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letstalkaboutethnic
OK. So let’s talk about the word ‘ethnic.’ Here’s the Webster Dictionary definition of the word:
eth·nic adjective \ˈeth-nik\
: of or relating to races or large groups of people who have the same customs, religion, origin, etc.
: associated with or belonging to a particular race or group of people who have a culture that is different from the main culture of a country

But what the word has come to mean in the design world (or at least on Pinterest) seems to be any room, outfit, or adornment that looks like it does not have Western-European origins. This annoys me, and troubles me as well. It’s lazy and inaccurate to call something simply ‘ethnic.’ What’s more, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s kind of like describing something as ‘interesting.’ It’s not a descriptor. It also reinforces the concept of the ‘other’–like we are like this, they are like that.

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In the past few weeks I’ve been interviewed for books, blogs or magazines and each time, either the word ‘ethnic’ or ‘global’ has come up when the interviewer has described my style. Each time it didn’t sit with me well.  We all live on earth, right? So what exactly is global style? Does it mean that I mix styles form around the globe? If so, OK.  At least I like that word better than ‘ethnic’– but I’ve been seeing the words ‘global style’ a lot lately to describe, say, Moroccan decor, Turkish Decor, Mexican decor and/or Indian decor–and in that case, well, I think calling it ‘global style’ is a total misnomer.  I see people (myself included sometimes) flirting with terms like ‘folk’ (or ‘tribal’) but these words do little to solve the issue at hand–and the word ‘tribal’ totally rubs me the wrong way.

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I get the feeling that many of these terms are used simply because people don’t know where the designs are from– it’s foreign, and exotic, and so it gets labeled as ‘ethnic.’  But labeling these designs simply as ‘ethnic’ totally wipes out the cultural heritage of the pieces and the intentions of the designer.  It ignores geography, highlights cultural ignorance and sets the stage for misunderstanings and cultural clashes.  Say, for example, a prayer-rug is unintentionally used as a bath-mat? It’s important to look at the history of objects in order to respectfully (or at least consciously) put them in new contexts.

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So here’s what I try to do when I come across things labeled as ‘ethnic’ on Pinterest. I try and identify where that something is actually from. So, for example, I’ll correct the copy on a pin from ‘Pretty Ethnic Decor” to “Turkish Kilim Pillows, Moroccan Rug and a butterfly chair.’ Or I just erase the word ‘Ethnic” altogether.  For spaces that mix up lots of things from different countries, I prefer the term ‘eclectic.’ But I do think that it is important that we start to do a better job of saying what something is in its context.  Plus, if we don’t know where something is from, and we do a little research, we learn something and know better for next time–it helps to break the cycle of ignorance. How many Turkish rugs have I seen labeled as ‘Navajo’? (A lot!)  How many geometric patterns have I seen labeled as ‘Aztek’? (A lot!) Well, what does a true Aztek pattern look like? What are some of the differences between Turkish and Navajo rugs? It is by asking these types of questions that we can learn about different cultures, and avoid the lazy trap of calling something unfamiliar ‘ethnic.’

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I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Perhaps I’m ultra-sensitive to this issue because people often refer to me as ‘ethnic’ because they don’t know what my cultural heritage is. What do you think when you see the word ‘ethnic’? Does it bother you? Have you thought about the word before and what it means in the context of design, decor and fashion? What words do you use to describe designs of different cultures? What words would you use to describe my designs, or your own designs?  I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this!

89 Responses to The old, tired, lazy “ethnic” label.
  1. Sandy says:

    Judging by the comments to this latest blog post you are not alone in those feelings.

    http://www.100layercakelet.com/2013/10/08/navajo-baby-shower-by-grit-gold/

    • You are right ! A hand made item that we call recently by mistake ethnic,or whatever has first the tradition in its background ,the people who are produsing it generation after generation and most important the symbolism . The designs in folk let s say rags or ceramis or whatever became designs because they were a symbol before so people expresses and used the symbol in the items of their everyday life. Please keep going you are in the very right path that will lead you to the correct conclusion !

  2. yes! this is just smart. see something, see a generalization to describe that something, seek more information about it because you are curious and interested in what you are seeing. in a small way, this practice makes you less of a passive consumer (i see something, i like it, end of story), and makes you more of an engaged consumer (i see something, i like it, i seek more information and knowledge about it). to me, if you like something, you should *want* to know more about it, where it’s from, it’s history! (ideally.) it’s definitely more work, but i think infinitely more gratifying.

  3. Cori Magee says:

    Awesome post.
    I’m not good at verbalizing this sort of thing, but I feel exactly the same way, especially being of mixed heritage myself. I got an Aztec symbol tattooed on the back of my neck just to prompt the question that would allow me to inform people that I’m not “White” like I appear, but rather German/Mexican.
    So yes, I can’t stand generalizations and you’ve nailed it all on the head with regards to decor and fashion.
    Also, you don’t see many smart blog posts on design blogs so high five! (sorry bloggers)

  4. Jennifer says:

    This totally illuminated my thoughts on the subject. Those same choice words rub me the wrong way and for the longest time I couldn’t explain why except that it “felt” wrong to me. Thank you, Justine!!

