Cultural Appropriation and Moral Worth

padma 2Sophie Gilbert’s review of Padma Lakshmi’s new exploration of American cuisine, called Taste the Nation, identifies the central issue of any discussion of the ethics of food.

Lakshmi’s flirtatious manner, her unquenchable glamour, allow her to Trojan-horse Taste the Nation’s true intentions for viewers who might be expecting a vaguely patriotic travelogue through America’s most iconic meals. What she’s offering instead is one of the most fascinating food series to emerge in recent years: a ruthless indictment of how a nation’s cultural heritage has been constructed out of the people and traditions that it has consistently and brutally rejected….. But what becomes clear through the series’s 10 episodes is how distinctly American cuisine encapsulates a paradox, in which dishes made by immigrants are quickly appropriated as national staples while the people who make them are rejected over generations.

We incorporate so called “ethnic foods” into the mainstream of American cuisine, and then betray and traumatize the people who created the food. Without the food of enslaved and colonized people, American cuisine would be a bland and colorless land of pot roast and mashed peas.

I’ve always been skeptical of the view that there is something inherently wrong with appropriating the artifacts of other cultures. Cultures are not hermetically sealed, homogeneous units with fixed borders and clear boundaries. Because of the movement of populations, cultures have always mixed and exchanged cultural products, and today’s world of hyper-connected communication makes it impossible to preserve a pure cultural essence unsullied by the influence or appropriation of “outsiders”.

Culture doesn’t “belong” to anyone—it isn’t something you can own.

But if you are going to use the cultural products of others you owe them something in return—respect. You have an obligation to learn how they used that product, what it means to them, and most importantly to accept and honor their worth as human beings. That isn’t too much to ask, but Americans have always failed in this task and it is why our democracy is failing.

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