Let me start off by stating a few things, for the record:
I am a 32 year old white female who knows very little about my own culture, such as it is. My parents immigrated from England in the late 70s and became citizens in the early 80s. I was born here. I don’t know my extended family very well, and I know next to nothing about my heritage beyond: British.
My accent is terrible.
I am ignorant of many things, but I want to learn so I can be a better person.
That’s how we learn, by exploiting our ignorance.
I want to talk about cultural appropriation.
Right now, if you check out #CulturalAppropriation on Twitter, you will find a LOT of angry, sarcastic tweets from people of all races. Cultural appropriation is not a new phenomenon. It’s been happening for…pretty much ever. Many of your favorite sports teams are big fans.
Most people can understand the obvious racism in the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves. It gets a bit fuzzier with Halloween costumes – but only those that are based on characters from movies. Like, throwing on a poncho and a sombrero and a fake mustache is obviously racist. But…what about dressing like Jasmine or Mulan or Moana? Some say yes, others no. Maui is right out, though, that one is clear.
“My culture is not your [insert thing].”
Oh, yeah. I’m going to talk about the prom dress.
Quick summary: A Utah high school senior named Keziah Daum found a cheongsam in a thrift shop and decided to wear it to prom.
And then this happened:
Now, the dress itself sparked backlash immediately as cultural appropriation. Jeremy Lam’s tweet, above, made Daum’s initial seemingly innocent prom post go viral, sparking a nationwide discussion on whether a young white woman wearing a traditional Chinese dress to a dance was – or was not – cultural appropriation.
So let’s break it down a little.
A cheongsam is a traditional Chinese garment with a long and storied past. Essentially, it was introduced as the required dress of women of a certain status when China was ruled by the Manchu during the Qing dynasty, intended to be a modest, concealing garment. While the style maintained its modest roots, the garment transitioned into a more form-fitting, elaborately detailed garment chosen by Chinese women in positions of power or fame rather than being required of them.
That is an extremely condensed version of the dress’s timeline and it’s missing a crap ton of detail so please educate yourself. I got a C in high school history.
Oh, I forgot to mention, she and her friends took this picture:
Now, the pose is controversial because some are claiming the use of the praying hands is clearly making fun of the Chinese culture, which is not exactly a stretch. The kids in the picture claim it’s a reference to “Papa Bless” which I guess is a meme that came about after some YouTube video (that I somehow haven’t seen even though my kids spend roughly eleventy billion hours a day watching YouTube) parodying Papa Johns and I LITERALLY DO NOT FUCKING CARE because it’s the one part of this whole debate that smelled the most of bullshit.
The boys in the back are not making obscure Chinese gang signs, they are referencing Vape Nation, I guess, which is a thing by the same YouTube account. Yes, that lends their whole bullshit story about the pose a bit of credibility.
But you’d have to be a complete idiot to be a non-Chinese person wearing a Chinese dress and making a prayer pose and not realize you’re being racist.
I had to do a lot of internet research for this blog because I am very old, apparently, and no longer in the loop about memes and shit like that. But even with how oblivious I am to things these days, even I know that’s racist. I mean, you’d have to have been born yesterday to not know that, and this prom nonsense is almost a month old at this point, so they don’t get a free pass here.
Sorry, I digress.
The pose was racist. I’m not going to talk about that any more.
The dress is the problem. From what I have gathered, the dress is the problem because:
1.) It is a traditional Chinese gown.
2.) It was worn by a girl who is not of Chinese descent.
By all accounts, Daum chose the dress because it was pretty. She liked the style, and I’m sure she felt a little exotic wearing it both because of the style itself and the assumed authenticity of the garment. Plus, finding a vintage gown in great condition AND being able to fit into it? So cool, right?
But…is it cultural appropriation? Good question.
My first real dilemma over this was an article on white women adopting black hairstyles. Like…you’re telling me there’s things I can’t do to my hair because it’s insulting? It’s hair!
And I was wrong.
Because some forms of cultural appropriation are (rightfully) offensive.
the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.
This might be news to some of you, (I mean I hope not but Trump is President so I’m not making any assumptions about anyone’s intelligence at this point), but there was a really long time in our country where white people enslaved people of African descent. Everything about the African culture was deemed to be less important, less worthy, less valuable, just…less…because white people decided so.
So for our entire history, white people were like, “Everything about you sucks because you aren’t white like me.”
Then we were like, “Actually that hairstyle/dress/music/THING I hated yesterday and whipped you for having is kinda pretty so I’m just gonna take that and get lots of praise for it.”
So you can see why people get offended by cultural appropriation, especially when white people do it, because we are the assholes of history.
Back to the prom dress.