    PS. I am the girl who emailed you with questions about visiting Denmark a couple months ago… well I am here, a month in, and LOVING it! Norrebrø is by far my favorite, you were right :)
    Cheers.

  5. I think you bring up a great point, and your suggestions provide a wonderful opportunity to learn more about other cultures, which is never a bad thing!

  6. Marielle says:

    Yes! I hate how “ethnic” and “tribal” are being used these days There’s this idea that traditional culture can only belong to people from non-Western (influenced) societies. Even “Western” has bad connotations; can’t think of a better term right now.

    Ugh. I’m sorry people refer to you as “ethnic”; that must really get annoying. I guess it’s a combination of people of mixed heritage being relatively rare still and the need to have a label for everything. Or people are taking their PCness too far. Still.

  7. Lily says:

    What bothers me most are the people who see nothing wrong with this term and other forms of categorization. In a way the term ascribes a sense of “otherness” which is a form of ethnocentrism.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    I agree with your assessment that “ethnic” “tribal” and “navajo” is lazy and troubling. It points to an anglo-euro-centric world view, and has a two-fold problem.
    Firstly, it does point to items and style categorized as “ethnic” as being of “the other”, reinforcing stereotypes. This also smacks of a weird cultural appropriation for the sake of trendiness. There’s a lack of education on WHY something would be categorized as “navajo” (and PS – Navajos weren’t the only Native American tribe in North America. Each tribe identified itself very strongly. To lump all vaguely Native American work as “Navajo” is like referring to Africa as a country, NOT a continent made up of nearly 60 individual countries). Just because something is geometric doesn’t mean it’s “tribal” or “ethnic” or whatever. Different cultural groups have cultivated certain aesthetics based on deep-rooted traditions and inspired by particular surroundings, beliefs, and ideals. To categorize things so broadly, with no research or understanding of where symbols and ideas come from veers uncomfortably close to bigotry, in my opinon.

    Secondly, describing so many things as “ethnic” undercuts the typically anglo-euro contributions to various aesthetics. The miscategorization of works by European tribal cultures, or to dismiss them entirely as not “ethnic” enough, is to loose a large chunk of interesting and beautiful work. Additionally, ignoring it leads to gaps in understanding what is typically categorized as “ethnic”. A huge amount of cultural exchange has happened historically, and continues to do so (ancient example: The Silk Road through Turkey. Example today: Japan’s pop-cultural interpretation of Disney like Takashi Murakami’s work). The important thing is to learn and understand the connections between cultures, the exchange and the beauty, as well as what makes a certain culture have it’s own unique identity. Amazing, new ideas can happen when cultures collide (for example, the cemetery in Eklutna, AK, where the local tribal population synthesized Russian Orthodoxy into something rather unique: http://tinyurl.com/lqtfjcu).
    The world is vastly too beautiful, too interesting and too interconnected to try to parse out “us” vs. “them”.

  9. Catherine says:

    Excellent post, Justina! It’s best when we learn about where items came from, why they were made and who made them. “Eclectic” does make more sense as a style descriptive, but best of all is knowing and stating origins, which I try to do as much as I can. This ‘other-izing’ does not only happen in the ‘West’ – here in Turkey, there is Turkish, and everything else is ‘foreign’! We do all share one world, so we designers might follow your lead in telling the stories of these items we collect and live with, explaining the cultures that influence us in our work.

  10. Love what you’ve articulated here! Really has my wheels turning, because I dislike the labels ‘ethnic’ & ‘worldly’…and recently thought that perhaps ‘global’ was better, but I appreciate how you’ve broken this down. None are descriptive, to say the least. Eclectic is fine, but rather ignorant. I’m challenged to learn more, and to be more informed and descriptive with my own language. Thanks for getting this conversation/train of thought started!

  11. Meghan says:

    Very well put.

  12. pat b says:

    Love this post. You’ve nailed what seems to be an increasing issue in so many areas, lazy thinking and writing which reflects that.

    My grade five teacher taught us that ‘nice’ was a useless word as it had almost no meaning as a descriptor. I think ‘ethnic’ falls into the same category and has all the other baggage you refer to as ‘otherness’.

    Let’s stop being ‘nice’ and using ‘ethnic’. There are real words with real oomph to be used….if you take the time.

  13. Anonymous says:

    THANK YOU! So a while back I wrote a post on my blog (http://www.ofthevoyage.com/search/label/exotic) about the same thing,including the words “gypsy” and “exotic”. I thought I’d share what the word Gypsy really means on the post. It’s not anything that looks “bohemian”, but an ethnicity, a people who have their ancestry India…and not all live in caravans. And their true name is the Rom people. I was annoyed, first because I have Romany ancestry, and two, don’t people wanna be educated? And I got a really mean comment about how I don’t know what I’m talking about and how I think I’m “high and mighty”, blah blah blah. Like you, I am also sick and tired of being “exotic” and “ethnic” because of the way I look. I tend to use the word “global” to refer to my style (as one of my pinterest boards is named- nomadic global style) because I appreciate stuff from ALL over the world! I too see people describing their pins all wrong, bohemian and gypsy for a Moroccan piece of furniture or something. Anyway, thanks for allowing me to vent! And the dictionary is wrong: there is ONE race, not many, and many ethnicities!

