Blowing Water

Those howling loudest about cultural appropriation over Utah schoolgirl wearing qipao do not own the culture they claim to be defending. This is just another form of xenophobia

Film stars have been wearing dresses inspired by different cultures for years, Andy Warhol painted a pop art picture of Mao Zedong, where was the outrage then? A Utah schoolgirl did nothing wrong in wearing a qipao

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2018, 3:52pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2018, 12:56pm

Many of us, myself included, have probably been guilty of some form of cultural appropriation at one time or another and, for the most part, it is likely to be inadvertent, with no offence intended.

Keziah Daum, a high school girl from Utah who wore a qipao, a traditional Chinese dress, to her senior prom is an example of this, and yet her decision stirred a tirade of online criticism. Twitter user Jeremy Lam was among the most brutal: “My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress,” he tweeted.

The social justice warriors came out in full force to berate an 18-year-old, who wanted to wear a pretty dress to her prom. In this day and age, the internet is awash with “keyboard warriors” such as these, who seek validation by calling out cultural appropriation, which appears to come from a misguided sense of nationalism, or even an underlying sense of xenophobia.

I would have taken offence if Daum had worn the dress on a debauched night on the town, or had altered it to make it even mildly salacious for her prom night; that would have been an insult to the national image of this elegant garment. 

However, I would say wearing it on such a significant occasion showed respect and admiration for the beautiful dress, and she certainly got my approval for looking lovely on her prom night.

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I suspect some people were more offended by photos showing Daum and her friends clasping their hands palm-to-palm, while bowing in greeting, in a manner some in the West consider typically Chinese. This faux pas probably came down to cultural ignorance on Daum’s part, more than anything else.

Nowadays, everybody – including Chinese people – shake hands in greeting. The palm-to-palm gesture is reserved for prayer, meditation, or extremely traditional settings. However, some of my non-Chinese friends still think we greet each other this way. My first reaction is not to berate them, but to educate them and expose them to the culture. In other words, a lack of exposure to a culture breeds unintended ignorance.

In the case of Daum, it is safe to say her town just north of Salt Lake City, which boasts a small population of 20,000 people, probably does not receive much exposure to other cultures, so her excitement in donning a relatively exotic garment to prom, and her ignorance of proper Chinese customs, is understandable.

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Nowadays, cultures interconnect and overlap to the point that we cannot really live in isolation, or lock ourselves up in a cultural vacuum. Critics of cultural appropriation insist they are not opposed to cultural engagement, but merely wish to prevent inappropriate or disrespectful interpretation of a particular culture, or even messy interactions between cultures.

All is well-intended, of course, but how does it help to promote cultural engagement, or appreciation, if barriers are erected preventing people from reaching out to engage and exchange cultural experiences with one another?

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Moreover, if we are to denounce cultural appropriation, are we suggesting there should be no cultural overlapping, no cultural crossovers, even no cross-cultural marriages? In this globalised world, we cannot afford to segregate cultures, or monopolise cultural elements or images. The most sensible option is to make sure we break down our cultural barriers, and learn from one another.

Whichever way you look at it, the Chinese culture does not fit the definition of cultural appropriation

It is worth highlighting that some diehard culture gatekeepers insist even when cultural appropriation has no ill intent, and is purely a gesture of appreciation, it is still not acceptable, because it’s up to the inhabitants of that culture to feel whether they are offended or not.

Another critic went even further by accusing Daum of trying to use the dress to make herself appear “more exotic”. I could not help but wonder what the issue was. It’s an exotic fashion statement, especially in a small city in the middle of Utah, so why not? No woman in her right mind would set out to make themselves look ugly when picking a dress to wear for any occasion.

Charges of cultural appropriation are sometimes misapplied because the interpretation is often subjective. Would you apply this charge if a non-Chinese person cooked a Chinese meal for a dinner party? What if a Westerner quotes Confucius, just to illustrate an aspect of their business presentation? 

What if a European teaches you how to appreciate Chinese tea? Should we slam these individuals too?

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Film stars have graced red carpets the world over in stunning dresses for years, with designs inspired by a variety of cultures, but this rarely makes negative headlines, let alone ones with accusations of cultural appropriation.

Andy Warhol’s pop art portrait of Mao Zedong was sold in Hong Kong last year for a whopping US$12.6 million and is considered to be one of the artist’s seminal works. Where was the outrage when this piece of art came on to the market?

It is also worth noting that the definition of cultural appropriation refers to the subject culture being a minority one, a culture considered subordinated in social, political and economic aspects. Whichever way you look at it, the Chinese culture does not fit this definition. 

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Everyone has a voice in their own culture, and the right to dabble in, or learn from, another culture as long as the intention is not to hijack it with the intent of turning it into a veiled form of racism.

Nobody owns a culture, so it is nonsensical to imply that you should get permission from the inhabitants of a particular culture before dabbling in it. Is this what our so-called culturally enlightened and global community has come to? If this is what has become of our interconnected world, then something needs to change.

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post