When a White Girl Wears Vintage “Chinese” Dress to Prom

There was a white girl from Utah who wore a “vintage Chinese dress” for prom. There was no indication on her post that she knew it was a qipao (Mandarin) or cheongsam (Cantonese). She wrote (and no, I will not link it here) that she found it at a vintage clothing store, was told by the store owner that it was vintage, and bought it because she liked it. She comments that it was an act of appreciation of the Chinese culture.

And then the internet blew up. She got a ton of followers. White woke people called her out. Asians thanked her. Asians told her, “BOOOOOO!” Asian Americans said they don’t care. Asian Americans said, “BOOOOOOOOO!” White people said people of color look for things to be offended by.

Good golly. It’s only Tuesday. Fullish moon anyone?

I have a lot of thoughts because cultural appropriation is complicated because it cannot be discussed separate from the social construct of race and how non-white bodies are policed, commodified, objectified, and regulated. Cultural appropriation also cannot be discussed without addressing the impact of colonization (historic and present-day), internalized racism, and social location.

Again, I’m not going to provide all of the definitions because I blog for free and you can Google it.

This is not an exhaustive post, but here my thoughts after a morning yoga practice (where I am also having lots of conversations about cultural appropriation) and half a cup of coffee.

“She can wear whatever she wants!” screams of, wait for it, western white privilege. Yup. There are many of you who are upset that people are upset. There are many people out there in the interwebs upset that people are upset. You believe no one has the right to be upset about what an individual white girl chooses as an individual to her prom let alone face the public consequences and backlash should she choose to post it publicly on Twitter. There are so many people telling me I have no right to be annoyed because it’s her right to wear what she wants. What? She posted the picture on TWITTER. Yes, she can wear whatever she wants AND be prepared for the consequences.

The consequences for a white girl wearing a qipao to prom are different than when an Asian or Asian American woman/girl wears a qipao in public. (Notice, Asian is not the same as Asian American.) Again, the girls writes that she found the dress liked it, so dammit she was going to wear it. Do you know what happened when I, as a teenager, wore my hanbok (tradition Korean dress)? I didn’t even have to post it on the internet because it didn’t exist back then. People to my face and to my back and called me lots of names and none of them were, “Hey, she looked beautiful in that dress that honors HER OWN CULTURAL HERITAGE!”

And, as my wise friend Cindy Wang Brandt wrote on a mutual friend’s FB post: “If I went to prom wearing a qipao, I would experience racism – Asian women are fetishized and stereotyped. The high cut on the thighs would make me subject to perverse associations because of that fetish. A white woman wearing it is just a cute schtick.”

I’m also reading comments from white people who have family or friends or some connection to ASIA or China (y’all know Asia is a continent and not a country, right? Just like Africa is a continent and not a country.) and that’s why it’s ok to wear a qipao. Sure, your family lived as expats (also a privileged term) and you love the culture. Cool. Take note that you are also consumers of the culture and do not have to pay the price and face the racism when you wear that qipao here in the US. Yes, it’s getting better, but no it’s not really that much better. It doesn’t matter whether or not I ever wear a hanbok to honor my own cultural heritage. I still get asked where I learned my English and where I am really from because even though I am a US citizen who wears yoga pants religiously I am not seen or approached as an American.

Non-Asian and non-Asian Americans say they wear clothing or eat food or collect art or cultural kitsch in appreciation but get all defensive when asked how exactly is eating at Panda Express or the local Chinese restaurant appreciating culture? I actually asked  the white girl who wore the qipoa to prom on her Twitter feed if she knew anything about the style of the dress (Don’t forget fashion is often political.) or what her Chinese or Chinese American friends thought about her dress choice. If you are going to claim appreciation, you better do some homework. Don’t throw “cultural appreciation” out there as if to equate consumerism as the same. It isn’t the same thing though related.

Don’t forget colonialism. I am always amazed and amused at how the US education system fails its people on the daily. One commenter (never read comments, never read comments) wrote about her grandparents living overseas, etc. My grandparents could not just come over to the US to live here for a bit for work and then go back. Immigration laws and restrictions actually limited the number of people from Asia because we weren’t desirable until the flow from eastern European nations slowed down. White business people, heck even missionaries, can go into another country with limited understanding or fluency of the language and still manage because of the economic and political force the US traditionally has wielded. My grandmother? She was told to learn English. I’ve been told to stop speaking my foreign language in public.

