What “Qipaogate” Tells Us About United States Culture, Race, and Style

Recently, a young white girl wore a qipao to her prom, a traditional Chinese dress typically worn by Asian women. Backlash against this young lady’s style choice ranged from accusations of racism, discussions of cultural appropriation, and support — from both whites, Asians, and even China.

As a Korean adoptee, I felt uncomfortable in both Western clothing and traditional Korean clothing, because my identity didn’t fit either societal-enforced mold. To some, my dressing in trendy American styles was a sign of my assimilation; my complete and wholehearted embracing of America. To others — especially myself — I felt, to some degree, as though I was playing a role.

But one year, I’d attempted to try to find my own Korean identity, one long such squashed out by racism, fear, and confusion. Long before the internet’s evolvement into hate’s battlefield, I sought out Korean styles (not easy, since Google Photos wasn’t even a thing back then), Korean magazines (traveling to New York City just to get to Koreatown), and Korean makeup.

As I browsed these options, I realized, with horror, what would happen if I attempted to proudly wear my newfound looks:

  • I’d be even more of a racial target in my “White Power Wednesday”-based school
  • “Ching, chang, chong” echoed throughout the recesses of my very raw memories
  • Stares, stares, stares
  • I’d be asked, “Is this Halloween?”

None of this sounds too bad to a white person trying to express cultural appreciation. In fact, my own white parents thought dressing me as my “culture” for Halloween was cute. In this particular instance, I look back and find this highly insensitive and racist. Think about it: A white mother forcing her adopted child to parade around on Halloween in ethnic clothing. But as we see, when a person of color attempts to ethnicize themselves, they’re often met with intense ridicule, hate, and “This is America!”-type jabs.

What Ms. Keziah Daum’s done, however, is reverse the narrative: That when a white person adopts a culture’s dress, it’s honor. When a ethnic person does the same, it’s an insult to the American way.

Photos of Ms. Daum and her white friends (interestingly, there were no people of color in the photo) bowing at each other on the steps of their prom hall were actually, to me, the most offensive. Since I grew up with white people using that gesture as mockery, I had a visceral, angry reaction to their ignorance and “fun.”

Whether or not the girl should have worn this dress isn’t my issue; my concern speaks to the public’s reactions. From the above diagram, we can pull several layers appropriate to this incident:

  • Minimization
  • Indifference
  • Veiled Racism
  • Discrimination

But ironically, those four bricks have been exhibited by both whites and Asians, hurting both of us in our quest for understanding.

On the other hand, white people are joking about not being able to eat Italian food anymore (“white” in our country), not being able to eat tacos because it’s “appropriating,” and posting other equally harmful comments. This misses the point and deflects the focus off the actual issue: Racism experienced by Asians.

I don’t think Ms. Daum knew what she was doing when she chose this dress. Most teenage girls are thinking only of themselves during prom (and other instances), so her immaturity and defensiveness is appropriate for her age.

What I hope she understands, as well as many others flabbergasted by #qipaogate, is how people of color are reacting based on their experiences with racism, their lack of privilege to honor their cultures in American society, their experience watching treasured aspects of their traditional heritages watered down so greatly they lose all meaning. People of color aren’t permitted the space to safely express themselves as Ms. Daum’s done.

At the same time, I think of my own half-white and half-Korean son. If he grows up looking “white,” and chooses to wear Korean traditional clothing, would he be targeted? When I first saw Ms. Daum’s photo, I truly believed she had some level of ethnic association with this dress. Or, because I am adopted, I thought perhaps she had ties with that community, as well.

She might. She might not. But my point? I didn’t initially feel her choice as racist; I simply saw a young white girl still uneducated on our country’s racial discourse. I wish her the best and hope she uses this opportunity for future growth.


Sunny J. Reed is a New Jersey-based writer. Her main body of work focuses on transracial adoption, race relations, and the American family. In addition to contributing to InterCountry Adoptee Voices and Dear Adoption, Sunny uses creative nonfiction as a way to reach a wider audience. Her first flash memoir (‘the lucky ones’) was published in Tilde: A Literary Journal. Her second piece (‘playground ghost’) is featured in Parhelion Literary Magazine. She is currently at work on a literary memoir. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.