Utah teen, Keziah Daum, has been harshly criticized online and in the media for her recent choice of a dress for prom. Hoping to find something unique, Keziah decided to browse a vintage store in downtown Salt Lake City. There she found a beautiful red cheongsam; a high-collared, form-fitting traditional Chinese dress.
The problem is that Keziah Daum is not Chinese. The dress “gave me a sense of appreciation and admiration for other cultures and their beauty,” she said, but she has been accused of cultural appropriation.
What is cultural appropriation and how is it different from cultural appreciation?
Cultural appropriation deals with the adoption of elements of a minority culture or a marginalized group by members of a dominant culture without permission and usually with little respect for or knowledge about the original culture. In true cases of cultural appropriation, elements that may have deep meaning to members of the original culture are sometimes reduced to exotic curiosities by those adopting them. For example, decorating your home with a Buddha statue when you are not, in fact, Buddhist would seem to me to be culturally inappropriate. If you are white North American and you include items that are representative of First Nations culture in your Halloween costume, that too is clearly cultural appropriation and may also help perpetuate harmful stereotypes. I question, however, whether using the same items or garments in the ways that they were originally intended is harmful to anyone at all.
The problem, in many cases, is that there is often no agreement amongst members of a supposedly offended cultural group about what is or is not acceptable to them. While Keziah Daum’s choice of prom dress elicited plenty of criticism from both Chinese and non Chinese, scores of other people also identifying as Asian Americans, defended her choice, saying that they did not consider it offensive. One of them tweeted, “I am a Chinese woman. I support you. You rocked that dress!!”
I have a Japanese yukata (summer kimono) that I purchased in Tokyo. The shopkeeper had no problem selling it to me and showing me how to wear it properly even though I was clearly a gaijin (foreigner). In fact, I believe that many of their customers are visitors to the country looking for a special piece of Japanese culture to take home with them. I also have a traditional Vietnamese ao dai, a two piece silk outfit comprised of a long tunic and pants that was made to measure in a tiny tailoring shop in Hoi An. When I traveled to Vietnam I had no intention of buying an ao dai, but when I visited a few of the 200+ tailoring shops in Hoi An and admired the beautiful garments, the seamstresses were all anxious to make one for me and I couldn’t resist. I also have a Chinese silk jacket from Hong Kong as well as a beautiful silk abaya from the Middle East, both gifts from friends. I have worn all of these on special occasions and meant absolutely no disrespect to the cultures they came from. In fact, like Keziah Daum, I consider it a special privilege to be able to wear such gorgeous and meaningful pieces.
I also wear a beautiful ring made to order by Haisla artist, Hollie Bear Bartlett. A Christmas gift from my husband, it’s hummingbird motif in traditional Northwest Coast style is symbolic of love and beauty. I am originally a coastal girl of European descent. I do not think that my wearing a ring bearing the art of a different group of coastal people is inappropriate or disrespectful. I also have Northwest Coast and Inuit art in my home, as do many other Canadians.
On the other hand, I do think that our Canadian Prime Minister made an absolute ass of himself, roving around India recently on a highly publicized trip with his family, all of them wearing brightly coloured Indian garb. Their insensitive overuse of and excessive photo-ops wearing Indian clothing drew criticism from their host country with prominent Indian personalities referring to the outfit choices as “tacky” or “fake and annoying.”
Allegations of cultural appropriation have grown increasingly common in recent times with critics casting doubt on the legitimacy of everything from team logos to burrito shops. We in North America are privileged to live in multicultural countries where we can share in the rich heritage and traditions of our neighbours. It behooves us to be sensitive in how we do so, but I think that condemning a young girl for her choice of prom dress goes way overboard.
I realize that this is a controversial topic and that there are people with strong feelings on both sides of the issue. I welcome all opinions as long as they are offered respectfully. I am particularly interested in knowing how my readers from other parts of the world feel about this topic.