And then there is the “if people in other countries are wearing jeans is that cultural appropriation?” line of commenting. No, it’s not. Appropriation involves power. When my cousins in Seoul wore western-style clothing it was considered modernization. Why? Because only backwards people don’t wear western clothing. Again, it’s the impact of colonization. Non-western countries adopt western cultural practices, adopt new technologies, westernized clothing, learn English on top of their mother tongue, in order to compete globally. Think about the recent summit between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-Un. They wore suits. Kim’s suit had a Mandarin-style collar, again politically-influenced fashion, but they both wore suits. For those of you who watched beyond the handshakes and crossing of the border, you saw men wearing traditional clothing specific to the type of occasion. As if people in the US don’t make fun of Kim as some sort of emasculated communist puppet, imagine if he and President Moon appeared wearing hanbok. No, most of you wouldn’t have had a cultural appreciation moment.

Things are slowly shifting with more school districts adopting language immersion programs alongside ESL programs, but we here in the US generally don’t see a need to change and learn. We just take what we want and call it appreciation.

Also, and this is another blog post entirely but sometimes POC will fall in line and say stuff like this ok because of internalized racism. It happens in all communities of color. We approximate whiteness in different, destructive ways.

Michael Eric Dyson writes in Tears We Cannot Stop,“The ventriloquist effect of whiteness has worked brilliantly; black mouths moving, white ideas flowing. What your vast incuriosity about black life keeps you from knowing, and this is heartbreaking to admit, is that we black folk often see ourselves the same way you see us.”

And I have to add that this is a young woman wearing a dress with a slit that rides up to her boy-short panty line. I like to think I am all for female empowerment and feminism, but many of us know that if a black or brown girl (heck, even an Asian American girl) wore a dress with a slit that high people would be calling her names that rhyme with bow and thut because issues around race and ethnicity intersect with gender.

So, what do you think? Have you ever worn a qipao or thrown a Cinco de Mayo party? Have you ever dressed up as a geisha or though Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles was hilarious? Is there anything you’ve done that you now see as cultural appropriation? What made it shift from appreciation to appropriation? Or maybe vice versa?

 

 

 

 

 

24 Comments

  1. Diana Trautwein May 1, 2018

    Your closing question is a tough one because . . . so many of us haven’t got a clue what is appropriate and what is not. What you and Deidra and others do is TEACH US and I am so grateful for that. Please bear in mind that we are thick-headed and slow, even those of us with the very best of intentions. We are going to step wrong, say wrong, do wrong. Keep calling us on it. I really do want to learn.

    Could you give some examples of appreciation? I need help seeing where the line gets crossed. For example — collectors of Asian art and artifacts. If an ancient form of dress is framed and hung on the wall of a gallery — appreciation or appropriation? Appraisers of Asian art on Antiques Road Show — appreciation or appropriation? See what I mean about being thick-headed? I want to identify line-crossing, but I’m not sure where the dang line is sometimes.

    Reply
    • Kathy Khang May 2, 2018

      Aren’t we all a bit thick-headed, slow, and stiff-necked?

      Appreciation: I had the opportunity to spend a week in Malaysia with some ministry leaders. Annette was one of my hosts and bought me a baju kurung – a long-sleeved knee-length tunic worn over a long skirt. She asked me to wear it at least once while preaching in honor of the women leading in ministry in Malaysia. I wore the dress when teaching a group of female preachers about how our words and bodies can tell the story of Jesus. I’ve heard from many white missionaries or missionary kids who have clothing from the countries where their families served and learned. I have no problem when white people wear clothing when they have a relational, personal connection and understanding. They just have to know that when people of color where those same traditional articles of clothing in the US we are not always received well.

      Appropriation: I could’ve worn the dress for a costume party as I’m sure many of us have seen that done. A current pop culture example would be the concert/event Coachella where you will find white women wearing “Indian headdresses” and all sorts of “ethnic” attire, jewelry to make a fashion statement as did the young woman who wore the qipao to prom. There is no understanding, no connection just “I like it so I bought it.”

