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.
You want to be careful: the loony PC brigade aren't too keen on cultural appropriation. Students at a UK university banned Sombreros because wearing them was allegedly racist. See:ReplyDelete
Where would we be w/o Tex-Mex? That alone should resolve the argument.ReplyDelete
Is that your fez on the right? Cultural appropriation! Imperialist throwback! :-)ReplyDelete
I like the fez. Don't know if I would dare to wear one in public.
"Never gonna do it without the Fez on" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQJ0rNX8TjoDelete
Without cultural appropriation we wouldn't have delicious Japanese curry!ReplyDelete
I've tried it at a few japanese places and I never seem to like it. it just pales in comparison to what the indians do :""(Delete
Indians shmindians. You are wanting a nice Thai curry.Delete
"If you don't like cultural appropriation, you shouldn't watch Star Wars"ReplyDelete
I think this is meant to be a reductio ad absurdum. Unfortunately, people who believe that cultural appropriation is the worst thing since cultural imperialism are all too likely to view this as a totally reasonable thing to do.
Erm, socks, curry, glassware, onions, collars, moustaches, spas, lemonade, paper, tapioca, pepper, Worcester Sauce, Christianity, umbrellas, kedgeree... and HeavenReplyDelete
Japanese food is full of "appropriation," and the better for it. Ramen (Chinese), Japanese curry (introduced through the British, who appropriated it from the Indians), yakiniku (appropriated from Korean barbecue), and of course all the dozens of 洋食 dishes.ReplyDelete
Well said. I like authentic Japanese food, but inauthentic attempts are the gateway drug to more authentic versions. Same for everything.
I'm tired of non-Western cultures appropriating science and technology. They should stick to their authentic homegrown traditions. They should stick to wheels, gun powder and fire.ReplyDelete
bad troll is bad at trolling?Delete
I always try to be a good troll. It's a moral imperative.Delete
I always try to be a good troll. It's a moral imperative.Delete
This is far too many words and ideas to convince a non-convinceable group of people: SJWs. Basically, they just want everyone else to be as miserable as themselves, reason doesn't matter. The only thing people should be saying to them is: "stfu undergread!" and maybe directing them to EJMRReplyDelete
SJWs invading EJMR would be the most amazing thing that has ever happened, and I would laugh until little tears dribbled out of the outer corners of my eyes.Delete
This would basically be like the ending of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.Delete
It might bring some pushback to that conservinvasion, but then it'd also get really irate at some of EJMR's finest cultural traditions, like aspie virgins and aspie chinabros, fieckers, ATD, 6'4 nordic bro, and defend the lifestyle choices of the poo troll. It'd be an end of an era..Delete
I think everyone is missing the difference between cultural exchange (which is often what's happening with food and technology) and cultural appropriation (like lazy stereotyped fancy dress costumes and people decorating homes with buddha statues without engaging with buddhism).ReplyDelete
But in that sense you can even do cultural appropriation from your own culture :-)Delete
Look at the rosaries that have become fashion items. I even saw rosaries in a florist's shop, next to the Buddha's.
Still we can ask: is that a bad thing? Why?
Because it's Racist/Sexist/Homophobe and simply reinforces stereotypes against oppressed minorities by privileged groups. Especially white men. Those fieckers are always in the wrong.Delete
Overthrow Western Culture!
"I think everyone is missing the difference between cultural exchange (which is often what's happening with food and technology) and cultural appropriation "Delete
Came here to say exactly this. Not only is the above post such an obvious strawman, but surely there's a way we can have cultural exchanges, while maintaining a mutual respect
There is a difference between saying there is a difference between two things and actually in practice maintaining that difference. Lest you think Noah is taking on a straw man, here is a recent article on "appropriation" and food that Noah may have been responding to: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/11/foodie-without-appropriation/ ...and in spite of this being apparently intended to be a guide on how to eat food and have it not be appropriation, it's not at all clear how, from the perspective of this article, to do that. Because appropriation is about the historical context of European colonialism, so for it not to be appropriation when I eat Thai food, do I have to do it in a different historical context? Or do I just have to be aware of Thailand's colonial history before I do so rather than having food be my first exposure to Thai culture, and how much do I need to know and think about as I'm eating curry? I'm genuinely baffled as to what that article wants me to do differently when it comes to my love of ethnic cuisines. Maybe you could explain? Or maybe you think they mistake benign cultural exchange for cultural appropriation, in which case if a site that specializes in discussion of issues like this can't get the distinction right surely it's understandable that Noah's confused?Delete
I don't think anyone is missing the distinction between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation - but it's a distinction without a difference.Delete
Can you give a good reason a non-buddhist shouldn't have a statue of Buddha, or a non-christian shouldn't have a statute of an angel (in the western medieval style)?
