We need more allies against cultural appropriation.

By Tiffany Chan

Edited by Morgan Moore and Catherine Harlow

It’s prom season and you may have seen a recent viral story gracing the internet about a girl (of non-East Asian descent) who chose a Chinese qipao as her prom gown. This story took the social internet by storm after it was brought to the attention of the Asian American community via Twitter.

It’s important to outline why someone might be offended in the first place. While qipao can be worn for any occasion, red qipao are traditionally worn by brides. How do I know this? Because my sister wore one at her wedding, and any time I try to buy a qipao, my mother always reminds me NEVER RED (but I guess her 媽媽 never taught her that). To put it in perspective, think about how people react when a white lacy dress is worn at inappropriate times. It could be at prom or even [GASP] at someone else’s wedding. Just because the garment has been divorced and debased from its original form and you can order it from Amazon Prime does not mean that choice is in good taste. We cannot erase the fact that it means something specific within the contexts of its culture or origin and is now being used for something different. Considering the general nature of teenagers as well as the fact that Utah is a predominantly Caucasian state, I can only assume that this was done for notoriety.

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Bride in a traditional Chinese wedding ceremony. Photo credit: Vision Times

Am I personally offended and outraged by the story? No, I’m aggravated by it, but I learned very early that you can not be outraged by everything that is actually offensive lest you burn out. Personally, I have always tried to set my sights on critiquing cultural institutions, textbooks, and media: platforms that I believe in general have a larger social impact than a girl and her prom dress. But to those who took up the cause in this situation, more power to you for continuing the conversation.  

What does make my blood boil however is the reaction of non-Asian Americans to the responses and stories of Asian Americans. On multiple platforms, I’ve seen people trying to say that the outrage expressed by the community is an overreaction, and therefore we should stop talking about it. Furthermore, as we’ve seen with previous stories of this nature, the perspectives of nationals are brought in as the ultimate authority, thereby trying to silence those Americans who first raised the issue. This has gotten and continues to get under my skin, perhaps precisely because of how we are trained to think in art history classes. While we many not necessarily ‘like’ any given artwork, we’re trained to speak about it with a certain degree of clinical detachment from our opinions. If it is from a different culture, we try to be mindful that its culture of origin has a legacy and is a heritage.

I wish to make this point incredibly clearthe Asian and Asian-American experience are two COMPLETELY different things.

Let me explain by talking about me. I am not Chinese, I am Chinese-American. I grew up in a very white suburb, where I was one of three students of Asian descent and the only other people who looked like me were my family members. I have physical characteristics that mark me as very much Not White. I don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese (which is really embarrassing), but I also have a deep attachment to Cantonese dishes, which remind me of my own home and are a shared cultural identity when I do meet other Chinese people. But it becomes very obvious that my childhood was distinctly American when I meet someone from China or listen to the stories my parents tell about their childhoods, which feels like a world away.

Being [country of origin]-American to me means that you occupy the liminal space between the Old Country and American society. You don’t wholly fit in either category neatly, and that can be overt or creep out in insidious ways. Hasan Minhaj said it best when he said that minorities all face the same issue: do you try and fit in? Or be different because you ARE different from the norm? The same people who now think it is so cool to wear bindis and qipao are likely the same types of people who teased people of color (POC) for not fitting the mold only years earlier. And again, this is a way to try and silence people rather than have a dialogue. It’s okay if you didn’t know this, I had to take a college course to wrap my head around it and have the language to try an articulate my (then) two decades of experience. Once fully cognizant however, most minorities have a finely-tuned radar to racial inequality in the United States in a way that someone from the Motherland would not be.

You can personally think that people are overreacting, in this instance or others. Per the First Amendment, that is your right, you are entitled to your opinion. If you are not a POC, by all means please have the conversation about what does and does not constitute cultural appropriation. That issue really is complicated and is worthy of hours of discussion. So-say whatever you want. But the moment you refuse to acknowledge the lived experience of (in this case) many Asian Americans and try to purport that opinion as fact, then you cease to be an ally to me. Full stop. I frankly don’t care how progressive you claim to be in other respects.

