Cultural Appropriation in Cannabis (and How to Avoid it)

Marketing is more about your relationship with your consumers than it is about your business. This is a core tenet of successful marketing, and as such, we aim to build relationships with those very consumers by keeping up to date with trends, pop culture, current events, and the media. 

As the world’s “melting pot,” the U.S. is lucky to be able to draw from such an array of cultures. However, with such diversity comes the blurred lines between appreciation and appropriation. 

Given the troubled history of the cannabis industry, such a line is taken with even more weight. So what does cultural appropriation look like in the cannabis industry and how do we avoid it?

What is cultural appropriation?

The term ‘cultural appropriation’ first came to use in the late 20th century, but the problem itself was identified much earlier when Harlem Renaissance writers in the U.S. criticized mainstream entertainment, such as minstrel shows, and their insulting exaggerations of the Black American voices and traditions.

According to Oxford Dictionary, the exact definition is:

“the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

The key-phrase in this definition is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption,” and unfortunately, it is a problem we still see today. 

For instance, in their Spring 2017 show, Marc Jacobs had all 52 predominantly white models walk the show in rainbow wool dreadlocks.

Jacobs himself initially responded on his Instagram account, saying: “I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see colour or race—I see people. I’m sorry to read that so many people are so narrow-minded… Love is the answer. Appreciation of all and inspiration from anywhere is a beautiful thing. Think about it.” 

However, a few days later, he posted an apology, correcting himself for the insensitive apology and noting that he does ‘see color’ but that he does not discriminate because of it. (For more on why “seeing color” is important, watch this episode of Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man hosted by Emmanuel Acho).

Sadly, we see it all too commonly in the cannabis industry as well. 

Many psychedelic brands take religious imagery from the Hindu faith, such as depictions of Lord Krishna or Ganesha in association with psychocilibins, cannabis, and more. 

There are brands named after cultural hubs and dispensaries with fabricated backstories – all with zero Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) present in leadership. 

Even as seemingly harmless as using African American Vernacular English (AAVE) slang such as “It’s lit!” on social media with images of white people smoking, cultural appropriation can seemingly be found at every turn.

All of these examples can seem like ‘not a big deal’ to many, but in fact, there is genuine harm behind the message being sent.

Why is cultural appropriation harmful?

Cultural appropriation is harmful because of the double standards it creates. 

Marginalized communities have systemically been set up to be at an economic disadvantage. Add in the stereotypes and stigmatizations against these groups, and there is a social disadvantage as well.

Then, people pick and choose the parts of these marginalized groups that they can commercialize, deem as “trendy”, and profit off of it. 

Consider some of the earliest examples of stealing known to the United States: colonization.

Our Founding Fathers stole land from the Native Americans, who at the time used land to build wealth, therefore, pushing Natives into a financial disadvantage. They then disregarded the Native culture of caring for the land, yet continued to benefit from the work that the Native Americans had done on the land, which eventually led to an entire economy of wealth (farming, owning property, homes, etc.). 

Those stolen rights to property were then never returned. In fact, reservation land is still, to this day, held “in trust” for Natives by the federal government. Tribe members that refuse to pay the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the costs of any housing development are unable to own homes.

The result? The 2 million Native Americans in the U.S. have the highest rate of poverty of any racial group—almost twice the national average. 

While it is important to note that this is a simplified example of wealth being systematically taken away from a cultural group, it articulates why stealing from other communities is harmful. In the same way, cultural appropriation by brands creates a double standard where they get to curate their own cultural experiences while those individuals from marginalized communities do not have such a privilege.

Taking the fashion and the music and the language – but not the racism, the generational trauma, the danger to their lives. Choosing the symbols, the slang, the stories – but not the systemic poverty and homelessness, the stigmas, the invisibility.

The danger only escalates when money enters the equation, and one group tries to capitalize off the other, such as in the case of brands and marketers. 

Why should we care?

In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark ran a series of experiments known as “the doll tests” to study the psychological effects of segregation on Black children. 

