Cultural appropriation is a topic that never goes away and one where the goalposts are constantly moving. And when people talk about it, it turns into a furious debate almost immediately. This topic comes up every Halloween, every fashion week, every damn Victoria's Secret fashion show, every time a non-black singer wins a grammy for singing R&B or hip hop, every music festival season with all the Native American headdresses and tribal wear, and now we can add prom season to that. Then there is cultural appropriation versus just paying homage.
There is so much to unpack so let's get into it.
Appropriation of Asian culture seems to be everywhere these days. This has a lot to do with the resurgence of 90s music and fashion that has been going on for the past few years. Let's be real. That decade was super problematic for a number of reasons. As a society, we were just realizing that the "colorblind" ways of the previous generations was backfiring on minorities and almost all acknowledgement of any sort of Asian culture bordered on fetishization. Back in the 90s, Asian (mostly Chinese) culture was all the rage in fashion and it was never questioned. A look back at Delia's catalogs and music videos from the 90s, one can see that much of the fashion was Asian-influenced -- chopsticks in your hair, Chinese takeout-shaped handbags, and qipao dresses.
Today, Asian Americans expect acknowledgement and rightfully so, but there is so much pushback because non-Asian people, especially white people, have not only gotten away with it for so long, they were often praised for it. It's not uncommon to see white children and adults wearing offensive Halloween costumes without giving it a second thought and it's because their own parents and grandparents never expressed any genuine interest in the origin of these outfits when they were kids. Because of this, I place a lot of blame on white parents and grandparents of earlier generations for being so entitled that they didn't even see how their behavior was problematic, offensive and hurtful to ethnic minorities.
So why do people get so angry about cultural appropriation? I think this debate, like all that get people really riled up, is because nobody really has a universally accepted definition for the term but it generally relates to the use of the art, artifacts, symbology or anything of cultural significance to a minority or non-dominant group of people by a person who is not in that group. Even simpler: it's the adoption of minority culture by members of the dominant culture.
Are we reaching a tipping point in the accusations of cultural appropriation? In 2018 and in an era of globalization though, is cultural appropriation inevitable? Some of these cultural signifiers have caused people so much pain and trauma from being "othered" that I think a lot of marginalized people would prefer that white people just stay away from their culture. Based on the dictionary definition of appropriation and where we are culturally, I would say that yes, appropriation is bad. Is there a way to pay homage or have a cultural exchange? Yes, but if it's homage or exchange, then it's not appropriation because that requires understanding and respect and appropriation is lacking in those things.
When is it appropriation and when is it appreciation? Here is an example: Getting henna done for Coachella by a white-owned company is appropriation. Getting henna done at your South Asian friend's wedding is not. As far as embracing other cultures, I think an invite is necessary. You have to already be engaged with that culture to appreciate it. That way you're not stealing it. It's really hard to stomach watching someone who is part of a race that enjoys legal superiority adopting parts of oppressed cultures while actual members of said cultures are mocked and ostracized.
By the way, if you call out appropriation when you see it (and you should), get ready to get accused of being a cultural appropriator yourself - you'll be accused of using the internet and speaking the English language, and for using a keyboard or iPhone because those are all white men's inventions. (Those people are really stupid and they don't understand what appropriation is. My advice: Don't engage with those people.)
There was a really tone deaf article published in The Atlantic in October 2015 that really dismissed all complaints of cultural appropriation. The author's name is Jenni Avins and she called these accusations "shrill after shrill wave of internet outrage and oversensitivity". She called the people pointing out appropriation "the self-appointed guardians of culture who jealously track who owns what and instantly jump on transgressors". She found the accusations "alarming" and said she found the idea that she "should stay in her own lane and only get inspiration from Europe absolutely outrageous". It was her indignation and entitlement that bothered me so much because it is the general outlook by many whites. All you have to do is google the latest Chinese qipao prom dress incident and you will find article after article written by white people who justify this behavior. They will resort to tactics such as interviewing Chinese people living in China about their opinions on the incident. (Side note: Why would you ask Chinese people in China about an incident that angered so many Asian American people? People in China do not deal with the same racial and power dynamics that those of us in the west deal with. We don't ask black people living in Africa what they think about the Black Lives Matter, after all.)
They are all wrong. It boils down to entitlement. They all completely disregard the responsibility that people born of the cultures they want to borrow from have for it. People born into that culture feel a need to be a caretaker of it. They feel responsible for making sure it is respected.
So what's the solution? Well, I think if you really want to wear that qipao dress, everyone has Google and Wikipedia. You can look it up. You can consume media made by people of color like books and films. It's not hard. The more educated you are, the more you'll see that these trends aren't trends, they're someone's culture. It's really not that difficult. What I'm hearing in the response to this prom dress incident is white people saying, "no, we should be able to appropriate whatever we want and not feel bad about it."
(With regard to the Chinese qipao prom dress incident, Jess Rhee of Plan A Magazine summed it best: A qipao is a wedding dress. It would be the equivalent of a Chinese exchange student attending prom in a bridal gown. She would get laughed at for it. That's why that white girl looked so ridiculous.)
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