Reconsidering “Cultural Appropriation”

Speaking of tribalism, as I was yesterday….

As the discussions on this blog amply reveal, the United States is currently experiencing wrenching–even existential–social and governance problems. Most of those problems can be seen as a result of the transformation of the GOP from a traditional political party to an extremist organization I’ve likened to a cult, but you will forgive me if I find some of the preoccupations of the left equally “unnuanced” (aka rabid) and unhelpful.

I recently read about a controversy in Utah over–wait for it–a prom dress.

The high-school student in question had posted a photo modeling her choice of a prom dress–a Chinese cheongsam– to social media. A storm of criticism erupted, with accusations of “cultural appropriation.”

Keziah Daum said she won’t give in to pressure and delete an April 22 Twitter post showing her posing with her prom date in the red cheongsam, or qipao.

“To everyone causing so much negativity,” she tweeted. “I mean no disrespect to the Chinese culture. I’m simply showing my appreciation to their culture. I’m not deleting my post because I’ve done nothing but show my love for the culture. It’s a f***ing dress. And it’s beautiful.”

Daum told the Washington Post she found the dress in a vintage store in Salt Lake City and found it “absolutely beautiful” adding it gave her a “sense of appreciation and admiration for other cultures and their beauty.”

The critics of her choice insisted that, not being Chinese, she should not wear a recognizably Chinese dress, that doing so would amount to “cultural appropriation.”

According to Wikipedia, cultural appropriation occurs when a dominant culture adopts elements of a minority culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange when there is the presence of a “colonial element” and an imbalance of power–in other words, when the adoption is for purposes of denigrating or mocking the original culture.

As the Guardian pointed out, in an article about the blowup, donning a Chinese prom dress hardly meets that criterion.

The original complainant’s instinct– to draw a line at a time when Chinese people are under siege from Trump-inspired China-bashers – is understandable, but in this case, completely mistargeted. If anything, the qipao represents power and class, not race, and certainly not the culture of some exploited underclass.

Criticisms of “cultural appropriation” raise some fairly profound issues. Have our politics become so tribal that any “crossover” is viewed as an attack, rather than a sign of appreciation? When is the adoption of an element of minority culture by members of the majority culture a compliment, and when is it an insult? When does such adoption advance intergroup understanding, and under what circumstances does it diminish appreciation of and respect for the “appropriated” culture?

I’m sure the White supremacists (aka Nazi sympathizers) who have become increasingly vocal since Herr Trump’s election disapprove of any adoption of any aspect of minority culture; for them,  it’s “mongrelization.” How is their call for “racial purity” any different from the criticisms that attended this teenager’s choice of a prom dress?

I don’t get it.

What ever happened to the old axiom that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

And what the hell happened to a sense of proportion?

 

45 thoughts on “Reconsidering “Cultural Appropriation”

  1. Amen! It’s time for a new party — call it the “Centrist Party.” Sheila K. for president.

  2. Sheila,

    I’m sure the White supremacists (aka Nazi sympathizers) who have become increasingly vocal since Herr Trump’s election disapprove of any adoption of any aspect of minority culture; for them, it’s “mongrelization.”

    It’s also a means of White supremacists stifling competition from DEMOCRACY. Democracy can’t compete without some basic adoption of other cultures. It mutes the possible competition. A recent example of this problem is the serious political damage incurred by Elizabeth Warren after she identified too much with the American Indian culture.

    It’s a way of isolating your competition. How can the African-American community possibly fight back against racism, in a non-violent manner, without a coalition? They are only 12% of the population.

  3. Surely, some people are sitting around and trying to come up with this kind of stuff.
    No serious person thinks like this naturally.

  4. Well, kiss me for a fool but I have no idea what a Chinese cheongsam looks like, I have seen some very beautiful and feminine Oriental dresses. I have also seen some American girls (sob, a few family members) headed to their proms in dresses which appear to be for opening a burlesque act and some who look as if they are headed for a Woodstock reenactment. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

    There are much more vital issues regarding China before this entire country today. Tariff bartering is one; at this time, China seems to be at odds with the United States (actually – as always today – that means with Trump) over the fact that he considers Taiwan to be part of China and they disagree. And the fact that this country is clinging by a thread to the level of diplomacy between our two countries – as always today – that means with Trump.

    “According to Wikipedia, cultural appropriation occurs when a dominant culture adopts elements of a minority culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange when there is the presence of a “colonial element” and an imbalance of power–in other words, when the adoption is for purposes of denigrating or mocking the original culture.”

