Cultural Appropriation?

I have recently been introduced to an idea that, I must admit, sounds completely absurd on its face, namely “cultural appropriation.”  I have started a search to explore my initial reaction and to understand the depth, breadth, and validity of the alleged offenses that earn this title.

So far, I have not much changed my mind.

There is a wonderfully written letter to the editor of the Oberlin Review which captures some of the angst that leads people to feel that their culture is being misunderstood or subverted.  It is clear that many people have difficulties — some concrete and external, some abstract and internal — when they cross cultural lines.  These are real difficulties and should be met with some level of understanding and sympathy.

On the other hand, to claim that a modified dish served in a student mess hall under the name “tandoori” is an offense to a religious tradition that uses the same name half a world away is to expect far too much.  See this letter in the Oberlin Review for this example.

The offended party is free to educate — perhaps they would like to demonstrate the proper preparation of the meal for the dining hall in question or for a few friends.  They are free to point out that the stuff called “tandoori” in the dining hall would not be acceptable in India.

But to insist either that the dining service not use the label or that they may only use it if the food is prepared in a way acceptable to the offended student is nonsense.

First there is the question of authority.  How is the student a more authoritative arbiter of the correctness of tandoori than anyone else?  (Would their mother give the same recipe a pass?  How about their grandmother?)

The offended party needs to demonstrate their authority to judge the object of their offense else their status is akin to that of a child who won’t eat dinner because she “doesn’t like it.”

Second there is the question of practicality.   How much are you willing to spend on the food service?  If you insist that every dish served be certified culturally appropriate then, like the famous overpriced hammer, you will be paying many times the cost of the nourishment to insure its cultural purity.  How many cultures and subcultures is such a process to support?  How many conflicts between different grandmothers’ variant recipes will have to be settled by some authority?  How will the authority itself be established?

Third, there is the question of intent.  People in costumes that I am not familiar with celebrating a holiday whose significance (to someone — again the problem of authority) I am not aware of I am open to many interpretations: it is an accurate reenactment of a traditional ceremony, it is an variant of an traditional ceremony adapted to tourists, it is a traditional ceremony that has been transplanted and modified as people have moved away from its geographical source, it is being use by people who are not members of the culture in an attempt to honor or at least recognize that culture, or it is being used to mock something.  Who knows?  Everything is in motion, and cultures these days are spreading fractally around the world.

Only in the case in which the intent is to offend do I feel that anyone should take offense.  In all other cases, the response should be either to accept the changes as intended, to educate, or to walk away.  If the offense was intentional then a peaceful counteroffensive (not censorship) is the appropriate response.

So, net net, I accept the discomfort of the cross-culture student but I think that it is completely inappropriate to ask everyone around in a place that has no familiarity with a given culture to adopt selected parts of that culture based upon the questionable authority of a few people claiming to have evaluated its authenticity.