Teens wearing rainbow backpacks, matching hats, and glittery feather boas in support of their best friends at a Pride Parade. A group of friends wearing traditional cholis and saris, who are learning dance steps for garba-raas and attending Navaratri festivals together. Strategies to celebrate inclusion— instead of just celebrating diversity—are on the rise, and we’ll explore a few examples in this piece.
CultureBeat® Readers: it would be wonderful if you have your own examples of inclusivity to share, and we can publish a follow-up piece that includes YOUR personal stories!
Regardless of our age or location, some of us are lucky enough to have friends who invite us to immerse into their cultures, even if it’s just for a day or a weekend.
I grew up in a large suburban town just outside of Chicago, which was considered somewhat diverse in the 80s. Our residents were mostly Caucasian—of German, Italian, and Polish heritage, but it also included some African Americans, Hispanics, and less than a handful of Native American and Indian families who had children in my school.
To celebrate diversity (i.e., our cultural differences), our schools and community would host multicultural fairs; if you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’ve attended one or more of these types of fairs or festivals. These events usually included a small but sentimental mix of fun facts, food, costumes, and dances, compartmentalizing each of our countries into a neat and palatable package. Admittedly, a lot of it was predictable—but the volunteers’ and attendees’ hearts were in the right place.
CULTURE + LOVE + RESPECT = INCLUSION
For several years, I decided to buck conventional expectations for showcasing my Indian heritage, and I teamed up with my friends to help them portray some of their cultures. In one of my favorite examples, I danced with a group of friends in Greek fustanellas and woolen vests; only one of us was Greek, so we had to borrow the outfits from my friend’s cousins. We learned to make platters of baklava together, and my friend’s mom helped us learn the syrtaki dances, which we synchronized to authentic Greek music.
If anyone raised an eyebrow at these efforts, especially the parents or teachers, no one really said a word to stop us; we were immersing ourselves into new cultures, blurring the lines. We wanted to closely embody that look, style, and authenticity—and, to some extent, explore a broader, more united cultural identity.
Inclusion is not just about participating; the foundation for inclusion lies in being supportive, respectfully curious, and genuinely interested in each other’s cultures.
As kids and teens (and, even now, as adults), it totally made sense to include and embrace each other into our respective cultures. We talked about different history, traditions, and holidays that our families were celebrating on the weekends, even if they were never listed on the calendar.
When we visited each other’s homes, we had the benefit of intimately observing and learning aspects of each other’s cultures firsthand, not just admiring them in a museum or in a book. By participating in special cultural milestones and events, like a friend’s bat or bar mitzvah, Quinceañera, or attending a festival at a local temple or church, we were celebrating each other’s cultures; we asked each other lots of questions that stemmed from a place of love and respect.
Now, let’s talk about cultural appropriation. Some people feel that any “out-of-the-box” representation inappropriately dilutes cultural boundaries to the point of cultural appropriation. Some believe that cross-cultural actions are politically incorrect and wholly unacceptable. For example, we should all know that blackface and Native American mascots fall squarely in this category. Apart from these types of examples, it does not have to be all-or-nothing.
To view every “out-of-the-box” cross-cultural practice as cultural appropriation tends to discount the fun, and perhaps more importantly, the celebration of inclusivity in a tide of righteousness.
It’s no secret that the need for meaningful shared experiences has grown stronger among Millennials and Gen Z—and, frankly, across multiple generations, as we constantly seek ways to learn and connect apart from our mobile devices. There is also more sensitivity about diversity and our cultural differ- ences than a couple of decades ago, but let’s try to avoid totally compartmentalizing our worlds.
COLORS WITHOUT CONTEXT
Some of you might have participated in a “color run” yourselves, or you’ve heard of the event. Runners joyfully throw a dry, powdery mix of colors, which often results in caking the runners’ faces, shoulders, and clothes with colors to celebrate reaching the finish line of the race.
Notably, there are strong parallels in throwing these colors and this celebratory theme with the Indian and South Asian festival of Holi. One of my well-traveled coworkers, who completed a color run some time ago, expressed how she only recently learned about Holi. She admitted that uncovering these parallels to Holi after the experience had already happened made her feel embarrassed and even somewhat disgusted at her ignorance. She wished she “would have known.” By not knowing about Holi (i.e., lack of cultural context), she perceived that the event she had enjoyed and shared at the end of her color run was cultural appropriation.
From a cultural standpoint, it is not wrong to participate in activities or events like this, but it is wrong if participants are uninformed.
Inclusion may be the strategic answer for these shared experiences to retain the joy, yet provide much-needed cultural context that is missing from these events. By honoring the original intent of the cultural tradition/practice—maybe describing a blurb on the website, talking about it at the start or end of the race—celebratory themes from Holi would feel more authentic and help to provide culturally appro- priate context to those who are participating.
Savvy marketing teams are already exploring and embracing cultural immersion and inclusion beyond the “fun facts,” providing information and support in culturally relevant and authentic ways.
For some brands and companies, this transition from celebrating diversity to celebrating inclusion is a remarkable shift in strategies.
It is no longer enough to point out that we all hail from different cultures, backgrounds, and families. Consider infusing more cultural context from the start, and help your customers connect the dots early and often.
Market research conducted with diverse audiences and in-culture consumers can help to uncover deeper context or significance that might not otherwise surface. Qualitative research such as friendship groups, in-home interviews and tag-alongs, are just a few examples of the in-depth interviewing that we can provide. A strategy of cultural inclusion can be done respectfully, from a place of understanding and love, to create more colorful and meaningful shared experiences.