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Racism 101: At What Point Does Cultural Appreciation Cross Over Into Appropriation?

Women perform during a cheongsam contest at Hengdian World Studios on June 23, 2018 in Jinhua, Zhejiang Province of China. (Zhou Jianshi/VCG via Getty Images)
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Brianna Lee is one of 12 Racism 101 panelists, a group of diverse Angelenos with strong voices, tapped to answer questions asked by our LAist audience. Visit for more information on the project and to read other panelists' responses. Click here to ask your own question.

Q: At what point does appreciation for another culture cross over into appropriation?

I don't really see this as something where "appreciation" is on one side and "cultural appropriation" is on the other, with a clear delineation between the two. I think what we're talking about is all considered cultural appropriation, it's just some kinds are more harmful than others.

Strictly speaking, cultural appropriation is the adoption of some element of another culture -- food, language, practices, fashion, etc. Anyone who lives in a place that is exposed to more than one culture appropriates; it's impossible to live in a globalized society where appropriation doesn't happen. I don't think it's inherently good or bad.

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But appropriation is harmful when it contributes to the further marginalization of an already marginalized group.

If it reinforces stereotypes, erases cultural origins or exploits aspects of another culture for social or financial benefit (and not the benefit of the group it's appropriating from), it's harmful appropriation.

Context and power dynamics matter here.

That's why a white American who decides to learn to cook Chinese food won't elicit much outcry. In fact, it's celebrated and encouraged as a way to expand and diversify their worldviews through food.

A display of Chinese take-out food and appropriate serving and eating items includes a Chinese-theme patterned bowl, saucer, and soup spoon, condiments, a teapot and tea, and four take-out containers containing (left to right) shrimp lo mein, pork-fried rice, sliced chicken and snow peas, and sweet and sour chicken, 1970s. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But say a white American decides to sprinkle some soy sauce on their food and call it Chinese. Then they start doing it on all their food and building up a personal brand as an "expert" on Chinese cuisine. Then they start profiting from it and begin being recognized for this fake culinary expertise as an "influencer."

Now we've moved from innocuous to harmful acts of appropriation that have reduced Chinese culinary culture and knowledge to a caricature, with no benefit to actual Chinese people.

Sometimes things get even messier than this.

Different affinity groups -- based on race, ethnicity or gender identity -- have experienced different degrees of marginalization, and their members' reactions to specific acts of cultural appropriation will vary as a result.

Since I'm Chinese American, I'm going to dissect one low-stakes example that dominated several conversations I had with other Chinese Americans for a short period of time: the Great Cheongsam Kerfuffle of 2018.

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The Kerfuffle began when a white teenager in Utah decided to wear a Chinese dress called a cheongsam (also known as a qipao in Mandarin) to her high school prom. She posted a photo of herself wearing it on Twitter.

Then a Twitter user who appeared to be Asian American commented, "My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress." Cue thousands of retweets, likes, and internet comments lambasting both the prom-going teenager and the offended Twitter user.

The story was amplified even more when the New York Timespicked it up.

The Times reported divided reactions, between many Asian Americans who expressed annoyance and anger, and people in China who seemed happy that a white American was embracing a beautiful aspect of Chinese culture.

Setting aside the questions about whether it's OK for the internet to pile on a private individual (a teenager, no less) for her fashion choice at a private event, there are a few things to unpack here.

First, it's not a mind-blowing idea that people in China, Chinese immigrants and American-born Chinese might all have different views on things, including cultural appropriation. In this case, I think the more relevant question is: Why?

Let's take my mom, for example. She emigrated from China to California in the '70s, and is generally fine with non-Chinese people wearing Chinese fashions. She'll even help friends buy them if they're interested. When I told her about the controversy with the cheongsam and the prom, she was genuinely confused. "Why would people be mad about that?" she asked.

Much of her experience with race in America has been struggling against perceptions of Chinese inferiority. By the time she came to the U.S., the stereotype of Chinese immigrants as cheap, uneducated labor pervaded her community. She faced overt discrimination, was told to "go back to your country," and seethed anytime she heard a denigrating remark about China -- including from American-born Chinese -- because she knew it affected how people perceived her as a Chinese immigrant.
The advancement of Chinese people in America and the surge in China's global influence have been a tremendous source of pride for her. So when any opportunity comes up to teach another person to appreciate an aspect of Chinese culture, she jumps at the chance. Someone admires a cheongsam -- great! They want to wear it -- even better.

