You could make an argument that we ought to consider cultural appropriation in a way similar to trademark violation. We don’t allow people to use Mickey Mouse. Why should we allow them to call themselves the Fighting Sioux? Then you start getting questions about who owns what, which gets pretty messy. Worse still, you have to then assign cultural guardians for who represents the tribes, ethnic groups, and so on. This really ought to be raising some alarm bells with you. So any legal mechanism is going to be off the table, pretty much.
So we’re left with social censure. That’s what we have to do for breaches of multicultural etiquette. And when it comes to social censure, you’re never going to have 100% agreement. How we use other cultures or don’t will always be a bit tricky. But whether we can or not? It’s not clear how that can possibly be a real question in any society that claims any value to pluralism or multiculturalism. “Look but don’t touch” simply isn’t palatable. An argument in favor of multiculturalism is to be exposed to many things, and allowing intermingling of cultures provides even more. If this isn’t a good thing, what do we need those other cultures for anyway?
All of this brings me to recent events in Portland, burrito cart owners were pilloried for the high crime of cultural appropriation. They buckled under the pressure and closed shop. It’s part of a larger movement in Portland to identify and blacklist cultural appropriating restaurants in favor of authentic foreign food establishments. Cultural appropriators are often criticized for being reckless or shallow with the incorporation of other cultures. In this case, the two ladies behind Kook’s Burritos were accused of the opposite: Getting too close to the source material, stealing work product, and bringing it home.
The discussions I’ve seen so far remind me a bit of the Hot Coffee lawsuit verdict, where the critics sound like the defenders of the verdict by assuming that the other side doesn’t understand the real story and that if they did they would see how eminently reasonable the verdict/animosity is. Except that, for many (and by “many” I mean “me”), the additional information doesn’t actually help all that much. Here is the article that touched off the debate:
“I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did,” Connelly says. “They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins. They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn’t quite that easy.”
Connelly and Wilgus have turned their passion into new weekend spot Kooks Burritos, which has a concept that fits twee Portland: a breakfast burrito pop-up inside the hip Tight Tacos food cart in a Southeast Portland parking lot.
“On the drive back up to Oregon, we were still completely drooling over how good [the tortillas] were, and we decided we had to have something similar in Portland,” Connelly says. “The day after we returned, I hit the Mexican market and bought ingredients and started testing it out. Every day I started making tortillas before and after work, trying to figure out the process, timing, refrigeration and how all of that works.”
Well, she figured it out.
And here is how it was characterized:
“…We were peeking into window of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look,” she said. So let’s recap the story thus far: These two white women went to Mexico, ate tacos, and then decided they would just take what the locals clearly didn’t want to give them. If that wasn’t bad enough, they decided to pack up all their stolen intellectual property and repackage it in one of the few places where such a business could plausibly work: Portland, Oregon.
While describing themselves on their Yelp biography (which has since been edited), Connelly claims to have “a mean tortilla flip” while Wilgus anointed herself as the “director of vibes” and “our little abuelita with recipes from the heart”—even though the recipes were stolen.
Week after week people of color in Portland bear witness to the hijacking of their cultures, and an identifiable pattern of appropriation has been created. Several of the most successful businesses in this town have been birthed as a result of curious white people going to a foreign country, or an international venture, and poaching as many trade secrets, customs, recipes as possible, and then coming back to Portland to claim it as their own and score a tidy profit. Now don’t get me wrong: cultural customs are meant to be shared. However, that’s not what happens in this city.
Much of the characterization presented suggests that this is more of an intellectual property dispute than a cultural appropriation dispute… except if you read the rest of it, it clearly isn’t. The “theft” is somewhat incidental. If they had done this in Greece, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation as the story would be received as the humorous story the ladies thought they were telling. The criticisms are very geared towards a specific sin by a very specific kind of culprit. This also has tenability problems, though that’s perhaps a post for another time. We might not be having this exact conversation if white girls hadn’t peeked at non-white cooks, but we’d be having one closer to it. It’s not clear what the original proprietors have lost here, nor is it even clear why they were less than helpful. My guess is that it had less to do with objection to white imperalism and more to do with the fact that ladies who didn’t speak Spanish well were bugging them.
More to the point, if they’d simply stolen the recipes, it wouldn’t have been nearly as hard as it evidently was to get it right. And the end product of all of this is people in Portland got to enjoy good food and no longer get to enjoy that food.
People are, of course, free to boycott any establishment they wish for whatever reason. The Kook ladies are not victims of some First Amendment violation or political persecution. To the extent that they are victims, it is in service to an ideal nobody should really want. My objection is not in their methods (though I’m definitely more hip to “Check out these actual minority-owned restaurants restaurants” than yelling “Unclean” and “Cultural Imperalism”, but the rationale for deployment in this particular case. Portland is very white. It would be a shame if their food options were unnecessarily demographically limited.
About the Author
please enter your email address on this page.