The Calamity of Cultural Confusion:

Appropriation vs Appreciation

Cultural appropriation. A topic with a plethora of business, social, and personal implications that resides in an abyss of nebulosity for many presently inundates many discussions in the beer universe, and a countless number of perspectives have been offered as part of the conversation that all lead to a few common questions: What constitutes cultural appropriation? What qualifies a person to use a cultural staple as a reference or centerpiece of his or her artistic expression? How does one differentiate between appropriation and celebration or appreciation?

Appropriation in general is the act of using something as one’s own without the consent of the person to whom it belongs. This is extremely prevalent in the beer industry from an intellectual property standpoint. We see logos and artwork originating from everything from burger chains and candies to cartoon characters and children’s books depicted on cans and bottles from a craft beer community that demands to be respected as progressive innovators. Where does imitation end and innovation begin? It is imperative that this question is answered both thoroughly and honestly, especially when it comes to appropriation of the cultural variation, which could certainly be seen as a much more personal violation than that of intellectual property.

Some argue that intersectionality in the culture of the United States does not exist, by virtue of the nation being a “melting pot” that inherently includes aspects from many different cultures originating elsewhere, rendering the entire concept of cultural appropriation invalid, but with this country’s history being deeply rooted in colonization, oppression, and genocide, it is hard to dismiss the perception of those who see the majority as predatory with its use of minority cultures in artistic expressions, especially when these expressions are components of capitalistic ventures. Many cultural elements, in the African American community specifically, are the result of hardship and pain – experiences directly resultant from chattel slavery and its successor, the American variant of apartheid. Everything from the dishes our folks have created, which resulted from the necessity to be resourceful in using the scraps that were left over from Massa’s table, to our music, which evolved from both gospel roots and the hip hop movement of the 70’s and 80’s. These expressions bear the fingerprints of our experiences and those of our ancestors, and the two can seldom be separated. Our creations are just as much immersed in our cultures as we, the creators ourselves, are.

The argument has been made that cultural exchange is beneficial to society and that the benefits gained from this exchange preclude appropriation, as they benefit society as a whole. Unfortunately, to the contrary many have suffered oppression, ridicule, and genocide for our speech, vernacular, hairstyles, clothing, and music. We are told we sound uneducated, look “ghetto” and “suspicious,” and promote, division, debauchery, and violence. When we rock cornrows to work, we are met with ridiculous stares and told that our appearance is unprofessional, but when cornrows become “boxer braids” as a result of being worn by a prominent white woman, they somehow become all the latest craze. Suburban white kids can drive down the city streets blasting music detailing what life in the hood is like without issue, while black kids doing the same are labeled as “thugs” and have the police called on them, or worse (see Jordan Davis). Black people are seen as uneducated when we use Ebonics, but when white folks approach us attempting to speak using the same language they heard in one of their favorite rap songs, they are hardly seen the same way. As my late grandfather used to say, “An even swap ain’t no swindle!” Cultural appropriation is far from an even cultural exchange when everyone except the folks to whom the culture belongs is benefitting. One product has packaging that uses the name of a song by the late Biggie Smalls, whose career was a result of his ability to recount his experiences in his lyrics. Those same experiences came from an environment from which he was never completely able to separate, which ultimately resulted in his untimely murder. It is highly unlikely that the creators of the product or the packaging have experiences or struggles that are in any way similar to those that were expressed in Biggie’s work, yet they were comfortable using that work – the expression of his struggles – for profit. Many of us remember Ice Cube being asked why N.W.A.’s music glorified violence during a press conference, to which he responded by claiming that the music was a reflection of their reality (and no, seeing this while watching “Straight Outta Compton” does not give you license to create a product called N.W.Ale). N.W.A. got an inordinate amount of negative press, and it was clear that many outsiders were averse to the subject matter of their work, yet we’ve seen “Straight Outta [insert city or other entity here]” beers and t-shirts being marketed and consumed by white people who have no connection to anything even remotely resembling the lyrics in the song or the experiences depicted in the film. The minority whose culture is appropriated doesn’t get credit for the product that results from appropriation, but has long suffered the consequences and backlash. Minorities, and oppressed groups in general, have long used their oppression to create things that allow them to express their pain and recount their experiences, but now the oppressor is slapping a variant of this work on a label without regard for its meaning or respect for the experiences from which the work originated. Furthermore, when the time comes to put boots on the ground and stand against the oppression of the group they imitate, or deal with the negative consequences that result from identifying with the culture, these cultural cowards are nowhere to be found. “Everybody wanna be black ‘til it’s time to be black.”

With all of the above being said, it is important to note that simply enjoying the fruits of another culture through consumption is not inherently unconscionable; however issues do arise when a person seeks to capitalize on elements of a culture with which he or she does not identify, as well as when folks of the given culture are ridiculed and chastised for expressing their experiences, while others are given a pass when imitating. Another problem is a culture’s attire being worn as a costume, (and I could write an entire piece on Blackface, but I digress). Culture is not an outfit that can be tried on by people from the outside; it is something in which a person is immersed and from which he or she cannot be completely separated. Those of us in the minority do not have the luxury of distancing ourselves from our cultures when it would prove convenient or advantageous; society will continue to see us as black, female, homosexual, etc. and will interact with us accordingly. Folks who dip their toes in the sea of another culture in hopes to profit, especially those whose acts are completely unabashed, are the cultural appropriators who so desperately need correction. People who are present in another culture’s environment or activity, by invitation or otherwise, are guests in that culture’s space, and taking colloquiums, attire, art, music, or any other form of cultural expression from that space and using it as their own is akin to a guest taking an heirloom from the home of a host who had him or her over for dinner. It is impossible to appreciate or pay homage to something that is not understood or respected. I would challenge folks who believe they are appreciating a culture to be introspective and explore whether or not they understand what the item they are “borrowing” truly means to that culture, and if it is something that the culture admires or respects, the borrower needs to understand how to display or otherwise use the cultural artifact appropriately before continuing.

I was recently asked how I know when a culture is being appropriated. I would answer that with the following question, “How do you know when someone is infringing upon someone’s intellectual property rights?” The general populace has enough intellectual wherewithal to associate logos, lyrics, and other intellectual property with the entities to which they belong. Cultural elements are no different – we know to whom they belong. I would implore any brewery personnel who seek to use something from another culture to advertise to ask themselves a few questions. Do I identify with the culture from which this concept originated? Are people who do identify with said culture in any way demeaned for their use or practice of this concept? Does this concept originate from a group that is oppressed? These are questions that can help us all navigate an issue that can, at times, seem complex for some, but there one question that should remain in the forefront of craft beer’s mind if it wants to be seen as creative and innovative. Are we creating or imitating? The answer will make all the difference.



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