To illustrate this argument, she delves into a case I had brought up, the one concerning those two white women in Oregon who got called out for “stealing” their recipes during a trip to Mexico. My piece had implied that calling such culinary popularizing theft is exaggerated. Lobo disagrees. Noting that the two American women themselves spoke of “peeking into the windows” of restaurant kitchens to ferret out what was going on in them, she argues that the notion of borrowing “involves a respectful, balanced exchange,” and that “swiping the techniques and recipes without the permission or maybe even the knowledge of their owners does not constitute such an exchange.”
In this view, it is unfair that the American women can profit from the Mexican women’s know-how, merely by living in America and having access to the American market. Moreover, Lobo points out, even if the Mexican women were able somehow to get to Oregon and open their own place, “they would not have the same built-in advantages that allowed two upper-middle-class white people to bring a product to market so easily. Discrimination, a language barrier, the difficulty of assimilating into a white cultural framework in order to be ‘marketable’—these are the kinds of challenges people of color often are confronted with when navigating realms dominated by white people for centuries.”
I don’t disagree with that: who could? But such advantages inhere in the reality of the world as it is. We can and should work to mitigate them; but what sort of system would eliminate them altogether? The judgments of cultural appropriation would seem to prohibit almost any kind of cultural interaction undertaken from the more privileged side of two groups of disparate resources. The Indian restaurants I go to, meanwhile, are all run by Indians—and, of course, these are Indians who themselves enjoy that same “built-in advantage,” by virtue of being here in America, over hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t have access to American markets.
More personally, it irks Lobo to see “co-optings of my culture by white Americans.” A turmeric milk that her mother would make her when she was sick “is now a $5 ‘golden milk’ found at the gentrified cafe,” and “traditional Indian apparel [is] now sold in upscale boutiques.” “In these cases, it is rarely Indian people marketing and selling Indian culture,” she writes; “it is privileged, mostly white Americans.” She recalls her sixth-grade teacher, returning from a trip to India and distributing bindis—forehead jewelry—to all the girls in class, who excitedly donned this “novel” ornamentation, Lobo writes, “as if it was just more bling.” She lays out the process by which such actions estrange those whose culture is being popularized, as mimicry turns the stuff of that culture’s daily life into “novelty”—into just more bling.
Any person who’s listening will feel the chagrin that her story conveys. Yet such stories, for better and for worse, are fundamental to the way modern commerce works, and to the way that culture is shaped within that commercial system. Given the fluid transmission of images and people in the world today, if something appears that catches the eye or the fancy of those with resources to spend (if there is a market for it, in other words) it will be produced,or imported, and sold. In time, the “novelty” gets assimilated into the general American vernacular. Like spaghetti and pizza; like rice dishes; reggae music; Gangnam style hip-hop; woven African shoulder bags; moccasin slippers. And on and on. Today’s new mainstream fad is yesterday’s subcultural staple. So what to do? Perhaps, along with fair-trade initiatives, a knowledge of the cultural pedigrees of such items is the most we can hope for.
There will always be a glass-half-empty, glass-half-full aspect to cultural transmission in a global capitalist consumer system. I think, for instance, about Paul Simon’s pathbreaking mid-80s album, Graceland. If you read the Wikipedia entry about this work, you’ll find that Simon had hit a period of creative ennui, during which he came across a bootleg cassette of South African bands. Excited, he headed to Africa, where eventually he collaborated with some of the musicians whose work he had admired, and produced an album “inspired by South African township music.” That album, Graceland, sold 14 million copies.
Seen through the prism of cultural appropriation, this appears as a typical outrage, right down to the euphemistic phrase, “inspired by South African township music.” Today Paul Simon is a multimillionaire in suburban Connecticut, while some of the South African musicians he listened to, and was inspired by, are probably still living in relative obscurity in the actual township. On the other hand, the rest of the world got to hear a kind of music it hadn’t much heard before: and some of those previously unknown artists, like the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, are now themselves world-renowned and wealthy. The late South African musician and apartheid opponent Hugh Masekela praised Simon for helping to boost South African music; but jazz musician Jonas Gwangwa commented bitterly that “it has taken another white man to discover my people.”
Cultural appropriation, or cultural celebration and transmission? It’s clearly a legitimate question. But if you view the Simon work as exploitation, then the question is, what should he have done? Restrained his impulse to let his composition be informed and shaped by African music? Or simply not done it? Tried instead to get South African musicians into the U.S. mainstream, without himself acting in any musical way? But he’s a musician and a composer. He did what musicians and composers do.