PC Culture

How a Pretty Prom Dress Helped Reveal Rot in the American Soul

Keziah Daum in her prom dress, and her original tweet (inset) (Images via Twitter)
Keziah Daum and the insidiousness of the online cultural-appropriation police

Im going to tell you perhaps the dumbest story you’ve ever heard — a story that is stupid with a heaping helping of malice on the side.

On Sunday morning, a teenage girl named Keziah Daum posted pictures taken on her prom night to Twitter. Daum isn’t a public figure; she’s a student at a Utah high school. Her message simply said, “PROM,” and it had four pictures:

If you’re a normal human being, like the majority of Americans who saw their Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter feeds fill up with prom pictures last weekend, you thought that was a pretty girl in a pretty dress. Nothing more.

But if you’re a toxic social-justice warrior, you saw something else. You saw oppression. You saw exploitation. You saw bigotry. You saw — gasp — “cultural appropriation.” The dress, you see, had obvious Asian influences, and Daum isn’t Asian:

Note the likes. Note the retweets. Note the comments. That’s a monstrously viral tweet – especially for a person with a mere 1,818 followers. It sparked so much attention and controversy that Twitter then created one of its “moments” to chronicle the controversy and chart the most salient responses.

Daum, to her immense credit, has weathered the shamestorm without backing down. She says simply that she bought the dress because she thought it was “beautiful” and she “admired the beauty of the culture.”

So, that’s the story. Here’s why it matters: It’s indicative of how the people who care the most about identity and oppression are seized by rage and unreason. And because cultures are shaped and defined by those who care the most, Daum’s story is not just a Twitter story; it’s increasingly the American story.

Let’s take the concept of “cultural appropriation.” It’s absurd down to its very definition. Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defines it like this:

Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a ​minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.

In a multi-ethnic, multi-racial culture like America’s, the potential for offense is unlimited.

Moreover, who, exactly, is empowered to grant “permission” to wear clothing, cook food, or use language? Is there a central registry?

“Dear Commission on Social Justice, I’m hosting a weekend party and wanted to serve Mexican food and show off the pictures from my vacation in Cancun. Can I get guidance on appropriately respectful methods of preparation and décor?”

“Dear Commission on Social Justice, to follow up on my earlier request, can you also review my clothing purchases in Cancun? I tried to strike a balance between Mexican and European influences, but given the toxic European influence on Mexico, I fear that my efforts may have been infected by my unconscious cultural imperialism. Your counsel is deeply appreciated.”)

On the one side is a collection of Americans who rightly look at Daum’s dress and say, “That’s not racist. It’s just a pretty dress.” On the other side is a collection of Americans who view this indifference and confusion as a provocation.

Just so we’re clear, the radical progressive position is (1) America’s borders should be flung wide open to people from every culture in the world; (2) when American white people encounter people from those hundreds of different cultures, they need to stay in their lane; and (3) white people staying as white as possible will help our nation totally unify and diversity will be our strength.

But don’t you dare try to point out the nonsense. After all your job — as a proper “ally” to oppressed people — is to acknowledge the rage of the oppressed and support their quest for social justice. I don’t think anyone doubts that Jeremy Lam, the young man who first attacked Keziah Daum, was actually and sincerely angry when he tweeted her pictures to his followers. Let’s at least presume his honesty.

The proper response to his anger isn’t indulgence. His ethnicity doesn’t make him right. His fury doesn’t make him credible. Instead, the proper response is to tell him he’s wrong — wrong and destructive. Silly, frivolous attacks like Lam’s represent a form of “crying wolf” that render the body politic steadily more immune to claims of racism, while simultaneously enraging social-justice warriors who believe each cry should be met with a decisive response.

On the one side is a collection of Americans who rightly look at Daum’s dress and say, “That’s not racist. It’s just a pretty dress.” On the other side is a collection of Americans who view this indifference and confusion as a provocation.

Now, let me ask. As you survey pop culture, the academy, and American corporations, which side has the upper hand? Which side is defining American discourse? America’s most prominent culture-makers obsess over identity. They elevate prom dress choices to matters of national debate. And that’s why people who still possess a sense of reason, proportion, and manners (on both sides of the political aisle) need to push back. Reason can’t cede the public square to rage. Sometimes a prom dress is just a prom dress. But Lam’s tweet wasn’t “just” a tweet. It was a symbol of the incoherent anger that is tearing this nation apart.

NOW WATCH: ‘Teenager Refuses to Apologize for Her Prom Dress’

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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