Who should I talk to before I'm morally allowed to buy a product of another culture?
I have as much respect for undergraduates trying their hardest as...well, any other person who has ever taught a college class, but I think that letting them define cultural appropriation and taking that definition as the actual, used definition is going a bit far. There's a lot of things (like nuance) that most people can't manage at the age of 19 AND they're trying to work out what it means to be people who do not offend other people without particularly good tools to do so.
So, basically, attacking the undergrad's idea of cultural appropriation is like attacking Donald Trump's idea of Republicanism. It's easy and it feels good and it's terrifying that people think that way...but it's also a living straw man that in no way addresses the actual ideas of a country whose government governs less except in the field of morality.
Right, cultural appropriation. "Cultural appropriation therefore usually involves white people inhabiting derogatory stereotypes of people of colour/majority world people, while making use of images, styles, ideas, designs, stories, etc. that are sacred or important to the cultures of majority world people/people of color" (https://ardhra.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/what-is-cultural-appropriation/).
As Noah said, it's the Redskins example.
The undergrads are wrong, but that does not make cultural appropriation (as, heh, appropriately defined) acceptable.
Seems like a really Eurocentric definition of cultural appropriation that doesn't cover at all the actions of dominant majorities in other content. Certainly by that general argument one would indict Japanese treatment of Koreans and Korean culture. Even their treatment of aspects of Western culture would count, because I am sure you would agree that cultural appropriation can happen when stereotypes are broadly or on the net positive, such as stereotypes about Asians or Jews in many places.Delete
Within the context of Japanese society, Japanese ethnics are an enormous majority.
I am not sure what "majority world people" means in any sense. It is nonsense compared to the lived experience of people of all ethnic backgrounds in all the parts of the world outside the West.
1) Well, yes. It tends to be people of European descent who are asking why they can't just smoke Peyote after they've outlawed the use of it in Native American rites (for example). I assumed that the audience here was the same.Delete
So your point about Japan and Korea absolutely stands, but does not undermine the argument. Hence the term usually, which reflects both the general trend (but does not preclude exceptions) and is used to point towards the experience that most readers of that post are likely to have. I fail to see your point.
2) Majority world people is a way of saying non-white that doesn't define, well, the majority of people in the world by what color their skin isn't. It's an attempt to create a grouping based on a positive identity, rather than a negative one.
So I'm curious what you're point is. That cultural appropriation can happen outside of a European context? Naturally. Just look at China as well as Japan. There's an entirely different history of conquest and rule that the West knows very little about. That who appropriates and how depends on location and context and history? Of course. Did I say it didn't? Did the original statement say it didn't? (Did you read the original statement in context? Because I did pull the quote from a much longer conversation.) But this conversation, and most of the one's I've seen about cultural appropriation, seem to be about disentangling, for the average white person, the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation.
There's nothing wrong with asking for better quality food which students have always done (especially since they generally aren't paying for it directly.) However, respect on both sides is in order. The cafeteria was trying to act in good faith. Getting angry at someone who is doing their best is unproductive, and would be more likely to prevent them from trying. Making a foreign culture disappear is the more likely alternative.ReplyDelete
The examples of "cultural appropriation" being talked of all seem to be extremely shallow. Really? The style of noodles or what spices you put in your food are the defining characteristics of your culture? I feel sorry for you.ReplyDelete
The defining characteristics of my culture are things like: a belief in science; a belief in the rights of the individual; a belief in the power of democracy; the equality of women; calculus; Shakespeare; a belief that we can make the world a better place and have a duty to try.
