Potlucks, recipes, and good old-fashioned genocide: An appropriation primer

Photo of an ipad, propped up in a kitchen with spoons and limes nearby. A recipe is visible on the ipad's screen.

CW: Non-graphic mentions of genocide, violence, enslavement, rape, racism

Have you ever been invited to a potluck with new and old friends whom you know to be excellent cooks?

So you show up, and there are all these amazing dishes. There’s potato casserole and barbeque chicken (vegan if you prefer), there’s a huge tossed green salad and a rice dish with spices you can’t quite put your finger on. There’s a huge bowl of the most amazing, pungent pasta and cheese with sauce. Somebody brought a fruit plate (that was probably me, I don’t cook) and there’s this dish of chocolate pudding with banana and wafers that tastes way better than it looks.

You get the idea.

And your friends are all like, “Oh, hey, try this. This one is great,” and you try everything and it’s all delicious and you fall absolutely in love with the faux-turkey dressing and the pecan pie. They’re the best you’ve ever had.

And you’re like, this food is so good that I want to learn to cook it myself. So you ask your friends if you can have their recipes and they’re glad to share and you go home and you teach yourself to cook.

Yum.

That? That, my friends, is you learning from your friends and applying what you have learned. That’s cross-pollination, inspiration, cultural exchange. Good stuff. Hopefully you return the favor at some point with a big piping hot bowl of soup or a poem written in their honor (if, like me, you don’t actually cook).

New scenario. There’s still a potluck in this scenario, but you haven’t been invited. You don’t even know the people throwing the party. They’re those weirdos down on the corner you’ve been avoiding because they smell kind of funny.

But they’re over there having a good time and laughing really hard and your feelings are hurt because you weren’t invited (even though you never invited them to your parties either) and besides that, you’re hungry.

So you gather a few friends and you raid the party. Just a little party-crashing fun, you know? Just the normal potluck-raiding stuff: You gather up their children and slaughter them. You rape the women and take them home with you and keep them as captives and make them do your cooking. You capture the men too, but you sell them to your friends because that way you don’t have to manage their attitudes. And, anyway, you need the cash.

Then you wrap up all that yummy food and bring it home with you. You eat what you like and throw the rest away. Your captives can eat the scraps out of your garbage if they want to, as long as they don’t touch the good stuff.

Oh, and you make them teach you how to cook your favorite recipes from that party you crashed. All good fun.

You actually kind of fall in love with some of the recipes? And that funny smell you used to think was weird is some kind of herb and the scent of it grows on you, so you demand that they tell you where they grow it and you gather all that shit and now it’s yours. You like their weird clothes, now, too.

So, like, they can wear your old scraps, you know, and you’ll have new clothes made, patterned after some of the cool styles they used to wear, except updated and improved, of course.

Maybe some of them escape, so you have them hunted down and killed. But then, like, the government tells you you’re actually not allowed to keep humans as pets who do all your work for you? Bummer, right?

But at least you have their recipes and it’s not like they have resources to take care of themselves because you burned down their house after taking everything valuable out of it, including the weird things they had on those pagan altars they were keeping (those infidels). Some of it was gold-plated and had gems in it so you took it apart and sold the good stuff.

Anyway, they don’t have any money or access to other resources, so they keep working for you and if they don’t like working for you, you call law enforcement and tell them your workers are breaking the law and they go to jail. Serves as an example to the others and gets the trouble-makers off your hands.

Anyway, sometimes they stay up late and play music to themselves (see, they must be happy!) and you can hear it. And after a while you stop hating it and start liking it? But, like, you want an improved version so you start writing your own tunes based off of theirs and then you get famous for them. It’s just their tunes played on instruments that are more familiar to you, but that makes it fresh, right?

And now they’re free, right, and happy (all that singing!), so what’s the big deal, all that enslavement stuff is in the past.

You’re wearing their hairstyles and burning their herbs and living off the wealth from selling their sacred items and eating their food and you’re rich off the music you learned from them, but that was years ago, and anyway they ought to consider it a compliment that you like their stuff enough to imitate it.

That, my friends, is appropriation (or, more precisely, “misappropriation,” but in common parlance, “appropriation” means effectively the same thing at this point).

The only reason you don’t recognize it as appropriation when you do it is because our culture has managed to effectively obfuscate (hide) the reality from us.

European culture in the United States (not exclusively, but I’m speaking only for my own country right now because it’s the country I know) was built on exactly this scenario. We crashed the party here on Turtle Island, and we crashed the party in Africa, and we took what we wanted and trashed the rest.

We, the descendants of those raiders, are living on the bounty gained thus.

