A lot of people are talking about this story from Oberlin. Apparently some kids are complaining because certain kinds of Asian-themed food served in dining halls is crappy and non-authentic, and therefore constitutes "cultural appropriation."
Now, on one hand, this is just a story about rich kids complaining about bad food. Nothing much to see here. But it gives me an opportunity to say something that has been rattling around in my head for a while: Cultural appropriation is actually a great thing!
Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as "the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture." This is a good thing, for several reasons.
Reason 1: Product diversity.
This is the simple, "Econ 101" reason, if you will. Suppose Japanese people open a bunch of Italian restaurants in Tokyo. The "Italian food" is not quite what you'd get in Italy, and it's made by Japanese people rather than Italians. There's mentaiko in some of the pasta dishes. This is cultural appropriation, pure and simple. But the existence of these "Italian" restaurants increases the number of dining options available in Tokyo. More dining choices = more fun city = better life for people.
In fact, pasta itself is probably the most famous example of this sort of cultural appropriation. It was originally a failed Italian attempt to copy Chinese noodles (as is Japanese ramen, actually). Aren't you glad we have pasta? Aren't you glad we have ramen? You can thank cultural appropriation.
Reason 2: Beneficial mutation.
Pasta isn't just a crappy dining-hall imitation of Chinese noodles. It's a new, wonderful dish in its own right. The same is true of ramen. If Italy and Japan had insisted on only eating real, authentic Chinese noodles, pasta and ramen wouldn't even exist! In other words, cultural appropriation creates mutations by trying and failing to copy other cultures. The good mutations survive - we still have pasta and ramen - while the bad ones mostly die out. Cultural appropriation thus leads to innovation.
This happens a LOT in music. Almost every modern genre of popular music is influenced by either blues, jazz, or hip-hop - three genres invented by black Americans. Sometimes that influence just leads to something lame (Iggy Azalea). But often, appropriators have gone in interesting new directions with the elements they take from black American music - think of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Sublime, or Daft Punk. And often, that mutation and experimentation travels back and affects black American music in return. A larger ecosystem of people bouncing ideas off of each other is a recipe for creativity, even if it sometimes creates boring crap.
If you don't like cultural appropriation, you shouldn't watch Star Wars. Not only does the first movie appropriate much of its plot from Kurosawa Akira's movie "Hidden Fortress" (which itself appropriated elements of Shakespeare), but many of the elements of the Star Wars universe are appropriated from Japanese culture. Lightsaber fighting is based on kendo, Yoda is a sennin, and Darth Vader wears Muromachi period armor.
Reason 3: Technological diffusion.
In the long run, diffusion of technology between cultures is one of the main forces that helps poor countries get richer. Cultural appropriation seems like it can help this process, since many technologies are invented to fill culture-specific needs.
For example, take electric kettles. You use these to make tea. They are wonderfully efficient and labor-saving. But they would not exist if the British had not appropriated tea-drinking from Asia. Another example is rice-cookers. These are just great. But you don't need a rice cooker unless you eat dishes with rice. And often the first dishes that introduce American white people to rice are sugary, fatty, crappy imitation Chinese dishes. But so be it. Now those white folks have rice cookers! And now they can make much better rice dishes.
Now, I don't know how big a factor this can be, and those are some pretty small examples. But in general, it seems like product diffusion can boost technological diffusion, and technological diffusion is usually a good thing.
OK, you say, but these are all benefits to the appropriators. What about the appropriated? Is this one of those cases where the majority benefits from free exchange at the expense of a dispossessed minority? Actually, I think it's quite the opposite. Here are some reasons cultural appropriation helps its supposed "victims":
Reason 4: Consumer Demand Spillover
Suppose that imitation Italian restaurants flood Japanese cities (as they have actually done). Many Japanese people will be content to eat only at these, but some Japanese people will go looking for more authentic fare. They will go looking for food cooked by actual Italians, which will offer job opportunities for Italian chefs. The supposed victims of appropriation - Italians - reap economic benefit.
Hip hop is another example. How many white kids in the late 90s and early 00s got into rap and hip-hop because of Eminem? I am willing to bet that many of those kids went on to listen to black rappers and hip-hop artists (especially because Eminem did his best to promote these artists). I also bet that Elvis' popularity caused some money to flow to black artists like Chuck Berry. Sure, these artists probably deserved to get popular before their white appropriators did. That would be the ideal. But since most consumers need some kind of "gateway" music, appropriators can help funnel money to more authentic artists who would otherwise be completely ignored.
In fact, cultural appropriation can be the first step toward real cultural diversity. First, American stores start serving crappy sushi. Eventually, people eat good sushi somewhere and realize that most of the stuff in their stores is crappy. They complain. Stores then make an effort to get real, good, authentic sushi. And thus true cultural diversity is achieved.
Reason 5: Immigrant Opportunity
Americans were introduced to Chinese food via crappy faux-Chinese restaurants like Panda Express. But by helping develop a general taste for "Chinese food", those culturally appropriated restaurants helped create business for Chinese restaurants owned and staffed by Chinese immigrants. Chinese restaurants are now a huge source of employment for immigrants in the U.S. If you move from China to the U.S. with poor English skills and little formal education, you can work in a Chinese restaurant. That increased opportunity for immigrants is a huge boon to the supposed "victims" of cultural appropriation.
Reason 6: Cultural Empathy
Many of the American white kids who listen to black music - or faux-black music - will never interface with, or have any sympathy for, black culture. Some will drive around in SUVs their parents bought for them, blasting rap music even as they spout racist crap and condone policies that keep black Americans disadvantaged. Seeing this kind of thing is frustrating, and the fact that these kids listen to rap can seem like adding insult to injury.
But a few of those kids will go beyond a superficial adoption of memes from black culture. They will like the hip-hop they hear, and they will go to hip-hop shows (or at least watch them on TV). They will see black people in a context other than the conservative media narrative of "welfare queens" and "black-on-black crime". Black people will start to seem like human beings to them, and they will begin to have sympathy for movements fighting for better lives for black Americans.
This seems to have happened to my own father and a number of other white kids at his school in the 1950s and 1960s. They got into rock music - cultural appropriation of black music by whites - and this led them to get into blues music. That led them to go to clubs and stores in the black part of town, and make friends with black people. That in turn led them to be sympathetic to - and even participate in - demonstrations and sit-ins staged by black students over civil rights issues. Without that cultural appropriation, they might have simply bought the conservative line that black protesters were thugs and criminals.
Another example is how anime, cosplay, and other elements of Japanese pop culture are leading Westerners to travel to Japan and discover what that country is really like - which will probably benefit cultural, economic, and even national ties between the two nations.
So there you go: Six reasons why cultural appropriation is great. Sure, this is not always true - nothing is great 100 percent of the time. Naming a football team the "Redskins" will not have any benefit for anyone, and simply mocks the victims of ethnic cleansing. There are some bad examples of cultural appropriation, and we should get rid of them. Other examples are neither harmful nor beneficial. But most cultural appropriation seems like a very good thing - a first step and gateway to a more diverse, more interesting, more empathetic world.