Representation matters to people of color, but it must be done right. As much as social media has helped influencers and entrepreneurs access many potential customers with a click of a button, it has also provided a public platform for whistleblowers to call out bad behavior such as cultural appropriation with all the necessary receipts. The line between cultural appreciation and appropriation can be pretty thin.

On the Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance’s (AORTA) website, Nisha Ahuja, an actor and wellness coach, wrote that “Cultural appropriation is taking a symbol or cultural practice out of its original context and then plunking it down somewhere else. And it becomes devoid of its original meaning. The people who are doing the extraction often are benefiting, whether through personal gain, financial gain, or entertainment.”

Adrienne Keene, author of the blog Native Appropriations, wrote that “There is always an inherent power imbalance — it is the dominant group taking from a marginalized group. With cultural appropriation, this also often plays out in the realities of colonization: It is the colonizer taking from the colonized.”

Yet with the abundance of information and resources available at our fingertips through smart phones, some continue to make poor decisions and as a result get justly called out for it. Here are a few recent examples of appropriation followed by appropriate backlash: 

Self-proclaimed Culture Leech, Jessica Krug

Jessica Krug, a former associate professor of History and Africana Studies at George Washington University, revealed in a Medium post that she is a white Jewish woman who has posed as a Afro-Latina for her entire career. She sometimes used the persona “Jess La Bombera” like she did when she testified during a New York City Council meeting about police brutality this summer using a heavy accent that we all now know was fake. She called herself a “culture leech” in her Medium post and wrote that people should cancel her, but that self-deprecation seemed to be an act. According to The Cut, Krug posted the online confession before she was exposed after a group of Black and Latinx scholars learned the truth. According to a statement from The George Washington University Department of History, Krug resigned from her position in September. “With what she has termed her “audaciously deceptive” appropriation of an Afro-Caribbean identity, she has betrayed the trust of countless current and former students, fellow scholars of Africana Studies, colleagues in our department and throughout the historical discipline, as well as community activists in New York City and beyond,” the statement reads. “The discipline of history is concerned with truth telling about the past. With her conduct, Dr. Krug has raised questions about the veracity of her own research and teaching.”

No Elotes Without Representation

Protesters gathered online and offline after restaurateurs Brian and Sarah Ingram, who are not Mexican, announced their plans to open a Mexican-inspired cantina called Elotés Woodfired Cantina in Minneapolis this summer. According to Eater Twin Cities, the Mexican-American protesters took issue with the use of the word “elote” in the restaurant name especially since none of the restaurant owners are Latinx. Protesters called the ingredient sacred to Mexican heritage and culture. Fortunately, the Ingrams were receptive to the criticism and listened to the community’s concerns when they gathered outside the restaurant. The restaurant opened in September as Woodfired Cantina, dropping “elotes” from the title.

La Chingona Cannabis’ Fabricated Origin Story

When Susie Plascencia received a message from La Chingona Cannabis on Instagram, she wanted to learn more about the three Latina sisters/founders celebrated on the company’s website. She learned that the origin story was completely fabricated by Michael Kaiser, the true owner and founder of the cannabis company. Of course, there was backlash once people learned that truth. Plascencia told Luz Collective in a phone interview that she saw an opportunity for the brand to empower women, but as she learned more about the company, she decided to help spearhead a boycott in July. “With La Chingona, we didn’t just boycott them with nothing. We didn’t just say, ‘hey, we think this brand is doing this, let’s just destroy it.’ We did our due diligence, and we did a whole investigation first,” Plascencia said. Kaiser eventually apologized on Instagram, but followed it by blaming others for destroying the brand.

