What if the Design Industry Loved Black People as much as it Loves Black Culture?

Cultural Appropriation is a dirty word today. Well, depending how one uses it and what group feels violated, it has always been a dirty word. Today’s entertainers are increasingly getting in hot water over it. Here is a short list:

  • Minstrel Shows. Nuff said. If you dont know what they are, google it.
  • In the 1950s, some black rock and roll artists’ album covers did not show their faces. Instead, it showed white people. This paved the way for white musicians to basically imitate black performers and grow wealthy from it.
  • The music from the British invasion in the 1970s (that includes the Beatles) was simply a reworking of reggae, blues and rock and roll styles from African American and Carribean Blacks.
  • In 1989, pop artist Madonna released her song and video ‘Like a Prayer’ which was filmed in, what looks like, a Catholic church. She freely used Catholic and Christian symbols in a video that was hypersexual. The Catholic Church was not happy.
  • In the early 1990s, controversy erupted around rap group Young Black Teenagers. The problem is the three group members were white. They stated on a talk show that ‘black is a state of mind.’ Their career was brief.
  • In 2014, Australian rap artist Iggy Azalea (see illustration below) was accused of appropriating a ‘blaccent’ (Black accent) to promote her career. Her response was very dismissive and her career hasn’t been the same since.
  • In 2017, a writer on Twitter called out Hawaiian born and raised pop artist Bruno Mars for appropriating ‘Black Funk’ music pioneered by various 70s and 80s bands. (Most of his sound and style is borrowed from Morris Day.)
  • There has been controversy around several pro sports teams regarding Native Americans: The Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Redskins. Along with the negative stereotypes that their names conjure up, their mascot symbols have been called out, too. None of them have changed their names or mascots.

As one can see, cultural appropriation is not a new idea. This is just the latest term. Other terms used are crossover, theft, adoption, co-opt, assimilation, stealing, imitating, acculturation, borrowing, etc. For example, it is well known by scholars that African American music is the fundamental basis for most American music and continues to influence global pop music. So, which of these terms would you use when African American music is created and performed by others who are not African American? What about when African American entertainers did not receive the full benefit of their art?

So, what is cultural appropriation?

Actress Amandla Steinberg gives a good definition in reference to Black culture in the video below. She says, “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.” Although she is primarily talking about fashion and entertainment, this still overlaps with visual communication.


But what does this have to do with graphic design?

According to Al Ries, author of Positioning: the Battle for your Mind, a brand is a singular idea or concept that you own inside the mind of a prospect. So, Al Jolsen’s blackface performances (where he imitated negative black stereotypes) helped him to become a brand just as, some argue, that Sofia Vergara’s portrayal of ‘fiery sexy Latina with a thick accent married to an older man’ on the Modern Family show furthers her brand. Whoever controls the narrative shapes the brand. So, ask this question: Who benefits from Al Jolson’s blackface and Vergara’s sexy Latina portrayals? In this digital age, consumers can have influence on how a brand is perceived. But sometimes, a company will employ surrogates to shape a message. For example, who did the NFL use to redefine Colin Kaepernick’s protest from the shooting of unarmed black men to disrespect for police and veterans? Is this a form of appropriation?

In 1987, Cheryl D. Miller wrote an article for Print Magazine titled Black Designers: Missing in Action. This article was written 30 years ago and is still relevant today:

…In his seminal book Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington wrote, “With few exceptions, the Negro youth must work harder and must perform his tasks even better than a white youth in order to secure recognition. But out of the hard and unusual struggle which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race.” One hundred years after this was written, even though most forms of overt discrimination have been outlawed, black students completing their education and entering the field professionally still encounter covert or unconscious discrimination. “Discrimination in hiring practices doesn’t take the same form as it once did,” says Glegg Watson, author of Black Life in Corporate America (Archive Press/Doubleday), “it is much more subtle. Although there have been some gains in corporate America for blacks and women, there are still area where blacks are not making penetration. Such areas include the financial, legal, and the graphic design communities.”

