Cultural appropriation has been going on for a long time. From the Beach Boys stealing Chuck Berry’s melodies to sports teams using Native American mascots, humans have been swiping things that don’t belong to them for ages. The thing is, it’s totally fine to swap, mix, and merge cultures — as long as you credit your source. This is known as cultural appreciation. However, if you take something and pass it off as your own just for temporary benefits, that’s cultural appropriation. Check out our list of celebrities who have been accused of cultural appropriation.
Gwen Stefani’s Insensitive Aesthetics
Some celebrities on this list are one-time offenders, while others have built their entire careers around cultural appropriation. Gwen Stefani regularly wore a bindi when she was in No Doubt, and she has also posed in Native American attire.
However, the most obvious example of Stefani’s cultural poaching is her Harajuku girls and fashion line. For a period in the mid-2000s, the artist had four Japanese backup dancers that posed with her. The thing is, Asian culture isn’t a prop.
Emma Stone in Aloha
Cultural appropriation can happen in lots of contexts, including in TV shows and movies. Absurdly, Arizona-born Emma Stone was cast to play Allison Ng — a part Chinese, part Hawaiian character — in 2015’s Aloha. Understandably, this led to quite a bit of controversy, especially because Asian actresses do exist.
Eventually, director Cameron Crowe apologized and explained that the character was written to not look like her background. Emma Stone also apologized and said that the incident taught her about whitewashing in Hollywood.
Pharrell Williams’s Holi Collection
When it comes to cultural appropriation, many people become annoyed that their culture is being used as currency. In other words, someone from a different culture will play around with aspects of theirs just to seem cool, edgy, or different. Then, they’ll discard it.
Pharrell Williams did just that with his 2018 Hu Holi Powder Dye Collection with Adidas. The artist appropriated the Indian Holi Festival just so he could sell shoes, which is rather insensitive. Oh, and he posed in a war bonnet.
Kylie Jenner’s Beauty Choices
Where do we begin with the culturally appropriative crimes of Ms. Kylie Jenner? Well, some would argue that the reality star built her makeup empire on the styles and aesthetics of black women, starting with her artificially enlarged lips.
Aside from that, Kylie Jenner has repeatedly stepped out in protective hairstyles, despite being white. From durags to cornrows to locs, where there’s culture to appropriate, Kylie will be there. Plus, when she was called out for these blond twists, she said she was inspired by Gwen Stefani.
Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange
For the 2016 movie Doctor Strange, writer C. Robert Cargill tried so hard to avoid Asian stereotypes that he just cast a white actress instead. The writer wanted to avoid the Fu Manchu, Dragon Lady, or submissive young woman stereotypes, so instead wrote the part of the Ancient One specifically for Scottish actress Tilda Swinton.
The character in the comics is a Tibetan man, which is also why Cargill side-stepped casting an Asian actor. Apparently, he didn’t want to get involved with Tibetan politics.
Michelle Williams’s Native-Inspired Shoot
Native Americans are among the most marginalized groups in America. Because of this, it’s extra disrespectful to dress up as a Native American, as though their culture is a costume. Unfortunately, this happens a lot in fashion shoots because foolish fashion people mistake Native American identity with being “exotic” or “spiritual.”
In 2013, American actress Michelle Williams dressed in a braided wig and turkey feathers for a shoot in AnOther magazine. She was called out for redface — dressing as a stereotypical Native American.
Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell
You’d think that Hollywood would have learned their lesson when Emma Stone was cast as a part Asian character in 2015’s Aloha, but clearly not. In 2017, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Scarlett Johansson was cast as the lead character in manga adaptation Ghost in the Shell.
Considering the movie is based on a Japanese manga, it makes sense to assume the character would be Asian. Things got worse when it was leaked that the filmmakers had been experimenting with CGI and effects to make Johansson appear Asian.
Katy Perry’s Ongoing Appropriation
Here’s another repeat offender when it comes to cultural appropriation. California girl Katy Perry was accused of yellowface when she performed at the 2013 American Music Awards dressed as a geisha. The performance included bowing, and a Western interpretation of “Asian” culture.
On top of that, she uses Egyptian imagery in her “Dark Horse” video, and really embraces racial stereotypes in the “This Is How We Do” video. Perry is seen chomping on watermelon with her hair styled in cornrows.
