Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.
But that’s only the most basic definition.
A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.
That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic.
It’s also not the same as assimilation, when marginalized people adopt elements of the dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t.
For many people, barriers like classism, racism, and xenophobia mean they don’t have the right look, language, or position of privilege to earn income with their culturally specific tools – and yet oftentimes, white people can turn those same culturally specific tools into profit, thereby hurting the community they’re borrowing from.