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Where Is the Fine Line Between Cultural Appropriation and Appreciation?

It’s increasingly common for big brands and corporations to sell products that have to do with Latinx culture. We see it in the United States, especially during Cinco de Mayo, Latinx Heritage Month, and Día de Muertos: cheeky product lines that “honor” these holidays and events. Time and time again, folks call out these brands for “cultural appropriation,” but the lesson never sticks.

This happens among Black, Asian, and indigenous communities, too. Businesses create caricatures of our identities and deeply personal traditions, only to capitalize off of it. There is a fine line between appropriating culture and genuine appreciation that most brands love walking every year, except they usually fall into the former. 

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is widely defined as an inappropriate adoption of another culture’s traditions, symbols, and practices. 

Dr. Wilson Valentín-Escobar, a public humanities and American studies professor at The New School, adds to this definition: “Cultural appropriation usually infers some level of misrepresentation, misuse, theft, and erasure.”

We’ve all seen examples of cultural appropriation before we even knew what it was. Taco Bell famously aired commercials starring Gidget the Chihuahua to advertise their chain restaurants. In fact, a coalition of Latino groups led a mass boycott against them because of the offensive advertisements.

The act of cultural appropriation changed once the Latinx demographic gained power; we now had the ability to influence others socially and politically. The people already at the top simply noticed and remained vigilant.

“Latinx people merged into a cultural marketing entity. In the context of us, there’s a push for marketing a community, and it’s often seen as the equivalence of power,” said Dr. Valentín-Escobar. “The difference is misrepresentations of the community, and it’s continued into the present day.”

So, whenever you see brands like Ralph Lauren selling a geometric-motif cardigan that looks exactly like pieces that Mexican indigenous communities make, just know they are asking you to pay an exorbitant price for a non-authentic garment — the perfect representation of cultural appropriation.

What are the effects of exploiting our culture in this way?

Businesses that market Latinidad often blatantly and carelessly exploit our culture. Their top concern is making a profit rather than being historically accurate or ethical. 

For example, take Puma’s now sold-out Frida Kahlo collection; the public knows the Mexican painter for her floral paintings, and those motifs take center stage in the workout wear collection. However, Kahlo’s personal anti-capitalist beliefs are also familiar to the general public, who have expressed that the collection goes against Frida’s values. It’s ironic for a brand to sell products that directly oppose their credence.

Once profits start to roll in, these companies and corporations have the power to continue doing the damage. It affects the hiring process, inclusion, and the process of making the big decisions behind closed doors.

“[Cultural appropriation] can include a voice, but it can also create an illusion,” said Dr. Valentín-Escobar. “It’s one thing to be sitting at the table and give that appearance, but if you’re not allowed to speak, then you really don’t have power.”

Another group of people in jeopardy? Small business owners, who make an honest living out of their work. Fast fashion brands are called out when they steal designs from small businesses, and sell the same product at an increased price.

Back in 2020, influencer Danielle Bernstein started selling linen masks with a mask chain on her shop after asking for samples of the same product from a small, Latina-owned business, Second Wind. It’s no secret how Bernstein got the idea, but her motives for thievery instead of shouting out the brand after receiving free product is textbook exploitation.

How can businesses celebrate cultures appropriately?

Dr. Valentín-Escobar says there are two ways that businesses can celebrate cultures in good taste, the first being businesses adopting more inclusive practices. Brands should work directly with people from the communities they aim to elevate, and their input should be a driving factor in creating a product. 

For example, this year Target collaborated with Latinx artists like Gabriel García Román and Jackie Rivera during Latinx Heritage Month. The big box store sold products they designed both in stores and online. 

The second solution is for brands to put their money where their mouth is, and share profits with the community. Partnering with and donating to organizations like the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, GreenLatinos, and others, would show how dedicated they are to appreciating our culture, instead of appropriating it.

At the end of the day, Dr. Valentín-Escobar reminds us, “It’s not doing the work for, it’s doing the work with.”

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