Pope Rihanna and ‘My Culture is Not Your Goddamn Prom Dress’

A white high school girl wore a traditional Chinese dress for prom and the internet ate itself. One tweet went viral: “my culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.”

Some called the dress cultural appropriation. Others called it cultural appreciation and told everyone to stop whining. Parodies of “My culture is not your prom dress” erupted, from zebras annoyed at zebra stripes to Shrek annoyed at a Shrek costume.

But, of course, people are missing the point as they rush to defend this girl. Her dress wasn’t the problem so much as her refusal to hear people’s valid criticism. And the fact that people couldn’t wait to defend her right as a hot white girl to wear and post the dress. Those same people, who dismiss criticisms of cultural appropriation as liberal snowflake whining, lose it when non-white people engage with white culture.

“My culture is not your prom dress” coincided with the annual Met Gala, featuring celebrities and fashion icons in their best high fashion. This year’s Gala theme was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Anyone who has seen the inside of a Catholic cathedral knows the church loves its accessories, its fashion, its idols, like the Virgin Mary, that the First Commandment theoretically forbids. Bre Payton, staff writer at the libertarian blog The Federalist, cried into her low fat Starbucks after gala co-host Rihanna showed up dressed like the Pope at a nightclub, complete with a glittering mini dress and matching Pope hat.

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Other celebrities dressed like angels, the Virgin Mary and the Holy “Trynity.”

“The most charitable view of this look is that Rihanna and her fellow Met Gala attendees have no idea why this getup is offensive,” writes Payton. She goes on to explain cultural appropriation, without once using the phrase or even seemingly understanding the connection between the concept and her Catholic outrage. “Turning the pope into a sexy look for a night out says that the position Jesus created to lead the church is just a club dress.”

Just like turning a traditional Chinese dress into a sexy look for a white girl’s special night is … totally fine guys! We’ll get back to that.

To a pregnant Cardi B dressed like the Virgin Mary, Payton responds with “the pains she [Mary] endured throughout her son’s birth, life, and death are part of what makes salvation possible. These sufferings are not a costume.” Nice use of activist buzzwords, Bre.

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Payton is presumably upset not merely over the costume but that it’s Cardi B wearing it: a black, former stipper and current rapper who clearly has had sex at least once in her life, less than nine months ago.

“Treating Christianity like it’s comparable to a rosary or a velvet cape, which can be put on and taken off, reduces the religion to a fashion accessory.” Oh? Does Payton not like it when someone takes an aspect of yourself that you can’t take off, like your faith if you’re a devout religious person or, say, your race, and turns it into a fashion accessory? For a formal event?

Which brings us back to “my culture is not your prom dress.”

The same Bre Payton, a day before publishing her criticism of the Met Gala, retweeted an article by Christian satire site The Babylon Bee. “Nation’s High School Students Encouraged To Just Wear Large Paper Bags To Prom To Avoid Offending Anyone.” It was in direct response “My culture is not your prom dress.”

Wait. Wait, wait, wait. I’m so confused. Are we for or against cultural appropriation? If we ask the Bre Paytons of the world, we’re for the cultural appreciation of brown people by white people but we’re opposed to the cultural appropriation of white people by brown people.

Cultural appropriation isn’t “cultural appreciation,” like so many claim. Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture adopts part of an oppressed culture and pretends they (the dominant culture) invented it. The Met Gala wasn’t cultural appropriation because the Catholic church is doing just fine. Also because Rihanna wasn’t pretending to have invented the Pope.

A few years ago, white high fashion’s adoption of “boxer braids” as the latest fad was roundly criticized by black Americans because boxer braids are just cornrows minus the association with black people. When white people started wearing them, the braids transformed from the inappropriate fashion of thugs (black people) to the trendy fashion of good society (white people). The fact that black people, black women in particular, have long been told their natural hair is inappropriate in school and the workplace makes the adoption of the exact same hairstyle by fashionable white people, in short, offensive and racist.

“When you don’t value black lives but rush to copy black hairstyles, it’s a huge problem” Teen Vogue digital fashion editor editor Jessica Andrews told Mic in 2016.

Take drunk sorority girls dressing like slutty Pocahontas for Halloween. Native American women living on reservations (because white people stuck them there a couple hundred years ago) are more likely than any other group in the country to experience sexual violence. The Greek system has a long history of racism. So yes, it’s legitimately infuriating to see Becky at a frat party with her tits out and feathers in her hair, doing it just because she can.

Americans getting trashed on Cinco de Mayo, wearing sombreros and shouting “more tequila, amigos,” is not an act of genocide but it is incredibly annoying and insensitive on a number of levels. It’s Mexican cosplay often done by Americans who may well have voted for the man who called Mexicans rapists. That’s why it’s offensive. It’s not because sombreros equal genocide. That’s a silly straw man argument that does what it’s designed to: make people of minority cultures, who have legitimate grievances with white people, seem irrational and insensitive.

As for prom dress girl: She seems like a pretty basic, probably ignorant, white girl. Sure, she didn’t pretend to invent the dress style. She and her friends did have a suspect pre-prom photo shoot in which the girls bend at the knees in what appears to be some faux-Asian prayer pose. None of it is the most offensive thing the internet has produced but why is that the standard? Why do we all have to rush to defend this hot white girl with 35 thousand Twitter followers? Her prom photo was insensitive, the dress offensive to some Chinese women and not others. Just learn from this and move on. She doesn’t need to wear it. She didn’t even have to delete the photos, necessarily (and she didn’t). We don’t need to crucify this girl for life but we also don’t need her to be allowed to wear it.

And she definitely does not need her own #IStandWithKeziah movement.

“Girl,” writes one Twitter user, “ya pose is more problematic than the dress. This ain’t the hill to die on. The dress just isn’t cute enough. This isn’t a life changing dress. If you have to explain you’re being respectful, you probably aren’t being respectful. And the pose tells us that. Be better!”

Of all the things white privilege affords this girl is the ability to choose literally any other dress. And literally any other pose. At the very least, she has the privilege to acknowledge what people’s issue with her dress is and accept the criticism. Just accept it.

Just be better.