The discussion of cultural appropriation seems to have hit a fever pitch in American cultural discourse, with a flurry of outrage prompted by every alleged transgression. The discussion of food can strike a particular nerve with its intersection of race, culture, and prejudice, and that’s precisely what happened when last week, a Bon Appétit article originally titled “PSA: This is How You Should be Eating Pho,” kicked off a yet another controversy about authenticity and cultural appropriation, specifically within the Asian-American community. In its original form, the article showcased a white Philadelphia chef, Tyler Akin, discussing what he believed to be the proper way to enjoy a bowl of pho, a traditionally Vietnamese noodle soup. Among other things, he demonstrated what he believed was the proper way to pick up noodles with chopsticks and enjoy the rich soup broth. Following the ensuing online opprobrium, Bon Appétit issued an apology, changed the title of the article, and took down the accompanying video. Though the condescending tone of the original article was certainly objectionable, the much more interesting conversation that ensued revolved around the issue of cultural authenticity.
We all-too frequently conflate race and culture. I’ll ask this: what’s inherently wrong about a white man cooking Asian food, even if he lacks a deep understanding of Asian history and culture? If a white man is able to create a great pho broth and discuss what he thinks makes it delicious, what’s the problem with that? Saying that a person can’t do something because of their race is clearly problematic, if not prejudiced itself. If culture is a social construct, then there’s nothing innate about the knowledge of a certain food. The current cultural conversation seems to suggest that there is a threshold of knowledge, unattainable unless one was born into the ingroup culture, required to speak as an “authentic” voice on an “authentic” food.
To me, the critics’ arguments were unrestrained outrage masquerading as cultural discourse that revealed deeper issues about the way cultural authenticity is discussed. “Authenticity” is a very nebulous term that carries an outsized cultural weight. How many “ethnic” restaurants have been disparaged as insufficiently “authentic,” lacking the original flavors of the motherland? Perhaps we’re chasing after a form of authenticity that doesn’t even exist. Cultures are fluid, after all, and it doesn’t seem that there is necessarily a definitive version of any one dish. Everyone interacts with a culture in a different way; thus, how can one person be the sole authoritative voice on a culture? Authenticity is a nebulous and mutable enough term that the truly “authentic” pho that you seek probably won’t be the same fifty years from now.
Based on the line of logic put forth by those critics, it could be just as problematic for me as a third generation Chinese-American man to cook Chinese food because I lack a deep understanding of traditional Chinese culture – surely it wouldn’t be “authentic.” And that’s an unsatisfactory state of affairs.
Far more nuance is necessary in the discussion of cultural trend. Perhaps a better example of cultural appropriation worth our collective anger would be a clear example like blackface, or symbols like the Washington Redskins mascots. We should really take a harder look at the cultural context of each situation rather than immediately stoking the fires of online outrage. Only then can we have a productive conversation about race, culture, and prejudice.
Nicholas Wu is a junior from Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich. He can be reached at email@example.com.