Is cultural appropriation ever appropriate?

It’s been a good few months since the Jamie Oliver’s jerk-rice scandal, and it’s taken this long to release this piece because I’m still scratching my head trying to work out what that was even about, and how I can advise the brands we work with at Idea Dolls to use cultural equity in a more responsible way.

So here’s the issue I have with Jerky-Oliver gate:

Jerk Chicken is a Jamaican dish which originated (some believe) when a group of African slaves escaped into the Jamaican wilderness and ‘jerked’ wild hogs (lol) which they’d hunted. They then marinated the meat in cooking pits. The term jerk comes from the Spanish ch’arki – or Llama – a south american method for preserving meat.

If we’re going to do it properly, the meat needs to be a wild hog, and you need to cook it in a pit, and actually jerk chicken is culturally appropriating a South American dish which was culturally appropriated by Spanish invaders.

The purpose of this thought piece isn’t to rant about the rise of cultural appropriation and how utterly ludicrous it is (tempting as that might be), but to really figure out where this term comes from, whether there’s anything we can learn from using cultural curiorisy to elevate the brand stories we tell without causing offence, and how we can avoid misappropriation.

I will look at the challenges brands face when expanding internationally without considering the translation of their cultural equity – I’ll also try to not use academic jargon so in simpler terms, how do you market a product with a brand-story that resonates with one culture in a new market, who have totally different cultural values, and just don’t get it.

Lastly, I’ll be suggesting a third way of getting round the cultural appropriation minefield, by using cultural values instead of cultural icons to represent a brand story. For example, using minimalist design instead of actual Japanese icons to convey cultural values of simplicity and functionality.

When is cultural appropriation appropriate?

Let’s consider this advert for Coca Cola, the motivation behind the campaign is to sell the idea of Coca Cola as an African brand that gets African culture. But is this cultural appropriation ?

OK next example…

Pepsi and that campaign.

Somewhere in the boardrooms of Pepsi, this concept was paraded around like a naked emperor and no one said a thing. But when we look at the two examples side by side, is Coca Cola any better?

Laura Sommerville, Coca Cola’s Global Brand Director explains ‘when an idea taps into the fundamental human truth, there are no borders or boundaries to how far it can go’.

So an idea that’s a cross-cultural fundamental truth but not the cultural icon is not cultural appropriation.

But, yet, that Coca Cola ad, isn’t quite tapping into any fundamental truth, really, is it? They just somehow managed to get away with appropriately appropriating and avoided landing in hot water out of sheer luck, much like any of the hundreds of brands who use cultural icons to sell everything from curry to tea, yoga mats and moroccan themed candles.

Leveraging culture in brand identity is integral to connecting a product with a big idea. We are, after all a construct of our culture, our influences, our heritage or combination of all of those and much more besides.

In an era of globalisation, connecting with culture has never been more important to crafting meaningful brand stories.

“The rise in the power of the market, this rise in materialism, has given people an increasing need for meaning in their lives, both as consumers and employees. Human beings have always needed meaning, a dimension beyond the utilitarian, beyond mundane things we have to do from day to day. People need a sense of identity (who am I?) and belonging (where do I fit? ). Materialism creates a vacuum of meaning, and brands stories fill that vacuum”
Jones, Branding, Oxford

The possibility of connecting products with ideas without ‘resorting’ to cultural symbols will be explored in the final part of this series, but let’s say we want to use cultural symbols, we like using cultural symbols, cultural symbols help us show curiosity and actually bring us closer together.

But when it comes to using cultural icons to sell products, are we culturally appreciating, or culturally appropriating?

Before we can consider this whopper of question, we need to define cultural appropriation, which would be easy, if there was one clear definition of the term. And therein lies the problem:

The term was first coined by colonialists in the 1900s, but only appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary last year.

Cultural appropriation refers to a dominant culture using symbols of a minority culture for its own gain. That is, if we take Wikipedia’s definition.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cultural appropriation is defined as:

“A term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.”

So is cultural appropriation the misuse of a minority culture’s symbol or any cultural symbols which are not your own?

I turned to Merriam Webster for a third opinion, but the term is not defined. I had better luck with the Cambridge dictionary:

“The act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture”

Cultural appropriation, if defined as a borrowing of a unique cultural value or anthropological trait in order to support the origin or universal appeal of said ideological trait (basically stealing bits you like from other cultures for the benefit of showing off how awesome that culture is for your own gain) exists in every single culture, and every layer of every subculture. Unless kept in total isolation, where the emergence of any cultural divide is vehemently stamped out, cultural appropriation will always exist.

