California Forum

Cultural appropriation in America: exploiting or celebrating cultures?

Referring to tacos as American food is one example of “cultural appropriation.”
Referring to tacos as American food is one example of “cultural appropriation.” Chicago Tribune

A student of mine, returning from study abroad, was asked what he missed while away. “American food, man,” he replied, “especially tacos.”

That response became a running joke, although he was correct: Tacos have long been essential, in my American family at least, like lasagna and sushi, bratwurst and chow mein.

Are those examples of “cultural appropriation” – the much-criticized theft of ideas or items from a subservient group by a dominant one? Or do they exemplify “cultural enrichment,” the sharing and promotion of items and ideas? Or both?

Borrowing certainly can lead to negative outcomes, but no living cultures are static; most are engaged to some degree in give-and-take. At its extreme, though, overgeneralizing with ill intent has historically been insulting – burlesques such as black-face minstrelsy, for instance, or stereotyping such as “camel jockey” jokes or redneck malapropisms, all fly in the face of growing American reality.

The essence of our society remains cultural variety, the acceptance of newcomers and the gradual rejection of bigotry, everyone influenced by others. Recently, the appropriating of ideas and items and behaviors seems to have accelerated, but such exchanges have been common since our earliest history. The American normal that some consider “white” is actually mixed. As a kid, I used to delight in a Highway 99 sign: “Okie Burritos” because it mirrored my experiences.

This polyglot nation has evolved based to a large degree on notions developed elsewhere – the concept of “democracy” (Greek), for instance, or the idea we call “zero” (Babylonian) or another mathematical essential, “zenith” (Arabic). Less-abstract borrowings such as various musical instruments, or dances, or foods, or attire have been “appropriated” … and customized and enjoyed.

So who owns culture here? Well, for a long time Euro-Americans of various sorts did, but gradually we are all staking claims. When Canadian emigrant Sen. S.I. Hayakawa was asked why he collected African art, he replied, “It’s one of the great expressions of the human condition. I’m human.”

All the while, we whisper love to Jewish-inspired songs and Latino-inspired songs and African-inspired songs. We continue to produce literature in our magnificent English language, but enrich it freely with borrowing.

The tightrope between exploiting cultures and celebrating them remains precarious, but we Americans need to continue searching for the best ideas, no matter what their origins, because this nation’s essence is cultural exchange and creativity. We are a various people.

Gerald Haslam is a California author. His 2006 novel, “Grace Period,” won this year’s Legacy Fiction Eric Hoffer Award.