When I was in the third grade, our school hosted a Famous Pioneer Day. I’m guessing on the name; I actually don’t remember the name of that costume-themed day, but nonetheless it was a day to recognize the early American (white) pioneers. I was extremely motivated in dressing up because of the costume contest. I’m not sure what convinced her (either my begging or crying or a combination of both), but my mom actually went to a novelty costume store and rented out a costume that looked like it came out of 1700s-era America. The costume was a literal adaptation of what you would see on those American Girl book series.
I used to subscribe to the American Girl Magazine too, so I have a feeling the connection of my interest in dressing up was grounded from my love for the magazines. As soon as I got my hands on the costume my mom rented, I paraded around my room with it on, even pretending to tend to some horses in my imaginary barn. I went as far as wanting to sleep in the dress, but that’s where my mom drew the line.
The next day, I walked into class smiling from ear to ear. I thought to myself, I am sooo going to win this contest! I immediately received a lot of compliments on my costume. My homeroom, reading, and math teachers all took photos of me to hang on the wall and gushed at how nice I looked. “You’re dressed exactly like the girls during that time period in America!” one teacher said. I basked in the compliments and admiration for my costume choice.
Right before the results of the winners of the contest was about to be announced, a blue-eyed blonde-haired girl with a similar but more homemade version of my costume, came up to me.
Classmate: Hey, I don’t like that you’re wearing this costume.
Classmate: Because you’re not white, you’re Chinese. Chinese people weren’t even here yet.
Me: I’m not Chinese.
Classmate: Well whatever, you look Chinese.
As she turned to walk away, her blonde hair nearly whipping across my face, I was left shocked and humiliated. Were there no Asians living in the U.S. during the 1700s? Are Chinese people the only recognizable Asian people? Was I really not supposed to wear this costume because only white people could wear it? I won the costume contest but my excitement over the win had already diminished.
With the analysis and constant media attention of Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” American Music Awards performance, I reflect on the concept of cultural appropriation and my experience in third grade. I expressed my anger and disappointment at Perry’s disgusting rendition of Madama Butterfly to my mom last night. She then replied, “Well, would you be mad if a U.S. ambassador in the Philippines wore traditional Pilipino attire?” I looked at her and I said, “No, because that would be an entirely different context.” Unfortunately, she brushed the entire Perry incident off, stating that it’s just some publicity stunt.
The difference with Perry’s performance and a U.S. ambassador in the Philippines wearing traditional Pilipino attire is the context of why you are wearing the attire in the first place. I understand when people have a deep admiration for cultures outside of their own. It’s OK and it’s encouraged to appreciate the traditions, customs, and beliefs of a culture that is not your own. When we do learn that appreciation of other cultures, then we can begin to understand the complexities of their struggles and oppression as well. A U.S. ambassador wearing traditional Pilipino attire is immersed in the culture, and I’m assuming only wears it once in a while, since traditional attire is mainly worn during traditional events. What Perry was doing was aligning the Japanese geisha with her hit song, “Unconditionally.” Jeff Yang from the Wall Street Journal narrows it down much better than I can.
The problem with Miss Saigon, and with Madama Butterfly, and yes, with Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” performance, is fundamentally that they are all confabulations of Asia invented by non-Asian people, with little concern for cultural legitimacy and no attempt to offer historical context. And because there are so few authentically told stories with the size and dazzle of these, such spectacles have evolved into a kind of truth — imagined truth — and the fictional, fantastical “facts” embedded within them have become mashed up with reality.
I had a colleague actually, not too long ago, post photos on Facebook from a night she attended a geisha-inspired party. When I saw the photos I couldn’t believe the blatant acts of racism that the party oozed of. Participants wore white make-up, kimonos, and there was only one Asian person identified within the photos. When I asked my colleague about it, she defended the party, saying that they were honoring and celebrating Japanese culture. This is what I mean about dominant culture (white privileged people) not understanding the difference between appreciation of a culture and appropriating a culture. How is it possible to appreciate Japanese culture, when there wasn’t a single Japanese person who was asked if it was OK to have that party? And even then, what about being sensitive to an entire ethnic group’s culture, traditions, and customs?
When we appropriate a culture, we dehumanize them. We strip them of their stories, livelihoods and we therefore turn the culture into a novelty. A commodity to sell in order to further exoticize a culture that is already considered a perpetual (insert stereotype here).
I think back on that day in third grade when my classmate came up to me to tell me I couldn’t dress up as a pioneer because I’m not white. Now I think of the lack of familiar role models I had growing up, that even when learning about American history, I couldn’t even think of a Asian American pioneer to dress up as. I also think of how she may have had misconceptions of what Asian people were supposed to look like, based on what she’d seen in the media. There was definitely ignorance from her point of view, but at what point do I stop being sympathetic and start holding people accountable for their insensitivity, regardless if it was intentional or not?
To combat cultural appropriation, we need to push for more recognition of the accomplishments and lives of all people of color who helped build the United States. Because the more role models that are emphasized in history books and the media, then the transformation of perception begins to shift.
Also, PLEASE no more Katy Perry cultural appropriating BS! That goes the same for Miley Cyrus, Gwen Stefani, Lana Del Rey, and all college Greek organizations. This shit is NOT funny, it’s not authentic to our cultures, it’s not a way to show your appreciation, and rather than celebrating our culture, you’re mocking it. STOP IT.