Keziah Daum, a white high school student in Utah, recently found herself in a social media storm for wearing a traditional Chinese dress known as qipao to her prom. "My culture is NOT your… prom dress," tweeted Twitter user, Jeremy Lam, accusing Daum of cultural appropriation.
Lam's post had been re-tweeted 40,000 times and liked 180,000 times by late Tuesday.
From Gucci's models wearing turbans on the catwalk, to American entertainment personality Kim Kardashian's cornrows, to Daum's prom dress, allegations of cultural appropriation have been increasingly common in recent years. How to distinguish between cultural appreciation and appropriation has sparked heated discussions.
According to the BBC, cultural appropriation is defined as "the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas of one people or society by members of a typically more dominant people or society."
Problems could arise when the heritage of marginalized groups are deployed by people in a position of greater privilege for fashion rather than appreciation of that culture.
In the 21st century, different interpretations of certain cultural symbols may trigger intense confrontation between different civilizations and ethnicities. While the qipao is seen as a sign of women's liberation, it is a "beautiful dress" in Daum's eye. Wearing it to the prom, one of the most traditional activities in the US, has been interpreted in different ways.
While many believe qipao-wearing has made the U.S.-styled prom more colorful, some regard it as a discrimination against Chinese dress, a weird way of dressing in typical American people's eye. This is seen by some netizens as offensive and disrespectful to Chinese culture.
Cultural misunderstandings can exert considerable influences on people-to-people exchanges, and may even strain political and economic ties between nations. For instance, bindis-wearing at Coachella, a music and arts festival in the US, has triggered widespread criticisms among Hindu people and has become a thorn in the festival's side. As a sacred cultural symbol of religious significance that has to be earned in Hindu communities, it is treated as just a forehead accessory by Coachella attendees. Controversies over the issue have dampened native Hindu's ties with the Western culture.
Cultural gaps are formed in history and are not easy to overcome. In the era of globalization, an expansion of cultural exchanges is not enough. More effort should be put into deepening mutual understanding of different cultures.
In fact, many problems in Sino-U.S. ties are intertwined with cultural appropriation, especially on items of historical values. An analysis of cultural elements is of great significance at the time of tense Beijing-Washington relations.