Michael Twitty’s Claim of Cultural Appropriation: Racism or Just Life?

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Cultural Appropriation

It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Apparently, the compliment is quite lost on popular Afroculinaria food blogger Michael Twitty.  I recently read an article on my Facebook news feed from the Washingtonian, in which Twitty claimed that white chefs were getting too much credit for the Southern cuisine renaissance – apparently this is a popular thing right now.  Anyway, the article only showed up in my news feed because one of my Facebook friends affirmed it with a comment that it was a “great article”.

I was curious, so I read it.

The interview had little to do with the headline.  Yet the part of the interview that dealt directly with the Southern cuisine renaissance showed Twitty as a man full of bitterness.  There was not a single fact presented, but Twitty’s responses were saturated with impressions and feelings: boiled down to a famous celebrity upset that other people are getting some credit in his field.  

Rather than question his claims, or ask for clarification, the interviewer accepted the charges without question and then inserted Twitty’s feelings into the larger narrative of race and cultural appropriation.  Twitty denounced whites for trying to take credit for Southern food with African origins, then threw a bonus potshot claiming that blacks are relegated to food trucks and are deprived of owning brick and mortar buildings.

The whole thing was ridiculous and unsubstantiated.  I thought about typing out a reply asking “Why exactly is this a ‘great article’?”  I wasted half an hour thinking of the right words to say, but in the end I simply clicked off the link and sat in my chair in silent contemplation.

I visited the Facebook page of the man who shared the article.  I scrolled down to the next article in his news feed.  It was from The Atlantic: “How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope”.  Seriously.  The Atlantic.  How and when did this become so mainstream?

What surprises me the most was the harsh realization that I was in the minority of people who question things like tropes, innuendos, and impressions.  It is almost commonplace now to read a statement such as “when they say ____ <something innocuous>, what they really mean is _____ <insert blatantly racist statement here>.”  It seems that most people either have bought into this lie of reasoning and accepted it as fact, or else affirm such claims by liking them on Facebook or saying “great article” without ever analyzing the claims or giving even a small thought to the charges made.

In Michael Twitty’s case, no one recognized the irony that Twitty is not only popular but is very much heralded for unearthing the black roots of Southern cuisine by the exact same food media he decries for not giving blacks enough credit for Southern cuisine.  Cognitive dissonance much?  This from a man who is quoted as saying “Blacks and Jews are the only peoples I know who use food to talk about their past while they eat it.”  

Really?  Wow.  That’s actually a pretty ignorant statement.  There are many cultures that use food to talk about their past.  Just last month, for example, I spoke with a Colombian immigrant to the United States.  He explained to me the different dishes he cooks for his church potlucks.  While he described each dish he told me stories about Colombian culture.   

The fact that Twitty identifies himself as a black Jew, and thinks blacks and Jews are the only two cultures who talk about their fast through food, should immediately set off everyone’s “homer” alarm.  That type of statement is reminiscent of the college football fans who believe – genuinely – their team is more talented, their location has better weather, their cheerleaders are prettier, their fans louder, their stadium a better atmosphere, their players tougher…you get the picture.

In normal life, we hear those types of statements and roll our eyes – “yeah, sure they are!”  But Michael Twitty is black, and in this day and age that means something. No, that means everything.

The Narrative

The Twitty example is far from unique.  I recently spoke with a friend who used the term “White Privilege” to describe how the authorities gave him a break.  He used the term as if it were an established fact.  There was no attempt to define it or understand what it really meant, or even whether it applied to that particular scenario.  It was an accepted truth repeated as an established fact.

A relative of mine argued that blacks in America are still frequently victimized by racism.  Their example was a black family they know living in a predominantly white city, who were followed by a store manager while they were in a grocery store.  Where to begin with this one?  How about start with a question: how do you know you were followed?  But even this basic question was never asked, it was just assumed to be true.

In decades past, examples of racism included things like having separate water fountains that were labeled “white” and “black”; being made to sit in the back of a bus because the front was reserved for whites; or not being served at a restaurant because of your skin color.  Those are real, hurtful, verifiable examples of racism.  

But now, decades later, feelings and impressions have become the new indicators of racism, specifically because there are so few actual examples.

NFL Running Back, Adrian Peterson, compared the NFL labor contract to “modern slavery”.  That same year Peterson signed a six-year contract worth $86.28 million, which included $36 million guaranteed, $12 million just for signing the contract, and an annual base of $14.38 million.  Yeah, slavery all over again.

Michelle Obama, in an interview with PEOPLE, opened up about her and former President Barack Obama’s struggles to deal with racism in their own experiences.  She says:

“I tell this story – I mean, even as the first lady – during that wonderfully publicized trip I took to Target, not highly disguised, the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf. Because she didn’t see me as the first lady, she saw me as someone who could help her. Those kinds of things happen in life. So it isn’t anything new.”  

