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Culture Theft or Cultural Exchange: How Orientalism Perpetuates Erasure

Media platforms have a history of portraying Eastern cultural stereotypes. This emphasizes the need for learning about culture and heritage.

Shirley MacLaine and Yves Montand in My Geisha (1962)
Man facing Geisha. Jack Cardiff. My Geisha. 1962. Paramount Pictures

The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as the “act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” This concept has become increasingly important in today’s globalized society when cultural interchange and borrowing are more widespread. Unfortunately, cultural appropriation is frequently done in an inappropriate, disrespectful, and exploitative manner.

Culture has long been the foundation for fashion, art, and music. However, culture is frequently presented at a luxury level without recognizing the communities and practices from which fashion originates. This highlights the importance of respecting and understanding cultural heritage.

Cultural appropriation is tied to Orientalism, a historical and ongoing process of Western societies portraying Eastern cultures in stereotypical, exoticized, and often fetishized ways. Orientalism has long been used to legitimize colonialism, imperialism, and the exploitation of non-Western civilizations. In the context of cultural appropriation, orientalism can romanticize non-Western cultures as “exotic” or “mysterious,” resulting in a lack of knowledge and respect for their diversity. It is considered cultural theft when dominant Western civilizations steal components from non-Western cultures without recognition or consent.

As we navigate the challenges of globalization and digital media, we must acknowledge Orientalism’s legacy and prioritize empathy and understanding. In doing so, we can ensure that the cultural environment will be more cherished and respected for its own sake rather than exploited for personal advantages.

The enduring legacy of orientalist cinema

The films The Sheikh (1921) and My Geisha (1962) are often regarded as great instances of Orientalism in Hollywood cinema. These films, which feature primarily white actors, propagate negative cultural stereotypes and reinforce Western attitudes toward Eastern Culture. Despite being an older film, its influence on cultural appropriation and ignorance continues.

Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres in The Sheik (1921).
“Sheik Ahmed carrying Lady Diana,”
George Melford, The Sheik, 1921. Paramount Pictures

In ‘The Sheik,’ Rudolph Valentino plays a wealthy and romanticized Middle Eastern prince who falls in love with a Western woman. The film’s representation of Arab culture is full of Orientalist clichés. The film’s popularity can be attributed to the long-lasting attractiveness of Orientalist illusions, which maintained that the East was a mysterious and exotic “other” that could be consumed through shallow images.

My Geisha follows the same premise, with Shirley MacLaine, a white-American actress, playing a Japanese geisha. The film’s problematic depiction of Japanese culture depends heavily on stereotypes of subservience and delicacy. The choice of a white actress in a Japanese role is only one example of cultural appropriation, reinforcing the notion that Westerners lack cultural knowledge and respect.

In today’s era of increased cultural awareness and sensitivity, it is important to acknowledge and challenge these harmful representations. We must recognize the ongoing harm caused by Orientalism and work to promote accurate depictions of Culture. Doing so may foster a more inclusive and respectful cultural environment that appreciates variety and understanding.

When a prom dress becomes a symbol of cultural erasure

Cultural appropriation has been a prominent subject for years, with instances spurring important conversations about respect and understanding of tradition. @daumkeziah, an X user with no Chinese heritage, wore a traditional qipao to prom, sparking controversy and debate about cultural appropriation.

The issue began when @daumkeziah shared photos of herself wearing a traditional Chinese cultural dress, the qipao, to her prom. While the dress was stunning and drew praise, the context of the photo offended Asian Americans. The criticism was immediate and strong, with many accusing @daumkeziah of cultural appropriation. Jeremy Lan, an American-Asian, commented on the post, saying, “My culture is not your prom dress… I am proud of my culture.”

The ensuing debate showed the challenges of cultural exchange and the value of understanding and respect. Some said that @daumkeziah had no intention of violating Chinese tradition and was merely drawn to the beauty of the qipao. Others countered that wearing a traditional garment without understanding its significance was disrespectful and perpetuated cultural erasure.

As the debate continued, it became evident that cultural appropriation is not just about fashion or accessories but power dynamics, privilege, and respect. When we take something from another culture without knowledge or permission, we erase its history and significance. In this case, @daumkeziah’s decision to wear the qipao without knowing or appreciating its significance is a cultural erasure.

The uplifting trend of wearing traditional attire to graduation

While the West is notorious for being blind and discriminatory to countries in the East, that has not stopped people from celebrating and embracing their culture. As graduation season approaches, students proudly wear their traditional cultural attire for the big day. Thus, the shift towards cultural expression and pride is refreshing and long overdue.

For many students, wearing traditional attire to graduation is a chance to reconnect with their culture and heritage. Whether a vibrant lehenga or an elegant qipao, young people reclaim their cultural identities and honor their diverse cultures.

This trend is not just about fashion; it’s about empowerment, self-expression, and a sense of community. By wearing their traditional attire to school events, students are making a statement about the importance of cultural diversity and the need to preserve traditional practices.

Moreover, this trend recognizes the beauty and diversity of cultural traditions. Traditional clothing is full of symbolic meaning and significance, conveying stories about history. By embracing these traditions, kids express their uniqueness and honor the values that shape their family and community.

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