Cultural appropriation can have a negative impact on both the employees and the business—including causing harm to people of marginalized cultures, creating an uncomfortable or hostile workplace, and, eventually, leading to issues with employee engagement and retention.
“Cultural appropriation can result in significant pain for employees, customers, or other people associated with the workplace who see important cultural traditions trivialized, misused, or dishonored,” says Roxy Manning, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and certified Center for
Nonviolent Communication trainer that’s worked, consulted with, and provided training on how to build more equitable and diverse workplace cultures at businesses, nonprofits, and government organizations across the U.S. Manning is also the author of How to Have Antiracist Conversations: Embracing Our Full Humanity to Challenge White Supremacy.
“At best, you’ve stimulated pain for important stakeholders,” Manning continues. “At worst, you’ve lost their trust and goodwill, which can result in direct business losses and employee turnover.”
From entry-level employees all the way up through the C-suite, it’s important for everyone in the workplace to understand what cultural appropriation is—and, just as importantly, how to avoid it.
What exactly is cultural appropriation? How does it manifest in the workplace? How can you avoid it—both at an individual and organizational level?
“Cultural appropriation refers to the use of aspects from one culture, usually by a dominant or privileged culture, without respect, understanding, or without permission,” says Brizia Ceja, founder of Inclusiva Consulting, a consulting firm working with companies both in the US and Mexico, specializing in DEI and employee experience.
Cultural appropriation can take a variety of forms; some examples include:
A white person dressing as a Native American for Halloween—and either perpetuating harmful stereotypes or incorporating significant cultural elements into their costume (like a headdress) without understanding the context.
A white chef opening up a Mexican restaurant and profiting off of traditional Mexican recipes.
A white fashion designer who uses African prints in their designs—but doesn’t share any of the profits with the tribes where those prints originated.
A white person wearing their hair in traditionally Black styles, like braids or locs—while Black people are discouraged (or in some cases, fired) for wearing the same hairstyles.
Cultural appropriation can cause serious harm to the people whose culture is being appropriated. “Cultural appropriation can cause the reinforcement of stereotypes and undermine the importance of cultural traditions, thus affecting negatively already marginalized communities,” Ceja says.
Because cultural appropriation can be both harmful and hurtful, understanding how to avoid it at work (and in life!) is extremely important.
It’s important to highlight that cultural appropriation is different from cultural appreciation. Cultural appreciation can be a way to acknowledge, celebrate, and learn about other cultures, which can be an extremely enriching experience.
“We can appreciate another culture appropriately,” Manning says. “If I love a certain culture’s art and design, I can go to that culture and learn about the design, understand how and in what contexts it is used, and what usages are trivializing, and purchase items for appropriate use from members of that culture who will direct me in the correct usage, and who will benefit from the sale of the items.
“In this case of cultural appreciation, the originating culture gets to control what is shared of their culture, how it is used, and who benefits from that sharing,” Manning continues.
On the flip side, “In cultural appropriation, the originating culture loses control of their cultural artifacts,” Manning says. “Someone outside their culture directs the usage, often in ways that do not provide education and guidelines about culturally respectful use and in fact can trivialize the culture and reinforce harmful stereotypes…and most of the financial and social benefit goes to the person appropriating the cultural artifact, not to members of the culture itself.”
While you can and should appreciate other cultures (by enjoying their music or art, for example), it’s important to make sure you’re not appropriating them—which includes profiting off of another culture without sharing those profits, using elements of another group without understanding the cultural significance, using elements of another community in a disrespectful or trivializing way, or perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
On an individual level, avoiding cultural appropriation is fairly simple; if something doesn’t come directly from your culture, don’t take ownership of it in any way. If you do incorporate something from another culture into your work or life, make sure that you’ve done your research, acknowledge (and, in certain situations, compensate) the culture of origin, and move forward in a respectful way (for example, making sure that you’re not perpetuating any harmful stereotypes).
That being said, cultural appropriation may not always be obvious. For example, let’s say you’re on the marketing team,and you’re trying to determine whether you can use a cultural song to support an upcoming product launch. On one hand, the culture in discussion is a large part of your target demographic. On the other hand, you don’t want to use the song in a way that would be considered offensive or disrespectful.