  14. amy says:

    Thanks for opening the discussion, its great to see so many people that are educated on these loaded terms, Im intrerested to know, what do you feel about the term Creol?

  15. Natasha says:

    I always think this when I see the term “ethnic restaurant”. The term ethnic is really ridiculous to use on the internet.

  16. Alix says:

    I started using Pinterest a few months after returning from a trip to southern Ethiopia and the use of tribal really bugs me. The tribal people of each area much less country have distinctive design mores!

    Thanks for the post!

  17. Lesley says:

    Yes, ethnic has long been a thorn in my side. I prefer to refer to my home as ‘well travelled’. That works for us.

  18. Toni says:

    Oh my goodness Justina, this is pandora’s box for me.

    I believe that usage of the terms “Ethnic” and “Worldly” takes something that is rich with value, history, dimension, tradition, and life and makes it flat, shallow, and devoid of meaning. It’s misrepresentation.

    Unfortunately, it’s what people do. I mean, what the hell is white?! Can someone please point out to me the country of white? The term sure get’s used a lot. Or what are various races without asian influence on the forms we fill out? This is AT BEST lazy categorization which robs everyone involved including the one using the terminology.

    I want to know where things and people come from. I want to know what’s the story, what makes it special, how these things contribute to what is in front of me and why? I want to know what/who I’m investing in. When a person doesn’t ask these questions he or she really misses out on the vitality of the people they meet, the clothes they put on their body, and the things they bring into their home. Essentially, the life in the things they are surrounding themselves with.

    I don’t think it’s being sensitive. I think it shouldn’t it well with you because it’s mistreating something you love. Protect it ;)

    Thanks for your thoughts

  19. Molly Berry says:

    Judy Mitoma, Wendy Temple, Peter Nabokov…the list goes on and on…they (we) at WAC would all be proud of this post. I’m right there with you girl. Love this awareness in all we do as artists, designers, voyeurs (i had to say it), and citizens of the world! xx

  20. Lauren says:

    I am in such agreement! I’m very happy to also know that are many others aware of this. I know that I have def not done my part to defer these labels as I should….especially b/c on pinterest I have a tendency NOT to change whatever is written in the caption, but I think I will now! Its frustrating because when you do happen to search for something in particular, using an accurate description will often not get you nearly as many options. But type in ‘ethnic’? Whoa! hits out the wah-zoo! Or tribal? same ish! Its disappointing that these are the terms that you have to use to search something sometimes…..and you are right, it detracts, it almost puts everything in one box! With all of the information available at our fingertips, this becomes less and less acceptable.

    Wooo and don’t get me started on how negative a connotation can be associated with the word based on tone and context! yikes!

    But real talk, I’m so happy that you vocalized this, and I personally will do what I can to affect some change in this area! And will just be more aware in general of labels I see because i know that this is not the only word that makes the hairs on the back of people’s necks stand up.

  21. Deb says:

    I’m going back to my boards and removing or rephrasing “ethnic” from the descriptions I repinned, because I agree with you, and by not editing repins I am unintentionally contributing to this. I’ve used “global” to describe my style because I do mix styles from different cultures together. But as you say, if “global” were used to describe one culture, it’s not much different than “ethnic.”

    As other commenters have mentioned, even to refer to a style with a country’s name isn’t necessarily accurate. Country borders are political creations and the land in a country belongs to many cultures. India has so many cultures. So do I do justice to a culture when calling something “Indian” as I frequently do? Honestly? No. What I’ve learned is, even to describe something as North Indian or South Indian or to describe something as from a state of India is not even accurate. As a white Midwestern American woman, when I married a Tamil Brahmin Perumal man from South India, there were very specific things in our wedding, and specific rituals, for example, that I still don’t fully understand the meaning of everything – right down to the saris I wore and the designs on them. It can get mindboggling. I agree a solution is to try to get as specific as possible, and make an effort to learn. Learning more is a commitment I will make.

    Where I worry is when people might call this cultural appropriation for profit, and I haven’t processed all thoughts on that yet. As with everything in life, there are pros and cons to sharing objects from cultures other than our own.

  22. Chedva says:

    I love this conversation! Specifically about using pieces in the right context (like your prayer rug example) that’s a criticism I received when I blogged about ways of using Ikat in decorating – and it really blew my mind, because there’s a lot of truth to it. So I don’t know if there’s a definitive solution to that but I think if we approach those pieces with respect and knowledge (or at least, willing to accept the fact that we don’t know everything and that there are things to be learnt) – well, that’s at least a step in the right direction. And maybe if people learn more about these “exotic”, “ethnic” places – even for the sake of design – it would do the world some good.

