Parrying Perry: More Thoughts on the Katy Perry Controversy

Katy Perry, internet comments and racism.

Posted Nov 26, 2013

Unconditionally questionable taste

November 25, 2013

I’ll admit it. I had an identity crisis after I wrote my Katy Perry blogpost

With all the negative comments, I thought I was the Obamacare website.

To be fair (to myself, and you have to be fair to yourself before you can be fair to anyone else), the post has garnered tens of thousands of views, and over 6,700 likes so far–so every November 24th, I won’t just be marking the start of the holiday season, I’ll be marking my viral-versary. I’m not quite Ebola yet, but hey, you gotta take what you can get. Whaddaya know–my first #humblebrag!  My gratitude to all my readers and sharers - even the negative commenters.  Apparently this is a conversation that many of you wanted to have.  I'm glad to participate.

I did turn off the comments section after about 24 hours. I got tired of reading the same things, over and over; one friend suggested I should draw up a flowchart of “typical reactions to an accusation of racism against a popular entertainer.” I think most active reactions were positive (judging by likes, shares and retweets), but those negative comments still sting. They reminded me of how sensitive the topic of race is, how dangerous and provocative it can be to even raise the topic; and how polarizing and negative the internet can be. “This is my opinion” triggers “you’re wrong as well as stupid, arrogant, narrow-minded, racist, and so on.” Dialogue becomes diatribe. Very few of the commenters seemed to try  hard to understand where I was coming from; and far too many of them resorted to insults and ad hominem attacks. You can see them here, if your eyes can take it

(On a related sidenote, I just finished a manuscript for my book on the psychology of social networks, which blends Buddhism, memoir and psychology. It’s called Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks. I’m looking for representation right now, and have gotten extremely positive feedback from all my readers, including a favorite and well-known Buddhist teacher of mine. One of the themes is how communication via the web is disembodying, denying the sense of space and presence that are essential for making real relationships work  I may have to add another chapter based on the example I’ve just witnessed on this blog!)

My favorite line of reasoning ran something like this:

“That’s not racist! You’re a racist for calling it racist, you racist!!!” 

What?

There was also the one that essentially ran:

“I’m tired as a white male of being blamed for all the ills of the world.” 

What? Where did I do that? 

As Thich Nhat Hanh says “understanding is love.” I wish more of my commenters had tried to understand me before they lashed out. No one’s physically threatened me, but in a world where people get pushed onto train tracks just for looking like me (last year in NYC, not to mention Vincent Chin, Balbir Singh Sodhi, victims of last year’s Sikh temple massacre, and on and on), it does set me slightly on edge. 

And perhaps that’s really underneath all the anger, in both my taking offense, and those commenters taking offense at my offense. (So far, I haven’t taken offense at people taking offense at my taking offense, so I hope the buck stops here.) Anger is a survival mechanism to a perceived threat or slight. When you feel you are threatened, or that your loved ones are threatened, or that some principle which you hold vital to your survival is threatened, you are likely to get angry.

So why did I take offense? 

Racism is real. Stereotypes still cause a lot of harm. Katy Perry can dress up and play submissive Geisha for a performance, but then she gets to take off the costume and be seen as herself. Asian-Americans have to deal with stereotypes 24/7. There are probably dozens if not hundreds of ways she could have portrayed “Unconditional (love)”. She chose to use the Japanese culture, and inevitably played on stereotypes of Asian femininity and docility. That reinforces racist perceptions. 

One thing I learned (again) is that many of my commenters didn’t really understand what I meant by “racism.” Racism, they opined, was only brutal aggression and oppression. Or simply a perception of inferiority. Well, as I learned in my education and experience, it’s a lot more complex than that. Racism is “prejudice plus power.” Perry (Commodore Perry, anyone? Just kidding.) used the power of her bully pulpit, popularity and freedom of speech to dramatize what looked like a submissive Geisha fantasy. Was her intent to be racist? Superficially, probably not; I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt. She wanted to entertain, sell albums and have fun, I’m sure. But part of me wonders if angering a minority and generating a backlash against them was part of her marketing plan. Stranger things have happened.

But on a deeper level, racism can be an unconscious motivating force. This has been shown any number of times. “Who’s the more preferable romantic partner, teacher, employee, tenant?”  Studies have widely documented that biases, which may not even be conscious, affect outcomes.  Moreover, even if racism is not in the conscious or unconscious intent, the outcome can be racist given the context of a society that still harbors racism. Yes, we do have to be sensitive to a given community’s perceptions of the situation. We have an African American President, but it doesn’t make us “post-racial.”

