Painting by Carol Landry
What does it mean to appropriate the culture of another? How is it different than appreciating or imitating? As a person of white European descent, this is a complex, confusing issue. A Facebook friend asked if she was appropriating a Black woman writer’s culture by using that person’s writing “technique” to emphasize the importance of a comment? Can someone create a style or technique on the internet for all to see and then own that style? If so, how do others know it is something unique and not to be used?
There is much discussion of white appropriation of Black culture, and they are not alone in this assertion of appropriation. I can understand when using another’s culture to denigrate, make fun of and debase, is hurtful. I am struggling with the broader context of food, music, and style. The boundaries seem fluid.
Native Americans have protested for years about the denigration of their culture through the use of team names and logos. It is a symbolic stance against the white appropriation of native lands, the stealing of their children, and many abuses that continue today. Native Americans have supplied with one of our major food sources, corn. It is estimated that about 60% of the current world food supply originated in North America. When Europeans arrived, the Native Americans had already developed new varieties of corn, beans, and squashes and had an abundant supply of nutritious food. The foods of the Native Americans are widely consumed, and their culinary skills still enrich the diets of nearly all people of the world today. (Journal of Ethnic Foods,9/2016) One of the original foods appropriated from them was grits. We think of grits as southern, but they originated as a gift of food to the English as they began invading. (Might as well call it what it was. Europeans, English, French, and Spanish invaded an occupied land.) Hominy grits were quickly appropriated and appreciated as both delicious, cheap, and storable.
My grandfather was a construction engineer who took his family with him to various large southern cities while building large department stores. When I visited them in Atlanta at age ten, my grandfather introduced me to “Georgia Ice Cream” for breakfast. He smiled at the waitress as he ordered it for me, and she just smiled back. Then she delivered me a bowl of white grits with a pat of butter melting in the middle. That was a cruel culture joke! Wanna know how many years I lived in the South as an adult before I would eat grits? A loooooong time. The addiction of choice for many is tobacco, also from Native Americans, and abuse and denigration of a variety of spiritual customs.
My mother talked about living in New Orleans for a couple of years as a teen. When my grandmother would visit us in Los Angeles, she would make gumbo for us using canned okra, canned crab, canned shrimp. Gumbo of all forms is an amalgamation of African vegetables and foods found in Louisiana. It is a staple across the southern coastal regions.
I am reading “The Cooking Gene” by Michael W. Twitty, a Black food historian who explores his understanding of the world both personally and on the world stage through food culture. European whites have been appropriating Black culture through food from the beginning of African entry into the new United States. Coffee, yams, watermelon, rice, sorghum, okra, black-eyed peas, hot chilies, sugar cane, tomatoes. I just put down the foods I am familiar with and eat; dozens of other foods are popular with cultures different from Black here in the US.
I grew up in Southern California, back in the day, the dark ages of American dining. My grandparents would take me with them to eat at a Chinese restaurant about twenty miles from home. There was one Chinese restaurant. Or my family would take a large party down to China Town in the heart of Los Angeles. Those were the meals—no need for a buffet. At the time for every extra person in a party, an additional entree and appetizer were added. If a single person were dining, there would be a cup of soup and one entree; two people would receive two entrees, soup, and egg rolls; three people and more an additional entree and another appetizer. When the choice of appetizers ran out, not sure what happened. Our family would take twenty or more people to a restaurant in China Town, and the table would be loaded down with an amazing variety of different foods. Now Chinese restaurants are a staple across international boundaries. Hungry for something familiar to Americans while traveling in Europe? Find a Chinese restaurant; there will be one not far away.
Meat and potatoes Americans eating raw fish? Walk into any Japanese Restaurant that serves freshly made sushi and see young people of all backgrounds scarfing it down. And we all know pizza is its own food group. Yet in the early days of Italian immigration, Italians were considered in the same class as Blacks. (Did you know Italians appropriated “spaghetti” noodles from China?) Despite that, white northern Europeans appropriated Italian food, and Irish food, and German food.
In the early ’60s, there were a couple of Mexican restaurants within a 30-mile radius. No such thing as Japanese, and we had never heard of pizza. There was one Chinese restaurant in downtown Long Beach about 30 miles from where we were living.
What about music? Blues, Jazz, Gospel, and rock and roll are American, originated in America, dispersed worldwide. These genres are rooted in Black culture. Is it wrong for musicians to limit their creative impulses to the music first developed in their culture? Is it wrong to be a Black country-western singer or classical pianist? Is it wrong to be a black opera singer or ballet dancer? Of course not. So is it wrong for whites to use rap or break dancing? Create new Jazz forms? Is it wrong for a white choir to sing African American spirituals or more modern hymns?
The West has appropriated yoga, meditation, and other aspects of Eastern religions. Is this wrong? I have read that some Asians are upset at the uses of activities sacred to their spirituality. Yet so many of the practices have made a positive difference in the lives of others.
The founders of my spiritual practice combined what they were learning from Eastern religions with Christianity as it was then taught. Early Christianity itself appropriated holidays and practices of indigenous religions: Christmas trees and Easter Eggs, the actual season celebrating the birth of Jesus. Certainly, some of these appropriations aided in the disappearance of many earlier religions.
How much cultural appropriation comes from teens copying other teens? How much of that gradually seeps into us, their parents, and grandparents?
How much cultural appropriation comes from designers? Stylists? Television, movies, and now the internet and all it brings forward for all to see, enjoy, the copy?
All the cultures that make up this amazingly diverse country appropriate from each other. The challenge is in usage and presentation.
Carol officially retired in November 2018, after many years of ministry at Unity Church on the Mountain in Huntsville, AL. Prior to ministry, Carol provided Career Counseling workshops for the military and a variety of downsizing businesses. She sold 95% of her worldly goods to continue her love of travel. Carol joined her daughter and son-in-law living the full-time RV life on the road. In 18 months she has traveled from coast to coast and back to Alabama. The process will continue as she follows where ever the road leads. She has traveled to Canada, Europe, and Turkey and lived in many towns in a variety of states. Her writing now includes a new foray into poetry.