Cultural Appropriation, Freedom of Expression or What to Wear to Prom

Posted May 31, 2018
By Danielle S. McLaughlin

Recently, a young woman in the US found a beautiful red cheongsam or qipao in a vintage clothing store. She bought it and wore it to her high school prom -- and then things got out of hand. She was accused of cultural appropriation by some people and lauded for cultural appreciation by others. As if getting that perfect prom dress weren’t difficult enough!

I confess to being a scarf-freak. I love scarves and have a somewhat immoderate collection of them. A while ago, I was visiting a university where the Muslim Students’ Association had a table with a large stack of beautiful head scarves. Young women wearing hijab were inviting passersby to try on the scarves and showing them how to wrap and tie them in traditional Muslim fashions. I could not resist the appeal of all the colours and textures. So, I asked one of the young women behind the table how she would feel if I, a non-Muslim, and others like me chose to wear hijab as a fashion accessory. Would she be insulted? Not at all, she told me. She said that she and her fellow students would be honoured by this. Despite the temptation, I have so far not chosen to wrap my scarves around my head.

A young woman of European descent was engaged to marry a man whose family came from India. The woman and her fiancé’s mother developed a great friendship and a strong bond. The couple was invited to a fancy party and the girl told her future mother-in-law that she did not know what to wear. The older woman went to her closet and came out with her most prized sari. She wanted nothing more than to lend it to her future daughter-in-law. Should the younger woman wear the sari to the party? Someone could accuse her of cultural appropriation if she does. She would also hurt her future mother-in-law if she doesn’t.

Two young men are good friends. They both love drumming and have joined drum groups together. One man is of West Indian descent and the other comes from a First Nation in Canada. The first man invited the second to join him at the Caribbean parade, playing in the steel drum group. The second invited the first to join him at a pow wow, playing in a traditional drum group. Should they participate in one another’s events? Could they be accused of cultural appropriation if they do? Could they ruin their friendship if they don’t?

In these stories, there is often a person of one culture giving permission to another to wear an item of apparel or join in a cultural practice. Does this make a difference? If we live in a country that protects freedom of expression, don’t we all get to wear whatever we choose, whenever we chose to wear it? Why should we need permission?

And, even though you may have received permission from one person who belongs to a cultural or religious group to “join the gang,” there will be others, both inside and outside the group, who will be angered or appalled by what they see as cultural appropriation. The big question then is who gets to say what you wear?

I don’t know the answer to this question. Like most other important questions in our complex society, the answer will turn out to be, “it depends.”

Should you wear cultural or religious garb as a Hallowe’en costume? Do you think a turban makes a good sun hat? Is your bathrobe a traditional kimono? Should you practice yoga? Cook ramen? Serve poutine or burritos? Wear a mohawk haircut?

Whatever you choose, you know someone won’t like your choice. How much abuse are you willing to take? Does it matter who likes your choice and who doesn’t? Are you being a champion for freedom of expression, are you ignorant of cultures other than your own, or are you just a jerk? It depends, doesn’t it?