Tasty, Tasty Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation came up on a blog that I occasionally glance at (great pictures, some cool crafts, mildly useful book reviews), and I rolled my eyes. The quasi-debate centered on embroidery on a jacket. Could that be duplicated (jacket and embroidery) without committing the venal sin of Cultural Appropriation? The final group decision was a reluctant no, you shouldn’t because that would be theft if you didn’t get permission from the cultural group to which the wearer belonged, but using the color combination with different patterns and a more western-style jacket would be OK. The wearer of the item in question would never see the proposed copy of the garment, but it was the very act of copying that was “problematic.”

I glanced over at a the small mound of spicy pecans that I was having for lunch and rolled my eyes. American food is cultural appropriation. Western clothing is cultural appropriation. English, and German, and a lot of other languages borrow words, although English revels in it far more than most. Going back to the pecans on my desk, the chili pepper and pecans are from the Americas. The garlic, paprika, and savory came from Europe originally. G-d bless the Columbian Exchange that gave us cheese burgers, Tex-Mex food, anything European with potatoes in it, polenta, curries with tomato in them, milk chocolate and dark chocolate, apple pie, and so on.

Cheeseburger – the beef, cheese, lettuce, and wheat for the bread came from Eur-Asia. The tomato and french fries (potatoes) are from the Americas. Apples of the domestic kind came from Eur-Asia, as did the wheat, cinnamon, clove, allspice, ginger, and sugar. But apple pie in all its wonderful forms is “as American as . . . ” Now, getting a dozen Americans to settle on which kind of apple pie is the ne plus ultra of the American identity, well, good luck. By the time you sort that out, the rest of us will have eaten the pie and moved on to try the pecan and pumpkin and cherry and French Silk and grasshopper and Mississippi Mud and . . . 😀

What about when non-Americans borrow stuff from this hemisphere? Apparently peanut oil and peanuts have become staples in Asia, and potatoes and corn also appear. Chili peppers as well, although the local versions of many dishes were already hot before the “death-by-curry” types available today appeared. Should we complain when served satay because peanuts are not native to Thailand? You can if you want. I’ll eat your share. And your polenta, and anything with tomato, and the dark milk-chocolate, and . . .

Clothing is another place where the argument against cultural appropriation gets amusing for those of us who study history. Skirts are universal, as are shirts. Any usable fiber or material will be used, and some that no one really considers “clothing fibers” anymore, like some barks in Europe, and nettles. (Treat nettle stems as you would flax, but more so. Mind the leaves.) Trousers were rediscovered any time someone rode a horse, because unless you ride side-saddle, friction and saddle sores are also universal. Today, we have “national costumes” and ferocious arguments over if this pattern or that color is “authentic,” and who can or may not wear said item. The Japanese are delighted for people to try their “costume” and will happily sell you what you need, and giggle a tiny bit as you rediscover why Japanese kimono wearers take small steps when they walk. Germans and Austrians et al will assist with the wearing of dirndls and trachten suits, and lederhosen, although there is some pressure not to get too authentic unless you know what you are doing and why. Actual tracht, not the dirndl, is meant to conceal a woman’s “attributes” and to show social position and where she is from. It is a bit different from the dirndl, and not what you find in most stores. When was the last time an American balked at selling someone a cowboy hat or jeans, because of “cultural appropriation?” No idea.

Humans borrow and adapt. If someone strips a place of something edible that the locals depend on just because it is a trendy food, that’s a problem. Combining ideas, ingredients, and textile styles to create something fun is not a problem. If you recreate a copyrighted design from another culture and sell it as yours, that’s wrong. Borrowing an embroidery style and adapting it for your own pleasure? Not a problem. Go for it. Wasabi sauce [Japan] on your burger? Um, you go right ahead. I’ll stick with BBQ sauce, mustard [England], or catsup [England + Americas], thanks. Burgers that fight back are not my cup of tea [China and India].


27 thoughts on “Tasty, Tasty Cultural Appropriation

  1. The English language “borrowing” expressions is all very well, but what happens when American English collides with British English, and the two run headlong into Australian English? Interesting things happen…

    Example: I speak British English with a South African English colonial overlay. When I came to the USA, I was unfamiliar with the different meanings that would attach to many common English expressions. For instance, to “knock someone up” in England means – literally – to knock on their door, to wake them up, to visit them. In the USA, it means that a man has got a woman pregnant.

