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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6 thoughts on “On cultural appropriation: how much do intentions matter?”

  1. Since this provoked a somewhat “visceral” reaction, I’m just wondering why
    it struck you that way…as “tactless.” Could you explain a little more about it?
    For example, was it their choice of Jewish worship practices or of Orthodox
    Jewish expression that was unsettling?

    I have this same visceral reaction when African-American sacred music is treated
    as “entertainment,” “pop culture” or “commercial fodder.” I ALSO have the
    same reaction to the plethora of “academic studies” on Pentecostalism among
    African-Americans and Latino Christians. All of a sudden, all these white
    scholars suddenly felt entitled to “study ___________Pentecostalism as a
    sociological phenomenon” and decided they now had to write papers, treatises and publish books. Frankly, I tired of this kind of “gawking” in which scholars
    felt “the need” to study Pentecostal churches. While I certainly support academic
    research, I am annoyed with “outsiders” who feel that our worship and/or
    beliefs needs the dubious benefits of their “analysis”, while they beg to invade
    worship spaces with their tablets and notebooks, trying to “document” what
    the Primitive Little People are doing on Sunday morning.

    I have noticed in discussions on Jewish blogs and websites, how there is a range of opinions on these matters. Part of it is rooted in how many American Ashkenazim and Sephardim define “Jewishness”–as culture, as religion, as a
    “civilization” and as a fusion of any of these parts. The ambiguity many
    Jewish people express about their feelings is also reflected in articles in
    blogs, magazines, etc.

    I certainly encountered this in both Jewish and Christian discussions of
    Passover observance among Christians–again, there was every range of
    opinion from NO to YES and WHY or WHY NOT. These opinions were rooted
    in theology, custom, practice of particular synagogues and churches, personal
    experience, etc. This year, the internet had less traffic on this issue, due to
    several factors.

    In the United States, cultural crossover and absorption of “other” culture is
    is so common, that Americans experience this on a daily basis and do express
    personal religious beliefs in this way.

    As you have pointed out, most American Jews have not grown up with
    Christmas trees, Vacation Bible School, etc. Consequently, they have no idea
    how and why Christians are attached to the Bible in the way they are. I suspect
    that, if you get a chance to “immerse” yourself in different church and/or
    Messianic Jewish contexts, you would probably have a stronger sociocultural
    understanding of why Christians do what they do within the context of their
    worship practices.

    Just a few thoughts…

  2. @Beth Caplin–I am a little curious as to why your neighbors’ expression struck you as “tacky”…

  3. I think that appropriation becomes “theft” when:

    1. The ethnocultural origins of the the “appropriation” are blatantly denied
    or obfuscated;

    2. Those who started the custom or contributed the art form are
    disrespected and not acknowledged;

    3. Those who “appropriate” the custom decide to “adopt” or “use” the
    custom/art form, copyright it, and then decide the original folks who started
    it have no right to it.

    This still happens in American society and certainly, greedy people do their
    best to rip off anything they wish, sell it, then deny its origins or even the
    right of the original ethnic group to perform the music THEY composed!

    4. A good example of this is how Black Gospel music is used to “sell products.”
    Sacred music that is the living tradition of Black Christians is “sampled” to
    sell computers or back performances by secular musicians who have absolutely
    no respect for anything sacred. Frankly, it’s offensive and demeaning. I tire
    of stereotypical presentations of our worship music in movies and TV shows,
    or the stupid, insipid, “cutesy” arrangements made popular during the
    variety-show era of American television. Someone needs to tell all these
    “show choirs” that finger-popping and wearing shades is a MOCKERY of
    a sacred tradition, and we are not amused.

    5. Another example of “appropriation” I have experienced is when choral directors
    decide to have their choirs perform music from a particular culture, but won’t
    even bother to attempt AUTHENTIC performance, or even use AUTHENTIC
    instrumentation to enhance the music.

    In the wider worship context in which Jewish and Christian customs, traditions,
    liturgy and art-forms cross and re-combine, believers should pay attention
    to, and educate, their congregations about the origins and sociocultural contexts of what is presented–and should make efforts to attempt authentic performances.
    This does not mean that customs or music cannot be re-combined or creatively
    re-arranged, but it does mean that the origin of the art forms should be explicitly
    explained and duly noted.

  4. Somewhere, I know not where, there must be a line between cultural appropriation and cross-cultural learning. What we admire in or from another culture, we often do tend to adopt. Is that theft? Certainly, it is universal and very human.

  5. The issue of “cultural appropriation” involves multiple aspects, as well as multiple responses. I can identify with your concerns, as an African-American whose culture is constantly appropriated by the wider “American” context. However, I am not sure that “appropriation” is always a fair “judgement call,” given the fact that American culture in the United States is in constant flux, continually enriched by all the cultures and subcultures that constitute its multiethnic mosaic.
    This also extends to the expression of religious impulse, which is also in flux, and absorbs
    and contributes to, how we as Christians express what we believe and how we worship.

    This constant synthesis and syncretism is part-and-parcel of American society, and will accelerate, due to several factors:

    1. The fact that American towns and cities are increasingly multiethnic-multilingual places. Our communities, whether urban, suburban, ex-urban, village, borough, or township–reflect the
    United Nations. We can choose to eat from any number of cultures, even as we enjoy ethnic
    celebrations and events representing cultures “not our own.”

    2. Multiple cultures often reside within the same household and within the same kinship system. Many of our families are multiethnic and multicultural in composition. We absorb the cultures and heritages of our mates, our in-laws, our cousins, aunts and uncles, and the matriarchs and patriarchs of our families. In America, we marry whom we want and if Mr. or Ms. Right comes
    from “another” culture, so be it! We celebrate our multiple heritages, and we pass these
    cultures on to our offspring.

    3. The ubiquitous technology of the Internet and YouTube. We can literally see and hear worship
    and religious practice from the entire planet. The religious music of my culture–African-American–is sung not only in churches and synagogues but also embraced in community and school
    choirs. Musics and musical expression continually “cross-over” not only to the house of worship
    next door, but to houses of worship across the planet.

    These trends impact our society and increasingly, American churches and synagogues also
    freely borrow from each other as music and worship traditions cross-over and re-combine
    with older customs and worship practices in their respective communities. For example,
    Ashkenazic Jews in the United States have appropriated African-American music not only
    in “secular culture,” but for the synagogue as well. Many synagogues certainly use Black
    Gospel music, Black spirituals and jazz as music for worship and liturgy.

    The biblical festivals have found a permanent home in many churches, including African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Brazilian, Euro-American and Latino Full Gospel and Pentecostal/charismatic churches of various denominations. The Shalosh
    Regalim–the biblical pilgrim festivals of Passover-Pentecost-Sukkot–have become firmly entrenched within the annual worship calendars of many churches–some churches will also celebrate them jointly with neighboring synagogues.

    Passover celebration is now common for many Christians in their homes and churches,
    and is celebrated just before or during Holy Week, or observed on either the traditional
    Jewish calendar dates or a date of a particular calendar customary to the specific group.

    The fact is, Christians and Jews have been appropriating each other’s “stuff” for centuries,
    and within the American context, this is not only “traditional” in its own right, but reflects
    the multiethnic mosaic that constitutes these expressions of biblical faith. I firmly believe
    that, for believers, all the music and arts of all the people of God–in every time and place–
    are collectively, our “JOINT INHERITANCE.” We all have access to this collective inheritance,
    and we should always RESPECT THE ORIGINS of those expressions.

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