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Inside the newsroom: When 42,000 hate your prom dress

SALT LAKE CITY — Keziah Daum, a Woods Cross High School senior, came down to the Deseret News and KSL newsroom last week to talk about prom, a red dress, and the series of events that launched an international conversation about, well — you be the judge.

She had shopped for a prom dress and sought something unique at a vintage store, and as the world now knows, she purchased a traditional Chinese-style dress. Her motivations were good.

As she told Deseret News reporter Ashley Imlay Tuesday, "I remember being there, and I'm like, 'I want to find something that's a little more modest. Don't want to send the wrong message.'"

Lots of irony in that statement today. She was clear on her intention: wear something pretty and not too revealing. The world decided that wasn't the topic.

The story exploded after a man named Jeremy Lam shared Daum's prom photos and stated on Twitter: "My culture is NOT your (expletive) prom dress." He had supporters, namely 42,000 who retweeted the item that then spread through twitterdom all over the world.

That tweet changed the conversation about modesty to one about cultural appropriation. And EVERY major news outlet picked up the story (and the debate), quoting those who say they found it incredibly important, and those who were incredulous that a simple prom dress was an issue at all. Good Morning America, the Today show, Fox News, CNN, entertainment shows, fashion writers, culture writers, sociologists, academics — it seems everyone had something to say.

From the New York Times: "Some Twitter users who described themselves as Asian-American seized on Ms. Daum's dress — a form-fitting red cheongsam (also known as a qipao) with black and gold ornamental designs — as an example of cultural appropriation, a sign of disrespect and exploitation. Other Asian-Americans said the criticism was silly."

ChinaDaily.com reported on the support the Utah high school senior received and readers there said that wearing the dress was appropriate. As the paper noted: "'It is not cultural appropriation, it's cultural appreciation,' a user named Wuyiya wrote, China Daily notes. 'Can anyone living in the US let the girl know that many Chinese people think she looks stunning in this beautiful dress?'"

So then the conversation turned to one about bullying. Why aggressively challenge the high school student? The act of making her the target of thousands of insults was itself attacked. And Keziah and her mother stood their ground.

Then began more conversations in newsrooms and at virtual water coolers around the world. This was a unique story, one using a simple example to launch serious discussion on the state of affairs in the nation and the world.

Stories touched on racism, bullying, parent-child relationships, female rights and empowerment.

Keziah's mother supports her daughter and encouraged her, posting the following tweet:

"I suppose my biggest problem is the number of adults who have cyber bullied (a) teenager. I am more overwhelmed by the positive support from all of the world. Thank you for standing up for my daughter & reaching out to her. Thousands of positive messages. Love to you!"

Bloggers joined in. Columnists joined in.

Jay Evensen of the Deseret News wrote:

"We interrupt important news about a possible breakthrough in relations with North Korea, the president's looming trade war and the rising cost of a gallon of gasoline to bring you this important bulletin: A young woman in Utah has worn a red Chinese qipao dress to her prom."

Jay went through the ins and outs of cultural appropriation to make this astute point in the column: "My goodness, being judgmental can be complicated."

Being judgmental. That could be at the heart of this discussion. Why are we so judgmental?

So was this a distraction from real issues facing the nation? Or is this one of the actual issues facing the nation?

Seeking an answer to that question is one of the reasons the story went viral. Because the answer to both questions is yes. It is a distraction, but these are real issues. The conversation itself reveals something about ourselves, what we care about and who we care about.

For Keziah Daum, its a week she will never forget. She wore a dress and found her voice — with detractors, supporters, the world's media and her family. That's quite a prom story. Now, about grad night ...