When you’re 17 years old and choosing your prom dress, the last thing you might think is that a picture of you in a modest high necked, full length dress could go viral and ignite a frenzied, febrile war of words on cultural theft, racism and the colonialism. You probably just think that the silky Chinese cheongsam will make you stand out from those predictable gowns that all the other white girls will be wearing. But may this be a lesson to you, young lady, to do your cultural studies research and may you never, ever again, dare to wear an item of clothing that does not belong to you. And by ‘you’, I mean ‘your race’, ‘your culture’, ‘your heritage’. For a précis of the insanity I’m referring to, read about poor Keziah Daum in this news article.
When doing research for this article I came to realise that the topic of cultural appropriation is wide and deep; a topic that has been interrogated ad nauseum by academics and cultural historians in the fields of art, music, food, fashion, ideas, and just about everything else. I cannot offer no more than some circular musings from my own narrow experience, but I do feel the need to speak up and say: A WHITE WOMAN WEARING A CHINESE DRESS IS NOT OFFENSIVE TO CHINESE PEOPLE.
Of course, there are nuances and qualifications. These days, our discourse does not allow for such things. Extreme outrage is the only currency on social media. The flames are fanned by clickbaiters and Twitter is the accelerant. Such is our society where the wise, funny, imaginative, educational and clever perspectives are tainted by wilful stupidity and angry, shouty people. But hopefully there are still some people who want to engage in thoughtful dialogue and a rounded debate.
I am of Singaporean Chinese heritage. My home country, Singapore, was a jewel in the crown of the British Empire during the time of my great-grandparents and grandparents. I’ve been to many a fancy-dress party where we dressed up as Native Americans. I’ve worn saris to work parties. I’ve worn kimonos in photo shoots. I’ve painted my face as a Dia de los Muertos sugar skull. Until last year, I had never worn a cheongsam or qipao, the supposedly traditional dress of a Chinese woman. This is partly because I am drawn to contradictions, and for a Chinese woman to wear a cheongsam, to me, seems lazy and unimaginative. I feel it also promotes the stereotype of the demure and exotic Asian woman (see my earlier post on The Asian Woman Fetish). You could say that I’m a ‘bad Chinese’, a banana – yellow on the outside…. I’m the one who has to ask other people when Chinese New year is. Don’t ask me the origin of Chinese customs. I can count to 10 in Mandarin but not much more. I can’t eat spicy food, can’t cook any “oriental cuisine” except a stir-fry and my favourite food as a child was a sandwich. This is not just deficient. It’s almost a visceral and deliberate rejection of my roots. When I came to England as a teenager, I embraced Western and European culture. Literature, movies, philosophy. fashion, music. I know many Indian and Asian friends who have done the same. Isn’t it funny how my race gives me a free pass to wear a traditional Chinese garment even though I’m the biggest banana in the fruit bowl?
The colonial past is now seen in some quarters as almost completely toxic and this has led some to believe that all symbols of it must be overthrown. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that, as well as perpetrating some horrors, colonialism also brought about advances in society and cultural exchange. Ever since the beginning of humanity, different races and cultures have merged and borrowed from each other, often alongside wars and oppression. Nothing and nobody is ever wholly good or bad. Where there is light, there is always shade. This is where I feel
scared ill-equipped to comment further, except to say that the past has come to infect the present, and something as innocuous as a piece of clothing can now be seen as a symbol of oppression. As in: if only white people would stop wearing these clothes we would be able to cleanse the past.
If social media pushes the most negative and extreme version of the truth, we need to seek out the moderate version, which we can only get when we talk to each other. In so far as there is any conclusion to reach about the topic of cultural appropriation in fashion (I restrict myself to this sphere alone), I think it can be summed up into 4 things:
- Respect. Use, borrow, appropriate but do it out of love and respect, without mockery or denigration of the other culture. Yes that does mean you can wear a Halloween costume, but don’t enforce a harmful stereotype.
- Context. There might be ceremonial or sacred garments which carry special significance for a culture, for example, the Navajo chief headdress which became popular festival headwear some years ago. To wear this without permission might be considered sacrilegious and therefore provoke condemnation. But if you go to an Indian wedding, by all means wear a sari – the hosts will be delighted.
- Credit. Many artists are influenced by and across all cultures. Take pains to credit the source of your inspiration, acknowledge the meaning, or even better, use local artisans. The bigger and more profitable you are, the more acknowledgement there should be.
- Inclusion. There are examples of designers borrowing heavily from Asian design influences, followed by a campaign that does not include Asian models or any kind of racial diversity. This just looks tone-deaf and embarrassing in these multi-cultural times.
Tribalism is so very deep-rooted, that humans need no excuse to retreat into their tribes. We don’t want to live in silos of monoculture. The richness and beauty of each culture needs to be shared and appreciated by all. In some cases, this saves the culture from obsolescence. If the majority of Indians, Japanese and Chinese only wear saris, kimono and cheongsams at weddings, why shouldn’t other people enjoy them? My children are half Chinese, a quarter Spanish and a quarter English. To take the argument to its absurd conclusion, if you are mixed with enough of the different races, can you still be accused of cultural misappropriation? I grew up in a pre-internet, pre-mobile phone, pre-Twitter age when we were all more poorly educated on cross-cultural issues. Now that I’m super-sensitised and woke, should I have been more offended when seeing non-Chinese people in “my” garments? Have I offended people by liking their clothes so much that I have worn them? It is interesting to note that Chinese people on Chinese social media site, Weibo defended poor Keziah Daum, the American teenager, and applauded her for “appreciating” Chinese culture.
Being a PoC does not protect me from criticism on this issue, and I’m bracing myself for opposing views. I am open to hearing positive arguments. But let’s all try to exercise common sense and not claim everything as offensive. In the end, if everything is offensive, then nothing is.