If You Don’t Believe in Cultural Appropriation, You’re Wrong: A Satire


I’ve been silent long enough. When college students complained in 2015 that the Asian-themed food in their cafeteria was a mockery and appropriation of a grand culinary tradition, I said nothing. College students have no money after all, why should they complain about bad food, no matter its origin? For whatever reason, though, the more recent news of two white women in Oregon closing their burrito cart over protests of their cultural appropriation of Mexican food, finally allowed me to see the light. And not just in what I do or don’t eat—even though, I’m proud to say, taco night has now been replaced in my own home with another Italian night, since it’s much easier where I live to get takeout pizza than takeout Hungarian or takeout Slovenian.

But being a reader and a writer foremost, I was dismayed above all else at the cultural appropriation that, like a cancer, has infected my own profession. To illustrate just how blind I’ve been, and how easily duped, all I had to do was look at the kinds of books I’ve read this year. Two examples will suffice:

An Irish male novelist who, first of all, wrote a novel mostly from the point-of-view of a woman—in fact, this author is “famous” for his sympathetic and apparently accurate depictions of women. The woman in this novel was orphaned at an early age and (this being Ireland in the 1940s) was raised by nuns; once she reached adulthood she was sent to work for and later married a local widower the reader is made to believe has had a sad enough life to justify this unjust arrangement. When a few years later she falls in love with another man, and while in the end she does choose to stay with her husband, there is no explicit comment—from the woman or the authorial narrator—on how unfortunate and downtrodden her situation really is. Instead, all we get is a dramatization of human interaction and emotions, beset by the biases of the story’s time and place. The reader is apparently supposed to come to his or her own conclusions, since the pathos of the situation is only “inferred.”

In other words, the outrage that should be there is not there, and all the while the author has stolen the kind of experience which must have plagued Irish women at the time, and for his own gain. The message, assuming there is one, is lost beneath the mere empathetic presentation of human relationships. And so I now think it’s high time for two things: first, not just for white men to stop portraying experiences that aren’t their own, but for anyone of any race, religion, or nationality to stop portraying any experience that is not their own. We have all hidden behind claims to “imagination” and “sympathy” long enough, especially in assuming that art is separate from politics. And second, it is time for our artists to take their cue from the cheapest advertising and the dumbest slogans, and to finally do away with nuance and complexity, and even with empathy, and instead give us uplifting messages and lessons. We need to be told things, not shown them—and we need to be told the right things.

A second example: through the writings of academics and archaeologists, for years now I’ve loved to read about ancient Europe, and yet when I read about the Oregonian Burrito Cart Controversy, it struck me: what larger injustice can there be, than these “scholars” picking over the earth and digging up the bodies of cultures that are not here to defend themselves from this indignity, let alone from misinterpretation? I have therefore vowed to not read any of these authors until they release the DNA results that (at the very least) shows they are somehow related to the people whose graves and living spaces and even jewelry and kitchen implements they are constantly despoiling and making a living off of. Seen in this light, the very study of history—and of that other favorite subject of mine until now, comparative religion and mythology—is not just impossible but actually offensive, since even the belief that I can know anything about a tradition not my own smacks of some hidden desire of mine for control and appropriation.

As to the poetry I have tried to write about these ancient peoples, then, I now see the error in my wish to “imagine” what the lives of others were like and, using my own heritage as a guideline, I should be able to salvage at least those set in ancient Ireland, Germany, Italy and Slovenia. This will do away with much of my writing from the past few years—but then, I’ll also be able to sleep at night.

However, cultural appropriation in the written arts is even more insidious still. It’s one thing to realize that art isn’t actually about empathy, or about putting ourselves in another’s shoes or using our imaginations to portray the experience of any one and any thing we freely choose to. Because when we take the next step and realize it’s actually about segregation, and allowing people to create and critique only those kinds of works which reflect their own heritage, suddenly the darkest seed—at least of art involving language—is revealed: indeed, simply peruse the etymologies in just one page of any good English dictionary and you’ll see how many of “our” words have been derived from other languages, and many of those due to colonial depredations.

So terribly many of our words are soaked in the blood of past injustice that, for the time being (and excepting the few paragraphs left in this post), I can’t even in good conscience continue to write at all, let alone read. And if I could, I would do my best to get by without speaking as well. I would ask that thinking people of conscience everywhere follow me in this regard, although I suppose that at some point even thinking in the English language will have to go as well. But all the better, since we’ll have the chance to create a pure, unsullied form of everyday expression that will never have been used by bad people, or for bad reasons.

