Social Issues, Theology

On cultural appropriation: how much do intentions matter?

I read with interest a Washington Post article about a white teenager who wore a traditional Chinese dress to her prom:

Like many other teenagers preparing for prom, Utah senior Keziah Daum wanted to find a dress that would stand out, “something that would be more unique and bold and had some sort of meaning to it,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Daum decided to browse a vintage store in downtown Salt Lake City, where she came across a red cheongsam, also known as a qipao — the high-collared, form-fitting traditional Chinese dress.

“I thought it was absolutely beautiful,” said Daum, who is not Chinese. She appreciated its high neckline, a difficult trait to find in many prom dresses. The dress, she said, “really gave me a sense of appreciation and admiration for other cultures and their beauty.”

On a Sunday after the dance last month, like many other social media-savvy high schoolers, she posted a photo in her dress alongside her friends. “PROM,” she wrote.

She had no idea it would elicit such a response.

The photos Keziah posted on Twitter received backlash along the lines of, “My culture is not your damn prom dress,” and other accusations of cultural appropriation.


This story interests me since I’ve written before about concerns with appropriation of my own culture.

I have to confess that my first response to this article was, Calm down people. The girl clearly didn’t mean any harm.

And then I immediately checked myself: who am I to tell other people to “calm down” when it’s their culture, and not mine? Especially considering how I wasn’t very receptive to the negative comments on my own post about appropriation of Judaism.

I don’t want to be hypocritical about this. If someone feels offended, no one has the right to say they shouldn’t be. We don’t get to police other people’s feelings, even if we think their response is overblown.

While some Chinese Twitter users chimed in with their support for Keziah, I think it’s important to remember that accusations of appropriation don’t come out of nowhere. “Appropriation” wouldn’t be a thing if not for a long history of oppression by a privileged class against a minority. If relations between white people and Asians had always been peachy, maybe no one would care.

When I was in seminary, I lived next door to a couple who identified as Messianic Jews. But after getting to know them a bit better, the husband and wife disclosed that they were actually gentile through and through (a word they didn’t care for, but was nonetheless an accurate description). They took the words of Romans 11 — about being “grafted in” to the Jewish family tree — more seriously than most, and sought to incorporate Jewish rituals and objects in their everyday life. They dressed in modern Orthodox clothing. A menorah was displayed year-round in their window. Their kids even referred to them as Abba and Ima, Hebrew for mom and dad.

While I never told them so, I found this to be rather tacky. And yet, when I told my roommate how I felt, her response really made me think: “Isn’t what they’re doing better than outright anti-semitism, though? They’re just showing their appreciation.”

Well, technically, yes…but are those the only options?

In that circumstance, I had to focus on the intention of the couple – which, though misguided, was still good. Ultimately, one family’s expression of religious devotion wasn’t worth my energy, and I chose to let it go for the sake of keeping good neighborly relations.

Since I’m obviously not Chinese, I don’t get to tell any Chinese people who are offended by Keziah’s dress that they too should “let it go.” But this story confirms for me that if you admire someone else’s culture, it may be best for everyone to do so in its proper context — whether that’s in a museum, in books, or maybe as a participant in a multi-cultural event.


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