4 tips for avoiding foodie cultural appropriation

My bf made the above video to go with a script I wrote! I think it’s safe to say most of us have, at some point, felt unsure about whether instances of potential cultural appropriation really were that. This video is about food, in particular, but the lessons can apply across many types of cultural expression. A longer version of the script (which hopefully will clear up questions that anyone may have after watching) is below. Enjoy!

“Cultural appropriation” has been a hot topic for the past couple of years. Unfortunately, the concept has been caught up in the political correctness/hypersensitivity/“millennials are big babies” discourse, which has turned any possible dialogue about cultural appropriation into an overly simplistic question: does that [outfit/restaurant/makeup look/hairstyle/etc.] count as cultural appropriation or not?  While I appreciate the importance of asking this question, I think that it can obscure the real complexity in the concept of cultural appropriation.  I would also argue that reducing the issue of cultural appropriation to the simple question of whether something is or is not appropriative does nothing to explain why cultural appropriation is a form of violence, which leaves many feeling unsure of how engage in cultural exchange without perpetuating racism.

So, what is cultural appropriation? To put it simply, it’s the phenomenon when a person from a dominant culture (in the United States, that’s white people) uses elements of a marginalized culture in a way that perpetuates harmful and oppressive power dynamics.

A lot of people think this is a silly issue because “it’s just clothes” or “it’s just food”! If only they were just clothes or food! Sadly, history makes that impossible. Here’s why seemingly small cultural symbols matter: historically, when white-dominated nations colonized other places, they weren’t satisfied with claiming land or resources. A key part of colonization was the annihilation of native cultures. Colonizers forced indigenous peoples to assimilate to European cultural values and practices through forced conversions to Christianity, and by making indigenous populations wear European clothes, speak European languages, and cook and eat European food. However, at the same time, European colonizers exoticized the flavors, sounds, and aesthetics of the people they colonized so that they could enjoy those aesthetics and simultaneously assert their inferiority to European aesthetics.  Not only did colonizers want to enjoy these “exotic” foods, art, music, and clothing, but they also profited by selling versions of them to other white Europeans, while indigenous populations were violated and exploited for being “uncivilized” or “barbaric.”  The violent ironies of imperialism are numerous.

Because colonization depended on cultural (and often literal) genocide, maintaining marginalized cultures was a way for colonized peoples to resist oppression. This is why cultural symbols and practices are so important to people of color and indigenous people, and also why the idea of culturally appropriating European or white cultures doesn’t have the same impact.  As it may be apparent by now, “cultural appropriation” is shorthand for a much more complicated concept: a recreation of colonial power dynamics in which the autonomy of indigenous people and people of color is wrested from them by white Europeans, who profit hugely off of selling “exotic” cultures piecemeal in European countries while economically and environmentally devastating local groups of people.

This history is not over. All too often in today’s world, people of color and indigenous people are marginalized for taking part in their own cultural practices.  These are the same practices that are valorized as a new discovery, as worldly and sophisticated, or as unusual and exotic when white people are the ones embodying them. For example, black natural hair styles are frequently banned from schools and workplaces as unprofessional, distracting, and even dangerous, but bantu knots, afros, dreads, and box braids have all been used recently in high fashion as “trendy” hairstyles for elite white people. (Just image search “dreadlocks.” Too many cute white girls on that page for comfort.)

At the same time, people of color and indigenous people are criticized or characterized as posers when they try to take up historically white European cultural practices. When Hung Huynh, a Vietnamese American chef, competed on Top Chef, judges consistently praised his technical skills but questioned his emotional engagement with the European food he was producing. One judge said to him, “You are technically the best chef up here. Technically. But we don’t see you in the food at all. You were born in Vietnam?” He was seen as “inauthentic” for cooking food that was outside what white people defined as his purview.

Don’t worry: I’m not here to tell you that you should only eat hot dogs for the rest of your life! It’s a good thing to explore and enjoy foods from marginalized cultures. You just have to be conscious of how you do it. Here are 4 tips for avoiding cultural appropriation and being a more anti-oppressive food lover:

  1. DO NOT exoticize, fetishize, or other: Making a big deal out of how “weird” a food is is just one way to make it clear that American and European foods are normal while other foods are not. On the flip side, bragging about how many exotic and unusual dishes you’ve tried shows that you think “ethnic” foods are tourist attractions rather than serious cultural material. It’s okay to be honest that you are not used to or dislike a certain food or flavor, but the theatrics are unnecessary and patronizing.
  2. DO NOT expect non-white food to be cheap: So-called ethnic food is often expected to be cheap, and chefs of color who ask for a higher price are often accused as charging too much for the kind of food they’re making. If you’re willing to pay $20 for an entrée at a French restaurant but won’t go to a Thai restaurant unless entrées are under $10, you are reinforcing the idea that people of color and immigrants should do labor cheaply and be grateful for whatever scraps they get.  Of course, most people can’t or wouldn’t pay $20 for an entrée at any restaurant, but the point here is more about the expectations people have about what kind of food is cheap and what kind of food is fancy.
  3. DO patronize businesses that are owned by the people whose culture is being sold: One of the more insidious forms of cultural appropriation is when people sell a marginalized culture that is not their own. They are able to profit while the people whose culture is being sold are maligned for eating and making the same things. To avoid this, go to restaurants that are owned by people who come from the ethnic or racial group whose culture is being sold.
  4. DO act in solidarity with people of color and indigenous people: If you love someone’s food, you should also care about their humanity. Learn more about the history of colonialism and racism, educate yourself about food justice and racial justice, and get involved! Donate to racial justice organizations and movements, volunteer with a community garden (respectfully and appropriately), go to Black Lives Matter chapter meetings, and call your representatives about policies that affect communities of color.

The takeaway is this: food is really important to people. It is intimately linked to race, ethnicity, culture, identity, and pride. These issues are complicated, and you might mess up. Nobody’s perfect, but remember to be aware of and actively work against oppressive power dynamics.

Some other resources on the topic of food and cultural appropriation: BBC | Everyday Feminism | Civil Eats | Racist Sandwich Podcast



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