Our frozen melting pot ... and who's responsible

The left’s complaints about cultural appropriation keep Americans separated rather than united

By AARON RODRIGUEZ | Oct. 18, 2017

When Michael Sampson organized a taco festival in Milwaukee last year, he had no idea he’d find himself in the middle of a controversy. He put together the event to promote local businesses, including some of the city’s most popular Mexican eateries, but this didn’t assuage Mexican chef Gil Amador-Licea.

In an April 2016 blog post titled “Milwaukee Taco Fest, I’m not your sidekick,” Amador-Licea accused the organizers of “cultural appropriation” — a term coined by leftist academics to signify when members of a dominant culture borrow traditions from a minority culture. Progressives claim that the borrowing is generally done without consent and without paying credit to the source culture. This was certainly an issue for Amador-Licea.

The chef wrote: “There is nothing more flattering as an immigrant than knowing other people want to know about my culture and traditions, trying to learn our language and our recipes, here’s when it starts to become ambiguous and disputable, when a person with a default privilege captures whatever it learned from that culture, puts it in a box and without connecting any dots or even knowing or caring for knowing the significance of those newly possessed items, it modifies them and then shares them as their own.”

He continued: “So, when you have one-third of Milwaukee’s area full of places selling tacos made by Mexicans, by businesses owned by Mexicans with a very strong inheritance, but a white dude who thinks it’s OK to organize a taco fest for other white people in a safe environment because they are scared of entering a ‘bad’ neighborhood, all I can think of is Christopher Columbus ‘discovering’ a place with people living there already but taking their knowledge and essence into a protected place.”

While it’s true that the third annual taco fest was held in the “safe environment” of the Harley-Davidson Museum last June, Sampson disputes the notion that Hispanics were somehow left out of the process. 

 “We have had many Hispanic-owned restaurants involved in our event including La Fuente, Tu Casa, Senor Sol and Guanajuato,” Sampson, owner of SWARMM Events, said in an email. Organizers received input from Mexican-Americans and even donated some of the festival’s proceeds to the Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee, he said. 

Sampson said he invited Amador-Licea to participate in the taco competition, but the chef declined. Sampson added, “Gil is entitled to his beliefs. Our event exists in order to find Milwaukee’s best tacos regardless of origin.” Amador-Licea did not respond to a request for comment.

Cultural sharing done right

The idea that we should be erecting barriers to keep people in their own cultural lanes is entirely alien to the character and history of our nation. We are a nation born of immigrants, drawn to this land by an insatiable appetite for freedom and prosperity.

No country in modern history has a better track record with pluralism than the United States. We are the pot by which many nations were melded, and we thrived because we took the best of our disparate cultures and transformed them into something truly great. 

Nate Holton, an African-American attorney in the Milwaukee area, believes cultural sharing can be done the right way by “paying homage to a culture, and creatively working with it, out of respect, when creating or impacting another culture,” and that at its best, “the sharing of cultures can bring people together.”

Victor Huyke, publisher of El Conquistador Latino Newspaper in Milwaukee, says, “I wish our community had come up with taco fest first, but (Sampson) has a right to compete in the marketplace like anyone else.”

Asked whether he has a problem with white people profiting from Hispanic food traditions, Huyke says, “This is nothing new. It has been going on for years. Taco Bell is not Mexican-owned; neither is Chipotle.”

Appropriation complaints spread

The taco fest dustup is just one of an increasing number of cultural appropriation disputes arising recently in Wisconsin and across the nation. They include:

• Madison is considering redesigning its decades-old flag because it includes an ancient sun symbol of the Zia Pueblo people of New Mexico. (See related column by Mike Nichols.)

• The University of Wisconsin-Madison held a “Hijabi for a Day” event in December, meant to show solidarity with Muslim women. Some students, however, felt that non-Muslims wearing hijabis was cultural appropriation.

• In Portland, Ore., a burrito cart run by two white women closed in May amid accusations of cultural appropriation because they gleaned recipes from tortilla-makers in Mexico.

• At Pitzer College in California in March, “White girl, take off your hoops” was scrawled on a free-speech wall. Latina students explained that white women wearing hoop earrings is cultural appropriation.

• At the Whitney Museum in New York, protests erupted this spring over a painting by a white artist that depicted the body of Emmett Till, the black teenager lynched in 1955. A petition called for the artwork to be destroyed.

Culture as private property

All cultural appropriation arguments share a common thread: They presuppose ownership. Progressives claim culture isn’t just something you practice; it’s something you own — a private property.    

But treating culture as private property is problematic and raises many difficult questions. If culture is property, do we need consent to borrow it? Who has the authority to give this consent? What are the consequences of borrowing culture without consent? Should the culture in question receive compensation? Who adjudicates that? Are cultural ownership claims based on a people’s bloodline or their homeland? If it’s ethnicity, what happens when children are born to couples of different ethnicities? Can the children practice their parents’ traditions without being accused of cultural appropriation?

