Culture is a beautiful thing to appropriate

Sep 29, 2017 · 6 min read

Without it, diversity is doomed to failure

Is this the most racist food product in the world?

The ongoing battle to expose and eviscerate all acts of cultural appropriation, real or imaginary, shows no signs of abating any time soon. This is a completely misguided and misinformed campaign, one with chilling implications for the future of diversity.

Unless you’ve been in a food coma for the past five years, you know that one of the trendiest food items in the American culinary landscape is a fiery red hot sauce known as Sriracha. No food truck worth its weight in lard would be caught without it, and a short saunter through any decent market will turn up anything from potato chips to ice cream crafted at least in part with the devilishly delicious condiment.

What you may not know, however, is that if you consume this seemingly harmless food item, or if you use it in any way for your own culinary concoctions, then you are, at least according to the increasingly militant guardians of all that is cultural, blatantly racist. And if you’re not exactly racist, then you are at least imperialist. Most likely you are both.

The war on cultural appropriation has become the latest putrid dish served up in the curiously dystopian buffet of identity politics in America. The idea behind this increasingly aggressive campaign, waged paradoxically in the name of diversity, is that our cultural lives and identities should be confined only to the culture into which we were born. We can make no claim to nor participate in any part of any other culture that is not our own. This, apparently, is what diversity looks like.

Cultural authenticity, the cultural analogue of racial purity, must be preserved and protected from outsiders, the argument goes. Efforts by these inauthentic and impure outsiders to use or borrow elements from other cultures must be staunchly resisted and vociferously denounced as the fascist acts of racism and imperialism they apparently are.

The cultures of Sriracha

At this point, one might ask, what’s wrong with Sriracha? The original Sriracha sauce was created right here in America, in southern California, to be precise. The sauce is made by Huy Fong Foods, the name of which is taken from the name of the Taiwanese freighter that brought David Tran, Vietnamese refugee and founder of Huy Fong Foods, to America. Sriracha is made from red jalapeño peppers, which are native to Central America. David Tran is culturally Vietnamese, Chinese-Vietnamese to be specific, while the name Sriracha is derived from, or perhaps I should say appropriated from, the town of Sriracha, which is located in Thailand and also happens to make its own, rather different type of hot sauce.

The original Sriracha, from Sriracha, Thailand

In other words, Sriracha is made by a Vietnamese immigrant to America, in a company with a name taken from a Taiwanese freighter, from chilies not native to Vietnam or America, with a product name taken from Thailand, all nicely packaged in a bottle with five languages on the label so that it may appeal broadly to any cultural cuisine that wants to use it. Sriracha is basically a bright red middle-finger to the naysayers of cultural appropriation, which thus leads us to one of two possible conclusions. Either Sriracha is a racist food product, or the opponents of cultural appropriation are a bunch of idiots. My money’s on the latter.

Think of all the things in the world we would have to relinquish if cultural appropriation becomes the secular sin its opponents claim it to be. Love Bollywood movies? So do I, but Bollywood was created from the cultural appropriation of Western cinema by Indian cinematographers. So perhaps Indians best stick to their authentic chicken tikka masala, which would be fine except that chicken tikka masala was actually invented in Scotland and was once referred to by a former British foreign minister as a “national dish” of Britain. It’s basically a plateful of cultural appropriation served with rice.

Bollywood is the product of cultural appropriation, and should be celebrated as such

Or how about Yo-Yo Ma on the cello? The problem here is that Yo-Yo Ma is ethnic Chinese so he’s really got no business culturally appropriating a Western instrument, so that would have to go. And what of his collaborations with American bluegrass or Argentinian tango? Clearly these are musical acts of appropriation and racism. He should just play a Chinese instrument and do Chinese things — stick to his own kind, as the opponents of cultural appropriation would have it.

What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, that’s what

Feeling hungry for tempura? Not so fast. That’s a Japanese cultural appropriation of a Portuguese dish introduced by Portuguese traders. Clearly this is unacceptable, so effective immediately, it should be removed from the menus of all Japanese restaurants.

Rethinking culture and diversity

Culture isn’t just there for the taking, and I get that. What the activists against cultural appropriation do not understand is that there are different ways that culture can be appropriated. There have been a few misguided efforts to advocate differentiating between cultural appropriation, which is to be resisted at all times, and cultural appreciation, which is to be accepted within certain limits, but this really gets us nowhere. Appreciation implies distance, and distance implies exclusion. We can’t build an inclusive society when we advocate exclusive practices.

Instead, what we need is a clear way to distinguish cultural appropriation, which is good, from cultural misappropriation, which is not. Wearing a sacred Native American head-dress to a rave because you think it looks cool is not the same thing as pouring Sriracha all over your kimchi lasagna.

Tempura: cultural theft or cultural diversity?

The lack of understanding of the complexity and nuance of culture by the self-appointed cultural appropriation resistance has unleashed a corrosive wave of cultural fundamentalism that itself needs to be fiercely resisted. The world would decay into a culturally sterile wasteland if the cultural fundamentalists have their way.

The truth is, diversity cannot thrive in America without cultural appropriation. Cross-cultural understanding and inter-cultural communication are impossible without it. The appropriation of culture is therefore a beautiful thing. We should celebrate it, not excoriate it.

So please feel free to put on some Yo-Yo Ma and order up some tempura, making sure to douse it with an appropriately unhealthy amount of Sriracha. And if anyone from the cultural fundamentalist crowd gives you any grief about your racist-imperialist indulgences, just send them off with this little admonition to let them know whose company they really keep: You can’t make culture great again by building a wall around it.

Interested in reading more on issues like this? Please do check out my four-volume series entitled Ourselves Among Others: The Extravagant Failure of Diversity in America and An Epic Plan to Make It Work, available from Amazon, iBooks, and all other major retailers.


Written by


Academic, film maker, and musician whose day job is teaching peace, politics, and human rights at the University of California, Berkeley.

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