The gap between appropriation and disrespect

June 8, 2018 — by Callia Yuan

In one of the biggest controversies of this year’s prom season, a white high-school girl named Keziah Daum from Utah posted pictures on Twitter of herself wearing a Chinese-style qipao dress, or a cheongsam, to her prom. The dress she wore had a tight fit and thigh-high slit, as described by The New York Times, causing a storm of both criticism and support.

A Twitter user of Chinese descent angrily responded to the post, saying, “My culture is NOT your prom dress,” later adding that “I’m proud of my culture. For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience is parallel to colonial ideology.”

There are many things wrong with this statement; first, let’s define cultural appropriation, which people are accusing this high school girl of.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, cultural appropriation is “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.”

The fact that this girl is appropriating Chinese culture can’t be denied, because she’s wearing a Chinese dress but isn’t Chinese. But as a Chinese-American girl with strong ties to Chinese culture, should I be offended? Has this girl demonstrated that she doesn’t respect or understand Chinese culture by simply wearing a dress? If anything, by wearing a dress with Chinese elements, she’s exposing more Americans to a wider range of culture and influence.

And if you follow the logic that white people aren’t allowed to wear a Chinese dress, then they should not allowed to eat Chinese food or drink boba either. Furthermore, within the given definition, technically almost everything anyone does is some form of cultural appropriation. An American using paper, which was invented in China, is taking something from a different culture and using it; do people have to understand the history and origins of paper to be allowed to use it? Should they prepare a comprehensive presentation on all the Four Great Inventions of ancient China?

The qipao itself, in fact, evolved and took its current form due to Western influence. What used to be a bulky robe that only showed the hands and face of a woman became tighter, losing the layers of cloth underneath.

“There were new elements in the 1950s, like tapered waists, or darts at the bust and waist,” said Terence Cheung, assistant curator of the Museum of History, in an article from The New York Times. “The qipao merged with Western dress. In the early 1970s, with the introduction of the miniskirt, there were some very short qipao.”

So the qipao itself appropriated Western culture. Clearly, taking things from another culture isn’t always offensive and is often beneficial.

Simply appropriating a culture isn’t offensive — cultures often feed off and evolve from each other. However, disrespecting a culture is a completely different idea, and anyone of any background can offend any culture, even their own. When we appropriate a culture, we should be careful not to disrespect that culture.

So when does appropriation become disrespectful and inappropriate? A good example of this would be “sexy” Native American Halloween costumes. Because Native American clothing isn’t meant to increase sex appeal, it becomes offensive when such items are modified for this purpose.

However, what makes these Halloween costumes offensive isn’t the fact that other cultures are borrowing them; rather, it becomes disrespectful because cultural items are modified and stripped of their proper history and meaning. Wearing a traditional cheongsam to prom promotes Chinese culture and emphasizes its significance as a symbol of beauty. Her personal background doesn’t matter — even if a Native American girl wore a “sexy Native American” Halloween costume, it would still be offensive because it shows that she’s ignorant of Native American culture, even if she might be of that background.

Rendering the qipao as a direct representation of one’s entire culture is counterintuitive and belittles the true beauty and significance of Chinese culture. While people in China are praising this girl for appreciating the beauty of the Chinese dress, Americans are getting caught up trying to divide people into different categories and not allowing different cultures to overlap.

But the fact of the matter is, America doesn’t owe any other country anything. Our country should learn from its past mistakes and respect other cultures, rather than trying to separate people into tidy categories and never let them overlap, which counteracts the idea of America as  a melting pot of cultures.


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