Cultural Appropriation Or Cultural Fascination?: My Thoughts On Lee’s Ghee

lees ghee

I love South Asian food. A lot. And I know one of the reasons why it’s so incredibly delicious is because of the one magic ingredient that’s gotten quite a few people worked up over lately: ghee. Ah, yes, the smooth, greasy butter-like substance that’s now suddenly become the latest food trend, thanks to Lee Dares; a former Canadian model turned organic ghee entrepreneur.

I know it’s aggravating that no one made a big deal about ghee before, considering that we can virtually find it in every single South Asian (or “Desi”) grocery store across Ontario, and I know many are irked about the fact that when Indians, or South Asians, make or sell ghee, no one cares, but when a white — Caucasian — woman makes or sells it, it’s suddenly the next big thing. And that’s not cool utterly enraging.

I completely understand why so many people, including POC feminists, social activists, South Asians, etc. would find this enraging, I mean I would be mad too if I had a great recipe that was passed down to me for many generations,  and where only my family was known for it, only to be “stolen,” rehashed, and passed off by someone, who is not  from my family, but who also has a history of oppressing/colonizing us. Yes, I’d be very mad indeed.

However, let me play the devil’s advocate here and say this: Suppose a person found my family fascinating? Suppose this person thought that the culture my family hailed from was far more interesting and perhaps even “superior” to theirs (even though their culture is known to be the “superior” one)? Suppose this person found innocent comfort and joy in the recipe that my family was famous for, and was genuinely interested in learning more about it and decided to popularize it among people from their own family, only because it was so incredibly awesome?

Would it then be okay for this person to use my recipe, enjoy it thoroughly, and go as far as make a business out of it? No? Yes? Maybe?

While there is no tangible answer to those questions, as it depends on the context in which it occurs, I’ve come to realize that the term ‘cultural appropriation’ is a tricky one, perhaps even confusing, because more often than not it is used to (unfairly) target while folks for simply behaving, eating, dressing, or making something that they like/enjoy, and which they find comfortable.  And I talked about this term a little bit in a piece I wrote recently in response to the ‘Dear White girl with a bindi’ cartoon, which can be read here.

Many a time when a white person sports a bindi or braids their hair in dreadlocks or even wears a sari, they are suddenly slammed with the term ‘cultural appropriation’, because it is believed that white people are simply not allowed to wear, behave or do anything that will emulate a culture that has a long history of being marginalized, colonized, and oppressed by their race. Many who find great offense in such behaviour usually go with this argument,

White people took everything they wanted from us, so why aren’t they satisfied? Why are they still copying/stealing what is sacred to us — our culture– and claiming it as their own? Haven’t they done enough damage?

Fair enough. I totally get it.

But what about those who believe that every single thing is cultural appropriation? What about those who take offense for every single little thing, just because they feel like their culture is being selfishly misappropriated? Don’t you think that’s a tad bit unfair and going a bit too far, especially while the rest of us brazenly wolf down sushi, teach/perform yoga and meditation, do belly-dancing and salsa, eat tacos and burritos, etc. — things that are not part of our culture, but because we like it, and find it fascinating, we are willing to partake in it? And that automatically makes it okay, because we, too, are people of colour; we are allowed to indulge in things from other cultures, because historically, we were just as oppressed as they were. And because the “enemy” here is the white person, it is only they who can damage what is pure and sacred in our cultures?

Well, no.

As much as I try to find any iota of logic in the above paragraph, I can’t. I can’t simply bring myself to agree with this argument, because it doesn’t make sense to me. While I understand where the majority, who do actually agree and endorse this view, are coming from, they seem to paint all white people with the same brush and that is very unfair and something I do not agree with at all.

“Sensationalizing ghee and making it more widely known”

Although, I am sure many will not agree with my stance on the matter (and I might even lose some friends due to it), because when it comes to something as sensitive as ‘cultural appropriation’, many are quick to jump the bandwagon and scream, “colombusing” — a term which roughly refers to white people who claim they have firsthand discovered or created something that was already in existence for many years, decades and centuries by another culture. And while, at first glance, Ms. Dares’ “invention” may seem as if she were ‘columbusing’, I, for one, didn’t see it as such. Here is why:

1) Ms. Dares did not claim to discover ghee

From my understanding, if you are to plagiarize a product you would try to fully claim it as your own, without giving (any) credit to its origins. Ms. Dares, however, did not do that. She didn’t disregard her product’s origins; as a matter of fact, she clearly mentioned that ghee has its origins in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other Southeast Asian countries, and that not only is ghee solely used for cooking, but it is also,

considered a medicine, which is why people just eat it straight. – Source

2) Ms. Dares did not ‘invent’ the recipe, she learned it from an older Indian woman

Yes, she did not invent it, all on her own; she learned it while she was on a seven-week internship in India, and that too from an elderly Indian woman while on a farm in Northern India. And there is absolutely nothing wrong about that. When we like something, and see its benefits, it’s natural for us to learn it and incorporate into our own lives as well. And that’s exactly what Ms. Dares did. She did not have bad/evil intentions. None, whatsoever. Her intention was simply to learn how to make this unique form of butter, because she saw how good and healthy it was for her.

