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Sunday, July 9, 2023

Perceptions of Harm and Benefit Predict Judgments of Cultural Appropriation

Mosley, A. J., Heiphetz, L., et al. (2023).
Social Psychological and Personality Science, 


What factors underlie judgments of cultural appropriation? In two studies, participants read 157 scenarios involving actors using cultural products or elements of racial/ethnic groups to which they did not belong. Participants evaluated scenarios on seven dimensions (perceived cultural appropriation, harm to the community from which the cultural object originated, racism, profit to actors, extent to which cultural objects represent a source of pride for source communities, benefits to actors, and celebration), while the type of cultural object and the out-group associated with the object being appropriated varied. Using both the scenario and the participant as the units of analysis, perceived cultural appropriation was most strongly associated with perceived greater harm to the source community. We discuss broader implications for integrating research on inequality and moral psychology. Findings also have translational implications for educators and activists interested in increasing awareness about cultural appropriation.

General Discussion

People disagree about what constitutes cultural appropriation (Garcia Navaro, 2021). Prior research has indicated that prototypical cases of cultural appropriation include dominant-group members (e.g., White people) using cultural products stemming from subordinated groups (e.g., Black people; Katzarska-Miller et al., 2020; Mosley & Biernat, 2020). Minority group members’ use of dominant-group cultural products (termed “cultural dominance” by Rogers, 2006) is less likely to receive that label. However, even in prototypical cases, considerable variability in perceptions exists across actions (Mosley & Biernat, 2020). Furthermore, some perceivers—especially highly racially identified White Americans—view Black actors’ use of White cultural products as equally or more appropriative than White actors’ use of Black cultural products (Mosley et al., 2022).

These studies build on extant work by examining how features of out-group cultural use might contribute to construals of appropriation. We created a large set of scenarios, extending beyond the case of White–Black relations to include a greater diversity of racial groups (Native American, Hispanic, and Asian cultures). In all three studies, scenario-level analyses indicated that actions perceived to cause harm to the source community were also likely to be seen as appropriative, and those actions perceived to bring benefits to actors were less likely to be seen as appropriative. The strong connection between perceived source community harm and judgments of cultural appropriation corroborates research on the importance of harm to morally relevant judgments (Gray et al., 2014; Rozin & Royzman, 2001). At the same time, scenarios perceived to benefit actors—at least among the particular set of scenarios used here—were those that elicited a lower appropriation essence. However, at the level of individual perceivers, actor benefit (along with actor profit and some other measures) positively predicted appropriation perceptions. Perceiving benefit to an actor may contribute to a sense that the action is problematic to the source community (i.e., appropriative). Our findings are akin to findings on smoking and life expectancy: At the aggregate level, countries with higher rates of cigarette consumption have longer population life expectancies, but at the individual level, the more one smokes, the lower their life expectancy (Krause & Saunders, 2010). Scenarios that bring more benefit to actors are judged less appropriative, but individuals who see actor benefit in scenarios view them as more appropriative.

In all studies, participants perceived actions as more appropriative when White actors engaged with cultural products from Black communities, rather than the reverse pattern. This provides further evidence that the prototypical perpetrator of cultural appropriation is a high-status group member (Mosley & Biernat, 2020), where high-status actors have greater power and resources to exploit, marginalize, and cause harm to low-status source communities (Rogers, 2006).

Perhaps surprisingly, perceived appropriation and perceived celebration were positively correlated. Appropriation and celebration might be conceptualized as alternative, opposing construals of the same event. But this positive correlation may attest to the ambiguity, subjectivity, and disagreement about perceiving cultural appropriation: The same action may be construed as appropriative and (not or) celebratory. However, these construals were nonetheless distinct: Appropriation was positively correlated with perceived racism and harm, but celebration was negatively correlated with these factors.