A couple of weeks ago, Amazon was met with public indignation when its sale of deeply racist “Yellow-face” costumes was brought to light. The products displayed slanted-eye makeup, language such as “Oriental Chinaman” and even mixed up Chinese and Japanese culture. The problem was initially revealed by British MP Sarah Owen over Twitter, where she described her “frustrating meeting with Amazon UK.”
I was shocked not only because I thought a major corporation like Amazon would take extensive measures to protect their company image, but also because I had mistakenly believed that at this point, we were past such blatant display of appropriation in fashion.
Unfortunately, this is not the first case of cultural appropriation. And chances are that it will not be the last.
What perhaps disgusted me even more than the selling of these racist costumes was that there were individuals genuinely defending these products and Amazon, saying that the images accurately display how East Asians “normally” appear and that some were encouraged to wear clothing resembling these costumes when they visited Japan.
The line between cultural appreciation and appropriation has been a topic of intense debate within many communities; but truthfully, it’s not that complicated. Most of the deciding factor relies on the context and the person.
Cultural appropriation occurs when an individual who identifies with the culture of a historically dominant group exploits the less powerful culture of a minority group. When a white individual in a foreign country is encouraged by people who identify with the country to wear certain traditional clothing, wearing the clothing in that context would not be offensive. In fact, it represents a sign of respect to that culture and is, therefore, a method of appreciation. But purchasing this product online to wear to a costume party is most definitely an example of appropriation. Not only were the products modeled by Caucasian individuals, but they also heavily emphasized Asian stereotypes and even carelessly confused distinct Asian cultures .
It’s 2020 and cultural appropriation is tone-deaf in our political climate and easily avoidable. There are other meaningful ways to appreciate cultures –such as learning their language, traditions, or history– that actually demonstrate effort. So the lesson is simple: don’t turn a cultural identity into a frivolous costume for one night.
Featured image courtesy of Twitter