Editor's Note: Alaric DeArment is a journalist living in New York. He's usually pretty private, but occasionally feels an overwhelming desire to share his opinions with others.
Among the many family heirlooms that ended up in my possession is a cover for a book of sheet music that belonged to a great grandmother. It's a song called "Chinese Lullaby," from the 1918 musical East Is West, and the cover has a photo of the actress Fay Bainter dressed up as a Chinese woman. East Is West was later released as a movie in which mostly white actors portrayed Chinese characters.
Naturally, I keep it hidden away. I'd like to say that today, nearly 100 years later, most people would denounce such minstrelsy as racist and unfit for mainstream consumption. But in light of recent events, I can't say I'm sure.
On Sunday, for the opening act at the American Music Awards, Katy Perry performed her song "Unconditionally" dressed in a geisha-like costume that some have described as an odd mix of Chinese and Japanese clothing styles, flanked by similarly dressed dancers, taiko drummers, and a set that included a Shinto shrine-like structure and paper walls.
Immediately, accusations of racism and cultural appropriation flooded in. The blog Angry Asian Man had this to say: "It's fun when white people get to play dress-up for the night, isn't it? It's better that way. Because remember, when you put actual Asian people on stage at the American Music Awards, racist people lose their shit." The post included a link to an article on the same blog about the racist tweets that appeared when Korean singer Psy performed his hit "Gangnam Style" at the AMA last year.
In a similar but less-publicized controversy that occurred not long before the AMA, many Romani bloggers on Tumblr have criticized Lady Gaga for her song "Gypsy." Most Roma consider the word an ethnic slur, especially when used by non-Roma, and the way Gaga uses the word perpetuates the notion that "gypsy" denotes a lifestyle or mindset rather than an ethnic group - not to mention one of the most oppressed ethnic groups in the world.
Unfortunately, many people - particularly LGBT people - have chosen to defend such ignorance masquerading as art.
On Monday, famed drag queen Jon Ingle, better known as Lady Bunny, had this to say on his Facebook page about the controversy surrounding Perry's performance: "So Katy Perry can't wear an asian [sic] costume without being called racist? So I guess by the same token, I can't wear drag without being misogynistic? At what point does overblown political correctness stifle creativity and freedon [sic]?"
To put it simply, Ms. Bunny: no, Katy Perry can't put on a cheap caricature of another culture - in a way that strongly echoes historical Western depictions of Asian women that portrayed them as living sex toys - without being called racist. Drag is a way for gay men to temporarily escape and satirize gender norms, but when white people caricature people of color, the purpose is to ridicule them and present their cultures as the butt of jokes or strip them of their meaning and sanitize them for white consumption or profit.
And lest we forget, movies and plays often featured white people playing Native Americans, blacks and Asians because real people of color were usually barred from becoming actors.
Reading through the comments that followed Lady Bunny's post, it became clear that a racial dynamic was at play, with most of Perry's defenders being white and writing things like "[Funny,] if they actually thought about it, the song portrays in its message a very asian [sic] belief on [sic] love and its [sic] not racist if anything is 'homage' to a very amazing culture," and "people need to grow up and stop being 'offended' by shit."
A similar thing happened when Romani bloggers raised objections to Lady Gaga's song. In this case, they received a flood of messages from white twink boys with their undies in a twist at the bloggers' criticism of the sanctified pop singer. But instead of showing genuine understanding of the bloggers' viewpoint, they continued to argue, finding ever more creative ways to cling to their view that Roma were overreacting and that "gypsy" isn't really an ethnic slur.
The central problem here isn't just Katy Perry's AMA performance or Lady Gaga's song. It's the failure of many white people to listen, something that's especially problematic when it's white LGBT people.
Generally, if people of color denounce a performance by a white artist as racist, there's a pretty good chance it's precisely that, and the same goes for when people of color tell you a word is an ethnic slur and not okay to use.
But when white people react to such concerns by telling those expressing them to stop being so offended or that they don't have a right to be offended - effectively telling them to sit down and shut up - it only makes said white people look like clueless, insensitive jerks. You know, kind of like when right wingers try to shut LGBT people up when we raise objections to homophobic rhetoric and actions, telling us they don't have anything against us despite their constitutional amendments and rants about so-called "immoral lifestyles."
None of this means, of course, that fans of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga have to burn their CDs and excise their every song from iTunes like musical tumors. Wagner was an anti-Semite, but still a damn fine composer. Many regard Morrissey as a complete asshole with his own history of racially offensive remarks, but that doesn't stop me from singing along to The Smiths.
By contrast, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry both have a history of support for human rights, though it's clear they need some education so they'll know better than to show such insensitivity. But their fans should also be mindful that racist behavior can crop up in even the most well-intentioned people, and should never be defended - even when it comes from their favorite pop idols.
Katy Perry image via fanbr.com.