Two Cents: Katy Perry Isn’t Racist, Just Ignorant – And We Are Too

Let’s make one thing clear. I didn’t watch last night’s American Music Awards. I did skim through a youtube upload of Katy’s now infamous performance because of the hoopla, but I didn’t see it live. So I initially had no idea what happened and I woke up this morning to several social media shares regarding her set at the AMAs and how it was racist and disrespectful. Corners of the the internet were in an up-“roar” (see what I did there?), with one camp crying foul while the other side, the Katy apologists, said it was a tribute and that people are making too big a deal out of it. Several media outlets praised the performance before throttling back a bit, as public outcry began to grow. And of course there was a large collective group in the middle, unaware of the entire ordeal and not caring too much one way or the other.

Believe it or not folks, I’m kind of in that middle camp. Kind of.

My initial reaction when I read the headlines was one of anxiety and a mental preparedness to be angered and frustrated. I read the negative articles first, adding fuel to my proverbial torch and was getting ready to sharpen my pitchfork and join in on the public shaming. But then I watched it. And I thought about it. And to be honest, I’m not really that mad – just a little saddened. 

I can understand both points of view. From a completely objective standpoint, where I viewed it as a performance piece in terms of art, style, theatrics, and entertainment – I don’t think it was that bad of a show. It was visually rich, well choreographed and the pop song ain’t too shabby either. Of course when you add in the explosive and volatile element of race and culture – and the fact that a gosh-darn-it-white-all-amurican-freedom-fries-lovin’-woman is dressed up in a kimono and using a stereotypical smorgasbord of Asian influences to add some color to her set without any regard to what anything means or represents and without historical context… then yea, I get why people are upset.

But here’s the thing, I don’t think she was being racist – if racism is to be defined as:

the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

But I do believe she acted out of ignorance – if ignorant is to be defined as:

lacking knowledge or awareness in general; uneducated or unsophisticated.

I don’t believe for a second that Katy had any mal-intent when she and her team put this performance together. There was no heart or sense of superiority – only the unspoken acknowledgement that elements of eastern culture are different and was therefore Pop-Culture-Artistically appealing to her and much of the audience – and therefore it was deemed a valuable direction to take with the style. It was a decisive move, but one that lacked discernment and awareness as to what it would mean to paint with such broad strokes of yellow.

But on the other side of the coin… we have to realize that complete awareness is hard to achieve. This wasn’t nearly as blatantly stupid as some other recent examples of Asian caricaturization in media, and the “distastefulness” was certainly on the more mild side. We as Asian-Americans are going to need to understand that it takes time, and that education and sharing of our culture can be done in a progressive, but not excessively angry way. And on top of that we need to understand that we as Asian-Americans are living in an ever-mixing world of culture. There’s a give and take dynamic at play here and we’re not always losing aspects of our history and culture to whitewashing but rather are sometimes injecting just a little bit of lemon zest to the apple pie of American society. And no matter what, certain things will get lost in translation.

Bottom line, racism is real – it is. But let’s call a bigot a bigot and an idiot an idiot with the understanding that they aren’t always one and the same. And let’s also calm down enough for a second to realize that all of us can be a little bit of both too – and so perhaps we can extend just a little bit of grace when we attempt to open up some round-eyes.

Yea, I said round-eye. I’m a “bigidiot™” too.

Two Cents is an editorial feature and the views and comments made by the author do not necessarily reflect those of as a whole.

10 thoughts on “Two Cents: Katy Perry Isn’t Racist, Just Ignorant – And We Are Too

  1. Sorry, I find what you said ignorant, and not in the apologetic sense that you write about. Racism is not limited to the overtly, blatant cases that you linked to. In today’s society, in fact, this discourse runs way more subtly than things like internment camps and exclusion acts. Look at microaggressions, look at concepts like the bamboo ceiling. For Asian Americans, our history is stamped by these undercurrents that promote perpetual foreignness and cultural alienation. Katy and her team don’t need to blatantly say their decisions were caused by a feeling of superiority, because that feeling is so deeply ingrained within the dominant, hegemonic majority (yes I’m talking about white Americans) that it is just a given that there is an uneven power dynamic at work.

