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Gordon C. Nagayama Hall, Ph.D.
Gordon C. Nagayama Hall, Ph.D.

Cultural Identity Theft

Finders keepers?

Your credit card company contacts you about some unusual transactions on your account. You realize that these transactions are not yours. You are a victim of identity theft.

You contact your credit card company to tell them that the transactions are not yours. Your credit card company suspends the account. It does not charge these transactions to your account.

But what if your credit card company replied, “finders’ keepers”? The thief was clever enough to hack your account, so the company lets them use it. This is what happens in cultural appropriation—the adoption and misuse of another culture’s practices. Someone takes something from your culture and uses it for their own benefit. And there are no consequences.

A prominent example of cultural appropriation involves Native Americans. Native Americans are often used as mascots for sports teams. These include Chiefs, Braves, Redskins, and Indians. Native Americans are placed on par with other sports team mascot animals, such as lions, tigers, and bears. In most cases, Native Americans did not give permission for the use of these mascots. And they are not profiting from non-Natives’ use of these mascots. This is cultural identity theft.

Similar to a nonresponsive credit card company, protests against Native American mascots often have been met with no response. However, not all Native Americans find these mascots to be offensive.

Proponents of these mascots argue that they are harmless. Or even that they honor Native Americans. Psychological science suggests otherwise. Native American high school students who were shown the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo mascot reported lower self-esteem than those who were asked to describe themselves and their community. Chief Wahoo is a red-faced caricature with a grin and red feather.

Even seemingly positive media portrayals of Native Americans may be harmful. Pocahontas was the heroine in the Disney movie. Yet, seeing a picture of Disney’s Pocahontas was like seeing Chief Wahoo. Native high school students’ self-esteem decreased. Perhaps this was because the Disney story of a young woman with an idealized White figure who had an affair with John Smith was inaccurate. The actual historical person was named Matoaka and was only about 10 years old.

There are many other examples of cultural appropriation. White musicians perform music genres developed by African Americans. White actors portray people of color in movies. White chefs steal food ideas from other cultures. And there are no consequences.

Before you dismiss these examples as harmless, think of what it is like to be a victim of identity theft. And think of the possibility that one’s cultural identity can also be stolen.


Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., Oyserman, D., & Stone, J. M. (2008). Of warrior chiefs and Indian princesses: The psychological consequences of American Indian mascots. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 30, 208-218. doi: 10.1080/01973530802375003

About the Author
Gordon C. Nagayama Hall, Ph.D.

Gordon C. Nagayama Hall, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon with a focus in culture and mental health.

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