  23. HD says:

    YES!! Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve always disliked these terms, even to the extent that I’ve NOT bought things I liked online just because the seller used those words I the description. I wish people put more thought into the words they use and the impact they have.

  24. juli says:

    actually i was amazed by one of your latest posts about “pampa”. Those rugs, the design and colors look much alike the ones made in Argentina’s northwest and south Bolivia by people belonging to different aborigen groups such as quechuas and aymaras…Even the landscapes in the photographs are similar…this made me think if actually “pampa” (a quechua name) sells australian handmade rugs …I took a quick look at their page and I didn´t find any explicit name of the people who make this or even the place they live…I think that to be respectful enough we should try to talk about this, not only the country where handmade beauties come from , but the culture within…hugs from Argentina!

    • Justina Blakeney says:

      Hi Juli!! The owners of Pampa are a mixed couple–and the man is Australian and the woman is from Argenitina– their rugs ARE Hand-Woven native communities from Argentina. I used ‘South America’ -(their words from a Press release–) put you are absolutely correct and I will go back now and update that post. Thanks for pointing this out!

  25. Yetunde says:

    I think that most of the blogosphere/pinsphere just has not found the vocabulary to describe what is not ‘cookie cutter’ middle class white american aesthetic. just like you said, the term ethnic describes things that are not the ‘norm’ which is assumed to be the cookie cutter middle class white american. In a way, I don’t mind the label. Labels is how we find things, and I can quickly suss out what I will and won’t like, even if it assumes that one is the norm, and the other isn’t.

    • Nan says:

      I like the points you make, Yetunde. I’m pitching in here as an older reader (warning: granny lecture) – I agree with Yetunde that there is a generic middle-American class of style which I think was originally based on Anglo influences that came from the colonial period. Rich people could travel and bring home things from around the world but your average American could not and had to buy generic cookie-cutter stuff that was sold to them. Not to mention “modern design” which is not traditional to a specific culture. In the hippie era (almost my era, I’m old!) more people started traveling and importing things from India, South America and Afghanistan etc (and eventually China) and the term “ethnic” then was a huge compliment, it meant something was NOT generic mainstream American and characterless but represented a deep tradition somewhere and was a specific creative expression of that tradition. A lot of people here really got behind that and being American we didn’t have to be members of a particular culture to appreciate or own something of that culture (and we still don’t have to be). I think as far as labels go, as Yetunde says, it’s a basic category — “ethnic” vs. “generic blah middle-of the road-American-derived-from- Anglo”. And we could move on from that basic distinction, as Justina implores, by paying attention to what things really are rather than relying on labels that are so basic as to be uninformative, misleading and even insulting.
      I’m not the one to suggest what to call anything but eclectic seems good to me for now, when in need of a basic label for things that are put together from many cultures or countries. I think what’s yucky about “global” and “tribal” is their appropriation by corporations like Target and big clothing companies to describe their middle-of-the road generic merchandise — trying to make it sound artistic and exciting. I don’t think the terms are meant to be put-downs but are so often gross misappropriations and yeah, pretty obnoxious.
      Thanks for the great post!

      • Natalie says:

        Interesting perspective on the use of ‘ethnic’ in hippie era, as a distinctive compliment. Didn’t know that! Gives historical view that this is not a new issue, too. I know my Ukrainian mother always preferred the use of the name of the actual culture vs. vague descriptors even then, ie) Ukrainian, Hungarian, Russian, vs’. peasant’ blouses.

  26. Sarah says:

    ah Justina :-) :-) :-)
    great post x

  27. Yoshiko says:

    Thanks for this thought provoking post. I totally agree with you that the terms ethnic and global connote a sense of otherness. I also dislike the word exotic, as it is fetishistic. We should make the effort to appreciate and understand all cultures. As an Asian, I truly abhor the word Oriental, which was historically used to convey a subordinate status.

  28. Jihane says:

    Thank you very much for this very well written post, it made me feel understood to read it and to read all the excellent comments. I heard the word “ethnic” not only in the American blogosphere, but also in France (where I lived), in Italy (where I live now)… They use it for everything, probably not aware that they are just as “ethnic” as the rest of the world… It would never occur to me to call a burger or a pizza ethnic food just because I’m neither American nor Italian. I’m Moroccan, so you can guess how annoying it is for me to see this word applied to a moroccan table, a mexican blanket or a chinese plate …
    By the way, that’s why I really appreciated the words you chose to describe that airbnb pop up house you (amazingly) designed. Words are powerful and their meaning should never be underestimated.

  29. Albie Darling says:

    I can’t stand the label “tribal” simply because I don’t know what people are referring to when they say it. To me it means almost nothing other than a half arsed attempt at a description.

