Cultural appropriation is not a sandwich

(What’s everyone talking about this week? Oh, right, that. Not me, today.)

Dustups about “cultural appropriation” have become a regular occurrence; whether it’s a white American girl wearing a Chinese style dress to her prom, or a college cafeteria serving mediocre banh mi sandwiches, or whatever it will be next week. And the discussion usually starts with someone insisting, “That’s cultural appropriation!” as if that really expresses some value judgment of the act. It doesn’t; the conflation of cultural appropriation with oppression is fundamentally dumb, as David From discusses in The Atlantic.

The cultural appropriation police answer the yoga and banh mi objections with a familiar counter-argument: it’s about power. It’s fine for colonized Indians to incorporate European fitness regimes into their yoga; wrong for Canadians of European origin to incorporate yoga into their fitness regimes.

But the trouble with that argument is that—like culture—power also ebbs and flows. Customs we may think of as immemorially inherent in one culture very often originated in that culture’s own history of empire and domination. The Han Chinese learned to drink tea for pleasure from peoples to their south. The green flag of Islam was adapted from the pre-Islamic religions of Iran. The great west African kingdom of Benin acquired the metal for some of its famous bronze artworks by selling thousands of people as slaves to Portuguese traders.

All cultures have histories. Young people born in North America may imagine that their grandmother’s recipes or wardrobe emerged autochthonously in a timeless ancestral homeland. But that only reflects how thoroughly they have Americanized themselves, reducing other countries’ complexities to folklores to be fetishized rather than understood and evaluated on their own terms.

I think there are two things going on here. One is the very troubling issue of misrepresenting and belittling other cultures through use of cultural artifacts (food, dress, language, customs, etc.). A lot of this is pretty easy to spot: minstrel shows that were popular in the US, new-age “native people spirituality” claptrap, and so forth. Most of this consists of using cultural artifacts in the service of things rooted in ignorance stereotypes of the originating culture, often to reinforce that thinking and the associated social controls and mistreatment. I think most of us recognize this as being a bad and offensive thing.

But then there’s the usual cultural cross-pollination that happens when cultures meet – food, styles of dress, music, language, and so on. Like that banh mi, itself a product of cultural appropriation (a combination of colonial occupier and traditional Vietnamese cuisine), rendered in an Americanized form here. It’s a sandwich.

Yes, there are gray areas. Is something reinforcing racist stereotypes or systems of oppression? Then it’s bad. Is it exploitation? Then it’s also bad. However, I think we have to be careful not to stretch those terms beyond reasonable meaning. One article I read thinking about this was discussing how yoga is questionable because the original South Asian practitioners are not getting paid for what somebody does for suburban white ladies at the gym, and… that doesn’t seem like a reason not to do yoga?

Cultural exchange is something that humans natural do, and that’s pretty great. In some future day when half the countries on earth right now no longer exist, I imagine some people living in a city on Titan or Europa eating something like their food and listening to something like their music and perhaps not knowing where it came from… and that’s kind of magical. Yes, the exchange can happen under terrible circumstances (war, occupation, etc.) – that’s actually been the norm for most of our history – but that doesn’t actually make the resulting cultural cross-pollination bad, it just makes it the valuable output of terrible things.

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