Not only that, but the raiding hasn’t ended. Every time a population of the descendants of the Africans whose party we raided builds up a little wealth or gets a little ahead in the rigged game we forced them to play, we burn it down. We keep their young people incarcerated through the penal system (the 13th amendment did not end slavery, by the by, it simply rebranded it as a prison system… read the amendment).

Meanwhile, we keep telling them their culture and all its products are shit, and then stealing their shit and rebranding it as our own and calling it inspiration.

Same thing for the First Nations (Native American) people on this continent. Different details, same story.

Now back to that potluck. Imagine if, after all that, the descendants of the people you treated that way came to you and said, “Hey, can we have our sacred gems back?” and you were like, “Oh, sorry, I already sold them,” and they were like, “Well, okay, but could you at least stop wearing mockeries of our sacred items as costumes” and you were like, “Oh, sorry, but I really like to,” and they were like, “It demeans our culture,” and you were like, “BUT I REALLY LIKE TO.”

That’s what we sound like, my friends, when we demand that we have a right to use what was stolen by our ancestors without regard to the feelings and needs and rights of the descendants of those they were stolen from.

Now let’s imagine that, after all that, your grandkids, who didn’t actually participate in the potluck raiding party, but who live off the wealth gained from it, want to borrow some recipes from the descendants of the victims of the potluck raiding party.

So they go next door, pinching their noses because it still kind of smells funny at the neighbor’s house (which they’ve rebuilt despite decades of continuing oppression). Your grandkids giggle as they knock on the door, because they know the person who answers it is going to be dressed funny and they can’t wait to see how ridiculous they look. You taught those kids how to dress “classy” and they know that whatever these people are wearing is ridiculous. But when someone answers the door, your grandkids put on fake smiles and ask sweetly if they can borrow a cup of sugar, a pinch of that funky spice, and a recipe book.

That’s (mis)appropriation. Even if the neighbor gives you the sugar, spice, and recipe book, that doesn’t make everything instantly okay.

If you really want to borrow the things, there is a whole hella lot of restitution that needs to happen first. It’s not enough to say, “Well, it’s a compliment to show I like the recipes.” Especially not if you’re going to turn around and sell the recipes as your own.

And even if it IS pure appreciation. Even if you’re not PERSONALLY going next door to make fun of the neighbors while asking them favors, there is a whole hella lot of history you need to understand so you don’t get your panties in a wad when the neighbors tell you to fuck off.

Why should they trust you? Even if you’ve never personally harmed them? When there’s a history of your ancestors treating them that way? When people like you consistently come to them with “peace offerings” and then steal everything and burn their shit to the ground?

Nobody’s trying to stop you from connecting to beautiful things, to beauty, to sacredness, to your own roots, to dressing up, to having fun.

There is plenty of that in the world to share.

Nobody is hoarding the good stuff just by telling you you don’t get to have certain recipes.

On the spiritual front, this can be a challenging thing to understand and accept, because those of us who are of European descent were long ago separated from our indigenous roots by Roman expansion and the Roman Catholic Church/Christian hegemony. We were colonized before we were colonizers.

Many of our native “recipes” have been lost. The formulas for entering trance states, the maps for navigating the other worlds, the rites and rituals and sacred places and sacred practices. So much of it gone.

So we naturally want to look to traditions that were colonized later, that still have an unbroken connection to their indigenous teachings, their indigenous recipes.

So this is a thing we must wrestle with, right? Everyone has an absolute divine right to connection with nature, connection with God (which, in my view, is the same as “nature,” the same as “universe,” the same as Self, but I digress), connection to their own ancient ancestral traditions.

Think of those ancient ancestral traditions as the recipes. The connection is universal, but the ways of establishing, maintaining, and using the connection are specific, unique, and connected to culture and indigeneity.

It’s tempting to steal someone else’s recipes when yours were stolen from you. But just because it’s tempting doesn’t make it right.

As descendants of colonizers who live on the wealth established by said colonization, we must do our atonement before we can even think of borrowing a recipe.

And then we only borrow with permission.

And even then we must never think we have an absolute right to those recipes. They’re not ours.

We must learn to be humble.

We must learn to atone not only for our own sins, but for the sins of our ancestors.

And even then, it may not be enough.

The good news is that although our recipes may be lost, the food is not. The Book of Nature is open to all. God is widely available in an infinite number of flavors, and access is not restricted.

The good news is that even many of our own ancestral recipes are still available, we just have to dig for them a bit.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this forever. Cross-pollination, cultural exchange–these are GOOD things. But they cannot exist rightly in the aftermath and continuing atrocity of centuries of raiding the potluck.

You have to make restitutions for the genocide (cultural, ecological, and human genocide) before you can have a fair exchange.

Before you can borrow the recipes.