On Cultural Appropriation

Alfonso Cevola writes about one of my pet peeves—the idea of cultural appropriation.

Open an Italian cookbook or history of Italian cooking, and in the early chapters one might find a recounting of ingredients brought back to Italy from the likes of Marco Polo and Columbus.

Polo introduced Italy to new spices and exotic foods. Columbus and his cohorts brought back tomatoes, potatoes and cocoa from the Americas. Ice cream, so ubiquitous all over Italy as gelato, is said to have been introduced into Italy by the Saracens, who got it from the Hindus, who got it from the Chinese.

Were these inappropriately adopted by Italy? And if so, what is one to make of that?

Cultural appropriation is defined as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” The rapacious, destructive adventures of Columbus and Marco Polo ran roughshod over the lives and cultures they encountered, and their cultural appropriations would seem to qualify as inappropriate. Some people might suggest white people wearing dreadlocks or performing hip-hop are more contemporary examples.

But this is just careless reasoning.

The use of violence is part of the story behind the importing of tomatoes, potatoes, and cocoa to Europe. But at least with respect to tomatoes and potatoes, it was the idea of growing and using them (along with a few seeds) that was imported. (Cacao cannot be grown in Europe except in the Canary Isands) When people are killed and their land is stolen, they are deprived of that life and land. This is not so with regard to at least some cases of cultural appropriation. Indigenous Americans were not deprived of tomatoes and potatoes by the fact they became important to the cuisines of Europe. How exactly were they harmed if the food itself wasn’t appropriated? The use of tomatoes and potatoes in Europe are at best a symbol of colonialism and symbols can sometimes do harm. But I doubt that indigenous Americans were much concerned with European symbols and it’s hard to see how contemporary Mexicans or South Americans are deeply harmed by these symbols.

The case of contemporary cultural appropriations needs a slightly different analysis. When white people wear dreadlocks they are not depriving Jamaicans or people with African ancestry from wearing dreadlocks. When white artists perform hip-hop, they don’t prevent black artists from doing so. However there is a symbolic loss. To the extent dreadlocks are a symbol of Rastafarian cultural identity, it is no longer a distinctive, exclusive symbol if other cultural groups are wearing them. (It doesn’t help their argument that dreadlocks were worn by Germanic tribes and Vikings as well.)  To the extent hip-hop is the expression of urban, black identity, it loses distinctiveness when white artists perform hip-hop.

But in the modern world this idea of stable, distinctive cultural markers is doomed. It is no longer the case that the crossing of cultural borders requires marauding armies. With modern communications and the mixing of populations, cultural formations are continuously passed around and reformulated. Culture is about ideas and ideas cannot be owned or their boundaries effectively policed. Cultural appropriation is the product of countless small, in themselves inconsequential decisions ordinary people make in the course of their lives about what to wear, watch, cook, or listen to. These decisions were difficult to control before modern communications. It is impossible now.

Thus it is unrealistic to expect moral arguments about “inappropriate adoption of customs” to have much purchase given the ease at which boundaries are crossed and ideas are synthesized. (Although one could argue such appropriations should be done with respect and acknowledgement.)

If you want a distinctive cultural symbol you have to create it, abandon it and move on to the next before the twitterati or tik tokers can catch up.

One comment

  1. There is an interesting parallel here with the world of wine and its search for authenticity amid its inviolate appellations. We have innumerable examples of wines “made in the style of” whatever region happens to be selling well at the time, from “Bugundian Style” Pinot noirs and “Bordeaux blends” to “Prosecco” from Brazil. Does “Shiraz” from Australia falsely attempt to connect with the ancient winemaking traditions of Persia? These efforts are almost universally excoriated by “true wine connoisseurs” for begin mere imitations trying to profit from the associations with more famous names.

    Are they culural appropriation, or are they cheap marketing tricks?

    And if even the very finest palates in the world can’t tell the difference*, why should we care?

    *See Paris, 1976, and others ad infinitum.

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