All the examples of cultural appropriation I see involve taking some element out of wider culture, and implementing it in their own.

If subcultures are a subset of elements from within a larger culture, and those elements are adopted by others who do not identify as part of that subculture, can this be called cultural appropriation? Does 'sub-cultural appropriation' even make sense as a term?

I ask as I am trying to understand the phenomena involved in a specific subculture feeling their ideas or identity as being 'diluted', 'abused' or turned in to 'memes' to the point of feeling there is no longer a solid identity to form a community.

  • 4
    Frankly it sounds a little more like you’re describing an attitude sometimes called “gatekeeping” — maybe you could unpack a little further what you’re looking for in an answer?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 3:26
  • From what point is a culture "sub" ? For example, african-american slang is a common example of appropriation, but, depending on viewpoints, this culture could be conceptualized as a sub culture of the broader "american culture", itself part of the "western culture", and so on. Cultures are fuzzy stuff with no clear delimitation or hierarchy.
    – armand
    Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 3:28

2 Answers 2


Yes, a subculture can be appropriated. For example, hip-hop culture is a music based subculture . While primarily consists of black persons, a white person,Hispanic, whomever- can still belong to that subculture if they truly listen to hip-hop music. But if they don’t, but wear the hip hop fashions, then I would call it subcultural appropriation 🤷🏻‍♀️

I am seeing/experiencing a lot of this myself within the gothic subculture (particularly among younger people), another music-based subculture. People dressing gothic and hashtagging themselves as a goth/gothic yet have no idea how the subculture came about in the 1980’s. So yes, it does feel like the subculture which I identify within is being devalued, romanticized, and fetishized.

  • I'm not going to downvote, but it presumes that you have a right to impose restriction on others' behavior to protect you from FEELING devalued, romanticized, and fetished. How do you derive the right to prevent others from mimicking you in a way you don't like? How do you justify depriving them of their right to pursue happiness in how they seem fit especially since they are neither physically harming you nor depriving you of your property?
    – J D
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 16:25
  • i don't think anyone is depriving anyone of anything, rights or otherwise @JD idgi
    – user67675
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 17:18
  • "How do you derive the right to prevent others from mimicking you" This is very like how people portray recieving public criticism as being 'cancelled'. People have the right to dress however, & members of the actual subculture have the right to respond: knowyourmeme.com/photos/801979-captioned-stock-photos The critique of this is captured by knowyourmeme.com/memes/oh-you-love-x-name-every-y where metallers in particular are known for aggressive gatekeeping. High street fashion stores sell metal tshirts, anyone can wear them, & metal heads can & will pour scorn on them.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 17:36
  • @CriglCragl Being canceled extends from a range of reasonable measures, such as withholding dollars or refusing to air speech, to unreasonable measures, like using slander and libel to silence. The question of morality must be partially derived from the question of rights, for to transgress the rights of others in response to none of your own rights being violated would seem to be a case of unreasonable immorality. There is no right to constrain others from mimicking you in speech or behavior in the general case.
    – J D
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 18:11
  • 1
    @CriglCragl Thanks. I've started a thread to put together a reading list to plumb the depths of the language, and yes, being a marginalized person doesn't free one of the ethical justification of shaming and canceling others. No one gets a free card to shame someone else without a basis, though shame is a rather feeble and ineffective way of orchestrating peace and justice.
    – J D
    Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 17:51

It depends on your metaphysical presumption about what constitutes theft. That is some people say will say yes, and others will say no. A wise person recognizes there is no way to determine which is right or wrong without making a value decision.

Let's start with the definition of appropriate. From Google:

take (something) for one's own use, typically without the owner's permission:

So, the question you ask is really does one group of people have the right to behave in a way another group of people behaves without their permission.

I would suggest that in a free and democratic society, the answer is broadly no, unless a specific harm can be demonstrated. In the US, for instance, rights are enumerated in a Bill of Rights adjacent to the US Constitution that guarantee people free speech. That's not unqualified, but that means if one group begins to talk one way, the second group has a right to mimic their speech regardless how the first group feels about it. If their speech is symbolic, then the second group's actions are also protected. If the first group wants to assemble, the second group can also assemble. If the first group publishes ideas, the second group can publish the same ideas, albeit in a different way. If the first group forms a religion, the second group has a right to use the ideas and form a similar religion. What's the common currency? Maximizing freedoms without harming.

That brings us to the question of whether or not one group can consider their uncomfortable feelings harm. According to the article, harm consists of:

pain, death, disability, mortality, loss of ability or freedom, and loss of pleasure.

For the most part, mimicking others causes little way in harm, though certain exceptions might decided.

  • You cannot ape someone in a way consist with assault and battery.
  • You cannot mimick someone if it violates their copyright or harms their protected status.
  • You cannot literally impersonate them and steal their identity.

These, exceptions, are difficult to show as harmful at the cultural level. The best examples of these damages might be money to be made from speech or behavior at the expense of others. Many famous bluesmen who were black and second-class citizens in the US before the Civil Rights Era, for instance, made little money, though the art form of blues and eventually rock, made many white men wealthy.

But what harm is had by dressing like another culture? Speaking like another culture? Organizing like another culture? Should a poor country who begins to use cell phones be considered appropriating the culture of a rich country because the rich country invented the phones? Should a colony be forced not to speak English as a second language because they are attempting to improve their relationship with their colonizer, England?

Thus the whole notion of cultural appropriation is hard to define, and often is contingent upon one groups "feelings" and "emotions", which is notoriously non-objective. In this way, it becomes easy for a small minority of people to impose a tyranny on others by simply labeling anything they perceive as imitation and don't like cultural appropriation. From the article:

John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University, criticized the concept in 2014, arguing that cultural borrowing and cross-fertilization is a generally positive thing and is something which is usually done out of admiration, and with no intent to harm the cultures being imitated; he also argued that the specific term "appropriation", which can mean theft, is misleading when applied to something like culture that is not seen by all as a limited resource.

The question, therefore, is is cultural appropriation really a form of theft, or is it merely a regular and positive occurrence of imitation. And this is contingent upon your notions of theft.

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