Ethnic Thanksgiving: Cultural Appropriation?


On its surface it appears to be a simple decision: it can be dull serving the same stuffed Turkey with cranberries and potatoes every Thanksgiving. A modern home cook might be itching to surprise guests with some spices or out-of-the-box meats, sweets and starches. Why not make the turkey in curry paste or serve it with peanut sauce? Recipes for foods across the world are more readily available today on the web than ever before. The needed ingredients are also accessible through online stores, if not in supermarkets. 

Spices and nuts have greater health benefits and shades of taste than mashed potatoes or bread crumbs. Both food and clothing can be politicized. For example, when I was hired to teach at a university in the United Arab Emirates (though I did not end up going), one of the most urgent things I was told was that I had to wear a burqa over my clothing to avoid potential conflicts with locals. On the food front, when I did teach for a semester at Shantou University in China, my students and coworkers had a very passionate response to chopsticks as a representation of their culture; I had to ask for a spoon in restaurants where only chopsticks came standard on tables. 

In addition to the variety of cultural artifacts that can be appropriated, there is also a variety of settings for such borrowing or mimicry. A case of inappropriate mimicry in a commercial setting is when a Caucasian southern fast food restaurant chef attaches a cultural label to foods that are not even based on traditional recipes, such as Chinese or Indian. In general, if a white family cooks Asian food for Thanksgiving, this sends a very confusing message to the Native American culture the holiday is supposed to be celebrating. A few studies on this subject should help us all to understand the pitfalls and the benefits of such borrowings.

America has been one of the primary countries to spread the popularity of ethnic cuisine because it has been a “melting pot” for the world’s cultures due to its relative youth and active pursuit of in-migration. In “Aesthetics of Diaspora,” Pnina Werbner and Mattia Fumanti write about the need for “migrant groups,” such as “artists in exile, ” to “claim ownership” to their adopted countries by “creating liminal aesthetic spaces that are theirs.” In other words, as a Russian immigrant, I have a right to celebrate my cultural heritage by wearing traditional Russian outfits or cooking borsch or pelmeni for my guests. I have no such urges to share my Russian heritage, but those who are proud and emotionally linked to their homeland have almost an ethnic responsibility to display it. Even second-generation immigrants can make these cultural signals and expect to be applauded for it.

On the other hand, in “Athwart: Foodie Feud” James Lileks describes a Portland Facebook post from the Council of Making Every Damned Thing a Problem that presents a “list of restaurants to hate” because they are “white-owned businesses” that “‘hamper the ability for POC [people of color] to run successful business of their own (cooking their own cuisines) by either consuming market share with their attempt at authenticity or by modifying foods to market to white palates.’” Lileks follows this radical quote by excusing home cooks as not meeting these requirements because they are not taking a bite out POC’s market share. Then the article really steps into deep waters, as it questions why a Thai individual can dress as a “Peruvian businessperson,V “a business garb whose style originated in Europe, ” but a white person is penalized for dressing in Thai traditional garb. The argument overall is that America is a bowl of everything from borsch to curry, so people of all cultures should be able to utilize other cultures just as they would a clothing style from the 80s or a vegan diet. 

On the vegan note, what about how America has been selling its fast-food culture to the world with disastrous results for global health. The fast-food diet has skyrocketed obesity rates in America first, and then in the countries where these junk foods take hold. Drinking carbonated water and eating the leftovers of highly processed food with oil-drenched and burned potatoes is more American than turkey, which is typically only consumed on the holiday in question. 

Soleil Ho touches on the problems she faced with being labeled as a Vietnamese and for her consumption of pho (a traditional dish) by her American classmates in “Craving the Other: One Woman’s Beef with Cultural Appropriation and Cuisine.” She describes her urge to counter with “Oh, you’re white? I love tuna salad!” I can definitely relate with Soleil’s distaste for such questions, and Americans have definitely asked me too many times where I am from, as if I was a zoo animal with an exotic label they were observing with curiosity. She concludes by arguing that American foodies stock their pantry with various culturally distinct items that were previously only accessible to kings. Such Americans might begin to summarize whole countries by a particular dish they liked in a restaurant with it in its title, forgetting to learn about the “global civil unrest and natural disasters” or the rest of the complex culture and history of that place. 