Ariana Grande’s Blackfishing
Pint-sized pop star Ariana Grande has been accused of appropriating Japanese culture, and blackfishing. The star is a fan of Japan, and has used Japanese symbols on her merch. When Grande got her song title “7 Rings” tattooed on her hand, she accidentally got “BBQ Grill” instead.
In general, the Italian-American has been accused of darkening her skin and passing herself off as African-American. More specifically, Grande was accused of copying rappers 2 Chainz, Soulja Boy, and Princess Nokia in “7 Rings.”
Adele’s Bantu Knots
Generally, English singer Adele is considered a cultural appreciator. The artist has spoken about her love for African American singers Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald, and has called Beyoncé “the artist of my life.” However, even Adele can get it wrong, like she did in 2020.
The singer posted pictures of herself wearing a Jamaican flag bikini and her hair styled in bantu knots. This outfit was for the Notting Hill Carnival, a multi-cultural event. However, that doesn’t excuse this misstep.
Miley Cyrus’ Twerking
It’s possible that Miley Cyrus really reignited the cultural appropriation debate when she strutted on stage to twerk with Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMA Awards. The former Disney kid is a great example of cultural appropriation because she played with African American aesthetics and then just tossed them away for her next album.
Miley was all about “ratchet” dancing, grills, and dreadlocks, despite the collective groans of the African American community. At this time, she regularly used black women as props.
Jennifer Lopez’s African American Appropriation
While J.Lo was born to Puerto Rican parents in the Bronx, that doesn’t give her the right to appropriate African American culture. The artist has been accused of stealing songs and samples from various African American artists including Ashanti, Christina Milian, and Mariah Carey.
On top of this, Lopez has posted pictures of herself with gelled-down baby hairs, and a t-shirt reading “Bronx Girl Magic.” Considering this is a riff on the original “Black Girl Magic,” we can see why this ruffled some feathers.
Heidi Klum’s Kali Costume
German model Heidi Klum is known for her annual Halloween party and the outlandish costumes she dons for the event. Over the years, the Project Runway host has dressed up as Fiona from Shrek, a flesh-eating alien, and Jessica Rabbit. However, the model caused a stir when she dressed up as Hindu goddess Kali in 2008.
Kali is a sacred figure in Hindu culture, whereas Klum’s blue-skinned costume was meant to be funny. On other occasions, the model has worn a Native American war bonnet.
Selena Gomez’s Indian Appropriation
Here’s another repeat offender of cultural appropriation — pop star Selena Gomez. The Mexican-American artist really leaned into Indian aesthetics for a while, causing an understandable backlash. Gomez performed at the 2013 MTV Movie Awards wearing a bindi and a sari-style outfit.
In response to criticisms from The Universal Society of Hinduism, the artist said, “The song kind of has that almost Hindu feel, that tribal feel. I kind of wanted to translate that.” Hey Selena, Hinduism and tribalism are different things.
Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” Video
The obvious sequel to Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls phase is Avril Lavigne’s 2014 video for “Hello Kitty.” As with her predecessor, the singer danced with Japanese women and pranced around a kawaii set. She even had a go at an “Asian accent.” Eek.
Unfortunately, Avril Lavigne misunderstood people’s very valid criticisms of the video. The artist pointed out that she loves Japan, shot the video in Tokyo with her Japanese label, and worked with a Japanese choreographer and director. OK, Avril.
Lady Gaga’s Burqas
So far, we haven’t even touched on Islamic appropriation, but it’s also very common in the celebrity world. While abayas, burqas, and niqabs might be exotic face coverings for white celebs, they have cultural and religious significance in their origin cultures. For this reason, it’s best not to play dress-up with them.
Despite this, Lady Gaga has worn Islamic coverings several times. The artist has also dressed in a sari and sported dreadlocks. While we know Gaga loves to play, she should back off other cultures.
Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” Video
In Lily Allen’s 2014 song “Hard Out Here,” the English singer wanted to make a feminist version of the original song by DJay. “Hard Out Here” was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek tune about the pressures put on women, but it ended up being accused of cultural appropriation.
In the video, Lily Allen is fully clothed against a backdrop of half-naked African American dancers. Her lyrics state that she has a brain and won’t be “talking ‘bout my chains.” Basically, she threw black women under the bus.
Justin Timberlake’s Artistic Appropriation
For some reason, ex-Disney kid Justin Timberlake has gotten away with cultural appropriation for his entire career. Inexplicably, JT used to wear his hair in cornrows along with a bandana and large diamond earrings. Wait a minute, wasn’t this guy born in Tennessee?