3) Ms. Dares re-introduced ghee into the mainstream by “sensationalizing” it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing

No, seriously, it’s not a bad thing at all. As a matter of fact, it’s a good thing! Why? Because more and more people will learn about ghee, and how awesome it is and how even more awesome South Asians are for introducing it in the first place. So, let’s sensationalize it as much as possible and let’s stop all the omg-I-am-SO-offended for a minute and see the positive in this.

4) Ms. Dares is just trying to make a living (and maybe even some money) doing something she clearly seems passionate about

As an ex-model, she had to do something to make a living for herself, right? And ghee just happened to be it. She must have found her “calling” when she went to India, and decided to share the love with everyone. So,  just give the poor white woman a break, and enjoy her awesome (I am assuming it’s awesome, because the recipe is straight from India) ghee for what it is. I might actually give it a taste too, especially since she’s decided to take it one step further and added additional herbs and spices to it. Yummy!

“Take a chill pill, people!”

I know some of my readers must be wondering why I am standing up for this woman, when I am not white myself, but rather a brown Pashtun-Canadian woman. I mean why take this privileged white woman’s side, when I really should be taking the ‘other’ side — the one who are in opposition of Lee Dares and her blatant “cultural appropriation.”

Well, first off, I am not taking sides (or at least I don’t intend to come off that way), only because I seek fairness. I realize that Ms. Dares is using something that was original and sensationalizing it into something that is different and unique. I fully see and accept that. However, her intentions are not unscrupulous. At least, I don’t think so. Second of all, I don’t see her actions as cultural appropriation per se, but more so as cultural fascination; she went to India, she became fascinated with the culture, she discovered ghee (I mean how often did she go to South Asian grocery stores here in Canada, before realizing that there was such a thing as ghee? Let’s just give her the benefit of the doubt, all right?), and the rest was history. And there is nothing — absolutely nothing — wrong with that.

Besides, there are far more worse forms (yes, there are many forms) of cultural appropriation that I personally have problems with, one in which a specific culture is appropriated simply to be ridiculed, mocked, belittled, or regarded as “primitive.” That is where I have very little, or no tolerance at all, because not only is the culture being misappropriated by someone, or a group of people, who are clearly ignorant, but it’s also being insulted and demeaned — something that would definitely be classified as racism. A perfect example of this was when Walmart sold a costume depicting an “Old Pashtun papa.” The piece I wrote on it can be read here.

So, let’s all just take a little breather  — or, better yet, a chill pill — and be a little more accommodating, as there is nothing better than meaningful cultural exchange. I mean, let’s admit it, what could be better than sharing recipes, clothes (for special occasions), activities, etc. between different cultures? I certainly love it! And best of all, it can lead to intriguing, intellectually-stimulating discussions and greater mutual understanding.

6 responses to “Cultural Appropriation Or Cultural Fascination?: My Thoughts On Lee’s Ghee

  1. I don’t think the problem is that Lee is using or eating ghee; South Asian food is widely used and loved. It’s that she’s created a business out of something that doesn’t quite belong to her, catering to people who may eventually believe she is the be all end all of ghee knowledge. I’d like to know if Lee is giving money back to the people who taught her, the South Asian women she learned from, especially if she is not taking credit for her work. When white people take aspects of South Asian culture and profit from them, it further demonstrates how South Asian cultures can be split into pieces and parts for them, whereas South Asians are not able to do such a thing and have to deal with the stigma and prejudice that has been set out by these white cultures against them. The fact that she decided to dress up in a sari for her photo op with the Toronto Star is the cherry on top of this bout of cultural appropriation.

  2. I believe making Lost Foods, traditional foods, and food ways known to people is valuable… making a product available not the same as passing on teachings…

  3. have you seen the article written in the toronto star? she is wearing a make-shift sari – that is WRONG to commodify indian culture that way. it makes it fake when she does that. she may love ghee and great, she’s got it into the mainstream and more palatable to non-indians in her cute bottles with flavours, but when she says that “In India, they age the ghee and pass it down through generations” it is B.S.!! You use the ghee, then make massive amounts of it again, and then use it, and then make more. i know. as i lived in a household that used ghee as a staple in food and on bread (instead of butter). yeesh!! you don’t age/pass it on like kombucha or some fungas! plus dairy is expensive and they don’t have time for that in India. get with the program lee

  4. My problem with this is she’s charging too much for a little jar of it. Asian stores only charge half as much but the wealthy buyers will pay the price because they believe if it costs more it must be better. Ergo people who can’t afford it feel ripped off. I prefer to make my own ghee…it’s less expensive and I know what’s in it.

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