Then again, average Americans know very little about their own culture, including the Thanksgiving holiday. Is it a Christian holiday that gives thanks for the blessings of a harvest? This brand of holly day is shared across many nations, having roots in the Protestant Reformation; and in fact, it was celebrated in Canada before it reached the United States. And trade with Native Americans, or giving them thanks for welcoming the Pilgrims and Puritans into the new world, is more of a side note. While this holiday is named after a prayer or a blessing of giving thanks to god, it is typically portrayed as a secular holiday that is meant to help families express thanks to their members rather than to a deity. 

So, is it sacrilegious for Christians to eat Thai (where Buddhism is popular) or Indian (where Hinduism and Islam dominate) cuisine? For example, when I was an observant Hassidic Jew in my youth, we strictly ate traditional foods such as hallah and gefilte fish on designated holidays; in fact, Jewish kosher laws mean that many popular ethnic food groups, such as shrimp and pork, are forbidden. Thus, is it reformist or radical for a Christian family to introduce foods from other cultures to the Thanksgiving table? 

The particular choice of foods is what separates America’s Thanksgiving from equivalent celebrations elsewhere: these foods are native to America and were shared with the immigrants by the natives; the settlers then appropriated these foods as their own cultural heritage. But the first table also included lobster and ham, and yet the turkey is the main dish that has been advertised to American consumers. In the first half of the 19thcentury, the turkey lobbyists and turkey farming association leaders pushed this bird into prominence, and now it is a one-day $8 billion industry. While such sales tactics are to be admired, there is no religious reason to eat turkey rather than lobster on Thanksgiving in honor of true American heritage. 

A more philosophical approach to answering this question is taken by James O. Young, who examines the category of “profound offense, ” or egregious and deeply offensive forms of cultural appropriation. He separates these into three categories: 1. Subject Appropriation (for example, an outsider depicts a foreign culture in his or her art), 2. Content Appropriation (legends, songs or other artifacts that represent a cultural heritage are used by an outsider in art), and 3. Object Appropriation (an outsider takes a native work of art and displays it in a museum). 

The first of these is Young’s primary concern. As an example of this, he refers to George Southwell’s murals in the Parliament Building in British Columbia, one of these, “Labour… depicts bare-breasted Indian women participating in the construction of Fort Victoria.” He then explains that the work is offensive because it is “a serious misrepresentation of aboriginal culture… Contemporary aboriginal people deny that their foremothers exposed their breasts in public.” After a lengthy discussion on other types of subject appropriation, Young concludes that: “even when insiders are reasonably offended by acts of cultural appropriation, the acts may not be wrong. Considerations of social value, freedom of expression, time and place, and so on may lead to the conclusion that even when reasonably taken to be profoundly offensive, an act of cultural appropriation is not, on balance wrong.” In other words, incorrectly or stereotypically interpreting somebody else’s culture in art is not ethically wrong for a society at large, even if it is deeply offensive to the minority culture depicted. 

Without appropriations of Wiccan, Native American and other cultures’ dress styles, there would be few outfits left to wear on Halloween. Most of Hollywood’s films and television series inappropriately borrow from Christian, Judaic, Wiccan and other religious or mythological sects for the benefit of entertainment. If the objections to such appropriations from these cultures held significant moral stigma, they would have been censored out just like some very offensive expletives. Then again, screening out cultural offenses is more complex than taking out specific words or nudity; taking out offensive depictions of Native Americans can easily slip into racist bias against depicting all Native American characters. 

