No, You Shouldn’t Wear a Qipao to Prom: Why One Girl’s Choice of Prom Dress Matters
She may have learned about other cultures, but she hasn't learned about whiteness.
When Keziah Daum, a high school senior in Utah, chose a prom dress, she had no idea that her choice would end up eliciting such powerful backlash online. Which is strange: first, because she’s of a generation that does everything online, so she should maybe have an idea how the internet operates. Second, isn’t she a part of this amazing generation of young activists that has a better, inherent understanding of cultural sensitivity and systemic racism?
According to The Washington Post, when Daum went looking for a prom dress, she wanted “something that would be more unique and bold and had some sort of meaning to it.” While shopping at a vintage store in Salt Lake City, she found a red cheongsam, or qipao, and thought it “absolutely beautiful,” saying that she appreciated the fact that it had a high neckline (so many prom dresses don’t), and that it “really gave me a sense of appreciation and admiration for other cultures and their beauty.”
She then posted photos of herself in the dress on social media. Cue the backlash.
— Keziah (@daumkeziah) April 22, 2018
Now, the question is not “is this dress beautiful?” or even “does this girl admire other cultures and their beauty?” The question is “does someone’s admiration for a culture and its beauty give them license to wear those clothes?” The answer is not really—certainly not on its own.
Before I get into that, though, I do want to point out that this is a teenage girl. No matter what mistake she may or may not have made, personal attacks and browbeating her with horribleness, especially if you are an adult, is not okay. The only reason I’m even writing about this at all is that she 1) posted about it on Twitter and has no intention of taking it down, and 2) did an interview with The Washington Post, making this a news story and a point of public discussion. My intention, however, is to discuss her choice and why that choice is problematic. Cool? Cool.
So, here’s some of the pushback she received upon posting her photos:
My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress. https://t.co/vhkNOPevKD
— Jeremy Lam (@jere_bare) April 27, 2018
I’m proud of my culture, including the extreme barriers marginalized people within that culture have had to overcome those obstacles. For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.
— Jeremy Lam (@jere_bare) April 28, 2018
This isn’t ok. I wouldn’t wear traditional Korean, Japanese or any other traditional dress and I’m Asian. I wouldn’t wear traditional Irish or Swedish or Greek dress either. There’s a lot of history behind these clothes. Sad.
— Jeannie (@JeannieBeanie99) April 28, 2018
Now, as we know, no group is a monolith. Daum also got plenty of support, including from within the Chinese and the broader Asian community:
I am a Chinese woman. I support you. You rocked that dress!! I have an 18 year old daughter who just had her prom. She said people might be just jealous that you look awesome in that dress. 😁
— YING LI (@msyinseattle) May 1, 2018
Good on you for wearing that dress. You look beautiful in it, and don’t let them tell you that you have to be Asian to appreciate the dress. There are just too many trolls out there. Happy Grad 2018!
— Favian Yee (@FavianYee) May 1, 2018
You don’t need to be Asian to wear a qi pao. Just take a look at @shanghaitang which create these beautiful dresses for everyone to wear.
— John Fong (@johnfong888) April 30, 2018
B you look great and if you want next time you can wear a Baju Kebaya from South East Asia and if anyone screams “cultural appropriation” at you tell them to @ me pic.twitter.com/UmRgNTaSHk
— Aieshah A. (@CoffeeCupAA) April 29, 2018
One of the main criticisms of Daum’s photos was that the choice of dress was compounded by the photo of her and her friends in which, according to The Washington Post, “she and her friends hold their hands together in prayer-like poses.” Yeeeah … “prayer-like poses,” or a super-stereotypical Chinese bowing pose. You make the call!
And that right there is a big part of the problem: the fact that she chose the dress and posted the photos without giving a second thought to how it could be received or perceived—that it could even be received negatively. No one is saying that she was “trying to be racist.” What they’re saying is that this blind spot is a symptom of racism. There’s a difference between racist intention and racist actions.
People do unwittingly racist things every day. Yet, just as ignorance of the law isn’t a defense against it, ignorance of how what you said or did is racist doesn’t prevent it from being racist.
She bought the dress because she thought it was pretty. She posted the pictures because she wanted to. For all that she says her decision was based in respect and appreciation for another culture, that respect or appreciation didn’t seem to include the thought that perhaps actual members of that community might be hurt by her choice. It only went so far as to allow her to do what she wanted to do in the first place.
Despite the fact that Daum’s mother claims that when her daughter was in third grade, she took her out of school and put her in a more diverse school, because “I wanted her to have that exposure,” Daum hasn’t managed to learn very much about how other cultures might perceive her actions. Or rather, she may have learned about other cultures, but she hasn’t learned about whiteness: the power it wields, the privilege she was born into without even trying, and its relationship to those other cultures she’s trying to respect so much.
If you aren’t Chinese, but live in China, and you wear Chinese-style clothing because you’re assimilating into the majority culture as a resident of that country, that makes total and complete sense. If you’re Chinese, and you move to the United States and wear Western-style clothes, you’re adopting the style of the country you moved to. That makes total and complete sense. If you’re American, are not Chinese, but are wearing Chinese-style clothes? That’s when it becomes a costume. That’s the difference.
Cultural appropriation is a member of the majority culture taking from a minority culture with a lack of understanding, awareness, or sensitivity. In other words, without giving anything negative or contrary to one’s own desire a second thought.
This isn’t something that’s limited to white people, either. I could write a whole other piece about how communities of color appropriate from each other. How black rappers have taken from kung-fu movies and Indian beats and Apache! Jump on it! Tonto! Jump on it! Or non-black Latinx people using the n-word as if it’s slang. But that’s a piece for another day.
While Daum seems to have learned something from this experience (“This does give me a better sense of choice and being careful in what I say in posts and how it can be perceived differently. It’s taught me to be extra cautious because you don’t want people to see it the wrong way.”), she’s also doubled down on the fact that she hasn’t done anything wrong, saying of the dress, “I’d wear it again.” *sigh* Please don’t.
In the grand scheme of things, one teenage girl wearing one ill-advised prom dress is not going to shatter the world. However, this can be a learning opportunity for others. Here’s hoping that Daum continues to give the matter thought and makes different choices next time. Doubling-down on a mistake is not the same thing as “standing up for what you believe in.”
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