Debate 5/15: Say yes to the dress?

A h, prom season. For students, it can be a time of nervous waiting, giddy overthinking, and expensive planning. For parents and school administrators, it’s a time for admonishing students against underage drinking, sex, and various risky behavior. Both can expect a healthy dose of drama. This year alone, a few dramatic dress-related incidents have […]

A white girl wore a traditional Chinese dress to prom, and people lost their minds

Q: Was Keziah Daum  committing cultural appropriation by wearing “traditional” Chinese formal attire at her high school prom?

By Sarah Sidlow

Ah, prom season. For students, it can be a time of nervous waiting, giddy overthinking, and expensive planning. For parents and school administrators, it’s a time for admonishing students against underage drinking, sex, and various risky behavior.

Both can expect a healthy dose of drama. This year alone, a few dramatic dress-related incidents have hit the news: one Catholic high school in Detroit has backed off its original plans to pass out “modesty ponchos” to girls at prom whose dresses are deemed too revealing.

Another dress-related drama, this one in Salt Lake City, had nothing to do with how much skin one prom-going girl revealed. Rather, it might have had something to do with her skin color.

If the dress fits…
When 18-year-old Keziah Daum posted pictures of her prom dress, a form-fitting red cheongsam (also known as a qipao) with black and gold ornamental designs common in Chinese culture, she unknowingly lit the fuse on an all-out Twitter bomb. Chinese-American Jeremy Lam responded to her post, “my culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.” To date, the tweet has been reposted almost 40,000 times.

Lam’s stance, which has been publicly refuted by Daum, is that the dress and its wearer were an outrageous example of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation—basically, adopting elements of a culture that’s not your own—has become the source of frustration in recent years, as people have found it more and more offensive. A few years ago, for example, the trend of white people wearing dreadlocks sparked criticism from African American communities. Many believe it’s offensive to blatantly take elements from another culture without fully understanding the history or significance of the thing itself, or the larger story of its people.

Appropriation or appreciation?
But others argue that the concept of cultural appropriation isn’t in itself an offensive thing. We commit cultural appropriation every day, they argue, as a result of our global cultural exchange. We eat Mexican food and celebrate Cinco de Mayo. We use Italian espresso machines. We do yoga.

If it weren’t for cultural appropriation, they argue, we’d be left with nothing but Levi’s and Oscar Mayer.

It’s also worth noting that, apparently, Chinese people (as in people in mainland China) don’t find Daum’s choice of dress offensive. USA Today reports that many users on complimented Daum’s dress and denied any suggestion of
cultural insensitivity.

“It is not cultural appropriation, it’s cultural appreciation,” a user named Wuyiya wrote, China Daily notes. “Can anyone living in the U.S. let the girl know that many Chinese people think she looks stunning in this beautiful dress?”

Q: Was Keziah Daum  committing cultural appropriation by wearing “traditional” Chinese formal attire at her high school prom?

Dum Sum

It’s about more than a prom dress

By Ben Tomkins

This topic is a perfect companion piece to what I wrote last week. Together they might easily form the basis of an ongoing series about contemporary American life entitled “Your Opinions Look Fat in that Emotional Dress.” To be fair, outrage is an appropriate emotion for the topic of an Asian-American man in his early 20s sliming his way through 2017’s freshest batch of teenage girls’ prom pictures and offering commentary. It’s gross. He should be ashamed of himself, as should his thousands of supporters on Twitter and across the country who have legitimized his
revolting behavior.

A brief peek at the photo in question is enough to know that Jeremy Lam’s opinion is worth exactly as much as he paid to tweet it. It features six girls in prom dresses with the article of clothing in question in the center, and their six dates behind them. The girls are making stereotypical Asian girl prayer hands, and the guys behind them are making white people gang signs. The dress is otherwise completely unnoticeable with this bizarre nonsense going on, and the eye is eventually drawn to it because it’s the only logical explanation as to why the girls are doing what they’re doing. (I have no idea what’s going on with the guys. It’s economically comfortable white kids at
their saddest…)

The most hilarious part of this whole farce is that, if someone was racially offended by the shot or wanted to talk about cultural appropriation, they could be in real danger of making a very good point. Why are hand gestures that could get a young man shot in one part of the country a subject of flippancy for young men elsewhere? What does it say about American culture that a young Rohingya girl in Myanmar who folds her arms in prayer could make herself the target of a genocidal government hit squad, but in Utah—ostensibly a far more devout locale than anywhere in Southeast Asia—the gesture has been completely evacuated of meaning for a photo op? These are reasonable and absorbing questions, but for some reason, the comment that stuck in everyone’s
craw is:

“My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.”

I’m not convinced that Jeremy Lam has a particularly Asian cultural perspective, frankly. It’s striking that he doesn’t seem to understand that, in China, the cheongsam is routinely used as a skimpy costume for girl bands and pop stars. Seriously. It’s a thing. If he’s so goddamn concerned that a piece of Chinese culture is being degraded, I would have thought he would have been a bit more pleased that goddamn Utah girl’s version of it was long enough to conceal her goddamn underwear. I do not believe—at all—that Jeremy Lam is the kind of guy who watches the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and flips out over Kate Capshaw wearing a cheongsam, and I guarantee he posted at least one Short Round GIF in response to the nuclear fridge scene from Crystal Skull.