    Another fun one: in 1996, on my first visit to the USA, I was having breakfast with my host family in Baltimore; two parents and their teenage daughter, and yours truly. Fruit salad (or fruit cocktail, if you prefer) was on the menu, and we were all eating it. Their daughter, for some reason, was picking out the cherry pieces from the cocktail and putting them on her side plate. In all innocence, I asked her, “May I have your cherry?” – pointing to the fruit pieces. She blushed scarlet, her parents broke into hysterical laughter, and she ran off, shoulders shaking. They had to explain to me that in America, a woman’s “cherry” refers to her virginity. NOT what I had in mind, particularly since I was at that time an active clergyman…

    Oh, well. Who was it said that America and Britain were two great nations, divided by a common language?


    • Aerospace legend has it that, when the US Marines bought the Harrier jump-jet (designed in Britain by Hawker Siddeley), McDonnell-Douglas received a contract to translate the technical documents from English into English. This struck many Americans as a waste of government money, until they learned that the British manual instructed mechanics to search for fuel leaks using a torch.* There were other examples, but this was usually the last one needed.

      *”Torch” means “flashlight” in Britain, but not in the US.

    • There are definitely some issues. The best ever was when one of my co workers at DEC who was a Kiwi by birth went to get a particular office supply from our tough as nails older than dirt New England born and bred secretary. What he asked her for was a rubber, in most of the rest of English usage an item used to rub/erase errant marks from a paper. What he got was a look that even Medusa herself would have quailed at. Luckily someone standing nearby (Not Me) had more familiarity with broader English usage and got him an eraser from the supply cabinet and soothed the ruffled feathers of our beloved if a bit tightly strung secretary.

  2. Yes all around.

    And I vaguely recall a fun scene from some years back: a gathering of Far East politicians, all wearing Western business suits. Standing out like a sore thumb was an American politician wearing a Mandarin costume straight out of a Hollywood epic.

    English isn’t the only aggressive word thief; my limited exposure to Russian revealed quite a lot of words clearly taken from other languages. (But, then, English may be unusual in having three or more names for some things, derived from different languages, each once upon a time having carried an indication of the speaker’s social class.)

    Regarding Peter’s comment, I’ve heard that the various dialects of Spanish offer even more opportunity for misunderstood idioms.

  3. Whenever that phrase comes up, after dealing with the hives, I usually send them a link to this:

    • Yep.
      “This works so well that it should be spread!”

      It’s a sign of success!

      … usually, it just means “no, I like that, you aren’t allowed do something that I think is cool!”

      Bonus points when they’re laying claim to something from the people that the group they think is cool *got* the stuff from, like hoop earrings. (Some twit went after a gal who’d been wearing the earrings since before they got cool.)

      My theory is it grew out of the “authentic” twits who got tired of being informed the places they were dunking on were run by folks from the culture they were trying to gate-keep. 😀

      • Obsrving, rather, the (high?) likelihood that the term, if not the formula, is Asian in origin. Point being taken, that there is no invention, only extrapolation.

        • You’re right, and I didn’t look back far enough into the etymology. The word probably came from Vietnam or China to Europe, although it originated in Indonesia, maybe. “Sources differ . . .” means “It showed up all over at almost the same time so we don’t know precisely.” There’s a false US etymology that it comes from the fish-based sauce as cat + sup.

          • What we consider Ketchup was created by H. J. Heinz. Tomatoes were generally not used in most ketchup/catsup sauces of the day. Generally food in the cities at the turn of the 19 to 20 century was pretty nasty as time wise the actual food sources were a ways from the cities and refrigeration was ice box based if at all. Mr. Heinz had a good local source of tomatoes and actually bottled his product in clear (rather than brown or green) glass to show its quality.

  4. Somewhere I read something about an American man annoyed at “foreign” things with comments about all the “foreign” things that he considered American.

    But yes, Americans don’t complain if “foreigners” adopt American things.

    • Heh. Remember the famous line from the movie “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines”?

      “The trouble with these international affairs is that they attract foreigners.”


  5. Oh, gosh – one of the saddest meltdowns of a group was reading about the fiber arts group Ravelry melting down — IIRC, what kicked it off was one of the members innocently posting about how eager she was about her upcoming trip to India, and then getting landed on for her cultural condescension and appropriation and I don’t know what all, possibly picking her nose in Poughkeepsie. The fur flew, and dissenters were read out of the group …
    Not a member myself, just read about it, as the meltdown was that epic.

