Two women and a food truck, the spread of cultural appropriation.
Hey guys, I know this could be a hot topic for some people. It is never my intention to offend anyone, in the least. That being said, in this blog I am going to go rogue and address a societal issue with some serious implications. In the context of coaching, as people become more and more confused and afraid of doing anything anymore, it becomes the role of a coach to remain a beacon of balance in a world gone mad. Therapists help in a different way than coaches. I have clients who are just trying to get through this life and they get confused, upset, and frustrated with the changes in our society, they struggle dealing with ones as cancerous as the one you will read about below. I am there to guide them through this crazy life.
Most of us have learned that cultural criticism is verboten; it is quite taboo in these polarizing politically correct times. In polite company, actually everywhere, we are told that all cultures are created equal. No one culture is better or worse than any other; they’re all just different. We aren’t responsible for the culture we were born into, so there’s no objective basis for criticism or judgement.
In reformist ideology, this idea goes a step further. Not only must we respect all cultural differences, we mustn’t stray, even for a bite of lunch, outside the norms of the culture we were born into. A white woman with dreadlocks, or white women with a burrito pop-up restaurant (food truck) are just two recent examples.
Should white people “respect” black culture to the point of shaving their hair off, rather than “steal” a hairstyle from black culture? I guess anyone who fails to wash their hair is appropriating one culture or another.
Or should two women from Portland who vacationed in Mexico, saw burritos being made, asked around and found out how to make them (a ridiculously easy thing to do, given it only requires three ingredients) and then started a small pop-up restaurant in Portland, and then they were run out of business because they admitted to copying methods they saw in Mexico. Heaven forbid, they even made money at it too, like making money is a bad thing.
The Willamette Week published an article on the story but was clearly not prepared for the fallout, which expanded into the international publishing arena. Facebook received thousands of comments in reference to the Willamette article: “This article is a clear example of how media perpetuates and reinforces racism and white supremacy, brandishing it as ‘fun’ and ‘innovative,'” read one comment. Another actually insisted the women send payments to Mexico as an apology for the pilfering of their culture. Some defended the women but the overall reaction was horror at this cultural theft. Their pop-up restaurant was soon closed due to all the brouhaha.
If that wasn’t enough, Kristin Goodman, co-founder of Broadspace prepared a “shit list” of “white-owned appropriative restaurants” which includes 60 restaurants that are owned by one ethnicity but offer food from another ethnicity.
Hmm, I guess that shuts down every French or Italian restaurant outside of Europe. How about La’Louisiane in New York? Heck that restaurant brought my home to me in ways I can hardly describe when I was 24 and just moved to New York City. I still lament its closing. So don’t let me see you eating my precious gumbo outside of Louisiana. There is even have a special word for this grievance—cultural appropriation, or in the case of restaurants, White-Owned Appropriative Restaurants. Shall we call it WOAR?
It’s time to call it what it really is—absurdity. In fact, it’s beyond that; it is lunacy run amok. The concept of cultural appropriation is a load of BS based on the persevering errors in political/social thought; abstraction errors to be sure. There is a misunderstanding about the relationship between people and labels, between aggregates and concretes, between real and imagined. It is most often done in the name of cultural purity. These screw-ups (the idea, not the people) are not only terribly imprecise, they are counter-productive, racist, divisive, and downright dangerous. The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski writes that appropriation is, in truth, learning through admiration, stating: “The left loudly promotes its’ flattering self-image as…more culturally open and advanced, more intellectual, artistic, and cosmopolitan.” But its “appropriation” tantrums reveal how its obsession with “racial identity and resentment ends up imposing the narrowest kinds of parochialism.”
In a world where ISIS blows up venues filled with children or runs down and stabs pedestrians, do we really care if two white, middle class college grads make burritos using techniques they learned, watching the burrito shops in Mexico? It appears they were just interested in the food of Mexico and wanted to bring it back home. If you take the insane reaction to their decision to do so, to its “logical” conclusion, where do you think you would end up?
