Last year, I was invited to a party in Berlin entitled, “Party Like a Rock Star.” This left me scratching my head as to how I should dress because, firstly, I did not want to shell out $100+ for a costume when I was already paying for airfare and a hotel, and more importantly, I didn’t even know what that theme really entailed. I have never had a personal connection to Rock ‘n Roll – I grew up with parents who always listened to jazz and gospel, while I personally gravitated towards R&B and hip hop. In all truth, I couldn’t pick out Mick Jagger from a lineup if my life depended on it. So, the night before the party, I went to my closet and pulled together an outfit based on stuff I already owned. It ended up looking more “Rap Star” than “Rock Star,” but I figured that difference was form over content. Boy, was I wrong.
When I arrived at the venue, a trendy, concrete building in East Berlin, I stuck out like a sore thumb. People had gone all out in rock star gear – wigs, face paint, you name it. But as the night progressed, strangers kept approaching me to compliment my outfit. It’s safe to say I was feeling pretty damn good about myself for not having spent a dime on it. And then something happened. As I was standing at the bar, waiting for my beer, I noticed two posh European women staring at me from head to toe. I immediately felt insecure, which usually results in weird throat-clearing and wriggling on my part. I stared awkwardly at my shoes, willing the bartender to hurry it up (for heaven’s sake, I had ordered a beer, which required removing a metallic cap from a bottle) so that I could escape the uncomfortable scrutiny to which I was now exposed. And then the unthinkable happened. One of the ladies approached me and said, “We have just been noticing your outfit all night. So cool. Great rapper costume!”
You see, each and every thing I had on that night was something I usually wear – my outfit had meaning and associations to me.
I wore an oversized Bulls jersey because the Chicago Bulls were more of a religion than a sports team to me when I was growing up. The 1995 Bulls
were, and will always be, the best sports team ever assembled (outside of an Olympic or All Star game). Never again will we witness a roster that included the greatest player of all time, the silent all-star who made him shine, the best rebounder, the strongest 6th man, etc. This happened once in the history of humankind, and I was lucky enough to witness it. As a kid who grew up in Idaho (which doesn’t have its own NBA team), I loved the Bulls like turkeys love Christmas. It was that real.
I wore a pair of Reebok Kamikaze 2s because Shawn Kemp wore them when he played on the Sonics. Need I say more? And, on a more serious note, I consider wearing flat shoes an act of reclaiming my equal place in this world with my brothers. I am fully aware that my legs look 10000% sexier when I’m teetering precariously on 4-inch Christian Louboutins with heels that are pencil-thin. I know the resultant difficulty in walking and maintaining balance causes my calves to flex and it gives the illusion that I actually go the gym occasionally. I also know how crappy it feels to fall behind male colleagues at work as they walk to a meeting because my Bronze Age death traps inhibit me from doing one of the most basic of human functions: walk properly. It’s not to say that I don’t ever wear heels, but one huge reason that I am a sneakerhead is because when I see pictures of Jay Z in Black Cement Jordan 3s and I see Bey rocking 4-inch heels, my only thought is, “Damn. He looks so much more comfortable. Why can’t she also be wearing those to an award ceremony?”
I could go on and on explaining why I had on a snapback (and my excitement over snapbacks finally coming back into fashion since fitteds mostly look strange on my big head), or the fact that I snagged my sunglasses at a vintage shop and thought they looked pretty dope for costing £7. But, to be honest, none of that mattered – because I was present in a context where my outfit looked like I was appropriating black culture as a costume.
This wasn’t me hanging out with my wife or my friends. This was me in a room of all white, primarily wealthy, people who were largely strangers. This was me operating in a context where I had made an unfortunate decision that resulted in me resembling a rap star at a costume party.
For months, I have dwelled on this lady’s well-intentioned comment. I’ve been asking myself why it bothered me, and (probably because I am incredibly thick-skulled) the context of cultural appropriation only came to me today as I walked to work.