      I’m also getting a lot of comments here and on Twitter about things like baseball caps, denim jeans, etc. and that’s where the power and colonialism, comes in. I had one white man tell me I shouldn’t wear baseball caps. Well, generally I don’t because it’s just not my style but think about baseball. We call the championship game “THE WORLD SERIES” so let’s not pretend we want to be the center.

      Does that help?

      Reply
  2. Jo May 1, 2018

    My daughters Kindy had a Mexican poncho on the dress up rack alongside a fairy and a dragon. I asked them to remove it as totally not appropriate.
    They hadn’t even realised or considered it.
    In Australian Aboriginal culture MEN only play the digeridoo – yet you see a lot of people doing it for ‘fun’.
    In the past wearing Bangladesh outfits when I was travelling there was just what you did. However, I cant say I would wear it back in Australia. Kimono style outfits are quite common here though.
    You see a lot of ‘fire / smoking ceremonies being performed in Fiji by Australia tourists- which on the surface just seem to be a way to get cool photos all done up. I find that quite offensive even though it is a huge money earner for locals.

    Reply
    • Kathy Khang May 2, 2018

      Yes! And the cultural appropriation conversation is live for me in other ways. I practice yoga and recently became a certified teacher. What does that even mean for a spiritual practice that has evolved into a business in the US? Thank you for wrestling with the complexity!

      Reply
  3. Carrie Kuba May 1, 2018

    Thank you so much for using your time, energy, emotional energy, and most likely a couple glasses of wine to write this.
    The intersectionality of appropriation with colonialism is something I need to research further and learn more about.
    As an 80’s chick and recovering John Hughes movie fan – that hit home as well.
    Now, off to do the work I need to do from here.

    Reply
    • Kathy Khang May 2, 2018

      I am still learning how to articulate things, make connections, etc. It will be a lifelong process for all of us.

      And yes the 80s were so painful and delightful. I was just listening to OMD in the car while remembering how I hated and loved those movies where I was either absent or wanted to be invisible. We are the butt of jokes or the minority wedge.

      Reply
  4. Camy Saavedra May 1, 2018

    I am an old hippie and like the young lady wear lovely clothes whatever the provenance because …it’s lovely. I have an outfit from Ghana, a sari from India, MuuMuu’s from Hawaii, and so on.
    I am Spanish, Irish, German, Peruvian and who knows what else, born with a mongolian blue spot.
    Never having been canalized into one ethnic identity I happily appropriate them all. Maybe that’s an American thing and maybe we are oblivious.
    I am brown and big nosed and thick of lips and curly of hair. No one has ever been able to fit me into any slot. Nor do I try to find one.
    The sooner we can all be global citizens and confident in our own skin the sooner we can quit all the divisive conversations.
    I know there is history that is sad and unredemptive. I get it. I have been bullied too, and am real aware that girls that look like Barbie get asked to dance first. That being said perhaps if we all played dress up like little kids, we might learn more about each other and have some fun in the process.

    Reply
    • Kathy Khang May 2, 2018

      Not having had the chance, yet, to travel much internationally, I enjoy learning from my friends with cultural connections. I agree it is a beautiful ting to be confident in our own skin. The reality is that for many black and brown Americans in the US, confidence won’t protect them from the very real violence and threat of violence. Confidence in my skin doesn’t mean that I am not approached as a foreigner or “other” and therefore assumed to be ignorant and less than human.

      And, my culture isn’t for imaginary playtime. It’s a very real thing.

      Reply
  5. Bob May 1, 2018

    Not all Asians have a problem with it. Get a life.

    Reply
    • Kathy Khang May 2, 2018

      Not all white people think it’s ok. Also, I am Asian American. I have a life, thank you. It’s a wonderful life. #bless

      Reply
  6. Rachel Grimaldo May 2, 2018

    Thanks Kathy. Helpful and thoughtful article. Love the way you write and thoughtfully engage while being firm about truth and correction. Love your ending question – yes, I have been guilty of much of that. I have used another culture as a costume. I’ve laughed at racist depictions in movies. I’ve consumed media and not even thought critically about what was being presented.

