Diversity and inclusion are essential factors to consider in creating ads or launching new products. More brands are trying to portray a fair representation of society, and of course, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to new target groups. However, when trying to profit from products inspired by culture, religion, or traditions, it’s necessary to be well informed about any possible sensitivities. High-end brands often don’t seem to do their homework and have been accused of cultural appropriation. When ones’ heritage is adopted by someone in a more privileged position, for fun or fashion or maybe even out of ignorance, this can be very hurtful. And in fact, it is cultural appropriation. Typically, the more dominant culture copies cultural aspects from a minority culture that is often discriminated against or marginalized. It could be a hairstyle, a piece of clothing, the manner of speaking.
“Appropriation has everything to do with power structures, and little to do with valuing cultural practices and attributing credit to original sources” – Hoda Katebi
Gucci and cultural appropriation
Let’s start with Gucci’s cultural insensitivities. Last year the brand faced a backlash for selling a “wool balaclava jumper” looking like the model had exaggerated red lips on a black background, associated with a blackface character. The brand apologized in a tweet, but they don’t get away with it that easy. Many amongst racist exposer Tariq Nasheed question why the Italian brand wouldn’t recognize the mistake in the first place as it’s pretty apparent and especially during Black History Week.
Recently Gucci’s runway show included a (white) model wearing a turban that looks identical to the traditional headdress of Sikhs. The question is how a brand like Gucci didn’t realize that people face discrimination and have been murdered for wearing the dastaar (turban). Besides that, it has a religious significance, as stated in a tweet from the Sikh Coalition. The turban with a price tag of $ 790 was pulled from the shelves by Nordstrom after the backlash.
Are Victoria’s Secret themes appropriating culture?
Models were dressed up with feathers at Victoria’s Secret runway show (2017, in China), indigenous-looking headdresses, and beaded jewelry. The theme was “Nomadic Adventure,” inspired by Native American culture and tradition. The show wasn’t received well at all at the time. It wasn’t their first rodeo; in 2012, Karlie Kloss wore a Native American-like headdress meant to be indicative of Thanksgiving of all things. It’s a good thing it didn’t make the show’s TV broadcast final edit. Last year Victoria’s Secret created some questionable costumes that appropriated Chinese culture, including a dragon look.
In 2019 model Shanina Shaik leaked that the show got canceled during an interview with The Daily Telegraph. A few months ago company stated it would no longer televise the fashion show. “We are taking a fresh look at every aspect of our business – from merchandising, marketing and brand positioning, to our real estate portfolio, digital business and cost structure … everything,” a press release from Victoria’s Secret read. Well, maybe it’s about time!
Cultural appropriation versus Cultural appreciation
Fragrance brand Pinrose thought it was an easy way to benefit from the increasing popularity of witchcraft and revealed its Starter Witch Kit, which sold at Sephora. The brand must have seen it as an opportunity to target young girls interested in Wicca and Witchcraft but didn’t consider how practicing witches would feel about them using their beliefs for aesthetics. The Starter Witch Kit included a set of tarot cards, rose quartz, sage, and their perfume, of course. The announcement of the kit’s launch wholly backfired last year as witches recognized this as cultural appropriation.
Fenty Beauty by Rihana did a fabulous job correctly using popular online subculture by launching a selection of lipsticks compatible with each zodiac sign from the Mattemoiselle collection. The reactions are positive, ” The selection is spot on,” according to Instagram users, and they are evenly happy with the various colors suitable for all skin tones.
Does intention matter? Cultural Appropriation Versus Cultural Appreciation
It’s all about the responsibility of a brand to make sure that products or ads get evaluated (by the right people) before they get launched when borrowing from other cultures. These problems are more significant than just one product or ad/post and can easily be prevented by evaluating diversity within the company/product/marketing department. Of course, brands want to make a profit, so it’s not in their interest to exclude anyone or step on anyone’s toes, but that is even more reason to be more considerate of (sub)cultures that inspire them.
How to avoid cultural appropriation?
In an article on Greenheart, Kelsey Holmes says:
“Appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally. Appropriation on the other hand, is simply taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest.”
Just appreciate, don’t appropriate
– Understanding the value and meaning of a particular element/tradition is good enough to borrow it appropriately. If you know the culture, you can feel when you’re doing something considered controversial.
– Knowing and understanding histories of oppression, segregation, and colonialism – Acquire information from individuals or organizations that can tell you more about the culture’s, practices, and values
– Asking yourself and your co-workers: What is the reason for using elements from another culture? How can it be done respectably?
Opinions on cultural appropriation vary; Michael J Bramham argues that “Providing your intent is not to mock, disrespect or stereotype minorities, the cultures of humanity form a common heritage for all humans and thus, belong to us all to enjoy and partake in (in a responsible way).” Again, plausible theory, only in my opinion the effects are far more important than the intention. As long as there are minorities and marginalized groups, it’s the responsibility of the brand or person who wants to adopt elements of a culture to be aware of what it means to people first instead of focusing on their intentions and creativity only.