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The Demons of Cultural Appropriation

Bombay Aloo has a variety of ingredients. Central is the potato. Tomato/tomato paste and chili powder are usually important too. These three ingredients are from the New World. Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors outlines the whole story about how so many different ingredients came to Indian subcontinental cuisines, whether it be from Central Asia, the New World, or Europe. If you want Indian food before Columbus, there are some temples that do serve recipes that date back 1,000 years, and so do not have new ingredients.

The foods of the Indian subcontinent are diverse, and all are synthetic. Bengali food, for example, has Mughal and European influences. And, it was shaped and reshaped by the prevalence of cooks and chefs from the nearby province of Odisha in the 19th century. Therefore, “modern Bengali food” is very different from what it was hundreds of years ago. And one hundred years from now it will be very different.

This context is important to understand the discussion about “cultural appropriation” and food. This is not a serious discussion. There are no serious people who take this topic as worthy of addressing. Rather, it’s something that a 24-year-old food writing intern will crank out “think pieces” on. They’re given a quota of “content” to generate, and so they will write thoughtless and uninformed pablum. That will trigger a reaction from the commentariat. Additionally, a small number of people will take the thoughtless piece seriously.

It is notable that I have never heard an Asian immigrant raised in Asia make note of “cultural appropriation” when it comes to food. Rather, it is always the deracinated children of Asian immigrants, or, highly assimilated immigrants who have internalized the folkways of the hegemonic white American woke culture. In other words, ironically, the preoccupation with “cultural appropriation” is a symptom of assimilation and intellectual colonization. Those who are comfortable with their cultural authenticity don’t mind others borrowing “their” culture, and do not reflect deeply when borrowing the culture of “others.”

So if cultural appropriation isn’t really championed by anyone, why do we talk about it incessantly? It may not reside in individuals, but it is in the air around us. It is a parasite in human nature.

  • Someone who doesn’t care and is ignorant writes thoughtless copy deploying the buzzwords
  • This is amplified by the “amen” choir of those participating in “woke Olympics”
  • There is a counter-reaction by the anti-woke
  • Which drives polarization between the two camps and “discussion”
  • This seeds the next round of “think pieces” since lazy writers and busy editors know that they will “travel”

20 thoughts on “The Demons of Cultural Appropriation

  1. Two things

    1. Money. People get mad, when they think they are losing potential money because of “cultural appropriation.” Basically, if suddenly a department store like say Abercrombie starts to popularize Saris in America and then makes tons of money. Some members of the deracinated or heavily assimilated immigrant groups will make a fuss because they feel they have lost potential money. The reality is that they would not have made that money to begin with. Because if it weren’t for that brand, then the popularized non-white item would not have become popularized in the first place. And popularizing it has in fact led to a more economic gains for all in the long run. Because over time, people will want to search for the “authentic thing,” people who would have never been exposed to it to begin with.

    2. People in “woke” circles think on an identarian basis, something obvious but pertinent to my next point. They put a lot of value in their tribal identities. A fear of cultural appropriation is assigning “achievements,” say Indian Chai tea, to already powerful groups, say the largely white American owners of Starbucks. This loss of the “achievement” is zero sum. It reduces the value of the “origin” group and raises the value of the “appropriating,” already more power at baseline, group. The end result is a further division in the asymmetry of power between the groups, thus further entrenching historical advantage in modern day. If one has a Marxist view of history, essentially “cultural appropriation” further aids the oppressors at the expense of the oppressed.

    The counter to that is exactly the stuff you brought up in your article, syncretic culture is a form of synergy that makes marvelous wholes, often far greater in value than the sum of their parts, even if that means, at least in the short term, that perhaps disproportionate financial and/or prestige gains are made by the already more powerful groups. The latter point is something I doubt though because people still know Yoga is from India and Chai Tea is from India, despite many non Indians making a lot of money selling those products at marked up rates. With the age of the internet, this is especially true. But regardless, even if it isn’t, long term there is an advantage for everyone when ideas and objects mix and the market place selects for the best combinations, in a scenario where more options exist and thus more competition and thus better long term products, thus better stuff for the same money and higher standard of living overall.

  2. @Marees

    People complain whenever historical “prestige” and/or perception of potential lost wealth, likely to not have existed in the first place (see above comment), is at stake.

