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Question #91268 posted on 05/20/2018 11:36 a.m.
Q:

Dear 100 Hour Board and Alumni,

What is your opinion on Keziah Daum wearing a cheongsam dress to her high school prom? Would you call it cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation?

-Cowboy Hat

A:

Dear Cowboy—

I also wore such a dress to my junior prom, but in blue. This girl appropriated my idea, and I'm offended. 

Jay kay.

To quote a Facebook acquaintance, "Culturally significant clothes are off-limits to people not of that culture, unless they've specifically been invited to wear them by a member of the culture for an event."

Whether she was being respectful or not, whether it bothers "you" (a general you) or not, it was cultural appropriation. It was cultural appropriation when I did it, and it was when this girl did it. To call out Prof. Kirke and his "long view" a little: it does not matter if you think that it's not a big deal. You are not a member of the culture that it came from. Only that culture gets to decide if it is or isn't a big deal.

To put it in perspective: Imagine that a kid in another country decided it would be cute to wear temple garb to a school dance. Or someone thought that garments would make for cheeky swimwear. Or someone decided to redecorate their bathroom and put twelve oxen beneath their bathtub, because they thought it would be an exotic cultural reference.

It doesn't feel good, does it? Our fictional appropriators may think it's cute, and even a fun way of honoring Mormon culture. But they have no idea the cultural and spiritual significance of those items, the sacredness, the history. There might even be a "Mormon" who would be happy to sell someone some imitation temple clothes, but that still doesn't make it okay.

White, European folks have a very long history of taking from other cultures and claiming it as their own for pleasure and profit with no regard for the respect, wishes, or proper use and attribution to the originators. And it's not just in the past, but it's happening right now, all the time (please see this, an artistic triumph about race and gun violence, vs this, an opportunistic retooling that I think gives feminism a bad name. Content warning: violence). Cultural appropriation is a hot topic right now, and I'm glad it is. Maybe this style of dress doesn't have the same level of sacredness as temple clothing (but I don't actually know, because I'm not that culturally aware), but so what? Maybe everybody's just sick of Americans taking all their stuff. That's an okay reason for it not to be okay. Even if we over overcompensate by being "too p.c." or "too sensitive"....GOOD. Daggum could we ever stand to err on the side of respect and compassion.

Most sincerely,
Waldorf and Sauron

A:

Hi Cowboy Hat,

I feel like it was cultural appropriation. One of her prom pictures even had her and her friends making a mocking, stereotypical Chinese hand gesture. I recognize that she's a teenager and she probably wasn't intending to hurt people's feelings, but she did. This is an opportunity for Ms. Daum to learn from her mistake, apologize, and not make the same mistakes again.

Marzipan

A:

Dear you,

I felt like it was appropriation, but I also felt like she was young and made a mistake. In some cases, even teenagers deserve consequences like being dragged all over Twitter (I’m thinking of the guy who used the n-word and a reference to cotton picking in his promposal), but I felt like the reaction was more than she deserves. It is important to speak up when these things happen, so that the person who made a mistake can learn and so that other people can learn from these situations and avoid doing the same thing. But I think that a lot of people end up piling on without adding anything useful to the discourse. 

-Zedability

A:

Dear CH,

Are you the member of a dominant culture with a history of exploiting other cultures? Then congratulations, you are pretty much by definition participating in cultural appropriation on some level, just like you are pretty much by definition participating in racism on some level. It's a part of the human condition. You can't totally escape it.

That sounds depressing. And on some level, it is. The world is an unequal and unfair place, and it always has been and always will be. Our duty is not to make the world equal and fair, but rather to make it less unequal and less unfair. It's a constant process involving missteps and mistakes, and that's okay because it has to be okay. I find it to be a hopeful perspective, because unlike perfection, improvement is absolutely doable.

All of this is to say: of course the dress was cultural appropriation. It's happened, it's done, and it's too late to undo it. We can try to pretend that there's nothing wrong, or we can join the Twitter mob yelling at a teenager and remain blind to all our own failings, or we can step back, take a serious look at what happened, listen to the voices of members of the community affected by it, and start making the unglamorous but necessary changes in our own lives to make the bad things in the world a little less bad.

