Dallas Company Under Fire for Selling Mahjong Sets With a ‘White Girl Aesthetic’
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A new case of cultural appropriation hits the headlines and, for once, has nothing to do with the Kardashian / Jenners.
A Dallas company called The Mahjong Line recently came under fire for releasing a number of mahjong sets that critics say “whitewash” Chinese culture.
Mahjong is a traditional Chinese game from the Qing Dynasty, which ruled between the mid-17th century and 1912. The game became popular in the early 20th century and has been westernized over the decades – for example with an American variant. The 144 tiles that make up the game contain traditional Chinese characters and symbols.
That is, until a group of white Dallas women – owners Kate LaGere, Annie O’Grady, and Bianca Watson – decided it was time to give the old game a new look, “respectful refreshment” as they put it .
“While searching for her first mahjong set, Kate discovered that while the artwork on the traditional tile was beautiful, it was the same – and didn’t reflect the fun they had playing with friends. And nothing reflected their style or personality, ”states the company’s website, which sells the sets for $ 325-425.
Their products have received undue attention in the past two days – and not just because of their obvious influencing marketing scores: “Not your mother’s mahjong” and “for carefree girls who play a civilized game with a wink”.
The “modern makeover” of the Mahjong line reeked of pumpkin spices. Some of her tiles contain cute drawings of sacks of flour with muffins or words like “Bam Bam”. The sets, which are “inspired” by #mood digital collages on the company’s Instagram, have names like “Minimal Gal” and “Cheeky”.
The brand has been widely criticized as being “deaf,” “whitewashed,” and having a “white girl aesthetic”.
“Three white women with no respect for Chinese culture or the traditional game of mahjong are making trendy mahjong sets worth $ 325 out here. In 2021,” wrote Twitter user @AlyseWhitney. “Traditional symbols aren’t ‘fun’ or ‘stylish’ enough for you. How did that come about ??? FIND ANOTHER GAME!”
Now the owners no longer laugh at the controversy but apologize for their cultural appropriation.
After the backlash hit national headlines, the company’s “About Us” section on the website was changed to a Mea Culpa.
“While we intend to inspire and connect with a new generation of American mahjong players, we recognize that we are not paying proper homage to the game’s Chinese heritage. The use of words like “update” has harmed many and we are very sorry, “says part of the statement. “We are always open to constructive criticism and we continue to hold discussions with those who can provide further insight into the traditions and roots of the game in Chinese and American cultures.”
However, some Twitter users point out that the company had no idea from the start. In the FAQ section of their website, an entry titled “American vs. Chinese Mahjong” that now appears to have been removed, the company describes the history of mahjong using a book about the game written by American Joseph Babcock in the 1920s wrote. “Over time, the game evolved from the original Chinese version to a decidedly American game, with Jokers added to the game,” the website said.
Paper City already praised The Mahjong Line in November in a profile of the owners as “playable (and addicting) works of art”.
Buzzfeed reported that as a result of the controversy, Chinese-Americans post their own photos of them playing mahjong.
Another Dallas company, O&H Brand Design, designed the individual tiles for The Mahjong Line and posted a statement on their website.
“We are deeply and sincerely sorry for the role we played in developing the tiles and The Mahjong Line brand. During our design process, we clearly lacked awareness, cultural appreciation and respect. We own it and apologize for it, ”it says.
O&H says they “need to do better and we have to take steps to educate ourselves so we don’t make these kinds of mistakes again,” adding that they have ended their relationship with The Mahjong Line.
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Eva Raggio is the music and arts editor for the Dallas Observer, a position she accepted for the newspaper after several years writing about local culture and music. Eva supports the arts by seldom asking to be put on the “list” and always replies to emails unless the word “pimp” is part of the artist name.