Don't Cry Wolf on 'Cultural Appropriation'
Prom season is upon high schools across the nation this time of year, and while young men often search for a sensibly-priced rental tux, the young women of this country have likely already gone through the process of finding a prom dress. No rentals here—God forbid (at least among those who can afford it) that one's prom dress not fit right, be generic, or even worse, have been worn already. The process might seem silly, but there's something to be said for getting cleaned up nice for a night out with your friends.
18-year-old Utahn Keziah Daum was excited for her prom — her dress was unique (a red qipao, a traditional Chinese style) and eye-catching. By all accounts, Ms. Daum enjoyed the night, but when she proudly posted the pictures of her date and her on twitter (@daumkeziah), the backlash began.
"PROM" she happily declared. The response, delivered by Jeremy Lam (@jere_bare): "My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress." After his reply garnered 42,000 retweets, twitter elevated the controversy to its "Twitter Moments" page, further publicizing Mr. Lam and others' accusations of cultural appropriation. Later that day, Mr. Lam continued: "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."
"Cultural Appropriation" is the idea that the adoption of cultural elements of a minority culture by a majority culture is a product of colonial undertones, and an expression of minority oppression. It's also the newest basis for new-left enforcement of political correctness, one which the left, personified in Mr. Lam, has predictably taken too far.
Are you really going to tell me that a high school girl who wanted a pretty prom dress is expressing the remaining colonial elements in our society? That's ridiculous. Are you really so offended that she dared to enjoy elements of a culture that wasn't her ancestors? The US-based furor is already causing some head scratching in China, but perhaps you ought to be offended for them? The qipao is not a sacred element of Chinese culture — according to Beijing-based fashion blogger Hung Huang, "to Chinese, it's not sacred and it's not that meaningful. Nowadays, if you see a woman wearing a qipao, she's probably a waitress in a restaurant or a bride." Is Ms. Daum, who found the dress in a vintage store and was struck by its modesty and elegance, really exercising her white privilege? Since when is appreciating another culture an issue?
As sociology begins to examine the finer points of our societal evils — institutionalized racism, implicit bias, etc. — we must be careful not to apply legitimate academic findings to a witch hunt of political correctness. Yes, political correctness is valuable in the sense that we should all be respectful of each other and exercise courtesy in our interactions, but when we begin to limit cultural exchange or free speech in the name of acceptance, we illegitimatize helpful attempts to build a more inclusive society.
Cries of 'cultural appropriation' usually just mean "stay in your cultural lane." That's naive and paternalistic. We might all agree that Victoria's Secret Fashion models wearing traditional Native-American headdresses is culturally insensitive, and the Washington Redskins' mascot is downright racist. The Florida State Seminoles, however, have an official endorsement from the Seminole Tribe, and honor the community with symbolic references on its uniforms and rituals involving tribe members before games. That's not cultural appropriation, it's cultural exchange, which educates and benefits us all. And even when efforts to honor the contributing culture are not so obvious, the self-appointed guardians of culture who cry 'cultural appropriation' are often quite selective.
Most of today's youth listen to hip-hop music—if they're not African-American, are they not allowed? Most people like New-York style pizza or tacos—should we discourage a new Swedish immigrant from eating tacos or Southerners from eating pizza? If we're going to discourage a Utah teen from wearing a Chinese-style prom dress, we'd better start cracking down on the rest.
But if that doesn't sound quite right to you, let me offer an alternative: let's try to be a little more responsible. Let's not throw wanton accusations, let's not be childish, let's think about our actions a little bit more. The kind of garbage social calculus that led to the internet-shaming of Keziah Daum is the same reason Donald Trump was elected president: crying wolf has consequences.