May 29, 2019
“In an age defined by a deluge of content, the classics publisher can say: This is someone worth honoring, this is a story that speaks to our current moment, this book matters.”—Mika Kasuga, on rediscovering forgotten books by marginalized people.
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Gucci is under fire again for selling products that critics are calling “culturally appropriative.” The luxury brand faced backlash a few months ago for selling a sweater reminiscent of blackface, and now has introduced a $790 Sikh turban that has left some members of the Sikh community outraged and deeply offended. The Sikh Coalition explains that “for a Sikh, wearing a turban asserts a public commitment to maintaining the values and ethics of the tradition,” adding that, “When companies appropriate articles of faith, they do not take into consideration the discrimination Sikhs face while adhering to the tenets of their faith.” The discrimination to which the Sikh Coalition alludes is what led to the horrifying 1984 genocide of Sikhs in India. Critics of the Gucci turban ask whether anyone at the company considered the heavy historical and religious significance of the turban, as well as the impact it would have on practicing Sikhs to see their article of faith turned into profit for a luxury brand and worn by white models as “hats.”
The concept of cultural appropriation can be difficult to sit with. It can be hard to see why people are angry about an element of fashion, or what a luxury brand chooses to sell. But when a group with more power in society appropriates the culture of a disempowered group, the power imbalance that exists between those groups is reinforced.
Do you have any products or events at your workplace or on your campus that could be considered culturally appropriative? Common examples are Cinco de Mayo parties where people dress up as stereotyped Mexicans, or products that use religious Native American imagery out of context. Consider how these might impact members of the culture being appropriated, and what you can do to be more understanding and respectful of marginalized cultures.
For its new live-action Aladdin movie, Disney consulted Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Muslim scholars, activists, and creatives to help them bypass the mistakes made in the 1992 animated version. In that version, “the bad Arabs are ugly and have foreign accents while the good Arabs...possess European features and white American accents,” and the depictions “[flatten] the differences among Middle Eastern cultures.” However, one of the consultants, Evelyn Alsultany, associate professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, says that while Disney has made efforts to progress, the end result of the 2019 Aladdin was a little disappointing. Alsultany sees the same trends that were present in the 1992 film, not to mention the other 900+ films that stereotype Arabs and Muslims. She says the 2019 film still leans on magical Orientalism, that the good guys have exclusively American accents, and that “belly dancing and Bollywood dancing, turbans and keffiyehs, Iranian and Arab accents all appear in the film interchangeably.”
We applaud Disney for this first step of using cultural consultants, but acknowledge that there’s still a ways to go before their depictions of different cultures are free of stereotypes. Judging from Disney’s admission that they put some of the white Aladdin actors in brownface, it seems the advice from cultural consultants only made it so far when it came to the final production.
Alsultany suggests that perhaps the Disney version of the story of Aladdin is simply infused with stereotypes, and that if you take those stereotypes away, you’re left with a completely different story. If you choose to work with cultural consultants, do you have a specific plan for how you will be accountable to their advice and implement their suggestions? What if they tell you the endeavor itself is inherently problematic?
At its recent developer conference, Google revealed the launch of new initiatives for people with varying disabilities. Android phones will soon have a Live Caption feature that transcribes “any audio or video—no matter its origin—in real time and allow users who don’t speak to respond by typing.” A future update to this feature, called Live Relay, will help “people who are deaf or hard of hearing make phone calls more easily.” Another initiative, Project Euphonia, uses computers to understand and transcribe the words of people with speech impairments—while Project Diva will enable people who are nonverbal to use Google Assistant. Of these new accessibility features, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said, “Building for everyone also means ensuring that everyone can access our products….[Artificial intelligence] is providing us with new tools to dramatically improve the experience for people with disabilities.”
Google’s commitment to accessibility should echo throughout the tech industry, along with its understanding of people with disabilities as a diverse group of people with a broad range of needs. As technology evolves at an ever-faster pace, it’s critical for companies to consider how AI can improve the lives of marginalized people, instead of leaving them behind.
Some of these new initiatives may bear direct relevance to you or someone you love—and if not, it’s likely that someone in your workplace or institution could benefit from Google’s new features. In the spirit of making accessibility more accessible, think of ways you can spread the word and put these initiatives on people’s radars.