Who Cares About Cultural Appropriation?

Noemí Jiménez is a mixed race, able-bodied, LatinX mom (yes, I have privilege) Pronouns: She/Her/Herself

A few years ago, I landed my dream job. I got to work with some of the smartest humans I had ever met, I felt challenged, and I was contributing to interesting projects while supporting awesome clients. I drank the Kool-Aid, and I liked it. I knew the company was far from perfect (late nights, high turnover…you get the picture), but still I felt inspired. I wanted to soak it all up, and I did. I learned a lot in a short time.

A few months shy of my first anniversary, one of the co-founders published an article that opened with:

May a white model wear dreadlocks? Is a white male novelist allowed to tell his story through a black female character? Am I permitted to wear a sombrero and say Olé!?
The answer is a firm no, unless you want the politically correct (PC) trolls on your back. Welcome to the wacky world of cultural appropriation, now trending where PC is spoken.

Let’s dissect that for a moment. (1) The author is asking if he can wear a sombrero and say “Olé”. (2) All three examples are about what “white” people are “permitted” to do. (3) His questions conflate different cultures and ethnicities to oversimplify the “wacky” issue of cultural appropriation. By boiling down the history of the “SOHM-BRAY-ROW”, the author misses the point entirely.

American novelist Francine Prose provides helpful context on the topic:

For many Mexicans, the sombrero (now worn almost exclusively as a costume accessory by mariachis) perpetuates the myth of the backward, old-fashioned campesino, a throwback to an earlier century, chattering away in the heavily-accented, high-pitched, rapid-fire rhythms of Speedy Gonzales, the cartoon mouse, in his big yellow sombrero. In the past one more often saw — painted on dinner plates and tourist knick-nacks, embroidered on felt jackets — a caricature of a Mexican peasant dozing off, drunk or just lazy, leaning against a cactus, his face obscured by an enormous sombrero.

Instead of taking the time to write a piece that acknowledges the damage stereotypes can cause, it felt like a casual after thought. It was like the rant you have with your friends over drinks, and then you all have a laugh… annoying PC trolls.

The more I processed the article, the angrier I felt. He was talking about me, a young woman of color on his very own payroll. Yet, part of me still questioned my indignation. Was I overreacting? For a second opinion, I emailed the article to my sister and asked her to read it while I got ready to head out for a work event. When I got back later that night, I had numerous texts and emails from her. She was even more enraged than I was. She wanted me to speak up and have him take it down.

The thought intimidated me. I hadn’t even been with the company for a year, and this man who started and still owned the company, worked on a different continent. Still, my gut told me it was my responsibility to say something. I believed he would even appreciate the gesture, as it could save the company from potential backlash. Plus, I was embarrassed. We were a small team and I didn’t want any clients or prospective clients to see it and assume we all thought that way. This was also the first time I realized I was the only brown face in our office and suddenly it mattered. Seeing this as an opportunity to start a productive dialogue and understand where he was coming from or help answer some of the questions posed in the article (his original article is posted in full at the bottom), I emailed our co-founder:

Hey there,

Would love to chat with you about your blog on cultural appropriation. It’s such a timely topic and the way it’s written is quite provocative, which I’m sure is what you were going for.

I thought a couple of important issues were missed. 1) cultural appropriation can still cause harm even if it’s not for profit. I’m mainly thinking of Halloween — when people dress up as an ethnicity or a race, they are only perpetuating stereotypes, which are negative and damaging to minorities. As a person who grew up in Latin America, I find it hard not to take personal offense to people who dress up as Mexicans by wearing a “sombrero” and a mustache and saying ole (which by the way is a term from Spain) because it reduces a rich heritage and culture to a symbol that has been used to homogenize an incredibly diverse population of individuals. 2) In order to avoid terrible mistakes like the one made by MAC when they released their “tribal” line of makeup or the Snapchat filters fiasco, companies must prioritize diversifying their workforces — it’s crucial.

I am clearly quite passionate about this issue, so would love to hear your thoughts!! Curious if you have received any other responses yet.

-N

Initially, I felt proud to be able to move past my rage and put my thoughts towards a solution and an opportunity to have a productive discussion. Eventually, I felt foolish. I’ll spare you the anticipation and anti-climactic ending: I never heard back.

Recently, I was working on a project for a client to boost employee engagement and remembered my horrible experience processing this article, so I looked it up. Years later, I still find it so poorly written and pointless that I felt the need to share it. Why write about something so emotionally charged for so many if you’re going to half-ass it? People in positions of power have a responsibility to those they manage. There’s no hiding behind a high ranking title or anything else for that matter — someone will call you out sooner or later.

Here’s what I have learned over the years:

  1. If someone tries to engage with you and have a conversation, please listen — with empathy.
  2. Be humble and remain open to learning. That’s the most, and the least each of us can do.
  3. We’re all at different parts of our journey. Don’t compare yours to someone else’s.
  4. In trying to understand what diversity, equity, belonging and inclusion truly mean, remember that what it means for you is not what it means for the person next to you.
  5. No one is an expert. We’re all learning what total inclusion means, and we will make mistakes — it’s inevitable.