Equally Ugly Equivocation
The first erroneous abstraction absurdity goes something like this. “All differences between people are benign differences. Some people are born with light hair, while others were born with dark hair. Neither is superior to the other. In the same way, all cultural differences are benign. Some cultures value monogamy, others are more sexually liberal. Neither is superior to the other…just innocently different.”
This concept is thus farcically applied across the board. Some cultures are more religious; some value education more highly, some are more hierarchical, etc. These differences can’t ever be judged, any more than we should judge somebody for their height or the number of hairs in their nose.
The story goes on, and because all cultures are essentially equal, i.e., one is just as good as any other, all inconsistencies in the socio-economic status of ethnic groups are most likely a function of the evils of discrimination and unfair capitalist distribution. Without racism, discrimination, or capitalism, all cultures would be equally represented across the socio-economic spectrum. Right?
In reality—and from a commonsense perspective also—we’ve no reason to believe this is true on the face of it or in detail. Nowhere in the world— actually, nowhere in history—have all cultures been represented equally across the socio-economic spectrum—nowhere. The idea is an appealing, aesthetic one, indeed, but it’s not grounded in the real world.
Different cultures value different things; some skills are valued more highly than others throughout the world. For example, Chinese immigrants tend to have the highest average income of any demographic. Why is this? It’s not because they are genetically superior; it’s not because of pro-Chinese discrimination. In fact, it’s largely in spite of negative discrimination. It’s because Chinese culture heavily emphasizes academic performance in the hard sciences, and the hard sciences tend to pay more than other fields. Done.
But the purpose of this article isn’t to explain the relationship between culture and economic status. I’ll leave that to the work of people like Thomas Sowell. My point is to illustrate that some cultures are indeed superior to others in some very specific ways.
What’s Heritage Got to Do with Anything?
The second abstraction error goes like this: Cultural heritage is intrinsically valuable. Preserving ethnic culture has become to many an end unto itself, regardless of the specifics. Some people are particularly fond of “indigenous cultures” that are assumed “pure” because they haven’t been contaminated by Western society. Whenever a new tribe of indigenous people is discovered, for example, some groups are unwavering in their ambition that we shouldn’t disturb or influence their way of life; they want the complete preservation of cultures, both the positive and the negative.
I have a very different view. Cultures are not intrinsically valuable, nor should they be preserved by virtue of their uniqueness alone. Cultures emerge from different groups of people trying to best navigate the world as they found it. Sometimes, they do a good job. Other times, they do a poor job. If a negative cultural practice emerges—female genital mutilation, just to name one—it should be eliminated and replaced, which is no different than bad theories about physics or mathematics.
In my mind, cultural “pride” is another of the absurdities. You aren’t responsible for the culture you’re born into any more than your hair color. (I take that back, if you have orange, blue or Crayola crayon yellow hair color, you are responsible for your hair color) There’s nothing to be proud of in that context. By pure chance of birth alone, you just happen to have an ethnicity. It isn’t superior or inferior to any other. You have nothing to defend or preserve. If you’re fortunate, you’ll be born into a positive culture. If you’re unlucky, you’ll be born into a toxic one. It is a cosmic roll of the dice played out daily on humanity.
Who would disagree that for the sake of human progress, we should try to eliminate negative cultural values and promote positive ones? Saudi Arabian culture promotes beheadings for breaking the law, even for what we consider minor offenses. This is backwards, unnecessary, and remains an inhumane cultural phenomenon. It shouldn’t be preserved; it should be eliminated. Do I hear a yes?
There’s a fundamental abstraction error underlying all of this; group identity remains inescapable. Individuals, in this reformist worldview, are seen as tied forever to their ethnicity/socio-economic status. They are white men, black women, upper-class kids and that’s it. They aren’t “individuals with black skin” or “individuals with Scottish parents.” These segregated group identities are the foundation of the reformist political orthodoxy; the individual is intrinsically a product of his environment and larger society. Not ever a product of his or her own choices.
