Arts and Entertainment

In the Defense of “Overly Sensitive” Asian Americans

Daum has been accused of cultural appropriation, but also has had tremendous support and defense from some Asians and many Caucasians.

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By Serena Chan

Prom pics have been flooding our feeds. The hunt for the perfect prom dress is crucial. For Utah teen Keziah Daum, it was a “modest neckline” that led her to choose a qipao, a traditional Chinese dress, for her prom dress, and this has caused an uproar on Twitter.

The 18-year-old posted four pictures of herself in a vibrant red qipao, grinning with her date and friends on Sunday, April 22. Since then, her tweet has amassed 18,000 replies and another 20,000 replies on user Jeremy Lam’s retweet of her post, with the comment, “My culture is NOT your godd*** prom dress.”

Daum has been accused of cultural appropriation, which, according to Cambridge Dictionary, is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” But she has also received tremendous support from some Asians and many Caucasians. Many Asian Americans found her blatant disregard for Chinese culture to be offensive, as the qipao shouldn’t be worn for the sake of being “unique” or even “exotic.” Some weren’t offended by the dress, but rather by her pose in the pictures, as she and her friends had their hands in a prayer-type clasp that resembled a bow. At the same time, other Asian Americans argued that America itself is a melting pot and that those who were offended should be “honored” that she was appreciating Asian culture. The same goes for many white commenters who thought this was an example of multiculturalism and that many Asian Americans were being “overly sensitive.”

Following the backlash, Daum posted many defensive tweets, such as, “To everyone causing so much negativity: I mean no disrespect to the Chinese culture. I’m simply showing my appreciation to their culture. I’m not deleting my post because I’ve done nothing but show my love for the culture. It’s a f------ dress. And it’s beautiful.” Many Caucasians applauded her decision to not apologize for wearing the dress. Judging from her Twitter account and her retweets, she does believe that she has been attacked for no reason, that Asian Americans who have voiced their negative opinions are overreacting, and that this was simply “cultural appreciation.” But let’s break this down.

As an Asian American scrolling through Twitter and reading the articles, I was greatly disheartened. I found Daum’s choice of dress slightly off-putting, the pose insensitive, and the fact that many Caucasians saw nothing wrong with it even more dismaying. The Asian Americans who spoke up were painted as the bad guys, attacking a poor girl who just wanted to look beautiful at prom. The comments gave me the overwhelming sense that Americans were focused on cheering this girl’s “bravery” without any incentive to understand why Asian Americans were so offended by her outfit. For us, it’s a losing uphill battle if no one’s willing to listen. Articles written by USA Today, The New York Times, and Fox News all seem to be in defense of Daum, who is “standing up for [herself],” highlighting more instances of support than protest, and implying that we were wrong for causing this debate.

Daum claims she didn’t intend to cause any harm. Most of the time, those who culturally appropriate don’t aim to; but having committed such a transgression, it is the responsibility of the transgressor to realize why she has offended so many. The dress itself is beautiful. Its origins are ambiguous, but the dress has been linked to activism and women’s liberation in China. In modern times, it is worn by brides, marking the coming-of-age and maturity of Chinese women. In her article “That 'Racist' Prom Dress Debacle Is a Lot More Complicated Than You Think,” writer Venus Wong explains, “Had [Daum] demonstrated any previous interest in learning Mandarin or in gaining a deeper knowledge on the heritage of qipao, I would have gladly been more understanding—instead she referred to the qipao as ‘a gorgeous dress I found for my last prom’ in a tweet, stripping it of its cultural identity until it was time to justify her choice.”

Of course, the qipao does not retain the same cultural significance as Native American garments, like buckskin dresses and moccasins, which have been met with a history of oppression and appropriation. But it’s not just “a f------ dress.” Before wearing them and commenting on them, white people should try to understand that traditional garments like the qipao are important to the identities of Asian American women. Cultural appreciation would have demonstrated a deeper understanding in her follow-up statements, instead of disregarding the opinions of Asian Americans just because it is an article of clothing.

