Identifying the Systemic Racial Issue behind the Qipao Incident: Whiteness as a Gatekeeper to Ethnic Culture

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About the Author

Sean Dao is a 22 year old Vietnamese American male. He was born and raised in Maryland and currently teaches science in Texas. His interests include science, politics, social justice, technology, and education. He seeks to serve as a rational voice for the Asian American community.

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On April 22nd, 2018, Keziah Daum, a high school student from Utah, posted a set of photos of herself and her friends on the way to prom on Twitter. In these photos, Keziah is wearing a qipao or Cheongsam dress; a culturally significant garment of Chinese origin. She identifies as white. The dialogue has been focused on whether her actions constituted cultural appropriation and there is tension on both sides as whether she is respecting the qipao. When you break down this incident, we are ultimately arguing whether an 18 year old girl is being racist or not. It is objectively a small event that is being blown out of proportion. I would like to, instead of feeding into this argument over cultural appropriation, examine the deep systemic racial issues that this incident is a symptom of.

Keziah Posing with her Friends at Prom

Keziah Daum, a White Woman, was Encouraged to wear a Chinese Dress

As a white woman wearing a Chinese dress to prom, Keziah has been supported both social media and the news media. Numerous prominent social media figures such as MissGinaDarling, h3h3productions, and PhilipDeFranco came out in favor of her actions and have encouraged others to support her as well. She appeared on Fox and Friends, and was interviewed about her choice to wear the dress on national television. Her fellow classmates and even her principal offered support for her choice and celebrated her decision. As a white woman, she was supported and encouraged to wear a traditional Chinese dress.

Numerous individuals have done interviews with native Chinese citizens and on Weibo, the most popular Chinese social media platform, the overall sentiment has been positive. People in China are excited to see a white woman wear a qipao. It is being held as a monument to cultural blending and a sign that the western world is beginning to accept Asian culture into the mainstream.

What if a Keziah Daum was a Chinese woman choosing to wear a Chinese Dress to Prom?

When I was 13 years old, I packed my lunch daily like any other middle school student. This Monday, however, would be different from any other than I experienced before. The night before, my mother had visited Eden Center, a Vietnamese plaza in Virginia, and bought some Banh Mi sandwiches. I packed half of my banh mi for lunch and I recall being extremely excited to eat it.

The moment that I opened my lunchbox, my white friends and teachers were asking me so many questions.

“How can you eat that? It smells.”

“That’s such a weird sandwich.”

Ever since that day, I was hesitant to bring any of my traditional foods into school. It’s something that I couldn’t resolve until high school where I found a multiethnic friend circle that relished in sharing our cultures and traditions. Fast forward to when I was 20, I was surprised and astonished to see Banh Mi sandwich shops pop up everywhere. I began getting different questions from these old white friends.

“Have you tried Banh mi sandwiches? They’re so much better.”

“How come you don’t eat Banh Mi? Are you even Vietnamese?”

Suddenly, Banh Mi was mainstream. It was now okay for people to eat these sandwiches in public. The white dominant culture had deemed this aspect of my culture to be acceptable and had incorporated it into the mainstream. This is not a unique event. Here are some recent examples:

1. Yoga was originally a practice that originated from Hinduism and Buddhism. It is a key part of South Asian culture that was adopted into the mainstream by Pierre Bernard and Blanche DeVries, two white Americans, and has 36 million practitioners today. It is now difficult for some individuals of South Asian descent to practice yoga in public spaces. It isn’t uncommon for South Asians to experience judgement in American Yoga studios due to the differences between American and Hindu Yoga.

2. Chai is a traditional tea that originated in the Indian subcontinent. It was popularized by Starbucks and has been accepted into the mainstream. Unfortunately, it is now popularized as “Chai Tea” — which makes no sense because the word Chai means Tea in Hindi and many other Indian languages.

3. Fulani braids originated from the Fula people of West Africa. They are popular amongst black women due to their beauty and historical ties to native Africa. These were introduced into the mainstream by Bo Derek in 1979 but have become recently popularized in mainstream culture by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian. What once was an unusual “black” hairstyle has become a popular accepted one. Cornrows have also been more accepted by the white mainstream in recent years.

Bringing it back to the original question, would Keziah Daum have been accepted if she was Chinese and was wearing the qipao? I personally don’t think so. The Asian American groups in America rarely wear their traditional garments outside of their own spaces. Wearing a qipao, a Vietnamese Ao Dai, an Indian Sari, or any similar garment makes us stand out in public, and not in a good way. Some would even tell us that we need to “be more American”, and not just by the white people either. There are stigmas associated with these ethnic garments and practices that would make it difficult for Keziah to wear a qipao, if she was Chinese, and be accepted by her peers. Below is another narrative that supports this view

In America, wearing American clothing is the norm and is expected. Anyone choosing to wear a Chinese Qipao, a Vietnamese Ao Dai, or an Indian Sari would be openly questioned, possibly mocked, and alienated by a large percentage of the population. If anything, a Chinese woman has no choice but to dress “American” if they want to succeed socially or career wise. What options does anyone have other than American clothing? There are no stores that sell Asian style clothing that are readily accessible. At some point it might be acceptable to wear Asian clothing in public, but only when the white majority deems it so.

