Limits of Cultural Appropriation: The Point Is Decolonization, Not Segregation

A friend of mine recently asked

Genuine question to all: is it cultural appropriation to cook foods from other cultures? I struggle with this, and would like to know what y’all think.

I am very concerned about how identitarians (those whose social understanding of the political economic order is based principally on identity politics)—particularly in their obsession with cultural appropriation and cultural “purity” and “authenticity”—increasingly resemble segregationists.

Don’t get me wrong; I think opposing corporate cultural appropriation is important. I have written in defense of it before. But only when it facilitates the process of decolonization, not segregation.

The point of opposing cultural appropriation is not to segregate cultures. The point of opposing cultural appropriation is to respect foreign cultures and, most important of all, not to further propagate a long colonialist history of Western hegemonic domination over these cultures. This is very different than simply not engaging in or with other cultures.

In other words, the problem lies in cultural hegemony.

The fact of the matter is that globalization is not a wholly bad process. The “anti-globalization movement” is a misnomer; most people who oppose globalization do not oppose globalization itself, but rather capitalist globalization.

In capitalist globalization, after a legacy of centuries of colonialism and the continued presence of regimes of neo-colonialism, Western culture has become normalized and even seen as superior. Markets reinforce this cultural “logic”; the capitalist political economic framework ensures that certain forms of culture (Western ones) are valued over others. Those who adopt Western customs are economically rewarded. Those who receive Western educations are economically rewarded. Those who laud Western culture and perfect Western traditions are economically rewarded.

Unfortunately the differences between segregationists and identitarians have been diminishing in recent years. Increasingly, they have come to mirror each other. Perhaps this is not surprising, given “identarianism” is an actual far-right movement in Europe, and it is overtly fascist and segregationist.

The Myth of “Purity”

Cuisines, worldwide, are the products of millennia of cultural interchange. Capitalist globalization was not the first time “Western” countries were exposed to “Eastern” countries, and vice-versa.

The problem is not cultural interchange; that is a good thing (unless you are a fascist, in which case your opinion does not matter). Once again, the problem is cultural hegemony.

Part of this obsession with not appropriating, “corrupting” an “authentic” foreign culture is itself condescending and racist, as it presumes that other cultures are “pure” (and thus simple, easily explicable, not full of contradictions) in the first place. One must frankly adopt a racist, orientalist view of another culture as a monolithic, homogeneous blob if one thinks that foreign interaction with it somehow makes it less “pure.”

People are people. No one—anywhere in the world, at any time in human history—has perfectly abided by, yet alone agreed with, all of the norms and traditions in their particular culture. For one, all of these norms and traditions are not articulable, as they vary from region to region, family to family, generation to generation, even person to person. And this is not to mention the fact that countless sub-cultures, which are found everywhere at every time, contradict the very customs and traditions of the larger macro-cultures in which they are situated.

And let’s be real for a moment; there is no such thing as “purity” in any culture. All traditions were at some point fabricated. All of them. Moreover, many purported traditions are in fact relatively recent constructs. As leading historian Eric Hobsbawm writes in his canonical 1983 book The Invention of Tradition, many “traditions” which “appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented.”

Hobsbawm continues:

‘Tradition’ in this sense must be distinguished clearly from ‘custom’ which dominates so-called’ traditional’ societies. The object and characteristic of’ traditions’, including invented ones, is invariance. The past, real or invented, to which they refer imposes fixed (normally formalized) practices, such as repetition. ‘Custom’ in traditional societies has the double function of motor and fly-wheel. It does not preclude innovation and change up to a point, though evidently the requirement that it must appear compatible or even identical with precedent imposes substantial limitations on it. What it does is to give any desired change (or resistance to innovation) the sanction of precedent, social continuity and natural law as expressed in history.

Students of peasant movements know that a village’s claim to some common land or right ‘by custom from time immemorial’ often expresses not a historical fact, but the balance of forces in the constant struggle of village against lords or against other villages. Students of the British labour movement know that ‘the custom of the trade’ or of the shop may represent not ancient tradition, but whatever right the workers have established in practice, however recently, and which they now attempt to extend or defend by giving it the sanction of perpetuity.

The Neoliberal Co-option of Decolonial Ideas

In some ways, this identitarian obsession with cultural appropriation is a neoliberal approach to decolonization. It hyperemphasizes individual actions at the expense of structural ones. What bell hooks refers to as “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” the interlocking systems of oppression we face today, as a global community, are precisely that: global systems.

By obsessing over our individual actions (e.g., the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the language we use, etc.), we are propagating the very neoliberal capitalist ideology that suggests that the solution to oppression lies simply in individual lifestyle changes. This bourgeois lifestylism, however, in fact serves to only bolster structural forms of oppression by drawing attention away from them, or even pretending as though they do not exist.

This is not to say that these issues (such as cuisine, clothing, and language) are not important, not by any means; they are certainly important for many people. But it is to say that, by focusing laser-like on these relatively minor concerns, at the expense of the systemic, we are not only doing ourselves a disservice, we are frankly hindering the movement for justice, liberation, and decolonization.

An obsession with small personal acts misses the point. The point of opposition to cultural appropriation is it is supposed to facilitate the process of decolonization, not segregation. The hyperemphasis on the “purity” of one’s individual lifestyle in many ways parallels the hyperemphasis of the segregationist on embracing one cultural tradition and ignoring all the others.

An opposition to white people eating foods from other cultures is one of these scenarios. It effectively results in a situation not unlike that desired by white supremacist bigots, who want to avoid other cultures’ foods and embrace their (supposedly “superior”) “roots” and “heritage.” It is more similar to fascism than it is to any kind of progressive ideology.

Moreover, this idea that cultures should not interact and remain “pure”—which is what some extreme identitarians in effect advocate—not only horrifyingly parallels fascism; it also reinforces capitalist ideology. It upholds the idea that culture is this thing that is “owned” by people in particular nation-states (that were arbitrarily created with arbitrary borders arbitrarily across geographical lines, arbitrarily dividing people who once lived next to one another, often by colonial powers), and that this cultural capital cannot and should not be owned by others outside of the arbitrary nation-state.

It is debates like these that give more important discussions about cultural appropriation a bad name.