  30. Nina says:

    You’re so right! As I live in Turkey I always find it provincial and narrow-minded that especially people in the US simplify the rest of the world in a way that they can safely ignore the diversity and complexity that makes up cultures, heritage, people etc. Even labelling a rug as being ‘Turkish’ doesn’t really tell you anything as there are huge differences in designs and patterns even among the various rug-producing regions here and so on. Similarly, we can now find so many summer houses attempting a ‘provence-french-look’ while to the outsider they may seem so ‘authentic- Turkish’.. ;)

  31. Ethnic I can handle (I think). It’s the word bohemian that bugs me no end—especially when used for interiors that are anything but….for example when you come across an Indian/south asian interior with a baithak ( formal seating at floor level, with cushions or chowkis) or with pictures of hindu deities or a brass lamp, a label of bohemian couldn’t be farther from the truth! Most often these colorful interiors are considered very formal in the country of origin. The structure is quite rigid(for want of a better word–I haven’t had my coffee yet!) and it would be absurd to label it as “bohemian” just because of the “ethnic” (there’s that word again!) vibe.

    It is, in fact, formal and structured. Not bohemian (neither is it from Bohemia, nor does it embody the bohemian spirit) Quite the opposite.

    Thanks for the chance to rant and get that off my chest! :) You made an excellent point up there about cultural faux pas ( e.g. using a prayer rug as a bathmat). While I’m all for reinventing stuff, I can totally see how it could be insensitive and offensive.

    Great post, as always!

    • Natalie says:

      YES! Boho chic is different than Bohomenian-boho chic is a current eclectic style while Bohohemian is a Germanic area/people, that has been overlaid by many cultures (there’s a Mexican beer called Bohomia specifically because Germans in Mexico started it). Maybe that is the answer, reinventing new words/phrases when it is not of the old culture, though may nod to it, but a different style than it’s current milieu.

  32. Goldammer says:

    Thank you so much for the post.

    I think this topic is not only important in fashion and design but also in the everyday life and even in politics. For example, when people around you talk about “african culture” as if Africa is one country which only produced one kind of culture. In Germany, the Minister of Economics had to endure an interview in which he was asked about his asian roots and why he isn’t really interested in his original culture. There was a huge part of journalists and blogger who didn’t understand the fuss, because after all, he is different looking and why shouldn’t they be allowed to address that?

    It is the same point. Of course you are allowed to point out differences. The differences in cultural outputs like fashion, music, language or in genetic outputs like hair color, height or bone structure is what makes the world beautiful, inspirational and rich. But by mixing all the differences together in words like “ethnic”, “asian looking”, “african food” they are made invisible and simplified by just considering them as The Other. (Not to mention the negative connotations some of these words imply.)

    I never thought about it as you put in your post, but you are totally right. Furniture, clothes and things I surround myself with are actively chosen by me. That means that they reflect part of who I am. Being clear about their origin and label them correctly is as important as chosing the right words when talking to my neighbour who comes from Gambia and talking about the Minister who was adopted as a child and therefore rooted in the German culture (whatever that is) just like me.

    So: sincerely thank you for raising my awareness!

  33. Bev says:

    HEAR HEAR!

    Thank you for verbailizing what I have been trying to say each time I have walked past Urban Outfitters and seen yet another “ethnic/tribal” display. Beautifully and sensibly written. I myself like the term eclectic. I think I’m going to use that as a more respectful and appropriate word for my style and way of life.

  34. Elizabeth says:

    Ha! I’ve almost written you emails on this a couple times because I run into it a lot with the stuff I like. I’ve found that “folk” is usually used for “old-fashioned white stuff” and tribal or ethnic is used for “old-fashioned everyone else stuff”. For me, I like global. It’s not troubling like tribal or ethnic, nor does it have their baggage. Global, for me, means someone who likes to decorate with stuff from all over the world. Eclectic is good, but in the design world, eclectic style could easily be shabby chic or different British century pieces in one room. The reason I’d considered writing you on your thoughts is because it gets into selling. So on Etsy, I can tag something as global, folk, or even boho, and feel okay about it, but then miss anyone searching, “ethnic” or “tribal” who might love the stuff, but genuinely not know the problem with those words. I personally was very happy when they finally relabeled the grocery store aisle where I live from “ethnic aisle” to “global foods.” And I like folk too, because it actually means something, as a self or community grown style. If it were up to me, much of what is labelled “ethnic” or “tribal” would all get folk so that it wasn’t just the Scandi stuff under that label. Design-wise, “international” might be a good word, but sounds sorta bland. I do think that we have to accept that there are people in all cultures who love to decorate with items from all over or from their travels and that it’s okay to have a mish-mash of global style. Just like there’s people all over that like English rose of Scandi stuff only and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think the worst offenders are the taste-makers, the magazines & the stores. If they consistently labelled stuff correctly, so would others. And if it’s some generic design inspired by the geometries of many old cultures, maybe they should head the route of foodie and start using phrases like “fusion” and “global fusion” more often?

    • Justina says:

      You’re very right about the word eclectic. I just haven’t found the perfect word yet for me (besides maybe jungalow :D) And you are right about the word ‘folk’ too I think–I wonder how that all came about?! So weird!! And yes, I have thought about the word ‘fusion’ and I’ve decided that I don’t hate it. :D Thanks for always being such an engaged member of this community–I love and appreciate each and every one of your comments here <3

      • Natalie says:

        Yes, fusion is a good one. Ethnic, from my perspective, came from N. America and Europe travelling much more during the “Pan Am” era and acknowledging ‘other’ cultures, a very biased view of course, including not just p beople of color, (Asian, African, S. American, and Native N. American) but ‘ethnic’ identities of various Eastern European and Middle Eastern peoples. I actually like the word indigenous also in discussing culture, as it hints at the actual tribes that all of us originally came from but I don’t think it’s that useful in a visual context.