    Also, the “explosive and volatile element of race and culture” that you say can be added (and thereby subtracted too) is anything but removable from this performance. The performance itself is directly caused by race and culture. It’s most likely true that many viewers think they can remove race from their viewing experience, and that’s because they are the ones who do the appropriation of culture that they see on screen. Katy Perry is creating a representation of Japanese culture that is false, plain and simple. And if your solution is to not make a big stink about this performation of race, then we as Asian Americans are forever damned. This is only one of countless examples of how the cycle of racial and cultural appropriation and misrepresentation renews itself, and if we as the group that’s being marginalized stay quiet, this cycle will never end. I claim the right to be angry about this, and I claim the right to speak out against this. This isn’t us injecting anything into American society. This is American society replacing our voices and our identities with a fabrication of its choice. I ask that you reconsider your stance here. As a representative of one of the few good outlets for Asian American media, your voice needs to step up and drown out these false voices that speak for us against our will.

    1. @brennan

      First of all, thank you for sharing your thoughts and taking the time to read and respond to my own. You echo a lot of what I’ve already read – and I understand your stance.

      But we all draw a line somewhere, and my general tendency is to be more moderate in nature. There are many instances of culture and history being mixed and lost as time and society changes. I choose not to make such a hardline stance. Otherwise I’d find myself protesting the 49ers for glorifying a time in American history where Native Americans and Chinese Americans went through a lot of tribulation (the Redskins is a huge issue that I won’t touch in this discourse). Or I’d criticize anyone wearing green on St. Patrick’s day unless they are explicitly supporting the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. Or I’d never eat Chinese food because they serve fortune cookies, which has no root in true Chinese culture.

      Am I saying that the preservation of our culture and our values are a useless initiative and therefore shouldn’t be sought? No, not at all. I am just voicing my opinion that I get both sides of the “debate” here and look to bridge the gap with a sense of mutual understanding and conversation, rather than inflammatory reaction.


      1. ‘Otherwise I’d find myself protesting the 49ers for glorifying a time in American history where Native Americans and Chinese Americans went through a lot of tribulation (the Redskins is a huge issue that I won’t touch in this discourse)”

        You won’t touch “Redskins” but you’ll touch “I’ll pay you money to bring back the scalps of the enjuns” ?

    2. I would like to direct you to Japan, where Japanese pop music does the same damn thing to itself. How is it that any one race can discredit itself so horribly yet any other race doing the exact same thing (and not in the intentional way) they get blasted?

      And no, this is not racist. It is ignorant as the post says. Too many people throw the word racist around that the real meaning is bogged down in knee-jerk defense that isn’t real.

  2. Yes!!! I’m so happy you wrote this article, because it really is more of a case of cultural ignorance than racism. From an artist’s perspective, “Unconditionally” is intended to mirror Madame Butterfly’s aria, “Un Bel Di” from the Puccini opera. Both songs are professing their undying love to someone who clearly does not deserve it. The problem emerges when you look back to the Puccini opera, which is rife with sexism, racial stereotypes and misconceptions regarding Japanese culture. It was written in the late 1800s at the height of aesthetic “Orientalism,” where composers, artists, writers were looking to create an appropriation of the East for the sense of “beauty.” Orientalism is essentially an extension of romanticism, pulling only surface values. Puccini is not the only one guilty of trying to build an Asian aesthetic for his the sake of “beauty,” but so did Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Even Van Gogh tried to mimic the artist, Hiroshige.

    As someone who is white, I’m not sure if I should have a vocal say in this matter, but I will give my two-cents anyway. As a student of Asian-American studies, I was not initially upset by the aesthetic value of the performance. Rather, my objections emerged as I started to realize the shared theme of female subjugation and racial stereotypes via Madame Butterfly. However, as a classical singer, I was probably most offended by Perry’s inability to keep a steady pitch in the introduction 🙂

  3. Someone who gets it – finally! If the media’s going to blow things out of proportion, they should at least stop throwing around the word “racist” as if Katy was purposefully trying to discredit Japanese and Chinese culture. It’s not as if I thought the performance wasn’t offensive – just not AS offensive as people make it out to be, especially when compared to other acts of ignorance. The performance was visually stunning, and most definitely NOT racist – just ignorant. Thank you so much for writing this!

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