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Derek Petersen
Keziah Daum, a student at Woods Cross High School, speaks about the controversy over her choice of prom dress, Tuesday, May 1, 2018, by the Triad Center in Salt Lake City.

WOODS CROSS — When Keziah Daum went shopping for her senior prom dress at a local vintage store, she was looking for something both modest and classy.

"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,'" the senior at Woods Cross High School told the Deseret News Tuesday.

Little did Daum know that the dress she chose would soon spark outrage and a worldwide debate.

In her search for the perfect dress, she had a difficult time finding one with an "appropriate" neckline, Daum said. When she saw a red Chinese quipao dress with gold and black embroidery at Decades Vintage Clothing in Salt Lake City, she fell in love.

"It was so gorgeous and fit well. And I loved it a lot because it showed beauty in other ways than revealing your body," she said. "I wanted to be a little unique."

On April 21 — the day of the dance — she and her prom group were photographed at the state Capitol. The next day, she posted some of the photos on Twitter.

Within a few days, her prom photos would be seen by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, spurring criticism from many who called her choice of attire "cultural appropriation."

Cultural appropriation is "the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture," according to the Cambridge Dictionary.

Daum, who just celebrated her 18th birthday, does not have Chinese heritage. However, her family is "multicultural," according to her mother. She has part-Hispanic cousins, and her nieces and nephews are of Pacific Island descent.

Though Daum says she initially chose the dress for its beauty, she's learned more about its history and meaning — it symbolizes "female empowerment and equality," she explained.

"It doesn't matter what culture that comes from, it's a great lesson for a young woman to learn," Daum's mother, Melissa Dawes, said.

What became a worldwide debate within a few days started with one retweet. On Friday, Jeremy Lam shared Daum's prom photos with a caption that read, "My culture is NOT your (expletive) prom dress."

Lam's post has since been liked nearly 180,000 times and retweeted 42,000 times. The story has also been picked up by several news outlets throughout the world.

"This isn't OK. I wouldn't wear traditional Korean, Japanese or any other traditional dress and I'm Asian. I wouldn't wear traditional Irish or Swedish or Greek dress either. There's a lot of history behind these clothes. Sad," another Twitter user wrote.

Many also criticized a prom group photo that Daum posted in which she and her group posed with their hands together, bowing.

However, the woman says the photo was not meant as a comment about Chinese culture at all. "It was in reference to a YouTube channel called h3h3Productions with Ethan Kline. … It was nothing to do with race. In fact, it wasn't even my idea. I didn't even know what it was at the time," she explained.

Irene Maya Ota, a professor of social work at the University of Utah whose teaching focuses in large part on cultural understanding, said that even good intentions can lead to cultural appropriation, which she defines as "taking little bits and pieces from a culture that's not your own, and using it any way you want to, without regard to its history."

"You have to be aware of the consequences," Ota said. "That dress is full of symbolism, full of a cultural understanding that gets lost when you use it inappropriately. I think the biggest problem is that when you take something that you don't understand, then it becomes stereotyped, which is always really dangerous."

On Friday, Daum became emotional because of the unexpected criticism and attention, and told her mom she wanted to take her social media accounts down.

Her mom responded, "Do what you want, but did you do anything wrong? If you take it down, then those who attack you win," Dawes recalled.

The student decided to keep her Twitter active, stand up to her critics and stand by her decision to wear the dress.

"I've told myself, 'You know, I've done nothing wrong.' This had a great intent to it, and the meaning behind it is very important. And knowing that what I did was right helps me get through the hate," she explained.

Within a few days, the tides turned and many who read Daum's story jumped in to her defense. "The longer it's gone on, it's getting better. There's more people standing up," she said.

Daum says she has since received thousands of messages of support, many from Chinese people.

One commenter wrote, "I am a Chinese, and I thank you for choosing our culture for your big day. Beautifully presented! I love it!"

Another wrote, "If I were to show this to my VERY Chinese mother, she'd laugh and think it was cute and she would compliment you on how pretty the dress looks. She definitely wouldn't be offended. Haters need to get a life. Keep doing you!"

"For everyone negative, there's a hundred positive," Daum said.

The teen's Twitter followers shot from 200 — mostly friends before — to 18,000. "It's just like blown up, and I was not expecting this," she said.

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And the most positive response of all came from China Tuesday in a report from South China Morning Post.

"They didn't call it 'cultural appropriation.' They were proud to see something that they love being shared outside their borders. It was beautiful to them," Dawes said.

Daum said she wants to use her newfound social media notoriety in positive ways.

"I want to be able to not be known as the girl who was racist and wore a dress to prom. I want to be known as the girl who showed that it's OK to show your appreciation and love for other cultures."

Contributing: Annie Knox