Before the “Everyone Smiles in the Same Language” ad — before the anger and accusations of cultural appropriation and hurried apologies — about the worst critique someone could make about the Renaissance Dental Center’s promotions was that they were too cheesy.
In most of the professionally shot photos for the practice based in Raleigh, N.C., three blonde female dentists are seen flashing gleaming smiles while sporting an array of costumes.
In March, they went with a construction theme — hard hats, a shovel in one dentist’s hand, a drill (get it?) in another’s. A month earlier, it was a workout concept, with pink headbands and hand weights. “When it comes to our patients, we always ~work~ it out!”
But things soured this week, when the Renaissance Dental Center women who had once posed with heart hand signs and a giant teddy bear for Valentine’s Day were suddenly being called aloof cultural appropriators amid accusations that they were whitening more than just smiles.
In the ad, published in Raleigh’s Midtown Magazine, Anita Wells wore a Japanese kimono as she brandished a fan, two chopsticks stuck into her blonde locks.
Jill Sonner wore a Native American costume and stood with a multicolored headband and beads around her neck and wrists.
Anna Abernethy was dressed in a Scottish highlander outfit but still didn’t escape the wrath that followed.
“How many people blindly thought this was OK?” one woman tweeted to ask the costumed trio about the “Everyone Smiles in the Same Language” ad.
“I’m not smiling,” Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, founder of a Native American literary publication, wrote on Twitter. “Welcome to 2018, to America, to racism without apology.”
The dentists didn’t respond to messages from The Washington Post, but posted an apology on social media, saying, “we now realize [the ad] was ignorant and offensive, and we are truly sorry.”
The ad began to attract notice after Ilina Ewen, the chief of staff for North Carolina’s First Lady, posted a picture of it on Facebook, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.
The post drew instant, shareable ire from people who did not see the photo as harmless cosplay.
“Free whitening system indeed,” one person quipped on the now-deleted post.
“No excuse to be clueless anymore,” another person added. “This is shameful.”
One commenter opined: “This is like if SNL did a parody on clueless white people.”
And just like that, Renaissance Dental Center owned the latest viral entry in the long-running debate about cultural appropriation, which routinely centers on pop stars and other celebrities (see Katy Perry in a kimono) who use influences from minority cultures to make millions.
Midtown Magazine’s editor and publisher, Connie Gentry, told The Post that her publication’s participation in the debate was entirely by accident: She looked at the magazine before publication, but did not thoroughly proof the ad.
“I failed,” she said. “I should have pulled that ad.”
In an online version of the magazine, the ad has been replaced with one showing the dentists dressed as referees.
Gentry also apologized on Midtown Magazine’s Facebook page.
But the magazine and Renaissance Dental Center were already heavily involved in the debate about whether it’s wrong to borrow aspects of a minority culture for commercial gain.
Janna Thompson, a professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, who has studied cultural appropriation, told HuffPost: “In general I think there is nothing wrong with cultures borrowing ideas [and] artistic styles from each other. But there are two factors which can make this appropriation a ‘rip off.’
“One is the commercial advantages that can be reaped by Westerners by ‘borrowing’ from traditional cultures or disadvantaged groups. The other is that traditional cultures often do not have the same ideas as Westerners about the role of cultural artifacts.”
But others have argued that people shaming others for cultural appropriation have gone too far.
As Cathy Young wrote in The Washington Post in 2015: “These accusations have become a common attack against any artist or artwork that incorporates ideas from another culture, no matter how thoughtfully or positively. A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own cultural experiences, they’ve committed a creative sin.”
Gentry said she knew something was wrong when her phone “started going crazy” around 4 a.m. on Thursday. She spent most of the next two days fielding calls from reporters and angry magazine readers.
The dental office hired a photographer who shot the picture, Gentry said. A designer at Midtown Magazine laid out the ad.
Gentry said her magazine has implemented a more stringent policy for checking over ads.
“I would never intentionally print something that was so insensitive,” she said. “There isn’t the nefarious intent that people are making it out to be.”
The dentists, meanwhile, removed all vestiges of the offensive picture from their social media sites.
The photos that remained featured the firm’s three principles in innocuous outfits, along with positive customer reviews and a few inspirational sayings.
One photo on the practice’s Instagram account showed cursive writing: “Empowered women, empower women.”
In the caption, the dentists wrote: “We strive to create an atmosphere that empowers everyone.”
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that a Facebook post containing the controversial ad was shared by N.C. First Lady Kristin Cooper. It was posted by her chief of staff. This post has been corrected and updated.