This co-founder’s article missed the point of cultural appropriation, and of the root cause of its effects. Not once did he stop to ask, why are people outraged? Why is this news? All the flippant commentary could have been saved, and replaced instead with: huh, that’s interesting. Why did people react that way? What am I missing? While it’s not a person of color’s job to educate others (there is plenty of literature out there), I was willing to have that conversation. His cavalier tone and dismissiveness when I tried to engage in good faith has driven me to write this piece, for validation, for my own catharsis, but also to remind myself and you of the importance of cultural sensitivity and a basic understanding of inclusion and multicultural equity in the corporate space.

This is an evolving conversation, and I am passionate about it (whether we agree or not) so please reach out if you’d like to learn more about my work helping companies make their work culture more welcoming to women and people of color or simply share your experience or thoughts on cultural appropriation. I’m a great listener.

I’ll leave you with the last line of his article: “I’m off to find a safe space to wear my sombrero.”

Thanks for reading,

-Noemí

Full article:

May a white model wear dreadlocks? Is a white male novelist allowed to tell his story through a black female character? Am I permitted to wear a sombrero and say Olé!?
The answer is a firm no, unless you want the politically correct (PC) trolls on your back. Welcome to the wacky world of cultural appropriation, now trending where PC is spoken.
At first glance it all seems so ridiculous. East Anglia university students union bans sombreros for mocking Mexicans. Designer Marc Jacobs creates outrage at the New York fashion week by decorating his mainly white models in dreadlocks. Male novelist Chris Cleave riles critics by telling the story in Little Bee from the points of view of two women, one black and the other white.
Those who rage about these transgressions argue that the “appropriators” are behaving like colonials and misappropriating elements of the dominated culture. Outrageous? Maybe not.
A few years ago Land Rover quickly withdrew a locally-made TV ad in South Africa that showed the bare breasts of a Namibian tribeswoman “pointing” in erect excitement at a passing 4×4. It’s virtually impossible to count the number of issues raised by this ad. But South Africans knew why the makers found it funny and not all viewers were appalled.
US novelist Lionel Shriver intentionally annoyed elements of an Australian literary audience with a speech pointing out the many stupidities in the debate. She did this while wearing a sombrero. Unsurprisingly, she got exactly the reaction she wanted. One mixed-race social activist who stormed out tweeted that Shriver provided an “unfettered celebration of the exploitation of the experiences of others”.
Most cultural appropriation is more subtle. The Rolling Stones appropriated black American music (or should that be African-American?) and made millions from it. Mylie Cyrus made her mark with the twerk appropriated from African dancing. Sports teams call themselves chiefs and redskins, and so on.
Libertarians defend the rights of anyone to say or wear anything. They bewail the new political correctness of the lefty-liberals — mainly millennials — who are quick to censor through attack, bans and ridicule.
This is an especially dangerous space for marketers who are desperate for strong images to flash online for a Snapchat generation which is as quick to ignore as it is swift to judge.
The fashion and cosmetics industry is particularly vulnerable, mainly because those who inhabit this other-worldly place are often gloriously naïve about the real world. Some time ago the editor of the UK edition of GQ magazine was fired after running a feature on the high style of the Nazis. All those tight black leather coats and high boots were so seductive that the editor could not foresee the consequences of his decision.
The creative industries spend their lives borrowing and enhancing other people’s ideas. This sampling is part of the creative process and integral to innovation. But when does borrowing become appropriation? For me, it is when borrowing becomes stealing for financial gain. The appropriation debate is really about economic dominance and exploitation.
For example, you often see the Massai tribe of Kenya depicted in ads. Their bright colours, pogo dancing, legendary bravery and regal elegance provides striking visuals and an emotional backdrop for everything from cars to make-up.
Is this borrowing or stealing? If the car company pays the tribe well for using its imagery, then, for me, this is simply commerce and the tribe is capitalising on its intellectual property. But if the tribe’s style is simply taken, then it becomes appropriation (stealing) and should be condemned.
Cultural appropriators are invariably the economic dominators. Anyone interested in a fairer society should be seeking a better balance between the haves and have nots.
But where does that leave us with the cultural sleights of everyday life? Should non-Mexican students be banned from wearing sombreros? Should it be a faux pas to don dreadlocks for a fancy dress party? How worried should we be about others trying to edit our lives?
Maybe we should just chill. The current outrage about cultural appropriation is probably part of our evolution to becoming a fairer society. After all, performers don’t black-up anymore. And nobody writes illustrated children’s stories with gollywogs.
Relax, yes, but we should also protect our right to expression even if we cause a little offense in the process. Cultural appropriation has unfortunately got caught up in the current liberal-left censorship crusade with its micro-aggressions, safe spaces and no-platforming.
I’m off to find a safe space to wear my sombrero.
(Originally published: 10.28.16)