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Cultural Appropriation: Is it okay to appropriate an item valuable to another culture?

By Ruth Dunn on June 26th 2013

Photographer Sanaa Hamid is sparking conversation with her new series ‘Cultural Appropriation: A Conversation’, which explores the way people take items from other cultures and use them for their own purpose. Rather than taking sides on the question of whether this is acceptable or not, Hamid takes a neutral stance and presents the idea of cultural appropriation for discussion.

Hamid’s photography project is a long term exploration that focuses on culturally appropriated items such as bindis, keffiyehs, turbans and crosses. As the daughter of Pakistani immigrants living in the U.K., the 21 year old photographer is constantly aware of the culturally appropriated objects that surround us.

She told Daily News:

“Where to begin? Dreadlocks, traditional African prints, images of Hindu gods, Native American accessories, henna, Arabic scripture, tikka headpieces, the list is literally endless.”



Hamid photographs volunteers who offer their thoughts on what particular items mean to them. She offers opinions from those who have a spiritual, emotional or cultural connection to a particular cultural object, as well as those who wear these items as fashionable pieces.

For Hamid, the way people and clothing brands use culturally significant items as fashionable trends without understanding where these items come from seems wrong. By creating a photography project that focuses on this topic she seeks to create an ongoing discussion where a variety of perspectives, opinions and voices are heard.

If you’d like to be photographed to give your point of view, you can email Hamid at

What do you think about cultural items being appropriated? Leave a comment below!


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Ruth is a Brisbane based journalist specialising in articles about visual art, photography, design and fashion. Co-founder of Raw Ink magazine, she enjoys uncovering interesting and unique events, issues and people to write about.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Victoria Rose

    I’ve been researching quite a lot lately into the subject of cultural appropriation after getting into a few debates online concerning whether pictures of white people in Native American style headdresses are racist and offensive (and I use the term ‘Native American style’ to acknowledge that these headdresses self admittedly don’t claim to be the genuine article in the first place!). This is basically what I think about the issue of cultural appropriation and why I don’t think it is offensive. In fact, I believe it necessary. Cultural appropriation has allowed us to evolve as a species! It needs to exist. Most of our modern technology has been developed by different cultures ‘borrowing’ from each other. If we never appropriated we would never progress (oral folk traditions and literary fairy tales have pretty much evolved in the same way). It really annoys me when people get called ignorant and racist for taking inspiration from fashions and styles that have originated from other parts of the world. This might sound harsh but I believe that no individual, minority or any social group for that matter (even if they have been marginalized in the past) have the right to dictate to another individual or group what they can/cannot wear no matter whether it is sacred to them or what significance it has. What is important or sacred to one person, won’t be to another. People have the right to wear what they want, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are insulting a culture or claiming to be authentic by wearing something resembling the style of that culture. We need to learn to stop being offended so easily! So what if H&M or Urban Outfitters sell tacky headdresses with feathers in them?It’s not like those gaudy head dresses are a real threat to the symbolism of a real tribal head dress any more than wearing a paper crown makes one the queen/king. Most people with a brain in their head would know that it wasn’t a true representation of Native American peoples and it’s up to them whether they buy into it or not. Cultures exist in the hearts and minds of their people. I don’t see why they have to be threatened by ‘outsiders’ appropriating it, and by that I don’t just mean white people exacting their privilege! Culture is a construct of societies which often allows us to forget that we are all just human. We are all the same in the end

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  3. David

    I grew up in Tokyo, Japan with an American-born Chinese father and a Caucasian mother. I am also a Korean adoptee while my brother is my adoptive parents biological son. Growing up, I saw many instances of cultural appropriation and a vast majority of the time it was done out of pure ignorance and devoid of any intentional malice. Each time, the individual appropriating something would not even think there was any sort of cultural significance attached to the object and I think Americans tend to be guilty of this more often than other nationalities. To those that think there is nothing wrong with this, I would ask them this: if they would consider walking around a Jewish neighborhood in New York sporting a modified yarmulke or a hat and hair curls similar to ultra orthodox Jews for the sake of being fashionable? Would they be comfortable wearing any of their appropriated items around people whose culture it came from and then have to explain why they chose to wear it?

    Bottom line is unless you have a personal connection a particular culture that is no originally your own or have no knowledge on it other than what an item looks like, there is no reason to adopt it at all.

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