Cubist-style painting. Five women stand or sit in front of a background of stylised draperies. A fruit bowl sits at the bottom center of the painting. Each figure is depicted in a stylised, angular manner with disjointed limbs. The overall effect is slightly menacing, but with a light pastel colour palette.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Pablo Picasso. The faces of the two women on the right were inspired by African tribal masks.

Content warning for descriptions of racism.

Cultural appropriation, a term that originated in late twentieth century postcolonial studies, has gotten more and more popular attention in recent years and is often misunderstood. It its core, it describes a process through which members of a culture or identity adopt elements of another culture or identity. While it’s a neutral term that simply describes a phenomenon or behaviour, it is often considered harmful when members of a culture takes on aspects of a culture that has been oppressed by that group.

In these cases, the people who appropriate may get cultural or economic capital – such as admiration, money, or artistic inspiration – from it, while the appropriated culture gets mistreated for doing the exact same thing. A common example is the appropriation of black hairstyles by white people. Cultural appropriation may therefore lead to cultures being exploited, misrepresented and erased.

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