Cultural appropriation: Your guide to avoiding offence

Cultural appropriation is a phrase that has been growing in usage for several years now. It has been variously defined as:

– taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect the culture
– unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs and practices of one society by members of a more dominant society
– adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture – particularly when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures (perhaps as a by-product of colonialism and oppression)

While these definitions are fairly easy to comprehend, the nuances can at times be blurred. Further compounding the issue is the fact that what offends one person, may seem innocuous to another. An obvious lack of understanding of cultural appropriation becomes apparent when one examines the pop culture headlines from the past few years (click the links to see the stories).

– ‘Brown Face’ in the live action version of Disney’s Aladdin
– Pharrell Williams’ Holi collaboration with Adidas …
– Kylie Jenner’s multiple gaffes
– Karlie Kloss’s geisha attire on the cover of Vogue magazine …
– Native American attire for a Victoria’s secret show …
– Hilary Duff and Jason Walsh’s ‘sexy pilgrim’ and Native American Halloween costumes
– Miley Cyrus twerking …
– Ariana Grande’s Japanese tattoo …

The list, unfortunately, goes on and on and on.

Poor executions can hit marketers and brands where it hurts. In a my colleague Diksha’s blog, Dolce & Gabbana loses out while Michael Kors wins in China, she touched on the PR disaster and huge financial cost of cultural appropriation by D&G – which led to the #BoycottDolce hashtag trending on Weibo.

Images Sources: Kylie Jenner Instagram, Vogue

Images Sources: Adidas Originals, Getty

Some things are blatantly offensive while others may be considered as embracing another culture. Having such an influential voice as we do, woke[1] marketers need to be across what is OK and what is NOT OK to appropriately and genuinely win hearts and minds (at best) and avoid causing offence (at a minimum). Every brand, including celebrity brands, has a responsibility to avoid cultural appropriation.

While items such as spices, arts and crafts and even pasta have been shared, traded and crossed borders between different cultures throughout history, such sharing is not the same as cultural appropriation because of a few key differences.

So how do we know if something is crossing the line from borrowing or enjoying another culture’s richness, and entering the dark world of cultural appropriation? It is important to ask yourself some questions.

1. What cultural group/s are being borrowed from?
2. What cultural group is doing the borrowing?
3. Is the cultural group oppressed or have a history of oppression?
4. Is there a power disparity?
5. Does it oppress a non-dominant culture?
6. Does it give credit to or acknowledge the culture being referenced?
7. Do you benefit from this borrowing?
8. Would this make someone feel uncomfortable?
9. Could it be perceived as being offensive?
10. Do you understand the cultural nuances?

The answers to these questions provide a good guide about the appropriateness of a situation.

There is nothing wrong with appreciating another culture or trying to learn about other cultures around you. However, there is a clear difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation and that usually boils down to education.

Few would find it offensive for a non-South Asian guest to wear a South Asian bindi when invited to do so at an Indian festival – in fact labeling such an exchange ‘cultural appropriation’ risks attaching a stigma to an otherwise positive cultural exchange. And there are some terrific examples of positive exchanges…

But ‘dressing up’ as an Indian person (or other ethnic group) for Halloween is unequivocally inappropriate as it could easily cause offence and look like a mockery.

Some cultural exchanges are extremely positive and an opportunity for learning. (Image Source: Pond5)

Some parting tips for marketers to consider?

1. Partner with cultural experts and conduct proper and rigorous cultural testing. It is not enough to just “ask the office’s resident Chinese person”. Opinions vary from person to person and when the stakes (and budgets, and risks) are high, conducting due diligence becomes even more critical.

2. Research the culture thoroughly to understand it better before taking any action.

3. In the words of my very wise mother: Always be curious, always be learning.

4. Don’t stereotype – it is often highly offensive. It is hard to blame someone for not knowing something, but when we see ham-fisted, ignorant and clumsy theft from other cultures things can become quite ugly.

5. Avoid anything sacred – while some moderate religious devotees may have a sense of humour about their religion, for others such irreverence is highly inflammatory.

For further information on cultural issues, cultural testing and any of the other points raised in this blog, get in touch with MultiConnexions today.

[1] Woke is a political term of African American origin that refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice.


Header image source: Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

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