As well as his offensive hairstyles, Justin Timberlake has built his career off the talents of black artists and producers. His dancing style is entirely based on Michael Jackson (who was dancing with him in this image), and he never speaks out about racial issues.
Nikita Dragun’s Hairstyles
Next up is Belgium-born, half-Mexican, half-Southeast Asian Youtuber and model, Nikita Dragun. The influencer has over 12 million followers on TikTok, but has been accused of wearing appropriative hairstyles and blackfishing.
Nikita Dragun has posted pictures of herself with her hair in box braids, and in long pink twists. Plus, in the image on the left, Dragun was accused of blackfishing for a Jeffree Star photoshoot. The influencer has argued that she is part Native American, and that locs are worn by that community.
Kendall Jenner’s Cornrows
Some members of the Kardashian-Jenner clan are more likely than others to engage in cultural appropriation. Compared with her sisters, model Kendall Jenner usually stays away from protective hairstyles, but she did sport cornrows in 2019 after returning from a vacation in Jamaica.
On top of that, the model did appear in a Vogue shoot in 2018 where her hair was teased into an afro-style do. The magazine clarified that the look was inspired by Edwardian Gibson Girls, but we still think it looks wild.
Gigi Hadid’s Afros
Supermodel Gigi Hadid is half-Dutch, half-Palestinian, but that doesn’t give her the right to throw on a hijab for a photoshoot. The shoot in question was for the first-ever front cover of Vogue Arabia, but it would have been nice to showcase an Arab model.
On another occasion, Gigi posed in a bunch of afros for a photoshoot for Vogue Italia. We can’t believe anyone gave this shoot the go-ahead, or that Vogue seems so hellbent on offending communities of color.
Coldplay and Beyoncé’s “Hymn for the Weekend” Video
As you may have noticed already, it’s not just white celebs that overstep when it comes to cultural appropriation. Indeed, even icons like Beyoncé can end up disrespecting cultures other than their own.
In Beyoncé and Coldplay’s video for “Hymn for the Weekend,” the singer is wearing traditional Indian dress and mendhi (or henna) on her hands. Furthermore, the video presents India from a stereotypical, Western perspective. There are shots of the Holi festival, street children, and supposedly “exotic” women.
Zac Efron’s Dreadlocks
In 2018, High School Musical star Zac Efron posted a picture of himself with dreadlocks to his Instagram account. To make things worse, he captioned the shot with, “Just for fun.”
Of course, wearing dreadlocks “just for fun” isn’t the best idea. Considering many black folks with dreadlocks are discriminated against, it’s rather insensitive for Efron to wear the style. As with many instances of cultural appropriation, here a celebrity gets to “try out” a look, but not deal with other aspects of being a person of color.
Madonna’s Amazigh VMAs Look
When Madonna jetted off to Morocco to celebrate her birthday in 2018, she posted pictures of herself on her Instagram wearing traditional garments. Then, at the MTV Video Music Awards that same year, the singer emerged wearing the traditional clothing of the Amazigh people. What on Earth?
Madonna even captioned her Instagram shots with “Berber Queen,” referencing the North African ethnic group who wear these items. As with most things Madonna, the artist made the outfits all about herself.
Chrissy Teigen’s Native American Costume
Model and TV host Chrissy Teigen is far from innocent when it comes to cases of cultural appropriation. For a 2008 Halloween party, the half-Thai model dressed up as a Native American alongside husband John Legend, who dressed as a cowboy. We have to hope they’d know better now.
However, Chrissy Teigen was also accused of cultural appropriation for wearing face crystals that some thought resembled a bindi. The model eventually conceded that “these crystals were a mistake.”
Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” Video
In Taylor Swift’s 2014 music video for “Shake it Off,” the singer dresses in stereotypically African American clothing and tries to twerk with her black dancers. Many saw this as patronizing, especially because the ballerinas in Swift’s video were all white women.
Swift’s video for “Wildest Dreams” also came under fire for cultural appropriation because of its colonial overtones and whitewashing. Finally, some people from the LGBTQ community feel the singer appropriated their culture in the video for “You Need to Calm Down.”
Hilaria Baldwin’s Supposedly Spanish Accent
Despite the many extreme examples of cultural appropriation on this list, the case of Hilary Hayward-Thomas really grinds our gears. It was discovered in 2020 that Alec Baldwin’s wife, Hilary — or Hilaria — has been pretending to be Spanish for years!
