Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation: How to Find the Balance in the Workplace?



Three housemates were going to a 70’s-themed party. Dave decided to dress up as Bob Marley – he got a Rasta Jamaican hat and a dreadlocks wig, jeans, and a t-shirt with a Jamaican flag on it. Sam had a huge row with him, saying that this was cultural appropriation, and that white people were treating Jamaican black culture and the Rasta religion disrespectfully by treating it as dress-up material for a party. Helen accused Sam of being overly sensitive. They had a huge row, with Sam refusing to go to the party.


Whose Side Are You On?

Who do you relate to most closely? 

Helen is convinced that this whole deal with appropriation has gone too far. She is comfortable with diversity and understands that people are different, but isn’t it better to just focus on yourself and get on with life? All this harks back to the past and fencing off certain things belonging to one culture or another – surely that’s a bit extreme? She’s not privileged – she’s had to work hard to get where she is, so all this negativity is over the top.

Dave is just living his life, trying to have fun and not rock the boat too much. He likes Bob Marley’s music, although it’s a bit old-fashioned. But the wig was quite cheap, so it’s an easy costume to put together – and it’s not like he’s blacking his face up, is he? He knows that’s not good – although he’s not quite sure why.

Or Sam? Sam can trace her family back to a cotton plantation and her surname is the family name of the slave owner that transported her ancestors from Jamaica. Sam is not political, but she is very proud of her heritage and is annoyed when people stereotype her. For her, the costume is not nearly as bad as Dave’s awful Jamaican accent. 


The Power of the Majority

Cultural appropriation is an extremely difficult topic – at what point is something universal and when is it reductive and insensitive towards the pain of an individual or a group? 

The term itself is not as recent as you might think. It began to be used in the 1980’s, particularly in academic circles to look at the relationship between majority cultures and a minority culture in the context of racial and ethnic conflict. We could even consider the Roman empire’s assimilation of the Greek pantheon of gods and their adoption of religions from the nations they conquered as a form of cultural appropriation. 

At its basis, cultural appropriation is the use of cultural symbols and icons in order to subjugate or damage a specific group of people, particularly where those people are already disenfranchised, disempowered or underrepresented. It is a tool associated with colonialism and domination of the weak by the strong. 


Where Is the Line?

How does that relate to a white man wearing a Rasta wig? This is where it gets complicated and controversial. 

More liberal opponents of the concept of appropriation put forward the argument that they cannot be held responsible for the crimes and racism of their ancestors. Dave was not there when Jamaicans were kidnapped and sold into slavery, nor has he ever employed slaves or promoted slavery. If we aren’t personally responsible for the pain, we are not accountable for the impact on others. It may be painful, and we should support those who need it, but the world has moved on.

This is a form of victim blaming, which avoids the issue. It suggests that the people impacted by past and present injustice are the ones who must change their behavior and attitude, rather than those who caused it or perpetuate the structures that benefit from that historical injustice.

But cultural appropriation also can fetishize difference. In other words, it creates an exaggerated sense of difference as something exotic. It takes a valuable symbol and turns it into a valueless short-term statement of fashion: a soft example would be the cross that many people wear as jewelry, which for some Christians has huge religious significance. This type of appropriation was behind the outrage against the trivialization of the Prophet Mohammed in the Charli Hebdo cartoon – something sacrosanct and priceless was treated as insignificant and cheap.

In both cases, the majority treats the concerns of the victims of injustice as irrelevant, insignificant, or overstated. Normality, the argument goes, does not place a value on those items, so you shouldn’t either.

Going back to Dave, Sam, and Helen. Dave has no particular attachment to the Rasta faith – for him, the symbols are meaningless and valueless decorations. If he considers Sam a friend, he must take time to understand their value to her. Helen has not considered how a personal experience of discrimination is amplified by disrespect towards cultural symbols valuable to Sam and her family. Sam does not appear to have the psychological safety to express her views confidently. It’s not her responsibility to educate Dave and Helen, however, and she should be able to rely on her friends to support her. 

There is an individual and personal cost to cultural appropriation. It removes respect and value from a cultural symbol and through implicit association from the person who places importance and value on it.


No easy rules or guidelines

It is clear that for some people, cultural appropriation is a big issue, and we must therefore not ignore it. The key to addressing it and reducing negative fallout is context. In any discussion about diversity and inclusion, we must accept that the majority is not the arbiter of right and wrong. There is no black-and-white answer (a particularly apt phrase for this topic!) which makes giving a simple solution very difficult.

Common sense is driven by those who have power – the dominant culture defines what is acceptable and normal, so clearly, we cannot rely on that. Similarly, it is not possible to predict every situation, item, or cultural icon that might cause offense.

However, we can have a basis for common understanding. If something has been used a symbol of cultural identity or repression of that identity, we should avoid ignorant use of it – Stars of David, the ‘n-word’, and the clenched fist salute are examples of things that are appropriate in very specific contexts, only with a full understanding of the impact and in a way that is used to build up and not cause offense. We must be guided by the cultural owners and be fully aware of the consequences.

We must avoid trivialization of anything that others value – celebrating Chinese culture by focusing on cheap replica Chinese food, using religious symbology in fashion, or in disrespectful ways. Indeed, the best counter to cultural appropriation is to treat the things other people consider important as if they were the things that you consider important.


A culture of psychological safety

Rather than creating a ‘policing culture’ that reactively disciplines those who get it wrong, it is much more constructive to create a culture of psychological safety that allows people to have discussions openly, to express the pain and the cause of pain without focusing on creating division. We must allow people to say that they are not comfortable with something without ostracizing others; we must also create a culture where it is safe to admit your ignorance and mistakes. When we normalize taking responsibility, we remove the defensiveness and aggression that often causes a difference of opinion to escalate.

Cultural appropriation, similar to microaggressions, is often born out of ignorance. Encouraging people to take an interest in each other as individuals, to value and respect differences, and to educate themselves moves from conflict to positivity; from a destructive culture to a learning culture. 


Facing up to the past

We must also acknowledge the impact of the past. White Europeans created their civilization on an economy significantly strengthened by exploiting people in their colonies. The colonial expansion that created the industrial revolution in Europe also nailed in poverty large parts of India. It broke up traditional tribal groupings in the entire continent of Africa by drawing random lines on maps, seeding much of the conflict that that continent has seen. 

Understanding ourselves and our past strengthens our ability to build an inclusive present and future. If we can recognize the value of difference, respect different perspectives and be inclusive of all, we will find that cultural appropriation is no longer an issue.

This post was written by Chris Crosby, CEO, and co-founder of Country Navigator. Country Navigator is provider of cultural diversity and inclusion training in the workplace, creating unique and tailor-made solutions for businesses through inclusion, innovation, and collaboration. From cultural influences to unconscious bias, Country Navigator’s cultural diversity and inclusion training give detailed and highly accurate analysis across parameters including explicit and implicit communication and individual and group identity. Chris has over 30 years of experience in helping leaders, teams, and organizations to work better across cultures.


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