But it’s really quite simple to take the first steps towards being a good ally! There’s a couple things to keep in mind: Listen to them. Keeping an open mind does not necessarily equate to wholly agreeing with someone, but it does mean that you’re listening (or trying to). You are not entitled to anyone’s story, especially when it could potentially involve trauma, but if they choose to share that story with you, the least you can do is listen. Sharing stories that are not the normative experience is a brave thing to do, so respect it and don’t ask for more details—especially if you intend to use those details to somehow try and undermine someone’s argument. All you need to do is say “We might disagree, but I hear you and I believe you.”

When you say “it’s not cultural appropriation and we’re being too sensitive,” what you’re essentially doing is valuing your own opinion above someone’s lived experience and possible trauma. When you say we shouldn’t talk about it because someone says it’s alright, you are prioritizing your own discomfort at talking about the subjugation of minorities…over the actual subjugation of those minorities. If it’s uncomfortable for you to listen to it, I beg you to empathize with what it is like to live with that burden, without the ability to escape when it becomes too uncomfortable, too much to handle. And everyone who comes across your opinion will know that you may or may not be a safe person to talk to about things of this nature. It breeds distrust. We can’t ask the peoples’ of long-gone civilizations how they felt about the images of their time, but our contemporaries are literally begging for us to hear them, take them seriously, and just be better. It’s time to listen.


Further reading from Asian American voices:

  1. The shocking viral reaction to a prom dress” by Jeff Yang, for CNN
  2. How Creating A Food Doc Made Momofuku’s David Chang Less Judgmental” An interview by Nicole Laporte for Fast Company
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8 comments on “We need more allies against cultural appropriation.

  1. Yes we do need more allies against cultural appropriation. BUT this must be done through cultural education. The facts of this case lie solely in ignorance. The girl herself is as much a victim of our capitalistic society as is the culture she is misrepresenting. She said “Tuesday she saw the dress and immediately thought it was the perfect outfit for her prom. She thought that it wasn’t just beautiful, but that the neckline made it much more modest than other options.” She didn’t know that this dress was a traditional wedding dress, she didn’t wear it to say up yours to Asians. I say this because this article implies she did, stating ” I can only assume that this was done for notoriety.” and “The same people who now think it is so cool to wear bindis and qipao are likely the same types of people who teased people of color (POC) for not fitting the mold only years earlier. And again, this is a way to try and silence people rather than have a dialogue.” These admitted assumptions are just as horrendous as the act of wearing the dress. No one simply pointed out that wearing the dress was inappropriate, allowing for an apology, instead the girl in question, a teenager I might add, is vilified for wearing a dress that she thought was pretty. I guess my main point here is intent, did this girl intend to insult the Asian community by wearing this dress, stating “I’m white screw you!” or does she need to be educated on the fact that a red dress such as this is a wedding dress and it was inappropriate for her to wear it to prom. I lean towards education, but maybe I’m just white and don’t understand.

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    • Sorry one last thing to add: This girl is about to leave high school which means she is on the cusp of adulthood. If she claims to be so invested in Chinese culture, then the onus does not fall on Asian Americans to educate her about our oppression. She can learn for herself, she has agency and to say that she is a victim of capitalism removes her culpability. Many other girls of her age did not culturally appropriate at their proms, so I am not going to lower the standards just for her.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I just wanted to add. Sorry for the length of both.

