the Oberlin cultural appropriation controversy, revisited

(Washington, DC) In 2016, I began a blog post:

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. …

I tried to offer a nuanced response to the general topic of cultural appropriation. Although I see some legitimacy in some critiques of appropriation, I am worried about the stance that cultural products belong to ethno-cultural groups and cannot be borrowed. I find that view empirically untenable, because culture is always borrowed and shared. And I can think of unsavory examples–like Richard Wagner’s decrying classical music composed by European Jews, partly on the ground that music belonged to Germans and not Jews. I start with enthusiasm for a global cultural commons and opposition to all forms of “enclosure.”

However, we now know that I shouldn’t have been writing about the Oberlin episode at all. No Oberlin students organized to criticize the campus food on political grounds. Instead, the college newspaper asked some individuals their opinions of the college bánh mì and sushi. A majority of those interviewed thought these dishes were poor examples of their genres. The bánh mì was made with ciabatta, and the “chicken sushi” wasn’t sushi at all. It’s not clear that even the individuals who were quoted had political or ethical objections to the food. And even if they did, they were responding to a question. There was no student movement against cultural appropriation.

This story fit some people’s prior assumptions and went viral without being fact-checked. In this case, it was about allegedly spoiled PC students on a liberal campus, but we are all subject to being fooled by virally contagious anecdotes. This phenomenon can happen accidentally, but it can also be made to happen by people with nefarious motives. An example is the shadowy Twitter account that “posted a minute-long video showing the now-iconic confrontation between a Native American elder and the high school students.” This misleading video was carefully designed to play on the ideological priors of liberals.

Looking back at my post, I am relieved that I hedged my opening and I didn’t criticize any students. But I did file away the memory that Oberlin undergraduates had mobilized against the bánh mì, which did not happen. And my post, despite its caveats, played its small role in spreading that misperception. We all need to pay more attention to the reliability of the alleged facts that we use as opportunities for arguments.

See also: what is cultural appropriation?; notes on cultural appropriation after the royal wedding; when is cultural appropriation good or bad?; V.S. Naipaul’s view of culture; cultural mixing and power; a political defense of Hamilton; Maoist chic as Orientalism; and “a different Shakespeare from the one I love”

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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.