I’ve Written About Cultural Appropriation For 10 Years. Here’s What I Got Wrong.
In attempting to make us more open to each other's communities, somehow, the opposite has happened.
Despite how fervently and ubiquitously the topic is discussed, no one actually likes to discuss cultural appropriation. Those on the receiving end of criticism don’t like it for obvious reason. But trust me when I say that those writing about it are over it, too.
I have written about cultural appropriation so often, for so long, that I think about my entire writing career as segmented by certain waves: There were the feathered headdresses at music festivals (2009), the “tribal” prints at Forever21 (2012), the Indian-raver bindis-and-naths on Instagram (2014), and the “Bo Derek” cornrows on various Kardashian/Jenners (2016). Today, we’re deep within the era of the ‘90s “Asian” comeback in the form of embroidered silk and Tang dynasty hair buns.
The tone of the pieces were initially finger-wavey and pedantic — about as subtle as the bedazzled war bonnets at Coachella I was deriding. When I started writing about cultural appropriation 10 years ago, it felt important to stress how these small annoyances laddered up to a pervasive grievance. The phrase was still relatively unknown (the word “appropriation” still showed up as a squiggly red underline in my word processors), and the concepts weren’t commonly discussed outside of academia. The articles that I and legions of other fed-up writers of colour were producing felt something like a new way to address an old sin. I was committed to explaining how invisible legacies of colonialism show up in our lives and what we wear. In my heart of hearts, I felt that cultural appropriation happened because people didn’t know better.
But instance after instance, these articles began to feel copied-and-pasted, from the explanations provided to the exasperated tone I put on. Opportunities to dress down cultural appropriation seemed to propagate as quickly as weeds. Address one, and there’d be five more to write next week. Intended clapbacks began to feel more like like forehead slaps.
After nearly a decade, it was clear that playing whack-a-mole with casual racism did not mean that we’d someday get to retire our hammers. The sort of pipe-dream world I had envisioned, where cultural differences would be celebrated and shared in full, not just in caricature, and definitely not as a tool to demean or discriminate...I don’t have to tell you that that did not happen. Instead, cultural appropriation seemed to expand in definition to the point of absurdity; in turn, these instances became platforms that exacerbated racial tensions. A Caucasian high schooler choosing to wear a qipao at prom somehow turned into thousands of adults bullying a teenager, which led to an opportunity for a former Bush speechwriter to talk about the cultural upside of the French occupation of Vietnam (a sandwich!) — and The New York Times to justify hurtful Asian-American stereotypes by pointing out that Chinese people outside of the United States are not offended by a caricature that has never been used to personally denigrate them. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s partnership with The Vatican on a fashion exhibit and celebrity-studded party inspired dozens of articles claiming that the most powerful institution in the world should not be disrespected; to suggest that the Catholic church could be criticised was, some argued, a form of bigotry on par with blackface.
What began as a discussion of a phenomenon — the use of another culture’s symbols without permission, which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, just a thing that happens — has revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of why racism persists. The most vitriolic on the left suggest that any cultural swapping is tantamount to acts of visual racism; that using symbols without permission is always bad, and those that do it should be condemned without mercy. The most sanctimonious on the right believe that cultural appropriation is a meaningless phrase that wilfully ignores intent; that people should have the right to celebrate what they find beautiful without criticism or abuse. In its proliferation, the term cultural appropriation has become charged. Conversations about it are radioactive.
More people today “know” about cultural appropriation than when I started writing about it ten years ago. Ignorance is clearly not the issue; boiling down a complicated phenomenon into a string of Tweetable hot takes has not made it easier for people to transform a passing interest in an aspect of another culture to seeking out a deeper understanding of it. In fact, talking about cultural appropriation the way that we have seems to have made us more callous and closed-off on all sides. It has simplified our differences instead of shining a light on our complexities.
In our fight against caricatures, we’ve somehow reinforced them.
A few months ago, I met up with a friend of mine, Sara Idacavage, who teaches at Parsons School of Design. Her classes draw connections between how specific designers and artistic movements influence contemporary fashion in what’s basically the academic study of appropriation — individual, cultural, legal, and otherwise. Sara and I were talking about her recent lecture trip to China, where she had travelled for three weeks across multiple provinces. She left with an appreciation of everything she had learned about the culture and country, and with a deeper recognition of everything she did not yet know. But Sara’s question, I came to learn, had nothing to do with the cultural nuances of mainland-Chinese people that I thought she’d ask me about. Rather, it was about her own students.
