Prom night. An event that most teenagers look forward to for all of their lives. From the time we are toddlers, the media conditions us to perceive prom night as the pinnacle of your adolescent night. And in a way, it is. Whether a teenager makes a big deal about their prom or not, their friends and family certainly will.
“What did you do for prom?” remains a talking point for adults long after they’ve collected their diplomas and moved on to adulthood.
On April 22nd, 2018, 18-year-old Keziah Daum showed up to Woods Cross High School’s senior prom with her closest friends. Following the evening’s festivities, Daum posted an album with four photos on her Twitter account, consisting of two solo photos, a photo with her date, and a photo of her squad. Daum looked to be on cloud nine in the photographs, as did the rest of her friends.
But days later, the shit hit the fan.
“Racist”, read one comment.
“What’s the theme of prom night? Ignorant?” another comment said.
When I logged onto Twitter on Saturday, April 28th and saw controversy after teen wears racist dress to prom trending as the top story on Twitter, all sorts of thoughts raced through my head. I hurriedly clicked on the article and wondered what treat was in store. Another Confederate flag dress? A dress embroidered with Swastikas? Maybe someone had gotten the nerve to screenprint the burning Twin Towers on the sides of her dress and was twirling around the dance floor in a blaze of crumbling concrete?
But, instead, I found a photograph of a pretty girl wearing a qipao.
A qipao (pronounced chee-pow, and sometimes referred to as a “cheongsam”), is a one-piece Chinese clothing item that became the national dress of the Republic Of China in 1929. The qipao started out as a woman’s traditional dress during Manchu rule, and it became a popular item amongst celebrities and the upper-class of China in the 1930s. By the 1950s, working women paired their qipao with a jacket.
Chinese women today wear a qipao during formal occasions such as weddings, parties, and beauty pageants. A good friend who got married a few years back wore a beautiful white wedding dress for her ceremony and then changed into a red qipao for her reception. Yes, she is Chinese. Some businesses—such as hotels and airlines—also make qipao dresses part of the required work uniform. The cost of qipaos range from $100-$1000, depending on the style and the material.
It is not uncommon to find qipaos in Chinese vintage stores, and Keziah Daum just happened to find one in the United States. Thinking “Oh! What a pretty dress!”, Daum bought the qipao and enlisted it as her senior prom dress. Something unique that would set her apart from the crowd. An innocent idea for a special night. Daum recognized that the dress was a garment from China, and she decided that this would be a great way to show her respect for Chinese culture.
By the magic of the Internet, Daum’s post went viral, and conflicting comments began to appear. Confused by the hate comments posted on her photos, Daum tweeted that she didn’t understand why she was getting so much hate over “just a dress”. The phrasing—of course—unleashed an even greater firestorm.
“To anyone who says I’m ignorant,” Daum tweeted, “I fully understand everyone’s concerns and views on my dress. I mean no harm. I am in no way being discriminative or racist. I’m tired of all the backlash and hate when my only intent was to show love.”
Again, Daum is an 18-year-old girl. She may not know the significance of a qipao. I did not know the significance of one until I was in my early 20s and read a Wikia page about Chun-Li from Street Fighter, who wears a qipao as part of her attire. I gained a deeper understanding after seeing the photos from my friend’s wedding with the qipao donned for the reception, and the icing on the cake was when I accepted a position as an ESL teacher for VIPKID, a Chinese company.
So, here is my question to anyone who publically crucified this teenager over the past week: If you find wearing a qipao without knowing its significant so foul, why not educate her?
Many Twitter users complimented Daum on her support Chinese culture and for also looking great in the qipao. Both Chinese and non-Chinese users felt that Daum did nothing wrong and simply decided to represent a culture that interested her. Still, many others loudly vocalized their disapproval, calling her “trash”, “cracker”, and slurs that I don’t feel like posting right now.
None of the negative tweets offered an ounce of insight into what a qipao is. The vast majority that I saw did not even reference a “qipao” or a “cheongsam”. People ripped into Daum for calling a qipao “just a dress” and “being ignorant to Chinese culture”, but NOT A ONE offered her any insight to help her gain a further understanding on the misdeeds that she committed on prom night.
