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Thursday, May 03, 2018

Imitation is the sincerest form of... colonialism?

Taking offence seems to have been raised to an art form these days. 

Don't believe me?  Just take a peek at the Sturm und Drang over a young woman in Utah who committed the unforgivable sin of 'cultural appropriation' by wearing a prom frock modelled after a traditional Chinese dress known as cheongsam or qipao.

Kindly also note that in the previous sentence I have brazenly committed an act of cultural appropriation by using the German 'Sturm und Drang' rather than a less objectionable (but also less descriptive), English equivalent.

So what was the fuss about?

Like pretty much every prom attendee since the dawn of social media, the young woman in the article shared pictures of herself online wearing the Asian-inspired dress... and was immediately crucified by the cultural sensitivity police.

"My culture is not your prom dress.." wrote an outraged gentleman; presumably of Chinese ancestry.  He continued his tirade in a follow-up post, “For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.”

Wow, a Utah high schooler furthering colonial ideology with her sartorial choices!  Who knew?

Another guardian of cultural purity named 'Jeannie' wrote: “This isn’t ok.  I wouldn’t wear traditional Korean, Japanese or any other traditional dress and I’m Asian. I wouldn’t wear traditional Irish or Swedish or Greek dress either. There’s a lot of history behind these clothes. Sad.

Note that this upright, sensitive person is Asian and says she wouldn't even wear traditional Asian clothing!  GIve me strength!  And as if there isn't enough to hate about her already, ending a post with 'Sad' makes me want to Photoshop Trump hair onto all her online pictures!

Also, I'm a little offended that her presumably Asian parents appropriated American culture by naming their hyper-sensitive little angel, 'Jeannie'.  But let's stick a pin in that for the moment (assuming that isn't somehow appropriating Haitian Voodoo culture).

One would think that in today's shrinking world, multiculturalism (also known as ethnic pluralism) would be a welcome change from the old days where minority cultures were expected to shed their cultural identities by diving (or being thrown) into of the great melting pot.  And to a certain extent, it is.  But at the cost of taking those cultural touchstones - particularly clothing - and turning them into quaisi-sacred vestments that can be wielded/worn only by authentic members of the source culture.

I've written in the past about my unfulfilled kilt-envy, and how I've adopted wearing a lungi in extremes of hot-humid weather.  In the former case where I don't think I could get away with it; and the latter where, at least in semi-privacy, I can, I see no problem whatsoever.  

Truth be told, the couple of times that Indians have seen me wearing a Lungi (in my hotel room or out by the pool), the reactions were unanimously positive.  And considering that Queen Victoria, a British monarch, was largely responsible for popularizing traditional Scottish culture and costume, you'd have to take a lot of upper-crust Brits to task over alleged cultural appropriation before attacking me for lusting after a Utilikilt.

So why is it that people are so uptight about Caucasians adopting the fashions of Asia and Africa?

When Zahava and I hosted an African visitor several years back, he gifted me a beautiful Dashiki which I have been, frankly, terrified to wear outside the house because of exactly the sort of foaming-at-the-mouth-PC nonsense mentioned above.  I'm white.  So what?!  I didn't colonize Africa.  I work and travel extensively in Africa and am friendly with many wonderful people there.  Why is wearing a bit of their cultural kit considered insulting; particularly to non-African people who have never set foot in Africa and are likely projecting their white guilt onto me?

My wife and daughter enjoy the style and comfort of wearing Indian Shalwar Kameez here in Israel; especially in the summer.  And Ariella has even worn a Sari I bought her.  In neither case were the garments worn ironically or in any way meant to be insulting or demeaning to the people of India.    

Of course, one could argue that it is possible to go too far when trying to 'go native', making it seem a little, um, forced (as Canada's Prime Minister and his family found out):

Trudeauindia-627x376

So getting back to the article that sparked this little rant, why, if a caucasian woman decides to wear a dress in the Chinese style should it be considered cultural appropriation and culturally insensitive?   We enjoy so many other aspects of Chinese culture - cuisine, games, frgrance - in our day-to-day lives.  Why not clothing?

We're not talking about black-face minstrel shows or lawn jockeys! 

We're not talking about native American buckskin and feathered head-dresses!

We're not talking about dressing up like a 19th century coolie with clogs, buck teeth and a long queue (braid)!  

And we're certainly not talking about dressing up in religious garb (although, I find it ironic that none of the PC police seem to be bothered by religious garb being forced upon non-native visitors by certain countries):

Hijab 2
Hijab 2

So, yeah... I'm honestly curious what harm can come from someone wearing clothing or accessories that come from (or were inspired by), other cultures.  How is it insulting to the source culture?!

Call me old fashioned, but to my way of thinking, imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery.  

Posted by David Bogner on May 3, 2018 | Permalink

Comments

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David, I'm with you on this.

When I wore a kimono in Japan, the Japanese greeted me with beaming smiles.

I have a kilt with the ancient family tartan.

When I wear hanbok in Korea, Koreans greet me with big smiles, and every time some old woman compliments my clothing. The men just smile and give me a thumbs-up.

Imitation is more than flattery. It is the sincerest compliment to a people and a culture.

Posted by: antares | May 3, 2018 5:05:44 PM

And when Byonce appears on stage as a blonde? Is that cultural appropriation?

Posted by: ganit | May 8, 2018 3:14:04 AM

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