Last week, an American company called The Mahjong Line, based in Dallas and founded by three white women, sparked a major controversy online about cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation. Mahjong is a traditional Chinese tile game that originates from the Qing Dynasty. Yet, this Texan company has unveiled a “trendier” version of the game, which looks visually immature and insulting.
The company released various lines of the game, such as “The Cheeky Line” and “The Minimal Line,” with different illustrations on the tiles, such as the word “Bam!” on many tiles alluding to the bamboo tiles, or a girl in a dragon costume. These sets cost anywhere from USD$325 to USD$425.
The company wrote on their website that the original game’s design “was all the same” and that their newer designs are a “respectful refresh.” The Cheeky Line Mahjong set is described as a representation of a “gal that is equally happy in LA or Austin. Loves a wild wallpaper, millennial pink and her many sneakers.”
Social media users have accused the company of cultural appropriation by using disrespectful language to demonstrate ignorance over the game’s cultural significance and privilege while gaining profit. In responses to these Mahjong lines, New York’s first Asian American member of Congress, Rep. Grace Meng, tweeted, “Don’t change my history and culture to make it more palatable to you.”
The company eventually apologized by stating that their intention was to “inspire and engage” a newer generation of Mahjong players in America, but they failed to “pay proper homage to the game’s Chinese heritage.” However, they continue to sell them.
This is just another incident where someone from a point of privilege takes a piece of culture that has a history of exploitation, misrepresentation, and oppression to gain profit or borrow its significance temporarily for personal gain. That person receives a lot of criticism, they apologize, take “responsibility,” and promise better conscious decisions. People on social media then move on to the next debate, and the pattern repeats.
The problem with this incident is that this company is making “a claim of authenticity” and establishing their authority to redesign a piece of cultural history as they deem fit for their market. This decision comes from a place of privilege, white privilege in particular, where they feign superiority and ignorance over the original game.
Who are three white women to decide that a centuries-old game is not trendy enough? By even suggesting that it needs a “refresh” without consulting the Chinese community and creating Mahjong lines that are representations of sexist valley girl stereotypes is deeply insulting and disrespectful to the game and to Chinese culture.
Over the last few years, there have been many incidents where privileged white celebrities have used pieces of Asian culture for their personal gain or commercial success under a thin veil of “cultural appreciation.” Yet, cultural appreciation is only possible when the person is aware of the historical power imbalance between the cultures and takes the time to learn and engage with the culture.
Incidents like Kim Kardashian trying to trademark the word “Kimono” (a traditional Japanese garment) in a particular font for her lingerie line, or Kacey Musgraves posting revealing pictures in a traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai dress are harmful because they regurgitate the power difference that has been enforced historically on the cultures they are taking from.
This situation gets a little more complicated when two cultural groups that have both had a history of oppression face off. The power difference between them isn’t as obvious, which makes drawing the line between appropriation and appreciation blurry. This line is clarified, however, when profit is involved. For example, Cardi B was recently embroiled in controversy by posing as the Hindu goddess Durga on the cover of Footwear News. Not only was this a visual representation of the goddess for a commercial magazine, but it was also an advertisement for a shoe, which is not allowed to be worn in religious settings like temples and shrines.
However, the potential for cultural appropriation should not hinder you from seeking out different cultures and learning about them. Yes, the line between appreciation and appropriation is confusing, and most people are unaware of what constitutes what. Yet, we learn from the mistakes we see. Instead of cancelling celebrities for their misrepresentation and gain from other cultures, we can take these incidents as learning opportunities about how different cultures engage with one another, how power and privilege come into play, and how certain choices can be culturally insensitive regardless of the intent.
It might seem as though this would only continue the social media loop of rage, apology, and moving on. However, as we move forward as social activists on social media, we are exposed to a broader level of social awareness by witnessing events of cultural disrespect, allowing us to support and appreciate one another.