In the aftermath of the Chinese prom dress controversy, a columnist for the Atlantic argued last week that nearly all cultures appropriate.
David Frum, a senior editor at the Atlantic, penned a column last week arguing that nearly all cultures appropriate ideas from each other. Frum was responding to an incident that unfolded on social media which centered on a high school student who wore a Chinese-influenced dress to her prom. The student received an instant backlash on Twitter after users began to accuse of her “cultural appropriation.”
Twitter exacerbated the controversy by promoting a Twitter Moment that included tweets from the student and her critics. But the “Chinese prom dress” was hardly the first controversy surrounding the notion of “cultural appropriation.” For example, back in 2015, students at Oberlin College accused the college’s dining hall of “cultural appropriation” over the choice of ingredients in certain ethnic food dishes such as General Tso’s chicken and Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwiches.
Frum made it clear in his column that all cultures borrow from other cultures. Because of this, it’s hard to accuse anyone of “cultural appropriation.”
The cultural appropriation police answer the yoga and banh mi objections with a familiar counter-argument: it’s about power. It’s fine for colonized Indians to incorporate European fitness regimes into their yoga; wrong for Canadians of European origin to incorporate yoga into their fitness regimes.
But the trouble with that argument is that — like culture — power also ebbs and flows. Customs we may think of as immemorially inherent in one culture very often originated in that culture’s own history of empire and domination. The Han Chinese learned to drink tea for pleasure from peoples to their south. The green flag of Islam was adapted from the pre-Islamic religions of Iran. The great west African kingdom of Benin acquired the metal for some of its famous bronze artworks by selling thousands of people as slaves to Portuguese traders.