I have a taste for pork crackling with lots of fat and salt; picked herring on black rye bread; ice cold aquavit; lunches that take four hours and involve large amounts of alcohol and conversation and have a pre-ordained sequence from fish through meats to cheeses and then coffee and dessert - but those are not my culture. I am not exactly thrilled with the whole Chinese "smorgasbord" thing but I hardly think that they are appropriating my culture - no matter how important food is to the social aspects of my life.
Counterpoint: pesto bagels are an abomination unto the Lord.ReplyDelete
Hello? Cultural appropriation has been going on flat out for thousands of years of years and probably back into prehistory. Anthropological evidence suggests early hominids appropriated tool making technologies. Chimpanzees have been observed doing it.ReplyDelete
There is, incidentally, a thriving business in Italy of training young Japanese working in the restaurant business in the fine art of Italian cooking. (I know this because I had a vacation that involved cooking lessons at such a school--there were about 12 Americans on vacation and about 20 Japanese (between the ages of maybe 18 and 21) doing a 3 month course.)ReplyDelete
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I like how the last paragraph of Section 4 describes exactly what happened at Oberlin: saying these particular foods are crappy and requesting they be improved, which would suggest progress towards true cultural diversity.ReplyDelete
Do I think bad Asian food served by campus dining services is that big a deal? No. But can it be easily rectified and accomplish some of the positive objectives outlined in this post? Yeah. Pretty easily, in fact. Just have some students voice their complaints (identify the problem), have dining services respond (assess the problem), and allow students and dining services to meet and improve the menu (solve the problem). Note that this is exactly what has happened.
Not entirely sure why (mostly older, mostly White) commentators find this so problematic, or indicative of rich kid privilege.
A recent Oberlin graduate
It's pretty obvious why many commentators (who you point out as mostly older, mostly white, which may or may not be true) take issue with this story.ReplyDelete
As you say, a campus dining hall serving bad Asian food isn't really a big deal. But the students made it into a big deal. National headlines-type of big deal. So yes people will point the finger at them for being privileged for it.
Secondly, in a semi-defense of the students, dining halls don't operate in the same fashion as, say, the corner grocery selling sushi. If the average person doesn't like the sushi at the grocery store, they don't complain. They just go somewhere else for their sushi. They certainly don't rally a large group of neighbors and demand the grocery store change their menu. Dining halls at universities to some extent operate as a monopoly, and students may not have as much of a choice in the matter. This misunderstanding may be another reason why the students get little sympathy.
Most students just grin and bear their dining hall food, and for some it's part of the nostalgia of the college experience. Others don't even get to go to college, so to complain about the dining hall options for food that (in most cases) is paid for by their parents is rich kid whining, plain and simple.
Since there's really not a large group who would sympathize with the students, almost by definition the Oberlin story is an indication of privilege.
Right, except that 70% of Oberlin students receive some form of financial aid. I've yet to see comments on any piece of writing (not just this one) that mentions this little tidbit. 50k/year (closer to 60k, actually) is a lot of money, but throwing expenses around without revenue is meaningless. This lack of context makes subsequent criticisms that much harder to swallow. (Now, the rates for financial are different for international students, who were the students quoted in the original piece, so my response may be invalid on this point. But I hope you see why I reject the overarching notion that Oberlin students are rich and privileged.)Delete
Speaking of missed context, most of the national media portrayals of what's been happening in Oberlin have glossed over plenty of details. Which is what happens with the media, but it's ridiculous that media accounts do not talk about the system of cooking in dining halls that has produced dissatisfactory food for certain students (I worked in the campus dining halls for 3 and 1/2 years). Actually, it's not ridiculous that this isn't talked about, if the main topic is not about the act of students protesting food, but rather the character of students who are assumed to be privileged and unreasonable. (Which, as paragraph one indicates, has some serious holes on at least one account. As for being unreasonable, I will say that most Oberlin students are not in with the activist crowd.)