  35. Corlie says:

    Totally agree!!! I have a store that sells gorgeous handmade wares from Yunnan, Tibet and Vietnam and I put a load of effort into researching the origin and history of my stuff, and making sure my product descriptions are accurate in representing the cultures that created the products. So it reaaaally bugs me when people just blanket label somethings as “ethic”. Sadly i do have to admit that because of this ethnic labeling everyone does I am pandering to the search engines by tagging products as ‘ethnic’….

  36. Callie says:

    I am so happy that you are talking about these distinctions, Justina! It is so easy to slap a useless label on something without giving any credit to its origination. It feeds the cycle of appropriating culture and heritage for aesthetic and trend purposes. For most people without prior knowledge (including myself often) our best defense/poor excuse is ignorance–but what really gets to me is when brands/stores/blogs/magazines use these labels to sell trends. If a blog, for example, prides itself on introducing new aesthetic trends to readers, it bears some responsibility for the vernacular that surrounds the idea. Can I also mention that I’m uncomfortable with the term “urban” even though it’s widely used? Like, the Grammys have an Urban Contemporary category…what is this supposed to include?

  37. Christine says:

    Fascinating conversation…and such an important one to have. If as designers and consumers, we are attracted to designs from cultures other than our own…why not take it a step further and actually do the research, dig deeper and connect a piece’s origin?

    As far as the fashion industry goes these days, I just feel like it moves too fast as a whole to be bothered with research, which is especially troubling in our “globalized” world, where most of the garments for sale in the U.S. at least were made overseas by people we’ll never meet…with many styles of clothing featuring generic “tribal” and/or “ethnic” motifs without real basis in tradition or context. As you say, its lazy…from the designing to the marketing to the consuming…there’s a huge disconnect there and I think I’m so glad you started this discussion.

    • Natalie says:

      I agree, both the speed and the laziness of the modern world are to blame, though I wonder if back in the souks, bazaars, caravans and markets of ‘yore’ if people also glossed over origins for expediency. Which makes me wonder, if it’s not also a mass culture thing -after all, when very high end goods are for sale, ‘provenance’ or pedigree is a key selling point for an item.

  38. I don’t know, it’s not that big of a deal to me. I guess some people feel more strongly about some things than others. And what you’re allowed to say and not say is getting more restrictive by the minute in this world. I get tired trying to follow along in the “do not say” and “do say” rules as expressed by others around me. So I’m white but an immigrant in the US and I was in the definite religious minority in the country I was born in. I have heard a thing or two about my nation and religion but I assume that most people are not going to be experts at my background and I choose to take things with a grain of salt and some humor. Most people are not actively trying to insult you, they just don’t know. Sure, you can read up on anything and learn more but it’s impossible to read up on EVERYTHING and I guarantee you that someone somewhere is annoyed that everyone else doesn’t know everything about the things they are experts at. I am at fault for not doing everything right/knowing everything all the time and I assume others are going to be the same way. If there’s no ill intent I just let it go and move on. In the case of the mislabeling here there is no ill intent. In fact, the pins of the non-western styles/interiors are pinned by people who like this non-traditional style and they just grab a label on the fly to quickly be able to add this visual feast to their pinboards. It’s a compliment that may not have the most accurate labels all the time. To me there are more important battles to be fought. Just my opinion (please don’t kill me now :))

    • Justina says:

      Oh no, I am happy to hear different opinions–that is what the conversation is all about! I think you are right in that there are more important battles to be fought–BUT words are very powerful and so I enjoy hearing peoples perspectives on this issue :)

  39. aurens66 says:

    As you said ‘ethic’ doesn’t mean anything, for me I don’t search under that term, if I want something inspired by Japan, or Russian, or African, I search under those tags, so someone trying to promote their work is losing out on a lot of audience by not being specific.

  40. Julia says:

    I am going to have to go back and read all the comments but firstly, THANK YOU. I’m another mixed race person and I seriously get so angry at the entitled ethnocentric bloggers (and companies) who bandy about the term “ethnic” to mean “not white”. I’ve also noticed that it often is a means of erasing individual artists/artisans/designers. One blogger did a give away a few months ago for an indie Canadian company that did “ethnic” textiles from “Africa” (really? the whole entire continent???) but also prided itself on recognizing individual up and coming designers. Which is it? Do only rich white people have cities of origin and names and deserve creative credit? I tried to leave a (very subdued) comment questioning this, but it didn’t get posted.

    For a while, I heard the term mostly in regards to restaurants and found it over-simplified but mostly neutral. In my mind, it meant “cuisine coming from a specific region” and included Thai, Cajun, German, American, Mexican, Jewish-Russian, Szechuan, etc. restaurants (but excluded fusion, fast-food, hipster, and combo places). But after a white friend was confused when another non-white friend and I used it to refer to a local German place (and through subsequent conversations I had with others), I realized that most (white) people around me seem to hear “brown” attached to it.

