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Appropriation vs Assimilation


by Juana Garcia




Understanding Assimilation

Many, many times, I’ve seen discussions on cultural appropriation as they relate to the belly dance community. Several points come up that need unpacking.

One of those is that people from “other cultures” are “appropriating white culture” because they straighten their hair, wear jeans, or otherwise imitate the dominant culture.

When we talk about cultural appropriation, I want you to understand something.

When people migrate to the United States, they are already an "other," painted a "danger." Because of this, they have to assimilate to "fit in" so they won't freak you out and endanger themselves because of the fear people have of them. (Whether subtle or overt, this is xenophobia.)

When people from other countries who migrate to the United States wear your blue jeans and tuxedos, straighten their hair, stop wearing the fashion items that are part of their own culture, and otherwise leave behind any trace of a “foreign identity,” it is assimilation, not appropriation.

Why is it assimilation? Assimilation is done for survival, because we are systematically made to believe we must be “as white as possible" to have our humanity recognized, something most white people are automatically given and often take for granted.

Assimilation is not equal to appropriation because of the power differential inherently present. Saying people from other cultures can “appropriate” white culture is presenting a false equivalence.

When you continue to portray the "foreigner" as "dangerous and a threat to our way of life," yet take the clothes and hairstyles and everything else of that culture and claim it as "yours" while at the same time saying to that "foreigner" they are not allowed to claim their own identity, that is appropriation.

Juana Garcia

I cringe when I read comment after comment that specifically says, “They should assimilate!” in regards to immigrants, because, in my experience, assimilation is painful. What we really need is integration.

I am speaking more about a system rather than individual actions, though individual actions and words do contribute to the sort of slow and painful soul death the “foreigner” has to endure upon arrival to the U.S.

In previous discussions, I’ve mentioned that cultural appropriation is a “branch” of the “racism tree,” and I would encourage readers to think of this idea as a smaller part of a bigger system in which the “other” is painted as a “danger,” a “thug,” “exotic,” or any number of words that portray someone who is white or white-passing as “just a human” and someone who is non-white as “other.”

Rather than look upon these discussions as “rules for who can and can’t do what,” I would encourage readers to view cultural appropriation as a complicated, multi-layered topic, because it is part of a centuries-old systemic problem. Racism is deeply-embedded in the fabric of the United States, as a whole. Cultural appropriation discussions merely scratch the surface, and once we look beyond the surface ideas most people seem to not be able to move beyond in these discussions, we can really start looking more deeply at the centuries of trauma endured by “foreigners” in the United States because of racism.

Whether or not you see it right now, there is a power differential here that needs to be acknowledged and dismantled.

Juana Garcia



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About the Author

Juana is a writer based in the United States. She is passionate about social justice issues and her writing explores race/identity, rape culture, mental health, and healing from trauma. She is currently at work on a memoir of her experience with growing up undocumented in the United States entitled First-Generation, and she is also working on a Dystopian novel about one woman's search for peace and healing among chaos entitled, Chameleon.

You can find more of Juana's work and connect with her as follows:

Web Site:




Juana Garcia  



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