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an article by Eva Zhong

Dear Asian Youth,

The rapid rate of globalization in the past decade has not only worked wonders for business industries and market economies, but it has also paved the way for exchanging ideas, beliefs and cultures. It is truly astounding to see the beautiful eccentricities of our diverse cultures being passed on and made proudly known to the public. Nevertheless, as different heritages are fed into the mouths of the people, the tastes start to turn and the textures start to morph.

A keyword that has been floating around across all social media platforms is appropriation. This word has been used as evidence to signify a lack of awareness about or overall disrespect towards a culture. However, I believe cultural appropriation is not equal to simply wearing clothing belonging to another culture; appropriation is nuanced and difficult to objectively identify. So when does showing ‘appreciation’ towards a culture cross over to become ignorant appropriation? Admittedly, the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation has always been blurry, which is why we are often conflicted about our feelings towards the subject - I know I constantly am. Consequently, my intentions with this article is certainly not to provide an exact identification of what appropriation or appreciation is. Instead, I would like to examine multiple perspectives about the subject, and hopefully spur more discussions to educate and inform.

To start, let’s take a look at the definition for appropriation. The Cambridge Dictionary defines appropriation as “the act of taking something for your own use, usually without permission.” Then, if we add the term ‘culture’, the definition, as provided by Oxford Dictionary, becomes “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another.” What I would like to highlight here are the words “unacknowledged” and “inappropriate”; these adjectives are essentially what angers people about acts of cultural appropriation. Historically, many BIPOCcultures have endured severe prejudice and segregation by more culturally dominant groups. Therefore, when these groups cherry pick cultural aspects of these minorities for enjoyment yet remain discriminatory towards the people and culture itself, it is disrespectful appropriation. If you love and wear the accessories or clothes from a culture, but are prejudiced against the people and the values belonging to that culture, it is completely unacceptable not to mention hypocritical.

Culture is multidimensional and its elements cannot be torn and apart from each other and ‘selected’ for the benefit of others. This goes mostly for commercial industries that are profiting off of cultural designs and styles. The fundamental rule about appreciating a culture is showing respect. Once that respect is gone, it is no longer appreciation, no matter how glamorously the culture is depicted. Let’s take a look at an example of when a culture is misused and appropriated: the 2012 Victoria Secret fashion show featuring supermodel Karlie Kloss.

During the show, Kloss was seen strutting down the runway with a feathered war bonnet traditionally worn by leaders in various Native American tribes. The initial purpose of the war bonnet, like its name implies, is to be worn during physical battles. However, war bonnets are now mostly used for ceremonial purposes . The war bonnets are symbols of both strength and authority; they are viewed as artifacts of considerable political and spiritual significance, solely to be worn by male leaders who have earned the right and honour through formal recognition by their people. Therefore, the major issue with Kloss wearing such headgear while clothed with a tight-skinned bikini is apparent. The war bonnet is sacred to the Native American people, yet it was used by a luxury lingerie brand to promote underwear. In this case, the runway is disrespectful, the model chosen is disrespectful, and the appropriation of Native American culture is disrespectful. Not to mention the ongoing racism against Native Americans on a day-to-day basis and from authorities imposing legislation is eminent. It is not news that the Native American community has faced long-term oppression from the U.S federal government. Many regulations over the years have hindered the Native Americans’ economic growth, land sovereignty, and asset ownership. Though Native Americans are the original occupants of U.S. soil, imperialism and colonization have stripped them of their homes. Since then, they have been pushed to assimilate to mainstream ‘American culture’, pulling them away from their cultural roots.

Oppressing Native American people but using their culture for ‘fashion’ and profit is an inappropriate and inconsiderate business decision backed by hypocritical morals. “Any mockery, whether it's Halloween or Victoria's Secret, they are spitting on us," said Erny Zah, a spokesperson for the Navajo Nation (Native America/American Indian territory). As people who do not belong to this minority group, our appreciation for the Native Americans and their culture is best exemplified when we speak out for their rights and create real change.

Though inappropriate acts of appropriation should be condemned and avoided, we should also recognize circumstances where cultures are appreciated and celebrated appropriately. Calling out all actions related to culture as ‘appropriation’ could wrongfully hurt the innocent; not to mention deter people from further understanding and expressing love for cultures out of fear. Sometimes, things aren’t so black and white. Different groups of people may have contrasting perspectives about one subject. I found one specific event regarding ‘cultural appropriation’ to be particularly interesting: the Qipao prom scandal.

The incident occured back in 2018, where an American highschooler, Keziah Daum, wore a Chinese-style dress - the Qipao - to her high school prom in Utah. A Qipao is a traditional chinese long dress that gained popularity in the early 1900s. The Qipao usually bears exquisite patterns of flowers or scenery. Tol this day, many Chinese women still choose to wear the Qipao in many situations either for clebratory purposes or simply because they adore the style of this dress.

When Keziah, an American girl, wore the Qipao as her gown to prom, she faced immediate backlash from internet users. Many called her out for cultural appropriation and believed that her dress choice was insensitive. However, I noticed that a majority of people calling Keziah out for appropriation were concerned American users. When news of this incident flooded into China, people seemed to be confused about the anger. In fact, the responses from Chinese people were mostly positive. On a Chinese social media platform similar to Tik Tok called Douyin, many Chinese users commented about how happy they were to see Keziah choose the Qipao as her prom dress. These users expressed that Keziah looked beautiful in the dress and that they loved seeing their traditional clothings being represented in foreign countries. “It’s ridiculous to criticize this as cultural appropriation,” Zhou Yijun, a Hong Kong-based cultural commentator, said in a telephone interview. Keziah did not display disrespect to the Chinese culture while wearing the dress, and did not make moderations to the original style of the Qipao.

In an interview, Keziah was asked why she chose to wear the Qipao: “I thought it was absolutely beautiful. [The dress] really gave me a sense of appreciation and admiration for other cultures and their beauty.” As a Chinese girl, I can safely say that the Qipao is not some sacred clothing only to be worn during very special occasions. On the contrary, the Qipao has actually been blended into modern fashion, and foreigners in China are encouraged to try out the dress. If we look at the definition for appropriation again, it is the ‘unacknowledged’ adoption of culture in an ‘inappropriate’ manner. However, Keziah shared that she acknowledges the beauty of this Chinese clothing piece, and it was the very reason she chose to wear the Qipao to such an important occasion like prom. Though I cannot and do not wish to invalidate the feelings of anyone, the factors in this situation does make it seem more like appreciation than appropriation.

Cultures are very complex, but that’s what makes them so fascinating. As our global society grows and mixes further, we will undoubtedly be faced with more discussions about heritage and respect. While we want all cultures to be celebrated, it is important to remain mindful about how we celebrate them. If you want to appreciate a culture, please do your research beforehand and consider if your actions are appropriate. Numerous current mainstream trends are composed of a mix of many minority cultures, so it is crucial to always give credit where it’s due and always remain grateful. Appreciating a culture is much more than seeing the beauty that fits your taste. More importantly, you should recognize the hardships of each culture, and fight to ensure that their culture is properly respected by all.

- Eva

Cover photo source: Portia Barrientos

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