In one of the experiments, they used four dolls, identical except for color, to test children’s racial perceptions and their resulting effect on self-esteem. A majority of the children preferred the white dolls to the brown ones, and in fact, when asked to identify which doll looked like them, some of the children would cry and run out of the room. 

The dolls used in Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s studies. The Clarks had to paint a white baby doll brown for the tests, since black and brown dolls were not yet manufactured. (Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Ultimately, the results showed that representation in culture has a profound effect when it comes to shaping the perception that people have of themselves, their race, and their appearance.

Although these experiments had nothing to do with cultural appropriation, it does suggest that businesses and marketers are responsible for shaping culture. We have the privilege and the opportunity to shape the minds of our consumers, and by extension, society at large.

From the stigmas surrounding cannabis use to the realities of those impacted by the War on Drugs, brands, designers, marketers, and all of us in the cannabis industry alike can recreate the way certain groups are represented and the way that the public perceives those groups.

Being aware of the authenticity of representation in branding, images, ads, campaigns, articles, and more is key to sending the right message.

Moreover, the War on Drugs is central to the discourse around social justice in the cannabis industry. Its racist policies and enforcement destroyed Black and Brown communities while those that wrote, legalized, and supported such a movement benefitted – and continue to benefit – from the soaring profits of cannabis.

Understanding the implications of cultural appropriation in the context of branding in an already troubled industry protects your business, your team members, your colleagues and your customers. 

4 Ways to Avoid Cultural Appropriation in Your Marketing

When done correctly, every aspect of your branding sends a message. Be mindful of that message at every step along the way, from your logo design, company name, brand standards, brand messaging, packaging design, website, and more.

Educating yourself on cultural appropriation is an important first step. However, it can be more difficult to identify it in the world around you or in your own business when it is happening in any of those areas. 

We’ve rounded up four ways you can avoid cultural appropriation in your marketing:

1. Understand who has ownership.

Respect the rights that cultural groups have in determining what is and is not acceptable when it comes to using their culture in design. 

Do not use any symbols or language derived from cultural elements inappropriately or without credit. You can do this by communicating the cultural significance and history behind the elements you choose to use explicitly. 

2. Give everyone a seat at the table. 

In today’s world, you cannot afford to make decisions with your blinders on. When you create brands, campaigns, ads, graphics, articles, anything without a diversity of voices, you are more likely to come off as tone-deaf and alienate entire segments of your audience.

Put your product in front of diverse testing audiences, create your content with BIPOC creators, include a variety of voices in your sales process, and so on.

By bringing diverse people and perspectives into the creation process, you err on the side of appreciation, not appropriation.

3. Keep educating yourself.

There are nuances to every culture and language out there that only those with lived experience can tell you about. Educate yourself on those experiences, learn about them, listen to them.

For instance, sports team brands have used cultural elements of the Native Americans for a long time. It is part of their mascots, their logos, their names, their uniforms, their merchandise. 

Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and CEO of Illumi Native explained to Nielsen that using Native Americans as sports mascots is demoralizing. Hawk said, “Native Americans are the only group being used as sports mascots, depicting our Native American communities not as people, but as ‘other’. It’s dehumanizing and objectifying.”

As a result, we have seen a shift over the last few years away from the appropriation of Native American culture as mascots.

This is a great example of brands – or in this case, sports teams – learning from mistakes. If you are called out, pause and listen. Staying open-minded to criticism is the best way to learn.

4. Walk the walk.

Amplifying voices and establishing your support and intentions by following the above steps is important. But the ultimate sign of meaningful allyship is walking the walk.

Make cultural investments, invest in team learning, and give back to the communities – year-round.

Be aware that this is not a transaction you must make in exchange for the rights to take ownership of the culture. It is just something you should do. Follow the lead of brands like Ben & Jerry’s that embed diversity and inclusion into the fabric of their company. 

Keep learning about diversity and inclusion in cannabis marketing

At Cannabis Creative, we embrace our differences and have a long-standing commitment to honoring them in all areas of our work. Read more about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the cannabis industry and in your marketing practices in our Diversity & Inclusion blog section.