Ethnocentrism and Cultural Appropriation

Learning Objectives

  • Define ethnocentrism.
  • Define cultural appropriation.


Ethnocentrism is a term used in social science and anthropology that means applying one’s own culture or ethnicity as a frame of reference in order to judge other cultures, practices, behaviors, beliefs, and people, instead of using the standards of the particular culture involved. Since this judgement is often negative, some people also use the term to refer to the belief that one’s culture is superior to, or more correct or normal than, all others—especially regarding the distinctions that define each ethnicity’s cultural identity, such as language, behavior, customs, and religion. In common usage, it can also simply mean any culturally biased judgment.

Ethnocentrism can lead to stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination and often arises from a community’s understanding of how things should be—whether regarding large questions of right and wrong or everyday customs and behaviors.  For these reasons, communicating successfully with people from different cultures can be challenging. In order for intercultural communication to be successful, the communicators must keep their ethnocentrism in check and remember that they are each working within a specific frame of reference.

To Watch: Angela Zhou, “Your culture is not better than mine”

When she gave this speech, Zhou was a senior at the University of Southern California. In the speech, she talks about how studying abroad in a number of different environments gave her insight into the ethnocentrism she finds all too prevalent in the United States and throughout the world.

You can view the transcript for “Your Culture Is Not Better Than Mine | Angela Zhou | TEDxUSC” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

In the first part of the speech, Zhou does a great job of using examples from her own experience to illustrate her point: that cultural difference can lead to very different approaches to ethical choices. Rather than just rely on her subjective experience of cultural difference (which could, of course, be biased by ethnocentrism), she decided to gather data by conducting a survey about academic cheating and political correctness. In the second half of her speech, she shares the results of this survey, and uses it to make a larger argument about cultural relativism and human rights.

Cultural Appreciation and Appropriation

One of the benefits of intercultural experience is that it leads to cultural appreciation, the sincere effort to learn about and understand another culture. Learning about another culture and sharing your insights can be a great topic for a public presentation. A word of caution, however: in the eyes of your audience, there can come a point at which cultural appreciation can slide into cultural appropriation.

For example

Jessica wants to tell her class about a business trip she took a few years ago to Chennai, India. As someone who grew up in a small city in the Midwest without much exposure to Indian culture, Jessica found everything about her trip new and fascinating. To add to the impact of her presentation, she decides to wear the traditional sari that she brought back from India, as well as a bindi, a colored dot often worn on the forehead by people on the Indian subcontinent, especially by Hindus.

After she gives her presentation, one of her classmates says, “You’ve done a really nice job with this presentation, but I wish you hadn’t dressed that way. It feels like cultural appropriation.” Another classmate disagrees. “It’s not appropriation! A lot of people wear saris because they’re comfortable and they look great.” “Well,” says another classmate, “I know some people got annoyed when Kylie Jenner wore a bindi as a fashion statement.” From there, the whole class begins arguing about cultural appropriation: They talk about Pocahontas Halloween costumes, Taco Bell, dreadlocks on white people, and “Geisha Chic” highlighter—everything except Jessica’s speech.

The concept of cultural appropriation is one of the most charged and complex issues in cross-cultural exchange. Concerns about cultural appropriation arise when elements of a culture or identity—particularly a marginalized or disadvantaged group—are adopted by members of a dominant culture or identity. Cultural appropriation is extremely hard to define because it is always contextual, occurring at the intersections of power, privilege, identity, culture, and lived experience.

Someone wearing a hat with braids and a Rastafarian color-scheme at the Disney store in Orlando Florida.

A hat with braids and a Rastafarian color-scheme at the Disney store in Orlando Florida offers an example of cultural appropriation. Whose culture is being used to sell this hat? Who profits from the sale of the hat?

Legal scholar Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, offers this definition of cultural appropriation: “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.” [1]

The AORTA (Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance) group offers this list of guiding questions to help think through potential situations of cultural appropriation:


  • Does the source group or culture have a history of exploitation, slavery, or genocide? If so, there is already a social power dynamic at play regarding the use of their culture.
  • Are the people/the culture from whom this imagery, item, or custom comes benefitting? Are you buying this directly from the community? Does your participation in it benefit the community?
  • Has the source community invited you to share in this aspect of their culture? This invitation could look like you being invited/requested to dress in traditional attire for a friend’s celebration or event.


  • Is it an everyday object, or is it sacred?
  • Is it be used to make something or someone feel more sacred or meaningful?
  • What is its original meaning? Is that meaning represented here? Is it lost, demeaned, or made fun of?
  • Is the source’s significance filling a hunger (for “sacredness,” for “meaning”)? Is this facilitating or participating in “shopping” from cultures?


  • How similar is this to the original?
  • Is it portraying the original in a cartoonish or “cute” way? Is it demeaning or degrading?
  • Is it taking just a piece of an image, custom, or practice out of context?


  • Is this about commodification—that is, making a profit? Who is making a profit?
  • Are you benefitting/how are you benefitting from participating or using this piece of culture? (Are you using it to gain social power, be seen as “hip” or “cool,” or gain access to spaces or people?)[2]

To watch: Amandla Stenberg, “Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows”

In this video made for a school history class, actress Amandla Stenberg talks about the appropriation of black culture, particularly hair styles, by white celebrities. Stenberg gives a crisp and succinct definition of cultural appropriation: “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in.”

You can view the transcript for “Amandla Stenberg: Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows” here (opens in new window).


  1. Baker, Katie J.M. “A Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation.” Jezebel, 13 Nov. 2012,
  2. AORTA, 2015.