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Cultural Appropriation Ain’t What it Used to Be

Kook’s Burritos in Portland, Oregon: white girl burritos

It sounds like the set-up to a sexist joke: two white girls open a burrito shop… and it is a fucking joke, just not the “haha” kind. Because when two white girls (Beckys, as the woke kids say) opened a burrito shop called Kooks in Portland, Oregon, they got mercilessly bullied on the internet by a bunch of alt-right trolls social justice slacktivists (“chairos,” en español), until they shut the whole thing down.

To be fair, it wasn’t exactly a burrito “shop,” it was more of a pop-up, in a food cart, on the weekends. And the women, who rented the space from a dark-skinned family (half Mexican, half Filipino) that sold tacos on the weekdays, were a little…unsophisticated in their dealings with the press. So when the local outrage rag, a daffily self-important weekly, ran a little review in which the women revealed that they learned to make flour tortilla shells by asking around and “peeking in the windows” of the tortilla shops of a little town in Baja, the reaction was as hot as the afterburn from a night on the town in the DF: “Cultural appropriation!” commenters from across the nation cried.

They were actually pretty vicious, and demanded that the girls close up shop, or… just stop selling burritos on weekend mornings. I can’t wade through the over 900 comments on the article now to pull the exact quotes for you, but “WE WILL DRAG YOU!” (comment now deleted) summarized the sentiment. They were called racists, colonialists, imperialists, and explicitly informed that dialogue was not an option. I don’t want to make a bunch of internet commenters sound like a united front, but no one tried to temper even the most extreme rhetoric. Then they went on the Yelp and tore down their ratings (of which they’d accumulated none before the fiasco), and Facebook, and Instagram, and apparently sent some less-measured emails. Word is, the girls have left town waiting for things to cool down.

I’m a little confused as to what separates this from bullying, I guess righteousness is a salve that heals all social transgressions. I also have severe cognitive dissonance from trying to place the meanings of “social” and “justice” in the context of the phrase “social justice.”  

I believe that cultural appropriation is real. In the early 1990’s, a guy named Larry Proctor traveled to Sonora, Mexico and bought a bag of yellow beans. He brought them back to Colorado, planted a few generations to get a slightly darker yellow bean, and took out a patent on his “novel” beans. He proceeded to sue the shit out of anybody who imported yellow beans from Mexico, even people who’d been importing beans for longer than he’d been growing them. That’s ruthless biopiracy.

Other examples are less extreme, more ambiguous. A Texas company called Rice-Tec patented a bunch of traits common in basmati rice to protect their strain of “basmati” rice that they bred for the Texas climate. The USPTO shut most of that down, but they retained the patents for “Texmati,” “Jasmati,” and “Kasmati” rice strains. Now they compete with Indian basmati farmers in the US market, and they have put a pretty good dent in the market share. Locavores don’t know what to make of this, but I do. Texmati sucks. It isn’t very aromatic, which is the whole point of basmati rice.

Of course, to a generation raised on Sriracha and ghost peppers, the aroma of rice is pretty fucking inconsequential. Combined with poor educations, cowardice, and the laziness that compels one to pick the lowest possible fruit—like the fruit you can get at while laying on your back under the social justice tree (on the couch, with a computer)—that’s pretty much why these protesters aren’t in the New Seasons dry goods aisle, imploring people to pay twice as much for Indian Basmati.

The differences between these two examples, and two white girls skimming tortilla techniques on a vacation, are pretty obvious: Scale, actual harm, lawsuits, claims of ownership! There’s a lack of perspective that’s troubling, problematic I might even say.

So rather than consider these logical elements, the commentary focuses on “whiteness” and feeeeeelings—i.e. whiteness itself is what hurts.

But what about when a brown person appropriates their own culture, with the intent to profit? Impossible! You don’t understand how this works!

In 1995, two Indian researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical center received a patent for a method of treating wounds with turmeric. The method was only slightly different from traditional Ayurvedic prescriptions for turmeric. Researchers in India challenged the patent in US courts (costed big money), and the patent was overturned, the first case of it’s kind. There are still, however, hundreds of turmeric patents (many taken out by Indians) that aren’t substantially different than how Indians have used turmeric for centuries. Basically, people from the self same culture are trying to take cultural knowledge from the commons, and profit from it, while potentially excluding access to the less fortunate members of the society. Traditional knowledge is part of what’s called “prior art,” and it’s supposed to be considered in awarding intellectual property rights.

“Prior art,” could reasonably apply to tortillas too, except that making tortillas is common knowledge, they are food, and these makers aren’t trying to limit access to the tortilla knowledge. The food thing may seem like a trivial technicality, but do we really want to start claiming intellectual property on foods? Of course, Kook’s said they “peeked in windows” to gain access to this arcane knowledge. But let’s face it, looking at somebody doing things isn’t anything like actually doing them. I’ve been cooking in front of people for years, and none of them has learned a damn thing from me.  