Moreover, when you say that "the students made it into a big deal," you are claiming that an op-ed written in the student newspaper (I've written four before) was intended all along to be taken first by clickbait, and from there further disaggregated across more respected outlets? Really? Student activists at Oberlin protest about a lot of things, Nick, but most of those causes don't make national headlines. Thus, there is selectivity that is out of the hands of students. I don't disagree with most of the criticisms of students (I am writing mine right now for my peers), but I certainly disagree with the idea that "we had this coming."
So... I'm not seeing the apparently obvious. I think that most commentators intend to say they think college students at Oberlin are rude and entitled, but rather than being straightforward they wrap their criticisms in lazy, half-informed opinions.
As for the mostly older, mostly White section of my first post: I have no definite proof of the identities of past commentators. But looking at names and profile pictures gave me enough confidence to make that presumption. (To clarify, older and white are separate indicators.)
I don't know what financial aid has to do with anything we're talking about here. At most colleges I can have ten million dollars in the bank and still get a scholarship.Delete
As far as whether or not Oberlin students (or any college students for that matter) are privileged or not depends on the definition. Seeing as how most people in the world don't have access to higher education, it's not much of a stretch to call any college student privileged, just for the fact that they're in college. Second, when a group of people start complaining about something that most people don't really think is an issue, such as the lack culturally authentic food being served in dining halls, those people tend to be ridiculed. Combine one and two and you can see why Oberlin students don't get much support on this one.
I am older, I am male, and I am white. And I'm pretty tired of being told that what I think is wrong because of my age, gender, and race. Now get off my fucking lawn.ReplyDelete
Or maybe people are telling you that what you are thinking is wrong because facts and reasons, but you are choosing to hear only the race card.Delete
Y'all oughta learn to read.Delete
Not that you're wrong, but you're kinda making sh-t up here. Chinese food was introduced to Americans largely by the Chinese Exclusion Act, not Panda express. But of course, there's an even better example there - chow mein!ReplyDelete
First, I haven't made any comments on the validity of past comments, or these two comments, based on the demographics of the authors. I have done so, however, based on logic; that is the bulk of my second comment.Delete
Second, what am I making up, exactly? I've made no mention of so-called cultural appropriation of food--you seem to have put those words in my mouth. My problem comes from past commentators unfairly characterizing Oberlin students. I think most people on the outside are using cultural appropriation of food (which certainly exists, but is not particularly strong in this case) as a straw man, to use the words of a past commentator, to attack college kids in general. That is what I have challenged in all of my comments.
"You're so vain. I bet you think this comment is about you."Delete
And when all is said and done, university cafeteria food is still horrible.ReplyDelete
Some things never change.
(I think the kiddies had a real complaint, i.e. the food was terrible AND their cultures were being, if not blamed, than at least being made co-conspirators in this crime against students. And they had the brilliance to use contemporary linguistic technology (i.e. post-modernist ranting) to get their complaint heard. And they succeeded. Good work, kiddies!)
"It was originally a failed Italian attempt to copy Chinese noodles"ReplyDelete
Could you footnote that with a peer-reviewed reference? The book I'm reading now (_Why the West Rules, For Now_ which I think was suggested via this blog...) seems to suggest a different provenance.
"trying and failing"ReplyDelete
It isn't "trying and failing". It's taking what you like from another culture and adapting it to your own.
My wife is Thai, and a great cook. When she came to California, she found, for the first time, sweet bell peppers. Orange and red and yellow. She took this item and added it to a traditional thai recipe to create a wonderful Thai-California fusion recipe.
In cooking, you look to other recipes for inspiration. You aren't trying to copy an existing recipe and failing miserably. You're looking at a list of ingredients for inspiration. You might leave out a few ingredients that you don't like or that are locally difficult to acquire; you might add ingredients easy to acquire that you find tasteful.
As an Asian who digs Mexican food and hip hop and goes to black lives matter protests, I concur! It's hard to learn about other cultures without examples of them in your daily life and music, arts, foods are the stuff of daily life that can build empathy across cultural divides.ReplyDelete