    This Wikipedia definition could be used to describe the current Trumpian culture which has become the top dog with their imbalance of power over all, accepting but one culture…white Republican males. “What ever happened to the old axiom that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?” Trump’s imitation/mockery of the handicapped journalist immediately comes to mind with that quote. His accepted denigration of a man obviously far more intelligent than himself was met with laughter and applause. We, the handicapped, are a culture; often held apart from the able bodied as we must repeatedly prove our abilities to be accepted as equals. Reconsidering “Culture Appropriation”; we must often struggle to appropriate the culture of the able bodied to get their attention.

    “Have our politics become so tribal that any “crossover” is viewed as an attack, rather than a sign of appreciation? When is the adoption of an element of minority culture by members of the majority culture a compliment, and when is it an insult? ” Think back to the accusations against Tammy Duckworth using her disability as a “bid for pity to gain votes”; the loss of her legs is the result of her military action to protect others…such as George W. and “The Donald” who managed to stay out of the action and remain safe at home, protected by their vast wealth. I, for one, do not seek to “appropriate their culture”; it is heartless and spineless, seeking to separate and destroy rather than accept and build a stronger democracy and world-wide diplomacy.

  5. “A recent example of this problem is the serious political damage incurred by Elizabeth Warren after she identified too much with the American Indian culture.”

    Marv; I researched several sites regarding this accusation against Ms. Warren and found nothing to substantiate it. It appears to have begun when a campaign opponent posted the accusation and it grew and was accepted from there; supported and spread by the 1% backing her opponent. Her home was found to be in an area appropriate for her economic level and no application for education were found with her requesting Native American benefits…as if there are any to be had.

  6. I bet the complainants have eaten Chinese food a time or two … is that also cultural appropriation?

  7. Perhaps this muddle could be cleared up a bit if we were to use some First Year Composition Critical Thinking to clarify our language… Let’s be more precise and accurate in the use of our word/naming skills —

    “Cultural Appropriation” is ubiquitous… It always has been and perhaps will be… And it is a MISTAKE to misunderstand it as a negative and morally reprehensible thing…

    It would be “Cultural Misappropriation”, i.e. “Cultural Appropriation” that is done wrongly, in an intentionally hurtful/harmful manner that is immoral and unethical… No?

    The Demonization of “Cultural Appropriation” and the ludicrous lengths to which left-leaning folk have miss-used their rudimentary social ethics will come back to bite them (if it already hasn’t…)

    How soon can we expect Trump & Co. to use a further -wisted version of leftist cultural critiques of “Cultural Appropriation” to push their far-right agendas? We’ve already seen them do this with “Freedom of Speech”, “Religious Liberty”, “Diversity”…No? Has Kellyanne Conway yet used the term “Cultural Appropriation” to slam Liberals and Progressives? I’m afraid to google and find out…

  8. “The critics of her choice insisted that, not being Chinese, she should not wear a recognizably Chinese dress, that doing so would amount to “cultural appropriation.”

    Jeffrey S Nelson; the young girl who chose to wear the Chinese cheongsam made her choice using the true meaning of “cultural appropriation”…simply for the beauty of the gown. Sheila’s Wikipedia definition and following comments explained the difference but in a positive manner while you appear to attack and accuse without foundation.

    Has Gopper returned using an AKA?

  9. Oh, Amen to your post! Don’t forget the Oberlin College cafeteria ineptly using the wrong roll for the Vietnamese entree and the ensuing protests – go read the Atlantic article about this. Of course, the protesters overlooked the french influence on Vietnamese cuisine.

  10. The folks in Utah who foisted this “complaint” are simply ridiculous and backward to the point of being counter-productive to the society in which they drool.

  11. Marv; the copied and pasted comments below are where understanding hit me with Jeffrey S Nelson’s response, his entire post, when reread, appears to me to be an attack and accusation without foundation. I must admit it took three readings to reach that conclusion; rather like trying to understand Trump and Rudy defending the Stormy payoff repeatedly after initially denying it happened. I could be wrong; I am older than you making that a strong possibility.

    “The Demonization of “Cultural Appropriation” and the ludicrous lengths to which left-leaning folk have miss-used their rudimentary social ethics will come back to bite them (if it already hasn’t…)”

  12. A sense of proportion is based on lived experience. Many of those decrying the evils of cultural appropriation for the most part just appear to want to be on the side of the angels–to belong to a righteous tribe defending others. The problem is that they have precious little life experience that would have equipped them to distinguish big problems from little problems from no problems, or angels from other beings or just plain people.