    I thought I’d mellow with age, but I’m hitting the point where I am just DONE with this accidental and “well-meaning” racism/cultural appropriation/neo-colonialism/fetishization/exploitation. I appreciate you raising the issue!

    • Natalie says:

      As a Ukrainian, ie white Eastern European, ethnic is often applied to me, almost as often as it is applied to my mixed race (Mexican-Irish) partner, but it does depend on context, and perhaps, as you mentioned, overall it applies more often to ‘brown’. I agree that individual artists should be recognized, and ultimately, as an artist, its all human creativity, mixing own’s own thoughts, with the swirls of one’s own culture, and inspirations of others’, both individually and in groups.

      I agree with your conclusion – “I am just DONE with this accidental and “well-meaning” racism/cultural appropriation/neo-colonialism/fetishization/exploitation.”

  41. Bubbie says:

    All I can add is Ah-person, as your Papa used to say. I really was beginning to think that nobody cared or paid attention anymore (too poor to pay attention). About the subtle seditious racism that feeds on ignorance and keeps us stuck on stupid. I have to echo Julia… I thought crepes and Wurst, hamburger and pizza were all “ethnic”. Food that has its origin in a cultural and language group with shared customs ad mutual recognition. But living inLA for the first time in 45 years I have coming to understand that ethnic means coloured. I appreciate the multi-kulti richness of this city and I have totally mixed feelings about the direction of the moral compass…I see this period in history as transitional, from a world of boundaried ethnic groups (120 mutually unintelligible language groups in Nigeria, and maybe 40 in Germany and I am embarrassed not to know how many in China) to an increasingly interwoven melange. I love the idea of specificity, and I love the idea of transformative. As a one time professor of American Ethnic Studies my hope is that some folks will hold onto the roots so we know where the fruit comes from, while others will mix and match, incorporate and fuse. The important piece of this, it seems to me, is claiming the right to name who we are and how we see who we be.

    • Natalie says:

      Lovely thoughts, especially the fruits vs. roots – that is the whole argument in a nutshell, and interesting that even the title of your field, “American Ethnic Studies” is problematic ;)

  42. Sylvie says:

    I really agree with you. I think, most of the time, people use the world “ethnic”, to means “inspired by the popular handcraft of the past”. I’m French, and I’m living in French (sorry for my poor English), and here, we use the same word for this style..

  43. leela says:

    an intelligent response to a lazy, wack way of interacting with the word of design and culture.

  44. Natalie says:

    In my replies above I have included my thoughts, but a summary for those who don’t want to wade through: ‘ethnic’ has an interesting history in design, cultural context, as, actually, does the word Bohemian, and that like food, fusion of cultural influences should be acknowledged, with nods to indigenous styles and influences. This situation has arisen due to both the speed of current culture and cultural diffusion, and the laziness of the human animal in ‘due diligence’ about many issues that are not immediately personal, or ‘important’, possible due to expensive valuation. (Intersectionalities of race and class (and gender too, the unspoken truth, is that many cultural handicrafts are handed down mother to daughter, and that female artistic achievements are rarely called out, and are subsumed within cultural trends)).

    The word ethnic blurs the roots vs. fruits distinction, yet serves as simplified labeling for many. I would love to see you explore this further, and to keep educating :)

  45. Antonia says:

    This is capitalism. interior design is a business, pieces are merchandise and subject to fetichism. simple as that

  46. Capella says:

    As an interior designer it is hard enough to describe my style to those that ask. My most recent and accurate adjective is “global” when I use textiles, furniture, rugs, and accessories found around the globe. I understand the discord with the word “ethnic” but for me it is appropriate to describe a room with a Moroccan rug, a Hmong pillow, a chair in upholstered in Kuba cloth or Dutch wax cloth, and Croatian pottery. I’m labelling that room with the stuff it contains, not making a larger social commentary on people. I do believe consumers could be more knowledgeable about different cultures and not generically label or mislabel items out of laziness.

  47. Namala says:

    If one is using “ethnic” as a catch-all then one is missing the definition of ethnic – one could include everything about themselves in their “ethnic” category for we are all “ethnic” – from somewhere and part of a group – and most humans are now from more than one somewhere or group. It is a shame the word is used incorrectly to describe everything and everyone that is not “us”, whatever “us” maybe.

    “Global” is used in much the same way – to describe everything that is not “us”, again, whatever “us” maybe to the originator of the category. It would be humorous to travel to Morocco and see U. S. made items in a “Global” or “Ethnic” section of a store.

    That we are having this discussion means we are a way yet from considering ourselves planetary citizens and not merely the citizen of one continent on this planet.