The difference today is that there are plenty of talented African American creatives. But if the above quote is still true, discrimination in hiring is still happening. There are plenty of stories from other designers of color about this. Listen to Revision Path podcasts and you will hear it. Most of the Black creatives I am aware of are not members of the trade associations in the graphic design and advertising fields and don’t attended design conferences. Their reason is because they are so ‘lily white’ and there are no workshops that address issues relevant to designers of color. Facebook groups like African American Graphic Designers and Black Designers United have given designers of color a place to find each other, network, share work and swap war stories. Yet even though we are not sought after in the graphic design and marketing industry, African American culture is mined to sell products/services.

A few examples are:

  • Kia Soul’s Hamster commercials drawing heavily from 1980s hip hop culture (music, fashion and dance).
  • Nike basketball sneaker marketing that continues to mine urban African American culture idioms around playing style and attitude.
  • The lastest fascination pop singers have with locks.
  • An Allure Magazine article instructing white women on how to achieve an afro.

Although I am not implicating specific graphic designers, we all know that branding and graphic design is blurring together these days. Brands make use of graphic design and advertising to reach their audience.

But different industries view cultural appropriation differently. For example, in the art and design world, cultural appropriation is viewed as cultural appreciation. It is an accepted POV that ideas are fluid and ephemeral. This is presupposed in any and every art class: it is assumed that whatever ideas are created, they will be made available for others to enjoy and to be inspired. A graphic designer would not be hired if this person could not demonstrate that they can produce multiple ideas. The industry of Graphic Design takes its cue from the aesthetics of the art world so it is not immune to the issue.

But let’s be honest, this cultural appreciation position devolves quickly in our digital globalized economy when commerce is involved.

It is becoming common today for accusations of artistic theft to be thrown around (Michelle Obama muralairbnb and Jayson Blair). Im sure if you look around the internet, you will find more.

Cultural appropriation is bittersweet for African Americans because history reveals that many of the most talented among us, past and present, have NOT financially benefitted from our own cultural contributions. (This is one reason why Illuminati talk is so common.) Is there a conspiracy to deprive African Americans of the wealth that their talents can produce? Many African Americans would say yes.

As African American culture is mined, the dominant culture also has a tendency to negatively label some aspects of the culture. Yet as some of the examples above show, when a fashion magazine, a new TV show or a branding campaign decides to utilize this same African American cultural expression/artifact, they have the ability to rebrand it as cool and it loses its stigma. 

But isn’t this what design is…the ability to recast or shape an idea? 

Amandla Stenberg asked: “What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we love Black culture?” Well, I am asking what would the design industry be like if it loved Black people as much as it loves Black culture?

For African Americans, no amount of diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives will solve the cultural appropriation problem because the dominant culture confuses cultural superficiality with real change. This confusion is common for people who have the privilege of sampling other cultures while distancing themselves from that people group. In the U.S., the dominant culture primarily enjoys this form of cultural relativism. But, just because you like rap music doesn’t mean Black people want to cozy up to you or just because you like salsa dancing doesn’t entitle you to an opinion on Latinos.

There is also a hard truth that we must admit: appropriating is a way of life for all Americans. Since we are a  wealthy country, unfortunately we can take what we want from around the globe. Whether we like to admit it or not, early rap music was built off of sampling music from other genres. But because of music copyright laws, the rap music became accustomed to paying royalties on sampled music. This gave it a form of legitimacy (although the owner of the music is usually not the artist). Certain forms of art can be copyrighted if you want to go through the trouble. But outside of logos and trademarks, can you copyright visual culture?

In spite of this, cultural elites maintain a hegemony of what to appropriate from African American culture without recognition or compensation because they have access to significant economic, cultural and political capital. As long as some D&I  efforts do not specifically address this capital imbalance and practices cultural superficiality, marginalized ethnic/cultural groups will not be viewed as equals. There will only be an emphasis on surface things that makes the majority feel like there is progress.

Here is a novel idea: Hire African American creatives because we bring a unique experience, POV and way of doing things to the table.