I just came back from Asia, where I felt like a white guy. And I am not.
I’m an Asian American of Filipino descent, but when I was over there, it was
clear I was the foreigner. Most of the people were in Western business dress, so
on one level there was a “We Are The World” sameness. But a line was drawn when
I saw people on TV or in real life appearing in native dress. That was their
life and style, not mine.
So you can imagine what I was thinking as I saw Katy Perry show off her Japanese
fetish on the American Music Awards the other night.
Frankly, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
This wasn’t just innocent clothes horseplay.
It was one of those acts of ignorance that when played up in primetime stuns
people into thinking it’s all right.
It’s not all right.
When I was in Asia last week, no matter how much I admired any bit of native
garb I saw, I knew my place. It wasn’t my garb. When I went into a store in
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I didn’t go overboard and buy an Islamic man’s songkok
to wear as a souvenir back in the U.S.
It looked kind of cool. But I came to my senses quickly after trying it on.
It just didn’t fit. And it was one size fits all.
Ethnic clothing fetishes really aren’t very becoming in this day and age–unless
it’s your culture and you’re showing some pride during heritage month. (Does
anyone really ever do that?)
How would I look in a Native American headdress of feathers? Or a Sikh’s turban?
Ridiculous–even on Halloween.
Unless you have a clear purpose or reason, there’s no reason for ethnic drag.
Fashionista solidarity? Get real.
I’m not being PC. But as a professional ethnicist, I just have a sense of these
When it comes to racial appropriation, there’s a thin line between an honest
cultural appreciation and racism.
When do you know you’ve crossed it? Something just feels wrong. Katy Perry
wasn’t wearing a songkok to kick off Sunday’s American Music Awards on ABC. If
she were, her people would have just said, “Uh, Katy, lose the hat.”
Instead, Perry wore a Japanese kimono (with a touch of Chinese qipao) and was in
full cultural regalia, with back-up dancers holding parasols and fans, drummers,
and rice paper screens. The whole segment was Asianed-up.
For what reason exactly, it’s unclear. Perry had just been to Japan and
reportedly was so enthralled with the culture, she decided to appropriate it for
There are better ways to show your appreciation. Like leaving it alone as you
found it, without trying to ape or mimic it.
Why risk being offensive with a bit of cultural costume imperialism?
Katy Perry in schoolgirl drag singing of teenage love, or dressed as a
star-spangled gal to sing “Firework” is one thing.
But the racial element adds another dimension to this dress up game.
Was it really anything but another form of blackface? Blackface has no place in
modern showbiz. Perry doing her Asian thing in costumed yellowface isn’t much
different and is just as offensive.
Unfortunately, these kinds of cultural games have been played for years in
Hollywood, as if race were a function of hair and makeup. Mickey Rooney in
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is perhaps the most famous example. Done for comic
effect in the Truman Capote tale, it’s all based on stereotypes (buck teeth,
glasses, and more) and passed off as real. Katy Perry on the AMAs was just one
cultural stereotype after another, with none of it in the end adding up to a
full-blooded 100 percent person.
And if you think Perry’s use of Japanese culture is so benign, Jon Funabiki, the
executive director at the Center for the Study of Japan and Japanese Culture,
has a few choice words for you.
On his Facebook page, he was pretty plain. “Katy Perry,” Funabiki wrote,”awful,
awful, awful Asian stereotypes.”
When I read that, I knew I was in the right key, and Perry was not.
You can give Perry a pass by saying there was nothing malicious about her going
Japanese. But that’s exactly when some of the worst transgressions occur–when
people honestly believe they’ve done nothing wrong and then become adamant about
the right to their own ignorance. It was odd seeing the mostly white crowd leap
up to praise Perry with approving applause after her imperial performance. She
had successfully appropriated an entire culture and gave it her own Perry pop
spin. A standing ovation for that? At least she didn’t use makeup to slant her
Although maybe she’s a friend of Julie Chen and thinks all the Asians are going
round-eye western? Would that make geisha-ed out Perry the image of the perfect