Thursday, August 4, 2016

In Defense of Cultural Appropriation: Also, an Exciting Announcement!

Listen up bozos! This is Office Hours with the Brofessor: The Show Where I Say Things. Today: In Defense of Cultural Appropriation. Also: an important announcement!

Today I’d like to take a break from the usual topics of language, history and culture to address some criticism that I’ve received recently.

So as my channel gets more subscribers and views, I’ve actually gotten a couple people questioning my (awesome) fashion sense. In particular, people have taken issue with my wearing what’s called a tangzhuang. It’s a kind of traditional shirt worn in China since the advent of the Qing dynasty in the 17th century. Another one that I like to wear is called a changshan, which is basically the same thing, but going down past the knees:

Some bros wearing a tangzhuang and changshan.

Essentially some people have been criticizing the fact that I, as a privileged white guy, am choosing to dress that way. Their claim is that I have no right to wear traditional Chinese clothes, and that by appropriating Chinese culture in this way I was dis-empowering Asians. Some people are seeing me wearing a tangzhuang and saying, hey, who is this guy to take on someone else’s culture as if he was part of it. A white guy has so much institutional privilege already, and now he’s stealing the trappings of another culture.

Actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve been accused of this. I remember a few years ago, I was at a party back in the States. I was wearing my tangzhuang at the time, and one lady said to me, that’s so racist, how dare you appropriate someone else’s culture. Now to be honest I think she was one of those people who always finds something to be offended about, but I do think that the extent of cultural borrowing, especially in the context of privileged demographics, is something that our society needs to talk about. So today I’d like to have a conversation. Let’s talk about why I like to dress that way, and my rationale for doing so. Of course as everyone knows, Youtube comments are not the place to look for rational discussion, but let’s do our best to ignore the peanut gallery and talk about this reasonably.

I’d like to start with a disclaimer. As a white American guy, I wholly recognize that I’m coming from a position of institutional power and privilege. I am, by and large, spared from experiencing racism and will never understand what it’s like to deal with ethnic prejudice every day of my life. I absolutely respect the experience of people who do endure this, and I would be really interested to hear from members of historically marginalized groups, and see what they have to say about this topic.

So that said, I would like to say here the same thing that I said at the party that night: on what planet is it an act of racism to learn about and enjoy other cultures? What in the world would lead someone to that conclusion? Let’s take a look at some of the problems with the claims being made:

  • Claim #1: It’s wrong to wear clothing representing a culture that one was not born into:

Of course the response to the above picture is that Ms, Tsai is wearing a suit due to Western cultural hegemony and a history of imperialism. Fair enough. But in that case, it follows that by bearing a tangzhuang I’m recognizing that non-Western cultures exist, that they’re cool, and that they’re just as important and worthy of respect as my own. That’s what I’m telling the world when I put on my tangzhuang: that I respect other cultures, that I want to show friendship rather than cultural chauvinism.

  • Claim #2: when a white guy dresses like this, he is dis-empowering and trivializing people born into the culture he’s appropriating.

I find it difficult to accept that by wearing a tangzhuang tastefully and respectfully, I’m taking power away from anyone. This argument hinges on the assumption that I’m wearing a tangzhuang to mock or superficially imitate Chinese culture rather than appreciate it. Let me show you something:

That poor Asian lady...

This is dis-empowering. If I put on my tangzhuang, started talking with a racist Chinese accent and calling myself a “neenja” (which of course were Japanese) then yeah, that’d be pretty messed up, and as a socially responsible person you would be right to call me out. But that’s not what I’m doing. I’m putting on a tangzhuang and talking about how much I admire Guan Yu. I’m genuinely appreciating Chinese culture and doing my best to learn about it. This leads me to…

  • Claim #3: I shouldn’t take on the outward aspects of a culture that I don’t really know much about.

My response is this: how do you know I don’t know anything about Chinese culture? Let’s see:
  • I’ve lived in China, on and off, for two years.
  • I speak Chinese Not perfectly, but I’m learning.
  • I’ve read Lu Xun, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Li Bai, etc. The list is growing.
Of course I’m not an expert, but I do my best not to be wholly ignorant of China’s magnificent history and culture.

One last point that I’d like to bring up: the term “cultural appropriation” carries with it a negative connotation, at least as generally used on the internet. But I would question if it is really a bad thing in the first place. Appropriation is the very nature of human culture. Culture isn’t static. It evolves and adapts as people are exposed to new things, places and ideas. What a sad world it would be if we never got to experience other ways of life! If, during our travels and studies, we find something really cool or useful, why shouldn’t we incorporate it into our own lives? Let’s say you and I both had to dig a hole. I have a garden trowel, and you have a shovel. Is it not the height of stubbornness and folly for me to say “Wow dude, good idea, but I won’t use a shovel because shovels are your thing, not mine.” That’s ridiculous. I’m gonna go get me a shovel, then tell you thanks for the smart idea.

So that’s my argument, and that’s why I’m going to keep on rocking my tangzhuang and changshan. I’m going to keep on loving Chinese culture, regardless of what the haters say. So, what do you think? Let’s have a conversation about this. I’d love to hear what others have to say.

Finally, before I go I have an important announcement to make, one that I’m pretty excited about. This is going to be my last post for a while, probably about a month. I’ve just finished my year-long contract in Guiyang, and I’m going to spend this month on an epic journey through China and Southeast Asia. I like to call it my “adventure-journey” as a reference to the hugely entertaining story “Before Adam” by Jack London:


If you haven’t read it, you should. But on my adventure-journey, I’m hoping that I won’t run into that red-eyed guy. If you’ve read the book you know who I’m talking about, that guy’s scary.

So after this cool adventure-journey I’ll be returning to the States for a few months to study at my beloved alma mater, Western Washington University. I decided that I’d do kind of a college victory lap and add a higher-level TESOL certificate on top of my linguistics degree. At the same time this will give me the opportunity to look into Ph.D programs, something I’d like to at least get started on before I’m thirty. I just turned twenty-seven last week, so I’m kinda burning daylight here.

So anyways that’s it, I’m going back to college! It’s gonna be really great to see my bros again, and my church friends and professors too. Speaking of which, here’s the most exciting part: on top of all this, I’ll have the opportunity to do more work on Ket! My great friend and mentor Professor Ed Vajda has agreed to do an independent study in Ket with me during the fall, which means that I’ll be able to basically pick up where I left off three years ago. And you know what that means: cool Ket stuff on youtube! It’s really only in the last few months where I’ve been serious about youtube, and really known how to put together videos. It’s almost painful to watch me stammering through my old stuff, so I might remake the Ket videos I’ve already done in preparation, so you can look forward to a cool Ket series in early September.

So, everyone, I hope you have a good month. If I have time I’ll try to put some stuff out, but it won’t be super frequent until I’m back in the States in the first week of next month. At the very least I’ll be checking email and comments, and put out a few text posts. For those of you interested, here’s what my travel route will look like:

So, that’s the big announcement. Everyone take care and I’ll see you guys later!

Image Credits:
1. By Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan) - , Attribution,

2. Bison Books – 1999 – Charles Livingston Bull.

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