“Can I wear a qipao?” she asked me, describing a specific slim, silk dress that she had considered purchasing in China at the behest of the hosts she was traveling with. It was made using Chinese materials by Chinese makers, endorsed by her new Chinese friends as a memento of her first major trip through China. It was a dress that might be considered frowzy there in the same way a novelty cat cardigan might seem in the United States. But there was nothing really sacred, particularly controversial, or controversially symbolic about it in the context that it was purchased. Sara got permission, and qipaos were never used to denigrate Chinese women in America nor China. Her wearing one seemed like an uncontroversial choice.
“Was there something racist on it or something?” I dug.
“No — it’s just that, I’m white,” she retorted. “I’m worried that my students may be offended.” She mentioned conversations she had had with some students about how they considered any non-Asian in a qipao, kimono, or souvenir jackets to be offensive. She didn’t necessarily agree, but was worried that her nuanced belief would come across as hate. “The last thing I want is for what I wear to misrepresent what I think” she sighed, before we launched into a series of questions that she could use to justify her wearing the qipao, or her students’ potential offence:
What if a Japanese woman wears a qipao, considering the cruel history of Japanese imperialism and brutality in China? Can a Chinese-American woman wear a qipao if she grew up, like me, in Minnesota and has never once encountered one outside of a suburban mall? What if it’s original? What if it’s from ASOS? What if it’s on ASOS and called a “qipao?” What if it’s Nicki Minaj who’s wearing it while rapping “Name go ‘Ding Dong’”? What if it’s Beyonce? Does it matter if her students are mostly recent Chinese immigrants who generally see it as a traditional national relic? Does it matter if she has an Asian-American student in her class who grew up seeing blonde women in the ‘90s wear cartoonised versions of her culture, but knew that participating in it herself would get her further otherised? What right does a white professor who has never been told to go back to her own country have to have fun with fashion, when it means that someone else is reminded of her daily foreignness? What if it’s typically her Caucasian students who are the ones who say they are offended?
The point is that it is not black and white. There is no neat answer, especially one that fits into a tweet or an Instagram post. What there is are two convenient responses: shutting it all down if anything feels remotely wrong, or doubling-down on the idea that “every culture appropriates” and blatantly ignoring how culture-swapping can be used to reinforce imbalanced power dynamics, strengthening dominant cultures and keeping marginalised ones in their place. Many examples of destructive cultural appropriation — like Nicki Minaj and her use of pan-Asian symbols in a new song — happen between two marginalised groups, but the result is to reduce Asian-Americans as a stereotype for the enjoyment of non-Asians, at the expense of all marginalised groups in America.
Both responses mean not engaging at all — either with our hands up in rage or our fingers in our ears. The do-or-die way we talk about cultural appropriation has somehow made it easier to punish those who have the most to learn, and reward those who know just the bare minimum.
In shaming others for not understanding, we’ve inadvertently made it risky to understand. Those on the receiving end of criticism that they’ve culturally appropriated will be less likely to ever engage with communities they were not born into. Those whose cultures are appropriated from become tired of talking so much at the problem when it doesn’t seem like anything has changed.
Even those, like Sara, who are in the business of education and have much to teach about how government policies, structural racism, and current events affect the way we dress have become cautious about potentially loaded first impressions. Instead of showing how much white women have to learn from their peers around the world, her clothing can influence how effectively she can teach that there is nothing helpful about blanket pronouncements in the first place. It was ironic that she was coming to me for clarity when I felt somewhat responsible for fostering the kind of chilling polemical tone in the first place.
In reference to the aforementioned prom qipao incident, as a general rule of thumb, I do not read too much into what high school students do, especially if they don’t intend it to be meaningful or political. Rereading entries in my own diaries, I am fairly sure that had I been born 15 years after, I would have been pilloried online if I had posted those same thoughts via a keyboard instead of a pen. Using the actions of young people — who for the most part do not have a say in where and how and among whom they grow up — as the scapegoat for the racist systems, policies, and institutions they come up through is unfair and unkind.