What this means, in part, is that we will have to do away with art altogether. Just for a time. I’m not sure how we would enforce this, but the important thing is that this is how I feel, and sincere and well-meaning ideas shouldn’t be discounted just because they seem ridiculous. This is a drastic but, I think, a necessary step. Any important realization, when it’s first made, seems like the exaggerated and childish whining of young people and their teachers using the reality of racism and discrimination and bigotry and being unable to keep it from encapsulating everything. But given time, its wisdom will show through.

I’ve heard the unthinking among us say that with ideas like this, “The political left will eat itself.” That is, they will cannibalize one another over constant charges of prejudice and bias until no form of thinking and expression are actually possible. Now I’m no predictor of the future, but if the left does end up eating itself, at least it won’t be with a culturally-appropriated burrito.



13 replies »

  1. Westerners do have a habit of bastardizing everything they get their hands on, but your point here is well taken. White shamans and aerial yoga practitioners are the more moronic examples, but when it comes to art, imitation is the closest thing to flattery we colonial jerks have. We do often give the word “fusion” a bad name, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michelle all this is true, but I do think the actual & serious sins of the West are diluted by this weird current fetish where even artists (let alone burrito makers) are being told what they should & shouldn’t do.


  3. I do get the more serious point and was being a tad tongue-in-cheek. As I’m in the middle of finishing a novel with characters who are not all grumpy white women, I’ve had to ignore a lot of this latest craze in favor of actually writing what I want to write.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As I read this with a smile I wondered whether the original post included the “A Satire” addition. (My guess is it didn’t)
    I live in California but have spent enough time in Mexico to know that what is sold as a burrito here only vaguely resembles those south of the border. (Though ironically in areas like Cancun and Cabo San Lucas where there are lots of gringo tourists, they now make them California-style.)
    The Oregon women probably should have just called them ‘wraps.’ That way they could tell the Latinos that they’re gyros and the Greeks that they’re burritos.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This was very clever Tim, you made a lot of good points. My main takeaway (pardon the pun) is that if we get too carried away with ‘cultural appropriation’ we can never enjoy or learn anything by anyone else but ourselves. What a bubble we’d be in! It makes me wonder though what the criteria might be for genuinely wrong cultural appropriation – and if there can be any. I.e. is everything really up for grabs or is there a clear line we shouldn’t cross?

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  6. I’m Polish, so I’m wildly in favor of cultural appropriation. Otherwise, I’d have nothing to affirm my identity but binge drinking, pierogies, and antisemitism. And two of those things I am not okay with.

    (Satire mode endeth here.)

    It’s a truth that leaves some people aghast: culture is cultural appropriation. That said, I think we can be sensitive to the concerns of indigenous groups and seriously oppressed minorities without all this nonsense where wild-eyed people on the Internet appoint themselves to the Committee for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

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  7. I bet there is a western-themed cafeteria on Japanese colleges serving bad western food. I mean give me a break. Sushi on a pizza, lasagna made from squid, octopus tacos. Who knows? Maybe they’ll be coming to a campus near you.

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  8. The most interesting appropriated American food I’ve ever had was in South Korea, at a rest stop along the highway system they modeled after our own. It was called “pizzahotdoggi,” which led me to assume it would represent the best parts of both a pizza and a hot dog. In reality, it was a calzone-like dough pocket filled with soy sauce and crumbly bits of mystery meat. I could have mocked it; instead, it taught me a little something about how Koreans see American food. Also, it was terrible.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I saw the light when I read that Eric Clapton said the best rock guitar he ever heard on an R&B song was on Wilson Pickett’s “Hey Jude.” So here you have a Brit praising a white southerner (Duane Allman) sitting in with a black R&B singer playing a song by some white Brits with roots in British folk and American black blues. I realized then that there is so much cultural appropriation (which the unevolved still quaintly refer to as “collaboration”) among musicians that it’s best not to listen to music at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Clarification, Tim: There is one reason to listen to music — to measure its offensiveness. Here is a particularly offensive item — bunch of white guys from Georgia called “The Allman Bros.” playing what they unabashedly identify as “an old field song.” (The video is terrible but the hurtful audio is clear enough.) Just think of how much better the world would be if this whole music scene had never emerged!

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