    What made my perspective shift from appreciation to realizing I was doing appropriation? I think college, primarily in the classroom setting. I took Spanish language and culture classes with professors from other countries who challenged my American-centric viewpoints. I took Africana studies classes where I was the minority in a room for the first time in my life. I started to wonder why Jesus followers weren’t talking about it and decided Christians were useless on the topic so if I wanted to learn I should add a sociology minor. I made friends that weren’t from the all-white suburbs I grew up in. They opened my eyes and allowed me to enter into their pain and experience and graciously corrected me, and challenged me to teach myself and taught me that the victims of racial prejudice shouldn’t also carry the weight of being educators. Still growing at that self education piece though 🙂

    Reply
  7. Tom May 2, 2018

    Let it go………………..

    Reply
  8. Heather Caliri May 2, 2018

    I’m just commenting because I appreciate you, your smarts, and your wit. Thanks for being willing to teach us and share your experience. I’m learning.

    Reply
  9. Diana Trautwein May 2, 2018

    Thanks, Kathy, for your thoughtful response to my queries up above. And yes, it did help. I’m a work in progress and slow to understand, but after reading through too many comment threads on FB today, I’m beginning to see the light. And what I see is SO not pretty. We have a long way to go. Thanks for faithfully calling us to LOOK and THINK and LEARN.

    Reply
  10. Ohana May 2, 2018

    My son was given a lovely hand woven Lebanese tunic and pants set from a friend of ours from Togo who had purchased it from his homeland. To honor his gift our son wore it to our Syrian friend’s wedding, that was attended by people from all over the world. Everyone complimented him. No one said to him– or us– that he shouldn’t have worn it. My son is many things, but not Lebanese it not one of them. His almond eyes don’t pass as Arab.

    I like Camy Saavedra’s comment. What happens when multi-racial people wear such clothing? What if they’re not considered “enough” of that race, is it offensive?

    “The reality is that for many black and brown Americans in the US, confidence won’t protect them from the very real violence and threat of violence. Confidence in my skin doesn’t mean that I am not approached as a foreigner or “other” and therefore assumed to be ignorant and less than human.”

    I agree with this as well. I experience it. My spouse and children experience it. From our perspectives, we see people of all races who look and choose to divide rather than include.

    The altruistic answer, would be to include rather than divide. Let a dress be just a dress, for those whom it a dress. It can also be more for whom it is more. It can be a learning experience. It can be a positive experience, if that’s what people choose to make it– and there-in lies the difference.

    The saying “your hate will find no purchase here” spoken by a wise doctor dealing with racist patients has really resonated with me. In this case, if you find offense where others do not, perhaps the accountability lies with you. You can’t control what other people say or do, but you can choose your attitude about it. Maybe if more people chose the attitude of inclusiveness, especially in our melting pot, things would be better for everyone. Not overnight, of course, but with discipline and patience it a goal worth working towards.

    Reply
    • Kathy Khang May 2, 2018

      That’s a beautiful story and one I wish the young woman also had, but it appears it’s not. I think those connections to people are so important if we really believe appropriation can shift to appreciation.

      The multi-racial experience is not one I know personally though all my of my nieces and nephews are mixed or biracial. I am learning from them and from their non-Korean parents. They all are enough in my eyes, but I also know that isn’t enough. Is it offensive? I suppose there will be people who will find it offensive because they do not know, but on the flip side I also know that multiracial adults have also talked about how they do not experience the racism in the same way because in some instances they can pass.

      You also bring up the idea of the melting pot, an analogy I do not prefer. I do not want cultures to melt into one another and lose their differences. As a Christian I love the image painted in the book of Revelation where a multitude stands before Jesus – every tribe, tongue and nation. We are not all speaking in one unknown language but maintain the differences. Unity is what I think most of us long for, and I do not believe unity requires conformity.