    Without cultural exchange, we would not have music or art or useful science or any of the rest of it. Pretending to be something you’re not is a mistake. Taking something that is spectacular (Big Mama Thorton’s “Hound Dog”) and reinterpreting it in your own cultural voice (Elvis Presley’s version) is what moves us forward closer together. You just have to be fair about it (as in, she should have gotten a lot of the royalties).

  13. JoAnne,

    The following is from : “Let the People Know” by Norman Angell [recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize] (The Viking Press, New York, 1943)p. 125:

    THE UNITY OF THE PEOPLES

    “If this book has a single text, it is that two wars have come upon us in a single generation because we have forgotten the elementary social truth that the right of each to life must be defended collectively, by the community, or it cannot be defended at all; that if we will not defend the rights of others against violence we shall at last be unable to defend our own and will ourselves become the victim of that violence. If within the nation the people as a whole are indifferent when some minority is made the victim of gross violence; if in the international field the nation as a whole are indifferent when some one people is the victim of such violence, then the rights of all the people and of all peoples are placed in jeopardy.”

    “Here surely is a truth which lies at the HEART OF DEMOCRACY and is of its essence. No one is likely to challenge it so long as is stated abstractly—and vaguely. But as soon as any precision at all is given to it, those who are sometimes most clamant and noisy in espousing “the cause of the people,” challenge it fundamentally.”

  14. I saw a picture of the young lady in her prom dress on Facebook. I thought both girl and gown to be equally beautiful and as a liberal found no reason for her choice to stand out in any way but what she intended, creative, stand out in all of the right ways and laudable. In fact I actually can’t imagine any of the people who I know on any part of the political spectrum could find the dress objectionable in any way.

    So who launched this social media kerfuffle? Russians? The NRA? Rudy Gulliani? Breitbart? The RNC? Kim Jong Un?

    There are so many mind benders at work today on social media that some days it’s hard to keep them all straight. In fact it was so confusing when I saw the President and Vice President at the recent NRA convention I initially though it was a Mary Kay convention. Maybe the two organizations use the same agenda to save on thinking.

  15. Pete,

    You made the best points. There’s no apologizing for people who make stuff up just to sound like they know what they’re talking about.

  16. What is “Cultural Appropriation” if I as a White Boomer Male if decided to wear a Nehru Jacket, Che Guervara T-Shirt, or an African Dashiki would the dress code/cultural warriors be offended by my choices???

    The Wiki definition > when the adoption is for purposes of denigrating or mocking the original culture, should seem to settle matters.

    We do have some people with constipated minds, who have to force out some subversive meaning behind other peoples motivations- sometimes a dress is just a dress.

  17. What Pete said! I agree that it’s socially appropriate for a teenager to wear a beautiful dress from another country(tradition) if she wants to (and it’s decent)! That’s just part of US being the “melting pot” of the world. The out of proportion negative response should be examined! Chinese were offended since the girl wearing cheongsam wasn’t Chinese? I could see their indignancy if Melania Trump wore one to a State Dinner with the Russians! The blown up & publicized story & reaction is a sign of the times!

  18. Damn. Hope none of those people complaining about the girl and her dress ever go to a Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, German, Polish, Indian, or French restaurant.

    Oh wait! That leaves us with only IHOP, Denny’s and Cracker Barrel (and even some of them feature breakfast burritos).

  19. David, one of the things that makes our country MAGA is our 250 year history of appropriating the thousands of years old cultures of others.

  20. “…we have forgotten the elementary social truth that the right of each to life must be defended collectively, by the community, or it cannot be defended at all; that if we will not defend the rights of others against violence we shall at last be unable to defend our own and will ourselves become the victim of that violence…”

    Marv; and here we are again but with a major difference of trying to defend the rights of others against Americans determined to deport or destroy those they consider to be “others” due to racism, bigotry and unleashed hatred. Within our own borders “…the rights of all the people and of all peoples are placed in jeopardy.” And we are staring in the face of another war. How and why has one man been given the right the power and the control by a once honorable political party to drag us back to those words from 1943? How and why has this country reached a level of idiocy that one young girl’s choice of a Chinese gown for her prom dress became a national issue – or is it international by now?