    A third class is just hypersensitivity or also a reaction to the Left’s hypocrisy. Aka Muslims are hypersensitive if Mohammed is displayed and a story is made with say a cartoon in popular media. Some radicals go and behead a journalist. Some idiotic leftists act like the journalist had it coming. A reaction to the hypocrisy, which sadly leads to just a positive feedback loop of hypersensitive behavior, is now Hindus getting more angry than they would have about their Gods being displayed in some cartoon by a Western Journalist, not as much because they are offended at the portrayal but offended the journalist had the gall to do that when they likely would not with a portrayal of Mohammed because of fear of reprisal from a terrorist but even more so because of fear of reprisal from the Leftist Establishment. Basically, one is incentivized to become a big complainer. Because the model shows complaining away the truth works for certain groups.

  3. Allison Roman’s chickpea stew is simply Indian channa masala, also called chhole. In intellectual property law, if the recipe was patented, she’d not be able to call it her invention, under “obviousness”. It is a bit obnoxious she passes it off as something she created.That she profits from it, I couldn’t care less. Is this what we are talking about here though?!

  4. I think the term makes sense when used back 20 years or so: Either a presentation which denies or elides a real root (“rock music is from white origins”) or which takes a culture label to use it to sell a product (Crab Rangoon”, or in my direct experience, “Burmese curry” being appended to corporate produced vaguely SE Asian products by chain restaurant marketers who suspect no one will know any better). There was a germ of some sensible usage out there.

    But when you talk about people simply doing things or using materials which are perceived to originate elsewhere, without “permission” or for profit, and where they do them at some variance due to different skills, aspirations, materials that they have to hand, then you are getting into crazy talk that is inconsistent with the whole history of human cultural exchange.

    As is the general tendency in our cultures today ppl will of course degenerate into this crazy version. Cultural incentives to portray oneself as victim, and thrill of power and privilege by saying “I can do this and you can’t” (“I can use this word, I can be creative in this music, I can eat this food, I can wear these clothes, this ungentrified ethnic neighbourhood belongs to me” &c. – like a modern day version of medieval sumptuary laws applied to Jews and rich commoners). This usage was invented, largely by second generation ethnic minorities, as a way to achieve these desirable goals of boosting their status.

    Much of mainstream which is desperate not to appear out of touch or “on the wrong side of history” will cave to it without question or challenge. Thus the White liberal mainstream comes to be accultured and assimilated by the poor quality Woke use of this term largely originated by Woke, college educated second-generation Asian immigrants (like so much of Woke culture is).

    (At same time, some acts that probably fall more sensibly into the halfway meaningful version of “cultural appropriation”, like colour-blind casting a heavily sexualised Regency drama, get praised by media as “integration”. No real consistency as a culture, and it’s about ‘Who’.)

  5. To add, while I think this manifestation is an original idea added to the Woke canon by ethnic minority groups (probably ended up wrongly overemphasing 2nd gen Asian because of thread subjecf, but a range of diaspora ethnic minority backgrounds in play), it seems to be maybe because of the wider cultural shift to “Being a victim or admitting to mental illness does not disqualify you from high status and leadership” and “Simply suspend your judgment and believe victims”. That attitude of suspension of any checks on being perceived as a victim unleashes a lot of self biased incentives for “Rashomon” (different perception, recollection) in a range of fields, of which failing to check claims of being victim of appropriation is just one example…

  6. I have never heard an Asian immigrant raised in Asia make note of “cultural appropriation” when it comes to food.

    I was (partly) raised in Asia and this is my philosophy on food, which I think is shared by many Asians in Asia: make and eat what’s delicious. The rest is noise.

    People who talk about “authenticity” or “cultural appropriation” and neglect taste are showy idiots.

    The main conflict at my household over food is between taste-prioritization (me) and health-prioritization (my wife). So we compromise. We had a gluten-free low-mercury fish with cauliflower “rice” that she made yesterday. So tomorrow I am picking up greasy Malaysian/Straits Chinese food. And the day after I am making my comfort food for the family – Japanese curry. They are all “fusion” food.

    P.S. I read that book several years back. It’s a really fun book.

  7. @D
    Indian channa masala, also called chhole, is simply stewed chickpeas that were first domesticated and stewed by Eastern Anatolians 9000 years ago. In intellectual property law, if the recipe was patented, Indian’s would not be able to call it their invention, under “obviousness”. It is a bit obnoxious they pass it off as something they created.

