Move over is-the-dress-black/blue-or-gold/white, there’s a new dress debate online. And it’s a lot more serious.
Perhaps you’ve heard by now about the Utah teen who wore a traditional Chinese qipao dress to prom last week. As someone who the masses assumed was not Chinese (and she isn’t), the girl was unabashedly critiqued for her lack of cultural sensitivity.
That judgment may be warranted (and her namaste-like pose suggests it), but I have watched the subsequent debate about cultural appreciation versus cultural appropriation with a degree of unease.
While the topic delights to me to no end (so necessary!), the tenor does not.
This certainly isn’t the first time we’ve tried to parse out what’s safe or what’s offensive as it relates to reflecting a culture or lived experience that isn’t our own (whether that be about race, country of origin, sexuality, class, level of ability, etc.) but the intensity of the debate seems to heighten with each instance.
In many ways, that makes sense; repeated offensiveness is exhausting and excruciating. Each new transgression adds to a history of pain, making robust reactions feel justified every time.
And yet, most transgressors aren’t responsible for the whole — or even the majority — of our pain or oppression. Remember, this was a high school student going to prom.
So, I’ve been thinking about the spectrum of offenders. On one end, we’ve got the well-intended but maybe less informed accidental culprits (which is probably where our prom gal lives, and where I’m sure I live, too, when I make mistakes), and on the other end we’ve got the evil, racist, sexist, ableist, faithist, all-the-ists horrific oppressors (Trump, for example).
To be very clear, everyone on the spectrum, well-intended or not, is responsible for their own behavior and the consequences of it. Every one of us should routinely ask ourselves how our language and the ways we express ourselves affect other people. Accidental oppression is still very much oppression, and the pain that comes from it feels exactly the same no matter the intention.
The distinction, however, is important, because ignorance and hate are uniquely different beasts. And I’m not sure we best serve our cause by treating all transgressions as if they’re the same — even if their outcomes are.
It’s a big (too big?) ask of the marginalized to be patient or vulnerable with those who knowingly or unknowingly cause us grief. After all, why should that be on us?
Yet, if we are misunderstood, it’s hard to imagine any better way of rectifying that than being open about who we are and being patient with those who are interested in our worlds. If we don’t teach others how to respect our traditions, our food, our clothing or our celebrations, who else will? In fact, who else could?
I wonder if instead of sharpening our ability to call out injustice, we might first consider a person’s intentions. And if the intention isn’t clear, maybe it makes sense to ask, genuinely and directly. Call someone up, so to speak, instead of immediately calling them out. Seek understanding while we ask others to seek understanding.
Less confrontational approaches don’t always spark national discourse, but they can provide spaces for people to gracefully come around, or to even admit they were wrong.
Whereas, all we got from the debate over prom gal’s dress was “It’s a [expletive] dress,” which isn’t quite the thoughtful reflection that garners change.
I don’t know. Maybe this isn’t the answer, and maybe I’m way off base (it wouldn’t be the first time). But, I wonder: even if we’re deservedly enraged, if it’s compassion we’re fighting for, should it be compassion we should fight with?
Marina Gomberg’s lifestyle columns appear on sltrib.com. She is a communications professional and lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, and their son, Harvey. You can reach Marina at firstname.lastname@example.org.