It’s certainly apparent that most of the people in China don’t think Jeremy Lam speaks for them. Quotes from his cultural homeland range from “It is not cultural appropriation, it’s cultural appreciation…Can anyone living in the US let the girl know that many Chinese people think she looks stunning in this beautiful dress?” to “As a Chinese, we all very proud and delighted to share our cultural fashions with anyone around the world. We all support her.” At the very least, Jeremy Lam seems to be as out of touch with the Chinese perspective as someone in Quebec is on French politics. It’s laughable, really, what we’ve been reduced to by our outrage culture: an Asian American pretending he speaks for Chinese people about white America culturally appropriating Black and Asian culture, is being propped up by a legion of Americans who are outraged on behalf of a billion Chinese people…who aren’t even offended.

Free thought is worth as much as the value with which we instill it. If Jeremy Lam and any of his 40,000 Twitter supporters had to pay a nickel to post a tweet, nobody would have bothered saying anything. As special as all of us think we are, take a moment and realize that, for literally every single thing you believe—from your opinions on toast doneness to Donald Trump—there are 40,000 people in our nation of 325 million who would agree with you on a semi-anonymous comment thread. There are 5,000 people who are actually willing to pay dues to be in the KKK, which means there are at least ten times more who just don’t want to go out of pocket.

It’s pathetic, and sadly, it seems to be our country until further notice. We have freedom of speech and thought, and yet we consume intellectual fast food and allow our emotions to override our judgment because it feels good. Please focus on your own life and don’t be part of the problem.

Say no to the dress

Keziah Daum is not honoring other cultures,
but patronizing them

By Victor DeLaine

We white people should not casually adopt the fashions and folkways of non-white cultures. They are like stolen goods. That’s why it offends people whose cultural artifacts we are using.

The rule applies only to white people. It does not apply to non-whites. Does that sound unfair? Get over it. The playing field of cultural appropriation is not a level one. What makes it unlevel is a history of Euro-American imperialism, an imperialism of bullets and dollars that has scarred every continent, every culture, and every color of people on this planet. We stare the effects of that history in the face every day whenever we see the racist disequilibrium that is obvious to everyone who isn’t brain-dead.

Suppose your grandfather, after attacking my grandfather’s country, burning down my grandfather’s tribal village, and murdering all my grandfather’s friends, were to make off with my grandfather’s wood carvings. Fast forward to today. You put a photo on Twitter showing how cool my grandfather’s stolen carvings now look on the mantle in your Springboro McMansion. Would that bother me? Think real hard now.

Of course it would bother me. It would bother any just-minded person. And it would not diminish the offense if you swear up and down that you didn’t know it was stolen, that you think it is beautiful, and that displaying it is your way of honoring my grandfather or his culture or something. It is still the fruit of a poisonous tree.

The rule applies just as much when the stolen thing is not an object but a fashion or tradition. All of us know that a recipe or design can be copyrighted or patented, that those things are property in just as full a sense as my grandfather’s wood carvings are. What if the thing you’re flaunting is not an object from my ancestor’s home, but a dress of the same design as those worn by the ladies of the village that your
ancestors despoiled?

The subject of dresses brings us to Keziah Daum, a young, clueless, gum-chewing beneficiary of suburban white privilege who wore a dress of distinctly Chinese design to her high-school prom. (Don’t let her trendy, pseudo-exotic name fool you. She’s from Utah.) A Chinese American objected, and this week’s debate was born. Keziah assures us that she meant nothing by it, that she wore it simply because it’s a pretty dress that highlights the curves that her rich daddy paid someone to surgically enhance. But her pleas of benign intent ring a bit hollow when you see the photo of Keziah and her spoiled, Valley-girl friends at the prom, with Keziah at the place of honor in the middle, each girl pressing her hands together prayerfully, as if the whole infantile entourage were about to make an Oriental bow and say “ah-so.”

The capitalist West, you might protest, did not bestride China the way, for example, it bestrode Africa. And besides, look at all those Chinese valedictorians. How can the Chinese portray themselves as victims? The answer is that Chinese culture appears on your fashion radar-screen because your battleships infested Chinese waters for a century or two, because your country pried China’s door open to make the world safe for capitalism, because your railroads imported coolie labor in the 1800s the way your plantations imported blacks a century before, the way they import Mexicans today. To you, these cultures are like the garments in your closet, like the world cuisines in your freezer. They are things you own, things you’re free to use or not, for your amusement and at your whim. Your every use of them is an expression of the power of guns and dollars that someone wielded not that long ago so that his descendants would enjoy privileges of the very type that Keziah Daum unthinkingly enjoys today.

But, to repeat, the same analysis does not apply in reverse. When, say, a Nigerian dons a Western suit and tie, he’s not giggling with his Facebook friends about it. He’s doing it not as a gesture of amused, casual overlordship, but as a surrender to a culture that has literally conquered his own. He wears a suit and tie because that, not his own traditional clothing, is where the power is, because it’s what he has to do if he wants to get ahead in a world owned by men in suits and ties. He is doing it for the same reason that a victim of the mob might kiss Don Corleone’s ring, and with the same disgusted humiliation. It is only when the privileged ones on top cherry-pick from the people below, not when the people below obey the dominant culture, that one smells the patronizing odor of cultural appropriation.

A lot of grumpy, Trumpy people are having a jolly good time mocking those of us who condemn cultural appropriation. They do not even understand what they’re mocking.

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