Marks and Spencer have released a new vegan biryani wrap. In any other universe, this would not be the subject of numerous news articles across the country and dozens of angry tweets. Unfortunately, we do not live in any other universe. M&S have been accused of “appropriating names from a cuisine without even bothering to do any research”, and creating a “complete misrepresentation” of the dish. The wrap, composed of sweet potato, rice, and red peppers, apparently does not conform to the traditional Indian conception of biryani, which is served in a bowl and usually contains meat. The rampant accusations of cultural appropriation and theft are not surprising – it seems you cannot go a day without hearing how somebody wore an offensive costume or appropriated culture in a music video. According to critics, this behaviour reaffirms Western cultural domination over minority cultures, and contributes to their systemic oppression.
There are several issues with these complaints. If criticising cultural appropriation is justified by arguing that certain minority cultures are victims of systemic oppression, it is easy to very quickly fall down the slippery slope of ranking oppression. Can an Indian woman appropriate the culture of a white woman because the former has, historically, been less oppressed? Can a black woman appropriate homosexual culture? What begins as an attempt to ‘protect’ culture can quickly turn into an idolisation of victimhood. Yet this is not the most important criticism towards the opponents of cultural appropriation.
Indeed, what is culture but a product of imitation and adaptation?
What complaints about cultural appropriation fail to recognise is that culture is not a tangible object that can be stolen or appropriated. Using elements of another culture in one’s clothing, music, or food does not mean that others are now deprived of their own culture. Indeed, what is culture but a product of imitation and adaptation? It is ironic that critics of cultural appropriation will often turn around and attack opponents of open immigration, accusing them of racism and xenophobia. Yet their own refusal to accept that it is the very nature of culture to change and spread through adoption by other cultures stinks of hypocrisy and bias.
When Marks and Spencer created their biryani wrap, they had no intention of oppressing Indians or stealing their culture. They saw that traditional biryani could have appeal to its customers, and chose to adapt it to their tastes. There is no cause for offence here – quite the opposite. The oft-quoted adage ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ comes to mind. In fact, M&S themselves argued that, “M&S is famous for its food innovation and our developers use a fusion of different flavours and ingredients to create an exciting range of products to appeal to customers’ tastes.” The wrap pays homage to Indian culture while simultaneously supplying customers with something they would buy, which, of course, is the primary motivation of M&S.
It is a sad fact that this article is even necessary, but it is my hope that the next time somebody is accused of cultural appropriation, critics may wait a moment and consider the fact that perhaps that person is simply practising cultural appreciation.