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Mahjong Gone Wrong

By Sania Daniyal

The fine line between cultural appreciation and appropriation has been a highly debated topic in recent years, from imitation to plagiarization to cultural insensitivity. Many brands and companies have been accused of cultural appropriation, which uses symbols and objects of other cultures without knowledge and understanding. By using these in an inappropriate way, it can lead to a negative cultural stereotype. On the opposite side, cultural appreciation is valued in today’s diverse society. One way it is achieved is through the promotion of education and knowledge, which creates awareness and understanding about various cultures.

Artwork by Shadia Zayer

Lately, many online businesses have been taking advantage of different cultures and customs without actually doing them justice, all to catch the eyes of buyers.

Recently, a Dallas-based company called the Mahjong Line has been facing harsh criticism for its cultural appropriation of Chinese culture. They attempted to give mahjong, a centuries-old Chinese tile game, a “respectful refresh” and “modern makeover.” They claim that their goal was to deliver it to the “stylish masses.” In November, the business first unveiled its products and recently faced intense online backlash when screenshots of its makeover started to circulate on social media. Their website proclaims, “we're rethinking what Mahjong looks like.” None of the creators are of Chinese heritage, and as a result, the expensive collections do not include any Chinese characters. Critics have pointed out that the business whitewashed the history of mahjong and its cultural roots.

“Growing up, I always saw people being made fun of for the food they ate, the clothes they wear, and now to see those things become trendy and acceptable is honestly infuriating,” said freshman Guneet Hanjra.

Unfortunately, Mahjong Line is not the only company that has carried out cultural appropriation. Shein, an online shopping site for fast fashion, has repeatedly sold items that symbolize hatred towards another race or ignorance towards another faith. Shein sold Islamic prayer rugs on its web site in July 2020, which were made in rectangular shapes with Islamic images and holy writings, unlike rugs that are used as furniture. The image of each mat is a mihrab, a niche in the mosque wall. The website described them as “Fringe Trim Carpet” or “Crop Print Tassel Trim Carpet” instead of presenting the rugs with their suitable names. Some individuals have bought these mats because of these names, unaware of their meaning. Many Muslims were appalled to see that Shein had marketed such significant Islamic mats as standard house decor pieces.

Growing up, I always saw people being made fun of for the food they ate, the clothes they wear, and now to see those things become trendy and acceptable is honestly infuriating...

While Shein has apologized for its behavior in the past, it continues to make the same mistakes by culturally appropriating sacred symbols from other cultures and traditions. For instance, Shein sold Indian and Pakistani clothing sets, advertised as “Longline Tops & Pant Packs.” They also presented white women as models for these garments. By giving these clothes a new name, many South Asian communities felt as if they were robbing their cultures and refusing to give respect to their heritage.

“I honestly think there's no excuse for appropriation at this point. The world is at our fingertips, the disruption of technology unlike no other! If a company falls down this path it’s the consequence for not employing diverse individuals and securing market researchers that are thorough enough to ensure appreciation over appropriation,” said senior Gauri Shyamnath.


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