Recently, Keziah Ginger Daum, 18, wore a “qipao,” a traditional Chinese dress, to her prom in Utah. Were some offended? Yes. And the nasty remarks on social media began.
Now, I face a dilemma. Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by China: Pearl Buck’s novels, the Lottie Moon Christmas offering in the church in which I grew up, the Great Wall, and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Six years ago, I traveled with the Edison State Community College International Travel group to Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai. The textiles I saw intrigued me, but the prices were out of my reach even if I could have found a size that worked for me. I was, however, not dissuaded and continued to look for a beautiful Chinese dress. I finally located one two months ago, and now I’m not certain I should ever wear it.
“Cultural appropriation” is the phrase now being used, and I ran into trouble long before this was in the vocabulary of most Americans. Twenty or so years ago, I attended a black history event in Orange County, California. My husband wore a tuxedo, and our two young grandchildren and I wore African American dress. No one said anything, but the reception I got was cold, really cold — and that was unusual for me. I wore the dress out of respect for the culture, the African American friends and acquaintances who I knew would be in attendance. I never even thought to ask if it would be appropriate.
As I reflect on my possessions, I wonder if I need to reconsider the art in my house, my clothing, and my jewelry.
I have Navaho artist R. C. Gorman lithographs, and I even met him in San Juan Capistrano and photographed him with my friend Judy Chitlik sitting on his lap. I have Filipino sculptures, African masks, and an original oil painting of an Asian woman sitting at her dressing table, along with other ethnic pieces, all done by natives of their particular culture.
I own a hand-painted dress made by Native Americans and several Mexican outfits as well as a purple scarf given to me by friend Jane Fox when she returned from one of her annual sojourns to Jerusalem. And it’s definitely Jewish with menorahs. Do I dispose of my scarf ?
What do I do with my exquisite Native American jewelry that I purchased when I lived in California, jewelry that includes a heavy gorgeous turquoise necklace that the faculty gave me when I left to take another job?
Additionally, when I lived in California in the ’90s, I wrote a play called “Voces” that was performed in 15 cities from coast to coast, a play that depicts the lives of Chicanas, Latinas, and Hispanic women. Was that cultural appropriation? Following the performances, when audience members asked me, which they often did, how I “nailed” the stories of the characters, I responded, “I listened. I observed. I asked questions. I verified my perceptions with the characters.”
Following that and other initiatives to educate about the importance of diversity, the California Latina Leadership Network designated me as an honorary “madrina” and gifted me with a large gold pin which depicts the Aztec calendar. Does that stay hidden in a drawer?
Should I destroy — or at least conceal — photos of myself back in the 1970s, when I was studying for my doctorate at The Ohio State University and wore Nehru jackets?
Once I was called before an Assembly committee in California to explain why I, as chancellor of the Rancho Santiago College District, had programs for Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans. I was a bit surprised since half of the 20,000-plus college credit students were minority and almost all of the 20,000 students in the ESL/GED non-college credit programs were minority. I fared well in the interrogation because I had statistical data that indicated that our programs were working in terms of student academic success.
As chancellor of that college, I recommended to the board that the new high-tech center which I had overseen the building of be called the Cesar Chavez Technology Center . There was quite a little scuffle. My recommendation was approved along with a mural inside the building of Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and others who supported the United Farm Workers Movement. In 2016 data, 77.3 percent or 258,255 residents of that city are Hispanic. Shouldn’t the college be sending the message out to this group that this is their college, too, instead of naming yet another campus building in honor of an Anglo?
Back in the day, when I was searching for a new presidency, a consultant who had reviewed my resume indicated that it needed to be revised, that I had too much diversity in it, had made too many speeches on the subject, had chaired too many diversity initiatives, and had too many awards from minority groups.
I have known for a very long time that our country is diverse, that I appreciate and respect that diversity, and that I want my world to be an inclusive one where I judge those with whom I work and live by the content of their character. I am absolutely certain about my convictions.
What do you think? Should I wear my new Chinese dress?
Dr. Blevins has taught undergraduate and graduate students as well as prison inmates, and now teaches communication and American literature classes at Edison State Community College. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.