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Oberlin’s Food Isn’t “Cultural Appropriation.” That Doesn’t Mean the Students Are Wrong.

I recall my first “Mexican night” dinner at a British university: boiled chicken breast with a side of white rice topped with stewed tomatoes and seasoned with what was probably cardamom. I suppose they could have called it “Mexican-inspired masala-inspired British chicken,” so that none of us could mistake the dish for “cultural appropriation,” but the truth is that a hard-working and underappreciated dining staff were just trying to do something fun, new, and inclusive. I suspect the dining vendor’s motivations were similar at Oberlin College, where students are calling flawed attempts at bánh mì and General Tso’s chicken “cultural appropriation.”

Something is indeed wrong here, but it’s not “cultural appropriation,” a term that carries more meaning as a signal of media outrage than as a descriptor for variegated forms of cultural borrowing or pilfering. When I talk with my international students, one of the most frequent topics of conversation is how difficult it can be to move to the U.S. from India, Pakistan, Vietnam, or Kenya and get used to the food while acclimating in so many other ways. An influential segment of the U.S. media loves a chance to call college students needy and coddled, but the stakes of this issue are greater than dietary preference: students who struggle to eat will struggle with health, and students who struggle with health will struggle with classes.  

Thus, it’s important we acknowledge that if U.S. colleges and universities—particularly wealthy ones—are going to tout our diverse, international communities and court the best students from a global talent pool, we need to meet students’ enthusiasm to study in the U.S. with support for the needs and customs they acquire within their home cultures. To be clear, then, when Oberlin students take issue with the dining vendor’s renderings of Vietnamese or Chinese dishes, they are correct to understand this as a germane cultural issue, not just a “gripe” about lousy cafeteria food. The problem is that calling this “appropriation” is not only inaccurate, but also detrimental to the aims of anti-colonialism, of pushing back against cultural theft.

As an academic with training in cultural studies, I’m willing to shoulder some of the blame for this sort of confusion, but also to offer a solution. We teach students to understand that, for example, when a white, Australian woman like Iggy Azalea puts on a Southern U.S. patois and a “blaccent as defining features of her music, while disrespecting the black cultural tradition that’s made her stardom possible, there’s a useful distinction to be made between cultural borrowing and outright theft. Making such distinctions is almost never easy, but the value of doing so lies in the analysis itself, which compels us to learn about the histories and contexts of different cultural traditions, and thus to understand with greater nuance why some instances of cultural blending or mixing strike us as innocuous if not wonderful while others seem crass or exploitative.

As others have pointed out, cultural appropriation—adopting something from another cultural tradition for one’s own use—is not always a bad thing. It would be difficult to imagine what music, literature, science, and food would look like without people in one culture consuming and reconfiguring elements of other cultures. It would be impossible to imagine cross-cultural influences of all sorts without appropriation, from American pizza to Japanese whisky to Latin American poetry. For this reason, “cultural appropriation” is simply the wrong term for cultural theft, because it betrays an important distinction. Incidental borrowing and sharing between cultures is one thing, while using one’s relative power over another to steal, degrade, or distort for the purpose of exploitation is another.      

The case of ciabatta-based bánh mì at Oberlin is a telling example. Making bánh mì with ciabatta instead of baguette is blasphemous, because it was the French, not the Italians, who colonized Vietnam from the 1870s to the 1950s. The Vietnamese appropriated the French baguette, but made it with rice flour in addition to wheat flour; then they added Vietnamese ingredients (cilantro, pickled carrots) to the French-influenced sandwich along with pâté.

Thus, a bánh mì with the wrong bread and a mayo-based coleslaw instead of fresh herbs and pickled vegetables is no bánh mì at all, as Vietnamese students understand better than anyone. It is, rather, an inaccurate rendering, a bad translation of a dish that was itself a cultural appropriation of the most appropriate sort. Colonized groups are forced to do what they can with the cultural raw materials foisted upon them by colonizers, and the Vietnamese did this to create what is probably the world’s most perfect sandwich.

But academics, activists, and an outrage-driven media climate have failed students by using “cultural appropriation” so broadly as to dilute its effectiveness as an anti-colonialist term. Intuitive and intelligent students at Oberlin are searching for language to describe their disappointment with institutional choices to prize international students while accommodating them in name only, but they’re working with confused terminology.

These mistakes tend to happen when terminology moves from academic to popular discourse, which is why it’s so important for academics to take some responsibility for what becomes of our specialist language. For this reason I offer a clarification that I prefer when teaching about hegemony and colonialism. In the case at Oberlin, “cultural appropriation” would be the value-neutral practice of making a fusion dish that draws from Vietnamese ingredients among others; “cultural expropriation” would be making an authentic bánh mì and calling it the “Oberlin Sandwich,” without attribution for the Vietnamese tradition from which it was pilfered; and attempting to make a bánh mì without caring or understanding what that sandwich requires—which is what actually happened at Oberlin—is indeed a form of cultural insensitivity, but hardly a form of theft. If anything, the food controversy at Oberlin is more about savvy students catching the dining vendor—not the kitchen staff—in a halfhearted attempt to do the right thing by making respectable international dishes suitable for a diverse student body.

If we want fine distinctions between concepts—and we should—we need fine distinctions in our descriptive language. At this point, cultural appropriation is a meaningless term that allows no differentiation between innocuous or incidental appropriations and stealing. Cultural expropriation—stealing exploititavely from a marginalized culture—is the term we should be using to describe things like the Washington, D.C. professional football team, the “ghetto fab” halloween costume, or the performance style of Iggy Azalea (as opposed to the performance style of Eminem). Removing the baggage of “appropriation” helps us focus more clearly on a real problem at Oberlin: not that cultures are being stolen from or exploited through food, but that the institution is not serious enough about providing (and providing for) the cultural diversity it rightly values in its mission statement.