The Difference Between Cultural Appropriation And Appreciation
What Does Culturally Mindful Production Look Like?
Earlier this year, three Western white women redesigned a traditional Chinese game to better “mirror their style and personality.” Called The Mahjong Line, the founders chose to redesign what they called mahjong’s “traditional tiles” in a way that neither acknowledged the game’s Chinese roots nor aesthetically reflected the embedded cultural meaning.
As China’s national pastime, mahjong is a tile collection game boasting centuries of play, going back to the 1800s. Each of the 144 tiles is emblazoned with Chinese characters or symbols imbued with cultural significance, such as the red 中 tile (meaning “center”) symbolizing passing the imperial exam, hitting the target in archery, or the virtue of kindness.
But The Mahjong Line women erased bamboos and feng shui coins and replaced them with bubbles and bolts of lightning. They assumed they were creating a better, “modern makeover” of the game because it met their own Western standards of a “stylish update.” Their actions veered into the realm of cultural appropriation as they removed mahjong’s Chinese heritage and profited off their whitewashed version (they charged upward of $425 per set, marketed towards audiences like “cheeky gals who love Millennial pink“).
Of course, this isn’t the first time a brand has appropriated another culture’s products or traditions for profit. Per Oxford Dictionary’s definition, appropriation is “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.”
Unlike appreciation, which seeks to learn and foster cross-cultural understanding, cultural appropriation is aggressive and preys on a power dynamic. A dominant group feels entitled to take elements from another culture they’ve otherwise oppressed.
In the United States, Asian immigrants have historically been discriminated against—from hate crimes against individuals like Vincent Chin to the oppression of Chinese workers who largely built the transcontinental railroad. Though discrimination still takes on physically violent forms today, as seen by the recent rise in hate crimes towards Asian Americans, this power dynamic can also play out in social contexts through forms such as cultural appropriation.
While the blending of traditions is inevitable in a world that is becoming increasingly globalized, there is a fine but blurry line on what culturally mindful production looks like and how other cultures can be inspired by, rather than usurp, another.
As conscious consumers, we have purchasing power. We can demand social change, especially from ethical brands that target a Western audience (with capital) by selling products made by Indigenous artisans (with craftsmanship).
Here are elements to look for in brands that appreciate, rather than appropriate, other cultures:
Look For Brands That Allow Culture Bearers to Lead
For starters, we can inquire about motive. A culturally sensitive brand is not just one that nominally checks boxes by doing the bare minimum, like paying minimum wage and not oppressing workers (truly a low bar).
Rather, they acknowledge the heritage behind their goods and allow culture bearers to lead. In the same way that any other creative collaboration works, they make sure that the culture bearers truly own the “rights,” giving them the bargaining power.
As the largest fair trade jewelry brand, Noonday Collection works with over 4,500 artisan partners around the world. Their collaborative design process has been a key tenet to their success. In a recent example, Vietnamese artisan partners introduced a new silk beading knotting technique to the team. Meanwhile, Noonday’s designers had always admired the velvet they saw in Hanoi markets, a traditional Vietnamese material. When brainstorming on the upcoming season’s designs, the artisans and designers decided to marry the two techniques, bringing the velvet rope necklace to life.
Look For Brands That Give Ownership
In a similar way to letting culture bearers lead the conversation, look for brands that give ownership, both financially and a seat at the table. Brands with a B Corp certification or a Fair Trade certification are good places to start, but you’ll often know a brand is on the right track based on its transparency. In 2018, ABLE became the first fashion brand to publish the lowest wages within its entire supply chain.
The business model of Divine Chocolate also mirrors this ownership ethos literally. The fair-trade chocolate company based in Washington D.C. is co-owned by the Ghanian farmers who source the raw cocoa for their chocolate bars. As a result, the farmers earn a share of the profits that they helped create and give input on how the chocolate is produced and sold. That’s what a cross-cultural partnership looks like!
Look For Brands That Engage Beyond Aesthetics
Another way to spot brands that aren’t just extractive when it comes to cultural design is by seeing how they “go the extra mile.” Ethical companies do best when they think about their workers’ well-being. Yewo, for example, defines itself as a “people-first” company and provides individual healthcare funds to the makers in its solar-powered workshop in Malawi.
Ultimately, culture is not made by symbols but by people. Even when brands consult individuals from the culture, any mindfully produced product only becomes meaningful when the brand takes the extra step to engage beyond aesthetics. The best brands continue to evolve and push themselves to be better, knowing that they can never be “done” learning.
When possible, interacting directly with brands owned by people of color or global maker communities is the best way to appreciate another culture—with consent. When that’s not the case, it’s important to be critical and use discernment. Look for healthy and humble attitudes like the ones listed above.
Actively resisting culturally appropriative styles recognizes power imbalances, and does a small part to rebalance that through individual connection. After all, if we don’t keep brands accountable, who will?
Alice is a California-grown writer thinking on the things shaping urban living, the modern woman, and living a conscious life of impact in light of a bigger world. A graduate of Northwestern University’s j-school, she spent time abroad working with a microfinance project in Peru before transitioning into a 9-5 in the global development sector. When she’s not daydreaming about opening a social impact coffee shop, you can find her traveling, plié-ing at the barre studio, or curled up with a good book. Follow her latest creative endeavors and musings at The Kind Citizen or on Instagram at @alice.zhng.