    Full Definition of ETHNIC from Merriam Webster Dictionary – English language
    1
    : heathen
    2
    a : of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background
    b : being a member of a specified ethnic group
    c : of, relating to, or characteristic of ethnics

  48. Rebecca says:

    I am SO happy you wrote this post. I also think some of this comes down to retailers labeling things as well. I’ve designed for many different retailers (who will remain nameless haha)…and this is a word that was often used as a ‘characteristic’ of what they needed in their assortment. Often there would be an overarching theme for a season and any designs that were inspired by say an Aztec pattern (but were not) would be given an Aztec name, which can create confusion about where the design originated from. Anyways, it is something that has bothered me, and I’m happy to see this being discussed.

  49. Lena says:

    I agree totally. I think in some cases folk art might be a good replacement, other times as you suggested ecclectic might be good. I think global might be acceptable if the person really mixes lots of different cultures and might even include things that aren’t usually labelled as ethnic (like if somebody mixes French baroque and Italian modern design with Turkish Kelims and Japanese ceramics). And of course, if possible, use a more detailed describtion!

  50. jessica says:

    I see where you’re coming from. And totally agree that when possible, I should take the time to honor the original tradition/culture behind a piece in voice and description. But I don’t really have a problem with the word “ethnic”. Yes, it’s both a broad and generic term. But sometimes a generic word– especially on something as generic as a photo that’s been re-pinned a thousand times– is appropriate. In other scenarios, it’s appropriate to share the background and cultural significance of a certain textile or design.

  51. panda flannel says:

    I am so glad that you posted this, and to see that it got reposted on Apartment Therapy. This is a really big conversation that needs to happen – or rather, it’s about time that (often white) design-focused people need to start listening to instead of indignantly stamping with their hands over their ears like toddlers whenever it comes up.

    It’s always seemed really ironic to me that so many people who FUME about designer knock-offs and intellectual property rights are totally, totally fine with wholesale appropriating the aesthetics of other cultures while erasing the history and context of those pieces, or can remember ever single style of Eames chair but can’t be bothered to tell the difference between Egyptian and Bolivian rugs.

    As non-patronizingly as possible, good for you for putting your voice out there on this one. I hope it brings you only the respect and credit you are due as a talented, thoughtful individual.

  52. Chardae says:

    You made some very good points in this post. I HATE the word “ethnic” almost as much as I hate “tribal”. For the most part I think they’re used, as you said, to distinguish something as non-Western, which is the easy way out. It simply signifies “other” and I don’t like that. I wish people would take the time to do research before they attach labels to certain things.

  53. Tanya says:

    This is one reason I try to stay away from Pinterest. I find that, as a social media outlet, it’s really a bad idea, because it seems to promote laziness and ignorance.
    I tried using it to look up something Art Deco and the pins that came up were everything from Victorian to Art Nouveau (seriously?) to Arts and Crafts to mid-century all jumbled with Art Deco, even within collections/boards. Like, whaaaat?
    So yeah.
    Incidentally, I have a theory that a lot of people confuse the word “ethnic” and “eclectic”.

    And WHAT an excellent point about misuse of things! I just ranted off to my husband about how Westerners seem to have these fads about things – like the wedding blankets from Morocco that are used for all kinds of crap. Would they feel offended if someone used a US flag as a table cover? Not a “US flag-themed” but an actual thing? Most likely. But hey, it’s not their culture, so whatever, man, right?

    Thank you for such a wonderful post on a very important topic! It really needs to be spoken of more.

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  56. lola says:

    it always feels like sth a white person would say, a white person thinking they rule earth, and other” people is ethnic” , cos if you go to some exotic” place, you/me/forigners are the ethnic?? is just a power-word, an eufemism that people who think they are at the top use to describe sth different from them. and im White, but latin, so, i get you. it may be (or not) the right Word, but the feeling is eufemism! trying to be polite” and some other sh*t like that. and yes, people like this dont want to learn sh*t!

  57. Christian says:

    Thank you for taking the time to open up a dialogue about this. As a woman of mixed Afro-Indigenous ancestry, and a jewelry designer, I have given a lot of thought about the question(s) you have asked. I concur that folks get lazy when it comes to properly researching and identifying the origins of the products they buy, or find interesting. I also think this is a behavior highly encouraged by consumerism, and Western culture at large. If we were to analyze every detail about where everyday items come from (not just decor), we would be forced to think more consciously about what it is we were buying, where it was made, and who it was made by. This is a process not many are willing to accept because it requires a certain level of accountability. Yet, I order to understand and dismantle oppressive systems, we have to take a good hard loom at the whole picture, especially hoe we play a part in all of it. As Gil Scott Heron noted in his song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. Nor will it be blogged, pinned, or tweeted. The Revolution Will Be Live.

  58. […] Sometimes, I get personal. My readers are smart and have helped me get through some more difficult times, like dealing with breast feeding issues and  post-pregnancy (and C-section) body issues, and even larger questions about things like the use of the word ‘ethnic.’ […]

  59. I think it’s great that you brought this up, because a lot of people don’t know what they’re doing when describing decor especially if they don’t work in the field like you do. I usually have no idea where things are from but if it’s pretty I’ll put a description like “I love this rug” or something boring like that on Pinterest haha.

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