Cultural appropriation: Moving beyond public apologies

How can companies and individuals do better when responding to public backlash about incidents of cultural appropriation? Vivian Dang explores this and the fine line between appropriation and appreciation as she unpacks the most recent case of cultural appropriation by a white-owned company called The Mahjong Line.

Lately, the term, “cultural appropriation” has generated debate around what respectful “borrowing” actually looks like. While the ensuing public outrage is valid, the social media “court” dynamic that plays out often veers toward “cancel culture.”

Generally speaking, when a white individual or business appropriates culture, the following tends to happen:

  1. Public outrage is expressed, demanding accountability and calls to action on a social media account. The virality of the post often generates media coverage by various news outlets.
  2. The individual/business in question releases an apology or statement that typically incites mixed reactions, depending on how the apology is executed. 
  3. The conversation typically ends at the apology, limiting opportunities for the individual/company in question to engage in meaningful dialogue or tangible action.

Recently, this unproductive pattern was observed through The Mahjong Line, whose “respectful refresh” to traditional mahjong tiles stoked fiery debates around the cultural appropriation of a beloved game that is often perceived as a Chinese cultural icon

The Botanical Line by the MahJong Line
The Botanical Line: Paris Pink Release from The Mahjong Line.
Photo credit: Pinterest

After facing intense backlash, co-founders Kate LaGere and Annie O’Grady,— two white women—eventually released a statement on Instagram to apologize. The rhetoric used in the statement—which some deemed a “fauxpology”—backfired, and fuelled mounting criticism among the Asian community over the negative impacts that cultural appropriation continues to create among marginalized cultures.

In the age of cancel culture, these conversations raised important questions about how organizations can move forward in a meaningful and productive way, beyond the requisite public apology.

It also forces us, as the Asian community, to reconsider how we navigate and transcend this right/wrong dichotomy when it comes to cultural appropriation.

How can we move forward beyond public outrage to empower these organizations to learn and educate themselves in a way that generates tangible action?

Understanding cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is a multi-faceted, yet broad term that has been subject to interpretation.

Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “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.”

The ambiguity around the term “taking” has created complex dialogues around what this actually looks like.

Jenni Avins, lifestyle reporter at Quartz, argues that cultural appropriation “isn’t just inevitable; it’s potentially positive,” explaining that the “exchange of ideas, styles, and traditions is one of the tenets and joys of a modern, multicultural society.” 

While culture can certainly be shared and appreciated, Adrienne Keene, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, indicates that cultural appropriation goes beyond a “simple borrowing of cultural elements or an equal cultural exchange – it’s a much more insidious, harmful act that reinforces existing systems of power.” 

“Decontextualized ‘native’ designs” are pervasive in the world of fashion (see: Karlie Kloss’ headdress in the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show). Commercializing and commodifying sacred, cultural artifacts in a disrespectful way erases its cultural significance and rich history.

Image of Karlie Kloss wearing a culturally appropriated headdress at the 2012 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show
Photo credit: CR Fashion Book

But this doesn’t mean that cultural inspiration is off-limits. The major difference lies in respect and power dynamics. 

During the development of The Mahjong Line, the white co-founders needed to first ask themselves whether they were educated enough about the heritage and significance of mahjong to properly design this product. Second, they needed to ask themselves who was benefiting from this cultural “borrowing” — particularly as they took credit for “their collective baby, The Mahjong Line.” 

Did they consider how framing language in this manner centres it on white discourse? In doing so, they focus their communication solely on an American narrative without proper credit and acknowledgment to mahjong’s rich culture.

See also: From personal to popular: the Westernization of traditional Chinese medicine

Cultural erasure

Had the co-founders of The Mahjong Line taken the time to conduct proper research or consult an expert to understand how to respectfully integrate inspiration from mahjong, there could have been an opportunity for proper cultural exchange.

Instead, they centred their narrative and designs around a need to improve the game and cater “to the stylish masses.”

While the co-founders were inspired by mahjong, they failed to properly reference its Chinese origins in their now-removed “You ask, we answer” FAQ page on their website.

Previous screenshots revealed that the co-founders only credited China in two sentences, while highlighting that mahjong evolved to become “distinctly American.”

In a recent interview with NBC News, Annelise Heinz, a mahjong historian and assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon points out the “…lack of genuine and actual engagement with Chinese people who are connected to this culture and history. What we’re seeing here is a real ignorance of this history that remains ignored in American education.”