Callout culture has been on the rise for the past three years. It started with good intentions, and its rules are simple: If you see someone doing something disgusting and vile, call them out publicly. Keep others from being victims of the perpetrator and ensure that those around them know of their misdeeds. In the cases of rapists, burglars, animal abusers, and murderers, callout culture can be a good thing, and it has saved many lives.
However, the rise of sensitivities from both liberal and conservative audiences has led to callout culture being reduced to miniscule offenses, completely ignoring the mantra don’t sweat the small stuff as people across social media sweat and scream their little hearts out. What happened to being a teacher? What happened to being a compassionate human being to your fellow humans?
I’m sure 2/3 of the people up in arms over Daum’s dress can’t even spell qipao. A good half of those people probably don’t even know what a qipao is either, and are just riding the bandwagon of bullying and hatred. How are we as adults supposed to set any sort of good examples for high school children when grown adults are bullying a high schooler over her clothing on prom night?
I think that it is important for Daum to know the history and significance of the qipao, and if Daum truly has a love of Chinese culture, then there is nothing wrong with her wearing that dress. It is no different than people adopting clothing styles based on rave, anime, or hip-hop fashion to show their respect and appreciation for a certain facet of culture. Still, it is important to fully understand the culture that you are representing. Did Daum already know about the history of a qipao? Maybe. But since people decided to label her a racist instead of asking her a simple question, I guess we’ll never know.
My rant of the topic of “cultural appropriation” is a lengthy one for another day, but let’s all keep in mind that Americans are the only ones trying to make “cultural appropriation” a thing. Chinese citizens have been overwhelmingly supportive of Daum and her dress since the Internet’s floodgates broke.
“Very elegant and beautiful!” one Chinese citizen commented. “Really don’t understand the people who are against her, they are wrong!”
“It is not cultural theft,” another wrote. “It is cultural appreciation and cultural respect.”
Many users on Weibo–China’s version of Twitter–have also chimed in: “Culture has no borders. There is no problem, as long as there is no malice or deliberate maligning. Chinese cultural treasures are worth spreading all over the world.”
So, if those in China love and respect Daum’s decision, why are the Americans calling her a racist?
I guess the short answer is that, once again, America has shown its ass to the rest of the world.
For the record, racists are people who discriminate against other races, often leading to bigotry, favouritism, hate-speech, and acts of violence. Keziah Daum is a thrift store shopper who stumbled across a qipao. The toxicity of callout culture lessons the impact of words like “racist”, “sexist”, and “abuser” by overusing them for trivial issues. It causes allies to overlook real issues because they have gotten burned out on all of the crying-wolf cases passing through their social media feeds. And that’s not good.
That’s how people get hurt.
We all know what a racist is, so stop using the term to describe people wearing qipaos, dreadlocks, false freckles, and dreamcatcher earrings. If someone says, “Keziah Daum is a racist”, I want to see her pointing guns at people, not wearing their clothing.
(Keziah, that was rhetorical; please do not point a gun at anyone.)
So how should this situation have been handled correctly?
If you come across someone that you feel is behaving ignorantly, approach them civilly and politely. Ask them—genuinely, not snarkily—what they are doing or wearing and what gave them the idea to do the infraction in question. Have an actual conversation with them, and then politely let them know why you disagree with their action(s). Hear them out, but explain your viewpoint as well. Share with them the knowledge that you wish they had, and keep the conversation lighthearted and friendly. Few people will ever object to such an encounter, and most will leave feeling more enlightened and educated and happy to spread their new knowledge with their friends and family.
I’m sure if anyone—in real life or online—approached Daum and said, “Cool dress! It looks awesome on you! Do you wanna know more about the qipao?”, Daum would have eagerly said yes and soaked in the knowledge. Then, on her next wearing of the dress, she could thank complimenters with, “Thanks! Did you know that the qipao…?”
Knowledge is power.
Hatred breeds contempt.
That qipao is forever ruined for Daum. She will either never wear it again, or she will wear it with a sense of pride, “Killing In The Name Of” style:
But long gone is the innocence of the pretty Chinese dress in the vintage store window. For the rest of her life, Daum’s memory of prom night will be a mix of confusion and anger…and of gratitude to her supporters.
“Thank you to EVERYONE who has been messaging me about the dress,” Daum tweeted last Sunday. “I’m trying to respond to as many as I can. Thank you for your kindness!”