Is It Unethical for Caucasians to Cook Chinese Food?

The pernicious silliness of cultural appropriation censorship.



If so, Austrian-American chef Wolfgang Puck is a serial culture criminal.

Talking with a couple of archaeology/anthropology grad students a few months back, I got into a somewhat heated argument over the concept of "cultural appropriation." Among other things, I was told that Western women wearing saris is regarded in some circles as being disrespectful. Why? Because such clothing is not part of European culture and wearing it somehow signifies some kind of colonial oppression. Fortunately, some disagree.

I was reminded of this disturbing conversation by reading Reason contributor Cathy Young's superb op-ed "To the new culture cops, everything is appropriation" in last Sunday's Washington Post. 

To suggest how fruitful cultural cross pollination can be, I specifically cited in my conversation with the students Pablo Picasso's masterpiece Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) which depicts five naked women, two with faces inspired by African masks. Was that inappropriate cultural appropriation? Or was it a recognition of the imaginative power of African artistry? Uncomfortable looks was their response. On Picasso's African Period:


During the early 1900s, the aesthetics of traditional African sculpture became a powerful influence among European artists who formed an avant-garde in the development of modern art. In France, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and their School of Paris friends blended the highly stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures with painting styles derived from the post-Impressionist works of Edouard Manet, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. The resulting pictorial flatness, vivid color palette, and fragmented Cubist shapes helped to define early modernism. While these artists knew nothing of the original meaning and function of the West and Central African sculptures they encountered, they instantly recognized the spiritual aspect of the composition and adapted these qualities to their own efforts to move beyond the naturalism that had defined Western art since the Renaissance.

As Young rightly concludes:

Appropriation is not a crime. It's a way to breathe new life into culture. Peoples have borrowed, adopted, taken, infiltrated and reinvented from time immemorial. The medieval Japanese absorbed major elements of Chinese and Korean civilizations, while the cultural practices of modern-day Japan include such Western borrowings as a secularized and reinvented Christmas. Russian culture with its Slavic roots is also the product of Greek, Nordic, Tatar and Mongol influences — and the rapid Westernization of the elites in the 18th century. America is the ultimate blended culture.

So don't let anyone tell you that there is art, literature or clothing that does not belong to you because of your racial, ethnic or religious identity. In other words: Appropriate away.

Closely allied to the idea of cultural appropriation is the pernicious notion of "cultural identity." In his brilliant 2009 essay, "The Culture of Liberty," Peruvian Nobel Literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, argues:

The notion of "cultural identity" is dangerous. From a social point of view, it represents merely a doubtful, artificial concept, but from a political perspective it threatens humanity's most precious achievement: freedom (emphasis added). I do not deny that people who speak the same language, were born and live in the same territory, face the same problems, and practice the same religions and customs have common characteristics. But that collective denominator can never fully define each one of them, and it only abolishes or relegates to a disdainful secondary plane the sum of unique attributes and traits that differentiates one member of the group from the others. The concept of identity, when not employed on an exclusively individual scale, is inherently reductionist and dehumanizing, a collectivist and ideological abstraction of all that is original and creative in the human being, of all that has not been imposed by inheritance, geography, or social pressure. Rather, true identity springs from the capacity of human beings to resist these influences and counter them with free acts of their own invention.

The notion of "collective identity" is an ideological fiction and the foundation of nationalism. For many ethnologists and anthropologists, collective identity does not represent the truth even among the most archaic communities. Common practices and customs may be crucial to the defense of a group, but the margin of initiative and creativity among its members to emancipate themselves from the group is invariably large, and individual differences prevail over collective traits when individuals are examined on their own terms, and not as mere peripheral elements of collectivity. Globalization extends radically to all citizens of this planet the possibility to construct their individual cultural identities through voluntary action, according to their preferences and intimate motivations. Now, citizens are not always obligated, as in the past and in many places in the present, to respect an identity that traps them in a concentration camp from which there is no escape -- the identity that is imposed on them through the language, nation, church, and customs of the place where they were born. In this sense, globalization must be welcomed because it notably expands the horizons of individual liberty.

Finally, as Roman playwright Terence (195-159 B.C.) declared: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto", or "I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me." Of course Terence would say that - because he was largely adapting (appropriating) the plots of Greek plays to a Latin audience.