when is cultural appropriation good or bad?

The Oberlin College Cultural Appropriation Controversy is almost certainly getting more attention than it deserves because it reinforces critiques of political correctness in higher education. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting case to consider the general questions: What is cultural appropriation, and when is it bad?

Some Oberlin students criticized Oberlin’s dining hall’s bánh mì and General Tso’s chicken as cultural appropriations. These are wonderfully ironic cases. Bánh mì is a French baguette sandwich with ingredients popular in Vietnam. It is a direct result of French colonialism, a perfect example of a creole or hybrid cultural product. Without cultural appropriation, there could be no bánh mì in the first place. General Tso’s chicken has obscure origins but is most widely thought to have been invented in New York City by chefs of Chinese origin.

I start with the assumption that there is no such thing as cultural purity. We are all creoles, all the way down. We have been in contact with each other all along, naturally and inevitably borrowing, sharing, and stealing. Even supposedly “uncontacted” peoples deep in the rain forest have actually been in close contact with others for thousands of years. Claims of cultural purity and authenticity are almost always problematic, morally as well as factually.

And yet the critical students at Oberlin were making some valid points. To borrow a cultural product is to enter a relationship with someone else. That can be done respectfully and gratefully or rudely and exploitatively. In other words, it involves ethics. Also, it can be done skillfully–so as to produce an excellent product (possibly one never seen before)–or else poorly. In other words, it involves aesthetics. The Oberlin students are saying that their college dining hall’s Asian food has been borrowed disrespectfully and also poorly.

Those can be fair points, but we don’t often conduct such conversations well—for two large and important reasons. Because of positivism, we are not good at talking about ethics. And because we accept deep social inequality, we tend to overlook the material conditions of fine culture.

To the first point: We live at a time when science has enormous prestige, and science cannot address value judgments except to recognize that human beings form them for various reasons. Science suggests that there are two buckets: facts and evidence go in one; values, emotions, preferences and tastes, and personal identities go in the other. To say that Oberlin’s bánh mì are bad is not a factual claim, so it must involve emotion, preferences, and identities. That means that we cannot reason deliberatively with people who might hold different views of Oberlin’s bánh mì or of culture more generally. We can only express opinions that have strong emotional charges and that are linked to our identities. So to take a position on either side is to harm emotionally people who have different identities.

I would not dismiss the significance of emotion or identity. We must be sensitive of both. But we can also deliberate about relatively subtle, charged, and complex questions like food and culture. More than one perspective is valid, and each position can be supported with arguments and reasons. Opinions can change; the group can learn. Expressing a view is not necessarily a threat to other people; it can be an opportunity to reason.

In a positivist and relativist culture, scholars in the humanities and cultural disciplines are basically taught to suppress value judgments–yet certain strong values break through that screen because they are irrepressible and because political movements stand behind them. So even though value judgments are deemed to be culturally relative, it is wrong to be sexist, racist, or colonialist. I agree that those attitudes are wrong, but I see them as just the tip of a submarine mountain of ethical issues, all complex and all deserving of analysis.

When I was writing my book about Dante, I first encountered the view held by certain scholars that cultural appropriation is intrinsically bad. For instance, it was intrinsically problematic that Byron appropriated Dante’s medieval Italian culture for liberal nationalism. My response was: let’s think about when and why various forms of cultural borrowing are good or bad for various people. That is to reason about ethics, which is countercultural for many scholars. (Aaron R. Hanlon has a good response to the Oberlin controversy, calling for a distinction between “appropriation,” which should be value-neutral, and “expropriation,” which is bad and requires a critical argument.)

The second issue is inequality and the material conditions of successful borrowing. The dining hall staff of Oberlin College may not have been given the support they would need to do a good job providing Asian food–or original, “fusion” food. That would take experience, support, and time. Absent those supports, it’s possible that they should stick to what they know best (which will not be culturally pure or authentic, but simply a list of recipes of miscellaneous origin that are familiar to them). Or it’s possible that someone should help them try new things. But it definitely takes resources to engage well with any unfamiliar culture.

In many a Yuppie household (such as mine), people frequently dine in fine restaurants that serve foods from around the world, occasionally travel to distant lands, attempt to learn other languages, and have rows of cookbooks from many cuisines that they use to cook their own food. For instance, we were able to spend the winter break in Guadeloupe, and last night I cooked Chicken Colombo, which is a Guadelopean fusion dish strongly influenced by South Asian indentured workers. Meanwhile, in many families, the adults cook what they learned from their own parents. I remember chatting with a bunch of working-class immigrant high school students from Hyattsville, MD who were amused (more than offended) that Yuppies cook food other than “their own.”

The differences between these two kinds of households may depend in part on personal tastes and proclivities and on local cultural norms. For instance, Mexican/Asian fusion cuisines are famously widespread in San Bernardino County, California. But there is also certainly a socioeconomic aspect of this difference. I cooked Chicken Colombo last night because we could afford to visit Guadeloupe. One reason we visited that island is that we have had opportunities to learn French. And we were comfortable eating food unfamiliar to us because our neighborhoods have long been full of diverse restaurants. These are forms of material support.

I don’t know anyone at Oberlin, but I can imagine two kinds of hypothetical characters: a Yuppie student who despises the college’s bánh mì because she grew up with better ones, and a working-class immigrant student who is offended that the college serves “someone else’s” cuisine because she hasn’t had an opportunity–yet–to sample and cook foods from around the world. Material inequality is relevant to both perspectives. Without sufficient resources, it is simply harder to make something ethical and creative out of a cultural interaction.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.