understand privilege and cultural appropriation as creation

I’ve seen American brands emerge that have harvested Japanese culture without much exchange. Take for example a popular New York-based matcha company co-founded by two white American men. On their website’s About page, they discuss the origins of their matcha product and describe it using terms coded in Asian exoticism like “ceremonial rank” and puns like “I Love You So Matcha!”

“Matcha has been a staple of Japanese drinking culture for over 1,000 years. We traveled all over Japan in search of the perfect source, finally locating the quintessential matcha grower in Uji (whose first harvest is sent directly to the Emperor of Japan). Ground from the youngest leaves, stems and veins removed, our ceremonial grade matcha is the real deal.

Their products and packaging have been rebranded to suit Western millennial audiences with loose script lettering for their logo and smooth, colorful gradients on their cans. Whether they think this is a way to honor a rich Japanese tradition or bring more visibility to Uji matcha leaf growers is unclear. I feel uncomfortable that a traditionally Japanese product that has been around for over 1,000 years has to be repackaged and splashed with millennial pink to be consumed or enjoyed by the American public.

These types of tropes are unfortunately commonplace in the world of design and commerce. While it’s easy to point the finger at the co-founders as the figureheads of cultural appropriation in this case, it’s also important to consider the economic system in place that incentivizes profiteering and exploitation. things considered exotic.

As graphic designers, art directors and artists, we are at the forefront of creating and expanding the visual language of our world. We also help, by extension, to define what is normalized and desired, which is why this is particularly essential for us to understand. While a deeper understanding of cultural exchange can help facilitate more equitable and sensitive work, positioning ourselves to be guilt-free is not the goal. The goal is to do our part to make the world a more respectful and fair place for people of all backgrounds.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll discuss how graphic designers often take on privileged roles, one example being the use of cultural appropriation. A phenomenon that has become so common that we may not even notice it.

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