      Reply
  11. Heila Rogers May 3, 2018

    This was informative and thought-provoking, thank you. I do wonder about the unifying powers of art in these instances. I think we need to acknowledge the power of it to bring us together. There appeared to be a clueless, and probably an entitled attitude evident in the story of the prom dress. But I also wonder if the beauty of the garment itself truly did speak to the young woman. If so, that could be a jumping off point for an exchange about cultural appreciation. The dress choice was perhaps a rather bold thing to do in her circles. The sociology of the affluent suburbs seems to be bland-is-good — everybody dress and look the same. I think there’s starting to be a hunger for the *different* — and within that culture of sameness and egocentrism, people appropriate without realizing … and, it’s also a kind of appreciation. If that made sense? I do think that more sensitivity and being clued-in (educating oneself, changing school curriculums and having more conversations about race, language, racism awareness) is totally necessary. But I also think an awareness of what’s causing the cluelessness is good. We’ve handicapped our students, selves and kids because of not teaching, introducing and appreciating differences. I also start to think of the fact that we are perhaps again zeroing in on women specifically here — our bodies only, what we wear, instead of this young woman as a person and what she thought. (But then, she might not really know. And that can be a result of our society too – and it’s treatment of girls and women – as objects, not thinking humans.) We can all grow and change, and it’s a process — our thoughts develop. I’m glad for these forums that can catalyze that to happen.

    Reply
  12. Ohana May 3, 2018

    I absolutely agree that unity does not nor should not require conformity. In fact, my concerns are similar. My worries is that things unused or not celebrated will be lost to antiquity, and I do not want to lose anything from the beautiful cultures of our ancestors. Without adaptations, they might be lost entirely.

    Let me reiterate that the multi-racial experience is something my spouse and I are familiar with having lived it, and now we have multi-racial children. My son has a multi-racial girlfriend, if he marries her, well– you know. I explained to my son one day that if he married that girl, despite them both having darker skin and hair, a child of their union may not. He was quite upset by the very idea, to which I explained it was improbable, but definitely not impossible, and that he should know, lol!

    But— what if they did? What if it was a girl? Would she not be able to wear her mothers or greatgrandmother’s beautiful qipao’s? Would she be unable to wear her aunt’s kimono? Such ideas make me very sad, especially when we are trying preserve traditions.

    If melting pot is not a preferable analogy, one must understand that racially it is true enough for many even if culturally it is more of stew. In the stew you can identify many of the various ingredients that make the whole, enjoyable individually or blending deliciously together,

    What I often see in the anger over things like this to me it is people’s pain being paid forward, which I get, absolutely. But pain paid forward does not make pain go away. It does not bring peace, compassion, or discipline.

    Unity may not require conformity, but it may require compromise. So I will argue for tolerance and defend my theoretical descendants right to our culture, if if racially they break the mold.

    Reply
  13. […] JR.: When a White Girl Wears a Vintage Chinese Dress […]

    Reply
  14. David Taylor May 13, 2018

    ” . . y’all know that Asia is a continent and not a country, right?”

    Who is “y’all”? Precisely who is included in this sweeping generalization? Another “basket of deplorables”? Sounds suspiciously like that old insult, “All Orientals look alike.” And for the same reason–the willingness to let prejudice blur or obscure all meaningful and significant distinctions.

    I have read many of your posts (in fact I subscribed at one time, briefly). Do you even realize how much you’ve adulterated the truth with identity politics?

    Reply
  15. Ann August 29, 2018

    Thank you so much for writing this blog, I think there is such a beauty behind appreciation and for me, this is a re-learning and un-learning of what I was taught in my majority white private Christian school.
    Admittedly this was hard for me to read because it was so eye-opening, as is your book (thanks for taking the time to write that as well). There is so much that is so ingrained in me that pulling away those weeds by the roots has been like Aristotle’s people coming out of the cave, and reading your blog and your book has been a wonderful part of the process.
    Because of my faith I believe in the intrinsic beauty of each human as an individual and the worth of their story for the whole and now I am learning more and more about those stories and it is a hard journey and proving to be incredibly worthwhile. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Kathy Khang October 10, 2018

      Ann, I’m so sorry it has taken me so long to respond. Thank you for keeping at the weeds and being patient with yourself. I’m so grateful for readers like you who are committed to the deep work.

      Reply
  16. Ann October 11, 2018

    Thanks Kathy! Please keep writing!

    Reply

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