As babies, we are the center of the universe. We have to be, in some aspects: we can’t do a whole lot for ourselves, and thankfully most of us have at least one parent around to assure us that yes, all life revolves around our wants and needs.

And then we grow up.

I remember being about 10 and experiencing a strange sensation, a dawning comprehension that comes – hopefully – to everyone at some point: namely, that I am not in some ongoing movie production of which I am the sole star. People do not start being or happening the minute I walk into the room. In short, there is a world that exists despite me – not because of me.

We’re undergoing a kind of cultural adolescence now in the U.S., and it’s a little painful to watch. Depending on where you fall in the dominant culture – white, male, Christian, straight – this is harder for you than for others; if you’re of a traditional minority (or part of one that’s not a minority but is treated like one, like women), your rose-colored glasses view of the world might need a little less tweaking.

That said, it remains troublesome watching these growing pains going on, because we don’t know what the more adult version of our country will look like once we’re past this, if we get past this. There are a lot of forces out there that want us to remain as perpetual adolescents, pre-pubescent and still thinking the world centers around one monolithic culture that has all the answers and therefore should dictate how the world works.

This past week, I saw two headlines that caught my attention:

2 white women opened a Portland burrito pop-up. It closed after cultural appropriation accusations
Alamo Drafthouse launches a ‘women only’ screening of ‘Wonder Woman,’ sparks outrage

You might not think there’s an immediate connection, yet there is: They’re in some ways two sides of the same coin – the motto on which reads: Everything is no longer about you, 24/7/365.

Much has been said of the second headline. I saw the first today on Facebook, and noted how it provoked – which of course the headline was meant to do. It’s easy to get bent out of shape when the headline writers know how to push your buttons, and then how they write an article that’s completely without depth, nuance or exploration.

So let’s go into that first headline. I had Thoughts, and those Thoughts coalesced into a list of speculations and opinions, none of which the article itself gets into:

  1. This happened in Portland, aka Sensitivity Central. People in that city are going to get up in arms about a lot of shit, faster, than we do elsewhere.
  2. Note in the article: the ladies in question Kali Wilgus and Liz “LC” Connelly, went to a non-local place six months ago (Puerto Nuevo, Mexico) and loved something they ate there. They then went to the locals and tried to get the recipe, or preparation tips, for themselves.
  3. Based on their own quotes in the article, they don’t speak the language with any facility. They are true tourists.
  4. Do we know how many Latino or Hispanic-owned businesses, specifically ones that sell Mexican food there are in Portland? Does it overflow with them, or is it difficult for Hispanics/Latinos to get a foothold with their cultural diet for various reasons?
  5. I’m going to assume that the answer to No. 4 is “it’s probably a challenge, particularly under this new administration.” A quick scan on Google Maps indicates that there’s a good selection of actual burrito places in Portland, but without deeper research, there’s no way to know ownership. Hispanics make up 11 percent of the people in Multnomah County, the county that includes Portland.
  6. Now, go back to Nos. 2 and 3 here, and think about your own heritage. Think about or imagine what it’s like to be part of a heritage that is routinely picked up by the dominant culture and turned around to make money for that dominant culture. Think about how that is literally the description of appropriation. Imagine if someone went to your ancestors’ country of origin on a brief vacation where they couldn’t speak the language, knew a minimum about the culture and tried to wheedle the tricks out of the learned elders — tricks earned by those elders after decades of honing them through trial and error — just so they could run home and try to make money from the elders’ sweat and time and knowledge.
  7. Now, there are things we don’t know here. We don’t know if Kali and Liz paid for the information they learned. We don’t know if they were planning on bringing one of the elders to the States to show them how it was done. We will never know if there was any intent to understand the nature of the hard-earned information they were planning to import north for their own gain. All we know is they went “yummy” and “find out how to do this!” and then scampered home. And that’s probably all they did.
  8. Think about this in parallel with Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, season 2 — which if you aren’t watching you should. Ansari learned fluent Italian for this season, which took him to Italy where he spent a month working in a pasta shop and learned the trade while immersed in the culture. The actor did this as well as the character. For a TV show. Which he could have completely made up. Ansari also learned Japanese for an extended trip to Japan. This is above and beyond behavior and it suffuses every inch of his creative product. You practically gain weight watching the show.

  9. Now please think about this: who do you respect more – the cultural scrapers who see only the surface of a thing and grab the “best bits” for themselves for ingestion and regurgitation? Or someone who gets under the skin and sees where things come from and why they work and how it might be possible, someday, to perhaps even improve on them. Would you rather see Hamlet performed by someone who got the script yesterday or someone who has studied Shakespeare for years and actually performed some of the other plays? Think about why.
  10. “Cultural appropriation” is a tough one for white folks. And nobody should cry for us while we bumble forward trying to get our brains around it. For decades if not most of Western history, we either didn’t care or didn’t understand that this is a thing and it is a thing we should quit doing. There’s nothing wrong with someone from one culture finding a way to incorporate the genius of another culture to create a wholly new, exciting thing. But if in doing so they a) prevent the original culture from having access to the same marketplace and audiences they themselves are now reaching – because it is so much easier for them to reach those ears and eyes in the first place, that is wrong. And if in doing so they b) don’t have the basic decency or intelligence to understand that there’s more to making a goddamned tortilla than picking the brains of women you don’t even know, then I don’t even know what to tell you. Basically, have some bloody respect for where your knowledge comes from. Make it better for the knowledge-keepers who crafted that knowledge brick by brick. Elevate them and their skills and craft, because in doing so you elevate the craft and the world for the rest of us. And stop getting all wounded because someone shows you that coin I mentioned earlier and says: this applies to you.
  11. And finally, if you remember nothing, remember this: Just because a thing can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done. You have a brain. Use it. Don’t use other people.

Everything is no longer about you, 24/7/365. And that is a good thing.

xo,

R

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2 Comments

  1. J.H. Moncrieff on 5/30/17 at 5:13 am

    This was a sticky situation, for sure. I saw a lot of people posting comments like, “Well, I guess only Italians can own Italian restaurants, then” and “I guess only Japanese people can make sushi.”

    The article that cost the two women their business was quite inflammatory, and I’m not sure if it was the reporter’s intention to make them come across as dimwitted opportunists, but they really did. If instead they’d been quoted as saying they’d fallen in love with the tortillas in Mexico, learned how to make them from some generous locals, and then brought this wonderful, authentic food to Portland, there probably wouldn’t have been an issue. But the way it was phrased in the article was horrible.



    • Randee on 5/30/17 at 1:31 pm

      I’m not entirely sure the article is what cost them their business; there seemed to be some comments on Yelp and I imagine it was more local, the concern/outrage. I still think there was a way for them to keep their business, if they’d been more aboveboard and authentic about giving back when they took. There’s more to this story, as in pretty much all cases.