The last time I spent so much time thinking about Pepsi, I was 9 and I was trying to memorize all of Marty McFly’s lines in Back to the Future. “Give me a Pepsi Free,” I would say, to which my sister would answer, “If you want a Pepsi, pal, you’re going to pay for it.”

Now, it seems, Pepsi is going to pay for it—“it” being taking responsibility for the creation of a problematic commercial.

Kennebec Journal commentator Liz Soares explains cultural appropriation as a situation in which “one subgroup in our society uses the story of another group to create something new,” arguing that such action can “result in stereotyping and worse.” What is sometimes difficult to tease out is how to rectify instances of cultural appropriation, which are not always easily identifiable.

As cultural historian Lindsay Montgomery writes, “the line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange has often been blurry. … But blurry lines do not mean that it’s right to remove art, clothing, jewelry, and other intellectual and cultural property from their original contexts without acknowledging where they came from, whom they represent, and the political and historical struggles of those groups.”

Decontextualization is rampant in Pepsi’s short-lived “Live for Now” commercial featuring Kendall Jenner and a group of ambiguously motivated beautiful protestors, whose generic signs (“Peace” and “Join the Conversation”) ignore context of police brutality, Black Lives Matter, and other context-specific elements of contemporary protest movements.

This absence of context is noticeable because of the direct visual allusion to the iconic image of the arrest of Iesha L Evans at a Baton Rouge protest against police shootings.  This allusion, as well as the commercial’s baffling stereotyped characters, are problematic and should not be dismissed or defended.

And, to be fair, Pepsi didn’t try to dismiss or defend the commercial — they apologized.

However, in Pepsi’s rapidly-issued apology another problem of appropriation surfaced. The corporate apology tried to position Kendall Jenner not only as outside of the process, but as a victim of the company’s misstep, as activists have noted.

Claiming innocence or ignorance cannot excuse cultural appropriation. If Kendall Jenner gets to claim ignorance of the commercial’s appropriative qualities, this is only another sign that we, as a country, need to more clearly address contexts of institutionalized racism and the continued economic and cultural appropriation in its wake. Rather than spending time building sympathetic portrayals of well-meaning white people involved in cultural appropriation, we should feel more urgency to have engage in meaningful, sometimes necessarily uncomfortable, conversations on racial power, privilege, and appropriation.

The continued excuse that someone didn’t intend to participate in cultural appropriation is not helpful in actively working to solve problems together.

In fact, there are many resources available for those of us interested in gaining more understanding around the problems of cultural appropriation. For instance, novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen names four aspects of learning more and appropriating less: 1) “recognize the history of economic appropriation,” 2) “engage in careful and curious conversation with people different from ourselves,” 3) “accept criticism,” and 4) “practice solidarity. Reject the politics of division.”

The work of collaborative problem-solving and fostering inclusivity can only happen when we stop hiding behind excuses of innocence and ignorance. If we can assume good intentions of one another, then we can take Nguyen’s advice and move beyond ignorance and work to make our community a better place for all of us.

An English professor at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2014, Elizabeth Powers teaches introductory and advanced writing courses, and coordinates a writing lab which allows her to work individually with students on their writing skills. Powers’ scholarly focus is on Rhetoric and Composition, especially rhetorical theory, visual rhetoric, and writing center studies.



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