Group identity is just another label; it’s a conceptual tool to more easily categorize and segregate people. They get it backwards indeed. The group isn’t foundational. The individual is the base unit in society, and any labels we attach to them are secondary to their individuality.
For practical and political purposes, the stronger people self-identify with artificial labels, the more division it creates in society. “Class struggle” is a commanding idea dating back to the beginning of the industrial revolution, and it’s entirely a function of group identity. When you view people as individuals first, the differences between them seem minor and petty.
When you take the time to put all the abstraction errors together, you get a fundamental disrespect: cultural appropriation, i.e., adopting some element from a culture outside your own. White people having “black hairstyles.” Caucasians wearing Native American or Indian garb. Upper-class kids using inner-city slang or listening to rap music…belly dancing…eating Chinese food…etc.
According to the orthodoxy, the sin of cultural appropriation is, at its core, insensitive. It belittles the struggles and history of the culture being appropriated. Some people have even said blues and rock’n’roll is “black music.” If white people “steal’ it and make money, that’s unfair!” Yep, Elvis was a cultural thief and his fans are racists.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Jonathan Zimmerman, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, writes “the mostly left-wing quest for cultural purity bears an eerie echo to the right-wing fantasy of national purity, which peaked during the so-called 100-percent-American campaigns of the early 20th century.” About Chuck Berry, Zimmerman opines: “His first big hit, ‘Maybellene,’ adapted an old melody that had been recorded by country music performers like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Berry combined the ‘hillbilly’ sound of white country with the African-American rhythm and blues that he imbibed in his native St. Louis.” Was that cultural appropriation or genius? They laughed at him in Harlem… how about you?
For the sake of simplicity, the cultural orthodoxy followers are saying, “We will only allow you to behave, dress, or live, in accordance with the culture into which you were born.” Yes Virginia, you have been pigeonholed by the cultural elite and by chance of birth. As is usual, it’s abstractions first, individuals second. Don’t you find this idea ludicrous and counter-productive? It’s a tyranny of labels.
Based on the purest of chance, the happenstance of your birth, reformists now labor to assign you a list of approved behaviors based on the genetics of your parents and grandparents. It’s an involuntary group membership with specific behavioral regulations, the violation of which will bring you nothing but ridicule and ruin. Remember the two women with the burrito stand?
And why? It is to preserve the divisions between people. To preserve different cultures for aesthetics’ sake. It seems much more “enlightened” to treat cultures like we do any other set of beliefs we encounter. Where does common sense go in these moments? We don’t require “Islamic scientists to refrain from doing American science” or “white philosophers only theorize about white philosophy.” Those statements are ridiculous. So is the cultural appropriation movement.
No one choses their culture at birth, and it is a shameful overreach for to use artificial labels in order to insist that I act in accordance with a list of “white, middle-class behavior.” A few years ago, I moved to Louisiana, and there’s always hip-hop, reggae, and in certain areas, Zydeco music on the radio. I love some of it. I blast it when driving down the road. There are more fried chicken shacks here than there are coffee shops. How many of you have ever tried boudin? The black culture in Baton Rouge has perfected fried chicken and boudin to a point not often seen in the country.
Here’s my response to my love for blues music, soul food, and boudin—it’s wonderful. It helps bridge the gap between people. Every individual is a consumer of culture and a creator of it. I will make sure that my life incorporates the best of any culture I encounter, and hopefully the same is true in reverse regardless of labels.
Imagine the world this way: Spoiler Alert, I am a coach: If you see everybody as individuals, you’ll wind up seeing that we’re all trying to do the same thing in life, which is to have a good life. Different groups of people have discovered different truths, and why on God’s green earth wouldn’t we really want to share what we find special—our knowledge and experiences—with each other? We can, quite literally, take the best of all cultures and create something new and better.
