A couple of months ago, Dawn Butler MP accused Jamie Oliver for appropriating Jamaican culture to reap profits. The irony is, amongst all this criticism, images emerged of Butler wearing a Sari at a Hindu Temple a few years ago. Is Butler Hindu? No. Is Butler a Hinduphobe? By the standards she’s projected onto Oliver, then most probably. I am of course being facetious. But why is it fair to accuse Oliver of cultural appropriation? Butler defended her own interaction with another culture as appreciation, rather than appropriation. The charge levelled at the celebrity chef was that he was appropriating Jamaican culture, while the ingredients used for his Jamaican ‘Jerk rice’ didn’t include any of the traditional components of the dish.
This case exemplifies that the whole issue of cultural appropriation makes no sense because the rules which govern the concept are impossible to pin down. My view is that the ingredients of the dish are essentially irrelevant. Chicken Tikka is an abomination of traditional Indian curry, but it does not matter, many Indian restaurants have accepted the British adaptation and choose to sell it across the country. Fajitas in our country are rarely served using maize, bread is used as a substitute, people are not in uproar over that, nor should they be. If people do not think it is jerk, even if it is not jerk, it does not mean that what he is doing is immoral or appropriating culture – it his spin on it.
Sure, be upset and do not buy the product, that is absolutely everyone’s prerogative. However, the reason the Dawn Butler example is appropriate is because she actively criticised cultural appropriation, however she can be criticised for it, if one were to take a different definition of it. The term was originally popularised when Mexican sombreros were banned on college campuses as they were seen as ‘appropriating Mexican culture’. The term is such a moving target that she arguably falls within this definition of it. There is hypocrisy in her and many other public figure’s deployment of the concept in an attempt to garner political support. I do not think she is culturally appropriating, however, she criticised Jamie because he falls within her definition of the term, the irony is that she herself falls within other people’s definitions of it.
There are too many questions, too many inconsistencies, too blurry a line. British culture is one big melting pot of worldwide input. If Jamie’s Jerk rice is cultural appropriation, so is the overwhelming majority of the food on our supermarket shelves and clothes in our shop windows. The fact that Britain’s most famous chef is creating a ‘jerk’ product should highlight the celebration of multiculturalism, not be taken as an offensive dig towards Jamaican culture.