Another problem lies in the very nature of what culture is and its incredible fluidity. In sociology, culture is the totality of a group’s beliefs, practices and artifacts. It’s literally everything we produce — our ideas, languages, customs, arts, sciences, technologies, institutions, laws, education, religious beliefs and rituals, trade, fashion, political systems and so on. Setting up rules to protect something so vast and fluid and to restrict the flow of trans-cultural borrowing is like trying to run through a rainstorm without getting hit by a raindrop. There’s just too much happening at once, and it’s not a realistic goal.

In fact, the taco fest controversy in Milwaukee underscores the problem of trying to control something so expansive and fluid. In his blog post, Amador-Licea wrote, “Food is a tricky field when it comes to cultural appropriation and culture purity.” He also conceded that Mexican cuisine is the conglomeration of Jewish, Arabic and Spanish food traditions, but he omitted an important detail of its history.

The Spanish conquistadors conquered and colonized the native Aztec population in Mesoamerica. In progressive speak, the conquistadors were the dominant culture, borrowing food staples such as corn tortillas, tamales, guacamole and tacos from the Aztecs, the minority culture. 

This exchange of traditions is what eventually gave rise to modern Mexican cuisine. In other words, Amador-Licea is fighting to preserve and protect a cuisine that itself was the result of cultural appropriation. 

But to the broader point, progressives who argue that cultural appropriation occurs when a dominant culture borrows from a minority culture also argue that it’s not really appropriation when it’s done in reverse — that is, when a minority culture does the borrowing. Why the double standard? 

Progressives say it’s because of “unequal power dynamics.” When the Aztecs borrowed culture from the conquistadors, it wasn’t stealing because the Aztecs didn’t have a choice — they did it to survive.

But in modern-day America, thankfully, there are no colonial powers conquering and enslaving populations. Minority cultures don’t borrow to survive; they borrow to succeed. The unequal power dynamics that existed between the colonizers and the colonized don’t exist in America today. This is where the idea of “white privilege” emerges.

White privilege and unearned assets

According to liberal academic Peggy McIntosh, white privilege is like “an invisible package of unearned assets” that white people can “cash in” to gain an advantage in society. It’s an invisible inequality that’s baked into the cake of Western society and reinforces the power imbalance between whites and non-whites. To overcome these systemic disadvantages, progressives argue, minorities have no choice but to borrow from white culture.

Setting aside the obvious difficulties of defining whiteness or non-whiteness, the white privilege argument ignores how property claims generally work. Property doesn’t become any less a property because the owner is white or because she has “unearned assets.” And it certainly doesn’t become any less a property because a minority is borrowing in order to succeed.

It’s understandable that people are intimately connected to their cultural heritage. For many immigrants, it’s a vital source of strength and refuge while they’re trying to navigate a new culture. It’s that much more frustrating when the majority culture mocks their traditions or caricatures their people. Obviously, that is wrong.

Part of why cultural appropriation is a difficult issue is that for many, it boils down to a person’s intent. There’s a difference between cultural mockery — such as wearing blackface or mimicking Chinese accents — and borrowing traditions out of appreciation, such as what’s seen at every Holiday Folk Fair in Milwaukee and at the city’s famous ethnic festivals.

A slippery slope

Attorney Holton thinks the argument of culture as property creates a “steep slippery slope.” And he splashes cold water on the idea of requiring consent to borrow from a minority culture. “Who would they seek permission from? A random member of the oppressed culture?” he asks.

“I’ve always taken offense to members of any culture being considered, whether by themselves or by the dominant culture, to be capable of speaking for the entire culture,” he adds.

While Holton is careful not to commit to culture being property, there are some influential organizations that don’t share that caution.   

In 2008, the United Nations issued a declaration that indigenous peoples have “a right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures,” which may also include restitution when their property is “taken without their free, prior and informed consent.” 

How restitution would work is unclear. Culture is not a bounded or fixed entity. It’s a vast and fluid set of ideas, principles, values, attitudes, behaviors, practices, discoveries and products that are constantly being revised and reshaped as they come into contact with other cultures.

Our copyright laws, for instance, apply only to things that are “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” or “sufficiently permanent or stable.”  Part of the reason for that is it’s impossible to copyright things that can change wholly into other things. For property rights to mean anything, there needs to be some sense of permanence to the thing being protected. But culture is anything but permanent. 

When progressives make a big deal about cultural appropriation, they overplay their hand. Instead of emphasizing that we should give credit to cultures for their traditions and not mock them for their uniqueness, progressives are advocating exclusionary practices, keeping diverse people separated rather than united.

Whether it’s a “white dude” organizing a taco fest or a white college student wearing hoop earrings, when we start treating culture as private property, it creates needless divisions.

“Sometimes people go over the top in looking for something to be offended by,” Holton says.

Aaron Rodriguez of Oak Creek is a freelance writer who blogs at The Hispanic Conservative.

► Read related column by Mike Nichols here.

► Read the entire issue of Diggings Fall 2017 here.

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