From Cultural Appropriation to Appreciation, What Do Tacos have to Do with It?

What do Rachel Dolezal and the ethnic foodie scene have in common?

Rachel Dolezal is back, and she’s writing a book. Dolezal is best known as the former head of the Spokane, Washington N.A.A.C.P. who was exposed by her parents as being white, contrary to her self-identification as black. In her forthcoming book, Dolezal will explore her racial identity, which she continues to defend in the face of national confusion, disbelief, and, in some cases, anger.

Many people feel that Dolezal doesn’t have the right to identify as black and that her persistence in doing so is cultural appropriation at its worst. Dolezal’s response? While acknowledging that she was born to white parents, she has been quoted as saying that, “Sometimes how we feel is more powerful then how we are born.”

Dolezal is quite an extreme example of loving a culture so much that one’s actions become controversial. But what about loving something seemingly much more innocent, like a taco?

We all know what it feels like when you want to get dinner out with a friend and begin mentally cataloguing the best eats in every category — Mexican, Italian, Indian, etc. In the San Francisco Bay Area where I live and where we foodies thrive, this is a widely accepted process. In fact, finding a place to eat dinner can become quite an involved hunt.

But what about when appreciating a great taco turns into trying to define how “real” that taco is? A recent NPR article talks about the complicated dynamics in seeking out “authentic” ethnic food. It describes, for example, how expectations that Indian and Chinese food be dirt cheap in order to be authentic are a huge constraint for immigrant chefs. Because the dominant culture has decided what their food can be, they no longer have the agency to stay in business with higher priced items or with a menu that features anything unexpected.

So maybe the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation has to do with how willing we are to be open and surprised. To what extent can we let go of our expectations about how other cultures have to be, and instead take a learning approach? Once we can do that, it seems that it’s only a matter of respecting boundaries.

What angers many people about Dolezal’s situation is not that she enjoys and feels connected to black culture, but rather that she feels she can become a part of it, own it, in the same way that African American-born individuals can. And the same issue applies to foodie culture — it’s not fair to try and make someone else’s culture your own, no matter how delicious the efforts may be.

Image: JUNG YEON-JE / Staff

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