The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Cultural appropriation is a problem. A misguided burrito cart is not part of it.

A salmon and roasted vegetable burrito. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

What's the matter with Portland? In the past 10 days alone, the Oregon city has had a racist triple stabbing, a Republican Party chair threatening to hire right-wing militias for protection and . . . a culturally appropriative burrito cart.

Yes, one of these things is not like the others.

Most obviously, the last is a situation of almost-too-on-the-nose cultural comedy: Portland. Burritos. Pop-ups. Off-putting jargon. (No doubt a millennial eating avocado toast was somehow involved.) But it’s also an excellent opportunity to examine what “cultural appropriation” is — and what harm is done when the term is overused.

The phrase describes a real problem, but it's increasingly being weaponized as a catch-all accusation. At Oberlin College, students decried their dining hall's General Tso's chicken as culturally appropriative. At the Whitney Museum in New York, protesters called for a white artist's painting of Emmett Till to be destroyed for similar reasons.

Calling “cultural appropriation” is an easy way to call attention to an infraction, real or imagined. But the overuse of the term obscures offenses that might actually deserve more censure, exaggerates some that don’t deserve much at all and weakens the power of the concept in general. It’s “the boy who cried burrito.”

To recap: Last week, a Portland burrito cart shut down amid accusations of cultural appropriation. Its owners, two white women, had taken a trip to Mexico, fallen in love with the tortillas there and decided to open a pop-up in their home town. But then a newspaper profile surfaced some ill-considered quotes: "I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever," said one co-owner. "They wouldn't tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look." And so, predictably enough, Portlandians took to the comment section and social media in outrage, and other outlets helped the story catch fire. The food cart, Kooks, closed less than two weeks after opening.

But what, after all, was the source of critics’ discomfort with Portland’s newest breakfast-burrito vendor? Was it how the chefs said that they had peered through windows to get their tortilla technique? Was it the fact that they were lauding tortillas at all?

If it’s the first, well, theft is theft. Shamelessly stealing someone’s intellectual property is bad. It would be more meaningful to discuss that as an issue in and of itself; wrapping such an accusation in the language of cultural appropriation shortchanges its seriousness. Culture is irrelevant: In this, as in many cases, adding on the denunciation is done more to burnish the accuser’s progressive credentials than to educate or improve.

And if it’s the latter issue, where is energy best spent? A food-cart burrito, even made with dubiously sourced tortillas, is hardly the colonization of Mexican cuisine. Portland, a city that is about three-quarters white, does have a problem with diversity. Rather than focusing anger and effort on a single misguided business, perhaps consider other issues that might have greater significance.

Exclusionary zoning (made worse by the NIMBY-ism of many of Portland's ostensible progressives) means that the typical Latino family can't afford the rent in most neighborhoods. Oregon's murkily racist origins persist in everyday incidents of harassment. Positive action to combat these problems would be more meaningful than performative Internet outrage.

That’s not to say that cultural appropriation should forever be ignored. It is real, after all, contrary to those who decry it as the invention of left-wing snowflakes with too much time on their hands. Originally a piece of academic terminology, “cultural appropriation” describes the adoption of elements of one culture — food, symbols, traditions, fashion — by members of another.

Such crossover is inevitable when cultures rub up against each other, and the outcome is often benign or even positive: Think of the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, or New York pizza. Yet there are those incidents in which the Western world co-opts without acknowledging the source of its inspiration. It can be demeaning to the culture it's borrowing from, perpetuate negative stereotypes or disrespect the sacred: Think African American hairstyles touted as hip summer looks for white women when black children are punished for wearing the same styles to school, Native American ceremonial regalia worn as unearned costumes, or slang seen as low-class when used by minorities but funny and provocative when used by whites.

Using “cultural appropriation” to shout down something as insignificant as a misguided tortilla dilutes the meaning and strength of the term. When you’ve wasted all your capital shutting down food trucks, who will listen when a real transgression takes place?

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