Earlier this week, the Labour MP Dawn Butler ‘called out’ Jamie Oliver for ‘appropriation’. His sin, according to the shadow minister for women and equalities, was to launch a product called Punchy Jerk Rice. ‘I’m just wondering do you know what #Jamaican #jerk actually is?’ she asked him on Twitter. ‘It’s not just a word you put before stuff to sell products… Your jerk rice is not OK. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop.’
The notion that it is problematic for white people to ‘appropriate’ the culture of other ethnic groups has become widespread on the left. Three years ago, Erika Christakis, a Yale lecturer, sparked protests after she questioned official university guidance telling white students not to wear ‘culturally insensitive’ Halloween costumes, such as feathered headdresses. Student activists were so enraged by her description of American universities as places of ‘censure and prohibition’ — and her outrageous suggestion that there was nothing inherently racist about blond toddlers dressing up as African-American Disney characters — that she was forced to resign.
More recently, a white American teenager was shamed on Twitter after posting a picture of herself in a traditional Chinese dress she was wearing to her high-school prom. ‘Was the theme of prom casual racism?’ asked one enraged liberal, whose tweet immediately got thousands of likes.
But accusing white chefs and restaurateurs of being racist if they have the temerity to serve food that isn’t… well, white — whatever that is — seems a reductio ad absurdum. Last year a burrito van in Portland was forced out of business after activists accused its two white owners of ‘stealing’ their recipes from Mexico. Soon afterwards, a list was circulated of similarly inadmissible behaviour entitled ‘(Alternatives to) White-Owned Appropriative Restaurants in Portland’. It named and shamed dozens of establishments and included suggestions of more acceptable places owned by ‘people of colour’. In February, the firm that runs the canteen at New York University sacked two white working-class men after they devised an African-American menu to celebrate Black History Month that was deemed ‘racially insensitive’ by a middle-class black student.
One of the absurdities of these accusations is that cuisines linked to particular countries are not typically created by one ethnic group. Instead, they are a product of many different ethnicities and traditions, reflecting the cosmopolitan cultural influences that have shaped those places over hundreds of years. Butler accused Jamie Oliver of using the word ‘jerk’ in an ill-informed way, but surely the real ignorance here is not knowing that Jamaican food reflects a rich array of different culinary traditions, including Spanish, Irish, British, African, Indian and Chinese, as well as those of the island’s indigenous people. Jerk seasoning wouldn’t exist without ‘cultural appropriation’.
Even if that wasn’t the case and cuisines were largely monocultural, it still wouldn’t be healthy to think of them as ‘owned’ by particular ethnic groups. Intellectual copyright has some validity for individual cultural artefacts, such as books and songs, because without it their creators couldn’t make a living. But how can you copyright an entire culture? If that idea caught on, or was given some legal force, it would mean the end of cross-cultural fertilisation. It would fuel ethno-nationalism and give succour to right-wing demagogues trying to whip up populist resentment against ‘foreign’ perverters of their sacred traditions. Butler may think of herself as being on the side of the angels, but she is echoing the cultural protectionism of Viktor Orbán.
One final point about ‘cultural appropriation’ is the inconsistency with which the objection is made. Why isn’t the identitarian left equally up in arms about men who identify as women and dress and behave accordingly? It would seem a clear-cut example of one group — a ‘privileged’ group, no less — ‘appropriating’ the culture of another. But when the American philosopher Rebecca Tuvel made this point, comparing trans icon Caitlyn Jenner to Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who identifies as black, she was targeted by an online outrage mob. Needless to say, the academic journal that published her article soon issued a grovelling apology. I daresay it won’t be long before Jamie Oliver withdraws Punchy Jerk Rice from the shelves and abases himself at Dawn Butler’s feet.