Was Teen’s Chinese Prom Dress Racist?
A Utah girl’s prom dress has started an international discussion about cultural appropriation.
For her senior prom, 18-year-old Keziah Daum opted to wear a Chinese cheongsam. She posted photos of her wearing the dress, also known as a qipao, to social media. That was on April 22, and it seems like she went to prom and had a great time. Everything was quiet for a few days. Then on April 27, Chinese-American Jeremy Lam retweeted Keziah, with the caption: “My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.”
He followed that up with a longer explanation: “I’m proud of my culture, including the extreme barriers marginalized people within that culture have had to overcome those obstacles. For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.”
And plenty online agreed with him! But Keziah says she didn’t mean to offend anyone and only wanted to show her appreciation for the beautiful dress and the culture. But does it even matter if Keziah had good intentions? Some cultural studies experts say… not really. However, Keziah also has some defenders from an unlikely place: China.
The controversy spread fast on WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging and social media app. Someone named Snail Trail wrote: “I am very proud to have our culture recognized by people in other countries.”, and Zhou Yijun, a Hong Kong-based cultural commentator, told the New York Times: “It’s ridiculous to criticize this as cultural appropriation. From the perspective of a Chinese person, if a foreign woman wears a zhi-pao and thinks she looks pretty, then why shouldn’t she wear it?”
And, another Twitter user, @tomoe_hotaru45, makes a point about the origins of the cheongsam. She writes: “The zhi-pao actually originated from the Manchus, and was subsequently “appropriated” and “modernized” in Shanghai in the 1920’s. This young lady had the “audacity” to find something beautiful about another culture & is getting harassed for it”.
It’s true. Scholars say that cheongsam was developed by Han intellectuals in the early 20th century, utilizing Manchu styles and western influences, like short sleeves.
For Keziah’s part, she says she understands the concerns Asian-Americans have brought to her, but still does not believe that she did anything wrong. Keziah’s story is just the latest in an increasingly complicated discussion about race in America, and cultural appropriation in particular.
There are a lot of messy issues in this discussion: Is it racist for the members of one culture to use the style, music, art of another for their own purposes? Does it count as a kind of colonialism? And does it matter if some people from that culture don’t think it’s a big deal?
What do you guys think? Was it a bad idea for Keziah to wear the cheongsam? Let us know in the comments.
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