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Long-established mindsets and ways of doing things mean colonial attitudes seep into the way products are developed

Grocers have always respected changing times and behaviours, translating trends into products that have consumer appeal. The mainstreaming of diverse cultures offers exciting opportunities to showcase new tastes and flavours.

However, there is also heightened awareness about social injustices, culture wars and conflicting ideologies. How we commercialise the food, clothing, music and more of immigrant communities is under increased scrutiny. The unsuspecting and unprepared can be caught unawares with implications for reputation.

In the world we live in, actions, images and words matter. Slapping the union flag on a block of butter, for example, is not without controversy – dividing customers into camps of nationalism and patriotism on one side, and anti-immigrant sentiment and intolerance on the other. Recreating a restaurant’s bacon and egg naan creation without a passing mention – as M&S was recently accused of doing – will not go unnoticed. Words like exotic, tropical and Asian carry weight too, feeding stereotypes and fuelling the “them vs us” dichotomy. Seemingly innocent moves intended to unite can be deemed more divisive than inclusive. At a time when equality, diversity and inclusion are hot topics, it throws into sharp focus the importance of working with immigrant communities and cultures sensitively.

Cue cultural appropriation. As a first-generation immigrant and British Indian food writer, I was first enraged about a Bengali curry paste that bore no resemblance to the region some three years ago. The topic has gathered at pace, with more people like me taking up the fight for ethnically diverse communities.

In the culture and mindset workshops I run for fellow writers, publishers and the wider food industry, I’ve discovered few people understand what cultural appropriation is, how it is different from cultural appreciation/inspiration and why it’s so relevant now. It is often confused as being a row about authenticity that stymies progress and creativity.

Instead, it is a timely debate about working with cultures in a way that balances power, creates equity, shows respect and creates opportunity for the communities involved. For cultures and communities that have been subject to invasion, colonialism, oppression and more, it matters how what they hold dear is treated by the dominant culture and that they reap the economic benefits of the same. Historically, this has not always been the case.

For a sector with consumer satisfaction at its core, there are some key pitfalls and watch-outs. Long-established mindsets and ways of doing things mean colonial attitudes seep into the way products are developed, and the perceptions and expectations of the majority customers are prioritised. Businesses have to navigate their customers’ expectations and perceptions and challenge their own.

Accountability is the buzzword of the day. How things have been done in the past simply won’t wash today, like giving a product a make-believe ‘ethnic’ name to increase its appeal or giving a heritage recipe a new format that is offensive to the community in which it originated.

A little knowledge is also a dangerous thing. Understanding of a culture, its history and context, as well as using language and labels right, will address representation. Consulting the communities themselves will offer genuine insights and supports further inclusion. Joining the dots between teams ensures a seamless approach. What good is a magazine feature on diverse chefs if consumers can’t find the ingredients for their published recipes in store?

Importantly, cultural sensitivity needs to be approached holistically. Retailers, marketing teams and product developers can find themselves at the coalface of controversy. That controversy will have repercussions for reputations whether they be at shop floor or board level. Offending the very communities you’re trying to engage through diversity and inclusion initiatives by being culturally insensitive will not endear them to your business.

It may be a hot potato, but culture needs to be digested, and fast.