March 14, 2018

LIEBERMAN | Fashion Faux Pas

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As a writer, I’m always fighting with myself, wrestling with the questions of “what stories are mine to tell?” These questions get even more complicated when I bring my identity into the conversation.

I’m a white-passing Japanese-American, and I often feel uncomfortable claiming an identity that isn’t obvious to the outside world. I face no racism on the basis of my Japanese culture, and I don’t want to assume the experience of people who have. To avoid all this confusion, I usually stay quiet on topics related to East Asian culture, but, today, I took a different route.

Japanese culture is fetishized among white people in the United States. Whether it’s anime, Buddhism or sushi, Americans love to pick and choose the pieces of Japanese culture that best fit their desired aesthetic. Although I can’t speak for the entire community, it personally doesn’t bother me when I see thorough appreciation for Japanese culture and a sincere desire to be more understanding and inclusive. Eat sushi! Watch anime! Learn about Buddhism! It doesn’t matter to me. But — and this is an absolutely crucial ‘but’ — half-hearted, exotifying attempts to assimilate to a culture, without acknowledging its history or context, is offensive, careless and dangerous.

There are blatant examples of cultural appropriation that certain communities face daily. Aspects of African culture, Native American culture and Latinx culture are frequently turned into “trends” by mainstream, white America. Using another’s culture for recreational purposes is never appropriate, and it feels as if almost every day, another celebrity needs to be called out for cultural appropriation.

This past week, multiple friends reached out to me, discussing the fallout from the Cornell Fashion Collective show. This is a student production that I admire a lot, so I was pretty disappointed to hear about some of the controversy. When I heard a non-Asian man presented a line of clothing with vaguely East Asian influences and instructed his models to hand out fortune cookies, I was a bit shocked. Perhaps this could have been executed effectively, but, instead, it was done coarsely, using Japanese and other East Asian cultures as props. Handing out fortune cookies to the crowd showed a surface-level, anglicized understanding of the culture he was drawing from.

My 100-year-old great grandmother started her family in an internment camp on the West Coast. She and my great-grandfather were held captive and had everything taken from them on account of their ethnicity. It might feel like a distant memory, but this is recent history. My great-grandmother carries this story with her every single day. I can’t understand how she is so forgiving, never holding any bitterness in her heart for what happened. However, it’s still difficult for her, and for me, and for countless Japanese-Americans, to see white people today claiming aspects of Japanese culture for themselves, when less than a lifetime ago, having anything to do with Japan was cause for imprisonment.

When talking about Japanese culture, there must be acknowledgment of America’s racist history. Without this, the conversation is incomplete. I am hurt that I have to watch my family’s culture become a costume due to the actions of appropriators. Even if it is meant to honor East Asian people and their fashion, instead, it often feels exotifying, and I find myself extremely uncomfortable.

Like I said earlier, I am a white-passing woman. I, too, have the opportunity to pick and choose the pieces of Japanese culture that fit American ideals of what is “conventionally cool.” I could assimilate to my culture when it is convenient and abandon it when it is not; however, this is not a decision that most people can make. Culture, and race and ethnicity, are not masks to toss on and off. Asian cultures are not a homogenous. Treating a cultural piece so blasély, with neither care nor caution, is irresponsible, and I implore all of us who will have an opportunity to showcase a culture in their art, to do better.

Sarah Lieberman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at slieberman@cornellsun.com. Blueberries for Sal appears alternate Thursdays this semester.