Utah teenager Keziah Daum wore a lovely Chinese cheongsam dress to her prom. Originally when I first read the story of how the online mob charged her with virtual flaming torches once she shared her pictures, I felt sympathy for her.
However, Daum also posted photos showing her friends with hands clasped in what did appear to be a pose mocking Chinese culture.
That’s not acceptable.
A good friend who IS Chinese-American shared a thoughtful post intended to spark a dialogue on Facebook about cultural appropriation. I admit, I didn’t take her seriously and posted a flippant remark about how she could wear my dirndl anytime. (I don’t actually own a German-Swiss dirndl, my cultural clothing; my sister in law does, however. I’m assuming I could borrow it in a pinch).
I finally decided to look up the definition of cultural appropriation. It means, according to the wisdom of Wikipedia:
Cultural appropriation is a concept in sociology dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power.
Reading that simple definition finally put it into perspective for me. The elements of colonialism – that’s why it is such a hot button issue.
It is not simply wearing clothing or creating art inspired by aspects of another culture. People have been doing that for centuries. It is a dominant culture usurping elements of minority culture and unintentionally denigrating them.
This, I get. When Madonna wore rosaries around her neck and Sinead O’Connor mocked the pope back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was outraged. “Artists” who mock icons or images of the Virgin Mary or Jesus also raise my ire. It is not that they are a dominant culture and I belong to a minority, colonized culture. It is the mockery of something that my culture – Catholicism – holds dear that raised hackles.
I think the young lady wore a lovely dress. If she had left it at that, it might have been all right. It’s the pose of servitude in the group picture that unintentionally threw gasoline on the fire of social media ire.
Imagine a young person today who dons a tuxedo and blackface and struts out on stage with a banjo. He may have seen such an act in an old film and not understood the hateful connotations involved. As the older generation, we need to help youngsters understand the connotations of donning the clothing or assuming the characteristics of other cultures.
It isn’t as simple as putting on a dress.
Thanks to my friend Cecilia for helping me see the other side of the story.