Besides, criticising someone for wearing a formal dress at prom — not as a costume — grossly misdirects the real and justified anger felt by Asian-Americans who are still smarting from legacies of racist immigration policies that have led to centuries of condescension toward East Asian people, but reverence of certain East Asian objects. After all, qipaos are not part of the Asian-American experience. They are part of the Asians-on-our-TV experience. They are Anna May Wong characters and Wong Kar Wai’s damsels. It is the assumption that if you are from China, Japan, Korea, or any of the dozens of countries that make up the most populous continent in the world, that your histories, cultures, and traditions are flattened into the same box: “Asian-American.”
But vilifying a high school student’s dress choice, are we addressing how America’s xenophobic policies force immigrant groups to adopt a made-up identity? Judging from how these conversations have unfolded, I suspect that most have not.
I am not the first one to argue that outrage toward cultural appropriation is a red herring. A 2016 video from by Natalie Parrott smartly questions whether abusing random white people for wearing dreadlocks will ultimately make it acceptable for Black people to wear locs and other natural hairstyles in professional environments. Like Parrot, I believe that cultural appropriation is not inherently bad. What is bad is the stealing, laziness, and caricaturing that’s become rampant within creative industries. If artists use existing art to create better art, it’s part of the creative process to acknowledge their place within a lineage. If that happens, there’s no need to be precious about purity — that’s cultural fascism.
The bigger point is thus: Artists like Iggy Azalea know they can be financially rewarded for appropriating and plagiarising cultural symbols without attribution, and that is a problem with our entertainment institutions. Designers find it more efficient to riff on existing designs as a shortcut to creativity without citing references — that’s a problem with our production cycles and copyright law. Publications, too, know that provoking basic feelings of outrage and injustice will turn into clicks that they can sell — and that is a problem with our advertising and media institutions. Twitter pundits know that attacking a young woman for racism will earn them a disproportionate amount of likes. It’s a form of moral currency — and as much a problem with our tech algorithms as it with our contemporary rhetoric.
In wrestling with this topic in the decade I’ve been writing about it, I found Dr. Ibram X Kendi’s book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, to be clarifying. The book challenges the prevailing narrative that racist ideas are borne from ignorant individuals, and that education and sheer persuasion can create a more just country. Instead, Kendi argues that racist ideas are developed by people in power attempting to justify the existing policies and institutions that they themselves have benefitted from. By extension, if cultural appropriation supposes that a form of theft has taken place, it’s less helpful to call out the thieves than ask why it’s so profitable to steal in the first place. In other words, spending energy calling out a Nicki Minaj or Katy Perry for casual displays of racism is like trying to stop yourself from barfing when you’re dying from the flu. Addressing the symptoms might feel like a solution, but it’s not going to stamp out the disease.
This conversation is, in some ways, an American one. It’s as much a privilege to have as it is a burden. Americans have the unique duality of being surrounded by other people who are new enough Americans that they still carry their local traditions, and a long history of slavery, xenophobia, and race-based segregation and internment. We are both unlucky to have adopted this history and experience its lingering vestiges, and lucky to live in country that in its ideals seeks to celebrate that we are a nation of many different people, even if it hasn’t always practiced that. The way to reconcile these two truths is to practice the empathy that we demand from others, especially toward those who are young, who are poor, and who live in communities that do not resemble an ASOS advertisement.
If your outrage fits into one tweet, consider that it’s been shown that the less someone knows about a subject, the more opinionated they are about it. And in fact, Sara has found that when she engages her students in difficult discussions about race, gender, class, and privilege — when she bubbles up those questions and draws connections between bad behaviours and corrupt systems — her students leave feeling neither more ashamed nor more righteous. Rather, they become more curious.
“It always begins with my students having a firm viewpoint,” Sara told me over email. “But after talking about it, it always ends up in consensus that things are complicated. That is the only consistent. Things are messy.” And after wading through all the questions with her students in the days since our conversation, Sara has decided that if her Chinese hosts take her to another qipao studio, she’ll buy one this time. Her trip begins this week.
If messiness is a sign that you’re heading towards understanding, that’s indication enough that I’ve gotten it wrong in the past. As such, I’ve retired my hammer and am looking for something closer to a mop.