If companies and individuals want to honour cultures properly, it’s important to invite collaboration from the culture they’re borrowing from, to allow space for dialogue and education. 

This opportunity would have averted The Mahjong Line’s attempt to abbreviate “Mahjong”, 麻將 (májiàng)—which originates from 麻雀 (máquè), meaning “sparrow” in Chinese—to “Get your Mahj on.”  When you understand the name itself, it’s clear that shortening the English name is nonsensical.

In an attempt to simplify the tiles, the co-founders modified the colour palette, unintentionally confusing each unique character on traditional mahjong tiles. Traditionally, the artwork and characters on each individual tile symbolizes different meanings that are integral to understanding the game.

Cultural appreciation done right

At the 2015 Met Ball’s China: Through the looking glass exhibition, the Costume Institute consulted historians, curators from the Department of Asian Art and Chinese filmmaker Wong Kar Wai (known for his critically-acclaimed film In the Mood for Love) as the exhibition’s artistic director.

This created intentional dialogue that allowed them to pay proper respect and homage to China, without diverging into an offensive Oriental theme.

Rihanna appeared in the “Magnificent Gold”, a lavish gown by Chinese designer Guo Pei and cultural artifacts were displayed side-by-side to directly reference each Western designer’s Chinese-inspired haute couture gown.

Rihanna wearing the "Magnificent Gold," a gown by Chinese designer Guo Pei
Photo credit: Vanity Fair

The goal behind the exhibition, according to curator Andrew Bolton, was “to recast Orientalism in a more positive light as ‘an exchange of ideas and an honoured source of influence.’”

This framing of Orientalism through the lens of Western fashion marked a significant difference in comparison to the downfall of The Mahjong Line’s problematic, whitewashed tiles which centred primarily around a white discourse and ignored their cultural meaning.

This need to “save” mahjong from its boring aesthetic is rooted in postcolonial discourse, where “anti-Asian racism and colonialism” became “enmeshed” in the centuries-old game.

However, it’s important to recognize that mahjong tiles have also evolved over time and Heinz warned against “drawing strict boundaries around mahjong.”

The desire to hold on tightly in an effort to preserve culture is constraining—if we couldn’t share food across cultures and allow it to be integrated into Western cuisine, we wouldn’t be able to explore or appreciate different aspects of cultures.

But if the co-founders of The Mahjong Line understood the meaning and history behind mahjong and properly referenced its Chinese origins, would their Western refresh and artistic liberties be considered less disrespectful?

Therein lies a challenge between holding white businesses or individuals accountable for veering into disrespectful cultural appropriation, while also allowing for respectful and meaningful evolution of culture, especially when individuals or businesses want to borrow cultural elements and integrate it into their work. 

Creating a bridge towards diversity, equity, and inclusion

Mahjong is more than just a game. For former Cold Tea Collective staff writer Courtney Chu, “learning to play Mahjong helps you feel closer to your roots. For many, Mahjong is associated with family, interconnection and Chinese culture.

The co-founders’ lack of accountability for how their ignorance profoundly impacts the Chinese community, is a recurring issue among white individuals and businesses who purport to aspire to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

In their apology, The Mahjong Line’s focus was to explain the intent behind their actions. 

But for respectful and productive conversations to take place, the co-founders needed to articulate what their next steps were, which would have demonstrated genuine accountability and ownership.

See also: Dear Corporations – it’s time to actually be anti-racist

Done properly, these conversations can be a productive exchange, as exhibited through the recent Vancouver Canucks controversy, in which they hired a non-Indigenous artist from Sweden to design a custom goalie mask— a copyrighted “replica of the Thunderbird on the Stanley Park totem pole originally designed by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt Sr.”

Photo courtesy: Mike Wavecran

Seeing this as an opportunity to rectify a negative situation, Luke Marston, a Coast Salish artist and member of the Stz’uminus First Nation, reached out to Francesco Aquilini, the owner of the Vancouver Canucks, which led to meaningful collaboration and a learning opportunity for the Canucks.

Looking ahead and creating space for change

To empower individuals and organizations like The Mahjong Line to learn from their mistakes, we also need to allow time for them to move towards intentional reform and authentic progress. With proper dialogue and exchange, this can lead to systemic change as they ingrain processes to avoid future incidents of appropriation and improve cultural awareness.

In the same way that Marston led by example, we can also create a bridge and build a path towards powerful collaboration. 

Let’s rethink how we can be more productive and transcend our outrage towards a productive conversation that creates space for positive transformation.

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