Context around the cheongsam matters, too. The dress doesn't have any kind of sacred or religious meaning, which immediately makes this situation different from, say, Native American headdresses at Victoria's Secret fashion shows.

In the case of the prom, it wasn't being worn in an inappropriate context, either. The dress traces back to Shanghai in the 1920s as Chinese women were embracing Western concepts of gender equality and traditional gender roles. Over time it came to symbolize luxury and modernity, though in more recent decades it's become associated with tradition, too.

But today, Chinese women wear cheongsams for fancy dress-up occasions all the time: weddings, beauty pageants, cultural celebrations. I wore one at my own wedding -- and I'll admit that before this controversy came up, I didn't know anything about the cheongsam's origins. (Honestly, I'm not sure how many Chinese people know about those origins either, the same way that many Americans may not know much about the origins of the three-piece suit or the white wedding dress.)

Given all of this, it's pretty reasonable for a Chinese person to see a white girl wearing a cheongsam to prom and find nothing objectionable -- or even be pleased.

It's also pretty reasonable to be outraged, too.

Consider that, for many Asian Americans, much of our experience with race in America has to do with erasure.

Asian American people and stories have largely been absent from popular culture and national narratives. TV shows, books, movies, music, toys -- only very recently are we starting to see a bit more representation in these areas. But for most of our lives, this representation was missing, or relegated to silent background characters or one-dimensional caricatures. There never seemed to be room for Asian Americans to be represented as whole people, with the same depth and fullness as white people seemed to be granted all the time.

(Mick Brown via Unsplash)

However, there have been a lot of Asian elements.

Remember when lots of people started getting tattoos of Chinese characters without really knowing what they meant?

Remember Gwen Stefani and the Harajuku Girls, her band of Japanese background dancers who largely came off as props?

Remember the TV show "Firefly," in which half the in-show universe was permeated by Chinese language and culture, yet no Chinese people actually seemed to exist there? (Seriously, what happened to all the Chinese people?)

Remember Katy Perry dressing up as a geisha?

And in the middle of this, the cheongsam made a lot of appearances, too: at awards shows, on sitcoms, in Delia's catalogs.

In so many of these cases, the aim didn't seem to be to celebrate Asian cultures so much as to flatter (mostly) white people.

We can have entire separate conversations about whether each of these examples by themselves is harmful cultural appropriation. But collectively, this superficial celebration of Asian aesthetics while continuing to widely ignore Asian American people and experiences is the context for which a person could see a white girl wear a cheongsam to prom and get upset.

So what's the answer here? Is this an example of harmful cultural appropriation, or is it not? My take is this: It's all of the above, and none of the above. Because I don't think this is the right question to ask.

What bothered me most about the Cheongsam Kerfuffle was not the act of wearing the dress itself. It was the idea that the question at hand was, "What are non-Chinese people allowed to do?" and not, "Why do Chinese people feel the way they do about this?"

Kynt Cothron (left), in a cheongsam, arrives with Vyxsin Fiala at the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards in L.A. The duo competed on "The Amazing Race." (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

If we were to draw clear boundaries around what does or doesn't constitute harmful cultural appropriation in all cases, a lot of people would be satisfied. They'd have the relief of knowing they were in the clear.

But I'm not interested in arbitrating individual actions on behalf of an entire group of people (too much responsibility!), and more importantly, we wouldn't learn much. We'd allow the simple "this is OK/this is not OK" framework to bludgeon the nuances of the situation and future conversations: This isn't cultural appropriation, so you don't have a right to be angry. Which, by the way, is exactly what happened in the case of the prom.

By instead asking, "How does this make you feel, and why?" we give ourselves the opportunity to explore the diversity within groups of people and learn more about the experiences that shape our perspectives. We allow ourselves to ask more complicated questions.

Would it seem better if a Chinese friend encouraged that Utah teenager to wear that cheongsam?

Is it different when it's a white person doing it versus a Black person?

How did we feel when Nicki Minaj put chopsticks in her hair and modeled herself after Chun-Li?

Was it weird that a lot of Asian American girls I grew up with also put chopsticks in their hair in the '90s, even though it's not a thing that originated in Asian culture?

By the way, these make up a lot of discussions I have with my Asian American friends -- they just never seem to get the chance to penetrate into wider conversation.

But also, by asking deeper questions, we get to center the conversation around the experiences of marginalized groups, rather than on the potential faux pas of other people. And in the end, that'll help us all learn a lot more.