Despite being born in Boston, Baldwin passed herself off as Spanish for years, even asking the English word for “cucumber” in an online video. Hilaria and her family have fronted multiple Latinx magazines, and have used Latin culture to make themselves seem a little more interesting. Shame!
Julianne Hough’s Suzanne Warren Costume
By now, everyone should know that it’s not OK to dress up as a character or person of a different race. Sure, there may be some exceptions, but the general rule is that it’s offensive. Of course, this rule doesn’t come out of nowhere — it’s because of years of racism and blackface in the US in particular.
Despite all this, actress Julianne Hough showed up to a Halloween party in 2013 wearing blackface. Hough was supposedly dressed as Suzanne from Orange Is the New Black.
Rihanna’s Insensitive Photoshoots
Singer, designer, and makeup mogul Rihanna has had several incidents when it comes to cultural appropriation. When she appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar China dressed in ancient Chinese clothing, some did argue that the pop star was at least styled and photographed by Chinese creatives.
However, there was no excuse or explanation for the singer’s photoshoot in Abu Dhabi. Rihanna posed outside a mosque wearing a niqab, and was promptly kicked off the premises. Finally, Rihanna and Coldplay’s song “Princess of China” is pretty offensive.
Johnny Depp’s Native American Cosplay
Back in the 1940s, Hollywood used to hire Italians, Latinos, and white actors to play Native Americans. However, for hit TV series The Lone Ranger, Mohawk Native Jay Silverheels played iconic sidekick Tonto. Despite the character being pretty stereotypical, at least Tonto was played by a Native American.
Inexplicably, when The Lone Ranger was turned into a movie in 2013, Johnny Depp played Tonto. On top of this, the actor appeared in a racist 2019 Dior campaign that used Native imagery to sell a cologne named “Sauvage.”
Justin Bieber’s Hairstyles
Canadian pop star Justin Bieber is pretty similar to Justin Timberlake when it comes to his cultural appropriation. The artist has worked with black artists and producers throughout his career, and his music borrows from both hip-hop and R&B.
On top of this, Justin Bieber has worn his hair in both dreadlocks and cornrows over the years. Thankfully, following the tragic death of George Floyd, the Biebs made a statement admitting that he is inspired by, and has benefitted from black culture.
Kim Kardashian’s Fashion Choices
Much like her siblings, Kim Kardashian is a major culprit when it comes to cultural appropriation. The reality star has worn her hair in a variety of protective styles, and even captioned a picture of her wearing braids as “Bo Derek braids.” This was particularly infuriating, as it didn’t even give black women credit for a hairstyle they’ve worn for centuries.
Kim K. has also worn Fulani braids, an Indian maang tikka, and grills. Plus, she caused an outcry when she almost called her shapewear brand Skims, “Kimono.”
Bo Derek’s Braids
Speaking of Bo Derek, let’s not leave her out when it comes to celebrities accused of cultural appropriation. As we said, when Kim K. posted a controversial picture of herself with her hair braided, she captioned the snap, “Bo Derek braids.”
This is because the American actress wore her hair in this style in the 1979 movie, 10. Back in the 1970s, Derek got the credit for cornrows, just like the Kardashians do now. Magazines declared that Derek made the style “a cross-cultural craze.”
Scott Disick’s Sheik Costume
Kourtney Kardashian’s baby daddy Scott Disick isn’t exactly known for his subtlety. In 2014, the reality star posted a picture of himself dressed as a Sheik for a Halloween costume, and the internet did not respond with kindness.
More recently, the Kardashian Disick kids have come under fire for posting a video of themselves performing the haka — a Maori dance — on TikTok. Various people were offended by the video, especially because no one mentioned the Maori culture.
Iggy Azalea’s Blaccent
Now, here’s a big-hitter when it comes to cultural appropriation. In fact, you could argue that Iggy Azalea’s entire career is based on appropriating African American culture. The Australian rapper has been criticized many times for her “blaccent” — an imitation of black English by non-black people.
Critics argue that Azalea uses her fake accent to position herself closer to black culture. On top of this, Iggy Azalea caused offense when she dressed in traditional Indian clothing for her 2013 song, “Bounce.”
Cher’s Native American Costumes
From one big-hitter to another, next up is Cher, who is known for culturally appropriating Native American culture. While Cher is Armenian-American, she did claim to have Cherokee heritage through her mother. For this reason, songwriter Mary Dean wrote “Half-Breed” for the artist — a song about someone with a Cherokee mother and a white father.
