(American Conservative) -- It takes quite a lot to draw attention away from Washington these days. Only the most sensational events—hurricanes, wildfires, a genocide in Myanmar—seem to do the trick. One such event occurred at a high school in Utah this past spring. No, it wasn’t another mass shooting, but the public outcry could hardly have been louder if it had been. The source of the controversy? A prom dress. A senior named Keziah Daum, wanting to wear “something that would be more unique and bold and had some sort of meaning to it,” decided to don a red cheongsam, a high-collared, form-fitting Chinese dress. Big mistake. Daum, you see, is not Chinese, and that was the problem. “My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress,” a man named Jeremy Lam tweeted, after seeing photos of Daum on Twitter. Lam’s comment got nearly 40,000 retweets and more than 170,000 likes. A deluge of similar tweets followed (“you just don’t wear it if ur not. Chinese…it’s not something to play dress up with.” [sic]), along with articles in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and the Independent, some attacking Daum, some defending her.
If you’re confused about what all the hullabaloo was about, it can be summed up with two words: cultural appropriation. That is to say: “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” It’s a concept that emerged in the 1980s, born in the brains of sociologists studying indigenous groups harmed by colonization. Amerindian culture, in particular, has long been a goldmine for advertisers, supplying logos for everything from Indian Motorcycles to Red Man chewing tobacco to the Cleveland Indians baseball team, and many Native Americans have, quite understandably, taken offense. No one likes to see their heritage (not least of all their religious practices) caricatured for the sake of selling kitsch.