Cultural Appropriation

Southern Poverty Law Center Calls Cinco de Mayo Festivities 'Textbook Cultural Appropriation'

"Mexican culture cannot be reduced to tacos, oversized sombreros and piñatas." True, but those shouldn't be off-limits either.


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The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) thinks people in the U.S. who consume tacos and tequila on Cinco de Mayo are enganging in "textbook examples of cultural appropriation."

The SPLC—an organization that ostensibly tracks hate groups but defines "hate" broadly enough that some vocal critics of extremism, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz, have turned up on the group's watchlists—sent the following tweet on the evening of the Mexican holiday:

The tweet links to an article at—an SPLC property—offering more thoughts on why such celebrations of Cinco de Mayo are offensive. Lauryn Mascarenaz writes:

Consider this example that shows how far the celebration of Cinco de Mayo has come from its original purpose of honoring Mexicans. In 2010, several white students decided to wear American flag T-shirts on Cinco de Mayo at a California high school with a history of racial tension between white and Mexican-American students. School officials asked the students to change their shirts, turn them inside out or go home. The students refused, and some of them later sued the school district. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the school's decision, ruling that the T-shirts were not covered by the free speech protections enjoyed by students and that school officials had reasonable concern to believe that the T-shirts could prompt a "violent disturbance" or "substantial disruption."

This incident has nothing whatsoever to do with cultural appropriation. Quite the opposite: The white students resisted Mexican culture, and were disciplined (to the detriment of all students' free expression rights) for having done so. thinks white students shouldn't don U.S. flag t-shirts, and they definitely shouldn't "claim as their own an aspect of a culture that does not belong to them," so what should they do? Well:

Teach [students] the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. They need to know where the line is. Cultural appropriation occurs when a person or other entity—a sports franchise, for example—claims as their own an aspect of a culture that does not belong to them. Doing so can, knowingly or unknowingly, deny the authenticity of that culture, particularly if it belongs to a marginalized group, and it can send harmful messages rooted in misinformation, prejudice and stereotypes.

But what is the difference? The post makes no attempt to offer one—nor does it explain why students couldn't learn about Mexican history and eat tacos.

Some examples of what is commonly called cultural appropriation—but would be better described as cultural mockery—are indeed mean-spirited, offensive, and reflecting of real prejudice. But eating ethnic food and wearing ethnic clothing aren't inherently problematic. By encouraging cross-cultural pollination, these kinds of cultural appropriation can actually undermine prejudice.

Mascarenaz writes that "in the United States, Cinco de Mayo has become politicized and promotes a misunderstanding of the day that pits Mexico against the United States, feeding an 'us versus them' mentality." But doesn't the act of forbidding vast swaths of people from enjoying certain cultural products also feed an "us versus them" mentality?

As Nick Gillespie wrote last week in response to the controversy over a white girl's Chinese prom dress, charges of cultural appropriation rely on "brutally static definitions of culture that are spectacularly at odds with the ways in which individuals use motifs and materials from outside their immediate experience to define themselves." This process isn't always perfect, but it ought not be discouraged by an organization that claims to be fighting hatred and intolerance.