Who Has Authority over Culture

Culture, like society, is something that exists exclusively in the human imagination. It’s an abstract concept that doesn’t exist in the real world. That being the case, I find stories like this one to be ridiculous:

TAIPEI, Taiwan — When Keziah Daum wore a Chinese-style dress to her high school prom in Utah, it set off an uproar — but not because of its tight fit or thigh-high slit.

After Ms. Daum, 18, shared pictures on social media of her prom night, a Twitter user named Jeremy Lam hotly responded in a post that has been retweeted nearly 42,000 times.


“My culture is NOT” your prom dress, he wrote, adding profanity for effect.

“I’m proud of my culture,” he wrote in another post. “For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.”

Something that only exists in your imagination can only be yours in your imagination. But for a moment let’s assume that culture is a real thing that can be appropriated. Where do people who throw around accusations of cultural appropriation get off thinking that they’re the ultimate authority over what is or isn’t the proper use of a culture? Because while Jeremy Lam may be upset that Daum wore a Chinese dress, Snail Trail and Zhou Yijun believe quite the opposite:

“I am very proud to have our culture recognized by people in other countries,” said someone called Snail Trail, commenting on a post of the Utah episode by a popular account on WeChat, the messaging and social media platform, that had been read more than 100,000 times.

“It’s ridiculous to criticize this as cultural appropriation,” Zhou Yijun, a Hong Kong-based cultural commentator, said in a telephone interview. “From the perspective of a Chinese person, if a foreign woman wears a qipao and thinks she looks pretty, then why shouldn’t she wear it?”

This illustrates one of the biggest problems with treating imaginary concepts as if they were real objects. An imaginary concept may exist in the heads of multiple individuals but each of those individuals will put their own spin on it. The concept of Chinese culture, for example, exists in the heads of billions of individuals but none of those individuals likely agree entirely on what constitutes Chinese culture. Sure, most of them will likely agree to a few major concepts. For example, most people will likely agree that the Chinese language is part of Chinese culture. However, diving into the minute will quickly reveal that no two individuals share the exact same concept.

One of the disagreements over the imaginary concept of culture is who has authority over it. If one Chinese individual tells a white girl that she can’t wear a Chinese dress but another Chinese individual says that she can, who is correct? Which of the two individuals has the authority to dictate whether or not the white girl’s behavior is appropriate? Feel free to answer the question in the comment box if you want but I will require that you show your work.

3 thoughts on “Who Has Authority over Culture”

  1. This whole bit reminds me of a cartoon that ran on Adult Swim for a short time. In one episode, the cast, ( who were college students ) were all vying for Minority status for funding. One character, with Asian features, came in wearing a Native American head dress and “war” paint, and boasted of a scholarship she had gotten for her Native American status. A cohort asked, but wasn’t she already a minority because, you know, Asian? She replied, to effect of “Silly! that’s just on my parents side !” Culture and Heritage have nothing to do with genetics, but everything to do with how you are brought up. Therefore, as you pointed out,there is SO much variation among people who THINK they share a common culture that they themselves will not agree on more than a few major chunks of same, with regional and even familial tradition thrown in as “our culture “. I myself wear “cowboy “hats from time to time. My fore bearers were not cowboys. No body takes offense. Should I feel left out? Should I go Ape-crap offended if I see an Asian wearing a cowboy hat?

  2. Of course she can wear whatever dress she pleases.

    Jeremy Lam’s feelings are entirely of his own invention, based on his own perception and pre-conceived notions. Her choice of dress has not hurt him in the least.

    Does he wear t-shirts? Then he’s a hypocrite.

  3. Jeremy Lam bitcheddar about her dress on Twitter in English appropriating English and American culture in the process he should have mailed her a letter written in Chinese on paper.

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