Makes Rosa Parks’ suffering seem like a church picnic, doesn’t it?  Her only other example of, as the magazine puts it, “coming face-to-face with racism” is:

“Barack Obama was a black man that lived on the South Side of Chicago, who had his share of troubles catching cabs.”  

Keep in mind, please, that these are three examples of racism from the richest Running Back in the NFL, the (then) President of the United States, and the First Lady.  Think about that for five minutes.  What has happened?

I’ll tell you.

Racism or Life?

When it comes to discussions of race in this country, we’ve replaced verifiable truths and real horrors with innuendos and impressions.  Impressions, furthermore, of experiences that are mostly common to everyone.  It’s called life.

How many people do you know right now who are dissatisfied with their jobs because they believe they are underpaid and/or marginalized?  How many people get asked for help by strangers at Lowe’s or Wal-Mart? I myself have had this happen on four different occasions.  How many times have you been at a restaurant where the waiter seemingly ignored your table?  How many times have you or someone you know been overlooked, marginalized, taken for granted, etc?  

The answer is nearly everybody, because these feelings are common to the human condition.  Just listen to the gossip at your workplace.  Everyone always feels misused and misunderstood.  Nearly everyone feels they’ve been passed over for a promotion by the boss’ “favorite”.  

And that’s the point!  Isn’t it?  By not questioning articles like the one linked above on Michael Twitty; by not calling out Adrian Peterson’s slavery analogy, by not laughing at the Obama’s feeble attempts to claim that they, the most powerful couple in the entire world, are victims of the same oppression that drove people to the back of the bus, we do several very problematic things:

First, we marginalize real racism and real suffering.  A book I am currently reading has a good example of this.  In speaking with European refugees in Italy and Greece, Douglas Murray recounts:

“One demonstration of this [racism] is the hierarchy that exists among the migrants even once they are on the boats. Racism between and among the migrant groups is routine. For instance, Tunisians and Syrians look down disapprovingly on sub-Saharan Africans, and not only metaphorically. When the boats set out the best places in the vessel – at the front and on the deck – are occupied by these better-off groups from the Middle East and North Africa. The Eritreans, Somalis and others sit or stand in the hold of the boat. If the boat goes down it is these people who are most likely to drown.” (Murray, 2017)

Juxtapose that versus missing some cabs in Chicago or being asked for help at Target.  Puts the suffering of the world into context, doesn’t it?  The fact is that signing a $14 million contract is tremendous privilege, not racism.  Being asked for help at Target and missing cabs in Chicago is a common experience, not racism.

Second, the more these normal events are viewed as racist, the less people will take real racism seriously.  This is, in part, the moral of The Boy Who Cried Wolf.  By the time a real wolf attacked the boy’s sheep, nobody was willing to listen to him.  A growing percentage of whites have tuned out cries of injustice because they’re sick of being vilified for all the wrongs in the world.  That’s a problem that swings the pendulum the other way.

Third, an entire generation of black young people are being brainwashed into thinking that the everyday problems are really byproducts of racial prejudice and systemic racial injustice.  

Racism: The Next Generation

I used to work with a black woman named Denise.  She was outspoken on racial issues, often referring to whites as “your people.”  But for all that we got along very well.  Denise was one quarter white, and one of her ambitions was to find her white relatives and show up unannounced on their front door, thinking their shock would be a great joke.  I jokingly told her one day – after she described in detail a scrumptious meal she was planning for a family gathering that weekend – that I might just show up on her doorstep at dinner time claiming to be her long-lost white relatives.  We laughed.  She then said this: “Well, you know I’d take you in.  But this younger generation, now…they wouldn’t.”

This was an odd statement. Denise was one of the first black students to desegregate her Southern high school.  She had seen real racism.  But the younger generation is far more bitter about the so-called systemic racism – a.k.a missing a cab or being passed over for a promotion – than the generation that actually experienced it.

Think about that for a moment.  This generation is more embittered towards America – specifically whites – than the generation that went through segregation.

What has happened is that discussions of race in America have moved away from facts and are dominated instead by feelings and impressions.  Michael Twitty feels that whites are getting too much attention for Southern cuisine, a claim that his own popularity argues against.  This is now a firm example of cultural appropriation.  The family who felt they were being followed in the grocery store because they were black now believe it, and use it as an example of how racism still pervades American life.  Extremely rich and privileged athletes feel abused and enslaved because of the inflexibility of multi-million dollar contracts.

Until we are willing to ask honest questions as a society, and demand that claims be verified with facts, race relations in America can only get worse.  And that should concern everyone who cares about racial healing.

Murray, Douglas. The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (Kindle Locations 1387-1392). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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Micah is an avid audiobook listener, finishing more than 90 titles in the last three years. He graduated from The Master’s University with a degree in Communications; and now lives in Sidney, Montana, working as a Measurement Technician in the oil and gas industry by day, while writing by night.