But using cultural symbols doesn’t really seem to be the problem, it’s the ‘fetishising’ of another culture’s symbols or appropriating them negatively in a way that alienates the ‘owners’ of that symbol (if such a thing is possible). Kjerstin Johnson talks about the misuse of cultural elements that have a deep meaning being temporarily ‘borrowed’ by another culture without understanding the struggles or discrimination faced by that culture.

Take Gü Puds’ appropriation of the umlaut as an example – the founders have with no connection whatsoever to Scandinavian or Danish heritage. Actually, they played around with the French word goût (taste) before realising gout was probably not a good name for decadent puddings, and Gü sounded better than ‘goo’. Superdry has nothing to do with Japan, Häagen-Dazs – another umlaut appropriator and the list goes on.

George Lipsitz coined the term strategic anti-essentialism to mean a calculated use of a cultural form outside of one’s own. Strategic anti-essentialism can be observed both in minority cultures and majority cultures, as a way of anti-essentialising a given culture – basically opening it out to influences from beyond it’s closed group of ideals and values.

We could therefore use strategic anti-essentialism as cultural appropriation meant well.

But before we do away with cultural symbols altogether, because let’s face it, this shit is really confusing, let’s consider just how far our cultural curiosity has brought us, just how important sharing our icons, our fashion, art and beliefs has been to breaking down negative cultural divisions.

A Brave New World?

Let’s consider a world before cultural appreciation, a time where different cultures were ‘savage’ and cultural inadequacy was used to justify destruction of entire nations, cultures, languages and ways of life.

Socrates famously didn’t identify himself as being from Athens, but ‘from the world’. Sure, such crazy thinking led to his trial and eventual execution but it nonetheless inspired philosophers like Montaigne to look further than their provincial mindset, exploring ideas, cultures and beliefs beyond their own.

Montaigne observed European cultural arrogance unfold from behind his inn dinner table:

“Once out of their villages, they feel like a fish out of water. Wherever they go they cling to their ways and curse foreign ones. If they come across fellow-countrymen… they celebrate the event… With morose and taciturn prudence they travel about wrapped up in their cloaks and protecting themselves from the contagion of an unknown clime.”

He took an avid interest in books on the lives of indian tribes: Francissco Lopez de Gomara’s L’histoire generale des indes and Jean De Lery’s Le Voyage au Bresil.

He marvelled at the nudity of the Tupi tribe in Brazil who completely shunned clothes and thought Europeans very odd for suggesting they cover up, he admired the Peruvian fascination with big ears, the Mexican appreciation of the low forehead and how they “hold large breasts in such high esteem that they affect giving suck to their children over their shoulders”.

Between Montaigne’s birth in 1533 and the publication of his third book in 1588, Spanish colonists had destroyed around 70% of The New World’s population.

The Spanish pillaged and destroyed with a clear conscience. After all, the savages were not ‘like them’.

“We could understand nothing of their language; their manners and even their features and clothing were far different from ours. Which of us did not take them for brutes and savages?”

Curiosity about other cultures isn’t just something we should be ‘allowed’ to do, it should be actively encouraged. Acceptance and celebration of diversity even integration and the birth of new subculture should should penetrate every level of our communication, in fashion, art and when it comes to brand creation, yes, our brand stories, our packaging design even the dialects we use on micro-copy.

Who wants to live in a world where we don’t share cultures, where diversity isn’t celebrated and inspiration isn’t drawn from anywhere and everywhere to form new art, new literature and new ways of thinking.

The more we tread on cultural eggshells, scared of causing offence, the more we open the doors for segregation and the death of curiosity.

I’ve gone off on a bit of an anthropological tangent there, but part two will tie back these foundations to practical steps you can take to leverage culture responsibly in your business.

I’ll look at the importance of cultural equity in branding, how brands are increasingly using creative ethnographers to understand the underlying drives of a culture before expanding the brand into new markets, and what practical steps you can take to avoid fetishising cultural icons, while promoting cultural curiosity in your business.

If you’ve enjoyed the read and want a heads up about when I’ll be releasing part two, add your email address here 

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Thanks for reading Dolls!

Xx With love,

Founder, Creative Director, Sociological Worrier