Cultural appropriation: 8 ways to avoid a cultural faux pas in business

What is cultural appropriation?

Disney was accused of cultural appropriation last December over publicity for their new live action film, The Lion King, which is due for release this summer. Many Swahili speakers across eastern Africa were outraged to learn the US entertainment giant had in 2003 trademarked one of their most popular phrases, hakuna matata, meaning ‘no problem’. A petition has now been launched urging Disney to drop the trademark.

While Disney pointed out that it had only trademarked the words in terms of use on T shirts and marketing material, to protect the Lion King ‘brand’, it begs the question: should anybody have the right to appropriate language from another culture, or anything else, for that matter, and use it for profit?

Cultural appropriation is a hot topic in the news nowadays. When aspects of another culture, generally a minority one, are taken and used by celebrities for image-building, or by companies to generate profit, giving nothing back to that culture, or using objects or designs in the wrong context, it’s hardly surprising that concerns are raised.

There’s a difference, of course, between cultural appropriation and celebration of culture. If we were only to dress, eat, read and listen to music representative of our own culture, life would be very bland. But in today’s ultra-sensitive climate, in business and socially, what represents a step too far – and how can you steer clear of a cultural faux pas?

8 tips on how to avoid cultural appropriation

  1. Be sensitive to sacred objects. Lingerie designer Victoria’s Secret found itself in hot water for sending model Karlie Kloss down the runway in a floor-length feathered headdress. To native Americans, this particular style of headdress has spiritual and ceremonial significance. A model in a bikini parading it on a runway was considered deeply offensive.
  2. Be careful of the context in which you use symbols or design. The keffiyeh (traditional Palestinian headdress) often makes an appearance as a fashion statement, sported in the past by celebrities including David Beckham and Colin Farrell and widely available, usually in the form of cheap, Chinese knock-offs. Wearing a Palestinian-made keffiyeh as a sign of solidarity with disenfranchised Palestinians is one thing; including it in your music festival getup and wearing it while getting drunk is another.
  3. Give credit – and royalties – for ideas you have appropriated. If you plan on incorporating, say, an Australian Aboriginal design on your company logo, or a motif of any kind inspired by a minority culture, research the context, think about how it might affect that culture and offer something in return – money, an awareness campaign, funding of a cause relevant to that culture.
  4. Discuss cultural appropriation in the workplace. If there are people of the Hindu faith in your office, is it appropriate for non-Hindus to sport a bindi, which has spiritual significance, as a fashion accessory? Or a Sikh turban, if there are Sikhs present (Gucci fell foul of this last year, using Sikh headgear in a Milan fashion show, on white models). Or dreadlocks on white people, or any item of clothing sporting blackface design, regardless of whether there are black people in the workplace? Your employees represent your company, in and out of the office.
  5. Brief executives travelling on business about dress code. Wearing the local style of clothing in many countries is inappropriate. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, a western man wearing a dishdasha and ghutra (the traditional head dress) is considered disrespectful. Similarly, a western woman dressing as a geisha in Japan would give completely the wrong message.
  6. Don’t go over the top with local dress, even if you are trying to show solidarity with the culture you are visiting. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was gently mocked on a tour of India last year with his family, for dressing, as some commentators said, more ‘Bollywood’ than even Bollywood stars might. If you want to wear local clothing, make sure the time and place are right. Turning up at a meeting in Buenos Aires dressed as a gaucho is no more appropriate than an American executive attending appointments in the City of London wearing a kilt.
  7. Be aware of cultural symbols and their potential misuse in anything from marketing material to corporate entertaining. Chopsticks is a classic example; a couple of years ago, the New York Times was lambasted for showing a picture of an ‘Asian-inspired’ restaurant with chopsticks sticking vertically out of a dish – a position that indicates death or a funeral offering in Japanese culture. Similarly, wearing chopsticks as a hair accessory is both incorrect (they’re not the same as traditional hair ornaments) and to Japanese people, both ridiculous and somewhat offensive.
  8. Before incorporating any symbols or designs appropriated from another culture into your company logo, presentation, offsite or Hallowe’en party, stop and ask yourself some questions. What is the origin of the symbol and who owns it? What does it actually mean? How might someone from that culture be offended by your use of the symbol? How do you stand to profit from it? Respect and context are everything.


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Cultural appropriation



About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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