Is cultural appropriation the bogeyman it’s made out to be?
By Chris Berg
Updated 21 Dec 2015, 3:52pm
A spectre is haunting the planet: the spectre of cultural appropriation.
To appropriate symbols from cultures that are not one’s own is apparently now disrespectful, insensitive and offensive.
A student body at the University of Ottawa has banned yoga classes as an example of “cultural genocide” and “Western supremacy”. Student unions at the University of East Anglia have targeted Mexican sombreros for “discriminatory or stereotypical imagery”.
At Oberlin College in Ohio, it is food that is problematic. The student dining hall is accused of modifying “traditional” Asian recipes “without respect”. The “undercooked rice and lack of fresh fish” offered in sushi “is disrespectful”. The Banh Mi sandwich, served on ciabatta rather than a baguette, is “uninformed”, a “gross manipulation” of this “traditional” Vietnamese dish. And the General Tso’s chicken dish is prepared with steamed chicken, rather than fried chicken - another disrespectful appropriation.
Why is this important? Because the history of culture is the history of cultural appropriation. What we see as traditional national or ethnic cultures today are the just the current manifestation of a long evolutionary process. Traditional foods, religions, dress and practices are constantly changing as they are exposed to other cultures, picking up and integrating the most appealing or adaptable parts.
The same story could be told for language, architecture, dress, religion, music, art, literary culture and on and on and on.
“Cultural Appropriation” is a thinly disguised, ignorance-based, claim to be principled criticism that is actually a rejection of cultures like those of the US or Australia. As the article points out, it’s underlying identity claims - pure African or Asian or … culture - reflect ignorance and myth. The article gives some interesting and humorous examples from the world of food… so I’ll give a few more.
The potato is a staple in the diets and cuisines of various countries - e.g. Ireland, eastern Europe, India, Thailand. Who "appropriated from whom? Did the eeeee-vile British steal the potato from southern Asia and bring it to Ireland? Or did the eeeee-vile British colonialists impose the non-native potato on Asians. The latter may be close, less the PC purple rhetoric. The potato is indigenous to South America. So what probably happened is that Spanish merchants brought the potato to Europe, and from there other merchants brought the potato throughout the world. Similarly, corn (maize), which is a common ingredient in the foods of just about every continent, is indigenous to Central America. That great African staple, the sweet potato? Native to Central or South American.
Care to think a moment about ethnic purity? Well, a “pure” Englishman or Englishwoman is likely to be some mixture of Celt, Roman (and God only knows from what parts of the empire Roman settlers may have come!), Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, and Norman (descendants of Scandinavian Vikings who settled in France). “Pure” Spanish: Celt, Punic (aka Canaanite or Phoenician), Roman, Goth, “Moor” (Arab and North African).