Steps to Avoid Cultural Appropriation When Planning an Event
Practice cultural appreciation by following these steps for a non-appropriating gathering
Cultural appropriation has been a hot topic for several years now. When a dominant culture "borrows" elements from a different or minority culture without understanding or showing respect towards its history or significance, it is appropriating that culture. The conversation tends to revolve around the entertainment and fashion industries, for instance when Coachella attendees received criticism for wearing the Native American traditional headdress as a costume piece. By now many of us have become more conscious in our efforts towards cultural non-appropriation in our fashion choices but are we applying the same mindfulness to our social gatherings?
Over the course of my career I’ve attended countless events and I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve walked into a venue and have been appalled and sometimes offended by the theme. As the theme was usually a culture of a marginalized group that was not directly related to the organization, attendees, nor the objective of the gathering. The theme was selected based on the allure of the exoticism of that geographic location or ethnic group. Sometimes sprinkled with details that could only be described as stereotypical.
It’s important to note that a culture is not a “theme” or an aesthetic. In the process of planning an event you seek inspiration from other regions and cultures but often times the appreciation crosses over into appropriation. Here are some steps on how to avoid cultural appropriation when planning an event based on a culture:
Consider the Theme
If in the process of brainstorming the theme or design of your event you’ve come up with one based on a specific culture the next thing to do is to consider its appropriateness. If the organization, attendees, or other contributors can directly relate to the culture then it may be suitable to go ahead. In some occasions the purpose of the gathering may be correlated to the culture and critical to respectably incorporate into the overall event or perhaps the location of the event is foreign to the attendees where you may find it possible to highlight the culture of that area in an honorable manner. In order to avoid cultural appropriation don’t pursue a theme based on a culture that the majority of those planning or attending do not belong to.
So your theme is based on a culture, what should you do next? If you are developing the theme and you do not belong to the culture then it’s time to do your research. Go beyond Pinterest and try watching documentaries, reading articles, listening to native music, and studying the art. It’s not okay to borrow elements from that culture for your event without first understanding the history and its significance. Misrepresenting a culture due to the lack of diligent research can be harmful to cultural groups still struggling to be accurately recognized in our modern society.
It’s not okay to borrow elements from that culture for your event without first understanding the history and its significance.
The following step is to partner with people who belong to that ethnic culture to lead the development of the event design. Give them a head seat at the table, the earlier they are involved in the planning process the better. Make sure that their input is met with empowerment and if appropriate compensation. The desire to collaborate must be genuine and should be met with sensitivity in order to avoid tokenism. This is more than a consultation role, this person is sharing their personal experience and the significance of their traditions. Once you start seeking vendors it is a great opportunity to work with those who also belong to that ethnic culture. For example if your menu is based on Indian cuisine, hire an Indian owned company to cater your event.
It’s time to bring your vision to life! You’ve developed a design that commemorates that culture and you know what elements you want to include, but sourcing items can lead to either exploitation or contribution. Take for example pottery, there are numerous types of pottery that are unique to specific cultures, such as talavera which can be seen below. With the rise of mass production, popular types of pottery are replicated and sold, sometimes at a lower price, by retailers not associated with, nor made by, the respective cultural group therefore exploiting the art and culture. It’s vital for your event elements to be authentically made in order to support the preservation and continuation of that culture.
If you’ve chosen to highlight a culture make sure that those that belong to that cultural group who have not only shared their cuisine, music, art, textiles, flowers, and ceramics but also their real experiences receive credit. Create opportunities in order to recognize them and their efforts in the actual event such as: providing signage of the origin of the flowers, inviting a key note speaker from that region, donating to an organization that promotes the development of that culture, having the chef explain the unique cooking techniques, or endorsing the vendors through online reviews.