    We appear to have forgotten Mr. Angell’s words, “…the right of each to life…” along with “We the People”, once the collective term used to express what the United States of America used to mean to all of us and the world beyond. Those words are why we now have 12 million illegal immigrants who came seeking asylum but instead are threatened with arrest and being torn from their families as they wait to be deported. Reconsidering “Cultural Appropriation” in its true meaning no longer applies to America or becoming an American…and the loss has happened in approximately 16 MONTHS after centuries of building this country. Including its faults; for it is not perfect but we didn’t live in fear of losing our rights. The current administration has no sign of human decency…one rotten apple can spoil the barrel and one monkey is stopping this show.

    I hope that high school student wears her Chinese cheongsam proudly and thoroughly enjoys her prom!

  21. I just had occasion last night to read Kafka’s essay entitled The Great Wall of China in which he brilliantly describes the underlying levers of power (and ignorance) in describing the very separate worlds of the emperor and that of those who built the wall and others who had no particular interest in seeing the wall built (ostensibly to keep the Mongols and other savage nomads at bay). I was reminded of our current “emperor” and his insistence that a wall be built on our southern border to “keep out the murderers, drug dealers and rapists” (all of whom already exist in substantial number on the northern side of the proposed wall).

    Kafka describes the environment of the pro and anti build the Great Wall forces as a”fog of confusion,” which seems to fit our situation today in deciding whether to build a wall on our southern border. The “emperor” today (as the emperors in China while the wall was being built) is deliberately sowing “confusion” to give a patriotic and fear flavor to a project destined for failure, as were both the Chinese Great Wall and Mongol dynasties.

    It occurs to me that Trump’s insistence on building “the wall” has more to do with an insult to an entire culture on racist grounds than keeping the “Mongols” from infiltrating into our culture (such as it is). I also think Trump’s breaking out the flag and criminal code in support of such an ill-advised venture sets a new geopolitical low rivaling that found in the Dred Scott decision by a racist Supreme Court in its day.

    Additionally, and as a practical matter, the Great Wall didn’t work in China and it won’t work here – it’s ego-driven here and, like the Great Wall, virtually unrelated to its stated purpose and neither an appropriation nor misappropriation of culture in our country long since composed of immigrants and the subcultures of the polka, tango, and the waltz. Ours is hardly a homogeneous society. Finally, Trump tells us he must build the wall because he has to keep his “campaign promises.” I recall another one of his campaign promises to the effect that upon his election he was “going to take on Wall Street.” His recent tax bill giving 1.5 trillion dollars to the rich plus a tax cut plus another (Norquist demanded) reduction in the capital gains rate now on the table (before the blue tsunami arrives) suggest that he is selective in choosing which “campaign promises” he will keep and those he will not.

    Kafka was right – then and now.

  22. Some people just don’t have enough to do.
    Unwarranted accusations of cultural appropriation over dress is just another form of bullying by dogma driven purists. It’s barely one step above high school, and perpetuated for the same reasons: to establish one’s superiority over another human being.
    Further, it’s only a problem if it harms the people whose culture is being “appropriated.” How often has Asian design influenced art, design, or fashion?

  23. JoAnn,

    “…..and the loss has happened in approximately 16 MONTHS after centuries of building this country.”

    It’s probably impossible to stop the deterioration. We’re not in a democracy. Retaliation is too much of a reality. It’s real. It scares us. And we’re even too fearful to even talk about it.

    So there can be no real substantive deterrent, only a FAKE ONE to support our wishful thinking.

  24. Walls separate people from each other. That happens in both direction.

    IMO if you have a need to maintain separation from your species you live the lonely life of a male lion.

    In Africa we came upon a lion who had just lost his family to a rival and was facing a pretty dismal remaining existence.

    Sad to see. We are so much better than that.

  25. “Cultural appropriation” or “cultural misappropriation”, there’s little chance that Americans will adopt qipaos (pronounced chee pow)(that’s the Mandarin rendering of the Cantonese cheongsam) on a wide scale. One of the most beautiful dresses styles ever, the qipao is awesomely form fitting and frequently has a revealing slit down one leg. Old timers might remember Madame Chiang Kai Shek and Suzy Wong wearing this style. It should, but is unlikely to achieve broad adoption in America because nearly all qipaos require an ultra-slim figure and are unflattering to those who are even a few pounds overweight. During Mao’s time, and for years thereafter, qipaos were never seen in China itself and managed to survive thanks to women in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. Do yourself a favor and Google “qipao models” to see a representative sampling of more formal qipaos.

  26. Pete,

    Not really. We have cognitive skills and anatomically selected reasoning to avoid the things being mentioned today. The pity is, we don’t bother using them. That makes us less than the lonely lion.