Sully, a talkshow host at KOGO in San Diego, asked me two questions on his show Monday afternoon: one, is there a limit to “sensitivity”, and two, isn’t it alright for anyone to dress up in the garb of another culture? Well, in my book the answer to the first question is obvious. There is no limit to being sensitive to another party’s injury, especially if the injured party is not harming anyone else. (And even if they were harming others because of their injury, I would still show understanding and empathy, because one’s own injury should be a mitigating factor in our reckoning.) 

(And another sidenote: I prefaced my response to Sully by saying I don't speak for everyone, much less Japanese or Japanese Americans; I speak based on my significant and long experience in the Asian-American community. A few commenters and tweeters were angry that I used the example of blackface, presumably because it is an egregious, inflammatory example based on a deeply more destructive form of racism. I get that, if that's what they meant. However, blackface was also used to allow white performers a "costume" that felt less inhibited and more creative in some way to them. Katy Perry's costuming performed a similar function. In fact, apparently her backup dancers were wearing makeup to make them appear more Asian.)

Saying, in effect, “lighten up, you’re too sensitive” is like saying we should all be allowed to be insensitive if not too many people complain. This would rule out most progress in civil rights, because progress has always involved a disempowered minority speaking out against a majority practice. 

As for the second question, I think the context matters a lot. Dressing up as a Geisha for an AMA performance isn’t just wearing a costume, it’s perpetuating a stereotype and a projection about a whole group of people. If you dress in a kimono to perform the tea ceremony then that’s probably being respectful. But if, at the same time, you’re stretching your eyelids with tape to make them look Asian, well, that’s not respectful, to me, anyway.  I’ll quote I Was Born With Two Tongues again: “Stop masturbating in my culture.” Why such strong language? Because it captures the sense of being violated, used, and bulldozed as the majority culture tries to “entertain” itself. (Using the art of spoken word to make a point about Perry’s “art” seems reasonable here, to me.)

Why did commenters take offense?

At the base, they simply had a vital need to disagree with me. My viewpoint took issue with some core principle of theirs that was essential to the survival – of their egos. Perhaps it was that “artists should be given free license,” or “I like Katy Perry,” or “I don’t like your tone” or “talking about things like this takes attention away from serious hate crimes” or “That’s not racism, only I know what racism is!” or "calling Katy Perry's performance racist is the same as calling me a racist!" or “I hate it when people talk about racism.” 

Hmm. That last one really has a ring to it as I scan the comments. “I hate it when people talk about racism.” Why would that be a problem? Well, given the analytical reasons given for anger, apparently talking about racism in the way I did (and invoking subtle racism, unconscious racism, institutional racism, stereotypes) is threatening to some people’s narrow survival instinct.

I have to ask, if you were angry about Monday’s post, why was my post threatening to you? Were you threatened in the same way I was (mostly subconsciously) threatened by Perry’s act? That her act made it ever so slightly more likely that Asians would be viewed as submissive and ripe for cultural appropriation – because “they never complain, and no one listens to them anyway?” That an Asian woman might get harassed because someone thought she was docile?

The likes and shares made me feel good, but the comments were meant primarily to invalidate, not just my argument, but me as a person with legitimate experience and expertise in this area. That is not empathic, and doesn’t seem worthy of the society that we should be aiming for.

Perhaps I could have been more empathic to Katy Perry, but I don’t think I insulted her or harmed her in any way. I didn’t even call her a racist. I said I thought her performance was racist. That’s a difference. Perhaps I fall short of Unconditional Love for Perry’s performance, but Perry still has my love and basic acceptance as a human being. However, if she were willing to legitimately take on the questions that many are raising (from the Wall Street Journal blogs to The Atlantic), she would regain my respect.

Aggh. I wrote another long blog post. Well, as any scientist will tell you, in this game, it’s “Publish or Perry.” Or maybe another commenter was right: “You have too much time on your hands.” I guess Katy Perry has too much time on her hands too. I’d like to keep her busy.

But, I do have aspirations for rising above this sort of thing. I'd love to "not take offense, even when it's offered," as one Buddhist teacher puts it. Maybe I wouldn't take offense; I would just use my own freedom of speech. Wait, I just did that.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

© 2013 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

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