Counterpoint: Actual Chinese people don’t seem to care that she is doing this so Asian Americans should be okay too.

It is common for mainland Asians and Asian Americans to be lumped into one experience. To my understanding, this does not happen with any other ethnic groups. People do not interview native Africans to ask them about the African American experience — and this is how it should be. Living in America is a completely different experience. I believe this is because the Asian American community is a relatively newer ethnic group in this country, so the Asian American experience is not recognized as of yet. This is one of the reasons why I wrote this piece.

When the news media and social media cite interviews with mainland Chinese people, they ignore the key differences between Asian Americans and mainland or immigrant Asians. Chinese people who live in China do not ever need to question their clothing choices. Choosing to wear a qipao casually in China is considered perfectly acceptable. To them, seeing a white girl wear a qipao is a sign that their culture is spreading. However, to most Asian Americans, seeing Keziah wear a qipao is frustrating because most Asian Americans would never feel at ease doing so in America. Being able to wear that dress without fear of judgement is a product of her white privilege. As long as this is the case, whiteness will continue to serve as the gatekeeper to ethnic culture in this country.

Counterpoint: I can do whatever I want, and I wouldn’t feel judged if I wore a Qipao. Why does it matter what I do?

I’ve been seeing this opinion a lot online from people who identify as Asian American and felt the need to address it here.

Growing up in America as an Asian American is not a monolithic experience. In addition to the large number of cultures the term actually encompasses (see the graphic below), each individual person has their own lived experience. An Asian American from the east coast is going to have different experiences from one from the west coast. Growing up in the south is going to be extremely different from growing up in the north. Each region has a different set of tolerance towards Asian cultures and different communities. Depending on just the location, an individual can experience either extreme racism or none. With my example about yoga earlier, some people told me that they have had no issues practicing yoga while others claimed they will never visit a yoga studio again. There are also intricacies involved with colorism that I won’t mention, but are present and do play a role in shaping experiences. Consider that your home may play a role in your lived experiences and how much racism you have faced.

18 Countries of Origin fit inside the term Asian American, and possibly more!

If you believe that you wouldn’t be judged in your local community, I will not discredit that. It’s entirely possible that you have a strong and welcoming group around you that would encourage your wearing ethnic garments. However, understand that your experience is not the only experience. I urge you to visit the deep south and wear that qipao or Ao Dai or that Sari and see how comfortable you are. It is not simply a matter of having thick skin or high self-confidence. There are regions in this country where Asian Americans face extreme racism that would only be made worse by wearing ethnic clothing.

Counterpoint: Does this mean that white people can’t wear ethnic clothing?

White people can definitely wear ethnic clothing, but they need to be prepared to answer questions about why they are choosing to wear ethnic clothing. As seen with Keziah, she was immediately questioned about her ethnicity and her choice to wear the Qipao.

As seen here, Keziah’s story is that she simply found the dress in a store and thought that it was pretty. She also repeated this when asked live on Fox and Friends. For a lot of people, this was not an adequate reason to wear the dress and this is where a lot of the claims of cultural appropriation are coming from. In my opinion, if Keziah demonstrated knowledge about the history of the Qipao and had a stronger reason to wear this dress, this story would have played out much differently. When people bring up claims of cultural appropriation, what they are expressing is a fear of losing their cultural origins and practices to history. For a lot of Asian Americans, such as myself, culture is fundamental to our identities. As stated earlier, if you are white and choosing to wear something ethnic, be prepared to justify that choice — and make sure its a strong one!

In Summary

As an Vietnamese American and an Asian American, it is very easy for me to react to this incident with anger and assume Keziah was motivated out of racism. I see a white woman wearing a Qipao without acknowledging the history of that garment. I see her in a praying pose — possibly mocking our traditions of respect and honor (but really just paying homage to h3h3productions). I see her twitter posts explaining how she bought the dress from a vintage shop and thought it was pretty. However, it is equally likely that she is just blind to the importance of culture and history in Asian American society and that she meant no harm. Ultimately, continuing to analyze the actions of an 18 year old girl is pointless and is not what we should be focused on.

Instead, consider what this incident represents. It represents yet another part of a foreign ethnic culture that is suddenly accepted despite years of being shunned publicly. It demonstrates that if a white woman wears an ethnic garment, then it is okay for everyone to wear it. It shows that the opinions and concerns of the minority groups don’t matter as long as the white dominant society is happy. It is a shining example that shows, once again, that whiteness is the gatekeeper to ethnic culture integration.

Please check out my follow-up here.