Few topics are more controversial than "cultural appropriation," or using distinctive dress, music, food, or literature when the user doesn't belong to the race or ethnicity (or sometimes the gender or sexual orientation) that produced it. A watershed moment in the debate happened in 2016, when a black female student at San Francisco State threw punches at a white male student for wearing dreadlocks. Arguments about cultural appropriation have a long and often tendentious history and involve everything from minstrelsy to drag shows to yoga to tattoos.
Over the weekend, a white girl from Salt Lake City found herself at the center of a cultural-appropriation tempest when she tweeted pictures of herself and her girlfriends wearing dresses associated with Chinese and Chinese-American women. In one of the pictures, she and her friends are bowing and holding their hands in a traditional greeting or prayer, while their white dates make gang signs behind them:
— Keziah (@daumkeziah) April 22, 2018
The pictures led Chinese-American Jeremy Lam to tweet "my culture in NOT your goddamn prom dress" and post a twitterstorm about the history of the dress, also known as a cheongsam.
My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress. https://t.co/vhkNOPevKD
— Jeremy Lam (@jere_bare) April 27, 2018
As of this morning, Lam's original tweet had almost 40,000 retweets and nearly 170,000 likes. Keziah received thousands of responses but has stood firm in her resolve about the dress.
I don't understand everyone's need or desire to cause so much hate. I'm simply showing my love for a beautiful culture and there is nothing wrong with that. Keep talking shit. I don't care. I have much respect for the Chinese culture ??
— Keziah (@daumkeziah) April 28, 2018
To everyone causing so much negativity: 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 fucking dress. And it's beautiful.
— Keziah (@daumkeziah) April 28, 2018
There was one more shoe to drop in all this. It turns out that Lam, whose Twitter bio reads, "almost as intolerant to lactose as i am to your bullshit ¯\_(?)_/¯," could be hoist on his petard. Mike Headly, a YouTuber who talks about racial issues from an African-American perspective, waded through Lam's past tweets and found at least a few in which the Asian American wrote such things as "I'm eating tamales with chopsticks. This is why America was founded" and "NIGGA DAYUM!" and laughed along with a story about someone using chopsticks to smoke a blunt ("What a fucking legend").
Lam responded to criticism that he was guilty of cultural appropriation and insensitivity by laying out more of his thoughts and posing this:
Yes, I used to be more ignorant than I am now. My youth was not perfect, it was problematic, I was problematic and didn't know better. I sincerely apologize to all the people it possibly affected, but my past does not define me.
— Jeremy Lam (@jere_bare) April 29, 2018
There are at least several lessons to be drawn from this back and forth, but I'll focus on just two.
First, it shows just how tendentious charges of appropriation often are. They rely of brutally static definitions of culture that are spectacularly at odds with the ways in which individuals use motifs and materials from outside their immediate experience to define themselves. People who cannot draw distinctions between, say, minstrel shows, which served to maintain racial separation and inequality, and the stilyagi, anti-Stalin protesters who dressed like ersatz jazz musicians to register dissent within the Soviet Union, are not working very hard. More important, as Reason contributor Cathy Young, who grew up in Moscow before moving to the United States in the final years of the Cold War, has written,
Peoples have borrowed, adopted, taken, infiltrated and reinvented from time immemorial. The medieval Japanese absorbed major elements of Chinese and Korean civilizations, while the cultural practices of modern-day Japan include such Western borrowings as a secularized and reinvented Christmas. Russian culture with its Slavic roots is also the product of Greek, Nordic, Tatar and Mongol influences—and the rapid Westernization of the elites in the 18th century. America is the ultimate blended culture.
Even displays that appear more offensive—such as David Bowie's video for the song "China Girl," which trades in chopsticks-style musical signatures and stereotypical images of submissive, "Oriental" women and features Bowie pulling his eyes back to simulate the epicanthic fold common in many Asians—are more complicated than they initially seem. That video notwithstanding, Bowie was nothing if not a patron of global musical and fashion styles, and it's unquestionable that he helped to bring all sorts of racial, ethnic, and sexual subcultures into the mainstream through collaborations with figures as far-flung as Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, German performer Klaus Nomi, black American Tina Turner, and so many more. There's a strong case to be made that figures such as Bowie, even while enacting stereotypes or ransacking "foreign" musical traditions, are celebrating and engaging them. Anyone who insists that only people from a particular culture or background can traffic in its traditions will soon find themselves presiding over a dead world.
Second, it's remarkable and worth celebrating that Twitter created the space for an at times heated and ugly debate over cultural appropriation. As Lam wrote, "The past 48 hours of my tweet becoming viral have been incredibly eye opening, and educational." That's absolutely true and, in the main, it seems as if the conversation led at least the two people at the center of it to air their thinking and reach some level of comfort and resolution.
As the congressional hearings on Facebook suggest, we're in the midst of a social panic over social media. Many Americans feel inundated by media and scared that platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are simultaneously overloading us with non-credible information and coarsening the culture. The Twitter spat over a white girl's "Chinese" dress should be taken as a sign that the internet is actually pretty good at hosting meaningful public conversations.
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