'For da culture': Why teens are embracing their heritage on prom night

Cindy Arboleda
Shruti Rajkumar on her way to prom. (Photo: shruti_rajkumar via Twitter)
Shruti Rajkumar on her way to prom. (Photo: shruti_rajkumar via Twitter)

A recent prom dress controversy — over a white teen from Salt Lake City who was called out on Twitter for cultural appropriation for wearing a traditional Chinese dress to the dance, and who responded by saying she wore the dress to show honor, not disrespect — had the nation divided.

Meanwhile, many nonwhite teens are busy forming their own narratives, choosing to embrace their own unique cultural heritage on one of the most special nights of the year by wearing traditional gowns and other style elements for prom. And they look stunning.

Shruti Rajkumar, 18, wore a traditional Indian dress — a lehenga choli, or embroidered skirt and midriff-bearing blouse — for her big night, and tells Yahoo Lifestyle that while the journey to embracing her culture has been a long process, she is proud to be who she is.

I used to embrace my Indian heritage a lot when I was younger,” says the Connecticut native, who also highlighted another difference with her prom look — her disability — by decorating her forearm crutches with garlands and using the Twitter hashtag #DisabledAndCute. “I loved putting on a bright red choli, draping a puta around my shoulders, and squeezing my hands into glittery bangles. Yet, once I started school, I found myself completely hiding that part of me in order to assimilate into the American lifestyle and culture that was all around me. Jeans, T-shirts, sneakers — they were considered ‘normal,’ and as a kid I just wanted to fit in, so I started to associate anything related to my heritage as ‘different’ and ‘bad.’”

Rajkumar says she felt inspired to go to her prom in traditional Indian dress thanks to a fellow classmate who did the same. And according to social media, plenty of other teens across the country — from a young man in Fort Worth, Texas, to a teenage girl in Columbus, Ohio — have also dressed in culturally traditional ways for the big night.

“What we are seeing is that children of immigrants pick and choose the attributes emphasizing the richness and value of their culture in social events,” Christina Diaz, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

She explains that second- and third-generation immigrants will often consciously decide when it’s convenient for them to showcase and hold on to their heritage. This usually happens at social events such as weddings, baptisms, and even prom night. “When it comes to traditional culture and practices, these [big events] are the last markers to disappear in the assimilation process,” she says, noting that the process is known as selective assimilation.

The current political climate can also be a contributing factor for young people when it comes to finding new ways to proudly display their heritage at a “low-cost” investment — particularly at prom, Diaz explains, which is just one night, but also a very public coming-of-age ceremony.

Rajkumar says that just as she has learned to embrace her heritage and not feel ashamed of being different, her peers have evolved as well, becoming more accepting and admiring of different cultures as opposed to when she was younger.

“My [classmates] are all able to fully appreciate various cultures for what they are. That definitely gave me the confidence to embrace that part of my life after years of trying to hide it,” she says. “This is something I needed to do to revive my love and overwhelming pride for my Indian roots. It was my way of saying, ‘Yes, Indian culture is different from American culture, but it’s beautiful.’”

Many of the other teens who have chosen to celebrate their heritage on prom night — whether they are children of immigrants or not — have also taken to Twitter to share photos, most using captions such as “Proud to rep part of my culture at prom” or “For da culture.”

The flood of supportive comments shows that the looks are resonating with others — and that positivity can go a long way. “I got so many compliments that night at prom,” Rajkumar says, “and in complimenting me, they were complimenting my culture, which is such an incredible feeling that I could never put into words.”

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