Using foreign dishes on the Thanksgiving table is an inoffensive form of content appropriation if an authentic recipe is borrowed; inoffensive when compared to Nazi parades or bare-chested Native women. Even if an Indian or a Thai guest comes for your Thanksgiving dinner, they are not likely to be outraged to be served appropriated foods (even if you make grievous mistakes in their preparation or cannot find authentic ingredients). 

By contrast, if you wear a “ceremonial” Native American leather dress or an Indian silk sari, and you do not belong to one of these cultures, even your white friends are likely to be distressed. Then again, perhaps guests would be equally uncomfortable with a display of clothing that are not native to the host just as they would be by the service of an equally ill-fitting food for the occasion and the cook. An explanation via a prepared menu or a brief discussion on the subject might put them at their ease. Is it a theatrical, shocking gesture aimed to amuse or startle, or is it a white power symbol that is deriding the depicted culture’s inferiority? 

From this dark line of reasoning, we should jump to Jannis Androutsopoulos and Arno Scholz’s discussion on the appropriation of American rap (started in 1970s New York) in Europe. Rap is being told in different languages, and with imprints of regional cultures rather than as reproductions of the American formula. This process begins when foreigners consume a cultural artifact such as a regionally-produced musical genre and ends with attempts to produce original content in these contexts that reflects the lives of the adopting cultures. They conclude that these European borrowings represent the process of “cultural reterritorialization” or synthesis between chosen cultural elements. American rap’s reliance on “regional and social dialects” can be mimicked by European rap’s use of their own underprivileged, minority and periphery linguistic varieties. They heighten this art form to the status of “‘high’ poetry” that can “trigger a renaissance of vernacular lyrics in Europe.” This is a case of appropriation that is clearly positive. Just as haikus can be appropriated and utilized in the west to communicate succinct local messages, it is culturally enriching for other cultures to take on a popular and complex art form like rap and bend it to fit their preferences. If the food you are cooking for Thanksgiving is an original never-before-seen blend of Thai and bread-stuffed turkey, then surely you have an artistic license to create for the delight of your guests: as they would be educated and culturally enriched by this experience. Even the most hardline nationalist Indian would not be offended by seeing your Indian reimagining of the Turkey Day.

There are many divergent lessons to be learned for different audiences in these studies. Creative reuse of admired cultural elements in a respectful manner should satisfy even staunch cultural purists. On the other hand, costume parties and simple and silly representations of cultures that utilize mass-produced artifacts are likely to offend those who hold religious or nationalist esteem or pride in the authentic versions of these clothing or food items. Try imaging attending a costume party in China. Everybody there is wearing fast-food memorabilia, fake fat suits, turkey tails, porn-inspired fake stuffed breasts, automatic rifles, and torture devices. When you ask what is going on, you are told that it’s an American-themed costume party. Would you feel that this is an extremely offensive appropriation? Placing ourselves into the shoes of the culture we are appropriating should help us determine if we are admiring this culture, or if we are sliding from being slightly offensive into criminally offensive hate speech. 


Research Sources

Pnina Werbner and Mattia Fumanti, “Aesthetics of Diaspora” (Ethnos, Vol. 78:2, 2013, 149-174).

James Lileks, “Athwart: Foodie Feud” (National Review, 33).

Soleil Ho, “Craving the Other: One Woman’s Beef with Cultural Appropriation and Cuisine” (Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, Winter.14, Issue No. 61, 40-3).

James O. Young, “Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation” (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Blackwell Publishing, 63:2, Spring 2005, 135-46).

Jannis Androutsopoulos and Arno Scholz, “Spaghetti Funk: Appropriations of Hip-Hop Culture and Rap Music in Europe” (Popular Music and Society, Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, Vol. 26, No. 4, 2003, 463-79).


Anna Faktorovich

Anna Faktorovich, Ph.D.: is the Founder, Director, Designer and Editor-in-Chief of the Anaphora Literary Press, which has published over 300 titles in non-fiction, fiction and poetry.

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