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Cultural Appropriation Keeps Trending–Here’s What Brands Should Know

Cultural appropriation is an important issue to Gen Z and Millennials, and there are ways to support them in facing it on social media


  • Cultural appropriation is a constant problem on social media, where some “new trends” are really pieces of culture stolen from minority groups without credit  
  • Gen Z and Millennials critique and educate when they see cultural appropriation on social platforms, sometimes with humor despite their serious view on it
  • Brands can avoid cultural appropriation by putting in time to critically evaluate trends they want to participate in, and take responsibility for any done unintentionally

Gen Z and Millennials will tell you that social media is a two-sided space—57% tell YPulse they agree that social media has a more positive impact on the world than negative, and yet, 49% agree social media makes them feel worse about themselves or their lives. It’s this dichotomy for young people that means social media can be problematic for all the same reasons it can be great. 

Suggestive algorithms mean users see more of what they want to see, but they can also create echo chambers of biased information. It breaks down the barriers of exchanging ideas, allowing all users to hear directly from people they may have had no contact with before, but it can also bury voices as information gets taken out of cultural contexts. It can lack the space for nuance when people make mistakes, but it can also be the best way to keep public figures and brands accountable.

One issue that is especially prominent on social media is cultural appropriation, in which cultural experiences or traditions from minority communities are co-opted into mainstream use without proper accreditation or acknowledgement. Prominent creators, often White, on platforms like TikTok and Instagram have a tendency to “create trends” which garner them tons of popularity and praise, all the while missing (or leaving out) the knowledge that the “trend” they’ve “created” is already a practice in, most often, BIPOC communities. YPulse survey data shows that 64% of young people agree that cultural appropriation is a problem in the U.S., and recognizing the cultural roots of trends is vital for brands. 

While some might be tempted to write off cultural appropriation as innocent mistakes made by people without knowledge of other cultures, it’s an important issue to recognize—and to correct. Incidents of cultural appropriation on social media seem to be cropping up more frequently these days, likely because of the fast-moving trends of TikTok and the fact that young people are incredibly vocal in calling out these appropriated styles, foods, and practices. Gen Z and Millennials have taken on the responsibility of calling out appropriative trends and creating visibility for the educational sources to decrease the harm it does to minority communities. It can be overwhelming to approach sensitive issues like this as a brand, but it’s important to understand the problem, and to know how to address it. 

What does cultural appropriation look like on social media?

There is no shortage of examples of trends that have been called out for cultural appropriation or insensitivity. Several recent trends on TikTok have, essentially, re-packaged beauty practices and recipes from BIPOC cultures. Very often these trends involve high profile White influencers renaming something that has roots in BIPOC young peoples’ lives and backgrounds, and sharing it as a new trend, without acknowledging its history. Often, these “new” trends are then picked up by the media—who are on the hunt for clicky content–amplifying the cultural theft even farther. Two big recent examples include the “clean girl” look and “spa water.”

The #CleanGirlAesthetic is identified with slicked back ponytails and buns, gold jewelry, and a glossy lip. It exists as one of the many iterations of “That Girl,” a trend which romanticizes and feminizes productivity and self-care. While this look was attributed on TikTok to celebrities like Bella Hadid and Hailey Bieber, the reality is that the style has long been a staple for women in Black and Brown communities, as one Instagram post from @Impact explains. In the past, women of color had been looked down on for this look, while White creators are now being praised for it.

“Spa water,” or more simply water with fruit mixed into it, was popularized as a wellness trend for being anti-inflammatory. One TikTok user, @themadzness, stitched a White creator and said, “They are now gentrifying agua frescas,” calling out that the drink was made the same way agua frescas, or “fresh water,” has already been made in Mexico and several Latin American countries long before it popped up on TikTok. 

While brands might be tempted to join the latest hashtag on TikTok, it’s important to do a little homework first, and make sure that credit is being given to where credit is due—especially if it might have cultural roots that are not being acknowledged.

How do young people react to cultural appropriation?

When a new “trend” goes viral, it doesn’t take long before it ends up on the timeline or for you page of someone ready to educate the original poster. Young people do not hesitate to publicly call out an offense, and they usually use social media to amplify their voice and spread the word. On TikTok, this often looks like stitches of a post—the #Appropriation has 63.7M views—and on Instagram, a highly designed carousel post detailing how the trend is wrongly attributed and how to combat engagement with it. 

As they so often do, Gen Z and Millennials also approach these situations with humor to express their frustration. In the case of “spa water” the top videos in the hashtag, initially filled with “new” recipes, are now imitations of what it sounds like to mislabel foods from other cultures. One video from TikTok user @hausofemrys listed off “some other things they might colonize in the near future with white names,” showing common Latin dishes and how they might be appropriated. 

But, when it came to the “clean girl” look, articles and info posts were incredibly serious, so as not to minimize how harmful it is to appropriate things that women of color have worked so hard to gain acceptance for. Impact’s post identified the look as part of a “shared identity” for Black and Brown women that if others want to purchase the products to replicate it, they should “make sure you are doing so in a community of Black and Brown women.” By taking the time to intentionally purchase from those who are truly the pioneers of the look, participants in the “trend” can show cultural appreciation, instead of appropriation. 

Sometimes, it can be hard for users without followings to have their critiques of a trend heard over the mass of viral creators taking credit for an appropriative trend. In one instance, Black dance creators on TikTok took to a #BlackTikTokStrike until they received proper credit for starting so many viral dances, which more popular, White creators profited off using without credit. 

How can brands know what trends are culturally conscious?

Though it can be hard to know when a trend is cultural appropriation, especially when it first emerges, it’s important to look into it critically, and seek out any responses which indicate a problem with the trend. This is as simple as spending some extra time in a hashtag, looking for the videos that aren’t viral yet within it, and that stitch to critique the original content, to see if the popular content may be overlooking relevant information. 

If you make a misstep and jump onto a trend that turns out to be appropriated, admission, apology, and accreditation are the three steps to take. After top TikToker Addison Rae was called out for using dances made by Black creators without credit on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon last year, the show listened to the outpouring of frustration and invited the original creators on to get their spotlight. One “trend starter” who owned up to unintentionally claiming credit for a pre-existing style is TikTok hair stylist Caroline Stahl, who was behind the viral “bangs with benefits.” After being informed that the style was already known as “Korean side bangs,” she changed all her messaging to properly credit the styles original roots. This is precisely the kind of response Gen Z and Millennials think is appropriate, aside from avoiding cultural appropriation in the first place. 

YPulse survey data also shows the best thing Gen Z and Millennials think a celebrity can do when they’re “canceled” for a controversial action is acknowledge the controversy and take responsibility, followed by apologizing immediately to the public and to the individual(s) they have specifically affected with their actions. Brands can and should do the samewhen they make a mistake, own up to it, and do what they can to make sure the voices of the affected community are heard.