Culturally Inappropriate

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Over dinner last week, my husband asked me if I’d heard about the raging global controversy over a white girl in Utah who wore a qipao — one of those slinky, body-hugging Chinese dresses popularized here in the 1940’s — to her prom. Kezia Daum posted some of her prom photos on social media, thus sparking a firestorm of outrage. “My culture is not your prom dress,” tweeted the most viral of her critics, and the public shrilling took off from there. “Cultural appropriation!” raged the offended. “Cultural appreciation!” retorted the defenders. Hearing this, I nearly choked on my burrito.

In the following days there has been much written and posted and meme’d on the incident, some of it thoughtful and some of it simply nasty. Articles such as the one posted on May 9 by Erin Chew on her site YOMYOMF (You Offend Me You Offend My Family) seem to magnify the anger to near-hysteria and assure readers that there is pretty much nothing Ms. Daum could possibly do to assuage the outrage, even if she were to conduct something like a social media Walk of Atonement, which she so far has refused to do.

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Others, notably Anna Chen in The Guardian, think the umbrage is misplaced. “Minorities face real problems in the US. What a waste of energy to harangue a teenager for wearing a Chinese dress,” she writes. Moreover, she notes, “When cultures meet and mingle, they inform and enrich each other. I can wear tartan, wear pyjamas, knock up a curry . . . Does this make me a cultural appropriator?”

I mean, following the logic of the offended, should I even have been eating that burrito?

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I’m of Northern European ancestry, so I’m not sure if I even possess any culture that could be said to have been appropriated. Unless the bit of me that’s Irish wanted to take offense at other ethnicities wearing silly leprechaun hats and drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day. This is not to say that cultural insensitivity isn’t a problem; for instance, I am glad to see American sports teams at last shedding their tone-deaf rip-offs of Native American emblems.

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But there is a big difference between appropriation and celebration. If we were all to stay within our own cultural boundaries, where would that lead? How far back would we have to go to achieve cultural purity? And doesn’t that very idea give you a chill?

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Full confession: when it comes to cultural appropriation, I am guilty. Indeed, I am an appropriator of the lowest order. I am a white woman who has a Buddha statue in my garden and a dancing Shiva figurine on my mantel. I say “Namaste,” at the end of yoga class, although I am not a native Sanskrit speaker. Last night I had paella for dinner, although I am not Spanish, and neither is my friend who did the cooking.

These, however, are trifles compared to my main offense. At my wedding in 2003 — a second wedding for me, having been previously widowed — I thought it silly for me, a lady of a certain age with grown children, to appear in a white bridal dress. So I had a gown made, one that appealed to me because its design combined what I saw as gracefulness and glamour as well as lineage. Yes, dear reader, I wore a qipao — or at least, a highly qipao-inspired design. Mine was sleeveless. Which would probably get me into even more hot water with the culture police.

But wait, there is worse. The fabric for my dress came from, dare I say it, a vintage Indian wedding sari.

Shamelessly appropriating in 2003

So there you have it. I appropriated not one but two ancient cultures. Strangely, none of the guests registered any objection, even those of Asian or East Asian descent. Maybe they were just being polite.

I still love that dress. And fifteen years later, it still fits.

So what’s your take on this? Did I honor borrowed traditions, or am I guilty of crass, colonial, culture crime? Please share your comments!

8 Replies to “Culturally Inappropriate”

  1. Book Club Mom

    I agree with 100% of everything you say. We talked about the prom dress at home when it happened. I think people these days are just itching to make an argument or be offended about anything they see. I would never be offended if someone wore something or ate food from my culture.

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Alas, I fear you’re right. People want to be special, which is understandable, but then they want to bludgeon everybody else with their sensitivity about that specialness. Pretty sure we ALL need to lighten up 😉

  2. Anni

    Good grief… as a nation of immigrants, we are a melting pot of cultures and traditions. The wearing of Scottish kilts, for example, continues to gain traction as a fashion choice, which delights the Celtic part of me. But can I only eat the burrito or the naan or the sushi if it is prepared by a native chef? Local specialty markets would probably go out of business if we can’t purchase the ingredients to make it ourselves in our Northern European ancestry kitchens… aaagh! There are so many preposterous examples I won’t bother digging in further. I find the dress fuss to be completely unrealistic, an excuse to sow division. We are one world, one people, one race; everyone’s ancestral address will always be Rift Valley, Kenya.

  3. Carrie

    I’m sorry … I’m still stuck on the fact you can (of course you can) wear your wedding dress! LOL … my dear sweet friend, you NAILED it in this beautifully written piece. On my ‘down days’, I nearly fall in by Ken’s trap of thinking the entire world is going to hell in a hand basket — whatever that might mean! I so dearly love free speech, I just wish we could interject is with a pinch of kindness, a healthy dose of common sense, and a gallon or three of respect.

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Well, I can put the dress on and zip it up without falling over, so I guess that counts as “still wearing it.” SO glad you like the post, and I couldn’t agree more that freedom of speech SHOULD carry with it some responsibility — and civility!

  4. Laurie

    Good questions and great post! I have said for a while that people on some social media sites just WANT to be outraged in order to claim the moral high ground. It’s ridiculous. It’s not like the young woman went to her prom in blackface. That said, there is a certain baseball team whose fans set my teeth on edge every time they do their (supposedly Native American) war chant.

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Right there with you on that. Can’t believe that’s still going on.

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