You see, I’m not saying anything was wrong with my outfit in itself. If anyone told me to stop dressing like this, I’d probably have a few choice words for them. Because inherent in my outfit choice was one very beautiful fact: that cultural diversity was present enough in my upbringing that I not only was aware of it, that I imbibed and celebrated it. As the saying goes, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” But where I went wrong was the context of my outfit: it made me feel like my choice had unintentionally relegated certain ways of dressing to a mockery, a form of entertainment – a costume.
It’s like the perennial, unfortunate choice of a sombrero or Native American garb as a Halloween costume. For example, if you did actually grow up in an a cultural setting where you were actually taught that a sombrero is not just a hat, but that it is art in terms of the craftsmanship and creativity that goes into making one, chances are fairly low that you will cheapen it by wearing it around as an ironic costume. (“Whoa, dude! I’m, like, totally Korean American, but wearing a sombrero! Isn’t that ironic?” No. Just no.)
Taking this one step further, I would say that we, each and every one of us, must try to be aware of our privileges in society. Are you heterosexual? Then try and acknowledge your privilege of not having to know, for example, what it feels like to be openly fetishized in public by strangers the way many lesbian couples are (I know my wife and I have experienced this). Are you wealthy? Accept it is a privilege to not only have your daily needs met, but to not be negatively judged as lazy by huge swaths of society based solely on your socioeconomic status. Are you a young Korean-American woman who has somehow found her way to a posh party in Western Europe? Accept that it is a privilege for people to assume that you’re also posh, and accept the responsibility that you just inadvertently disrespected a certain way of dress by turning it into a costume.
In the months pursuant to this party, I kept thinking that my “costume” is what I wear to work every day, not how I dress on the weekends. My boxy, boring button-down dress shirt is meant to hide any semblance of femininity (including, God forbid, curves) as a woman in a predominately male workplace. My glasses are supposed to make me look smart and sophisticated. My watch is supposed to tell you that even though I’m young, I belong in this forum. If anything, my corporate wear is my costume, because that’s when I truly feel the least like the real me. But what I acknowledge is that I have the privilege of a chameleon – one that can seamlessly fit into this setting and make the real me seem like the illusion.
I’ll end with one very personal anecdote where I experienced what it’s like to be on the flipside of cultural appropriation, which was when Katy Perry recently performed at the AMAs wearing a tightly fitted and low-cut “Geisha” (note the quotes, because it was not at all representative of the real thing) costume. What bothered me about this were all the comment boards on news sites where people who are not East Asian came in droves to state that there was no problem with Perry’s garb. It bothered me because these people were not taking pause to first ask, “Why might this act of cultural appropriation be problematic in the eyes of some?” I cannot speak for others, but I’ll tell you my reason.
Not that long ago, a group of well-dressed businessmen in London jeered my wife and me as we walked by, repeatedly yelling, “Me love you long time!” It left me smoldering. How dare they reduce me as a complex human being to a simplistic cultural stereotype? About six months later in East London, we were surrounded by a group of at least six men who kept saying, “Ni hao” to us while stroking my wife’s hair. I cannot even write about this last incident without tearing up. To this day, I feel violated; worse, I feel useless that I did not have the physical strength to make them stop touching and objectifying my wife. So while Perry’s costume was, in her world view and that of many others, a simple appreciation of Geisha culture, it took me back to that place of East Asian women being sexualized and objectified. Katy Perry did not recognize her privilege of never having felt those feelings when she dressed for her AMA performance that night.
As James Baldwin put it, “I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt. Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I know you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, too, for the very same reason.” I don’t feel guilty for being me and dressing in a way that expresses me; however, I am trying every day to be more cognizant of my privileges and how those could act to the detriment of other people. In the same vein, I am not trying to make you feel guilty if you have ever worn a sombrero for Halloween – rather, I am urging you to be aware of your privileges, not for the sake of guilt, but for the sake of awareness and sensitivity to others.