When Cultural Appropriation Is a Problem

Food for Thought

Just as most French people I’ve met aren’t wine connoisseurs, I’m no sake connoisseur either. The sake at Brooklyn Kura tasted very different from any sake I’ve ever had; unfortunately, I cannot tell you why. It tasted flowery. I loved it.

According to their website, two American sake lovers who happen to meet in Tokyo started Brooklyn Kura. Most Japanese people would appreciate their love for Japanese culture. This isn’t a situation where the term “cultural appropriation” would be appropriate. But why? What exactly is the difference?

Japanese people would welcome ventures like Brooklyn Kura because they would help popularize sake and the overall demand for sake would increase. I would imagine that many green tea and wagyu producers are laughing all the way to the bank now given how commonly matcha and wagyu are used.

The problematic instances of cultural appropriation happen in the contexts where the originators do not have the infrastructure or the know-how to benefit from the increased popularity. Because capitalism is highly efficient at matching supply and demand, those who can supply the demand the fastest would disproportionately profit from it. In the US, this is determined by race. When something goes viral within the black community, white entrepreneurs would be much quicker than black entrepreneurs in exploiting the opportunity. The former have much easier access to capital as well as to the consumers with money. If the competition was fair, “cultural appropriation” in and of itself would not be a problem. Ironically, the ideas that originated in minority communities enrich white people further and widen the wealth gap.

The critics of cultural appropriations are often barking up the wrong tree. We should be fostering more curiosity for other cultures, not less. The real problem is the unfairness of the market, but I’m not sure how it can be addressed. Ideally, when something goes viral in a minority community, to level the playing field, some economic mechanism would give a greater advantage to the community of the originators. Right now, the situation is reversed. It’s like a taller person enjoying the fruits of the shorter person’s labor.