Singer Katy Perry's Japanese-style performance at the American Music Awards has sparked a storm of outrage, with accusations of racism and "cultural appropriation." While concern with racial and cultural sensitivity is admirable, this controversy cheapens real racism. Moreover, Perry's critics miss the fact that "appropriation" is the lifeblood of culture. To attack it is to attack free expression and, perversely, to promote cultural segregation in progressive guise.
Perry's act in a kimono costume against an Asian-themed backdrop has been likened to blackface minstrelsy or caricatures of buck-toothed Asians. But it was nothing of the sort. Granted, it was not a recreation of authentic Japanese song, dance, or costume but an adaptation of Japanese visual style (with a dash of Chinese); yet, far from being mocked, the cultural sources were treated as elegant.
Some charge that Perry's use of the geisha image to go with her single "Unconditionally," in which a woman assures her lover of her unconditional love, exploits stereotypes of the submissive Asian female. But Perry's exuberant singing and bold dance movements hardly seemed submissive, and even her lyrics are not about docility: the woman tells the man to freely show his insecurities because she'll accept him as he is.
Of course, to Perry's detractors, any white American using material from a non-Western culture is guilty of theft and exploitation; on the Everyday Feminism blog, writer Jarune Uwujaren slings such pejoratives as "interloper" and "mooch" (except only when a person pays tribute to a culture by invitation from that culture's members).
But all culture is the product of cross-pollination and interbreeding. American culture is the ultimate mongrel. European culture is a stew of ethnic traditions mixed with borrowings from ancient Rome, Greece, Israel, and Egypt as well as later non-Western cultures.
To cast Japanese culture as a victim of Perry's rapaciousness is ironic. Medieval Japanese culture borrowed from China. Modern Japan has adapted Western cultural material, in everything from anime films based on such sources as "The Little Mermaid" to celebrations of a secularized Christmas.
That's different, critics say, because the West is an oppressive juggernaut. As psychiatrist Ravi Chandra puts it on his blog at the Psychology Today website, "This kind of 'costume' is acting out a power relationship," since "whites have historically held power."
This argument disregards the fact that many non-Western countries have their own history of imperialism and racism, and insultingly casts other cultures as victims of the evil West. Thus, non-Western consumption of Western and especially American popular culture is treated as an imposition.
Politically correct zealotry is leading some well-meaning Americans to worry about even respectful engagement with other cultures. Salt Lake City Tribune writer Erin Alberty wonders if it was racist to dress as China's Empress Dowager Cixi for Halloween. Some college students fret about committing "appropriation" by studying a non-Western culture or language. If white supremacists had concocted a plot to protect European culture from "impure" influences by appealing to progressive sensibilities, they could not have done better.
Thankfully, racial or ethnic caricatures are now seen as unacceptable. But denouncing something as innocuous as Perry's performance, which no Asian-American group has criticized, can only promote backlash and polarization. True diversity, to borrow a Chinese phrase, is about letting a hundred flowers bloom-including Perry's artistic expression.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.