-yayfulness

A:

Dear cowboy,

As long as crimes are not being committed, I pretty much do not care what random teenagers wear to prom.

~Professor Kirke, taking the long view...

A:

Dear Cowboy Hat,

Does a white girl wearing a cheongsam to prom fit the definition of cultural appropriation, according to those prone to use that term? Yes, I'm sure it does. If it didn't, there wouldn't have been any controversy about it. However, I think that calling things like this cultural appropriation waters down the significance of the term, and the result is that people who were not already receptive to the message will not take it seriously. If I heard the words "cultural appropriation" without any previous context, I would assume that it means taking some part of a foreign culture and pretending that it belongs to you. Now, this may sound very similar to the dictionary definition of cultural appropriation, but the difference in how I see it is that it is possible to use something without pretending that you came up with it. No reasonable person will look at a white girl wearing a cheongsam and think, "Oh, that must be standard American fashion," just because she's white. Saying that rock music is for white people and denying that it was invented primarily by African Americans is cultural appropriation, but white (or Hispanic, or Asian) people making, performing, and enjoying rock music is not.

But okay, fine, you can call Ms. Daum's prom dress cultural appropriation if you want. I will continue to argue that what she did was not wrong. This so-called "cultural appropriation" has happened since the dawn of human history - it's called imitation, and it's how human cultures evolve and grow. To try to keep cultures from "appropriating" aspects of other cultures is to assume that all cultures should remain static and isolated, but that's just not how cultures work.

Now, because it will be important for my next point, I want to address the common assertion that the label of "cultural appropriation" only applies when a "dominant culture" does it to an "exploited culture." Supposedly, blue jeans worn and pop music listened to around the world show that Western culture is dominant, while wearing a kimono or making tacos is evidence that Japanese or Mexican culture is being exploited. In other words, this is another example of an oppressor-oppressed distinction. I do not believe that such a double standard should exist. It makes no sense to me that a group of people should be forbidden from doing a thing because it constitutes oppression, while another group should be allowed (or even encouraged) to take the same action because they are "oppressed." Does this not turn the oppressed into the oppressor, and vice versa? Can't we just hold everyone to the same standard? If something is okay, it should be okay for everyone. If something isn't okay, it shouldn't be okay for anyone. 

Now that I've established that "cultural appropriation" works in both directions, it's time for my final point: the cheongsam itself is a manifestation of multiple instances of cultural appropriation. First, while the origin of the cheongsam is debated, Bian Xiangyang argues in his book An Analysis on the Origin of Qipao that the cheongsam was from its very origin a hybrid between traditional Chinese costumes and Western fashion. Second, even if the original cheongsam was not a direct "appropriation" of Western fashion, Western styles undoubtedly influenced its subsequent evolution, as seen in the raised hemline, shortened sleeves, and form-fitting design. Third, and finally, the appearance and popularity of one-piece outfits for women during the Republican period in China was a result of the Western idea of gender equality making its way to China.

Cultures imitate each other all the time. It's how they evolve and spread. Don't worry so much about it.

-The Entomophagist

P.S. No, Marzipan, those aren't "a mocking, stereotypical Chinese hand gesture." That's Vape Naysh and Papa Bless.

posted on 05/20/2018 10:47 p.m.
I didn't say this before it posted but the NYT article below has a perspective that I feel was missed by the answers above. It says that the Chinese people interviewed about the dress did not find it offensive or think of it as appropriation.

'“To Chinese, it’s not sacred and it’s not that meaningful,” said Hung Huang, a Beijing-based writer and fashion blogger, in an interview. “Nowadays, if you see a woman wearing a qipao, she’s probably a waitress in a restaurant or a bride.”'

That said, many Asian-Americans feel differently. And say it is offensive. So I think it's a lot harder to say whether or not it's appropriation because those two groups of people do not agree on this issue. These two groups seem to almost be two different cultures now.

-Spectre

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/02/world/asia/chinese-prom-dress.html