    So I ask where do we draw the line? I’m a firm believer that we are all human, that the pigmentation of our skin or genetic attributes of our birth are cosmetic and at the core we are are the same, we are one species. These cultural divides that drive a wedge between us should instead show the amazing variety of the human spirit, but instead put us at odds. Could it not be celebrated, the wearing of the dress, the embrace of another culture, instead of being seen as an insult, or a slander. This era of social media has brought upon us a time where our lives are laid bare and we must account for every infinitesimal action and justify it to everyone. I embrace the awareness of our newly found global communication, but we have to now realize that these new platforms should be used to tear down borders and welcome each other, instead of pointing out our differences and widening the breach. In this instance the first gentleman who commented “My culture is NOT your prom dress.” could easily have made a jovial remark such as “You do realize that’s a wedding dress right? Dumb ass!” Slightly insulting but nothing more than what one friend would say to another. Maybe I’m wrong, I myself have never truly experienced intolerance or bigotry, as a result of my genetics my melanin levels are low and apparently that means something other than I get sun burns really easily. I know it will take time, maybe I won’t see it happen, but we have an opportunity here like never before to embrace each other and see how we are alike, instead of focusing on our differences.

    This truly comes from a need to understand. I mean I don’t get it, we are one, but no one seems to accept that. Hate groups build off of situations like this stating “Look at this people attacking the poor girl!” or the other side saying how racist she is. Both are wrong. Couldn’t it have come down to “Thank you for taking interest in my culture, but you’re wearing a wedding dress and to those of us that know this, it’s an insult and you look ridiculous?” Again I’m just asking, I really want to know, but please give me a solution, no assumptions, no rhetoric, just what should this girl have done. Should she have seen a beautiful dress and said “Nope that’s Asian can’t wear that.”? Should she have pulled out her phone after seeing it and researched the meaning of the dress to the Asian culture? Upon seeing that red was inappropriate, would it be ok for her to wear another colour? Would it ever be acceptable for her to wear the garments of another culture? Should everyone stick to their own? Is this the world we live in?

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    • Hi Michael, Thanks for reading and thinking about this. Cultural appropriation itself is hard to define, even within the Asian American community. But in my eyes, certain aspects of the story are very clear cut. To those of us who have experienced discrimination and trauma due to differences in culture and race, the First Amendment gives those online the ability to express themselves how they see fit. Frankly, I don’t see how the second statement would be received any better than the first (since it would be hypothetically calling her a dumbass). And you’re right, social media holds us accountable. And I think that’s a good thing, because this is the way that change is made. How else would she have known she did something wrong? Oppression of Chinese people in the United States has a long history, dating back to the turn of the 20th century (and likely has a longer history than that that just hasn’t been written about as much). Since you said yourself that you haven’t experienced bigotry and racism, I simply ask that you extend some empathy for the stories of people who have. For people of color in America, racism and discrimination is so common that we have to make choices about what we point out as wrong because you can not be angry at all the things that are worth being angry about (because you’d be angry all the time). I do not consider myself the ultimate authority on whether this constitutes cultural appropriation (though it’s my personal opinion that it is), but I do want people to just take a moment and actually listen to POC without immediately turning around and saying “but wait,” [insert many hypothetical situations in which it seems so outrageous to call out cultural appropriation]”. And to answer your last question, until mandarin collars and qipao are the fashion norm here in the United States-yeah I do not believe she should be wearing garments of another culture

      It’s a big and complicated issue with a long and complicated history. Thank you for engaging in it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for for your understanding. I had this discussion with a friend as well and the two of you have give me alot to think about. She recommended a book called, Are we truly equal, which I’ll take a look at, if you have any suggestions I’m always looking to learn. Thank you for your time.

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  4. Thank you for this piece. When I first heard the story about the young lady accused of cultural appropriation for wearing Chinese qipao to her prom I felt alarm. I have been the recipient of beautiful items of clothing from other parts of the world by people who travel. It has never occurred to me to learn about the origin of these items prior to wearing them. I would just think: “This is beautiful – I hope I’m wearing it in a beautiful way.” On the other hand, I am black, and when white people make things like cornrow hairstyles popular after having condemned black people for wearing them in the workplace – for example – I get irritated. Reading your breakdown of the dismissive “it’s not cultural appropriation and we’re being too sensitive,” suggests that we would do better to supplant arrogance with curiosity and willingness to learn about cultures and histories that are different from our own.

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