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Cultural Appropriation and the Invisible White American Culture

I got a chuckle this week reading about some kind of cyber-storm caused by a young non-Asian American woman from Utah wearing a cheongsam traditional Chinese dress to her prom and having a torrent of abuse hurled at her in cyberspace for appropriating the Chinese culture.

Apparently some people, some of them with Asian surnames (or at least Asian surname cyber handles – could be Russians for all we know) were incensed at what they viewed as the theft of their culture. And I get it. I remember being appalled many years ago when Bo Derek sported cornrows in some movie – at a time when a sistah could be fired from her job for wearing her hair in that style, and none of those jobs were in Hollywood movies.

I still cringe when I see young white boys sagging (an extension of prison culture in an almost hilarious case of mistaken messaging, that came into the African American urban culture and thence to the rest of America) while rapping along to a song about “My Niggah.”

And the list goes on and on, from Elvis Presley and virtually every other popular white musician from the ‘50s and 60s stealing Black music all the while Black musicians were relegated to the chitlin circuit, to blond-haired dread locks that hardly warrant a second glance they are so ubiquitous. White folks in America steal everybody’s culture.

Because when you get right down to it, America is an amalgamation of every other culture on the face of the Earth. Sure, we can claim certain art forms and popular styles as “American” but if you trace the roots of any of those things back more than a few hundred years, you’ll find that they came from somewhere else, from someone else’s culture. That is the nature of a country born from colonization, expanded by displacing prior inhabitants, built by stolen labor and populated by what use to be an open immigration policy (as long as you were immigrating from Europe) – it’s called cultural appropriation.

But what’s really insidious (as if that shit wasn’t bad enough) though, is the fact that white folks in America have convinced everyone else that they are the “normal” Americans, the “real” Americans against which all else is measured. And in pulling off that feat, their cultures have become all but invisible.

There is no “white” culture in America. Sure, there is every stripe of European, but as long as your people have been here more than one generation and speak English, if you’re white, everything’s cool. Everybody else is, how do they say – “ethnic.”

What the hell does that even mean? Everybody has an ethnicity of one flavor or another, or several as is usually the case, so how is it that only non-white folks get to be “ethnic?” It’s just another way of drawing the dividing line between the “us” and the “them” and it’s a war that’s been fought in this country since its founding.

I’ve got a question for any of the Asian Americans (because, by the way, the Chinese apparently had no problem with the child wearing a cheongsam, they thought it was a pretty cool homage – and also by the way, they appropriated the style from someone else anyway, as is always the case) do you wear Western European clothing? I bet you do. Do you consider that appropriating that culture? I bet you don’t. And why not?

Because you’ve been taught, like everyone else, that Western Europe is the “norm” and only the “others” – like yourself – are “ethnic.” Ethnic food, ethnic clothing, ethnic culture – those terms are completely meaningless since the descriptor encompasses all of humanity.

Chinese culture, like any other, is just as much an ingredient in our stew as anything else. So why not wear a cheongsam? I wear Western European clothes sometimes and I’m certainly no European. I wear West African clothes sometimes, although if DNA is to be believed my African ancestors came from Angola. I wear South Asian clothes sometimes because they’re beautiful and comfortable, but, if measured by the narrow standard asserted by some, I have no right to do so.

But I am, however uncomfortable I am at times with what that means, an American. So when I wear these clothes – including those from Western Europe – I’m just representing my peeps.

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