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21 August 2018

The one certainty about cultural appropriation is the backlash against minorities

We can disagree on whether Jamie Oliver’s “jerk rice” is OK, but the debate is clearly a stick to beat minorities with. 

By Nesrine Malik

Whenever there’s a storm about political correctness, identity politics, freedom of speech or cultural appropriation, there are two ways it can be processed. The first is to lean into the storm. IS political correctness going too far or is a matter of perspective? Is identity politics getting in the way of achieving universal goals? Is freedom of speech really under threat or is it being policed appropriately? The latest episode is shadow women and equalities secretary Dawn Butler declaring “this cultural appropriation needs to stop”, after Jamie Oliver stuck the work “jerk” in front of some arbitrarily spiced rice. Does cultural appropriation unfairly victimise people who are innocently borrowing recipes, or is it a valid concern?

The second way is to try and size the storm. Is it a real issue? Has it artificially been whipped up into a cyclone by the media? Is it all based on one comment made offhand or is it a larger, more co-ordinated effort? Most tellingly (this is the litmus test I find most useful), do radio phone-in shows just love it? Is the Daily Mail all over it? 

Once I realised there was a second approach, there was a clear pattern. When I refrained from trying to vivisect the original offence (a counterintuitive process for a columnist – a lot of rewiring was needed) and tried to plot a path through it without being reactionary or ideological, I often learned there was no path to plot, because there was no journey to be taken.

A few years ago, a certain type of list became popular with the right-wing press – the “A to Z of Political Correctness”, it was called. And it would have such original PC skewering entries such as “T is for Trigger” and “Z is for Zero Tolerance”. It would be very hard for even the most sceptical amongst us to read these lists and not think there was a problem. Students swap clapping for jazz hands; Oxford University is trying to make avoiding eye contact a racist micro-aggression; white people wearing dreads are being bullied; you literally can’t open a copy of Moby Dick without having to go through a trigger warning. But look closer, not even that much closer, just enough to see what has been classified as an outrageous phenomenon has been stitched together from tweets (sometimes, a single one), random statements, and moves that were suggested but never implemented. 

And so with that in mind, to the latest. Dawn Butler thinks Jamie Oliver’s jerk rice is not the real deal. “I’m just wondering do you know what Jamaican jerk actually is? It’s not just a word you put before stuff to sell products. Your jerk rice is not ok. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop.”

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So I found out about this because Nick Ferrari dedicated a whole segment on his show to it on LBC. And so already my litmus test was turning the colour of “Leave It”. The other usual suspects lined up, Brendan O’Neill said it was “wrongthink” (he really is just phoning it in these days), the Daily Mail commenters did their thing, and I will bet no small amount of money that Rod Liddle will have a bite of the jerk by the weekend. 

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Maybe it’s because I live in a world where beetroot hummus exists and Ottolenghi’s Nopi serves “shawerma” (Herdwick mutton shawarma, kohlrabi, pickled watermelon, yoghurt, flatbread – £14.60), but I am finding it very easy to lean out of this one. Butler was annoyed, kind of fair? Even if there was no cultural outrage angle, how many times have you said or silently thought “call this ‘insert dish you care about and is being bastardised for commercial purposes’”? I had a “deconstructed tiramisu” the other day and my rage and despair was full on Italian great-grandmother whose land and culture is slipping away, who has lived through two world wars and wishes she hadn’t so she wouldn’t have to see mascarpone abused in this way.

But also, Jamie Oliver trying to make money by making a generic recipe and sticking “jerk” in front of it? Have you even seen Jamie’s Italian? It had a whole megastructure in Notting Hill. That doesn’t mean that it’s not annoying. It doesn’t mean that one can’t register a complaint about inauthenticity and capitalist flavour branding in order to make some money, but there’s little that can be done to prevent it as a whole.

That doesn’t mean that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist and isn’t a thing. Try telling a Palestinian that an Israeli model flogging the Palestinian keffiya pattern for eye-watering sums in the shape of “beach wraps” and floaty dresses is not very bloody painful, but also sometimes a Chinese collar done well is really quite elegant. That’s the thing about cultural appropriation, it is about the spirit of things, rather than their technicalities. Most of the time, it’s just a feeling that something is just not on, rather than a clear guideline. And so we will always disagree, depending on how close to our hearts the violated object is, whether it’s a flavour or an item of clothing, and the context of it. Other than that, trying to nail it down is like trying to catch a will o’ the wisp. 

But there is a more coherent precise dimension to cultural appropriation, which is how it is used as a stick to beat minorities with, to portray them as whiny and entitled and suffocating. All those complaining about how you can’t even make a chicken recipe these days without the PC crowd pitchforking, they not only enjoy this complaint, but go out of their way to make it. In short, there is usually more outrage in response to a cultural appropriation gripe than there was registered at the point of origin in the first place. And so cultural appropriation is just a cue for a wider refrain about hysterical chippy minorities, one that is being hammered home in the public discourse on a regular basis. That is real, and it’s much more co-ordinated and dangerous than Dawn Butler having a bit of an eye roll on Twitter.