Since then, Cher has repeatedly used Native American clothing and items as props. While the singer did initially claim Native American ancestry, she later said it was false.
Lizzo’s Rolling Stone Shoot
When “Truth Hurts” singer Lizzo graced the front page of Rolling Stone in 2020, the photoshoot ruffled some feathers. Several of the outfits Lizzo wore in the fashion spread looked like Southeast Asian garments, especially one particular headpiece that looks like a Chada.
As with other accusations like this, people took issue with traditional garments being worn as a costume. These items have their own significance in their origin cultures, and shouldn’t just be brought out for celebrity dress up.
Karlie Kloss’s Vogue Shoot
Model Karlie Kloss has also worn traditional Asian garments as a costume, despite being a white woman with Danish, German, and Polish ancestry. The model dressed as a geisha for a 2017 Vogue shoot, and faced accusations of whitewashing Asian people.
Part of the problem with cultural appreciation is that white people often “try on” or play with styles to add a bit of “spice” or “exoticism.” However, other cultures aren’t flavorings, so it’s not acceptable to just sprinkle them onto your usual wardrobe.
Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie
Here’s another historical example of cultural appropriation. While genies may conjure up images of blue Robin Williams voiced characters, they actually originate from pre-Islamic Arabian and Islamic mythology. Unsurprisingly, the Western imagining of a genie is pretty offensive.
In classic sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, white, blond-haired actress Barbara Eden plays a 2000-year-old genie from the Middle East. The show is stuffed full of racial stereotypes, including the barbaric Arab man, and the belly-dancing harem girl.
Khloé Kardashian’s Every Move
Arguably, Khloé Kardashian is the worst cultural appropriation culprit in the entire Kardashian-Jenner family. The reality star has posted a selfie of herself wearing a burqa, a Native American war bonnet, and bantu knots. Seriously, is she trying to annoy everyone?
For Diana Ross’s 75th birthday party, the Good American founder donned a huge blonde afro wig that many found to be in bad taste. Plus, in general, Khloé really leans into styles that are most popular with African American women.
Addison Rae’s Jimmy Fallon Performance
Our next example of celebrity cultural appropriation occurred when TikTok star Addison Rae appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. During her appearance, Rae performed and “taught” Fallon eight viral TikTok dances. The problem? Addison didn’t make up those dances, and nobody mentioned the people that did.
Many people pointed out that Addison Rae, a white TikTok star, got the opportunity to go on TV and take the credit for choreography she didn’t create. In response to the backlash, Fallon featured the original artists on his show.
Luann de Lesseps’ Diana Ross Costume
When it comes to offensive Halloween costumes, this one really takes the cake. Viewers of The Real Housewives of New York were shocked when cast member Luann de Lesseps bounced into a Halloween party dressed as Diana Ross. We were even more shocked when only one other cast member noticed the issue.
Luann’s costume featured an absolutely ginormous afro wig, and far too much bronzer. It was no surprise when audiences interpreted the costume as blackface. Eventually, the Real Housewife apologized.
Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Arguably, Mickey Rooney’s role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s ruins the entire movie. The actor plays Mr. Yunioshi, who is a combination of every 1950s Asian stereotype. In the 1961 film, Rooney’s character is buck-toothed, buffoonish, and unnecessarily uptight.
Throughout the movie, Rooney puts on a terrible “Asian” accent and contorts his face into strained expressions. The cultural appropriation in this movie is so bad that academic studies have said it’s one of the worst cases in the history of movies.
Vanessa Hudgens’s Native American Obsession
As we near the end of our list, we dare not forget about cultural appropriation obsessive Vanessa Hudgens. As with many other celebs on this list, Hudgens has an unhealthy obsession with all things Native American.
Could someone just tell these people to read a book about the culture instead of dressing up in it? Vanessa Hudgens has repeatedly posed in Native American items of clothing and worn a bindi, a sari, and box braids. Oh, and she loves dream catchers.
Bhad Bhabie’s Blackfishing
Finally, we close out our list of celebrity cultural appropriators with rapper Bhad Bhabie. As with Iggy Azalea, Bhabie is a white woman that has gained money and fame by using African American Vernacular English (AAVE). The personality initially became famous for saying “Catch me outside,” which turned into a viral catchphrase.
As well as using AAVE, Bhad Bhabie wears her hair in protective styles and darkens her skin. For this reason, she has understandably been accused of blackfishing.