EDIT: I found out the young woman I talk about made some racist comments and her “remorse” has little value. My stance on appropriation hasn’t changed.
So if you’re on Twitter as much as I am (which I’ll admit is probably too much), then there’s a chance you’ve heard the story of a high school senior who wore a traditional Chinese dress to her prom. If you haven’t, I’ll link it right here.
Now, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure what to think when I first heard about this. I’m of Asian descent, though admittedly not the mainland, and I’m conflicted.
On one hand, I can see exactly how this can be labelled cultural appropriation. This young woman is wearing traditional garb from outside her own ethnic background without knowing the history and importance of it. Something you can also see when people wear bindis (from South/Southeast Asian culture), Native American headdresses, and the like as fashion statements or costumes. People who wear other cultures likes costumes when the people belonging to those cultures have been ridiculed, ostracized, persecuted, and even attacked for actually representing their people.
But what makes me feel conflicted is that as a child I owned a dress very much like this girl’s. It was gifted to me by a friend, who was of Chinese descent.
Now as a kid, I didn’t really think about things like culture much or at all. I just saw this as my friend giving me something cool. As an adult, I realize that this was a pretty big gesture. My friend wanted to share her culture with me and I think that’s pretty special. And you can say whatever you want about kids not understanding but I think it’s fascinating that younger people are more open to sharing their culture.
I, as I am now, am very socially conscious. I am very aware of my own privilege and how my views may differ from others and how my experiences have shaped them.
Even now, I ask myself questions and do research to make sure I’m fully aware of my choices. Only a month ago, I was thinking about my Halloween costume for this year. I wanted to dress up as Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog, then I thought maybe I’ll just go as a generic “voodoo doctor”. Then I stopped.
I started to think from another perspective. The perspective of someone whose culture was being used (or planned as being used) as a costume. A culture that goes back hundreds of years being minimized into a prop. And I realized I was about to do exactly what I criticize others for doing.
Now I’m not saying that you can’t appreciate cultures outside of your own. I think it’s amazing when we can share our cultures and learn about new and different people that we might not have known about before. No, I’m not saying that cultures should be boxed up and kept to specific people. What I’m actually saying is that people shouldn’t reduce other cultures to costumes and props, which actually perpetuates stereotypes and does more harm than good (i.e. no good at all).
Even writing this, my opinion on the girl who chose to wear an ethnic dress has already changed. While I do honestly think she meant no harm, her choice was racially and culturally insensitive. And if there was anything I would want her to do, it would be to reflect and realize that her status as a non-Chinese person has shaped her views. Despite her attempts to show her appreciation for Chinese culture and beauty, her actions actually counter the sentiment. And letting these actions go without the proper correction is actually harmful to groups that face discrimination on a daily basis. I’m hoping this young woman reflects on her actions, comes to an understanding with them, and grows from this.
I hope this opens your eyes and/or helps you to see things from another perspective. Above all, I think it’s important to educate yourself, be aware of your privilege, and understand that our differences shouldn’t divide us.
Below, I’ve linked a few accounts of cultural appropriation and what it means.
But until next time x
Cultural appropriation in media:
- Cultural Appropriation: What Is It And Why Is It Problematic?
- Gucci Criticism
- Native American Cultural Appropriation
- Using Bindis