Isn’t Cultural Appropriation Good For Business?

(This post originally appeared on Inc.)

For as long as I can remember my now 80-year-old mother and I have been having lunch every week at the same delicatessen near my office in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. It’s called Katz’s Deli Kitchen and you can look it up. Katz’s Deli is excellent. The food is great and the service is consistent. Being Jewish I have a lot of experience eating at Jewish delis and, as Jewish delis (and small businesses) go, I consider Katz’s to be one of the best.

Oh, by the way, the owners aren’t Jewish. They’re Asian. Yes, Asian. The cooks are Asian and so are a few of the servers. As a Jewish guy, shouldn’t I be shocked? Offended? Outraged? Of course not. These are people that run a good business. So good for them. Unfortunately, there are some that would disagree with him.  Take what just happened in New York City this past week.

That story is about Arielle Haspel, an entrepreneur who just opened Lucky Lee’s –  Chinese restaurant. But…brace yourself…Haspel isn’t Chinese. She’s a (gasp!) white woman. She’s also a professional chef with a passion for Chinese food. So she decided to create a business around it.  Shame on her!

God forbid that an entrepreneur has such respect for another culture. So much so she wants to take some of its best aspects (its food), put her own spin on it and open a business. Unfortunately for her, some took offense. Haspel was vilified online for being a cultural appropriator.

“What people are reacting to is saying, ‘For generations, Chinese in America were doing stuff but they did it horribly. As a white person, I can do it better,”‘ Robert Ku, a professor of Asian American studies and food studies at Binghamton University said in an Associated Press report. “What she’s focused on is health and being clean, which implies the others were not.”

Ku is referring to an Instagram post from Haspel that billed her restaurant as providing “modified” and “clean” versions of Chinese food menus that don’t make people feel “bloated and icky.” She gave the impression that some Chinese food isn’t exactly healthy and that some Chinese restaurants aren’t always so clean. Hmm…wonder where she got that idea from?

Agree or not, the post was a mistake and obviously Haspel realized her error because she immediately took it down.

But the damage was done. Now, the “cultural appropriation” crowd had something to sink their teeth into. And when they smelled blood, they attacked Haspel online to such an extent that she got the kind of publicity from major media sources that would call into question anyone’s contention that “all publicity is good publicity.” It wasn’t.

What the cultural appropriation police miss is that entrepreneurs have been building businesses for thousands of years from the ideas of cultures before them. Should we fault Toyota for making cars that were invented in America? Should we not watch “The Office” because it was originally a British show?  Is Mexican baseball “appropriating” an American pastime? Is Au Bon Pain making a mockery of the French café and bakery culture? Can I not enjoy a hot pastrami sandwich at a Jewish deli made by a Chinese person?

Cultural appropriation is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing, particularly for business.  If you’re an Italian person who wants to open a German bookstore, a white person who wants to create a website about Native American history or an Asian person who wants to launch a Jewish deli please do. If you want to have a sale in honor of the Chinese New Year or dress up your staff as Irish dancers to celebrate St. Patty’s Day then knock yourself out. Be careful with your language. Be respectful. But don’t let this stop you from doing what you do well…and profiting from it too.

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