  6. Hmmmmm. I have understood that the basic problem with cultural appropriation is not the copying, as such. It’s when things that belong to a cultural group AND are sacred, or magical, or signify something important such as membership in a particular clan — according to the originators — are borrowed by outsiders *out of context* and without permission. And in particularly egregious cases, when the borrower thinks that borrowing such things somehow “makes” them a member of the cultural in-group, when they aren’t.

    “Ooooohhh, that’s pretty (or tasty, etc.)” is a fine reason for borrowing or adopting something from another culture — but only if the above problems don’t apply. If I recall properly, some of the initial legal cases were triggered by a commercial manufacturer mass reproducing such a restricted motif on hats, sweatshirts, et cetera and making money off it — when for the members of the originating culture it was a declaration of particular tribal status. I can see why that would be offensive.

    It’s never that simple, of course, especially when members of the originating culture disagree on whether it’s legitimate for people of other cultures to use something. Which happens.

    • Taking ideas/designs/texts that the original culture prefers not be taken is wrong, I fully agree. And claiming that it is for academic purposes and then selling the image/text on the general market is also wrong. I’ve done some work related to Native American tribal groups and tribal politics, and oh yes, when one part of a group says “no” and the other says “yeah, sure, no problem” it is messy at best. Then you get something like the donnybrook in Australia, where an anthropologist reproduced images of rock paintings that are highly taboo. Under Aboriginal band law, any female or non-initiate who might have seen the book should be executed. THAT caused a major uproar in both the Aboriginal community and the academic world. (Some other Aboriginal bands don’t view the images as a big deal, since it’s not THEIR sacred site. Some sided with the offended party, because they didn’t care to have their own sacred sites publicized.)

      Unfortunately, the current popular usage has shifted from those limited cases to apply to, oh, a French Impressionist painting of a French woman wearing a kimono, or using goji berries in a smoothie, or having a tantrum because the Poles are doing salvage archaeology and digging up medieval Polish graves. (That one was a real head shaker. The loudest fusser had never heard of salvage archaeology, and was incensed that someone might not leave burials in place forever and ever amen.) “Cultural appropriation” has become an all purpose stick, rather than a useful distinction.

    • Couple of kids who went and learned how to make good Mexican food from abuelas down in Mexico were driven out of business as “cultural appropriators” in Portland, because they were not the correct appearance and/or ancestry, thus their using recipes they were taught, was theft.

      And that’s one of the less bad; the Japanese embassy got involved with one bully-fest about a teen girl who wore a pretty Japanese outfit to prom. (They also pointed out the style of dress was based on importing European styles, because Japan thinks stuff is cool.)

      May have originally been about not hijacking sacred things… although I’d still give the fish-eye to that, since it would have to be applied equally to all cultures and faiths, and I can’t see that actually happening… but I’ve never seen that one ‘in the wild,’ so to speak.

      Would sadly be a normal pattern for this kind of stuff.

      • There was a brief fad in the Western World, 5-10 years back, for purses with Buddha or Shiva imagery, which got shut down so fast due to protests I wouldn’t have heard about it if I hadn’t been interested in Indian films/celebrities at the time. (Someone in India with a status equivalent to Paris Hilton carried one briefly and caught flak for it, IIRC.)

        Also, points to Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone for their appearances at that weird Catholic-themed Met Gala thing where Rihanna was running around in an actual miter on loan from an actual bishop, and a significant fraction of the other celebs were just as tacky in their appropriation of Catholic sacred imagery. Priyanka wore a crimson velvet dress with a vaguely faux-medieval gold lace hood, and Deepika wore a scarlet silk dress that might have been for any red carpet outing. They clearly didn’t want to do anything controversial with the imagery of a religion they didn’t belong to, and I can respect that.

        • I can respect folks choosing not to do something they think is tacky; I cannot respect the cancel-storms, with double-points for when they’re headed by folks hijacking the authority of entire group, often one to which they don’t even belong.

          ‘Tacky’ is a value judgement, and I don’t especially respect the values of the folks pushing this stuff. 😀

    • Considering that the same people who scream about “cultural appropriation” are downright enthusiastic about desecrating things I consider sacred, I fail to see why I should give a flying bleep.

      If something is not under copyright or trademark, it is public domain.

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