  8. @Jason

    If we are going to get into obnoxiousness of IP law, “improvements” to background IP count as new IP. Unless Eastern Anatolians were adding chilli powder and tomatoes to chhole 9000 years ago (or New world Indians were stewing chick peas), Indians are still able to call it their invention.

  9. “If you want Indian food before Columbus, there are some temples that do serve recipes that date back 1,000 years, and so do not have new ingredients.”

    Oh. I would like to have some recipes.

    We went to India in November 2019 BCE. All northwestern. The food was great, but not out of the realm of the sort of thing found in Indian Restaurants in the uS.

  10. “Chai tea” has always sounded weird to my Indian ear because “chai” literally is the Indian (or at least North Indian) word for tea. It’s like marketing Brazilian coffee as “Cafe coffee”. Or “Cerveza beer” for beer produced in any Spanish-speaking country.

  11. I have definitely noticed the second generation desis complaining about “cultural appropriation” are often the same ones whose entire adult engagement, understanding, or cultural connection to the subcontinent is limited to a university “Bollywood dancing” club.

  12. Authenticity in regional Chinese cuisines matters a lot to my daughter (and she is contemptuous of ‘fusion’ anything), but one of her favourite TV cooking show chefs is an English woman who spent time in China and took a lot of trouble to learn how to prepare the ‘real stuff’. So the accent there is on authenticity of ingredients and preparation of the dishes, and zero about any sort of appropriation – actually more like enthusiasm that a non-Chinese has taken the trouble to really understand Chinese culinary traditions and teach them to others. It is a compliment, not an insult.

    Two perfect examples of what Razib is talking about:

    1. When Scarlett Johannson starred in the film Ghost in the Shell (good film, largely filmed in Hong Kong), a lot of Japanese-Americans were outraged, while Japanese anime fans in Japan who were polled about it didn’t mind at all and said they thought she did a good job (and some of them pointed out that the character played by Scarlett was actually a robot carrying a transplanted human brain, so could actually have looked like anyone – and they did choose a Japanese actress to play the part of her human mother). One of the loudest objectors was a Chinese-American actress – she had a clear vested financial interest in objecting (not enough highly paid film roles for East Asian actresses in American films).

    2. A young blonde American woman appeared in social media wearing a Qipao. It blew up into a big deal, with a lot of Chinese-Americans outraged at the appropriation of ‘their’ culture. The loudest objector was some guy wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap who is not Chinese-literate. The reaction in Hong Kong and Mainland China was exactly the opposite – people took it as a cultural compliment that such an attractive young woman should want to wear a ‘traditional Chinese’ dress, and said that she looked lovely in it. The final irony is that the Qipao was inspired by Manchu clothing styles, not Han, although it was invented in Shanghai in the 1920s.

    @Numinous – In Hong Kong, Chai is called Chai. We have a large enough resident Indian population to steer people correctly. I still can’t bring myself to order a skim Chai latte; seems like an abomination.

    It is conventional for American (and other western) writers to talk about paddy fields as “rice paddies”, which is like saying “rice rice” – that one grates on me. The etymology is that “paddy” is derived from “padi”, which is the Malay word for a rice plant. It doesn’t grate on me any more than the almost universal mispronunciation of Beijing by people in the west though (except those who can speak Mandarin, obviously) – they pronounce the ‘j’ as if it were French, when it is actually much closer to an English ‘j’. At times when I have pronounced it correctly, some people have actually tried to correct me – I have a rather disagreeable nature, so they were quickly disabused.

  13. Hey Razib, do you have any names for specific pre-Columbus recipes? I’d be very interested in seeing what that would be like, but am not able to visit such temples.

  14. What Marees said – I don’t think there are many people arguing about cultural appropriation for food, outside of universities.

    Could be an interesting test as to whether that will change over time. My guess is it won’t, and Razib’s fear of spreading wokeness won’t hit foods. There are too many restaurants and too much home cooking of different styles for people to take cultural appropriation seriously when it comes to food. The exception will be “back to roots” movements, restaurants that try to make “pure” food for that particular ethnicity. They’ll fail on purity but be interesting for historical reasons, and that’s just fine.

    Having said that, I think cultural appropriation is a real issue in some cases, especially when it comes to Fourth World/Indigenous cultures. But that’s a complicated issue. We’re pretty safe when it comes to food.

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