I truly don’t believe Keziah Daum intended to offend anyone when she chose that dress. I think she had a stupid high schooler moment when she and her friends posed with praying hands. Her public reactions to being called out for cultural appropriation are pretty typical human behavior – lashing out for being called out on doing something wrong.
I hope that her (supposedly) PR-savvy mother will take a step back from helping her daughter get famous to use this as a teaching moment for both of them. Because instead of rolling her eyes and using her new 34,000 Twitter followers to catapult herself to fame, she should be working to better understand how her words, her thoughts, her actions are perceived. If she took the time to truly understand why her choice was offensive to some, she could use her new platform to influence the conversation about cultural sensitivity.
Because her choice was offensive to some. You can’t tell someone they aren’t offended.
Was it cultural appropriation?
Yes. She took something from a culture that was not her own and used it. By definition, it is cultural appropriation.
But is cultural appropriation always bad?
Here we get to the real question. Because every culture steals from other cultures. Fashion, food, art, music, slang, you name it. And whether or not you are honoring a culture by borrowing from it, it’s still appropriation.
I think we can all agree that not all instances of cultural appropriation are offensive. I don’t think anyone gets mad about chefs cooking traditional dishes from other countries. What about displaying souvenirs from trips you’ve taken?
When I was 3 or 4, I received a pair of slippers from a relative’s trip to (I think) China. They were beautiful. Red silk with ornate embroidery. I wore them all the time (just inside because I didn’t want to get them dirty) until they were splitting because my little feet were too big for them, and then they were a permanent decoration in my room. Would anyone have been mad at me or offended by that? I seriously doubt it, but it’s possible I’m wrong.
How is that different than the prom dress?
It’s not. That was a trick question. They’re literally the same thing.
Except someone saw this particular instance of cultural appropriation and it offended them.
When someone becomes offended, the conversation becomes very divisive very quickly and very little gets accomplished.
This is an unfortunate side effect of humanity and our many emotions.
What should happen when someone is offended by something is a civil conversation where the offender first apologizes for causing offense, then asks the offendee a series of questions about why the thing was offensive, offers their testimony about why they did not believe they would offend anyone, and the two come to a consensus about whether or not the thing should be done in the future and, if so, under what conditions. This would allow both parties to gain a better understanding of the world around them and the people who inhabit it.
Since we don’t live in a fantasy world, I know that’s a lot to ask.
In the case of the prom dress, there’s not a lot about the history of the dress itself that would make the wearing of it culturally insensitive. In fact, as I understand it (and please correct me if I’m wrong), if you are a woman visiting China, it’s basically a right of passage to purchase a cheongsam, and I think they assume you will, at some point, wear it.
There doesn’t appear to be any specifications about when a cheongsam should be worn, but they’re typically reserved for important occasions.
You know. Like a prom.
So…yes it’s cultural appropriation. No, it’s not culturally insensitive. Whether or not it offends someone is out of your hands, but white people do a lot of racist things so it’s understandable that we offend people most of the time. Be sensitive of that.
That was not sarcasm.
The pose was racist though. Gotta say that one more time. Do better.
On to the Met Gala.
This one got a lot of eye rolls, mostly because every goddamned time a minority is offended by something a white person does (right or wrong), white people have to find something to whine about and this certainly seems like yet another example of that.
But let’s take it seriously for the sake of argument. Were the costumes at the Met Gala a form of cultural appropriation?
Let’s break it down:
A bunch of celebrities wore a bunch of crazy outfits designed to honor the theme of a costume party fundraiser celebrating the artwork inspired by Catholicism on display at the museum hosting the event.
Yes, anyone who designed or wore Catholic-artwork-inspired clothing who is not Catholic participated in cultural appropriation.
No, I dont believe it was culturally insensitive to do so.
Why? It was the theme of the event, and it was approved by the Vatican. Every aspect of the event was intended to honor the culture.
That doesn’t mean you have no right to be offended.
But if you are a member of a cultural majority that was, historically, the oppressor more often than not, it’s probably best to reserve your outrage for other topics.
Let’s wrap this up.
Things are never just black and white – nor should they be. They’re colorful and confusing and complicated. That’s the beauty of that funny humanity thing.
The best thing you can do when you make the decision to use something from another culture is to educate yourself. Find out everything you can about it, the history, what it means to the people of that culture, and decide whether you believe people will be justified in being offended by it.
And then make a decision and learn from it. Because there isn’t always a clear right or wrong decision.
It’s important to have these conversations, though. Anytime something makes us uncomfortable there’s a tendency to try to shut down the conversation, to dismiss it. If we want to grow as individuals, as humans, as a whole, we have to have these discussions. By learning how our thoughts, our actions, our choices affect those around us, we are offered the opportunity to be better, to do better.
Listen. Learn. Do better. Rinse and repeat.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_assimilation (not a great link)