A young American woman was publicly criticized for wearing a Chinese dress for her prom, despite not having a Chinese ethnicity. Here are my thoughts on the matter, from the perspective of a British teacher living in China.
A teen’s special day
The American tradition of prom has gradually influenced British culture, and we now have prom for our own end of year highschool students in the UK. As I understand it, many girls from both America and the UK feel under pressure to find the right dress and an impressive entrance to the prom which is a chance to express themselves and release some of the pressure brought on from exams.
The Chinese Dress
The young American woman chose to wear a beautiful red Chinese dress known as a qipao or cheongsam, in Mandarin and Cantonese respectfully. She commented on how she loved the beauty of the dress and it’s reserved nature, likely commenting on its high collar. This dress is a traditional dress, yet does not have any religious or cultural boundaries – You can wear this dress at any time of the year, though many women like to wear this dress on special occasions. For example, some of the Chinese teachers at my school wore beautiful qipao on the first day of work, others will wear this when celebrating birthdays or the 100th day of a newborn child. I have seen a few Chinese women wear the dress style daily, yet others won’t wear the dress at all, as some have told me, it’s a bit of a bother to wear.
Twitter user Jeremy Lam criticized the young American, with his comments suggesting she was culturally appropriating the Chinese culture. His words can be summarized “My culture is NOT your prom dress. 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.” Many online media websites have interpreted Jeremy Lam’s comments as accusing the young American of cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is often used by sociologists to describe a majority culture deliberately profiting from a minority culture, by taking important aspects of the minority culture and changing their original meaning to appeal to a consumer market.
Examples of cultural appropriation include the Native American feather headdresses which are worn strictly by leaders of a certain rank. These hold highly spiritual and political importance. Yet these headdresses were coveted as a fashion item, and have been remade and sold by markets to consumers. The meaning of the headdress was forcibly changed to vague meanings such as “peace” and “love”, which made it a popular item to purchase in events like music festivals even to this day.
Other cultural appropriation against Native American culture include vision quests, which are sacred trials undergone by Native American tribe members at a point in life to learn about what their role may be in local society. Vision quests heavily emphasizes togetherness. Yet vision quests have been sold as ‘experiences’ for tourists. These tourists then go forth to learn more about themselves and their own identity. This is different to the vision quest’s original meaning and it was never meant to be a commercial enterprise.
When sociologists describes cultural appropriation as making profit from minority cultures, it does not always allude directly to financial and economical gain. For example, traditional clothing and cultures have often been radically sexualised, such as the Japanese kimono or even used for comedic effect such as the traditional wear of a Catholic Nun, a Mexican sombrero or a Japanese Geisha used, and culturally appropriated for Halloween.
Cultural appropriation is a hot topic and various modern societies across the world are still exploring where it draws the line on what is morally acceptable. My perspective is to consider the nature of the ‘profit’ someone may be gaining from wearing or using an item from another culture and to check whether it fits the definition of cultural appropriation. On my own personal understanding, I feel it is more likely that an institution is guilty from cultural appropriation than an individual. Here are a few questions I would ask to myself, on considering whether an individual is involved in culturally appropriation.
- Has this person changed the original meaning of the culture?
- Does this person profit from the minority culture? Financially or socially? And was this done deliberately?
- Will this have long lasting consequences for the minority culture?
- How has the minority culture responded?
Chinese culture is tremendously vast, from one town to another you may experience a completely different language, cuisine, way of life, music, religion and perspective. A qipao is something than many Chinese cultures share, yet there are also many other traditional forms of Chinese dress that some regions have and others don’t. The qipao is not sacred and many Chinese people living in China have expressed support and delight of a foreigner wearing the qipao at a special event – both online and through television interviews. I have also asked fellow Chinese colleagues at my school who first could not understand why there was a problem, and the most common comment I received was “red is the best colour for this dress.”
American and American-Chinese Culture
I do not know much about American culture, but from what I understand, wearing a qipao can make you stand out quite a lot. My last thoughts for this blog post is if an American-Chinese person was to wear a qipao for their prom, what kind of reaction would they receive, compared to this young American woman? Would an American-Chinese person receive positive feedback, or would they be seen as ‘exotic’ or ‘not American’?
Many online critiques of the young American have stated that the two latter points are the case, which suggests a huge, societal issue that must be addressed through responsible organisations and social policy. It is known that many minority cultures and people feel they have to work much harder than others in order to receive the same opportunities and social status, and issues regarding successful social integration regularly hit the tabloids both in America and Britain. But don’t mistake this blog post for suggesting this is a new or recent issue, minorities having to receive ‘majority approval’ has been examined by sociologists and historians alike.
However, I do not think it is the fault of the young American woman that American-Chinese individuals feel they cannot embrace their heritage due to bullying and pressure from majority cultures, nor do I think this particular issue proves that the young American is culturally appropriating Chinese culture. The thoughts and feelings on both sides of this particular debate both contain reasonable arguments and while I personally do not think this young woman was culturally appropriating Chinese culture, it does not invalidate those who think that she was.
Yet I think instead of examining the actions of a young individual, perhaps we should look at the bigger issue at hand? Let’s ask ourselves what can America do as a society to allow minority cultures to express themselves without the need to force them to dress, act, speak in the manner in order for the majority to feel safe, secure, non-threatening and part of ‘regular society’? AKA, American. I can appreciate how someone who identifies as American-Chinese may feel frustrated that the majority culture in American can appreciate other cultures without issue, while perhaps they themselves feel they cannot.
There is a similar problem in Britain with cultural integration and I’d like to end this post with a link to a Facebook page of someone I look up to. Naziyah Mahmood is a wonderful scientist, activist and martial artist among many other things, and she made a fantastic point about the absurd demands that some people in society make against minority faiths and cultures. Her choice to wear a hijab as part of her Muslim faith has been met with some terrible criticism yet she responds that Muslims should not have to “drape their national colours over their heads”. I feel the debate on cultural appropriation in regards to wearing the qipao in America is due to a much wider social issue at hand on social and cultural integration and solidarity.