If You Still Think It’s Just About the Dress, You’re Missing the Point

Image courtesy of William Murphy via Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/people/80824546@N00)

Once again, America has found itself talking about a dress. If this were 2015, we’d be debating what color it is. (What a simpler time that was.) But alas, it’s 2018, so instead, we’re asking questions like “When is a dress just a dress?” and we all somehow understand what that means.

I’ve heard every argument over the last month about why no one and everyone should be offended by a white woman wearing a cheongsam to her prom. I’ve read articles and editorials from across the spectrum hashing and rehashing the debate in increasingly creative ways. I’ve seen more articles telling me about the history of this dress than I ever cared to read. (If you want a lesson no op-ed could teach you, I recommend Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love.)

Most frustratingly, I’ve seen countless strangers on the internet pontificating about how people like me should feel and think about this.

I’m not going to tell you how to feel or what to think. But I am going to tell you how I, as an Asian American, do feel and think, because if anyone is going to be talking about people like me, it might as well be me. So let’s just start from the beginning: Is the dress really “just a f*ing dress”?

I’ll start with the big secret: That woman on Twitter and so many other people are right. It is just a dress. But here’s another secret: It’s not really about the dress. For many Asian Americans, it’s much bigger than all that.

It’s about the fact that America’s reaction to the dress depends on who’s wearing it. It’s about a double standard: that Asian Americans participating in Asian cultures are not treated the same as white Americans participating in them.

One need not look far to find more evidence of this insidious double standard. Clarissa Wei highlighted the difficulties of writing about Chinese food as a Chinese person, starting with having to convince people that there is even anything worth writing about and progressing into a fight over who gets to write about it at all. (Spoiler alert: For many publishers in the food world, it’s apparently not Chinese people.) Quartz had a helpful little round-up of all the instances that the New York Times has pretended that ethnic food didn’t exist until white Americans started taking a liking to it. In a video that has since been taken down and addressed by two letters from the editors, Bon Appétit featured a white chef eating pho at his restaurant under the headline “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho.”

For many Asian Americans, celebrating our own heritages is to accept that those cultural activities will always be a barrier to being fully accepted by and integrated into American culture. We are haunted by the fear that aligning with one might require rejecting the other in some meaningful way, lest we be seen forever as “American*” or “whitewashed.”

For me, my fears feel justified when a stranger on the streets of Manhattan asks if I speak English and is surprised when I do; when a bus driver verbally harasses me as I’m talking on the phone with my mother, shouting out names of Chinese take-out dishes, sprinkled with “Asian-sounding” gibberish; when I was 11 at a baseball game with my family and a group of cackling 20-somethings came up to us to ask, “Hey, y’all know Ichiro?”

To many white Americans, merely looking the way I do is to justify skepticism when I tell them that, yes, I really am from Texas or California or Maryland (all of which are true). You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe anyone who might say that I’d receive nothing but love and respect were I to start wearing a Korean hanbok everywhere in a country where people of color are barred from speaking their native languages at work, even when they’re on break.

Yet when thousands of people have rallied to defend a white woman they don’t know and her right to wear a Chinese dress, it’s with some sense of bitterness that Asian Americans wonder if the same people would defend our right to wear our own traditional clothing without fear of harassment — or worse. Meanwhile, she has gained 35,000 Twitter followers (and counting), TV interviews, tens of thousands of words written about why she’s right and how beautiful she looked.

***

If “I just thought it was pretty” is the first line of defense, then “I’m just showing my appreciation” often follows closely behind, maybe even in the same breath.

“I don’t see the big deal of me wearing a gorgeous dress I found for my last prom. If anything, I’m showing my appreciation to other cultures and I didn’t intend to make anyone think that I’m trying to be racist,” tweeted the young woman, who’s now verified on Twitter.

The distinction between these two arguments is important to make because on some level it concedes a point to the other side: that merely finding a dress cute might not fully justify wearing it, that there might be some base level of knowledge or care that must be taken to participate in someone else’s culture in a respectful way.

In 2014, Pharrell Williams drew fire for wearing a war bonnet — a ceremonial adornment sacred to certain American Plains Indian Nations — on the cover of Elle UK, highlighting that being a person of color doesn’t protect you from falling into this trap. His apology said as little as possible: “I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture. I am genuinely sorry.” In 2013, Katy Perry set off a debate about cultural appropriation with a now-infamous geisha-themed performance at the AMAs. In an interview with GQ, she gave this familiar-sounding explanation: “All I was trying to do is just give a very beautiful performance about a place that I have so much love for and find so much beauty in, and that was exactly where I was coming from, with no other thought besides it.”

That she would consider this a sufficient justification to those calling her performance offensive illustrates an important point: Often, the bar for what constitutes appreciating or respecting a culture is extremely, conveniently low — so low in fact, that for many, intending respect is all that seems to be needed to actually demonstrate it.

There’s also a certain distance maintained in these types of justifications that all too often can feel like a way for outsiders to take from the aesthetics of a culture and its symbols without actually carrying out the hard work of engaging with the meanings — and people — behind them.

This is why, again, it’s not about the dress.

It’s about a willful ignorance that outsiders are attempting to preserve and leverage when they insist that their lack of bad intentions is an appropriate substitute for understanding why it is that someone is bothered by their actions. Or when they say that they do understand but still make no effort to engage with criticism beyond summoning the protective cocoon of their “good intentions.”