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To @josh.karchmer & @mike_the_entrepreneur regarding La Chingona Cannabis. Josh, posting a disingenuous public statement on Instagram about leaving La Chingona does not absolve you of your role in this situation nor the disrespect you exhibited. You did not work to operate this brand responsibly and ethically – you did the opposite. Throughout the time we spoke about these issues it was clear that your focus was not on solving the problem but on washing your hands of it at the lowest cost possible. You initially reached out to me via Instagram on May 27, 2020 to be one of the Latinas featured on the La Chingona page. You knew about the deceitful La Chingona narrative and actively sought out Latinas to represent the brand in order to obfuscate the truth about the fictional brand story and the fact that it is primarily owned by Non-Latinx men. When I shed light on the tremendous cultural appropriation issue this brand faced, you called me aggressive and accused me of cunningly looking for a job. Still, I offered my support and kept the conversation going with the desire to educate you on your continual missteps with the brand voice. I attempted to uncover the blindness that drove both your approach to building this brand and Mike’s desire to bring it to market in the first place. I educated you on Mexican culture and the harm in calling Latinas aggressive, and had patience with you when your respect toward me wavered.  Initially, it was my desire to support you in the development of the brand with my expertise in the work that happens to be critical for the brand’s survival and growth while simultaneously fulfilling my cultural responsibility as a Latina with roots from Guadalajara, Jalisco, to make La Chingona an ethical and responsible brand. When the inevitable happened and someone posted via Instagram on June 16 calling for public support for La Chingona, believing it was a Latina-owned company, I helped you navigate the messaging to come clean about the fictional story and manage the resulting communication. Continued in the comments. (Big Oil Co. claims to be an uninvolved 3rd party and is not associated with La Chingona Cannabis.)

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A Stolen Mask and a Guilty Conscience

While this may not be an example of cultural appropriation, it is a clear example of power dynamics at play. Karen Perez, owner of Second Wind, released a line of fashionable face masks this summer including the Tina, a linen mask that comes in five neutral colors with a detachable gold chain. According to Refinery29, the Latina designer was “extremely excited” when influencer Danielle Bernstein, of WeWoreWhat and with 2.5 million Instagram followers, reached out for a mask. Perez told Refinery29 that her heart dropped when she received another message from Bernstein letting her know that she was also releasing masks with a detachable chain. She wrote that her masks were inspired by sunglass chains and didn’t want Perez to think she was copying her, but Diet_prada, a popular fashion watchdog instagram account, posted side by side photos of the two masks on Instagram, and it’s hard to argue that the masks aren’t similar. Bernstein said in an Instagram story that the accusations that she stole or solicited the designs are false and donated all the masks to frontline healthcare workers.

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You’d think @weworewhat would have learned not to leave a paper trail by now. @americaninfluencercouncil founding member Danielle Bernstein announced today that her @shopweworewhat line would shortly be stocking linen masks adorned with a safety chain. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ It’s a cute idea— and she appears to have lifted it directly from @bysecondwind , who began offering masks June 1st. On June 29, Danielle reached out to the brand via DM, and hustled some free masks. On July 2, she messaged again with a heads up… she was launching her own masks. Don’t worry, though, according to Danielle they’re not a copy! ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Well, she finally showed them today and they’re nearly identical, from the linen fabrication down to the unique loop design at the sides to hold the chain. Not sure how this is helping to “sustain the integrity” of influencer marketing “for the ultimate benefit of society” as per the AIC’s goals, but at least there’s one bright side. After her carefree summer galavanting around the Hamptons, Danielle is finally wearing a mask. • #bysecondwind #wearadamnmask #wearamask #weworewhat #daniellebernstein #shopweworewhat #chain #sunglasseschain #accessory #mask #facemask #faceshield #granny #linen #overalls #neutral #asustainable #ecofriendly #receipts #papertrail #influencer #americaninfluencercouncil #blogger #fashion #ootd #wiwt #dietprada

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The success of the animated film, Coco, brought more awareness to Día De Los Muertos, the Mexican holiday that celebrates the loved ones we’ve lost and which is right after Halloween. With both holidays around the corner, it’s also important to remember that Latinx culture is not a costume. Dressing as a caricature of Latinx culture such as a chulo/a or putting on a sombrero and a fake mustache is cultural appropriation. Again, it’s a fine line between appropriation and appreciation, but it narrows down to intention. Before you paint your face to resemble a sugar skull associated with Día De Los Muertos, ask yourself why? For those moments you find yourself straddling the line, AORTA has a list of clarifying questions to ask.

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