In response to many Asian Americans, Americans have begun to fire back, asking if Asian Americans having Western names, wearing Western clothing, or speaking English is appropriation. However, there is a difference between adapting to American society and showing outright disrespect for a culture. Twitter user @efemona_ explains it best: “Cultural appropriation isn’t just about invention…[it’s] ideas and practices and items that are specific to a culture, an ethnic identity.” She clarifies that history and culture are not the same thing, as languages and names aren’t culturally sensitive. It is necessary to regard the “history of the culture in which it comes from and wear it when culturally acceptable.” Some Asian Americans argue that the qipao should be worn in a traditional setting, like a Chinese wedding or festival where the wearer would be given the direct permission to wear one as a guest. But, like many others, I find that given that the qipao dress is worn at formal events, prom isn’t an inappropriate setting to be wearing it, unlike Halloween or a funeral. It is okay for people of different ethnicities to appreciate the clothes of another culture for the right purposes.

But the real problem here is the pose. The teens were replicating a meme from YouTube channel h3h3 Productions. But being in a Chinese dress and showing her “appreciation of Chinese culture,” Daum should have been much more aware of how the bow-like pose looks with it. Smiling broadly in such a pose while in what also looks like an Asian squat was insensitive and greatly discredits her claim of “appreciation.” Visually, it is a disrespectful parody of Asian women in qipao. Like Wong explains in her article, given that she already wasn’t of Asian descent, she didn’t even give a single thought to the cultural context of the dress. Asian Americans have seen these poses used for prerogative amusement by Americans.

To all the white people who have been simultaneously supporting Daum and bashing us on Twitter: who are you to tell us Asian Americans how to feel? You may not agree with our views, but you have no right to tell us that we are being “overly sensitive,” having had no experience living in a country as a minority, where we are subject to discrimination and intolerance. Asian Americans themselves have differing opinions, but we respect each others’ various voices. The berating of Asian Americans for speaking up is extremely disrespectful in itself, because if your argument is that we should embrace all cultures, we are just as entitled to our beliefs because this matter has to do with us. This response from white people to Asian Americans is even more offensive to me than her having worn the dress in the first place.

Growing up Asian American, it is very apparent from a young age that in order to assimilate into American culture, we must sacrifice our own. American-born citizens and immigrants are mocked and ridiculed for having different facial features, accents, cuisine, and customs. We are taught to embrace white culture, because they won’t embrace ours. Asian Americans wouldn’t attempt to wear something like a qipao to school on Lunar New Year, let alone prom. We’d be viewed as too different or even “fresh off the boat,” a term that degrades those who are unfamiliar with American culture. So forgive us if we find the double standard all too unfair when a white girl wearing our culture is suddenly “cute” and “unique.” This is a problem that transcends Daum’s actions and speaks to the greater discrimination of our country.

Netizens from mainland China have also joined the discussion, but they praise Daum. They have thanked her for her appreciation and do not understand why Asian Americans find her wearing the dress to be anything but beautiful. Daum and many other Twitter users have used this as a defense, because if mainlanders themselves are loving it, aren’t the Asian Americans the ones being ridiculous? But that’s just it. China mainlanders are from China and constitute the racial majority. To them, it is just an American girl appreciating Chinese garments; but to us, it is a Caucasian being praised for wearing our culture when that praise would not be extended to us. Using the opinions of mainland China as an argument to override those of Asian Americans is invalid.

But what can we do? Cultural appropriation is a buzzword that can lead to some understanding, like the Jenner sisters’ retraction of clothing using hip-hop icons like Tupac, but will at other times lead to eye-rolls from Caucasians. Daum getting away with cultural appropriation is an example of white privilege, which seems impossible for Asian Americans to combat. But is imperative that our voices grow louder and that we argue our opinions until we can’t be ignored. Daum’s prom dress should inspire us to engage in a takeback of our own cultures that America has told us to shove to the back of our closets. We should wear our qipao dresses and the like and teach America to embrace them, because discrimination against our cultures cannot be stopped unless we are proud of and empowered by it. And to Keziah herself: this was not “negativity.” This was not “hate.” We are not “overly sensitive.” For many Asian Americans, this is our truth. Our voices are part of our culture. If you truly appreciate our culture as you say you do, you should listen and understand.