In that situation, the best thing you can do? Ask.
“If you’re not sure, get consent,” Manning says. “Go to an appropriate representative of the culture to ask.”
However, don’t go to someone at work—particularly someone that reports to you—to ask for permission. Instead, seek out public representatives from that community.
“Don’t ask a subordinate at work from that culture if this is OK. There is enormous pressure on them to acquiesce, and one person does not represent a culture,” Manning says. “Find elders and institutions from the subordinate culture who are trusted representatives, then seek consent.”
If you do connect with a person or organization to ask about cultural appropriation, remember that it’s not their job to educate you—and if they do, you need to compensate them for their time.
“If you seek out someone from that culture to educate you, don’t take their time for granted,” Manning says. “Either seek out institutions that provide the service for free, or pay the person—even if it’s a friend—for their time.”
It’s important to avoid cultural appropriation for yourself, but what if you observe someone else at work—for example, a colleague or manager—appropriating another culture?
In that situation, you may want to speak up.
“If cultural appropriation is a practice of the culture you belong to, then speak up if it feels safe and appropriate to do so,” Manning says. Just speak up on your own behalf. You’re not a spokesperson for that culture, so it’s important to stick to your own experience.
For example, don’t say, “I think Black people would be offended by using this music in our commercial.” Instead, highlight what you don’t agree with, like, “I don’t know the origin of this song, and before we use it, I think it’s important for us to understand where it comes from and the meaning it has to the Black community—as well as develop a plan for how we’re going to acknowledge and compensate their community for using one of their cultural songs in our campaign.”
“If it is not part of your culture, you can still speak up, but please take ownership of why you’re speaking up,” says Manning. “Don’t say, ‘I think Black people would be upset if we use those lyrics in the ad campaign.’ Such language, on behalf of members of the subordinate group, suggests that only Black people would be offended—but you, the speaker, are actually OK.”
By taking this approach, “it’s no longer an othering stance but an inclusive intervention,” Manning says.
While standing up and speaking out is always an option, Manning stresses that you shouldn’t feel obligated to do so—particularly if it’s your culture that’s being appropriated.
“People from subordinate cultures are often in power-down positions from work,” Manning says. “If you worry you will be targeted or punished for speaking up, really check in to see if you want to take on this risk. There is a huge benefit to all if you can speak up, and at the same time, it’s important for you not to risk anything you can’t afford to lose.”
Cultural appropriation is complex, and there are a number of different elements that contribute to it. Some of the key elements of cultural appropriation include:
Power imbalances: A power imbalance is one of the foundational elements of cultural appropriation. “Cultural appropriation often occurs when a dominant or privileged culture borrows elements from a marginalized or oppressed culture,” Ceja says. “The dominant culture typically has more social, economic, and political power, while the marginalized culture may have a history of oppression or discrimination.”
Lack of understanding: Cultural appropriation comes from a lack of awareness and understanding of another culture—or even a lack of wanting to be aware of or understand that culture. For example, a person may buy an article of clothing because they like the pattern, but not realize that the symbols on the clothing are actually sacred or spiritually significant to another culture.
Context: In addition to a general lack of understanding, not understanding the context of certain elements of another culture often leads to cultural appropriation. “It is important to understand…social and historical context,” Ceja says. “It can determine whether an action is appropriation or appreciation.”
Disrespect: Cultural appropriation in all of its forms is disrespectful to marginalized communities, whether by perpetuating incorrect or harmful stereotypes; misusing spiritual and/or sacred artifacts, songs, stories, or music; or by profiting off of their culture without either acknowledging or compensating the culture of origin.
Need more clarity on what cultural appropriation is? Here are some real-life examples to help you better understand the concept:
Kendall Jenner’s 818 tequila brand has come under fire for an accused lack of recognition of the Mexican workers who produce the alcohol. Moreover, the label reads “blanco tequila,” a grammatical error in Spanish—it should read “tequila blanco.”
