January 9, 2015 by T. Gregory Argall
A friend of mine recently found the Thug Kitchen Cookbook, featuring simple, healthy recipes presented in a straightforward and profane way. It appealed to her because it seamlessly combined two activities she enjoys, namely delicious cooking and casual swearing. Here is an ad for the cookbook, but you probably shouldn’t watch it at work unless you’ve got a really cool workplace.
She bought a copy of the book for herself. A few friends liked it, and now they have copies of the cookbook, as well. This is exactly how word-of-mouth marketing works. Earlier this week, while cooking, she posted a photo of the cookbook on social media.
And that’s when it got a little surreal.
My friend is a reasonably successful author and so has a significant number of followers on various social media sites. Soon after posting the photo of the cookbook on Instagram, she was “corrected” for engaging in “Cultural Appropriation.”
It turns out, the book was written by a couple of white dudes in California and not by a couple of black dudes someplace else. I’m not sure why that matters, but apparently it does.
Seeking clarification on the whole matter, she initiated an open conversation on Facebook. Some background information was presented and a mostly civil and reasonable discussion ensued, which was kind of nice to see on Facebook.
In the early 1990’s, Tupac Shakur popularized the term “Thug Life,” even going so far as to tattoo the words on his abdomen. Following that, the word “thug” was claimed within some of the black communities in the United States who felt it resonated with the experience of African-American culture. (Although as a Canadian, I propose “African-North American” as a more inclusive term, and from a socio-geographic standpoint, “Bi-Continental” presents a more accurate perspective.)
Because of that, in some communities, the word “thug” has become synonymous with a certain “N” word. You know the one I mean. It’s an anagram for “ginger.” (On a related note but completely off-topic, there’s this.) Of course, in the other 98.7% of the world, the “thug” is not synonymous with that word. It simply means “a blunt and brutal person.”
I contributed to the discussion with this comment: “If they aren’t descended from the original Thug tribe of assassins and murderers from 14th century India, anyone claiming cultural ownership of the word is historically confused and self-serving.
Although the irony of screaming cultural appropriation over something you appropriated yourself is beautifully ignorant.”
And I left it at that.
But it got me wondering… Why is this sort of “cultural appropriation” even a thing that people get upset about? This is actually the second time in a month that I’ve seen an online discussion regarding cultural appropriation that is actually just cultural borrowing. Is this the new red flag hot topic for people who enjoy finding new and pointless reasons to be offended?
Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume for a moment that a group of people can randomly claim ownership of a word, regardless of that word’s etymology. (I’ll explain later why that is stunningly stupid.) For now, let’s just pretend that having a sense of history that goes all the way back to Tupac actually counts for something on the scale of centuries of social development. Let’s say that the term “thug” is actually the cultural property of contemporary black youth and that a couple of non-black people “appropriated” the word in an effort to mix humour and healthy eating.
How is white people having a Thug Kitchen cookbook more culturally offensive and inflammatory than people cooking a frozen chicken vindaloo dinner in the microwave, or getting Chinese food takeout and eating it with chopsticks even though they aren’t actually Chinese?
Cultural exchange used to be a good thing. Now people are berated and called to task for having an interest in experiencing a different culture than the one other people think they fit into.
Interaction and sharing between cultures is how societies grow and develop and thrive.
But the deeper irony to all of this, the part that is so blindingly stupid, is that this whole discussion regarding wrongful appropriation of a word is happening in English. The English language has been my primary method of communication for most of my life. (For the first year or so I communicated mainly through a complex combination of psychic thought painting and fart algebra, but once I discovered words there was no turning back.) There is something important about the English language that people seem to forget. It contains a surprisingly small percentage of actual English words.
A majority of the words used in English were borrowed, derived, and appropriated from other languages.
Words like “thug” and “culture” and “appropriate.”
So, decrying and denouncing the perceived cultural appropriation of words, when the only way to express those ideas is through actual cultural appropriation of words, well, that’s just ridiculous.
Is this the part where I drop the mic?
Whatever words you use, try to be nice to each other.