Katy Perry (Sorta) Addresses Cultural Appropriation Critiques

June 13, 2017
DeRay McKesson (left) and Katy Perry (right) recording an episode of McKesson’s podcast. (Photo credit: Katy Perry livestream / screen grab from YouTube video posted by Kiwi in Munich)

In the latest episode of DeRay McKesson’s podcast, “Pod Save the People” (Episode 8:  “When You Have to Face Yourself”), McKesson interviews singer Katy Perry. During the conversation, Perry and McKesson discuss many topics, including the subject of cultural appropriation.

Perry has been heavily criticized — including by this blog — for multiple incidents of racial insensitivity and cultural appropriation, including at the 2013 AMA Music Awards when Perry dressed as a geisha in an Orientalist staging of her song “Unconditionally” (video after the jump). Perry was also accused of racism and appropriating black hair for her music video, “This Is How We Do“, wherein the singer was shown wearing cornrows and eating watermelon.

In 2013, I addressed the controversy by saying:

Mandolins. Taiko drums. Fans. Umbrellas. Lanterns. Cherry blossoms. Powdered faces. Shinto shrines. Calligraphy-inspired backdrops. Unnatural hybrids of kimono & chi pao. Black wigs in chop-sticked up-dos. Bright red lips coloured into a perpetual purse. Dramatic eyeliner used to mimic the East Asian slanted eye. Shuffling white-socked feet and hands clapped together in a stiff ohaiyo bow. A freakin’ tea garden. This set couldn’t have been more Orientalist if they had started throwing Pocky boxes and teabags wrapped in tiny tatami mats at the audience. (Wait, are we sure they didn’t do that?)

Like it always is, it’s a giant puddle of “East Asian-inspired” half-digested vomit: familiar chunks of things that still vaguely resemble their input material can be discerned, but it’s all floating in a soupy, foul-smelling gmish of indescribable disaster and half-chewed carrots.

Nearly four years later, Perry finally addressed these and other critiques by telling McKesson that she feels that her 2013 AMA performance, and her “This Is How We Do” music video, were mistakes.

PERRY: I’ve made several mistakes, even in the “This Is How We Do” video about how I wore my hair, and having a hard conversation with one of my empowered angels, Cleo [her stylist], about, “What does it mean? Why can’t I wear my hair that way? Or, what is the history behind wearing the hair that way?”

And, she told me about the power in Black women’s hair, and how beautiful it is, and the struggle. And, I listened, and I heard, and I didn’t know, and I won’t ever understand some of those things because of who I am. I will never understand, but I can educate myself. And that’s what I’m trying to do along the way.

And even in, y’know, my intention to, like, appreciate Japanese culture, I did it wrong with a performance. And, I didn’t know that I did it wrong until I heard people saying I did it wrong. And, sometimes that’s what it takes, is it takes someone to say — out of compassion, out of love — “Hey, this is where the origin is, y’know? And, do you understand?”

And not just like a [claps hands] clapback, y’know?

McKESSON: Yeah.

PERRY: Because, it’s hard to hear those clapback, sometimes, and your ego just wants to turn from them. And, I’ve been so grateful to have great teachers and great friends that will really hold me accountable even when I said that I wasn’t feminist because I didn’t know what that word meant.

Y’know, someone pulled me aside in a quiet space and didn’t shame me, didn’t judge me. My friend, Shannon, she just says, “Sweetheart, I love you and I just want to show you what the Websters’ definition in the dictionary says about what it is to be a feminist. It’s just equality.

And so, like…

McKESSON: So, are you a feminist?

PERRY: Yessir, I am!

McKESSON: Okay.

PERRY: I am a feminist, and I think it’s a beautiful thing to want equality for all females, for all women.

I can appreciate Perry’s sincerity in this interview, but at the same time, her thoughts on the subject left me wanting.

Perry addresses the charges of cultural appropriation, but she quickly pivots to how the critiques made her feel: that she felt initially ignorant, and later defensive and possibly angry. She invokes tone policing rhetoric when she says that her ego was bruised by the criticism, and that she was more receptive when her friends pulled her aside to educate her about black hair and feminism.

In essence, Perry makes her many missteps with regard to cultural appropriation all about her (as a White women) and not about the communities she injured. At no point does she apologize to those she offended — Black women, Latinx women, Asian Americans, feminists — for the multiple episodes of racial (and gender) insensitivity in her history. At no point does she indicate that she understands why her 2013 AMA performance was less “cultural appreciation”, and more yellowface and Orientalism. (By the way Katy, if you’re reading this, here’s a primer on Orientalism you should read: What is Orientalism, and how is it also racism?) She touches upon the politics of black hair, but she doesn’t even mention how fucked up it is to pair her appropriation of cornrows with watermelon props. These oversights make me question how much Perry really “gets it”?

I am all about teachable moments, and I am happy that Perry is interested in educating herself. But, by her own admission, Perry isn’t particularly receptive to critiques coming from communities of colour at-large. Instead, Perry would rather listen to her friends and her employees, who will be nice to her as they hold her accountable. So, this isn’t about accountability so much as it is about sparing Perry’s feelings. If that is the case, one must wonder how many people of colour Perry lets into her inner circle? If Perry will only listen to her friends, and if her friends contain few (if any) Asian Americans who can tell her to perhaps forgo the black wig and the cherry blossom petals, what avenues are left to the Asian American community if not the public call-out? How is Perry’s entire framing on this subject not a blanket victim-blaming against people of colour for not being nicer to her — and not having the access to her to take her aside into a “quiet space” — when we work to hold her accountable?

This entire interview demonstrates the problems with centering the egos of people who commit racial offense over the injury they cause. It is not our responsibility as people of colour to be more palatable in our criticisms of racism. It is not reasonable to ask us to temper our voices when we speak truth to power.

It is the height of white privilege to center a white person’s bruised ego at receiving public criticism over the injury caused when she once went onstage in goddammed yellowface and then took four fucking years to say something to the Asian American and Japanese American community about it.

I can get behind creating more resources to help educate people as to why racist things are racist. But, with all the work communities of colour have been doing — for years — to create those resources, at what point do we have to expect people to proactively read those writings and educate themselves? At what point should we just expect people to know that wearing cornrows and eating watermelon in a music video is offensive stereotyping? At what point should we expect that people should already know that black wigs, dark eyeliner, and a bunch of mandolins is not “cultural appreciation”?

I get that Katy Perry felt like she didn’t know these things, but four years later, it also seems like she still doesn’t get that people of colour aren’t here to teach her or anyone else how not to be racist. Like seriously, Katy? Google it.

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