How many black people noticed the game of golf through the success of Tiger Woods? How many lives have been changed because of it? It’s a fabulous thing. How many white people have discovered rap through Eminem? I did. Thanks, Eminem. We are crazy not to celebrate cross-cultural exchanges of information, not single-mindedly lament them because the person has a skin color not approved by the orthodoxy.
On the Other Hand
The same is true about the negative aspects of cultures. It’s become dangerously naïve to overlook cultural shortcomings because you live in fear of “offending.” From my experiences, I want to emulate parts of Chinese culture in terms of academic excellence. I don’t want to emulate their emphasis on hierarchy. In my evaluation, Chinese parents can, at times, be too strict on their kids and are too focused on “family honor.” So I want to find a middle ground. Does that make me some anti-Chinese racist, because I recognize penchants in that culture? Of course not. I build my life, as you do, in a way that suits my goals.
I respect Chinese individuals and see positives and negatives in their culture and I want the same treatment in return. The same is true for black culture, Hispanic culture, and every other group on the planet. There’s absolutely no reason to take cultural norms as all-or-nothing. It is ridiculous. There’s nothing to preserve for preservation’s sake; let the positive live and the negative die. It goes back to basic common sense.
For almost 12 years, I lived in an economically depressed part of Virginia. The culture was largely toxic and anti-intellectual. In terms of sorting the good from the bad, I’d say I’m leaving most of it behind.
My father was raised a racist. Time, and seeing how my mother was cared for in the hospital helped him see through the errors of racist ideas. He now lives largely without racist bias. That Southern racist culture died in my family, thanks to the women who cared nightly for my mother, and I certainly will not resurrect it for my kids. This is progress and should be celebrated.
Imitation, Regulation, and Sex
Before the fairly recent invention of intellectual property, artists took imitation and copied it as a compliment. The myriad versions of “Variations on a Theme from Paganini” are all compliments to the wonderful work of the violinist Paganini. Why don’t we apply this to cultural phenomena in our day?
Copying was considered a compliment. It’s an acknowledgment from one human to another that “hey, this is awesome. You’re doing something right. I want to do it that way too!” I guess you could say: “Hey, you weren’t born with the right ethnic affiliation to behave in this way. Stick to the white/black/Hispanic/Asian ways of doing things.” But why would you?
Instead, how about we support cultures having sex with each other. Mix the genetics, if you will, and see what offspring we can produce. Ever been to a fusion restaurant? If you like another culture’s music, write it, listen to it, play it. If you like their fashion, design it, wear it, enjoy it. You like the language, speak it then. If you like the way they raise their kids, then by all means, raise yours in the same way. We’ll all be better off.
It makes your head spin if you think about it. Vast parts of our culture have been influenced by, and therefore “appropriated” from somewhere, or someone.
- A lot of contemporary American popular music was “appropriated” in one way or another from Southern blacks.
- Rock music influenced by the British invasion in the 60s
- Tap was appropriated by whites from blacks, who “appropriated” it from the Irish. Or maybe the other way around, or both.
- Parts of the American arts and crafts style was “appropriated” from traditional Japanese homebuilding.
- Liszt vigorously encouraged his contemporaries to “appropriate” melodies from the Hungarians.
- Classical architecture was “appropriated” from the Romans by the descendants of the very barbarians who sacked the empire.
- International style architecture was “appropriated” from Europe
- And don’t even get me started on food.
Cultures are not delicate flowers or fragile ecologies that need to be preserved intact forever. They emerge from groups of people doing the best they can to build a good life. Some parts are good, others not so much. It’s about time we grow up and recognize this. A lot of good will come from it. If you find that you are struggling with the rapid changes in our cultural attitudes, to the point where you feel you need some help in coping with them, give me a call; I can help.
How are you feeling about the cultural appropriation in your community?
Schedule some time and we can talk about how things are going and where you would like to see things go.