Cultural appropriation… what do you think?

Utah teen, Keziah Daum, has been harshly criticized online and in the media for herLogo 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.

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photo – Twitter

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.

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8 thoughts on “Cultural appropriation… what do you think?

  1. Ugh. These days you have to be careful with what you wear, your hairstyle, how you talk, walk, breathe.
    People need to chill down a bit honestly 🙂

  2. I agree with you! It is one thing to use something from another culture mockingly or insensitively, but choosing a prom dress is almost as important as a wedding dress for some of these girls. Clearly it was chosen with adoration and respect. Perhaps this comment will come off as offensive, but why is it that it is only inappropriate for white people to use items from other cultures and not the other way around? Should we be shouting “appropriation” when a girl from India chooses to wear a beautiful white ball gown to her wedding instead of an equally beautiful traditional red sari? I don’t think so, but if there are lines in the sand then nobody should be able to cross them.

  3. It is a curious new world we are entering with the many campaigns for political correctness in all aspects of our lives from cultural appropriation to gender pronoun use to sexual consent and harassment to our diets and leisure activities… the list goes on and on. There are no written rules on many of these issues about what is right and what is now unacceptable. The rules are being made up as we go along by the people who are the loudest in their complaints and most active in shaming people on social media. Everyone thinks they have a right to their own opinion and social media allows them to spew those opinions out to the world no matter how biased, uneducated or based in just plain falsehoods they may be.

    Personally I think the furor over cultural appropriation is the biggest threat to minority cultures becoming extinct. As the keeping of those cultural items and activities is relegated to a smaller and smaller group of individuals who have the “right” to use them, they will be lost to our world and left only as memories in museums. Culture is a living changing evolving part of our human existence and adopting clothing, food, rituals and medicine from other cultures has been part of the collective human experience for thousands of years. This is how people have gotten to know one another and understand each other through experiencing, appreciating and adopting things from cultures other than our own. To suddenly pile a lot of guilt and shame on people and categorize it as evil cultural appropriation is a sad loss to all of us as humans and can only create more separation and misunderstanding between us. Unless an individual or group is using cultural items to put down or make fun of people, or disrespecting sacred artifacts, I think the witch hunt on cultural appropriation needs to stop.

    • So well said, Kari! Thank you for adding some great insights to the dialogue. I hadn’t even thought about the threat that the whole cultural appropriation furor could be to minority cultures, but that’s a very good point.

  4. I think of the clothing we wore in the late 60s, early 70s with mandarin collars and the like. I’m sure we can find many elements of style in our clothes that can be attributed to other cultures. I think some people are going too far. Next it will be our food. To me, using something of another culture in a respectable way is appreciating what they have given us and honours them. …and I used to wear an Inuit Parka (before I moved to the banana belt of Canada) because it was practical and the warmest garment I could get.

    • I think if we were to try to eliminate everything that has been borrowed from other cultures a lot of us mixed blood Canadians would be starving and naked! After all, what can we really call our own?

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