November 27, 2013
Let’s face it. Katy Perry is obsessed with aspects of Japanese culture. I wouldn’t say she’s obsessed with all of Japanese culture, because I consider sensitivity to others’ feelings and a de-emphasis on self-absorption part of Japanese and Asian culture, in general. Ms. Perry hasn’t shown that kind of sensitivity yet, as far as I can see. Perhaps she loves “unconditionally,” but she hasn’t shown that love this week. If she at least recognized that she had touched a deep wound, we could at least have a conversation about this.
But let’s examine Ms. Perry’s fascination with Japan. Here she is on Saturday Night Live in 2012, obstensibly mocking the white Japanophile. Could it be she’s talking about herself? Hmmm.
I think the most telling statement in the skit is the one that I used in my headline.
“If ever there was a loving form of racism, I think you’ve found it.”
Clearly, there’s no such thing as a “loving form of racism,” just like there’s no “loving abuse.” That latter statement is something an abuser might say. “I’m doing this because I love you.” Hmmm. I think there’s a parallel here: Katy Perry as the abuser who insists she loves you. “I see your vulnerability. I love you anyway. Let me punch you first, though.” (Paraphrasing her hit song “Unconditional”.)
Katy Perry is more than aware of her radical, perverse, unusual obsession with Japan, and that it is in some way wrong. Here she is on Jimmy Kimmel in June, 2012:
To quote the article:
Katy Perry was a guest on Jimmy Kimmel’s show Monday night and made some controversial statements.
It started it out pretty innocently.
"'I am obsessed with Japanese people,' Perry said. 'I love everything about them and they are so wonderful as human beings.'
"But then she took it up a notch.
"'I’m so obsessed I want to skin you and wear you like Versace,' the pop star said referring to a Japanese person she said she was obsessed with.
"The pop singer was obviously joking when she said she wanted to skin Japanese people, but just minutes earlier she was talking about how many of her fans at concerts are so young they have to be escorted by their parents which makes her joke all the more controversial."
Now, should we just “have a sense of humor.” We should just say: “Aww, that Katy. She’s so crazy and obsessed! She’s fun! Let’s invite her over for Thanksgiving!” Or should we be seriously concerned that she will offend every Asian American friend we have who’s going to be at the table? I think the latter. (Transcript of the relevant portion of the Jimmy Kimmel interview here. Yes, she knows at the very least she's being strange.)
If anyone said they loved Jay Leno, or anyone so much they wanted to skin him and wear him like Versace, we would have reason for concern.
So why then, did the AMA let this happen?
Guess what? They didn't care.
They knew, or should have known, her history of controversy, and they gave her a pass.
That, my friends, is called Institutional Racism.
Just so we’re on the same page, Institutional Racism is “any system of inequality based on race.” Since I see no evidence that knowledgeable, racially sensitive Asian Americans were on the team that put this together, I have to say that there’s inequality at the AMA’s, as far as race is concerned.
We can see that Perry's behavior and performance is not the same as, say, the Beatles' interest with India. They studied, borrowed and celebrated Indian music and culture, and yes, they wore Nehru jackets. Perry has a sometimes frightening obsession, and ripped off quasi-Asian clothes and played into stereotypes of Asian submissiveness. She could have portrayed "Unconditional" hundreds of ways. But she chose to do it in Asian-ey theme, with non-Asian backup singers apparently made-up to look more Asian. This did not strike a lot of knowledgeable Asians and Asian Americans as an homage, or even an accurate depiction of Geisha costume or even specifically Japanese culture. The perceptions of a large number of offended people are not misguided or invalid; they are real.
(This video from the comedy sketch group The 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors sends her up: (And there's a great balanced summary of the controversy by Gil Asakawa here: "Katy Perry's faux-Japanese American Music Awards performance was terrible".)
Racism didn’t start Sunday night, and it won’t end with Thanksgiving today. It's been with us since before the time of the first Thanksgiving. We’re all in it for the long haul. That’s because racism, at its core, is self-interest which generates bias and all its sequelae.That’s at the base of what causes problems for every single person living on Earth.
The Dalai Lama (quoting the Buddha, I think) said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want yourself to be happy, practice compassion.”
The flip side of this is: “Self-centeredness, the opposite of compassion, causes others to be unhappy. Self-centeredness causes our own unhappiness as well.”
Bottom line: I wish Katy Perry and the AMA to be happy. I urge them both to be less self-centered, and do the right thing in the face of these complaints: Apologize.
READERS: If you agree, please sign the petition asking Katy Perry to apologize here!
© 2013 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.
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Updated to add the paragraph starting "We can see..." and the 18MMW video on 11/28/13.