When Do We Take Offense? And When Do We Let Things Go?
I’m writing this post to my Asian friends, but it applies to anyone from a minority group, be it race, sexual orientation, gender, or any other defining trait. And if you’re from a “majority” group, well hey, I have a suggestion for you, too. So stick around …
First off, I want to make it perfectly clear that I understand subtle racism. I’ve experienced it myself, and I’ve already written plenty about it (Cracked column here, followup here, more thoughts here, here, and here).
The irony is that overt racism is often easier to deal with than subtle racism. With subtle racism (i.e., microaggressions), we can never really be sure if the person is racist or just ignorant. And even then, we have to consider how much ignorance is tolerable.
We also have to decide which issues are worth fighting for, and which ones we have to let go. That’s right, it’s the old cliche:
We have to pick our battles.
The problem we create for ourselves when we wage every skirmish is that we dilute our message. If we take offense at every supposed transgression, large or small, people will stop listening to us altogether. We become the little boy who cried wolf.
With that, here’s the latest uproar:
Basically, a white girl in Utah wore a prom dress modeled after a Chinese qipao, and some people weren’t too happy about it, accusing the girl of cultural appropriation.
Now, before I discuss the level of offensiveness of this dress, I’d like to pose a question. Take a look at these two Halloween costumes, both of which are currently available on Amazon:
Which of these costumes is racially offensive? Both? Neither? Only one?
(Okay, so that’s technically four questions …)
To me, there is a clear difference between the two costumes. One attempts to be at least somewhat authentic and portrays an aspect of Japanese culture in a respectful light. The other makes no attempt at authenticity whatsoever, plays up tired racial stereotypes, and basically makes a mockery of Chinese culture, both in attire and appearance.
You know which one is which, right?
The samurai costume is clearly based on authentic depictions of samurai warriors. The “Chinese man” one comes from early-20th Century depictions of Chinese people that had little basis in fact. The only accessory that costume needs in order to complete the racism gauntlet is a set of buckteeth.
It’s a fine line, but it’s a line we have to draw. We can’t automatically tag something as offensive just because it adopts a look from another culture. Here’s the criteria that I propose we use:
- Is the thing itself (be it a piece of clothing, a way of styling one’s personal appearance, a drawn figure or artwork, etc.) overtly offensive?
- If the thing itself isn’t overtly offensive, does the person displaying it pay tribute to the original culture in a respectful manner? Or are they mocking the original culture?
Using this criteria, for instance, someone wearing a swastika or donning blackface — well, they immediately fail criterion #1.
On the other hand, someone wearing a dress based on a qipao — a qipao on its own doesn’t fail criterion #1, so we have to consider criterion #2. Based on the photo, I see no evidence that the girl fails criterion #2. I think we need to give her the benefit of the doubt here.
Then again, this photo from the same tweet does irk me just a tad, because those hand poses are questionable when it comes to criterion #2:
If we have to speak up, I’d ask for some clarification on what those girls are thinking with regard to their hand gestures. But even then, this incident just doesn’t strike me as that offensive. This is not the molehill I want to die on. There are far larger mountains we need to scale first.
If we choose to take offense at this girl’s prom dress, then we only hurt our own platform, because people will stop taking it seriously. That’s why I believe the proper course of action here would have been to initiate a discussion before lobbing accusations.
But … well …
That’s really not how Twitter works, is it?
No, if we really want to pick a battle, we should ask why Amazon thinks it’s appropriate to sell that Chinese man costume above, or undeniably racist shit like this (yep, there’s the buck teeth):
Having said all that, I also have a suggestion for the white folks out there:
When something like this comes up, please don’t respond with, “It’s just a dress. Get over it.”
Because it’s not just a dress. The issue is the meaning and the intent behind the wearing of the dress. I mean, a swastika is just a bunch of lines. Blackface is just face paint.
And when you tell a minority person to “get over it,” chances are they’ve already had to get over a ton of stuff that you don’t even realize. The decision to pick a fight or let something go? It’s something many minorities do every single day.
To be clear, this post is not an excuse for you to be a bigot. Instead of rolling your eyes, why not use this opportunity to engage in a civil discussion about the matter? Find out why someone might take offense. And hear them out.
Yes, both sides have to be willing to engage, but you may find that you have a lot to learn from each other.
This applies to everyone, by the way, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or whatever miscellaneous method we may use to carve ourselves up into divided little tribes.