So therein lies the rub: that someone with no intention to hurt can still cause hurt. And when the offender is more fiercely defended than the offended, the message is clear: The comfort of some people is more important than reckoning with why others feel disrespected. And let me ask this: If something you do out of “respect” for a culture doesn’t lead you to be open to engaging with the ways it might be offensive to someone, then to what extent can it be called respect at all?

At this point, conscientious objectors might ask: But wait! I thought this was America. Isn’t America about the freedom to mix and associate as we please? Is it not the great melting pot, where we all wear pants popularized by a German Jew and sip coffee originally grown by Africans and Arabs and use smartphones designed in California, assembled in China?

In some ways, yes. But one outcome of this line of thinking is that “respect” becomes a catch-all for any cultural participation that is not overtly and plainly intended to demean, marginalize or otherwise offend. And then, of course, how could anyone possibly find offense at something meant to be merely an act of respect? In this framework, there is never any time when feeling offended, bothered or hurt is appropriate or justified — except in the face of obvious, in your face, capital-R Racism. After all, in a country as diverse as this, it’s impossible for anybody to know, understand and avoid all the ways they might unintentionally offend someone of a different cultural background, right?

Yet when ignorance is not only deemed justifiable but in fact inevitable in a globalized world of so many moving parts, the burden of sorting through the fallout is placed squarely and solely on those who feel encroached upon.

When Logan Paul tears through Japan, throwing things at police cars, running through religious shrines and filming dead bodies — as disrespectful and disgusting as his behavior might be judged in any context — he’s nothing more than a nuisance. It is easy to imagine how differently we would and should judge Paul’s actions were he to do the same things to the same people in a place that is only 4% Asian and where 75% of people looked more like him. We might even call him a bully.

But the lesson of this thought experiment is that such behavior and how we judge it are contextual; there are no easy rules or simple flowcharts to tell us what is right or wrong.

So if the onus is on Paul to defer to Japanese culture when in Japan, then what is being implied when, at times like this, minorities and people of color are told to just “get over it”? One might be excused for thinking that the subtle argument being made is that it’s the right of white Americans to indulge in others’ cultures in any way they see fit and the responsibility of everyone else to accommodate — because America is for them.

Those who are bothered are caricatured as overzealous social justice warriors. But that’s not all. “People that think wearing another cultures [sic] clothing or whatever is racist are dividing cultures even more in a time where we need the opposite,” writes one Redditor, as though we could achieve world harmony if minorities and people of color would just stop being so damn sensitive.

If only it were that easy.

We are instructed to sort through our own personal baggage, with no mention of the responsibility of others to sufficiently educate or inform themselves before participating in our cultures, even if they ultimately conclude that they should feel free to, which is more often than not probably a reasonable position.

In a sort of surreal twist, the fact that Chinese people in China are not bothered by the dress is being used to highlight just how silly and oversensitive Chinese Americans must be to be upset by an article of clothing. Comments like “Am [sic] from Hong Kong. Can confirm that the general population would be fine with seeing someone of another race wear our clothing” abound on Reddit and elsewhere, along with suggestions like “How about we ask Asian people if wearing Asian clothes offends them?” The implication is that a single “no” from a “real” Chinese person in China would shut the debate down forever.

It should be no surprise that the words of some Chinese people in China are being used to represent the “proper” opinion of Chinese people everywhere, diaspora included. The truth is that these Chinese voices are only considered significant when buttressing certain non-Chinese people’s viewpoints. The words of other Asian Americans are similarly used as a weapon.

“Don’t listen to these f*ing sensitive morons. I’m as asian [sic] as it gets and nobody in China would give a f*k,” a Korean American celebrity jeweller and entrepreneur chimed in on Twitter, implying that, despite his being from a completely different heritage, the box he ticks on the census gives him the authority to permit people to dismiss anyone who feels differently.

An uncomfortable fact is that many people’s arguments would benefit if it did.

The cultural heritage that Asians in Asia and Asian Americans share is meant to add an extra spoonful of moral authority to the same, patronizing rebuke: “You’re all just overreacting.”

And yet for all the furor, there is no room in the public discourse for a discussion of why Chinese Americans, Chinese people in China and other Asian Americans all might have differing opinions. “People do not interview native Africans to ask them about the African American experience — and this is how it should be,” writes Sean Dao. “Living in America is a completely different experience.”

Yet Asians and Asian Americans of all heritages are often flattened and folded into one monolithic group of people billions strong, paving over all the nuances of our disparate experiences and leaving no room for more than one “correct” way to feel or think. In the debate, we are all but stripped of the privilege of speaking for ourselves, because so many people are busy speaking for us.

So if, after all that, you are still with me, that’s why for many Asian Americans — and I cannot stress this enough — it isn’t about the dress.

***

That we continue to have these debates around culture and identity is perhaps part and parcel of the audacity of the American experiment: a country founded for the express purpose of uniting people of all kinds only through their commitment to stand under the same banner. At a time when people — on many sides — are seeking to claim what is and isn’t “American” for their own purposes, with far more dire consequences for many when it comes to questions like immigration and policing, a debate over a dress might seem much ado about nothing.

But for many Asian Americans, it is just another entry in a long line of experiences reminding us that too many in this country believe that what comes before the dash in “Asian-American” is more important than what comes after it.

So when a hyphen-less person gets praised and defended for something that many of us would feel neither safe nor comfortable doing, it’s hard not to stand up and say something. Moments like this remind us all that when we don’t use our voices, we risk losing them altogether.

At the same time, all of us must be thoughtful about whose voices we listen to and why, and what that says not only about what we value, but whom we value.

And in these fraught times, it benefits no one to forget that.