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What is Cultural Appropriation?

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I found the comments to yesterday’s post on cultural appropriation bizarre. That’s because many commenters do not seem to have a functional definition of cultural appropriation. There were multiple versions of comments like, “I eat Mexican food so are you accusing me of culturally appropriating Mexican food?” Um, no.

This all reminded of the housing and schooling posts where I state that moving to the suburbs for the schools is a racist act in that people took this as a direct attack upon their own privilege. With the housing posts, that is an intentional provocation on my part. This sort of thing was by no means intended in yesterday’s post. But white liberals can be very, very defensive about their own privilege because they see themselves as trying to do the right thing.

So what actually is cultural appropriation, at least when it comes to food. Thanks to UncleEbenzeer for tracking this down and placing it in the thread.

Only a dominant culture can “appropriate” another culture, and only a systematically oppressed culture can “be appropriated.” Because what’s bad about it only stems from that specific power relationship. You can’t understand cultural appropriation without understanding the role that power dynamic plays in producing the effects that people are finding problematic. You also, of course, can’t understand cultural appropriation if you don’t actually listen to what people are saying is problematic about it.

Kuo linked to an authority at Hipster Appropriations on the cultural appropriation of foods, which I can tell Coyne did not read (white man can’t be bothered, his ignorant rage too important for research). Yet it lays it all out very clearly:

So let’s begin with what I don’t think constitutes cultural appropriation of food, to get some of the angsty stuff out of the way. I don’t believe it is cultural appropriation to:

eat food from another culture
to learn how to cook food from another culture
to modify recipes from another culture for your own enjoyment
to eat at restaurants, authentic or otherwise, that serve food from another culture
to enjoy learning about another culture thru the traditional and/or modern foods of that culture

Instead, cultural appropriation does any or all of these things (at a minimum):

Despoliation (intentional or not)
Fetishization (stereotyping, othering, etc.)
Theft (claiming a thing as your own, erasing the inventors)

Despoliation can be direct, as in actually entering a country and walking off with its statues and historical heritage. Or it can be indirect. For example, due to the enormous wealth differential created by the power imbalance between a dominant and a dominated culture, a component of a culture can start to become inaccessible even to its originators. As the Hipster Appropriations article says, cultural appropriation includes “making it difficult for those of the culture from which it stems to gain access to” a part of their own culture. Quinoa, for example. Which I already dealt with above. But they illustrate what this would be like by reversing the POV and having the same thing happen to apples in America. Incidentally, reversing POV like that (what I have called “forced perspective” reasoning) is a crucial skill for critical thinking, essential to understanding all discourse about social justice whatever (I discussed this before in the context of feminism). Coyne, Dawkins, Boghossian: They really need to learn this skill. Badly. (Although I think Boghossian might be a lost cause.)

Fetishization can manifest in all manner of unempathetic or historically ignorant insensitivity. Kuo’s points provide many examples. In recent news is the practice of white folk dressing up like Native Americans or wearing blackface, both of which are extremely insensitive, displaying an ignorance of the horrific history these practices mock, an ignorance that is itself a manifestation of white privilege: Native Americans and African Americans don’t have the privilege of forgetting the genocidal brutalization we subjected their ancestors to, and the long history of racism embodied in such mimicry of what “they” “look” like. This does not mean we can’t ever dress as historical persons in those groups. It simply must be done sensitively and seriously, and not ignorantly or frivolously. To understand the distinctions and why it matters, see my comment analyzing the difference between appropriating a culture, and honoring a culture by representing one of its heroes to the public.

Theft means in the intellectual property sense, not in the physical object sense. Cultural appropriation as stealing means borrowing some idea from an oppressed culture, and then pretending or thinking the dominant culture created it, or simply erasing the role of the originators. In other words, not giving credit where credit is due. Stealing the credit. Or simply eliminating the credit. The history of Rock & Roll, for example, famously exhibits components of this. I’m sorry white people, but Elvis was not really the King. Racism resulted in white people being credited with inventing everything, and the black artists who actually did, gradually came to be sidelined and eventually forgotten. That’s sad. And we should not be proud of it. Nor should we want to repeat the behavior.

This does not mean all accusations of cultural appropriation are equal, or even correct. Some I’m sure are silly or frivolous or even indefensible. But there being stupid claims of a thing does not mean there are not sound claims of that thing. As I’m constantly pointing out in my study of the historicity of Jesus: that all kinds of stupid, unsourced nonsense gets said about Mithras and Horus, does not mean there aren’t genuine predecessors of the dying-and-rising savior god mytheme that Jesus was modeled on (such as Osiris, Zalmoxis, Romulus, and Inanna). Learn how to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. But doing that requires understanding what we are talking about and why it is a problem.

Now, one can argue whether or not Whole Foods engages in cultural appropriation or not. I would argue that it frequently does and by “introducing” collard greens to its wealthy white clientele without some discussion of their history and place within American culture that it was doing so here, albeit it in a minor and relatively innocuous way. Others may disagree. But let’s at least come to this argument with a functional definition of cultural appropriation. The definition above suffices quite well.

And no, just because you are white and like Thai food does not mean you are appropriating culture.

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