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Cultural Appropriation

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The concept of Cultural Appropriation is an idea that is more mainstream and has now reached the latest front in the culture wars. Recently two entrepreneurial women started a food truck that was well received in a community of Portland Oregon. In an interview about their inspiration and success the women tell a story about visiting Mexico and learning all they could about the tortilla making process. Once the puff piece hit the local news there was a backlash from the community to such an extent that the owners closed the food truck and shut down the Facebook page associated with the business. The backlash was because the women, who appear to be white, were accused of stealing tortilla making intellectual property from the poor of Mexico for their own benefit. The reaction is understandable even if misguided when looking at the world from the eyes of those that objected. To understand the reaction, one must understand the history coming to light of real theft that happened to black individuals throughout the history of America. Take for example the article published, ironically, by Shaun King in multiple publications last year on the history of Jack Daniels. This history tells the story of how a black slave owned by a white preacher taught the future owners of the Jack Daniels brand how to make the iconic whiskey. This story neatly sums up the idea of appropriation and theft of intellectual property without compensation to the slave and his descendants. That is not the American dream and it is a truly unfair and unjust evil. Seeing the world from this prism it is logical then to decry these two women for stealing from another culture for their own financial benefit.

While the reaction to the food truck is exactly the conclusion many want it is flawed. There is a problem with this world view that wants to equate the food truck to the evils of the slavery era. The flaw, the result, means we as an American people, regardless of background, cannot blend and intermarry to become one people. It means that culture can only flow in a single direction from majority to minority but never minority to majority. Those steeped in this world view see nothing wrong with proclaiming safe spaces for people of color or even more boldly demand a day without white people.

This is simply the conclusion, the logical end, of cultural appropriation defined in such a way that these two women were inappropriate in their business model and intellectual property.

Take music for example. If I listen to rap music, a music that is not native to my cultural upbringing in majority white suburbia, I will internalize it and make it part of my culture and my home. My kids who are musically talented might like that genre and take it up as their own. They might even perform their own version of said music publicly one day. Would that be acceptable to the arbiters holding the keys of what is appropriate and what is not in regard to cultural appropriation?

While there was and still are evil appropriations that must be acknowledged does society really want to swing this concept out so far to the fringes that the color of one’s skin determines what food or music might be used in life? If so it is a depressing path of isolation and separation of peoples I am afraid.