  27. It was a beautiful prom dress. What I found irritating and in bad taste was the photo Miss Daum posted with her eleven friends, bending downward, grinning wildly, with the girls’ hands joined in imitation of a Chinese greeting and the boys’ hands doing I don’t know what. It was tacky, poor teenage judgement which, in this Facebook world we live in, got worldwide publication.

  28. Through life I’m sure that I have had most all of the biases that are possible but I think because of curiosity and science training I tried to keep open to the possibility of biases closer to reality.

    Of course that process is asymptotic (nice word, huh?) to usefulness over time. However we all get too soon old and too late smart and that’s happened to me.

    Just when I think reality is in sight I cannot make much of a difference with it.

    Of course social media is biases looking for friends so it can be grounds for truth seekers but often has the opposite effect.

    I would say though that this particular social media family has been one of the useful ones for me.

    Now I have to figure out if it’s just my biases have found friends or our biases are closer to reality.

  29. Apropos of nothing here today; if you aren’t watching the ongoing saga of Rudy Giuliani’s legal protection of Trump, you are missing a comedy routine in the making for SNL! Trump needs more protection from Rudy than he needs protection from himself.

  30. “Cultural appropriation” is of course a joke in America. It could be a serious problem. For example, in a less open society wealthy outsiders could move in and open restaurants in the tradition of the local food culture, displacing locals and cutting off an important source of revenue for them. In that sense they would be appropriating the local culture in order to perform acts of economic predation.

    Here it’s just another symptom of the sickness of identity politics, which was the illegitimate basis of Naziism, Maoism, etc., as well as the reason the Democrats lose to authoritarians like Donald Trump.

  31. Republicans have a love/hate relationship with business. They love to get campaign funding from oligarchs and don’t mind charging the middle class for the cost of getting them but hate to regulate them which is the only thing that distinguishes private enterprise from corruption.

    Both serve only make more money regardless of the impact on others. With out regulation and competition both overserve themselves.

  32. Thank you! I’ve been struggling with this issue and trying to decide if I’m way off base for believing that imitation of fashion, music, art, whatever that comes from another culture is a form of appreciation and flattery. New forms usually come from mashing together old forms in new ways. Art and music would be dead if different forms never influenced new artists.

    If I display a Navajo rug in my living room because I think that rug is beautiful, is that cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation? Once in a while I see an instance where I think, “That’s a disrespectful cultural appropriation.” But most of the time when I hear that phrase, I just don’t get it. OK, yeah, I’m part of the dominant culture. But please give me a break for thinking some dress from a minority culture is lovely and would feel lovely to wear.

  33. What would the cultural appropriation police say about an unbeliever who finally accepts Jesus Christ; is that cultural appropriation. What about this country boy who married a city girl? Were we both guilty of cultural appropriation each time we compromised in order to make the marriage work? I just traded a sedan for a Nissan 350 Z, certainly a ride into a different culture; am I guilty. My grandson recently became a legal adult, obviously an aspect of a different culture than the teen culture he had been a part of. And what about all those conservatives who worship the capitalist agenda in which individuals dream of rising from an ordinary economic class to the wealthy class? My take-away from the prom dress episode is that we all must be satisfied with the station/class/style/economic position in which we were born…or else.

  34. I’m so left-wing I’m almost toppling over, but I agree that some of the most vocal parts of the left have simply lost their minds. I have blocked literally hundreds of these people on Twitter, because nuanced & balanced posts are attacked for not being rabid enough. My friend Freddie ended up in the psych ward because of these people.

    My first impulse was to assume it was a lynch mob of undergrads taking their first cultural studies course, but no, there are grad students, professors, professional writers and journalists. The only solution is to refuse to engage; all they do is counterproductive, and they don’t see that, it’s bizarre.

  35. OK – This one is dumb. If you think about it, the origin of the dress probably comes from the Qing Dynasty imposing their conquering cultures Manchu dress style on the Han Chinese. Let’s not go there.
    My Chinese wife also thinks this is stupid.
    On the other hand, nowhere in my 50+ liberal emails each day have I come across this before now. Yes, it has a complete liberal-ish ring to it, but I don’t see this cause being embraced by The Left.

    BTW – I guess I am also guilty of cultural appropriation because I love Chinese food, both the American kind and the real stuff my wife cooks. I could point to some scholarly articles about how Chinese food became the second Jewish ethnic food – but that’s another story.

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