As part of a collaboration for Pharrell Williams, Adidas released a line of sneakers that have the Xhosa word uluntu on the shoes. The language is spoken by an ethnic group in South Africa and means “community,” although Adidas described it inaccurately as meaning “human race.” To add insult to injury, the shoe is not even being sold in South Africa.
Self-help guru James Arthur Ray incorporated a sweat lodge, a sacred practice adopted from Native American culture, into his retreats. Ray did not properly recreate the ritual, using plastic tarps to cover the lodges,which ultimately led to the death of three people during a 2009 retreat in Sedona, AZ.
Garden Creamery in San Francisco is owned by Erin Lang, who is white. Many people on social media have called for a boycott of the ice cream shop—which sells Asian-inspired flavors like Thai tea and coconut pandan—for cultural appropriation.
Indigenous art being copied and sold as originals is a problem in countries across the globe—including in Australia, where, according to government estimates, a whopping 75% of Aboriginal art sold is actually fake, and in Canada, where artists have called for legislation to protect Indigenous art and more harshly prosecute the criminals who steal and profit from the practice.
Kali Wilgus and Liz “LC” Connelly studied and “borrowed” the recipes of women in Puerto Nuevo, Mexico, to create and sell handmade tortillas out of their Kooks Burritos food truck. There is some debate as to whether their actions actually qualify as cultural appropriation; some say learning food-making techniques from other cultures is not the same as stealing that culture's ideas to use as one’s own, while others believe the originators deserve credit and compensation for their recipes. In light of the controversy, the food truck closed in 2017.
In Food and Wine magazine, Reina Gascon-Lopez writes that many viral food dishes—and the blogged recipes behind them—ignore the cultural significance of the dishes. Usually written by white bloggers, these recipes usually don't give credit to the cultures that created the dishes.
Michael Che, who wrote the sketch “Gen Z Hospital” for an episode featuring Elon Musk, faced criticism for the nature of the sketch, which purportedly mocked Gen Z slang. Many of the phrases actually came from African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
Predominantly white models displayed Marc Jacobs’ line while sporting hand-dyed wool dreadlocks, which led to accusations of cultural appropriation. Jacobs later apologized for the “lack of sensitivity” in his initial response to the controversy, an Instagram comment in which he stated, “I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race—I see people.”
Attendees of these festivals are notorious for wearing culturally appropriated items such as headdresses, war paint, bonnets, bindis, and more.
Miley Cyrus was criticized for twerking, imitating a dance style that has African-American roots, during her performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.
In 2019, Dior launched an ad campaign for Parfums Christian Dior. The ad, which featured Johnny Depp, caused serious backlash for the brand, with critics claiming the ad was both racist and appropriated Native American culture.
Wearing headdresses, blackface, kimonos, and other clothing, symbols, and facets of other cultures as costumes is a form of cultural appropriation since these styles often have significance in other cultures and are worn for specific occasions (or, in the case of blackface, are just plain wrong). (Try these ideas instead.)
Trends like cornrows and wearing chopsticks as hair accessories “borrow” from Black and Asian cultures, which can be seen asr being inappropriate and inaccurate.
The U.S. has had many sports teams take on names and mascots that are symbols or titles of Native American tribes, which are currently undergoing or have recently undergone name changes. (For example, the NFL’s Washington Commanders were previously known as the Washington Redskins.)
Many people will refer to an animal, thing, or even another person as their “spirit animal,” but spirit animals are a sacred practice in some Native American cultures, with many saying the appropriation of the term is trivializing.
Some people get tattoos of symbols or characters from other cultures, often ones they don't understand or whose history they don’t fully appreciate.
Many cultures have “borrowed” music from others without giving the original artists credit. An example is rock ‘n' roll, including Elvis Presley, who based many of his songs on the style and lyrics of Black musicians.
Some people take on the speech patterns and dialects of other cultures, such as Black culture.
The following behaviors are always cultural appropriation, and you should avoid them:
The Native American headdress, for example, is reserved for respected elders in the community and a spiritual symbol.
If you don’t know the history of something and where it first originated, do your research before using it—and give credit where credit is due.
For example, it is never, ever OK to wear blackface.