I’m trying to establish a better morning routine than checking my email almost immediately upon waking, but this morning I was sleepy, up a little earlier than usual to tie my son’s high-school-graduation-photo tie and make him breakfast, and operating by habit.
I picked up my iPhone and checked my email from bed. A rejection message caught my eye. I had recently applied through a popular service-to-client matching freelance site to help a real estate company with their website. The rejection said,
“Natasha, I will not be using your company. I think that it’s lamentable that you would feel the need to bring up race in your profile description.”
Unable to recall what I wrote in our profile so long ago, I gave Mr. King the benefit of the doubt. Did I write something ambiguous about race (weird— I loathe ambiguity in communication)? Did I misspell something or misstate something? My heart caught in my throat as I feared that I may have been accidentally hurting people of colour for months through poor writing.
Eventually, after mining through poor UX design, I found the link that would let me read my profile description. I sighed and shook my head.
What lamentatious thing did I say?
After stating three or four short paragraphs of other information, the profile description simply included this one sentence:
“Our work is intersectional, culturally aware, and does not appropriate from non-white cultures for the benefit of white companies and audiences.”
Because if a potential client wanted to ask us to do something like this (photo below) for them, we’d have to decline:
I found this example of cultural appropriation months ago through a Pinterest post that appeared one day in my feed. I saved it in our Pinterest board titled “What not to do”. (Warning: Some really gross misogynistic ads on that board.)
It’s unrelated to Mr. King; it’s just an example of what I meant when I wrote, “Our work […] does not appropriate from non-white cultures for the benefit of white companies and audiences.”
The graphics themselves, the gold and black combo, are beautiful, but this company— very likely run by white people— is representing people of colour through some exaggerated facial features, and representing their sacred symbols (or might even be making up some symbols which I and maybe you wouldn’t even recognize as made-up because we’ve never taken the time or interest to care about what is authentic in those cultures).
“Exotic” is like saying “other than the norm” or “not normal” and whether that specific word is used or not, it’s a message often communicated in marketing, through other language or artwork, to sell products like this coffee to white people.
When the cultures of people in South America and Africa are “exotic” to us, it’s because they did not go out into the world to rape, pillage, and murder us, and then force their symbols, language, and culture into our lives. They are exotic because we are dominant. And we’re only dominant because of violent colonialism. White people today are not directly to blame for the raping, pillaging, and murdering done hundreds and thousands of years ago. But we do benefit from the dominance and advantages our skin colour has allowed us because we look like the people who did rape, pillage, and murder and who set up our culture as one which privileges people who look like us. At Risk Creative, we think it’s a good idea, at the very least, to not flaunt our privilege through cultural appropriation.
Imagine breaking into someone’s home after relentlessly bullying them for being different, destroying their home, assaulting or killing them, then finding the odd feature about them that you like, stealing it, and using it to make money, or for your own pleasure, which in no way benefits them.
That’s exactly what we’re doing when we appropriate.
Partner Lynne Risk and I don’t feel good about that. It doesn’t seem like an unusual, brave, or confrontational line to draw to say that we won’t do this. And on this global freelancing website, it’s very possible to run into people wanting us to do work we don’t feel good about. It saves us time if they can filter themselves out.
Thank you for being honest, Mr. King for, with lamentation(!), filtering yourself out! We are not a business match. But if you’re ever in our area and want to discuss further race relations and how it’s the responsibility of white people to dismantle racism, let’s grab a cup of ethical coffee together.