (predominantly Black) Detroit rap scene, where she grew up. Both the New York Times and Refinery29 have profiled the growing Chicano sub culture in Japan—where Japanese youth mimic Mexican-American chola makeup styles, rap in Spanish and drive around in low riders.

“It is absolutely cultural appropriation,” Denise Sandoval, a professor of Chicana & Chicano Studies at California State University Northridge said in the Refinery29 video, referring to the Japanese women adopting Chicana fashion, without knowledge of what it is actually like to live among gangs on the streets of Los Angeles.

“But there is something in Japanese culture that they’re not connecting with,” she continues. “That’s what is fascinating—they’re finding liberation and freedom in other cultures.”

What is more, some of these analyses are not necessarily negative. The same reporter who interviewed Japanese chicanas wrote about a Nigerian fashion editor who admired the cultural appropriation on display at a runway show in Lagos. Black rap fans in Hollei Day’s video complimented her, calling her music “relatable” and for every accusation of cultural appropriation, sometimes it seems like an equal number of responders are saying that imitation is the highest form of flattery.

I have followed debates about cultural appropriation since my university days—and even participated in a few impassioned defenses of why hummus should not be labeled as Israeli, and how urban outfitter’s marketing of a Palestinian kaffiyeh scarf erases its history as a symbol of resistance. I can relate to this article about feeling uncomfortable with (mostly) white yoga teachers reciting “prayers” in Sanskrit and can understand why standard British music festival attire might trigger people from a variety of different cultures to feel like they’re being exploited.

But it wasn’t until researching this article that I learned about stories like the history of the Japanese kimono as a sacred garment, the powerful history of the Hawaiian hula dance as a form of oral tradition and resistance, or the multilayered AfroBrazilian history wearing the turbante headwrap.

I’m sure that I have only just begun learning about the sacred and significant symbols and practices that western commercialism has commodified. But amongst all of the noise about cultural appropriation, I rarely see these questions answered, explored or even posed in the first place. I’d like to see that change. More people are on the move than ever before, and cultural exchange is here to stay. We need to listen to the people who feel upset, exploited and marginalized by cultural appropriation, but most importantly, we need to do a better job at educating people on how to avoid it in the first place.

Instead of rehashing a tired debate over whether or not Kim Kardashian should change the name of her clothing line or Katy Perry should be allowed to wear cornrows, perhaps it is time to take the conversation further to investigate the source of this pain and use our positions as editors and platforms as journalists to dig into the fascinating histories of culturally meaningful items and practices.

If we do it right, we can share more knowledge, create less pain, and move the conversation forward.