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OPINION: When Appreciating Other Cultures, Proceed With Caution

By Nisha Desai, Reporter

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Each spring, thousands of girls flock to dress shops on a quest to find the perfect prom dress.  Surrounded by displays of shiny fabric, glittering sequins, and sparkling jewels, they can’t help but hold their breaths, taking it all in along with the challenging task at hand: choosing just one amidst a sea of beautiful fish.  They travel through aisles, their eyes flicking from one dress to another, likening the expanse of the store to an iridescent coral reef brimming with treasure.

But what happens when someone wants to wear something unconventional?  There’s no written rule saying that you have to wear a specific type of dress, unless it violates a school’s dress code.  

Such is the case of Keziah Daum, a high school senior in Utah who faced backlash after she chose to wear a traditional Chinese dress to prom. She claimed that she found the dress at a thrift shop and instantly fell in love with it, but many criticized her for being ignorant and insulting the Chinese culture, since she was a non-Chinese person wearing a Chinese gown to prom.

But what caused the most anger was a photo in which Daum and her friends struck Chinese poses, kneeling down and clasping their hands together under their chins.  Many Chinese Americans believed that she was mocking their culture, treating it as an opportunity for a silly photo shoot. This led to a huge debate on cultural appropriation.

In simple terms, cultural appropriation is when someone adopts something from another culture, whether it be an object or behavior, and makes it their own.  But what gives cultural appropriation its negative connotation is the presence of a dominant culture “stealing” things from a culture that they have oppressed in the past.

Many others have expressed their incredulity at the fact that people are making such a big deal out  of a dress, some even going so far as to praise Daum for her confidence in wearing the dress at prom and showcasing a culture different than her own.  Daum herself has apologized for offending Chinese people in any way.

“To everyone who says I’m ignorant, I fully understand everyone’s concerns and views on my dress,” Daum tweeted after the surge of hateful tweets. “I mean no harm.  I am in no way being discriminative or racist. I’m tired of all the backlash and hate when my only intent was to show my love.”

No matter what Daum’s intentions were, the fact that her decision to wear a dress from a different culture caused so much anger only serves to emphasize the importance of being careful about what we do or say in this day and age.  Despite the immense progress that the US has made in civil rights and its acceptance of other ideologies and cultures, old tensions still spring up. Also, it’s natural for people to be sensitive about their cultures because their roots define them–they wouldn’t be who they are today without the beliefs and traditions held by their ancestors and carried out through the centuries.

I’m not saying it was wrong for Daum to wear a traditional Chinese dress to prom.  Sometimes we want to reveal our appreciation for something but are thwarted by people who don’t interpret our actions the way we want them to.  But before she posts something online, Daum needs to be prepared to deal with potential critics and the possible backlash she may face.

As for the rest of us, we need to spread the message that love and appreciation for other cultures are important.  But we must always be cautious, so that our good intentions are not misinterpreted as acts of ignorance or insults.  It’s the only way we can preserve harmony in our diverse world.

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