Monday, August 4, 2014

Katy Perry and Cultural Appropriation

It’s getting tougher for pop stars to be politically correct these days, since the range of acceptable behavior keeps shrinking. White girls like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry can’t even twerk or do a geisha-inspired performance without self-appointed critics with too much time on their hands crying Racism! Cultural appropriation!

Perry has been suspected of racism also for her tour featuring dancing Egyptian mummies with exaggerated curves, which she claims had nothing to do with race: “I based it on plastic surgery,” Perry explained in the August 2014 Rolling Stone. “It’s actually a representation of our culture wanting to be plastic, and that’s why there’s bandages and it’s mummies.” As for accusations of cultural appropriation, Perry grumbled, “I guess I’ll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that’s it… [C]an’t you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane?”

Lauren Duca at Huffington Post thinks so. She asserts that there is “no room for argument” that Perry’s performance was a “definitive” example of cultural appropriation and arguably racist.

What is cultural appropriation, anyway? According to Duca, it refers to “picking and choosing elements of a culture by a member of another culture without permission. This includes traditional knowledge, religious symbols, artifacts or any other unauthorized use of cultural practice or ideation.”

The obvious question that leaps to mind is: who is “authorized” to give this cultural “permission”? Obviously there is no one who speaks for an entire culture, and never has been. “The only time it is OK,” Duca reiterates, “is with permission or authorization by the origin culture.” How does one get permission from an entire “culture”? The very concept is inane and illiberal. Should the Chinese cellist Yo-Yo Ma have sought permission to play Bach? Should the Mississippi-born Leontyne Price have sought permission to sing Verdi?

Duca continues: “In that it belittles a culture while using it for personal gain, cultural appropriation indirectly expresses racial superiority.” [Emphasis added] It is most problematic, she says, when someone “from a position of privilege” borrows from the culture of an exploited or oppressed minority group for that person’s “benefit.”

Her assumption seems to be that this so-called appropriation can never be an homage to, or a sincere affinity for, that cultural expression; it can only be exploitation. Even as playful kitsch, like Perry’s geisha outfit, is it really so offensive that she must be accused of “thoughtlessly Othering and objectifying” Asian culture, as a Jezebel writer phrased it? (I have no idea why “Othering” is capitalized, but I suppose it doesn’t matter since it isn’t even a word). Our obsession today with labeling such innocuous actions as racist and exploitative accomplishes nothing except to aggravate already raw race relations and to trivialize actual racism.

In a previous life I was a musician in San Francisco, where for years I was a percussionist in the thriving, local Afro-Brazilian dance scene. As a white man born and raised in Arkansas, my cultural origins couldn’t have been farther from those out of which that music bloomed, but so what? I learned to play it so well that I taught it to others, even to Brazilians. I was passionate about the music – an Africanized drumming tradition called samba-reggae – and even ultimately led an award-winning group of performers. That pursuit had nothing to do with belittling, exploiting, or “Othering” anything; it stemmed from my genuine appreciation of a musical form that I felt in my soul, regardless of the color of my skin.

The ironic problem with the theory behind cultural appropriation is that “borrowing” is actually one of the significant means by which cultures develop and assimilate; it breaks down barriers. But the divisive grievance-mongering behind the theory of cultural appropriation only perpetuates racial resentment and cultural barriers. It states that you are not allowed to step outside of your skin color or cultural heritage. You aren’t allowed to be an individual with a passion for cultural expressions and ideas that do not happen to stem from your background. We aren’t allowed to participate in our own human variety, embrace it, and find our shared humanity at the heart of it.

It is a way of demanding, as Katy Perry put it so simply, that you must stay in your lane – or be smeared as racist.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/1/14)