When American student Keziah Daum wore a cheongsam to her prom in Utah recently, she caused an uproar. Critics claimed she was misappropriating Chinese culture. At one level, the accusation was laughable. Many, if not most, of those critics probably wear Western dress, even if out of functional necessity, without Americans and Europeans charging them with having stolen or degraded Western culture. It is a sad day when an 18-year-old teenager, who wished nothing more than to celebrate her innocent liking for the qipao, found herself labelled a racist.
If anything, the reaction itself is a form of reverse sartorial racism. However, in wearing attire associated with a different culture, it is imperative that people act with manifest respect to the cultural traditions which have produced that manner of dressing. Turning up in a brightly coloured cheongsam or changshan at a Chinese funeral would be as inappropriate as appearing in vests and shorts at a Western one. It is when what is culturally appropriate is ignored that cultural appropriation is likely to become an issue. Ms Daum did not transgress any cultural boundaries by donning the cheongsam on a happy occasion. She merely paid a very American tribute to an expression of Chinese culture.