“I always wanted to decorate my memories with stereotypical imagery of a culture that is not my own from a country I’ve never visited.” Now I can. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath discusses recent examples of cultural appropriation in the scrapbook industry.
I am both a sociologist and a scrapbooker. I decided to make these two worlds collide when I opted to study scrapbookers for my doctoral research. I’ve spent several years observing and being frustrated by the reliance on stereotypes and tropes and the regularity with which cultural appropriation is used in the scrapbook industry.
The scrapbook industry regularly relies on stereotypes when marketing products and creating new products. Products are often intended for “girl” pages or “boy” pages, evidenced by not only the colors used, but the language used in product lines (e.g., “daddy’s little girl,” or “boys will be boys”). Wedding-themed products are typically designed for heterosexual and white occasions. And examples of layouts using these products almost always stay neatly within boundaries of of cultural representations of gender, heterosexuality, and so on.
The role of race and ethnicity, sadly, makes its appearance primarily through cultural appropriation.
The issue of cultural appropriation is nothing new in the industry, but at the winter Craft & Hobby Association there was the debut the Konnichiwa line from Basic Grey (for instance look at this and this) reduces Japanese people and Japanese culture to cute imagery that can be used as decor on scrapbook page and other paper crafts. They were not the only line using Japanese-inspired/racist imagery but this line showed up time and time again on lists of favorite releases from the show.
When I wrote my first response to this line on my own site, the reaction I got was that there really are Japanese geishas. While technically correct, this certainly isn’t modern Japanese culture. Today, there are at most a couple thousand woman who are geisha (the Interweb can’t give me an exact number) in Japan out of 127,450,460 people in Japan.
Cultural appropriation of Japanese culture is nothing new. Gwen Stefani used cultural appropriation of Japanese culture to sell her own music, image, clothing line, and a perfume line, while accusing her accusers of being racist. And there have been a number of examples of other cases of cultural appropriation in recent weeks, including from Nike and Urban Outfitters.
Cultural appropriation reinforces the idea that race and ethnicity is something you can just turn on and off whenever you want. In other words, cultural appropriation is related to symbolic ethnicity. Symbolic ethnicity refers to selectively choosing what parts of your ethnic heritage to celebrate (e.g., food or holidays) and which to ignore (e.g., politics or language). Practicing ethnicity symbolically means that you do not emphasize your ethnicity in daily life, but instead do so selectively, such as how many people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Cultural appropriation means that the culture you are celebrating symbolically is not even your own culture.
- What is cultural appropriation? What is symbolic ethnicity?
- Can you think of any examples of cultural appropriation?
- Do you or anyone you know have tattoos using Chinese or Japanese characters? ever wonder if those tattooed symbols are accurate? Read this article on these tattoos.
- Freakonomics asks the question, “who owns culture”? Do cultures have a trademark claim?