Some might argue that scale is irrelevant. Each perceived injury, however slight, adds up to a toxic culture of white supremacy and minority marginalization. However, just perusing some of the various online articles that have been written detailing what might constitute cultural appropriation shows that it’s interpreted as broadly as the writer needs it to be, creating a post hoc justification for all things the writer finds offensive. Halloween costumes, theatrical performances, music (and appreciating it in the proper context), accessories and clothing, exercise, and eating out at “ethnic” restaurants have all been called out as possibly appropriative activities. And when the smallest possible commercial operation—a pop-up in a food cart—merits an online maelstrom, then reductio ad absurdum becomes unnecessary, because the situation itself is perfectly absurd. “Where does it end?” becomes a perfectly reasonable question.

The most famous example of this “soft” appropriation involved a bunch of drunken frat boys dancing in war bonnets at Coachella a few years back. What a bunch of fools. And it is so distasteful that it really turns my guts. The issue, to me, is the disrespect, the way it turns someone else’s symbology (or work) into a party favor. I feel much the same way about the “hot wok” at our local fancy food store, New Seasons Market, and I’ve been bitching about it for years.

Here’s the premise of the hot wok: the customer walks down a salad bar, putting things they’d like into a bowl. They give this overflowing vessel to an employee at the end, along with a note specifying the starch, meat, and sauce (sweet Thai, Asian plum, kung pao, etc…), they’d like unceremoniously dumped onto this mess. A cook heats up a wok, stir fries steams and stews the giant bowl of ill-chosen ingredients in it, and returns a steaming bowl of glop.

That’s a disrespect: “oh look, stir frying is easy and we could make some money employing marginally skilled labor to just slop some stuff into a hot wok, because that’s all stir frying is.” Compare that to the Kook’s burritos ladies: “They made it look easy,” they said, but soon learned otherwise.

So why not boycott New Seasons? The same reason no one ever boycotts New Seasons: it’s way too ingrained a part of the local culture. It would require sacrifice. And not the kind of sacrifice where someone else’s livelihood/passion project/art is put upon the altar of Social Justice and made an example of, the personal kind where you give something up.

Why does it matter? Why do I have to let the perfect be the enemy of the good? Of course we can’t root out all of the deeply ingrained cultural appropriation, it’s assimilated now, but we can stop people who are starting out down that appropriative road.

Because Taco Bell ain’t going anywhere. Fake Asian food (so much of it perpetuated by Asians themselves) will perhaps never disappear from the mall food court. Estadounidenses, gueros, gringos, will not stop making burritos. In fact, the only subset of people who will stop “appropriating” things are those people who are sensitive to charges of imperialism, racism, or oppression. Nice people, in other words. People who give a fuck about your feeeelings. Little people, not the actual shapers of structural power in America, will be the only ones to suffer.

I’m personally a promoter of Americana, and do think we should refine our own cultural milieu so that we have something better to export than corn syrup soda and dusty beef patties. But if I decided that burritos were my passion and you told me to drop it, I’d make sure all your friends were eating them. I’d make sure boycotting me was a sacrifice.    

Of course, this all looks like a tempest in a teapot, but it’s possibly just a taste of what’s to come. Shortly after Kook’s closed shop, a Google Sheets blacklist was posted, listing restaurants guilty of cultural appropriation (white owned, serving food from a brown-skinned culture), and giving alternatives owned by minorities. The list is hilariously simple, in both concept and execution. Like if I want cheese, I should go to a wine and cheese shop owned by a Mexican, instead of one owned by a white person? Now Blackbird (the Mexican-owned shop) is my go-to wine and cheese shop, and I’m pretty sure Andy can succeed on the merits of his business savvy, not because he needs the pity of social activists. The list also suggests flying to San Francisco for Burmese food rather than eating at the local place owned by a white guy, visiting some pretty sub par Thai establishments, going to a regional sushi chain rather than a freestanding, white-owned sushi place, and visiting a hipsterfied, minority-owned taco place with a reputation for shoddy employment practices.

It also turns out that one of the blacklisted establishments donated cash value to the enterprise of one of the originators of the list. Explicitly: Por Que No donated to the opening of Kristin Goodman and Amy Nieto Cruz’s Broad Space. Ah, backstabbing reductionism! Although I’m not terribly impressed with their tacos, Por Que No apparently has some pretty incredible employment benefits, for a restaurant.    

It’s a problem that gentrification pushes out minority businesses, I will not deny. But is the answer to that to blacklist small businesses owned by white people? Or is it to help minority business owners with marketing and access to capital? Is the answer to raise a shame mob, or to highlight how exciting it is to live in a multicultural city? Oh, but then there’s exoticism….      

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